NEW YORK (Billboard) - Somewhere in the mid-‘90s, Kenny G stopped being just a jazz musician and became a cultural phenomenon. His light music and luscious curls made him the butt of many jokes, but the G man laughed all the way to the bank.
Since 1991, he’s sold 33 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. He holds the record for the highest-selling Christmas album, as well as a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing the longest note ever recorded on a saxophone.
His last few records, however, had underwhelming sales; his 2006 album, “I’m in the Mood for Love,” sold only 250,000 copies. But Kenny G is ready to make a big comeback — his first album of original material since 2002, “Rhythm and Romance,” will be released February 5 through Concord Records and Starbucks.
Q: Why did you leave Arista after 25 years on the label?
Kenny G: “I was with Arista forever, and Clive (Davis) was like family to me. But I wanted to do an album of original material, and that wasn’t what they wanted me to do. I personally wanted to get back to my roots and explore doing creative things. Also, I think people are tired of cover records and they are hungry for original music.”
Q: How did you come to sign with Starbucks and Concord?
Kenny G: “I was actually one of the original Starbucks investors, and (chairman) Howard Schultz is a good friend. I presented the idea for the record to Concord and Starbucks, making it clear that I wanted to do a Latin album and write all the music. Everyone signed on, and I’ve been really happy with the deal so far. I think the future of music retail is really in stores like Starbucks.”
Q: Will your fan base respond to a Latin record? Your last few albums have been either covers or greatest-hits records.
Kenny G: “Honestly, I think my fans might have been disappointed with the fact that I haven’t been putting out original material recently. This record is really me getting back to my roots, doing lots of improv and melodies, combined with a Latin feel. The title is pretty apt — the album has both rhythm and romance. I think this is my best work since the mid-‘90s.”
Q: Talk about the new line of saxophones you just debuted.
Kenny G: “There will be two models — the G series, for more advanced musicians, and the E series, which is for educational purposes. I partnered with Rheuben Allen, an amazing sax repairman, and he actually relocated to China to live at the factory and quality-check all the instruments. I’m especially excited about the E series, because so many kids learn on horns that aren’t built that well, and we’re making sure that the educational horns are top quality. I’m working on partnerships with music educators, because it makes such a difference when a kid learns on a great horn.”
Q: Are there other branding opportunities in your future?
Kenny G: “I am partnering with D’Addario, a company that manufactures instrument strings and reeds, to do my own line of saxophone accessories. There will be a full line of reeds and reed holders and neck straps.
“I wouldn’t mind doing a wine, maybe in Korea. Red wine is very popular over there, and I have a pretty solid following that I think would be interested. But it all depends on me finding some free time to do it.”
Q: You have the best-selling Christmas record, but Josh Groban is coming up fast on your heels. If you were in a fight, who would win?
Kenny G: (Laughs) “Well, Josh and I performed together at a dinner party awhile back, and he actually lives pretty close to me. He’s a great guy, and I wouldn’t want to fight him. I’m happy for his success, and I’d love to do more music with him.”