When Kenny Gorelick was a teenager in the early '70s, he took saxophone lessons from a man named Johnnie Jessen in a sparsely decorated room across from the downtown Seattle Nordstrom's.
"His whole philosophy was tone," Gorelick says. "He was a great guy to be around. He taught me to care about the instrument and practice."
Gorelick studied with Jessen for about a year. "After that, I didn't feel like there was anything more he was going to teach me," he says, "other than what I needed to do, which was go home and practice."
By the time Eric Walton started lessons with Jessen a few years later, the room was still bare, but for a picture of Gorelick on the wall. He too remembers Jessen focusing on tone and preaching the virtues of blowing long, whole notes into the saxophone. "It's one of the best things you can do on the saxophone," Walton says. "It actually helps you play faster. It has an odd way of affecting other seemingly unrelated [things]." Like Gorelick, Walton studied with Jessen for about a year, then moved on.
Today, both men are world-renowned saxophone giants. After his year with Jessen, Kenny Gorelick became Kenny G, the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. Walton, one of the freakiest, most versatile players in the game, rose to prominence with his band Critters Buggin and performs as Skerik with many bands. One of them, the Dead Kenny Gs, released an EP last year entitled Gorelick.
Aside from their common teacher, similarities are scarce. Skerik is the recently married father of a teenage daughter, Gorelick the recently divorced father of a teenage son. Gorelick lives in the posh Point Dume neighborhood of Malibu, Calif., while Skerik lives in the working-class Top Hat enclave in White Center. Skerik's recent collaborators include colleagues on the hippie-friendly Jam Cruise; Gorelick has recently worked with Foster the People and Katy Perry, and last year provided the music for "Love on Ice" alongside Gladys Knight at Kent's ShoWare Center. Gorelick's instrument of choice is the skinny soprano sax, while Skerik favors the lower-voiced tenor. Gorelick's music defines the smooth-jazz genre—even if that's not a term he uses himself, preferring to call himself a "saxophone player trying to become a better saxophone player"—and Skerik named his band the Dead Kenny Gs to take aim not at Gorelick, but rather at the incessant pigeonholing he's faced as an instrumentalist.
"There's definitely no resentment," Skerik says. "I don't know him personally. We use his name to symbolize smooth jazz. Smooth jazz, if you're an instrumental musician, is such a clear target. Every fucking few years it's just some new, lame categorization to just bring instrumental music down."
Skerik says the band name was pitched to him by a friend. Scared that someone else would get to it first, he formed the band the next day. "Wouldn't you start a band if somebody gave you an awesome name like that?" he explains.
Gorelick praises Skerik as being "very funky," but wasn't familiar with the Dead Kenny Gs until he was asked about them for this article. He says the name doesn't bother him at all. "People can do what they want with that kind of sarcasm. It doesn't bother me," Gorelick says. "I know what I do and I know what kind of musician I am and how hard I practice."
As polar-opposite as their sounds are—Kenny G's Velveeta-smooth, Skerik's often almost impossible to trace back to a musical instrument—the two players, strikingly, share a dedication to constant improvement and a refusal to rest on their laurels. "I practice my saxophone every day for three hours because I'm just an animal about being the best, the best that I can be," Gorelick says. "I'm proud that when I stand up onstage and play that I have 30- to 40,000 practice hours underneath my belt."
Skerik says that when he's on the road, he often looks for teachers in cities he's visiting. "Every town has a badass," he says. "Omaha, Nebraska; Ames, Iowa—there's always some badass there. If I have a day off or something, I look for 'Who's a good teacher in this town?' The more ideas, the more input you can get—it can only help."
As for the coming year, Skerik plans to dedicate much of his energy toward promoting Live at the Royal Room, his latest record with yet another ensemble, Skerik's Bandalabra. Gorelick will appear in a commercial, which he is contractually obligated to stay mum about, and continues to look for new avenues and collaborations to expose listeners to his music. "As you know," Gorelick says, "the radio stations are not playing music like they used to 10 years ago."
Come to think of it, dealing with a lack of airplay—even from KEXP, which Skerik calls a "three-chord ghetto"—is another thing the odd couple have in common.
"Instrumental music," Skerik says, "it's kind of the bitch."