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October 2001 Smooth Jazz Vibes title logo Jonathan Widran's monthly column he writes for JAZZIZ magazine.

Visit Eric Marienthal's website.

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It’s amazing that in the six or so years Eric Marienthal and Russ Freeman were labelmates at GRP in the early to mid-90s, none of the execs there realized what a logical and powerful combination they would make. Then again, both were busy with other collaborators at the time. The saxman blew heavy fusion as part of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, and his increasingly dynamic solo projects were helmed by the very proficient likes of Corea, Jeff Lorber, Russ Ferrante (and later, post GRP) Lee Ritenour. Freeman’s Rippingtons were set with longtime saxman Jeff Kashiwa. Now, several labels and a millennium change later, Marienthal is signed Freeman’s Peak Records; one of the perks is of course having Freeman - one of the genre’s consummate producers - helm his buoyant label debut Turn Up The Heat.

Marienthal’s last outing was 1998’s Walk Tall, conceived as a tribute to his idol Cannonball Adderly. This time out, the concept was much simpler and the results are some of the saxman’s best pop-funk oriented recordings since his early 90s work with Lorber (who, not so coincidentally, wrote three and plays on five tracks here). “Doing the Cannonball record was an obvious labor of love, but here my only thought was just centering back on melodic music with grooves I enjoy that would be fun to both record and play live,” says Marienthal, who has also been touring with the Ripps this past year. “To make a complete record, I simply asked myself, what do I like to play? Whether the tune was from Russ, Jeff, Rick Braun or Rob Mullins, I went for the joy factor. It’s fun once in a while to just blow and play a lot of notes, but I prefer to play music people can connect with, not too simple but always interesting.”

Mission certainly accomplished throughout the eleven tracks here, even if the two Freeman tunes - “Everything She Wants” and “”Rendezvous” - sound like they would be equally at home on any Ripps CD. On the first of those, Marienthal doubles his tenor on the chorus part for extra muscle over a slick, bluesy shuffle groove; Freeman takes a balmy classical guitar solo for a few bars midway through, then weaves in some playful Bill Heller keyboard licks amidst the horn at the end. “Rendezvous” is likewise a breezy trademark Freeman styled adventure featuring Marienthal doubling on soprano and alto, which then combine with Freeman’s acoustic lines over a trip-hop groove.

The two best Lorber collaborations are tucked at disc’s end but are well worth waiting for. “Hangin’ On The Boardwalk” is a cocky, Tower of Power-flavored, brass in your face strut with Marienthal switching off alto, tenor and even baritone, blowing heavy over the rising Jerry Hey horn section. Lorber’s in all his glory on Rhodes, while Heller bubbles on organ beneath guitarist Robben Ford’s bluesy improvisations. “Remember Our Promise” is the opposite extreme, showing Marienthal’s gentle soprano side and Lorber at his most restrained. The two join with the horns to have a blast on a bouncy cover of The Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It To the Streets.” Freeman steps aside for one track to let Rick Braun tackle the slick, mid-tempo blues funk of “Lefty’s Lounge”; Braun just plays keyboards, leaving the irrepressible horn work solely to Marienthal’s alto. The saxman’s most unusual choice of song harkens back to another of his sax idols; his saxes and Chris Botti’s trumpet blend for a sexy, sashaying twist on Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar.” Not that the pair needs it, but as with the previous tunes, the Hey horns add extra rising mercury.

“I remember when I did my first solo album and basically had no idea what I was doing,” laughs Marienthal. “But you learn from your mistakes and keep going. The one thing I know is the importance of having it diverse enough to stay intriguing from track to track. I’ve been blessed to work with many great producers, and as luck would have it, I truly had no artistic differences with Russ. We both loved the same tunes from the get-go, and he had really studied my previous work so he knew exactly how to get me to the next level.”

Visit Martin Taylor's website.

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Kudos to Martin Taylor daring to go against conventional smooth jazz wisdom and combine unexpected genres and elements - sometimes in the context of a single song. On Nitelife (Columbia), the veteran British guitarist is not shy about following an hypnotic trip-hoppy twist on the Dionne Warwick hit “Déjà vu” - centered on a muted electric guitar melody - with the gentle Edith Piaf piece “Hymne A L’Amour,” a tribute to Taylor’s many years of performing with violin master Stephane Grapelli featuring a lush classical guitar melody enhanced with subtle orchestration. Taylor wrote the funky hip-hop mélange “Dr. Spin” with a DJ and programmer named Fink, mixing a sampled Delta Blues guitar twang, mystical chime sounds, Fender Rhodes harmonies and crisp, warm electric guitar melody over a slow-thumping groove. “Across The Pond” tells the tale of Taylor’s musical life, reflecting his travel from his Scottish home with a slow- building jig surrounded by a trance ambience which then evolves into a funky, sax driven section that sounds like a jam session at a Manhattan club. Taylor joins forces with Kirk Whalum in a handful of ways, both middle of the road and unexpected. The romantic mid-tempo title track combines old school soul elements with modern hip hop sensibilities, switching off between Taylor’s graceful acoustic melody and Whalum’s punchier sax statements; that’s the spirited middle of the road. “Chaff & Grain” mixes a Bill Withers “Use Me”-type rhythm pattern, snappy echoing electric guitar melody, irresistible organ harmonies and, towards the end, Whalum rapping in French a section of the Bible that talks about chaff and grain. Duetting on guitar and sax almost note for note, Taylor and Whalum later cook up the kind of piece that could please fans of both traditional and smooth jazz; “Beboptimism” offers a spirited pop melody but Whalum infuses some wild and stylish improvisations that reflect classic bebop patterns.

Visit Steve Reid's website.

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Percussionist/soundscape master Steve Reid’s first four solo releases with his band Bamboo Forest found him becoming more and more assured as a composer, but many of his songs still bore the unmistakeable influence of Russ Freeman, his bandmate in The Rippingtons for 14 years (Reid left in 1999). Meaning, great melodies and lush productions, just a bit imitative. Dream Scapes (Eagle Music Group/Art To Ear) helps him further escape the long shadow, expanding upon Reid’s smooth jazz palette by weaving elements of world beat, pop, techno, trance and R&B into a compelling audio tapestry that forms the musical foundation of Reid’s multi-media audio-visual touring extravaganza of the same name (extended tour to begin early next year). The opening track combines a throbbing trance rhythm intensity with otherworldly ambience and Rebecca Drake’s sexy French whispers and vocal wailing - all beneath Brian Price’s mix of warm flamenco guitar breezes and later, fiery electric lines. While “Pillow Talk” is a likeable but fairly conventional brassy pop tune played with fire by fellow ex-Ripp Jeff Kashiwa, the electronica meets flamenco romance “My Gypsy Heart” - featuring Bill Macpherson’s balmy classical and steel string guitars interwoven with Kashiwa’s soothing soprano and Rogereo Jardim’s soaring wordless vocals - reflects Reid’s newfound interest in a wider variety of sonic possibilities. Best known for a few irresistible pop hits in the late 70s, the soulful vocalist Maxine Nightingale (who sounds suspiciously like Vanessa Williams) captures the “journey of the heart” aspect of Reid’s concept with a beautiful delivery of the fairy tale lyrics on the ballad “More Than Just A Dream” and the anthemic, brass splashed “Feels So Good So Right.” Nightingale takes a gospelly supporting role behind the intense lead vocal of Carl Anderson on the percussive, equally anthemic “Keeper of Our Love.”

Visit Kevin Toney's website.

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Many genre artists have other sideman associations to supplement their recording and touring careers, but few boast the kind of resume Kevin Toney had leading up to his smooth jazz breakthrough in the mid-90s. The keyboardist was a charter member of the Blackbyrds and has performed with or was musical director for numerous legends (Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra) and touring musicals (Ain’t Misbehavin’). The title of Kevin Toney’s new Shanachie release Strut reflects the upbeat, sometimes joyfully cocky attitude of his melodies and bouncy rhythmic foundations; not surprisingly, all these attributes infuse the title track, on which Toney’s elegant, high register melody blends with a cool atmospheric synth wash, occasional brass inflections, wordless female vocals and the insistent thumping bass of Mel Brown; a sparkling solo section in the middle might be mistaken for the improvisational genius of Joe Sample. Toney’s keys can certainly speak for themselves, but he has a blast duetting (sharing the same notes on the percussive chorus part) with saxman Ronnie Laws on “Passion Dance” and labelmate, guitarist Chieli Minucci on “Keeping It Real”; Minucci begins somewhat restrained, then perks up and jams towards the end. Toney also clues us in on two very crucial elements of his musical autobiography. What better way to celebrate his 70s and 80s funk roots than doing a hip-hoppy cover of The Gap Band’s “Yearning For Your Love” with lead vocals by disco star Evelyn “Champagne” King? Digging back further, “Aunt Mary” is a Spunky, Southern flavored blues-gospel jam featuring features Tetsuya “Weeping Willow” Nakamuru on harmonica. Amidst the 11 core tracks are two dramatic solo instrumental pieces, “Interlude #1” and “Postlude,” which were inspired by having performed Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” as a solo piece on the recent Shanachie Records all-star tribute Satin Doll: Smooth Jazz Plays Duke Ellington.

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Eric Marienthal
Turn Up the Heat
Martin Taylor Nite Life Columbia
Steve Reid
Dream Scapes
Eagle Music Group/Art to Ear
Kevin Toney Strut Shanachie

Created: 10/4/01