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May 2003 Smooth Jazz Vibes title logo Jonathan Widran's monthly column he writes for JAZZIZ magazine.

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Order this CD at Amazon.com


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There’s a great quote that Heads Up International Records has used for several years in its promotion of steel pan man Andy Narell’s 2001 double live CD, Live in South Africa. He had no idea that his tropical jazz had taken a nation by storm, to the tune of the natives forming an organization devoted to listening parties for his music. When he stepped onto the stage in Johannesburg for the first time in 1999, in front of an estimated 60-80,000 people, the response was overwhelming and he said something wild like "Wow, This is Africa, man!"

Any number of Heads Up artists who have played and performed festivals and clubs in cities like Johannesburg, Capetown, Durban and the small township of Bloemfontein over the past few years - this list includes Spyro Gyra, The Yellowjackets, Marion Meadows and Pieces of a Dream - probably felt the same way when they realized how excited the natives were to hear real live American jazz. But even before label founder and president Dave Love picked up on the potential for this in the post-Apartheid era, music from his label was captivating them.

In 1996, he formed a partnership with the label Sheer Sound to help promote his label’s music in South Africa. He soon learned that one of his core artists, funky keyboardist Joe McBride, had scored a huge pop hit there with his cover of "Sunny" in 1992. When Capetown DJs Craig Parks and Stanley Davids organized their Jazzathon event in the late 90s, McBride became the first international artist to be invited. He jammed before 10,000 people with several local musicians with intensely cool names (guitarist Allou April, bassist Musa Manzini, saxman Buddy Wells), and Love found it fascinating that these fans knew many of the songs from their first notes.

" The magnitude of their knowledge about my artists, the sheer popularity, was completely mindblowing to me," he says. "Americans always feel a lure towards the exotic elements of Africa and the music we hear from there has a whole sexiness about it. But to see that elements of our culture have become just as important to them is exciting. I didn’t know what to expect when I got off the plane with Joe the first time I landed in Capetown. For lack of better adjectives, my first reaction was that it was the most magical place on earth.

" It’s an ocean city with the upscale cool vibe of San Diego, right where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean," he adds. "It has the best of what Europe, the West and Africa have to offer, with 13 foreign languages and a great deal of ethnic diversity. Hovering magnificently in the distance is Table Mountain, which literally looks like a table. These clouds come over the top of the mountain like a tablecloth and then come down to envelop the city. And the music…in Johannesburg, we’d go to the discos and they would be dancing to contemporary jazz. Andy has played The Bassline there and Manenberg’s in Capetown, which is a new version on the V&A waterfront of an old club with the same name which closed during some of the later years of the struggle."

" Manenberg" is also the title of a South African standard which McBride played live and later recorded with S.A. native Jonathan Butler on Smooth Africa, Heads Up’s 2000 release celebrating the wonderful cultural exchange between American jazz musicians and their counterparts in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Love’s idea with that release was to give these musicians - many of whom are on major labels in their homeland - more international recognition via collaborations with established Stateside artists. The project’s success has naturally led to long anticipated sequel, Smooth Africa 2, due for release this July.

On the first project, Love had the smart idea to feature two "South African anchor names" that everyone would recognize - Butler and Hugh Masekela. While not set in stone as of this writing, he hopes this time to get Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Johnny Clegg. Less recognizable participants (with oh so cool names) on SA 2 include guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, bassist Sipho Gumede and young Johannesburg vocalist Gloria Bosman.

" Our mission with these recordings is twofold," Love says. "First, because it’s important to expose the wonderful talent in these lands to a broader audience by combining my U.S. artists with the indigenous ones, sort of in a best of, best of situation. And second, to build their reputation and enhance their image as viable performers who can feel comfortable coming to America and playing for people here - just as my artists have done there. You always hear that music is the one thing that can transcend all social and political boundaries, but I’ve discovered the joy of this firsthand. Through all this, I have discovered a whole nation of people with beautiful, forgiving hearts. They’ve been through so much, but their spirits are as bright as the music they play and enjoy."

INDIE ARTISTS NEED LOVE, TOO: While my desk is always piled high with heavily promoted smooth jazz releases from major and independent artists we’ve all heard of, it’s good on occasion to discover a few newer, lesser known talents who are just as deserving of coverage and accolades. If there’s any justice, Jason Weber’s popularity on MP3 (his music is available at www.mp3.com/jasonweber) will lead him into the kind of career success that Euge Groove had creating an initial buzz on the same internet outlet. He’s all about diversity on his disc Something Blue, switching effortlessly between all four saxes and flute and from wistful, cool seductions ("Reflections," "Alone in Paradise") to slamming funk jams ("J Street" and the live "some dive club" recording "Got Funk"). San Diego powerhouses Marcel East (keyboards) and Patrick Yandall (guitar) also appear…

Pianist and keyboardist Mike Ricchiuti has such an appealing in the pocket smooth funk sound on his disc The Way I See It, it’s a wonder that all of his high profile friends haven’t yet been able to hook him up with a deal. I got wind of him from Jeff Kashiwa, who is only one of the incredible all-stars appearing here. Not to name drop, but Ricchuti’s colorful chords and catchy melodies reap potent benefits from their collaborations with Chuck Loeb (who crackles on five tracks), David Mann, Bob Mintzer, John Patitucci and Andy Snitzer. Ricchiuti, whose music can be sampled and purchased from www.mikericchiuti.com, plays the common keyboardist card of featuring a lot of sax, which makes his best cuts, the hornless up tempo groover "Still Standing" and the gentle trio closer "And Then Peace," stand out by default.

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THE RHYTHM OF ROMANCE: In concert, Jim Brickman likes to make his audience of mostly lovers laugh by puffing himself up as "America’s New Romantic Piano Sensation," but that is truly the best way to describe the way his instantly lovable, catchy and heartwarming melodies both captivate and provide soundtracks to candlelit moments and babymaking. His best tunes have always been the solo piano numbers, but his shows - including the kickoff to his Valentine’s Day tour at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre - feature songs with vocalists and accompanying instruments. His old pal, singer Anne Cochran, was on hand to sub for Martina McBride’s vocal on "Valentine," and versatile electric violinist Tracy Silverman played counterpoint harmonies to Brickman’s lush melodies before opening the second half of the show with a crazy and distorted rock guitar flavored medley of Led Zeppelin hits. The vocal harmony group All-4-One did a few heartbreakers, including "Beautiful As U," from the pianist’s Love Songs & Lullabies CD. Between his beautiful songs and hilarious anecdotes, Brickman can entice even the most macho cynic of romantic music to feel his deepest heart. The boys were having just as good a time as the girls.

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What I’m Listening To:
The Doors   Original Motion Picture Soundtrack   Elektra
The concert by the new millennium edition of The Doors (featuring two original members and vocalist Ian Astbury, a dead ringer both physically and vocally for Jim Morrison) at the Univeral Amphitheatre was a blast, and I’ve enjoyed revisiting this collection of their best classics.
George Winston   Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors   Windham Hill
Spyro Gyra   Original Cinema   Heads Up
Steve Lawrence   Sings Frank Sinatra   GL Music
Jeff Lorber   Philly Style   Narada Jazz

Created: 6/15/03