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

Visit Eric Essix's website.

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It’s taken Eric Essix ten years of hit and miss recordings to realize the power behind the old adage "To thine own self be true." The guitarist made a brief mark on the smooth jazz world with two releases in the early 90s, then fell from the radar for years while doing straight ahead and acoustic projects. He came back to the fold a few years ago with Zebra Records, scoring the Top Ten hit "For Real" off his Zebra debut Small Talk. When the time came for a follow-up, he didn’t want to just blend into the genre’s guitar crowd with a generic album full of scattered hit singles. He dug deep into his Alabama roots, dug out some classic 45’s, went back to church and decided to go Southbound (Zebra Records) for a whirlwind autobiography that chronicles musically his experience growing up in the region.

"My challenge was to think of something that could set me apart from guys like Norman Brown and Larry Carlton, who have such big followings," says the Birmingham born and raised Essix. "I knew it was my Southern upbringing and so I created the project around the flavor of the South as a personal testament to who I am and where my music comes from. I knew immediately I’d have to record it in the warm, analog environment of the Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Roy Orbison and Percy Sledge did their thing. Among all the vintage equipment and photos on the wall, I felt like I was walking back in time. After ten years, I realized I was following my heart."

Essix peppers his story with heaps of classic pop and soul nostalgia. He opens with a sparse, ambient arrangement of the mournful classic "Rainy Night in Georgia," then offers a brooding take on Curtis Mayfield’s "People Get Ready" - his high toned guitar, saxman Melvin Butler’s soulful sax and a cheery choir signifying hope amidst the dark foundations and extended shimmering notes of Kelvin Wooten’s Hammond B-3. He stretches the Southern theme a bit to include a slow-rolling, thoughtful version of Oklahoman Jimmy Webb’s "Wichita Lineman," then kicks the groove up a notch on the bluesy "Ode To Billy Joe," on which he textures a blistering rock guitar melody with wah-wah guitar clicks.

Essix grew up in the Bible Belt, and so his toe tapping church experience (he was raised a 7th Day Adventist) plays a rich role on the journey. "The joke goes that there’s a church on every streetcorner in the South, and the church experience is really so much of what my life has always been based on," he says. "I first sang and played guitar in a choir, even sang in a choir when I went to Berklee, and so I had to use a lot of spirited organ sounds here. I wasn’t worried about radio airplay, I just wanted to convey snapshots of my life and hope people would understand."

Two churchy tracks in particular - "Creole Strut" and the feisty Stevie Wonder tune "Have a Talk With God" - inspire two decade old images of John Belushi’s finally seeing the light and dancing down the aisle in The Blues Brothers. True to its title, the strut bounces along with Essix’s crisp lines and an occasional breathy sax harmony (by Melvin Butler) cruising atop Kevin Wooten’s alternating keyboards: The Fender Rhodes and organ. Butler’s solo section finds him honking seductively, alternating high and low notes in and around the bouncing swirl of the two keyboards. Essix leads the Wonder tune with a powerful, percussive rock guitar line, punctuated emphatically every few bars by a darting synth harmonica sound - all over a bubbly B-3 foundation. Essix’s Southern spirituality is not limited to wild ecstacy, however. He wrote the soft, poignant ballad "For Four" in remembrance of four little girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights tensions in 1963. Southbound closes with another quiet, soul searching reflection, Essix’s eloquent ode to a classic Negro spiritual that dates from the Civil War era.

Aside from wonderful storied liner notes, Essix enhances his amazing musical experience with some wonderful highway and railroad photography, and the cover with buckets of peaches and his guitar fills us in on a little secret: "Peaches aren’t just a Georgia thing," he says. "Chilton County, Alabama is famous for having the best in the state. I do a lot of portrait photography, and I thought including shots of the landscape of my home would further jog the memories of those who grew up here and add to the travelogue for those who’ve never been here. This is truly my unique journey."

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A veteran Southern California club performer and studio cat, Mark Carter introduces himself to the smooth jazz world with liner notes that cover a vast array of influences - beginning with his earliest memory of hearing the theme to Goldfinger! The notes to It’s About Time (Mark Carter Productions) go on to list a slew of legendary jazz and fusion guitar players, but it’s more exciting figuring them out just by listening to this engaging, eclectic debut. On the bouncy funk opener "Green is Beautiful," Carter breaks from the main melody several times to improvise energetic riffs from the Grant Green school; keyboardist Tim Redfield picks up on this positive spirit with swirling piano improvisations. Carter lays back a bit for a simmering "Groovin’ Out Wes," in which he blends the warm, cool Montgomery style with modern machine percussion, synth horns and organ and the occasional wah wah guitar clicks of Richard Smith. He grounds himself in pop and soul for colorful readings of "I Just Wanna Stop" and "Could It Be I’m Falling in Love," then lets us in on his love for gentle world beat sounds; on the atmospheric, mystical "Move a Little Closer," his acoustic guitar approximates the high, plucky tones of a Japanese koto, while the tropical minded "Lost in Cabo" fuses a reggae groove and classical guitar flavor. The blues-influenced hip-hop shuffle "Cats on the Beach" will no doubt appeal to genre fans who like the aggressive Eric Clapton-like energy of Jeff Golub. Conventional wisdom sometimes tells new solo artists to focus on one specific sound rather than trot around like this, but Carter clearly wants it both ways - staking his claim in the smooth jazz world while also treating us to a jubilant autobiography.

Visit Doc Powell's website.

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From the laid back, dreamy vibe of the title track, we can assume that the Life Changes (Samson Records) facing Doc Powell are gentle and reflective in nature. And while the playing and the melodies are first rate as always, some of these tunes actually sound like they could be from other genre artists. Case in point: on "Life Changes," the guitarist’s brooding tones rise with an increasingly emotional orchestral flavored synth wash, then simmer down as they ease over Munyungo Jackson’s exotic soundscaping. James’ trademark easygoing piano work then blends with guitar and the breathy scat vocals of Kenny Rankin and Charlotte Pope for a tune that could be a kindly Fourplay outtake (that’s not a bad thing!). Pope’s scatting plays a more prominent role on the perky "Brother to Brother," which sounds most of the time like a Joyce Cooling tune with its lovely blend of voice and crisp guitar lines; Powell fortunately individualizes it with a dual improvisational section where his strings dance around the jumping piano of Patrice Rushen. His duet with Randy Brecker’s muted trumpet over a pitter patter percussion line on "New Blues" is interesting, but it would be equally at home on Rick Braun’s latest. Powell gets back into his own skin on the light funk jam "It’s a Guitar Thing," soaring almost note for note with Kirk Whalum’s tenor over the explosive Hammond B-3 work of Billy Preston; the tune breaks for a powerful Powell solo section, which finds him switching from electric to acoustic midway through for a fascinating contrast. "Cruisin’" has a similar flavor, with Powell’s guitar and Gerald Spikes’ sax riding a B-3 tide and coming across synth horn accents every few bars.

Visit Doug Cameron's website.

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Violinist Doug Cameron has actually made a life and career out of bucking expectations. Classically trained, he opted for the jazz life and over the years has made violin a viable smooth jazz instrument. His first two Higher Octave projects were thematic travelscapes about his seafaring adventures playing on cruise ships around the world. On the extraordinarily ambitious and majestic Celtic Crossroads (Higher Octave), Cameron’s stylistic boat stops in Ireland for an emotionally dynamic exploration of traditional and modern Celtic music. Drawing on his rich Scottish heritage and simple love of the genre, he artfully blends the joys and sorrows of Celtic with his own trademark mix of jazz, pop, Hip-hop and Latin influences. There’s a little something for everyone along the Celtic road. Traditionalists will love his twists on classic Irish tunes like "Drowsie Maggie" and "Mason’s Apron," while modern pop-Celtic fans will groove to Enya’s triumphant "Book of Days," Loreena McKennitt’s seductive "Mummer’s Dance" and the anthemic "Runaway," a ballad popularized by The Corrs. The centerpieces here are lengthy and seamless medleys of the music from the shows "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance," both powerful statements of the global reach of modern Celtic music and dance. Cameron has a good time adding a feisty hip hop groove to "Reel Around the Sun," a separate track from "Riverdance"; he also mixes his islands to rip-roaring proportions on the Irish-Cuban fusion of "Havana Reel." Other highlights are the lush tribute to "John Jr." (produced by David Foster), the irrepressible "The Jig Set," and a powerful romantic reading of the Titanic theme. Even music fans who don’t like Celtic music may find themselves blown away by this incredible undertaking.

Visit Larry Antonino's website.

With the exception of Brian Bromberg and Wayman Tisdale, smooth jazz has no bassists who operate as frontmen and play their low toned strings as if they were those of a guitar. It will be interesting to see if Larry Antonino can give them a run for their money. On his exciting, very in the pocket debut Village Strut (Larry Antonino Records), he hams it up with a handful of great genre artists who add a great deal more than familiar names to add to the sticker copy on the shrinkwrap. The bouncy opener "Santa Ana" combines lighthearted atmospheres with an intense funk melody, bringing Stanley Clarke to mind; Antonio jams here with guitarist Steve Oliver, his dark tones creating a vibrant duality with Oliver’s higher counterparts as the two play cat and mouse. The sensuous title track offers a similar vibe, with Antonio’s bass conversing with keyboardist Rob Mullins’ bright, optimistic high tone piano harmonies - all played over Mullins’ Hammond B-3. "Pamela’s Song" has a swampy, old school blues sheen, and Kombo’s Ron Pedley helps bring out the retro soul ambience on his own B-3. The peppy, Brazilian flavored "Back in Your Arms Again" features Antonio’s wordless vocals (he sounds a bit like Joyce Cooling) and a light keyboard touch by Freddie Ravel. With its texturing of multiple bass tracks - each with a different pitch modulation - "Cruisin’ in Houston" rocks a bit harder than the other tunes; this tune shows that Antonino is interested in both trying out new playing techniques to go along with his catchy melodies and ensemble action.

Sound samples are usually available at Cdnow - just click on the "order" link!

Zebra Records
DOC POWELL Life Changes Samson
It’s About Time
Mark Carter Productions
DOUG CAMERON Celtic Crossroads: The Uncharted Path Higher Octave
LARRY ANTONINO Village Strut Larry Antonino Records

Created: 6/5/01