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February 2000 Smooth Jazz Vibes title logo Brian Soergel's monthly column he writes for L.A. JAZZ SCENE magazine.

Brian Soergel can be reached at riffzy@att.net

Visit Marc Antoine's website.

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Guitarist Marc Antoine, born in France and schooled in clubs and studios in London, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles, draws on his worldly experiences for Universal Language (GRP), his fourth and best CD. He's come a long way since 1994's Classical Soul, an uneven project that only hinted at what was to come. Smooth jazz fans may best know Antoine for the radio staples "Unity," "Latin Quarter" and "Sunland," a trio of songs that established a brand of joyous flamenco music so upbeat, so joyous, the plucked strings so clear, the heart almost skipped a beat when hearing the melodies. The three were related by their similar sound and were the highlights of the first three CDs. On the new work, however, there is no fourth companion piece. Instead, the CD - directed by Philippe Saisse - shows Antoine's maturity as an artist, with strong jazz and world music themes linking the 10 selections.

For example, "Palm Strings" opens the CD with Antoine's familiar gypsy-flamenco stylings, but there is more to offer, notably flute passages by Dave Valentin and a funky horn section anchored by Michael Davis, Jim Hynes and Andy Snitzer. And while Antoine's playing is obviously out front, much of the CD has a reflective quality - such as the three songs that close the project - and a hint of the bass-and-drum sound. "Bossa Nouveau" is a bubbling samba groove, "Point of View" is folk/jazz in waltz time, and "Crossroads," which features Antoine's leisurely picking and assorted blips and background noises from co-composer Saisse, rides over an insistent drums-and-bass foundation.

The sound is more uptempo on tracks such as "Celta" - Irish jig meets Spanish guitar (with Jeff Golub on mandolin); "Children at Play," a playful composition that is heightened by sounds of a playground full of kids; and "El Camino" mixes funk with the flamenco rhythm known as buleria. Two songs on Universal Language stand out for their uniqueness: "N.Y. Strolling" for its very jazzy drum brushes and very jazz piano interlude by Saisse. It practically transports the listener to a smoky joint somewhere in the Big Apple. And "Elikya (Hope)" features the soulful voice of African singer Lokua Kanza in a masterful tune reminiscent of the best Brazilian jazz. Universal Language is one to savor. Smooth grade: A

Visit Chris Bangs' website.

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The Chris Bangs Project, lead by the drums-and-bass maestro from Britain, delivers a state-of-the-art acid-jazz CD with Dazzle (Instinct). It's another in a series of CDs by the New York-based label that is subtly changing the sound of contemporary jazz. The emphasis is on dance music and for the most part this CD succeeds. "Guiding Light" leads off and sets the tone: frantic drumming, percolating bass, a kicking brass section; flugelhorn and trumpet pepper the work throughout, and take a star turn later in the CD with "Watuzi Strut," a disco-meets-salsa-meets funk anthem. Philip Bailey-esque "Reason"-like vocals make "Always Be the One" and "State of Mind" stand out, but while the former is a highlight, the latter is sunk by trite vocals. (Granted that vocals are less important in dance tracks, but sometimes they can make it hard to listen to more than once.) On the title track, "Dazzle," the emphasis is on the drums and bass, while "Play to Win" and "Way Up There" are driven by bass. Overall, however, this is a striking work, as Bangs leads the acid-jazz movement along with label mates Gota and Count Basic. Smooth grade: B

Visit Count Basic's website.

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You've got to hand it to Count Basic. The cover for the latest CD, Trust Your Instincts (Instinct), continues a streak of great artwork from the Vienna-based soul/jazz group. (The band's last CD featured the radio hits "Joy and Pain" and the super "One the Move.") Whether you like this CD or not depends on your preference for vocals provided by Kelli Sae, the striking figure on the cover. Her vocals are assured and soulful enough and the songs are first-rate and hook-filled, but since 8 of the 12 songs have lyrics (with a tremendous remake of Stevie Wonders' "Living For the City" having background vocals), this is more of a R&B work than instrumental. What instrumentals there are are memorable: the low-key "One One 4" and "Remember This" have smooth-as-silk guitar leads, while "Trust Your Instincts" is a midtempo groove with more tasty guitar licks, courtesy of Count Basic leader Peter Legat, who founded the band after graduating from Vienna Jazz Conservatory. Smooth grade: B

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Leo Gandleman, Brazil's gift to the smooth jazz community and a contributor to such artists as Milton Nascimento and Gal Costa, has packed 67 minutes of grooving and sensual music into Brazilian Soul (Jazzica), his seventh CD. While the saxophonist's playing is assured and polished, his sound is also packed with raw energy and ample Brazilian soul. Featured players include Philippe Saisse, Ricardo Silveira, Ze Carlos and Egbero Gismonti. Gandleman writes four originals, with one being two takes of "Living on Sand," the theme song for a popular Brazilian soap opera. The first version has a samba beat and background vocals, while the second is quieter and jazzier; Gandleman's lyrical soprano is beguiling on both. "Tanga" is a spirited duet with guitarist Silveira (who plays acoustic and has a tasty electric solo), with some accordion thrown in; and "No Comments" is a blend of grooving jazz and the classic type of Brazilian street-samba rhythms heard on the streets of Rio. Gandleman also chooses his covers well: the CD opens with a thumping version of Herb Alpert's "Rise" and follows a '60-ish, trippy reading of Beck's "Dead Weight" with a beautiful rendering of Sting's "Fragile." And Antonio Carlos Jobim's strolling "Antigua" has a Rhodes solo by Saisse. The remaining songs are Gandleman's thoroughly modern renditions of songs by Brazilian artists - including the '70s European hit "Maracatu Atomico" and a sax-and-piano duo with Gismonti, "Palhaco" - making them his own while keeping the spirit of the originals. A wonderful work, with variety and stunning musical assuredness. Smooth grade: A

Visit Alex Bugnon's website.

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Pianist and composer Alex Bugnon is a respected and popular name in smooth jazz, and his fans tend to be passionate about his playing. After spending more than four years touring, Bugnon finally has released another CD, and it's a good one. As Promised (Narada Jazz) is Bugnon's personal statement to those who have waited. His music is smooth and soulful, funky, often reminiscent of David Benoit. He's joined by some tremendous talent, including Christopher Williams (sounding like Luther Vandross on "All That I Can Say"); Angie Stone (vocals on "Won't Be a Fool"); and Brandford Marsalis (sax on "Chasing Spirals"). Also contributing are Gerald Albright, Victor Bailey and Lalah Hathaway. Bugnon never strays far from the groove, especially on "Scirocco" and the hypnotic "Simple Song." The CD's best moments, though, come on the final three tunes: "Buhaina," Bugnon's tribute to Art Blakey, has jazzy trumpet, funky organ and a relentless beat; "His Coolness" is funk with nice acoustic piano lines; and John Coltrane's "Naima" is given a respectful but thoroughly smooth jazz treatment, with bass thumping away. Smooth grade: A

Visit Chris Standring's website.

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English guitarist Chris Standring (who made his mark on Rick Braun's Body & Soul and was named 1998 debut artist of the year by Art Good's JazzTrax) turned heads with his first CD, Velvet, which featured one of the best and most unique smooth jazz songs of recent years with the title track. The CD was classic - no filler - and was packed with hooks galore, great melodies and the kind of guitar sound that drew fans of George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Brian Tarquin, Brian Hughes and others. His latest CD, Hip Sway (Instinct) matches his debut, which set the bar high. No sophomore jinx here. Listen to the killer hook in the title track (enhanced by Richard Elliot's sax) and just try not to be swept away by Standring's lyricism. Like Hughes and Grant Geissman, Standring has a thing for joyous '60s sounds, mixing groovy with today's acid-jazz sensibility - check out "Glamour Girls," the wah-wah and keyboards in "Big Feet ... Big Shoes" and the Sly Stone funky guitar in "Pins & Needles." There are two covers of classics: "How Deep is Your Love" begins with a Muzak feel, but eventually gets into gear with Standring's riffs and great percussion. "I'm Not in Love" is similar. There are some tasty cuts here, especially "Good Medicine" and "Smile," both so delicious, so catchy, so smooth. "Ultraviolet" is the "Velvet" of this CD, the song that stands apart for its innovation. Standring dubs in an acoustic guitar refrain over his electric playing (very Pat Metheny-like on this cut), while Rodney Lee's fast "drum freaking" propels the song forward. The CD closes with "Georgina," a ballad with drum brushes. Smooth grade: A+

Visit Steve Reid's website.

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Percussionist Steve Reid is on his own now, of course, apart from the Rippingtons and doing quite nicely while completing a lot of interesting musical projects in his North Hollywood super-studio. Reid provides more polished smooth jazz with Passion in Paradise (Domo), which has a great smooth jazz cover: a setting sun, palm fronds, water and, of course, a sexy woman (or at least part of her). Reid is backed by his Bamboo Forest: Steve Oliver, Kim Stone, Jeff Kashiwa, Kim Hansen and Roger Friend. Reid is all about creating a mood, not letting his ample percussive skills getting in the way of short and sweet tunes - although "Bahia Breeze" certainly showcases his arsenal of instruments. The stars on this CD are saxophonist Paul Taylor and Oliver, whose vocals and guitar work are showcased on his debut CD from last year. Song titles perfectly match their moods - "Lovers Cove," "Kisses in the Wind," "Comfort Zone," "Martini Beach" and "Midnight Rendezvous," the latter with pianist Brian Culbertson. Slip on the CD, slab on some sunblock and groove to the tropical beat. Smooth grade: A

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If you want to listen to contemporary jazz mixed with Latin rhythms with the flute out front, you listen to Dave Valentin. After many years with GRP, Valentin makes his debut with a new label with Sunshower (Concord Vista). In addition to his band, guests includes Dave Samuels on vibes, Steve Khan on guitar and Ed Calle on sax. Although mostly a breezy affair, Valentin gets downright jazzy on Duke Ellington's "I Got It Band and That Ain't Good," a ballad featuring his alto flute. "Sierra Madre" is a nice bit of jazz, with ample space set aside for Samuels and Khan. Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" is an interesting selection, and the song is often unrecognizable and works as a short but invigorating jam, a song that is no doubt popular in concert. Smooth grade: B

Added: 2/6/2000