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


In case you missed the May 2003 issue which was published late and only for a short while you may read it in the vaults.


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What is it our hearts tell us about the enduring magic of a popular song? It’s just music and lyrics written and sung once upon a time, after all, but somehow we’re captivated every time it hits us. The song and the singer transport us, and as hard as we try to resist, some unique, hard to explain blend of intense joy and deepening melancholy takes over. Instrumental artists know the quirky power of this kind of time travel, with be-bop players finding new ways to improvise over Sinatra and Crosby era classics and smooth jazz cats mining vintage R&B. Ditto with standard bearing vocalists, as Diana Krall’s ongoing success (and recent Best Vocal Album Grammy for Live in Paris) proves. Norah Jones may have taken home a boatload of Grammys for an album full of many original tunes, but the style of those songs and their production harkens back to another era. And she did wrap up Come Away With Me with Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.”

The challenge for musicians as well as vocalists is, how to keep traditional styles and great songs alive but also find a way to do something fresh? Why after all would we buy a recording if it just has the same songs done the same way we’ve heard a million times? Even if we as consumers claim to not want to hear the same ole same ole, some entertainers can charm us through it. Steve Lawrence Sings Sinatra is a wonderfully crafted, compelling disc that I couldn’t help but listen to over and over, but all he really did is take the classic arrangements, pattern his interpretations after the phrasing he learned from his mentor, and go to “my kind of town” with them. Lawrence had a lifelong friendship with Ole Blue Eyes, came upon these charts legitimately and is simply carrying on his love for the man and his tradition. Easily forgiven, in other words.

But what about Mark Winkler and Frank Stallone, two fine singers who don’t have such a connection to royalty but who seek to win our hearts by just swinging alternately cool and furious? Going deeper for song selection works wonders. Sure, Stallone had some of his early soundtrack and pop music opportunities handed to him by his more famous brother (we know him as Rocky and Rambo), but nepotism is hardly going to win the big band fans he’s after with the eminently listenable, exquisitely arranged new album In Love In Vain (Simba). It’s more than simply the brassy power of the Sammy Nestico Orchestra that has Tony Bennett crowing all over the publicity materials, “it’s a knockout. It’s the kind of singing that I love to hear and be around.” Solid phrasing and good pipes is part of it, but ultimately the disc works because of his balance of raw, bold emotion on fast paced jaunts like “Day In Day Out” and the subtle, yearning tenderness on the likes of Rogers & Hart’s “Spring Is Here.” The other original idea is combining nice versions of oft-covered tunes like “Witchcraft” and “Beyond The Sea” with creative catalog searches to find gems like “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” Jerome Kern’s title track, Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” and “Like Someone In Love.”

Stallone says, “What I wanted to do with this album was not to do a cover album of famous American Songbook tunes, but to record more lesser-known songs that mean something to me personally, where the focus is on the music, not the fame of the song itself.”

As for Mark Winkler, a veteran Los Angeles songwriter and vocalist who has spent his 15 year career switching off from smooth to trad jazz (sometimes blissfully on the same projects), his own penchant for writing brilliant lyrics naturally attracts him to the clever turns of phrase of yore that so much modern pop songwriting lacks. He’s spent a musical lifetime immersed in the cool, dashing it up with jazz and aiming for the hip. As both a singer and lyricist, he discovers a profound creative and spiritual connection to the legendary Bobby Troup. Troup is best known as the cat behind the standards “Route 66” and “Baby Baby All The Time,” but Winkler happily discovered that the book runs much deeper. His stylish new disc Mark Winkler Sings Bobby Troup (Rhombus Records) is a playful, heartfelt valentine to a legend whose vocal stylings and songs helped define the West Coast cool of another place and time. As Winkler sings on the disc’s sole original “Two Guys From the Coast,” the two share “a love of all things that swing.” Winkler basically has a blast finding the poignant subtlety in wistful songs like “One October Morning” and “Meaning of the Blues” and the crafty wit in others like “Hungry Man” and “Girl Talk.” The verbal freshness and cool trio quartet arrangements of these songs only remind us of the best of Winkler’s original songs; we can imagine had the two ever met that Troup wouldn’t have minded tackling a few of Winkler’s best.

Winkler’s 2000 recording Easy The Hard Way was a straight-ahead jazz flavored hit, reaching #22 on the Gavin Report’s jazz chart. He was preparing to do a follow-up featuring a mix of originals and standards, and was seeking three classic tunes to complement his own songs when he came upon the songs that would create a whole new project. “I started listening to a lot of old recordings to find songs that weren’t done so many times that they’d become cliché,” he says. “I always liked the handful of Bobby songs I knew, and I wanted to hear more of them. I ordered two of his classic CDs from the internet and absolutely fell in love. I chose three, then another three, and before I knew it, I was doing twelve of them! The songs are hip and sexy, a perfect addition to this martini lounge generation. When I sing Bobby Troup, I can’t help but feel cool.”

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You’ve probably heard Higher Octave Music’s ambient groove loving studio trio 3rd Force on smooth jazz radio for years, and their airplay hits have featured top genre performers like Craig Chaquico, Boney James and Peter White. But not till last year’s Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival did ensemble mastermind William Aura (something of a house producer for the label) draw upon his Detroit rock roots and gather his group into a live setting. I missed that show, but caught up with the band recently at 94.7 The Wave’s ongoing Wednesday night jazz series at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden. Where the discs are more geared towards the sexy and seductive, the show balanced soaring ballads and intense funk/rock. The charismatic Aura jammed on bass, keyboardist Craig Dobbin played the mouthwatering lead melodies and guest guitarist Grant Geissman enjoyed upping the rock edges on originals and a crowdpleasing take on “Chain of Fools.” Also sitting in to great effect were 3rd Force’s labelmates, guitarist Brian Hughes and saxman Tom Scott.


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Looking for the perfect musical Father’s Day gift for a man who truly understands and enjoys mellow? Or has a baby he’s trying to woo to sleep? The Grammy nominated Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Lullaby, conceived by and featuring Dave Koz, will appeal to the smooth jazz nut who wants to hear his musical heroes (Peter White, Rick Braun, Brian Culbertson, et al) in a heartfelt chill mode. But it also crosses the genre line by simply being sweet, lovable and relaxing even if you’ve never before heard the talent involved.

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Spyro Gyra   Original Cinema   Heads Up
Not that my opinion means too much more than any other professional journalist’s but I had to go back and listen to the latest by these legends after People Magazine’s violently bland and lukewarm review really steamed me. Happy to say, on further listen, that it's as feisty and innovative as I remembered!
Steve Briody   Steve Briody   507 Music
Gerald Veasley   Velvet   Heads Up
Steven Curtis Chapman   All About Love   Sparrow
Danny Wright   Healer of Hearts   Real Music

Created: 6/22/03