September 1, 2003

Smooth Sailing September 2003

Rick Braun does it again, while veteran alto saxophonist David Sanborn and the classic Acoustic Alchemy release their best CDs in years.

Rick Braun
Esperanto (Warner Bros.)

coverRick Braun’s a busy dude. Two of his last three CDs were collaborations – one with the new BWB (Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) and a classic with Boney James. It seems like his music’s everywhere, but Esperanto is only his third solo CD in the last five years (Kisses in the Rain and Full Stride the other two.) It wasn’t too much of a letdown, but a lack of cohesion on Kisses in the Rain made it somewhat of a disappointment.

Well, welcome back Mr. Trumpet Player. What we have here is the CD of the year.

He kicks it off with “Green Tomatoes,” which could have been included on the BWB CD and in fact features Whalum and Brown. It’s rollicking, and you know you’re going to get healthy doses of this on a Braun CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite “Latinesque” here, for example), but if you’ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he’s got a wild streak. And you know he’s get the best-sounding horn in the business.

What to highlight on this fabulous CD, which has an exotic theme and delicious strings running throughout? How about the plaintive piano-and-trumpet “Mother’s Day”? Or the funky “Daddy-O”? Or the way he slows the tempo, then rushes it again, in a way you don’t hear much in smooth jazz, in “Sir W”? Yes, all of those. Then there’s the late-night energy of “Zona Rosa,” the in-the-pocket groove of “To Manhattan With Love,” the movie theme drama of “Turquoise.”

In a year of too-few must-haves, Esperanto stands out as a no brainer for the shelves of smoothies. Smooth grade: A


David Sanborn
Time Again (Verve)

coverDavid Sanborn is the most imitated saxophonist of the smooth jazz generation, with good reason. Just listen to this CD. His a alto sax is alive here, on his best CD is ages. Sanborn crosses genres on his CDs, but this one is squarely for smooth fans. Listen with a proviso: the music is raw, energetic, alive, breathing. The radio single “Comin’ Home Baby,” which leads the CD, is seven minutes of jazz sax, vibraphone and more. You’ll love the vibe and bass solos. The covers are sublime: “Harlem Nocturne,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Sugar” and the party anthem “Tequila.” Sublime, also, are the real standouts: “Cristo Redentor,” Sanborn’s sax sharing time with a churchlike chorus, and “Little Flower,” where Sanborn plays both sax and piano. The songs are all wonderful, but what you experience here is the power and magic of Sanborn’s playing. A mainstay of smooth jazz is a romantic setting with a soft sax, but with Sanborn the sax is something more urgent. And even more sexy. Smooth grade: A

Acoustic Alchemy
Radio Contact (Higher Octave)

coverAcoustic Alchemy has made enough classics over the years to cement its standing as one of smooth jazz’s Hall of Fame groups. Its best songs are a long time ago, although The Beautiful Game from 2000 showed signs of AA from old. 2001’s AArt, however, was horn-heavy and featured less of the distinct melodies the group is known for. The new CD doesn’t have horns, and I was interested to see what direction the guitar duo of Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale would be taking this new project. After a few listens, it’s clear that this CD marks a return to the classic AA sound, good news for longtime fans. The band has been around for a long time, of course, so some variance in sound is in order (you can’t play the same songs over again, can you?), but AA maintains its melodic touch here without straying too far from what made it a smooth jazz favorite. Ballads (“Coffee With Manni,” “Ya Tebya Lubliu,” driving numbers (“Milo,” “Shelter Island Drive”) , some great guitar interaction. All in all, a very worthwhile listen, and a fine return to form. Smooth grade: A

Brian Hughes
Along the Way (A440)

coverAfter the sublime Shakin’ Not Stirred, Brian Hughes has returned with another fine effort that shows why he’s one of smooth jazz’s top lyrical guitarists. What makes him so special? First is his playing which, although firmly schooled in the Montgomery/Benson tradition, takes it a step further with nods to Pat Metheny. Second is his skill for the hook, which he strongly believes in. Finally there’s his variety – Hughes isn’t afraid to tone it down a few notches with jazzy interludes, as he does on “Omaha Unbound” and “Endless Road,” with piano and acoustic bass taking center stage with some acoustic picking. (OK, Brian, I think I’m ready for a full CD on this jazzy stuff!) The road-themed CD begins with “Along the Way,” which by the end of the first 15 seconds you realize is going to be another Hughes classic – breezy and joyful. Other tracks in that vein are “Brighter Day” and “Wherever You Are.” Hughes’ journey takes a mildly tropical turn with “Picture This,” “Son y Lola” and others, where the rhythm takes listeners south of the border.

Although there’s a lot going on here, the disparate elements make this a less well-defined work than Shakin’ Not Stirred. There’s still much to recommend: some quintessential Hughes, some great new jazz pieces and a little Latin spice. Smooth grade: B+

Kirk Whalum
Into My Soul (Warner Bros.)

coverThis CD could have been titled “Memphis Soul.” Veteran smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum tapped legendary Memphis producer and writer David Porter for an homage to rich Southern soul music. This CD is a real treat for Whalum fans, who’ve been waiting for a return to form since his classic For You, a stellar collection of cover songs. There are only two covers here, though: Porter and Isaac Hayes’ “Hold On I’m Coming,” which Whalum slows down from Sam and Dave’s hit; and “That’s All Right,” which Elvis Presley recorded on his Sun Records debut. Whalum’s version features a rock guitar and his brother, Kevin Whalum, on vocals.

The rest is all original material, as Whalum interprets Memphis/Southern soul music his own way. Whalum brings in the other two members of BWB (Rick Braun and Boney James) to play in “Hoddamile (Hold or Mild),” a very tasty cut. Soul man Isaac Hayes is joined on vocals by Wendy Moten on “I Loved You in Memphis,” a soul-drenched new classic. Rounding out the all-star cast is Maurice White, who adds some brief vocal power to a gorgeous ballad, “You Had Me at Hello.”

The two best songs on the CD feature Whalum’s sax out front, where it belongs. “Another Beautiful Day” has a sinful hook and toe-tapping feel, and is the first single. “Club Paradise” is its twin, an infectious soprano ditty you wish you could go on for ever and ever and…. Well, that wouldn’t work – you wouldn’t be able to take in the rest of this CD, where every song is killer, no filler. You need a dose of soul, you check out this CD. Smooth grade: A

Bernie Williams
They Journey Within (GRP)

coverWould New York Yankees baseball slugger Bernie Williams have gotten a record deal with GRP if he wasn’t a star in the nation’s biggest media market? Probably not. But the fact is, Williams began playing music as a youngster in his native Puerto Rico and, on his debut, shows he knows his way around the guitar and a pretty melody. Like bassist Wayman Tisdale, the former pro basketball player who now plays smooth jazz, Williams is smart enough to surround himself with some all-star talent: namely Bela Fleck, Ruben Blades, David Benoit and a great backing band.

True to his roots, Williams swings with a Latin beat on songs such as “La Salsa En Mi,” “Para Don Berna,” “Desvelado” and “Sambo Novo” (a solo number). The closest I can think to compare him to an established presence in smooth jazz is Acoustic Alchemy – some of the same warm tone on the acoustic guitar, although not matching AA’s melodic drive. Williams doesn’t hide his playing on rhythm – he plays out front quite a bit on the 13 songs, the majority of which he wrote.

The CD may be a bit raw for average smooth jazz fans, and a song with his kids singing is a bit much. But there are some fine moments, such as the pensive “Perna Don Berna” (with “Saturday Night Live’s” T-Bone Wolk on acoustic bass) and the Paul Brown-remixed “Just Because.” Smooth grade: B-

Posted by Brian Soergel at September 1, 2003 10:24 PM