Welcome to the August 2003 issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz.
The week of August 25 in the city of Boston seemed much like any other. Warm summer sunshine was fragmented by scattered and dramatic thunderstorms and the Red Sox were winning again. However, from a musical perspective this historic city was serving up some very untypical and varied delights.
The first of these was the appearance of Richard Elliott at the Scullers Jazz Club and the second was Aretha Franklin, in town in suburban Lowell as part of her farewell concert tour. More news of this Aretha Franklin tour in the next edition of The Secret Garden but for now its time to concentrate on the Elliot gig.
Scullers Jazz Club is something of a rare phenomenon. It is small and intimate and buried within the Doubletree All Suites Hotel between the Charles River and the Massachusetts turnpike. Hardly the place one would expect to find top rank smooth jazz artists. But find them there you will, a fact that is even more surprising given that Boston is one of the few major US cities not to have a dedicated smooth jazz radio station.
On August 26 it was the turn of Richard Elliott to blow into town with an early and a late show and the opportunity to showcase tracks from his new release Ricochet.
Although he's called a "smooth jazz artist," saxophonist Richard Elliot is equally at home with most rock & roll and the kind of classic R&B performed by the group Tower Of Power. For five years in the 1980s, he was a big part of the classic R&B band's horn-based sound.
The Scottish-born Richard Elliot was raised in Los Angeles, where he quickly became a fan of West Coast classic R&B. Elliot landed his first job while still a teenager with Natalie Cole and the Pointer Sisters. A few years later, he was tapped to record with some of his idols from Motown Records, which had relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles. In the 1970s, he had the chance to record with both Smokey Robinson and The Four Tops.
Since the 1980s, Richard Elliot has been among the top saxophonists in the smooth jazz genre. But if Elliot had to categorize his music, he wouldn't necessarily call it jazz - at least not in the traditional sense. The tenor sax man tends to think of himself as essentially an R&B instrumentalist with jazz influences. Soul and funk are his foundation and he celebrates his soul/funk heritage on this latest GRP release Ricochet.
‘In some respects, this record is a return to my roots,’ Elliot says of Ricochet. ‘I consider myself more of an R&B artist than a jazz artist, and I felt I was really exploring my R&B roots on this album. In my younger days, I tended to make eclectic records. But on my last few records I tried to have more of a commonality-and on Ricochet there is always an R&B thread.’
That isn't to say that Ricochet is devoid of jazz or pop elements. Like his previous releases, this instrumental album is very much a part of the contemporary jazz idiom. Nor is Elliot saying that he forgot about his R&B heritage on any of his previous CDs as Elliot has usually favoured the more R&B-influenced side of jazz. But if all of Elliot's albums underscore his soul/funk roots to some degree, Ricochet finds him being even more R&B-minded than usual. From tough, sweaty funk-jazz smokers like ‘Sly’, named after the legendary Sly Stone, and ‘Slam’ to the dusky ‘Corner Pocket’ and a sentimental remake of The Stylistics' ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New.’
Ricochet finds Elliot joining forces with a variety of accomplished musicians and producers. This album called for participants with strong R&B credentials, and Elliot has exactly that in guitarist Tony Maiden, who backed Chaka Khan when he was part of Rufus in the 1970’s, veteran percussionist Lenny Castro and guitarist Robbie Nevil. One of the album's keyboardists is the multi-faceted Jeff Lorber.
Lorber and Elliot both do their share of producing on Ricochet and the album's other producers include Steven Dubin, bassist Ronnie Garret, and keyboardist Rex Rideout. There was a time when Elliot preferred to do all of his own producing, but these days, he enjoys the input that he gets from others.
‘I used to produce all of my records by myself,’ Elliot recalls. ‘But along the way, I decided that I wanted people to help me with the production so that I could put all of my energy into playing the saxophone and writing - and I found that to be a very liberating experience. When the time came to do this record, I picked the producers I wanted to collaborate with and everyone had their own ideas. At the same time, I wanted all of the material to have a common thread.’
Both Rideout and Garrett were on stage with Elliott at Scullers and as well as doing a terrific job on the Ricochet showcase they also found time to remind the packed audience of some of the great numbers from Elliott’s previous releases.
Most memorable among these was his rendition of two numbers from his Chill Factor CD. The first was ‘Moomba’ and Elliott explained to the audience that the word Moomba was of African origin and meant to move on to the next village. He added that was just as well because at the time he wrote and named the track he had no idea what the word meant.
In addition, Richard Elliot also served up ‘Aint Nothing But The Real Thing’ from his Chill Factor CD. This Ashford and Simpson composition falls fair and square into our category of Smooth Soul Survivor. As regular readers will know, for a recording to be classed by Secret Garden as a Smooth Soul Survivor it must be a much loved smooth jazz track which has its origins deep in the soul music of the 60’s and 70’s.
Nikolas Ashford, born May 4, 1942 in Fairfield, SC and Valerie Simpson, born August 26, 1946, in New York City have had two distinct careers. Both song writing and performing have worked hand in hand.
As far as performing, their own career was launched in 1973 with Keep It Comin on Motown and Gimme Something Real on Warner Bros. Their first success came in 1977 with the gold-selling Send It which contained the Top Ten R&B hit ‘Don't Cost You Nothing.’ Is It Still Good To Ya, a second gold album and released in 1978 contained the number two R&B hit ‘It Seems to Hang On’. Stay Free, their third straight gold album, contained ‘Found a Cure’, another R&B smash that also made the Top 40 on the pop chart. A Musical Affair, in 1980, featured the hit ‘Love Don't Make It Right,’ but was not as successful as previous efforts.
Meanwhile, Ashford & Simpson continued to work with other artists, scoring successes with Chaka Khan, and the classic ‘I'm Every Woman’, and with Gladys Knight. Their own career saw a resurgence in 1984 with Solid, which went gold and produced the R&B number one ‘Solid’ that made number 12 on the pop charts. During the late '80s and '90s, Ashford & Simpson continued to tour and record sporadically.
The two had originally met in 1964 and scored their first song writing hit in 1966 with Ray Charles recording of their ‘Let's Go Get Stoned.’ After a period at Scepter Records, they moved to Motown where they wrote hits for The Supremes that included ‘You're All I Need to Get By’. When Diana Ross left The Supremes for a solo career, Ashford & Simpson also wrote ‘Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand’ for her. During this Motown period they also wrote ‘Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing’ for the duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
‘Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing’ proved to be a massive and much copied smooth soul classic with Kiki Dee, as far back as 1971, and Michael McDonald, as recently as this year both choosing to cover it. Add in the likes of Aretha Franklin, Donny Osmond, Angela Bofill and Vince Gill and its clear this is track has appealed to a wide range of artists and a wide range of music styles.
Three decades on and it is Richard Elliot who was lighting up a Boston summer evening with his version of this excellent Smooth Soul Survivor.
The Richard Elliot Ricochet tour continues around the US and he is also scheduled for ‘Guitars and Saxes’ appearances too. Visit his website for dates and catch him if you can. The experience will be richly rewarding.
Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favourite Smooth Soul Survivor or a track for ‘what’s smooth jazz?’ that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole@AOL.com.Posted by Denis Poole at September 3, 2003 12:48 PM