December 1, 2003

Smooth Sailing

Who put out the best smooth jazz CDs in 2003? What's in store for holiday music? Check out the latest Smooth Sailing to find out the answers, as well as to discover some CDs you may have missed this year.

There were many fine smooth-jazz CDs released in 2003. Here are my 10 favorites:

1) David Sanborn, “Timeagain” (Verve). Many smooth-jazz saxophonists get their inspiration from the veteran player. “Timeagain” is the CD that smooth jazz fans have been waiting for for a long time. The tunes are raw, energetic, alive and breathing.

2) Mindi Abair, “It Just Happens That Way” (GRP). Newcomer Abair blows a mean sax on her much-anticipated debut. Abair’s worth the hype. Every song is a winner on this keeper CD.

3) Chris Standring, “Groovaliscious” (Mesa/Blue Moon). The British guitarist certainly has a way with melody and hummable hooks. But he’s not afraid to play, and play well, on tunes that owe inspiration to the ‘60s and ‘70s.

4) Dave Koz, “Saxophonic” (Capitol). Koz, now a media mogul as co-owner of a new record label, shows that he can still play the saxophone while helming two of the country’s most popular smooth-jazz radio shows. The CD, divided into three “acts,” features elements of jazz, pop, soul and electronica.

5) Rick Braun, “Esperanto” (Warner Bros.). No one plays the trumpet smoother or better than Braun, who never releases a bad CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite “Latinesque”), but if you’ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he’s got a wild streak, too.

6) Marc Antoine, “Mediterraneo” (Rendezvous). Gypsy-guitar player Antoine returns to his roots with an uplifting work that finds him at the top of his game. Smooth jazz at its best.

7) Doc Powell, “97th & Columbus” (Heads Up). The much-traveled session player once again proves that he can be a leader on guitar.

8) Brian Hughes, “Along The Way” (A440 Music Group). The lyrical guitarist mixes Latin elements with rock and funk to once again prove he is one of the best in the biz.

9) Richard Elliot, “Ricochet” (GRP). Elliot may be small in stature, but his robust sax takes listeners to new heights.

10) Acoustic Alchemy, “Radio Contact” (Higher Octave). The veteran band makes contact here on a CD that marks a return to its roots: guitars and melodies.


HOLIDAY MUSIC
There are many holiday CDs released each year. Here’s a few:

Michael Buble, “Let It Snow!” (143/Reprise): The 20something vocalist from Vancouver, British Columbia, is hot, hot, hot. This 5-song CD should do nothing to turn down the heat. A cross between Sinatra and Darin, Buble shines on “Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” “Grown-Up Christmas List,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “White Christmas.” Produced by David Foster.

Yellowjackets, “Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration” (Yellowjackets Enterprise): The CD, only available online at yellowjackets.com, has all the standards, including “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Winter Wonderland.” On the latter, the wonderful Bob Mintzer’s sax has never, ever sounded so good. This is destined to become one of the most memorable jazz CDs ever.

Plan 9, “The 9 Days of Christmas” (Plan9Partners): Listeners downloaded a gazillion copies of Plan 9’s “God Rest Ye” from smoothjazz.com, which rightly convinced the six-member to go all out with a holiday CD. Like they say, they’re not out to trivialize the music, but to rediscover its joyful elements. That they do, in the season’s most, well, joyful holiday CD. The CD was officially released in 2002, but is now getting some publicity so it is included here. You’ll dig it if you’re in a good mood and looking for something different.

Jeff Ball, “Songs of Winter" (Red Feather Music): Have yourself a very flute-y Christmas. It’s a bit on the new age side, but it’s doubtful you’ll hear a more touching version of “Greensleeves” during the holidays. Ball plays an assortment of Indian flutes, and he’s backed by a great band on fretless and fretted bass, guitars, organ, handbells and percussion. An unexpected delight: a cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.”

Michael Franks, “Watching the Snow” (Sleeping Gypsy): The sweet-voiced singer presents 10 original songs to his fans as his Christmas gift. If you like Franks, you’ll of course like this and know what to expect: jazzy stylings, clever lyrics and a sense of well-being.

WORTH CHECKING OUT FROM 2003
There are so many worthwhile CDs. And so little time to hear and review them all. Here are some CDs you might want to check out:

Various artists, “A Twist of Motown” (GRP): Guitarist Lee Ritenour returns with another in his series of “Twist” CDs. This one has Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, George Benson, Chris Botti, Will Downing, Richard Elliot, Lisa Fischer, Dave Gruisin, Bob James, Ray Parker Jr., Brenda Russell and Peter White. Highlights: The incomparable Will Downing’s vocals on “Just My Imagination” and James’ Fender Rhodes on “Creepin’.”

Chuck Loeb, “eBop" (Shanachie): Don’t let the title give you the wrong impression. He grooves a little harder here than earlier efforts, but it still the same sweet electric guitar. Not up to his usual standards, but still worth a listen.

Nick Colionne, “Just Come on In” (Three Keys): Another guitarist in the Wes/George/Lee lineage, Colionne packs a punch and is ridin’ high with his hit, “High Flyin’. Even better is a cover of “My Favorite Things.” It’s a good effort, but suffers from sameness even though Colionne has the formula down: smooth stuff, funky stuff, some vocals. Hopefully the next one will have a tighter vision.

Richard Smith, “Soulidifed” (A440): The smooth jazz educator and musician hits pay dirt with a lively recording of electric guitar and some great ballads, including “Inspired By You” and “Intimato.” And you hafta love another version of “Sing a Song.”

The Crusaders, “Rural Renewal” (Verve): If you like the classic sound of the Crusaders’ intelligent and sophisticated contemporary jazz, you’ll like this CD featuring original members Joe Sample, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder. Guest artist Eric Clapton helps infuse the CD with its soul and gospel shadings.

Ultra Blue, “Dusk 2 Dawn” (Khaeon): This is one CD worth discovering. East Coast musicians David Mann, Pete Belasco, Dave Stryker, Rachel Z and special guest vocalist Kevin Mahogany deliver one of the most listenable works of the year: you have to hear Mahogany’s pipes on “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” Most of the tunes are instrumental, though, and perfect for chilling out. Good stuff.

Candy Dulfer, “Right in My Soul” (Eagle): The sexy sax star returned with a decent collection of very European, very hip, mostly vocal numbers that’ll have you grooving all night. Highlight: the very funky “Power to the People.” Dulfer can play, which she proves on the jazzy “It’s My Life.”

Oscar Castro-Neves, “Playful Heart” (Mack Avenue): The much-loved Brazilian musician can always be counted on for CDs that downright uplifting. It’s hard to feel unhappy with Toots Thielemans’ harmonica happily playing away. Although Castro-Neves stumbles on Jobim’s “Waters of March” (Aguas De Marco) by singing in English, at least you can now understand what you’ve been humming all these years. Simply a wonderful CD of Brazilian music. Go get it.

Abbey Lincoln, “It’s Me” (Verve): Jazz singer Lincoln’s smoky and raspy voice has never sounded better. The very mellow tracks on this CD can be enjoyed by smooth jazz fans who like Diana Krall.

Jesse Cook, “Nomad” (Narada World): Flamenco traditionalist Cook is a treat to listen to, with his swirling musical landscapes and expert guitar playing. Expect some experimentation, don’t expect a sound similar to Marc Antoine, and you’ll like it fine.

Cassandra Reed, “Cassandra Reed” (Peak): If nothing else, the CD surely rates with the sexiest packaging of the year. If you can tear your eyes away from the lovely Reed, you’ll discover the smooth jazz vocal CD of the year. Bravo to producer Jason Miles, who gets the most from Reed’s husky and emotive voice.

Incognitio, “Who Needs Love” (Narada Jazz): Jean-Paul Maunick, aka “Bluey,” returns with a smashing bunch of R&B-infused vocals supplied by a bevy of talented female singers.

Mark Winkler, “The Best of Mark Winkler” (Varese Sarabande): Gerald Albright, Joe Sample, Boney James, Dianne Reeves, David Benoit and others contribute to this compilation from an underrated jazz/lounge singer who has a touch of Al Jarreau in his chops.

David Garfield, “Giving Back” (Creatchy): Pianist Garfield has some of smooth jazz biggest stars and session players on this CD, which is kind of jazzy, kind of rock ‘n’ roll.

Ray Fuller, “The Weeper” (A Ray Artists Music): Think Lee Ritenour meets George Benson. Fuller plays a lyrical guitar and takes on some classic classics: “If You Really Love Me,” “Work to Do,” “Naima” and “She Walks This Earth.” Highly recommended, worth the search.

Hiroshima, “The Bridge” (Heads Up): Does the veteran smooth jazz group still matter these days? There are some moments, such as on “Manzanar” and “Viven,” where the smooth-meets-Eastern philosophy meshes, but there’s too much that sounds dated here or overdone. For Hiroshima long-timers only.

IGOR, “You and I” (FigorO Music): It appears that IGOR wants to be the Australian Kenny G. He’s certainly learned his lessons, as the saxophonist’s self-described “sooth and silky” sound is like the second coming of G. He was raised in Russia, so you can excuse the scary name. If you can’t get enough of Kenny G, this is your CD.

Lloyd Gregory, “Free Fallin’” (Integy): Intoxicating music. Gregory often sounds like long-lost Earl Klugh on his uptempo and ballads, and that’s good enough for most smooth jazz fans. Check out the slow-grooving “Peanut,” Gregory’s guitar expertly playing over a soft and funk drums-and-bass foundation. One of the independent highlights of the year.

Yellowjackets, “Time Squared” (Heads Up): This veteran group may be a bit too adventurous for the average smooth jazz fan, but the Mintzer-Ferrante-Haslip trio is just too in-the-pocket to escape a listen. Although swinging more and more toward jazz these days, the band’s contemporary roots occasionally shine through. And don’t forget, Mintzer is one of the best saxophonists around.

Jeff Ray, “The Walkup” (Hipnotic): Electric guitarist Ray plays the kind of instrumental rock you can never get enough of. Like Jeff Beck, he can rock (“Cinnamon Lenses”) – and he can get good and slow: check out “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” His expert group is rounded out with Aaron Swinn on Hammond B3 and Rhodes, Darryl Hall on electric bass and Victor Wise on drums. A modern blast from the past.

Posted by Brian Soergel at December 1, 2003 5:25 AM