The cover of Chris Standring’s 2000 hit album Hip Sway features the bespectacled guitarist wearing a cool suit and crouching on a curb while holding his Robert Benedetto arch top jazz guitar. The implication is, he’s going places, career and otherwise. Good thing that his chosen instrument is portable enough to count as carry on luggage, because traveling - geographically, stylistically and even through time - is a key element in the lives and music of Standring and many of his fellow top smooth jazz guitarists.
Standring’s first important trip was moving from London to L.A. for a year at age 20. He started hanging out at the famed Baked Potato club, listening to guitar masters like Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. Ford advised the young musicians that if he wanted to work in the studios, he should start a band when he returned to England. Standring heeded the advice, using his classical studies as an excuse to play jazz every free hour of the day while enrolled at the London College of Music.
Some ten years later, he took another transatlantic flight, this one for a more permanent stay to make L.A. his home. While pursuing session work, he jammed in clubs at night with a fiery type of fusion that he now dismisses as self-indulgent. He has a two word answer for his fans who wondered how he went from trying to be the next Allan Holdsworth to being the retro-soul minded, hook conscious smoothie who would someday be hip and funky enough to call a recording Groovalicious (2003): Rodney Lee.
The guitarist first met Lee, his longtime keyboardist and collaborator, when the two played behind pop singer Lauren Christy (who later evolved into a member of the pop hitmaking trio The Matrix). “He helped me reshape my sound and introduced me to the funkier side of jazz,” says Standring. “I was influenced heavily by Wes Montgomery and Jeff Beck growing up, and he was the Parliament Funkadelic guy. We appreciated each other’s separate backgrounds and clicked immediately, first when we formed Solar System for one album and then when I went solo and released Velvet (1998).”
Cue the time traveling music. Groovalicious’ retro tastes move up a decade from the decidedly 60s vibe of Hip Sway, firmly into those deep funk pockets of the 70s (with the possible exception of the Lee Morgan-styled “Say What!”). You’ll swear Marvin Gaye is waking from the dead to join in on the irresistible choruses, throbbing grooves and party atmosphere of the latest single “Miss Downtown Sugar Girl.”
“The feel for the bass and drums is a bit thicker and deeper and the groove and horn arrangements show the inspiration of a lot of our favorite 70s funk acts like Parliament, Cameo, Ohio Players, Average White Band and, of course, Earth, Wind & Fire,” Standring adds. “It’s great shifting gears a bit each time out. Conventional wisdom says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but I say, break it!”
Explaining the ongoing appeal of the electric guitar to smooth audiences inundated with saxmen, he says, “I think it goes back to the rock and roll days, a tangible connection to the guitar gods of the past. There’s just something about the way you can feel a guitar string and make it sustain a direct sound coming out of an amp.”
Richard Smith has done most of his traveling as a longtime member of saxman Richard Elliot’s band throughout the 90s. Most of the original songs he wrote for his A440 Music debut Souldified (his eighth solo album since 1988) were written while living for a time in Europe before returning to L.A. But the cover-happy smooth jazz radio format instantly gravitated to the one cool retro moment, a spirited twist on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sing a Song.”
When he’s not globe and time trotting, he’s busy raising up the next generation of great guitarists as chairman of the studio and jazz guitar department at the Thornton School at USC. Last year, he also founded GuitarMasters, a community outreach program for at-risk youth that provides free lessons, classes, guitars and mentoring in South Central L.A. through the Challenger Boys and Girls Club.
Even within the often rigorous confines of academia, Smith uses his smooth jazz experiences to help expand the creativity of his charges. “Smooth jazz celebrates the inclusive tradition of jazz, rather than the archival elements which are tempting for so many educational environments,” he says. “Jazz incorporates a wide spectrum of tempos and degrees of difficulty, and students can explore more of their potential by not limiting the perceptions of their chosen idiom.”
USC also has the only flamenco guitar program of its kind at a major university. Which leads us to another well-worn traveler, Marc Antoine, whose six smooth jazz releases have all featured a hybrid gypsy/Latin/flamenco/Spanish foundation. For the past few years, he has lived in Madrid, the name of his 1998 release and also the birthplace of his wife Rebecca. But he was born in Paris and played jazz and Afro-pop in the clubs there before moving to London to pursue a professional career. He later lived in L.A.
All of this frequent flier buildup makes him a joyful non-purist. “I can’t play classical like a purist, or bebop, or Latin,” he says. “I just take elements of whatever’s out there and make it my own.” Over the years, he’s beautifully chronicled his fascinating musical wanderlust via recordings bearing titles about the ongoing journey — Universal Language (2000), Cruisin’ (2001) and Madrid (1998). Finding a cool, exotic and decidedly Latin leaning oasis, Antoine stays joyfully grounded in his adopted homeland of Spain on his latest release, Mediterraneo, his first for Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment.
“The most important element of my career has been the fact that I’m always open to new places, styles and experiences,” he says. “There’s always a great travel element to my music, and I’m always wanting to experiment with new ideas and influences. Maybe being a Gemini goes along with being a gypsy, a sense of never wanting to settle in one place. Paris is home, London was home, Los Angeles was home, now I’m settling into Madrid, and it’s also my home. My wife’s relatives are there, and my family is not far, in Brittany and the South of France. No matter where I am, I’m always going home.”
Smooth jazz fans didn’t have to just dream of a White Christmas in late 2003 as acoustic guitarist Peter White, after several years with the Dave Koz holiday tour, launched his own with saxtress Mindi Abair. He joked that he created the show so as to have an excuse to get out of holiday shopping, but more importantly, he had a chance to play selections from his underrated 1997 disc Songs of the Season. “The Blond and the Bloke,” as he jokingly referred to himself and Abair, performed Thanksgiving Weekend at Lake Tahoe’s North Shore Jazz Festival, held at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort. The crowd wasn’t quite as large as the night before for the latest incarnation of the Koz tour, but everyone had a blast as he and Abair traded hits, let their hearts be light, and ended with a rousing singalong version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Abair needed a little something to sell outside the ballroom door, and came up with the two song disc featuring the adorable vocal original “I Can’t Wait For Christmas” and a muscular cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Speaking of traveling, White planned the tour so as to visit places the old Koz tour frequently skipped over — Boston, Annapolis and Huntington, Long Island. It ended with a show at the Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite National Park.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) The Cooler (Commotion Records) – The explosive jazz score to this powerful Las Vegas based film features heavy brass and lush trumpet solos by composer Mark Isham. Also on tap are Diana Krall and Bobby Caldwell, who sizzles on “Luck Be a Lady.”
2) Ruben Studdard, Soulful (J Records)
3) Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys (J Records)
4) Windham Hill Chill 2 (Windham Hill)
5) Jim Brickman, Peace (Windham Hill)