April 4, 2004

Smooth Sailing April 2004

Rendezvous Lounge makes a nice place to chill out, while Bass X is for those who their smooth music on the urban side. Also reviewed: Hil St. Soul, Maximum Grooves, Bobby Lyle, Will Downing, Ronny Jordan, Richard Smith, Michael Buble, Grady Nichols, Nestor Torres, Tha' Hot Club, The Couch Potato All-Stars, Jon Dalton, Blake Aaron, Gabriela Anders and Sergio Caputo.

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Rendezvous Lounge (compiled by Mark Gorbulew)
(Rendezvous)

cover“Chill” music may just be the next big thing in smooth jazz, and seems to be the perfect fit. It’s already a mainstay in Europe, heard in expensive restaurants and will be the focus of a radio show later this featuring Chris Botti. Curious? A good starting point is this compilation, which features 14 deliciously intoxicating tracks compiled by Mark Gorbulew, a DJ at the Au Bar in New York and a veteran chill-music compiler. With chill music, it’s not so important who the artist is, and many times it’s one person alone with a computer. Most of the artists will be unfamiliar to smooth jazz listeners except for Praful, whose smash hit “Sigh” is remixed to give it a Moorish/surf-guitar flavor. Every song is worth listening to, and the mood is overwhelmingly mellow and chillish, although there are some backbeats and the rock guitar in the White Nights’ “Natural True” is a bluesy trip. Here are some more highlights: the first single, “Time to Lounge,” has some playful wordless vocals and trumpet solos; “Paradise Island” has piano tinkling and acoustic guitar leads, wheeling gulls and a man’s voice chanting “sea,” “sound” and other subliminal asides to get you in the mood; Gorbulew’s own “Dreamsville” has tight rhythmic nodding and a killer piano hook by Jerry Friedman; “Pablo’s Blues” features a running vocal sample from long-ago bluesman Robert Johnson; and the delightfully droll “Monkey Business” keeps you smiling. If you’re a smooth jazz fan tiring of the same old stuff, take a break on this “Lounge.” Smooth grade: A+


BASS X
Heir Wave
(Liquid 8)

BassXHeirWave.jpgBass X, featuring Chicago musicians Larry Hubbard, Tim Gant, Keith Henderson, Michael White and a host of studio help, has gained attention in smooth jazz circles for a big hit called “Vonnie,” and it’s easy to see why. It’s got a slow, deep groove, some nice sax work and a hook you wait anxiously for. The CD blends smooth jazz with urban soul you might find on a “Quiet Storm” radio station. Smooth jazz and urban love grooves have always blended well, so this CD seems a natural project to try to grab listeners who listen to both styles and frequently cross over. The one killer track on the CD, even better than “Vonnie,” is “Rainy Day.” On this effort, which blends a sprightly Brian Culbertson-like piano lead with a nice groove and “rainy day” vocal refrains, Bass X has composed a song that sticks in the craw. Ditto with “PR Too!,” where Michael Manson plays a bass-guitar lead. As this CD targets both markets, there are plenty of male and female vocal leads – “All Inside” with Teresa Griffin matches the mood of the work, but “My Heart” is fairly pedestrian. This CD hits and misses, but with such lofty intentions that was probably bound to happen. Still, great playing and some tasty grooves make this CD worth a listen. Smooth grade: B


HIL ST SOUL
Copasetic & Cool
(Shanachie)

coverOn their first CD, Hil St. Soul – Hillary Mwelwa and Victor Redwood-Sawyer – had a hit with a cover of “When You Come Back to Me.” On the funky new CD, they have a hit with the Isley Brothers’ sublime “For the Love of You.” But there are other nuggets if you look beyond the covers, and “For the Love of You” is the only one on Copasetic & Cool. The CD is a vocal one, filled with soul songs, rap, hip-hop and other catchy soul stirrings. Mwelwa, born in Zambia and now living in London, says this CD is more personal, and it shows with songs like “Pieces,” where she vents about the “constant arguing” involved in a relationship. But on “All That (+ A Bag O’ Chips),” she sings about a good-looking guy who really stands out. And on the autobiographical “I’ve Got Me,” Mwelwa riffs on accepting herself and living through her music. It’s very empowering, and the CD on the whole is the kind of uplifting project that sounds fresh and alive anytime you hear it. Smooth grade: B+


MAXIMUM GROOVES
Coast to Coast
(Telarc)

coverMaximum Grooves is a new supergroup of jazz and smooth jazz musicians assembled by producer Jason Miles, who’s had success in his compilations featuring the music of Ivan Lins, Grover Washington Jr. and Weather Report. Coast to Coast is a winning, satisfying CD rooted in smooth jazz but with a slight edge as Miles, who does the bulk of songwriting, attempts to bring back some of the flavor of the fusion ‘70s. There’s a killer rhythm section, rooted by drummers Gene Lake and Steve Ferrone, and thumping bass by Wayman Tisdale, James Genus and Will Lee. The best tracks here are those featuring brass. Jeff Kashiwa blows a robust tenor on “Everyday Magic,” while the radio-friendly “Attitude” features Walter Beasley on soprano sax and Robbie Nevil’s hit “Chest La Vie” has Jared’s blistering alto sax. Herb Alpert sounds ageless with his trumpet on “Chasing Shadows,” while Gerald Albright’s unmistakable alto sax brightens “When I Get There.” Miles pays tribute to his roots with “Cactus,” a juicy funk-rock track with Buzz Feiten’s guitar-god licks and the bluesy “You Da Mann,” which is dedicated to the late Herbie Mann and has the versatile Derek Trucks’ guitar out front. Guitar fans take note: Russ Freeman of the Rippingtons gets airtime in “Chasing Shadows’ and Jeff Golub gets the same in “Hypnotize,” which features the bluesy vocals of Cassandra Reed. Miles is trying for something different here, and only time will tell if his beefy mixture of musical styles will continue. Here’s one “yes” vote. Smooth grade: B+


BOBBY LYLE
Straight and Smooth
(Three Keys)

coverTroublemaker Bobby Lyle has got something going on here, releasing a double CD featuring both smooth and mainstream jazz. That’s a bold move. Although he’s got some real jazz roots, pianist Lyle has mostly made his mark with the smooth stuff, and the material here will be gobbled up by his fans. The “smooth” side of the music features 11 songs, including covers of R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” and Barry White’s “I’m Going to Love You Just a Little More Baby.” The rest feature Lyle’s jazzy, Joe Sample-like acoustic piano playing that always seem to have a foot in the jazz door, unlike harder-edged contemporaries such as Brian Culbertson and Jeff Lorber. He closes the “smooth” side with a solo called “Easy Living.” The “straight” material comes from the trio of Lyle, bassist Brennen Nase and drummer Mark Simmons. Lyle covers some well-known material, like Kern and Hammerstein’s “The Song Is You,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and everyone’s favorite, “Body and Soul.” Four of the songs were recorded at XM Radio Studios before a live audience. Lyle also writes some original tunes, including “New World Order.” So you really get two for the price of one here, although it’s probable smooth jazz fans might not have too much patience for the “real” jazz, and it’s more than probable that “real” jazz fans will feel the same about the smooth stuff. Smooth grade: A. Straight-ahead grade: B


WILL DOWNING
Emotions
GRP

coverWill Downing has the kind of voice Ruben Stoddard wishes he had. Downing’s the richest singer smooth jazz, which is why he’s sought after by many in the genre. Every CD he does is a treat, and Emotions may be his best yet. Ladies love him, of course, and the lead track “A Million Ways,” a lesson is pleasing a woman, should help convert a few more. So should songs like “Falling in Love,” where Downing’s voice reaches impossibly low registers. Sexy, charming and romantic as hell, Downing chooses his songs well and gets the best collaborators he can when writing his own. On Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming,” Downing reunites with saxophonist Gerald Albright, who he collaborated with for 1998’s Pleasure of the Night CD. Word is they’re thinking of getting together again for another CD, and fans can only hope it’s true. Downing also covers the classic “Hey There Lonely Girl.” Of course, getting superstar musicians and producers to guest on his projects is no problem, and here, among others, Downing boasts Norman Brown, Rex Rideout, George Duke, Dwight Sills, Nicholas Payton and Paul Jackson Jr. Many smooth jazz stars add vocal tracks to their CDs in an attempt to gain new fans or spice up their mostly instrumental works. Forget that – just call Mr. Downing. First class all the way. Smooth grade: A


RONNY JORDAN
At Last
(N-Coded)

coverAnother in the long line of George Benson admirers, guitarist Ronny Jordan has crafted some of the most memorable smooth jazz songs in the past decade – remember the ubiquitous “Tinsel Town” from about 10 years ago? Jordan has always been at the forefront of England’s acid-jazz movement, and he’s not been afraid to add hip-hop, rap and some eclectic stuff on his CDs. He does that here to some degree on one track, “(In) The Limelight.” And he closes the project with “St. Tropez (club mix),” a bass-heavy dance song. The rest of the CD is pure smooth jazz magic, with hooks galore, some great playing and some inescapable grooving. The title track is five minutes of pure bright heaven that approaches smooth jazz nirvana, while “Heaven” is just that too – a jaunty and bouncy ride that rivals the best of Earl Klugh. On “Rondezvous” and “Island Paradise,” Jordan takes out his acoustic guitar for two gems you’ll keep listening to over and over again – especially the latter song, where Jordan does more picking than usual. Smooth grade: A


RICHARD SMITH
Soulidified
(A440)

coverNote to students in guitarist Richard Smith’s classes at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California: You want to make a smooth jazz CD? Listen to your professor’s latest, a catchy gob of ear candy mixing delicious guitar licks and slammin’ grooves. For good measure, check out a rollicking cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Sing a Song,” and learn that it’s always a smart move to include a boomer classic on your smooth jazz CD. And remember, it doesn’t hurt to have established stars as Brian Bromberg, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Kashiwa and Jeff Lorber pop into the studio while you’re recording your next radio-friendly effort. Lesson aside, although Smith has the formula down it doesn’t mean his CDs are oppressingly formulaic. On his eighth CD, he riffs mostly on the electric guitar on cuts such as “Whatz Up?” and “Diggin’ It,” but countenances a more sensitive side on the acoustic, which you can hear on “Gotta Have You” and on “Beyond the Mountains,” where he really allows himself to play guitar. On that selection and on “Intimato,” you hear why Smith teaches guitar at USC: He knows how to play with passion, which he occasionally shows in his smooth jazz efforts. Smooth grade: A


MICHAEL BUBLE
Come Fly With Me
(143 Records/Reprise)

coverIf ever one CD was worth a little extra money, this one’s it. Of course, fans of the Canadian old-style crooner trapped in a young body, whose style is a mix of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, will have snatched this off the shelves the first day it arrived. There are eight songs on the CD – “Nice ‘n Easy” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” were recorded in the studio and “My Funny Valentine,” “Mack the Knife,” “Fever,” “You’ll Never Know,” “For Once in My Life” and “Moondance” were recorded live. What fans will really love, though, is the DVD that comes with the package, featuring 12 songs (including many of the eight on the CD) and interviews with Buble. Also, you can see Buble and his band recording three songs in the studio: “They Way You Look Tonight,” “For Once in My Life” and “Kissing a Fool.” Most of these tracks were part of Buble’s first, self-titled CD, so the hook for fans are the two new studio songs and the chance to hear Buble live. Buble’s got a great, traditional-sounding voice that sounds so fresh because he’s so young. And he’s shown he’s got a way with the classics, which don’t get that distinction because the songs suck. With so many great old songs out there, it’ll be interesting to see if Buble decides to tackle the new canon of today’s singer-songwriters. John Mayer, anyone? Smooth grade: A


GRADY NICHOLS
Sophistication
(Grady Nichols)

coverSaxophonist Grady Nichols is getting some attention because he’s produced by Jeff Lorber and features Lorber and trumpeter Chris Botti on his CD. The attention is deserved. Nichols has a polished alto sax voice, which he prefers for the most part on these 10 songs, which were co-written by Nichols and Lorber. Lorber knows talent when he sees it, and this wonderfully smooth CD signals the arrival of a fresh new talent. Nichols’ sax style is similar to Euge Groove’s, and although he doesn’t provide as many hooks as Groove, Nichols main asset thus far is his superb playing. He obviously knows his way around his instrument, and isn’t afraid to hold long notes and dip and groove with those notes, all the while staying within the framework of his songs and never losing the melody. His alto works best, but he does switch to soprano on several selections, “Within the Blue“ and “Quiet Times.” But the alto is what he does best, which he shows on “Tuesday Morning,” the memorable radio hit “All Right,” “Livin’ the Life” and on “End of the Night,” which he duets with Botti to make some delightful sounds. While there’s plenty of generic sax stuff out there, Nichols is able to make a thoroughly modern smooth jazz CD without sounding derivative. That’s an accomplishment. Smooth grade: A


NESTOR TORRES
Sin Palabras (Without Words)
(Heads Up)

coverLatin Grammy winner Nestor Torres returns to his roots on his eighth CD, with all original compositions except two. Torres, a flautist, picked several of his favorite songs to cover for his seventh CD, Mi Alma Latina (My Latin Soul), including “Smooth,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Hero” and “Europa.” Here Torres, a Puerto Rican native, goes for a more traditional approach. Contrary to the CD’s title, there are several song phrases thrown around, and “Labios Dulzes” – a spicy R&B and Latin stew – has quite a few vocal flavors, thanks to Torres, bassist Jimmy Haslip (who co-produced along with Torres and James Lloyd) and keyboardist Baby Boy. The two covers are good ones: “Contigo Aprendi,” a Latin classic written by Armando Manzanero, who’s written many romantic ballads. It veers toward Muzak, but is undeniably romantic. The other cover is “Regalame La Silla Donde Te Espere,” a hit for Alejandro Sanz. Although both of these choices are a touch sleepy (after all, it is flute music), Torres kicks it up just a tad elsewhere on the CD. For the most part, however, it’s a shame Torres didn’t go for more songs like the title cut, which manages to be both radio-friendly and expressive. Smooth grade: B


THA’ HOT CLUB
Tha’ Hot Club
(Shanachie)

ThaHotClub.jpgThe Shanachie label is quickly becoming the king of smooth jazz interpretations of today’s hits. It adds a feather in its cap with this one featuring the core team of Kim Waters, David Mann, Davy D, Wayne Bruce and vocalist Dequina Moore. Taking today’s top R&B and hip-hop hits and giving them a fresh spin, Tha’ Hot Club is just the ticket urban wannabes looking for a touch of jazz with their bad selves. Featuring such smashes as “Crazy in Love,” “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” “Frontin’,” “Hot in Heere,” “Baby Boy” and Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” for the old folks, these CD is deeper than you’d think. Sax man Waters leaves the sax playing to Mann, instead concentrating on keyboards – unlike his Streetwize projects, where he wails on sax. There are plenty of extended jams here, which lift the project above a lesser one that might have played the songs note by note. This is fun. Smooth grade: B+


THE COUCH POTATO ALL-STARS
Jazz For Couch Potatoes!
(Shanachie)

JazzForCouchPotatoes.jpgWith this Chuck Loeb project, smooth jazz stars get a chance to show off their traditional jazz roots with over the course of 11 interpretations of some of the most-recognized TV theme songs, including the just-exited “Sex and the City” and oldtimers such as “Sanford and Son,” “Peter Gunn,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and – yes – “Gilligan’s Island.” Saxophonist Kim Waters plays the piano lead on an interesting take of Bob James’ “Taxi,” while Loeb takes the guitar lead on the whistle-happy “The Andy Griffith Show.” Besides Loeb and Waters, the band includes Eric Alexander, Dave Samuels, Randy Brecker, David Mann and Ron Jenkins, among others. If successful, Loeb says he’s like to put out another version. Just think of the possibilities – hmm, how about “The Addams Family,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Get Smart” or “The Simpsons”? Smooth grade: B+


JON DALTON
The Gift
(Dit-Da)

coverJon Dalton is a Londoner now living in Southern California. Like ex-pat Chris Standring, whom he most compares to musically, Dalton plays mostly electric guitar, but also dabbles in acoustic and computerized riffs on The Gift, a seasoned smooth-jazz effort that shows maturity and a keen eye for the smooth genre. Like Standring, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton, Dalton is a leader in taking smooth jazz into a new era, one where smooth jazz hangs on to its aural friendliness while also serving ample tasty chops. Along with Jon Barton on tenor sax and John O’Hara on percussion and other instruments, Dalton offers 10 easily digestible excursions frequently jumping into playful asides. For example, a strolling, whistle-like accompaniment rings throughout “Champosium,” and “You Can’t Do That!” throws out computerized strings, tambourine shakes and other fun blips and noises. They’re playful, but Dalton’s songs are firmly about radio-friendly memorable melodies and tight grooves. At the same time, he’s not afraid to actually play the guitar, like Standring, Metheny and Carlton do successfully. One of the CD’s many highlights is the cover tune, a slow Lee Ritenour-like groove over a soft percussive bed featuring record scratches. Dalton pays homage to smooth jazz-guitar father figure Wes Montgomery on “The Dark Man” and “Westory,” two intoxicating tracks. The CD closes with “A Gift Returned,” a spare ballad where Dalton’s emotive guitar evokes hope and longing. He wrote the song in memory of a friend. Dalton released the CD independently, which is available through www.amazon.com and www.cdbaby.com. Smooth grade: A


BLAKE AARON
Bringin’ It Back
(Innervision)

BlakeAaronBringinItBack.jpgBlake Aaron looks like a rock ‘n roll guitar player and, on selected moments on his second CD, plays like one. But for the most part, Aaron is a fresh new player on the smooth jazz scene, as he shows on radio-friendly songs such as “Infatuation” and the rollicking “Keepin’ It Real,” which is beefed up with organ and horns. Aaron comes from the Montgomery/Benson/Ritenour school of pretty, sliding guitar sounds, and that’s not a bad thing. On Marcus Miller’s classic “Chicago Song,” which David Sanborn made his own a few years back on sax, Aaron does the same here, digressing on a nice solo about half way through. Aaron also has a nice way with smooth jazz ballads, as he shows with “One Beautiful Day (IFY)” and “So in Love,” accompanied by Michael Whittaker on piano. He rocks on “Bringin’ It Back” and “Gonzo’s in the House,” which feel out of place on this for the most part on this compelling smooth jazz effort. But it looks like you can only tame a rocker so much. Smooth grade: B


GABRIELA ANDERS
Eclectica
(East River Joint)

GabrielaAndersEclectica.jpgArgentine-born and now living in New York City, vocalist Gabriela Anders had a welcome debut several years ago with Wanting. She’s without a label now in these tough times, though – you can only get this CD by going to www.cdbaby.com. Free from a label, though, Anders is able to make the kind of music that moves her, and those who admire her heavenly vocals will no doubt be pleased with the eight songs here. As the title suggests, Anders has a few things going on. “Together Again” is just about the most “normal” song here, a great midtempo love song. That leads the CD. Then things get interesting. “Pearls and Gold” features a great drums-and-bass interaction, and dips into Top 40 territory with its memorable melodies. Great song. On “Naufragio” and “Socamerengue,” Anders sings in her native tongue (note: She plans an all Spanish-language CD later this year). “Naufragio” has a mild bossa nova beat, but “Socamerengue” is a rap and hip-hop inflected party jam. “Fading Light” is a simple piano-and-vocal gem, where Anders vocals really get the presence they deserve, while “I Wait” has a late-night jazz vibe. It’s all very eclectic, of course, which is the point. In this case, it keeps things interesting and is held together by Anders’ pleasant chops. Smooth grade: B+


SERGIO CAPUTO
That Kind of Thing
(Idiosyncracy)

coverBay Area musician by way of Italy Sergio Caputo makes his smooth jazz debut after more than 14 CDs and many session dates. You hear the CD’s first song, the hit “Everything I Do” and the darn happy “Guess I Miss You Again,” and you get the feeling he made the right choice. Caputo is a guitarist who also plays keyboards, bass and programs much of his music. Overall, it’s a relaxing blend of jazz and pop with some Latin influences, especially on the lovely “Serenata Roja” and “Like a Shooting Star” where Caputo, who plays mostly electric guitar, switches to acoustic. It’s a laidback affair, and Caputo settles nicely into it and keeps that groove throughout, thankfully not feeling the need to add any vocal tracks or crazy rock asides. This makes a nice addition to any smooth jazz collection. Smooth grade: B+

Posted by Brian Soergel at April 4, 2004 4:12 AM