May 4, 2004

Smooth Sailing May 2004

Pete Belasco is divine on his first CD in seven years, while Kim Waters and James Vargas play the sax to perfection. Also reviewed: Marion Meadows, Pieces of a Dream, Bob Baldwin, Brian Bromberg, Tery Disley and Joe Kurasz.

PETE BELASCO
Deeper
(Compendia)

coverPete Belasco has just about made the perfect smooth-jazz-with-vocals CD. Meaning, the vocals aren’t strategically placed to attract a wider demographic. Most of these attempts to grab the masses fail miserably, anyway, and work as filler on otherwise fine efforts. On this CD, Belasco’s feathery falsetto is what the CD’s all about and every vocal track is hit-worthy. Heck – and this is almost unfair – he can play sax like the devil, deep and resonating, as well as holding his own on keyboard and vibes. Belasco tips his hat to professed idols Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye (especially on “Fool’s World’) and the Isley Brothers on the liner notes, and while it may be tempting to think of Deeper as derivative, that would miss the point. It’s more of an homage to smooth ‘70s soul, which Belasco makes his own with provocative and endearing lyrics.

Rather than mixing tempos and moods, Belasco makes the right decision in sticking to the lovers-by-the-fireplace setting, make the CD as a whole function as both a great listening experience and an hour-long trip into slow-is-good foreplay. Whether urging to look “Deeper” in the world around us or seducing us with “Hurry Hurry,” Belasco writes lyrics that can mean something, even it’s just about plain ‘ol love and stuff. If “I’ll Come to You” – even with its industry nudge-nudges with refrains of “smooth sounds” and “Quiet Storm” – doesn’t get you in the mood…

Belasco doesn’t forget his sax on Deeper, as several cuts are instrumentals. Well, “Crazy” has computerized vocals, but it’s an instrumental in spirit, with Belasco’s sexy sax and JK’s wah-waa guitar. Belasco’s a family man, and names two songs for his daughters, “Nia” and the lullaby “Zoe.” And he sings lovingly to his wife in “Wonderful Woman.”

So how does a smooth-jazz CD get a top rating? By never faltering, sticking to a theme and balancing commercialism with artistic expression. Smooth grade: A+


KIM WATERS
In the Name of Love
(Shanachie)

coverComing off two No. 1 hits, saxophonist Kim Waters is now undoubtedly one of the top names in smooth jazz. His newest CD should do nothing to bring him down. Fans of his megahit “The Ride” will be pleased to find a remixed version of it here, which closes the project. Waters is all about hits, whether writing his own or for others such as Pamela Williams, so it’s no surprise that the first single is “In Deep,” a driving number with Waters soprano marching along to the uptempo rhythm. Even better is “Sunset,” which may be the catchiest single he’s ever written. Listen, and don’t even try to get the melody out of your head for a while. A big plus is that Waters, who tends to leave his real playing to his Streetwize side projects, gives himself a chance to get some playing in when not hammering on the melody.

Waters chooses two tasty covers: R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love,” with Charles Smith handling the “step, step, slide, slide” refrain; and Barry White’s seminal “Love’s Theme,” which Waters introducing with “And right now, we’re gonna go way back.” The sax man can slow things down, of course, and his bedroom-pleasers “All I Wanna Do (Is Please You),” “Tell Me So” and the Kenny G-like “Alone With You” are among his best at that. Co-produced by Dave Darlington, who also remixes “The Ride,” In the Name of Love shows Waters at the top of his commercial powers. Smooth grade: A-


JAMES VARGAS
James Vargas
(Trippin ‘N Rhythm)

coverJames Vargas is a British saxophonist (alto, tenor and soprano) who has echoes of Walter Beasley, Steve Cole and other contemporary sax players on his debut, a winning collection of 12 songs firmly rooted enough in the sax-led smooth jazz tradition. After getting gigs in clubs around in London, Vargas drew the attention of Oli Silk, the force behind the soulful British smooth-jazz group Sugar and Silk, who invited him to play on a CD. Silk and Vargas collaborate on the majority of the songs here, which are suitably funky-smooth and show an amazing grasp of sax skill.

Vargas couldn’t have picked a better song than “Curtain Call” to open the CD and his career as it offers a killer hook on alto – his instrument of choice – and a drum line that’s surprising at first but becomes more welcome with each listen. There’s a lot to be said by not “filling in all the spaces” while playing sax, but Vargas proves that filling pretty much all the spaces can work as well, especially on the romantic “One Fine Day” and the fast-paced “Push Da Button.” On the CD’s best vocal track, “Say You Will,” Vargas wraps his soprano lines around Yvonne John-Lewis’ soulful singing on a Quiet Storm treat that works to perfection, while on other tracks the vocal refrains are unobtrusive and fit in. On “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever,” Vargas plays a pretty soprano duet with acoustic guitar by Yuzuru Matsuda.

Like another smooth-jazz newcomer, saxophonist Grady Nichols, Vargas seems to have a bright future ahead of him. He’s a commanding presence on the sax – he does some real playing but never lets that get in the way of a good song – and has no problem finding radio-friendly melodies. It’s no surprise that Trippin ‘N Rhythm, which also boasts Paul Hardcastle, Roger Smith, Joe Fuentes and Thom Rotella, snatched Vargas. Get ready for a new British Invasion. Smooth grade: A-


MARION MEADOWS
Player’s Club
(Heads Up)

coverMarion Meadows has always been a bit underrated as a commercial sax player in smooth jazz, but his latest – which he dedicates to all musicians – shows promise and features a number of songs that could keep him on the charts for some time. The title track is a funky number enhanced by solos by Matt King’s on baritone sax, Mike B on keyboards and Freddie Fox on guitar. The first single, “Sweet Grapes,” is a lilting slice of ear candy where Meadows’ soprano has never sounded better. The best song on the CD, however, just may be the oft-covered “Wishing on a Star,” which combines the unbeatable combination of Marion’s plaintive sax, wah-wah guitar on stuttering drum beat.

Elsewhere, Meadows juices “Noche Privada” with some tropical shadings, gives the enjoyable “Diggible” some electronica/drums & bass touches and puts some jazz into “After 6:00,” a perfect way to end this CD, Meadows’ best yet. Smooth grade: A-


PIECES OF A DREAM
No Assembly Required
(Heads Up)

coverJames Lloyd and Curtis Harmon, co-founders of the veteran smooth-jazz group Pieces of Dream, keep cranking out CDs and their fans keep buying them, so they must be doing something right. You can always be guaranteed tons of soul, rubbery-voiced female vocals, funk and smooth as silk grooves on a Pieces CD, and that’s what you get here. The first single, “It’s Go Time,” is a good choice and is the closest thing you’re going to get to a Brian Culbertson song that’s not on a Brian Culbertson CD. Said female vocals – courtesy of Tracy Hamlin – limber up on Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Devotion,” while the funk gets nasty on “Dyse It Up,” the title coming from bassist David Dyson’s thumb-popping playing. The CD’s closing song, “Lunar Lullaby,” is a gorgeous downtempo cut and can remind you of a slow-downed 3rd Force song.

But although the band writes songs with titles like “Who U Wit?” and and throws record scratches into “Want a Piece of This?,” Pieces of a Dream has not offered a CD that has “2004” written all over it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Who U Wit?,” for example, offers some great sax playing by Jason Davis, the kind that makes you stand up and go, “Yeah!” Pieces of a Dream will forever have elements of ‘70s and ‘80s jazz-fusion in its playing, which is just the tonic for those days when you want your music with the emphasis on “jazz” and not “smooth,” along with some bite and talented musicianship. That James Lloyd can play the piano – yeah! Smooth grade: A-


BOB BALDWIN
Brazil Chill
(A440)

coverThe music of Brazil has always tempted jazz musicians, and it’s no wonder. It can be sexy, rhythmic, soulful, sexy and even more sexy. Bob Baldwin traveled to Rio to record Brazil Chill, which is all smooth jazz and shouldn’t be confused with “chill music.” It’s in Brazil that Baldwin recruited some of the country’s best players, including the great saxophonist Leo Gandleman, guitarist Torcquato Mariano, percussionist Café and others. Baldwin plays his piano to perfection, alternately jazzy and smoothy. The beauty of Brazilian music is expressed many times of this CD, but nowhere more so than “Manhattan Samba,” with Baldwin’s expressive wordless vocalese, Baldwin’s jazz-steeped piano runs and a grooving samba beat. Ditto for “Cafezinho,” which is named for Brazil’s famous morning staple, a small cup of rich espresso.

The famous sunny disposition of Rio’s natives obviously made a big impression on Baldwin, who has singers sing of good things in “Everybody’s Beautiful (in Brazil)” and the title track, where Baldwin breaks up the pretty acoustic sounds with a electric keys solo. The first radio single, “ I Wanna Be Where You Are,” is a pretty ditty with a memorable piano hook – hence its appeal as a single. Although Baldwin should probably be commended for not including a Jobim classic on Brazil Chill, a standard would have cemented that Rio feeling. As it is, Brazil Chill is a perfect way to travel without leaving your music systems. Smooth grade: A-


BRIAN BROMBERG
Choices
(A440)

coverBassist Brian Bromberg wants to make sure you know that there are no guitars on this recording, which is why the first page of the liner notes screams, “There are no guitars on this recording!” That’s good to know, because it sure sound like it. That means if you’ve hesitant to purchase a bass-lead smooth-jazz CD, you shouldn’t be in this case because, as Bromberg writes, “Piccolo basses are tuned to the register of a guitar.” So why doesn’t Bromberg just play a guitar? Good one. But Bromberg is a bass player, and a good one. His single “Bobblehead” brightens the airwaves each time it’s on, and the overall CD is his best so far. And with Bromberg playing several types of basses and Brian Culbertson, Jeff Lorber, Gary Meek, Eric Marienthal, David Benoit and others along for the ride, Choices is a top-notch effort.

Bromberg has a bit of the rocker in him, but he’s aware of the smooth-jazz format throughout the CD, on “Bobblehead,” “Choices,” “Snuggle Up,” the gorgeous “When I Look Into Your Eyes” and other selections. On “B2 (B Squared)” and “Bass Face,” though, he gives himself a chance to get down with his bad self. The CD closes with two songs that together almost consume 12 minutes, but it’s a interesting 12 minutes. “Hear Our Cry Intro” and “Hear Our Cry” are Bromberg’s tributes to the indigenous people of Africa, and are both very moving and musically interesting. Smooth grade: B+


TERRY DISLEY
Experience(Disleyword Music)

coverYou might not recognize his name, but you’ve heard Disley piano many times, as he’s played keyboards for Acoustic Alchemy best songs, including the hit “The Beautiful Game.” He’s been much in demand as a session player in his career, and Experience shows why. It’s not a solo piano CD, but is for the most part low-key and relaxing. Heck, he even named one song “Smooth Sailing.” “Experience” is the kind of a CD that would have been comfortable being released in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, as its blend of new age and smooth jazz sounds fit perfectly in that era. In 2004, then, this CD can take the listener back to those days, when sounds were maybe a touch more real and production a little-less perfect.

Disley plays most acoustic piano, but does add some electric here and there. Alex Murzyn and Norbert Satchel add some sax, and the rest of the musicians are a top-notch bunch. It’s a very even CD, but the songs that stand out are “3 Arabian Nights” because you can hear echoes of Acoustic Alchemy, and “Swingmatism,” because of its delightful and jazzy sax and piano solos. Smooth grade: B


JOE KURASZ
Soul Searching
(Ren Music)

coverYou know, guitars, saxes and acoustic piano don’t have to lead all instrumental music. How about the Hammond B3 organ? It’s long been a staple in jazz, of course, and Kurasz manages to put a fresh spin on the sound with song such as “Funky B,” a good-time, swinging ditty where you remember that the organ doesn’t always to sound like it’s being played in church. Soul Searching has more in common with smooth jazz than traditional jazz, though, as there are plenty of horns, guitars and smooth grooves. Kurasz is best when keeping things simple, such as on the hit-sounding “Uncommon Ground,” where he switches to acoustic piano and on “Crossroads,” which features Gerald Albright on alto sax. Less successful, though, are readings of “Operator” and “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” which are OK in a new light, but “Fooled Around an Fell in Love” come across as sounding like a MIDI sample. But when Kurasz is on, he adds a different and often quirky element to smooth instrumental music. Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at May 4, 2004 3:27 AM