June 28, 2004

SMOOTH SAILING JUNE/JULY 2004

Saxophonist Michael Lington delivers a CD that should put place him among the smooth jazz elite. Also reviews of new music from George Benson, The Benoit/Freeman Project, Wayman Tisdale, Gerald Albright, Fourplay, Eric Darius, Brian Lenair and Matt Marshak.

MICHAEL LINGTON
Stay With Me
(Rendezvous)

Saxophonist Michael Lington pulls it all together on his fourth CD, a work that should lift him from the fringe and put him on stage with the top-tier of smooth jazz talent. What makes this CD so good? Lington’s a passionate player, who’s had some tasty hits before, of course, but here he picks 10 songs that all work together, gets top producers and writers such as Paul Brown, Brian Culbertson and concentrates of making 10 pop-jazz songs that could all make the charts if given a chance. And it couldn’t hurt that he’s now on Dave Koz’s Rendezvous label, which Lington calls a “musician’s label.”

All you have to hear is the first single and the lead song, “Show Me,” to see that Lington’s shooting for the top. Its guitar intro and sax hook of the year make a bold statement. Just as good is “A New Day,” a slow-tempo groove with another memorable sax hook. The most interesting song here is “Apasionada,” which was written by Michael and Daniel Sembello. Michael Sembello is best known for his “Flashdance” hit “Maniac,” but this song sounds like a movie theme you’ve had bouncing around in your head for a long time. It’s an anthem, much like Gato Barbieri’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry).”

Elsewhere, “Pacifica” is a sunny Rippingtons-like slice of pop, “Two of a Kind” is slow funk featuring guitarist Chuck Loeb, “Call Me Late Tonight” is a tasty ballad featuring Paul Brown on the mixing board and on his guitar, and “Hey You” has a late 1970s vibe and Paul Jackson Jr.’s guitar. Lington closes the CD with a straightforward reading of Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” which is just good enough for a classic song.

Smooth grade: A

GEORGE BENSON
Irreplaceable
(GRP)

The title is ironic now, since this CD was originally to be a collection of all vocal tracks, but the singer/guitarist dropped three songs on the early version and included two songs produced by Paul Brown, “Arizona Sunrise” and “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” the latter of which is quickly climbing the smooth jazz charts. Also added was “Take You Out,” an instrumental cover of a Luther Vandross song produced by Rex Rideout and Bud Harner that’s also included on an upcoming tribute CD called For Ever, For Always, For Luther. The three instrumentals show why Benson, at 61, remains the most copied contemporary jazz guitarist of his generation. The three instrumental songs are that good.

For the rest of the album’s seven vocal tracks, Benson worked with songwriter-producer Joshua Thompson, who has collaborated with such R&B mega-stars as Joe, Alicia Keys, Babyface and Aretha Franklin. There’s nothing wrong with these songs, which include “Cell Phone,” “Black Rose,” “Six Play” and “Missing You.” After all, Benson’s had some of his biggest hits with vocal songs such as “Turn Your Love Around,” “Give Me the Night” and “This Masquerade.” And, really, the vocal songs are pretty darn good. In fact, Irreplaceable may the kind of CD that gets Benson airplay on several music charts.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a classic smooth-jazz CD by Benson, it may be better to shop for the three instrumental songs. But if you’re a fan of both Benson’s – the guitarist and the singer – “Irreplaceable” is a good choice for your player.

Smooth grade: B

THE BENOIT/FREEEMAN PROJECT
The Benoit/Freeman Project 2
(Peak)

Ten years after releasing the first Benoit/Freeman Project recording, pianist David Benoit and guitarist Russ Freeman, of the Rippingtons, are back with a triumphant recording. What makes this 10-song project so good is that, in addition to every song being burn-worthy, it keeps a Southern California laid-back groove throughout while still managing some delightful surprises. Also working in its favor is the interplay between Benoit and Freeman: Benoit has never sounded better or jazzier, and Freeman’s mostly acoustic renderings show that, when he wants to, he can sound every bit as pretty as Peter White or Earl Klugh. Far from being a CD in which the two veterans decide to stretch and try some new things, this CD instead is a present of smooth-jazz candy for their longtime fans.

One of the CD’s surprises is “Two Survivors,” a cover of an old country tune featuring the lovely vocals of country megastar Vince Gill. Another surprise come from the movie-theme-like “Moon Through the Window” and especially “Waiting for the Stars to Fall,” two heart-tugging gems enhanced by the symphonic sound of the Nashville String Section. The strings add grandeur to the CD, especially on the calming “Via Nueve.”

The first single, “Palmetto Park,” sets the tone with Benoit’s subdued intro leading into Freeman’s joyful acoustic guitar picking. Trumpeter Chris Botti adds some spice to “Club Havana,” and vocalist David Pack contributes smooth vocalese to “Montecito.”

A keeper from beginning to end.

Smooth grade: A

WAYMAN TISDALE
Hang Time
(Rendezvous)

When Wayman Tisdale released his first CD almost 10 years ago, he was still scoring points and grabbing rebounds as a professional basketball player. Music seemed like something he wanted to try on the side. With the release of Hang Time, Tisdale’s fifth and strongest CD to date, it’s clear that music is where his heart is and that he’s long-since earned the right to be called a serious musician.

On his debut for Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, Tisdale shows that the chosen instrument, the bass, is just fine for the lead instrument. He plays it like a guitar – like Brian Bromberg and Nelson Braxton of the Braxton Brothers and says he wants his bass to sound like a “melodic vocalist.” He succeeds wonderfully. Hang Time features a mix of 12 funk, old-school-cool and up-to-date R&B songs that boast collaborations with Koz, producer Jeff Lorber (“Creative Juices,” “Everything in You,” “Off Into It”), longtime friend and gospel music producer Tracy Carter (vocal arranger for Oprah Winfrey talent-contest winner LaShell Griffin) and Pieces of Dream co-founder James Lloyd, who wrote and produced the title track.

Tisdale loves the great R&B songs of the ‘70s. As he did with his No. 1 song “Can’t Hide Love” from his last CD, Face to Face, Tisdale reaches back into that for two cover songs: the McFadden and Whitehead dance classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and Smokey Robinson’s seminal “Crusin’,” where you can really hear how Tisdale makes his bass sing. On the Koz collaboration “Better Days,” Tisdale picks the melodic lead on the bass in time with Koz’s sax. On “My World,” a ballad featuring a charming passage mimicking a children’s playground sing-song challenge, Tisdale plays all instruments as well as the bass: acoustic guitar, keyboards and drum programming. The CD closes with “Glory Glory,” a song Tisdale originally wrote and sang on for a gospel CD he released in 2003 called 21 Days.

This is a slam dunk.

Smooth grade: A

GERALD ALBRIGHT
Kickin’ It Up
(GRP)

Saxophonist extraordinaire Gerald Albright stays true to his urban-flavored jams and smooth slow jams with his latest, which is already getting the attention of smooth-jazz radio with its fast-rising hit called “To the Max.” Similar to that song is the equally upbeat “4 on the Floor”; a killer hook and melodies Albright’s refined from years of playing make this one of the best car songs of the year, whether you’re cruising down Highway 1 in California or navigating the twisting coastal roads between Marseille and Nice in southern France.

Albright gives us many musical moods. He goes adult contemporary with a cover of John Mayer’s hit “Why Georgia,” which was suggested by GRP executives. He gets downright nasty on “Walker’s Theme,” dedicated to the late sax god Junior Walker. And he goes off into adult-contemporary R&B with “Condition of My Heart,” a Brian McKnight ballad here with vocals by Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men. Albright also slows it down on a cover of the classic R&B ballad from the 1970s, “If

Posted by Brian Soergel at June 28, 2004 04:18 AM