July 4, 2004

Secret Garden From The Darkness To The Light

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul.

Its been a while since The Secret Garden hit the pages of Smooth Jazz Vibes and perhaps that is the most damning indictment of all of the smooth jazz scene in the United Kingdom. In fact to come up with acceptable copy and to climb back onto the smooth jazz train this groove starved aficionado has had to travel 8000 miles to the sunshine of California in order to reaffirm belief that smooth jazz is still alive and well.

Many Secret Garden readers in the UK will already be familiar with the demise of smooth jazz radio in that country. The once flag ship Jazz FM 102.2 is now a shadow of its former self with the play lists cluttered with the likes of Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Simply Red. That of course is not to say that these artists are not great in their own right and their own genre but smooth jazz is definitely not what that genre is all about. Even in Manchester, where the stations northern outlet plays the airwaves on 100.4, the station has undergone a make over that has seen it re-emerge as Smooth FM with a collection of soft soul choices.

This all leaves the smooth jazz market starved of exposure and limits the means for true fans to keep up or connect with the sounds that they love. Thank heavens for Smooth Jazz Vibes and for streaming radio that at least gives the chance for the good stuff to be heard outside of the USA. The Secret Garden would be really interested to find out more about how UK based smooth jazz fans are taking this turning off of the smooth jazz scene and where they are going instead for their music.

As for the Secret Garden, in June 2004 it went to the USA and to start the trip we caught up with two artists now polarized at what we would suggest are two extremes of the smooth jazz spectrum, each with their own very defined followings.

Both events were by the water. The first on Navy Pier Chicago on June 19, promoted by WNUA 95.5, and under an awning to keep out the chill wind from the lake. The second at Humphries By The Bay in San Diego on June 23, courtesy of of KIFM 98.1 and without the benefit of cover to keep out what turned out to be a cool Pacific breeze. Both events featured pre-emanate smooth jazz sax players but it wasn’t just 2000 miles that separated these two gigs, it was a difference in style that offered unique insight into where the music comes from and where it can ultimately go. It was about those two titans of smooth jazz Boney James and Kenny G.

kennyg2.jpgNow the Secret Garden has hinted on more than one occasion that Kenny G may well have lost a little of the R & B edge that was undoubtedly there in his early recordings. Indeed the 1984 and 1985 platinum albums G-Force and Gravity helped build a foundation for Kenny among R&B audiences as well as those who were just discovering smooth jazz. This new audience, who ultimately would made him the biggest selling instrumental artist of all time, caught on fast and in 1986 made Duotones a five million selling album and gave him his breakthrough into mainstream acceptance. The album was lifted by two R&B hit singles, a revival of Junior Walker's ‘What Does It Take’ and ‘Don't Make Me Wait For Love’ that featured Lenny Williams but it was ‘Songbird,’ a Top 5 pop smash, that really put Kenny on the map.

Despite eleven subsequent album releases, all of them huge sellers, it could be argued that the raw power and groove established at that 1986 pinnacle was never surpassed. In some quarters, and perhaps unfairly, he has been bracketed as bland and that image is reflected in his fan base that often seems to be drawn exclusively from the middle class majority.

If Kenny G has moved from soulful edgy groove to more mainstream ultra smooth jazz then Boney James started out seeped in soul and just went on getting edgier. Right from the time he signed with Warner Bros in 1994 a sequence of successful album releases has moved him further towards what is commonly regarded as urban territory. This culminated in the 2002 release Ride that opened up airplay on urban radio stations for him as well as keeping him in the spotlight of those stations with a predominately smooth jazz play list.

boneyjames04.jpgHow then did the live performances of these two smooth jazz heavyweights compare? In Chicago Boney James rolled into town to promote what will be his ninth album on Warner Bros, Pure which is out on August 3rd. Speaking about the new album James says, ‘the great joy of Pure is that I made all the decisions about everything. I was always confident in making music, but I was curious too, and a lot of times in the past I couldn't address that. I used to like to work with other producers because I felt I had too many ideas, as if I was undisciplined. But on this record I allowed myself to explore even some of my crazier ideas. A lot of them turned out to reflect more of my true musical sensibility than anything else I'd ever done.’

He says, ‘when I wrote ‘Thinkin' 'Bout Me’, an instrumental performance that also appears as a bonus vocal track featuring Ledisi, with my friend Rex Rideout we thought of it as a straight-up R&B tune. But then I started to imagine that it could sound like something that Sly & the Family Stone would do. I broke it down, took the drum machines out, got a Hammond B-3 player and a horn section, and built it up from scratch as a live track’.

As he has done on earlier albums, James invited singers to make guest appearances. He wrote ‘Appreciate’ with Jon B. as a male vocal, but when, in Boney’s imagination, it evolved into a fiery Latin dance vibe, he knew it would be perfect for new Warner Bros. artist Debi Nova.

Boney’s 2002 Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Ride led to another fortunate twist of fate when, at a post-Grammy jam session at B. B. King's Blues Club, he found himself onstage with singer Bilal at the microphone. ‘When Bilal got up to sing, he just blew everyone away’, James remembers, ‘I knew he would be perfect for 'Better With Time’.

For ‘Break of Dawn’, his collaboration with Dwele, whom Entertainment Weekly has targeted as one of ten artists on the brink, Boney took the initiative to fly to Dwele’s home in Detroit. ‘As soon as I heard him on the radio I knew he would be great,’ Boney says.

Whether working with outstanding singers or world-class musicians such as Joe Sample, whose solo on ‘Stone Groove’ is an album highlight, this piece of work by James keeps him ahead of the crowd.

In Chicago the crowd liked what they heard as Boney also treated them to many of his standouts from previous releases. He carried the audience along with him, made them part of the show, romanced them a little and ended up blowing them away His encore piece, the title track from Ride made up for the lack of acoustics in the semi open venue with more raw energy than you can shake a stick at.

kennyg.jpgLeaving Illinois for Southern California for the Kenny G gig it was hard to see how middle of the road Kenny could surpass what Boney James had served up but not surprisingly for an artist of G’s pedigree he did not disappoint. While James was in town to showcase his new release G was in San Diego on the first leg of a two-week tour that would take him to LA, Oregon and finally Japan. This was not about new music but it was about a glorious celebration of Kenny’s finest pieces of work played out to the highest standards of professionalism to an almost capacity crowd who came along ready to enjoy and did just that. It proved that the music that Kenny G has offered up over the past twenty years has effectively enabled everything that followed. It promoted the genre, carved out the audience and encouraged musicians to follow along.

With Boney James on the scene the future of smooth jazz is in very safe hands but on June 23 2004 in San Diego CA let it be known that Kenny G rocked.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favorite Smooth Soul Survivor that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at July 4, 2004 12:24 AM