New reviews of Boney James, Soul Ballet, Rick Braun, Everette Harp, Al Jarreau and Theo Bishop.
Saxophonist Boney James is one of the few smooth jazz artists who is able to cross over into the R&B genre, which is one reason why his latest CD, the follow-up to 2001’s Ride, entered the Billboard Top 200 charts at No. 66. He’s able to do this because he picks either established or up-and-comers to sing on his vocal tracks. But James is also savvy enough to actually make sure that his vocal tracks are memorable, instead of throwaways. You can hear this on “Better With Time,” the first single to R&B radio featuring singer Bilal. It’s a righteous groove that’s “getting better baby, like a stone-soul record, baby.” On the equally good “Appreciate,” soulful Debi Nova adds a rapid vocal groove that harkens to radio soul songs of the ‘80s and has a killer hook, to boot.
Of course, no one does smooth sax songs better that Boney J. His first single, “Here She Comes,” is racing up the smooth jazz charts, and there are plenty more to follow. Hooks and unforgettable melodies abound. The title track, “Pure,” opens with groovy organ and seamlessly segues into James’ sensual and deep sax sound. “2:01 AM” is a slow burning ballad with Boney blowing long, long lines. And Joe Sample adds keys to “Stone Groove,” an uptempo groove. Perhaps the best number of the lot is “It’s On,” which is classic James material – gorgeous and bright sax lines leading into a head-boppin’ melody.
Smooth grade: A
The dreamy, sexy music that Soul Ballet offers comes courtesy of Rick Kelly, who imagines Soul Ballet as a conceptual process. What kind of process? Well, it you like downtempo instrumentals with elements of classical, rock, new age and smooth jazz music, Soul Ballet is your musical nirvana. This is the style of romantic of music that is huge in Europe and in “chill music” circles. Kelly plays keyboards and uses samples, beat boxes and all available modern musical technology to provide a saucy sound that’s unique to smooth jazz. Anyone who’s heard Kelly’s first single from the CD, the luscious “Cream,” will agree.
Not surprisingly, Kelly has a knack for music with a cinematic sweep. He’s a handsome guy who’s directed a few short films and during the last year has guest-starring roles in such hot TV series such as “Nip/Tuck” and “Cold Case.” Although cinematic, the Soul Ballet sound is also music you can dance to, even if it’s a late-night sway with someone special. The CD title is dead-on – just when is appears a musical lull looms, a percussive beat comes booming back.
Trina Dye and Sera Lynn add comely voice-overs throughout the CD, and Ken Ross blows many seductive horn lines. In fact, horns seem to be a central in many of Soul Ballet’s hits, including here on “Cream” and on earlier songs such as “Black Sun.”
A second CD included in the package, All the Pretty Lights, has extended remixes of three songs from Soul Ballet’s debut, self-titled album: The songs are “Love, Juliet,” “Man and Woman” and “Exotique.” The remix CD directs you to soulballet.com to get the rest of the remix project. This is the kind of stuff that Soul Ballet diehard fans will really groove to, as the selections are perfect for those special chill-out moments with your honey.
Smooth grade: A
Sessions Volume 1
Sessions Volume 1 is the debut CD from Artisan Records, an independent label co-founded by trumpeter Rick Braun and saxophonist Richard Elliot. Although the label will release all new music beginning with Elliot next year, this project is a live-in-the-studio recording featuring many of Braun’s greatest hits. Braun calls it a gift to his fans, and it’s no denying that. They’ll hear new version of favorites such as “Cadillac Slim,” “Notorious,” “Missing in Venice,” “Groovis,” “Nightwalk” and “Marty’s Party,” among others.
Although saxophonist Boney James didn’t make it to the session, there are also two songs from Braun and James’ classic collaboration from 2000, Shake It Up: “RSVP” and “Grazing in the Grass.” Artists who did drop into the studio for the live recording include such established sessions players and longtime Braun cohorts Mitch Forman, Luis Conte, Jimmy Roberts, Andre Berry and Rayford Griffin. On “Notorious” from Braun’s Body and Soul CD, Elliot plays the saxophone lead originally played by James. An undeniable highlight is the only new song on the CD, a track called “TGIF” co-written by Braun, Dave Koz and Brian Culbertson. Koz and Culbertson also play on the brassy, upbeat party song, which was recorded in one take.
The real draw on this album is to hear these smooth jazz musicians getting a chance to let their hair down and do some serious jamming, something fans have seen many times in concert but rarely on studio CDs. And there’s more good news: Braun plans more Sessions CDs with other artists in the genre.
Smooth grade: B+
All For You
Sweet, sexy sax man Everette Harp makes a triumphant on his first CD in four years, on a new label and in charge of his musical direction, as he again returns as producer and the main songwriter. There’s no denying that Harp can play and perform memorable smooth jazz, which he shows on the instrument of choice, the alto saxophone. What you’d expect from Harp is what you get here among the 12 tasty, R&B songs infused with Harp’s passionate playing. There are undeniably catchy fast-tempo tunes such as the summery “Kisses Don’t Lie” and the first single, “Can You Hear Me,” the latter co-written by keyboardist and producer Rex Rideout, who contributes elsewhere on the CD as well.
There are unexpected delights sprinkled throughout, such as some groovy EWI (electronic wind instrument) runs on “Back in Your Arms,” spiced by Rhodes and Clavinet piano sounds that much welcome as you don’t hear those sounds much in smooth jazz anymore. It’s also a pleasure to hear Harp’s longtime collaborator and mentor, George Duke, laying down an inspired synth solo a la Pat Metheny on a groove-fest appropriately called “Groove Control.”
Harp can lay down the languid, cool-breeze sax groove as well as anyone, which he shows on “Hey Yah.” He also reinforces his fondness for genre-switching R&B vocal tunes such as “Time of Our Lives” and “I Like the Way,” the former showcasing his ample vocal chops. Harp tones it down for a cover of Babyface’s “When Can I See You Again,” in which he plays all the instruments, and “In the Blink of An Eye,” a beautifully jazzy respite featuring longtime collaborator George Duke on the Rhodes organ. On this tune, Harp changes sounds by switching to the soprano saxophone, and it’s one of the most emotional smooth jazz songs of the year.
Guitarists Earl Klugh and Norman Brown add their distinctive touches on “Just Like Ole Times” and “I Remember When,” respectively. On the latter tune, Harp switches to the deeper tenor saxophone a la Richard Elliot, which is the perfect counterpoint to Klugh’s plucky and pretty guitar work.
All For You is solid work from a seasoned professional that won’t disappoint his fans. For those who aren’t hip to Harp’s charms, this is a good starting point.
Smooth grade: B
Accentuate the Positive
The elastic vocals of Grammy winning Al Jarreau have never been as prominently displayed as they are in his new CD, the 18th in the 64-year-old singer’s career. The album, recorded live in the studio with a quartet, reflects Jarreau’s philosophy on life, as the album is his first purely straight-ahead jazz recording. The project also reunites him with producer Tommy LiPuma, who collaborated with him on his second and third albums. The album features such well-known standards as “Cold Duck” – the album’s first single – “The Nearness of You,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz for Debby” and the title track. The quartet features pianist Larry Williams, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Peter Erskine and guitarist Anthony Wilson.
Jarreau’s many fans will buy anything he puts out, and this one is worthy for its jazz sensibilities. They’ll hear all of his vocal powers – his whispering, his vocal caresses, his growls and scats, his sighing, his crazy trips up and down the octaves. In fact, you can hear many of his styles on just one song, the raucous “Groovin’ High,” with music by the late, great Dizzy Gillespie and new lyrics by Jarreau. There are several new tracks as well, including “Betty Bebop’s Song,” written by Jarreau and pianist Freddie Ravel as a tribute to the late jazz singer Betty Carter.
Accentuate the Positive is Jarreau at his purest and best.
Smooth grade: B+
Theo Bishop, a smooth jazz producer and co-founder of the Native Language label, shows on his debut CD that he’s learned a thing or two in the business. It was Bishop who co-wrote Native Language star Jeff Kashiwa’s biggest hit, the No. 1 song “Hyde Park (The ‘Ah,’ ‘Ooh’ Song).” On the 10-song Newport Nights, Bishop plays keyboards and sings vocalese on the “Put the Top Down,” a sunny tune that seems lifted from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
In fact, the entire CD is perfect while cruising down a beach road, or any road, for that matter. Named after the town of Newport Beach, the CD reflects Bishop’s sunny world view that is obviously inspired by living in Southern California’s Orange County. The result is a treat for smooth jazz fans, full of tight rhythms, hummable melodies and great playing by keyboardist Bishop. Helping out are Kashiwa, Juan Carlos Quintero, Jimmy Haslip, Jill Hennesey and Dave Hooper, among others. In addition, guitarist Brian Hughes works his magic on a song called “Too Kool for School.”
This CD might get lost among the sheer amount of music available these days, but that would be a shame. There’s nothing too fancy, no DJ scratches and no bombastic brass passages. It’s a quiet, engaging work and a perfect soundtrack to lazy summer days.
Smooth grade: BPosted by Brian Soergel at August 23, 2004 1:19 AM