September 7, 2004

Smooth Sailing Sept. 7

There are so many smooth jazz, vocals and instrumental CDs released these days that it’s easy for many artists not named Boney, Mindi and Kenny to get lost in the shuffle.

Here’s a look at some CDs that are worth listening to:

James Hollihan
The Funky Misfit
(Nuevotron)

You know by looking at the CD cover and title that this is going to have its “weird” moments. Surprisingly, though, this album has some of the best musical moments of the year. Guitarist Hollihan is influenced by cocktail composers such as Henri Mancini and Michel Legrand, but he also has a real ear for mellow jazz, such as on the “The Waltz of Leaves” and “The Hush of Love.” On “Cypress Shores,” his Wes Montgomery-like guitar makes this tune sound like it came gift-wrapped from the groovy 1960s.

A solid CD throughout, The Funky Misfit will appeal to those who enjoy jazzy guitar and piano work in songs that are easy to listen to. Think mellow jazz from a Clint Eastwood movie. This CD is destined to become one of the best CDs no one’s ever heard of.

Smooth grade: A


Various Artists
Unwrapped Vol. 3
(Hidden Beach)

Like hip-hop and R&B served with your smooth jazz? Hidden Beach Recordings has your cup of tea with Unwrapped Vol. 3, which features jazzy interpretations of some of today’s hottest urban and rap music from such contemporary musicians as guitarists Dennis Nelson, bassist Andrew Gouche, violinist Karen Briggs and saxophonist Mike Phillips.

Here are hits like 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” The CD also honors three late rap stars, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Jam Master Jay, with medleys of their songs. Keyboardist Jeff Lorber appears on three tracks: “P.I.M.P.,” “Tupac Tribute Medley” and “Doo Wop (That Thing).”

Smooth grade: B


Plan 9
Rearview
(Plan 9)

Plan 9 is a quirky, fun band that on its new album offers 13 versions of songs from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that have definitely stood the test of time. The first single is "Watcha Gonna Do," which features David Jenkins on vocals, who performed on the original 1977 version of the Top Ten hit with the '70s pop group Pablo Cruise.

The album, a combination of instrumentals and vocals, features vocalist Larry Hoppen on “Dance With Me” (an original member of the group Orleans, which had a big hit with the song) and Rick Melvern on “Blinded by the Light.” Other tracks on this delightfully fun CD include two – count ‘em – two version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme, “You’ll Never Find,” “FM,” “Too Hot” and “Superfriction.”

Smooth grade: B


Various Artists
Windham Hill Chill 2
(Windham Hill)

Given today’s popularity of chill music, it’s not surprising that the original chill label, Windham Hill, has released another compilation of music from its ultra laid-back catalog. These songs may not get played in trendy New York clubs, but it’s worth a listen to hear the great, new age-ish compositions but such top artists as Jim Brickman, Patrick O’Hearn, Liz Story, Yanni, Shadowfax, Will Ackerman, Scott Cossu and many others. More than two hours of music makes this a great buy.

Smooth grade: B


Patrick Yandall
From the Ashes
(Apria)

Patrick Yandall is a San Diego-based guitarist who was forced to flee devastating fires in Southern California in 2003. He made it, and so did his house, but he was inspired enough by others’ show of courage that he used the experience to guide his latest CD. Yandall doesn’t get much airplay, but he writes memorable smooth jazz songs and has a sweet, Lee Ritenour style of guitar playing that goes down easy. “Heart Promise,” “Club Humphrey’s” and “Hope Springs Eternal” – the first three songs – could all find favor on radio if given a chance.

Although Yandall knows how to play smooth jazz, it’s obvious that there’s a rock star just dying to get out and show his stuff, which he does on the last song, “Firestorm.”

Yandall makes smooth, intelligent guitar-based instrumental music that draws from his rock, jazz and blues influences. It’s good stuff.

Smooth grade: B+


Alan Hewitt Project
Noche de Pasion
(215 Records)

Alan Hewitt is a keyboardist who biggest coup was gathering some pretty impressive players for this CD, including Euge Groove on the title track, Michael Lington on “Love Feeds the Fire,” Jonathan Butler on “Sweet Thing” and Mindi Abair on “U Touch Me.” The best songs on the album, though, don’t have the big stars. “Blue Sky” is a jazz ride with guitarist John Defaria and “Reminisce” is a gorgeous ballad with Gerald Spikes on saxophone.

This is a pretty typical smooth jazz album, but it’s also one that has its good-to-great moments.

Smooth grade: B


Rhian Benson
Gold Coast
(DKG)

Rhian Benson is a vocalist who is marketed to the smooth jazz audience much like Sade is. Benson obviously has a great voice, deep and jazzy, and she puts it to good use on 14 songs. Actually, there are only 13, but Benson is obviously the superstitious type, as track 13 is four seconds of silence. Track 14, “Spirit,” is the best one of the album – it has choruses are sung in the Ghanaian and Ashanti languages. It’s a very spiritual song.

If you like soulful vocals over a smooth-jazz/pop beat, you could do a lot worse that Gold Coast.

Smooth grade: B


Ed Johnson & Novo Tempo
Movimento
(Cumulus)

Guitarist Ed Johnson’s third CD is a musical treat, a breezy slice of Latin rhythms featuring five vocal tracks sung in English, Portuguese and Spanish. But the CD has an overwhelming Brazilian presence, which is helped by a stunning cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade.” Johnson’s guitar takes most of the leads, of course, but there are plenty of horns, samba shuffles and beautiful vocalese. And, of course, Johnson has the kind of lilting, sing-song voice perfect for this kind of music.

Especially compelling is “For T,” which is the kind of dreamy ballad with wordless vocals that Pat Metheny would have done on his Brazilian-influenced CDs. Put it on and be transported to the beaches of Rio.

Smooth grade: B+


William Joseph
Within
(143/Records Reprise)

Pianist William Joseph is a protégé of legendary composer David Foster, who leaves his classical and movie-theme imprint all over this CD than can for the most part be described as “beautiful music.” Joseph is best when accompanying sweet strings on the original and utterly gorgeous “Stella’s Theme” and on the album’s best track, Bach’s classic “Ave Maria.”

To show he’s a modern guy, Joseph interprets Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Kansas’ oft-heard “Dust in the Wind,” which both break up the mood a bit. Overall, though, Within is the kind of CD that fits nicely on the shelf next to Jim Brickman, Yanni and John Tesh.

Smooth grade: B


Ron Fattorusso
Up All Night
(Secret Formula)

You don’t have to hear much of the first song on this CD to realize veteran session player and saxophonist Ron Fattorusso knows his way around a smooth jazz song. His throaty sax leads a memorable melody, and a guitar solo breaks things up nicely.

It’s hard to maintain that pace over 15 songs, however. “Up All Night” has some nice moments, but to make a more memorable CD Fattorusso has to concentrate more on the melodies and hooks.

Smooth grade: C


Here are some brief reviews of other CDs:

On Rare Requests Volume III (Liquid 8), the third installment of this popular series, you can find all in one place 12 songs that may be hard to find. They “Last Look” by Torcuato Mariano, “Passion Theme” by Warren Hill, “Always There” by Ronnie Laws, “Rise” by Leo Gandleman and “Tell It Like It Is” by Michael Lington and Bobby Caldwell. Smooth grade: B

Jazz trumpeter Vince Mai says his newest CD, Subte (Mai-Music) is inspired by Latin American music and the European club scene. This eclectic mix is a delightful combination, and while this is far from a smooth jazz CD it’s very listenable with some memorable songs. Highlights include the blues-samba of “U&I,” the Chris Botti-like horn lines in “El Castillo” and “For Carole” and the radio-friendly “Nova Bossa” and its dreamy vocalese. An impressive CD. Smooth grade: B+

The British musical funk and groove adventure known as Incognito, with lead man Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, returns with slamming instrumental grooves and soulful vocals with Adventures in Black Sunshine (Narada), the group’s 10th Cd. The 15-song album is inspired my soul music from the 1970s and features such songs as “Don’t Turn My Love Away,” “Autumn Song,” “Beyond the Clouds” and a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ classic “Listen to the Music.” Vocalist Maysa, who earned her chops with the band, returns to sing on the vocal tracks. Smooth grade: B

You’ve probably heard the work of guitarist Daryl Stuermer many times. He’s played on all of Phil Collins’ solo CDs and is currently touring on Collins’ slyly named First Final Farewell Tour. On Stuermer’s work, Retrofit (Urban Island), he offers nine original songs plus one, “The Least You Can Do,” that Collins co-wrote. Stuermer likes to rock with his electric axe, but he can also play pretty smooth jazz songs and even layers his guitar a la Craig Chaquico on “I Will Remember You.” That and “Promises” and “Midnight Traveler” are the smooth jazz highlights. Smooth grade: B

Alto saxophonist Tom Meston on Upside (Stir-Fry) offers 11 songs that combine fusion, funk, R&B all into one tidy package. Jazzy and meaty, it’s worth a listen for adventurous types. Smooth grade: B

Smooth jazz fans who like Brazilian music may be interested in In Your Dreams (Exit) by vocalist and acoustic guitarist Barry Wedgle. It’s easy listening, and Wedgle has a nice style that recalls Earl Klugh. Standout tracks are “Sea Level,” “Lluvia en Avila” and “Voce se Lembra.” Smooth grade: B+

To hear two of the best chill-music CDs around, check out the Higher Octave label’s Jazzy Chill Out (featuring Eric Jan Harmsen) and Bluesy Chill Out (featuring Dave “BK” Jeffs). You’ll understand what all the fuss is about on these eighth and ninth in an amazing series of music that relaxes, inspires and even make you want to dance. Many jazz and blues samples wrap around ambient grooves that are perfect for those after-party chill sessions. Smooth grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at September 7, 2004 9:32 PM