September 30, 2004

Roger Smith Is Here There And Everywhere

RogerSmith.jpgWelcome 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.

Sometimes everything just come right and that is exactly what we find with the latest release from key board player Roger Smith, a veteran of a 30-year career, that has seen him play for such diverse artists as Jeff Beck, Gladys Knight and Willie Nelson. Now a solo artist for just eight years, he continues to write, produce and play on albums for other artists, and, most notably continues a grueling schedule on tour with R&B legends Tower of Power.

The 14-track Just Enough, places Roger squarely back on the Billboard charts and it’s the link with Tower Of Power, an array of guest artists and an infectious groove that defines this album as something special.

That incredible horn-driven band Tower of Power has been serving up their special brand of music since the early '70s and has been a launching pad for more than one of today’s smooth jazz superstars.

The group's engine room since the beginning, tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo, was born in Detroit, but opted to pursue his musical adventure in Oakland, CA. It was in Oakland that Castillo put together a group called the Motowns. It was a band that specialized in '60s-era soul and even today the band never miss a chance to put their own stamp on soulful sounds that could easily be sampled from that golden era of thirty years ago.

TOP_vintage.jpgCastillo teamed up with a baritone sax player, and Motowns fan, Doc Kupka, and soon the Motowns had transformed into Tower of Power. Remarkably one of the first tunes that Castillo and Kupka penned together was ‘You're Still a Young Man’, a track that would evolve as one of the bands signature compositions. Tower of Power played regularly in the Bay Area throughout the late '60s, its line-up often changing both by name and by number. They included such mainstays as Greg Adams on trumpet and vocals and Rocco Prestia on bass.

By 1970, they had cut a recording contract with San Francisco Records that led, in the same year, to the group's debut album East Bay Grease. It failed to make an impression on the charts and Tower of Power was left very much trying to find their own sound. Their difficulties grew into a crisis when, in 1972, then lead singer Rick Stevens was convicted of murder. The band needed a replacement and fast. They turned to Lenny Williams who had previously been signed to Atlantic and had the misfortune to record ‘People Make The World Go Round’ only for the Stylistics version to be released first.

Tower of Power definitely saw Williams as the man for the job and his three years with them turned out to be a great success for all concerned.

As well as establishing Williams as a big name in R&B and funk, the collaboration also touched off a string of classic hit releases for the band. These included the 1972 Bump City and the 1973 self-titled release that included another one of the group's most enduring tunes, ‘What Is Hip’. 1974 brought Back To Oakland with the following year giving up Urban Renewal and In The Slot. Tower of Power has always been regarded as a must-see live act but in the late seventies their record releases became erratic in quality. Despite this they still came up with gems in Aint Nothin Stoppin Us Now and Live and in Living Color.

Tower of Power has always been in high demand as a backing group for some of rock music’s biggest names. A proverbial who’s who’ of stars they have supported include Rod Stewart, Elton John, Santana, Michael Bolton, Billy Preston, Huey Lewis, Bonnie Raitt and Paula Abdul. All these and more have benefited from the bands musical mastery. So has David Sanborn, a name that is not the only link between Tower of Power and the smooth jazz world.

Although called a smooth jazz artist, saxophonist Richard Elliot is equally at home with most rock & roll and the kind of classic R&B performed by Tower of Power. This is not surprising as for five years, in the 1980s, he was a big part of the classic R&B band's horn-based sound.

Another ex Tower of Power horn player is now on the A list of smooth jazz artists. Steven Eugene Grove, aka Euge Groove, had moved to Los Angeles where he co-wrote a song, ‘Hearts On Fire’, that caught the attention of Richard Elliot. When Elliot moved on from his spell with the band he recommended Grove as his replacement. He remained with them for about four years while continuing to tour with various major acts.

As well as serving as the proving ground for some of today’s smooth jazz talents Tower of Power remain very active in their own right. Their CD Oakland Zone is the band’s first to feature Roger Smith on keyboards and has sold briskly since its release in April 2003.

In addition to the Tower of Power CD, Roger is working with fellow Tower Of Power rhythm section artists Rocco Prestia on bass, Jeff Tamelier on guitar and David Garibaldi on drums for their own album, which Roger is co-writing and co-producing. Roger is also producing a new CD for Tower of Power’s high-energy lead vocalist, Larry Braggs.

Smith, 54, has the pedigree to manage his many projects. He started playing jazz at the age of 12, and by the time he was 18 he was playing in his hometown of Sacramento's club scene. By the early 1970s, Smith was a sideman on the road and in the studio with a range of notable musicians that included Joe Cocker but it was not until the late 90’s Smith landed the keyboard slot in Tower of Power.

His solo career took off in 1999 with the release of his album Both Sides. One of the album's singles, ‘Off the Hook’, topped Billboard's contemporary jazz singles charts and stayed in the top 10 for seventeen weeks. He was nominated for three Oasis Awards for outstanding achievement in the Smooth Jazz genre for Best Keyboardist, Best New Artist and Song of the Year and won the ‘breakout artist of the year’ award from the trade publication Radio and Records. In addition his single was No. 7 on Radio & Records top 100 songs of the year.

His follow-up album in 2001 Consider This hit trouble when his record company went bankrupt. As a result the album lacked promotion and is now out of print.

Now he is back with Just Enough and, in Smiths own words, ‘this one has more of an urban feel. We were trying to give more of a groove via the drums. I still want that smooth edge, but I also wanted to cross over into the urban adult-contemporary market’ he says. Smith worked on the album sporadically for about a year and a half in his home studio and was aided in songwriting and production by Derek Allen who has previously worked with Janet Jackson.

Although there is barely a weak link in the entire collection there are nevertheless four real standouts. Tower of Power's horn section sends shivers down the spine as it lends its brass to the excellent ‘Friday’ and, when Smith reprises the tune in ‘unplugged’ style with the last track on the album, the voice of featured artist Terrell Carter does very much the same. It could be said that if you want the best you should get the best and that is exactly what Smith has done on the track ‘I'll Always Love You’, with the Temptations on vocals and Dave Koz, on sax. Perhaps best of all is the Peter White showcase ‘Workin' It’ which is good beyond belief.

On top of all that the opening track, an instrumental titled ‘Rough Cut’, is anything but rough, featuring an infectious yet funky melody. On ‘Just Enough’ Roger has explored several jazz styles and come up with a really outstanding piece of work.

But that’s still not enough. Roger is currently developing projects with gospel music giant John P. Kee, and, in addition, was the featured artist on the recent No. 1 smooth jazz hit, ‘Cruise Control’, from the Special EFX CD Butterfly. He was even part of the musical writing team on several songs for the NBC soap opera, Passions.

These projects follow his appearance as featured artist on two tracks of the contemporary jazz tribute to Steely Dan, No Static At All and on three tracks on jazz guitarist Thom Rotella’s CD, Day In the Life.

jazzrosco.jpgMeanwhile, Smith’s pure jazz organ project, Jazz Rosco, gives him the flexibility to play with a blissful, earthy touch. Unlike the carefully constructed compositions of his solo work, Jazz Rosco is a celebration of all that's off the cuff. Rosco’s Place, the album that comes from it, features guitarist Ray Obiedo and Tower of Power drummer David Garibaldi. Smith wrote the tunes on the spot. The album was recorded in a whirlwind two days, and is now available at Tower of Power shows and online at www.strokeland.com and CDBaby.com. ‘Jazz Rosco is my alter ego’, says Smith. ‘I just needed to vent and get together and play. It's not too heady, and that's the whole idea. We just wanted to let it rip. I like the record, and it's been a lot of fun’.

Just Enough is the fourth studio CD for Roger despite the fact that his crammed calendar doesn't leave much room for solo pursuits. ‘The touring schedule with Tower of Power is pretty arduous’ he explains ‘and doesn't leave me much time to promote, produce or write CDs on my own’. But a gig with Tower of Power, for a musician to play in a band like that, it's great. I'm grateful for the work and to be that busy’.

Possibly the biggest challenge surrounding Just Enough lies in how much Smith will be able to promote it. His contract allows him to take time out from Tower of Power to support his solo career yet Smith is waiting to see how radio embraces the album, which in turn will dictate the demand for his solo gigs.

‘I have a great relationship with Emilio Castillo’, he says, ‘and if I need to take six months off, the job is still mine when I come back’. One thing is for sure. If Roger Smith keeps producing music of the quality of Just Enough he will be asked to come back over and over.

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 September 30, 2004 7:16 PM