Unlike the realm of pop music where The Who’s credo “Hope I Die Before I Get Old” can translate these days to being a has-been once you hit the big 2-5, smooth jazz thrives on the grooves of veteran artists making it hip to be any age. A quick glance at the charts at any given time shows a preponderance of artists past 40 (Rick Braun, Russ Freeman, Boney James, Dave Koz), even 50 (Jeff Lorber, David Sanborn, three fourths of Fourplay) — all making music as relevant as they did as wide-eyed twentysomethings. This is good news reflecting our culture’s belief that “40 is the new 30” and so on, but it doesn’t leave a lot of airplay openings and festival slots for young up and comers determined to join their ranks.
Judging from the critical, consumer and radio response to their 2004 releases, Eric Darius, a 21-year old saxman and senior at Florida State University, and the just over 30 Grady Nichols, an alto playing local hero in his adopted hometown of Tulsa for ten years, are ready for prime time, the most likely to spearhead the next generation of great genre artists.
“Night On The Town,” the brisk, funky title cut from Eric Darius’ Higher Octave debut Night On The Town (an instant shoo-in for this critic’s Top Ten), had (according to the Radio & Records’ indicator) close to 70 spins a week nationally in September, when the song re-entered the R&R Smooth Jazz New & Active chart at #7. He also gave rousing performances at two high profile West Coast events — 94.7 The Wave’s weekly jazz series at the Garden of Eden in Hollywood and the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival.
Grady Nichols headlined at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival last spring and in December opened for Vanessa Williams in Baltimore, while also getting bookings in several new markets — Memphis, St. Louis and Kansas City. “Allright,” the breezy and ultra-sleek first single from his Lorber produced Sophistication release (Compendia Records) broke through to the Top 15 on R&R’s prestigious main smooth jazz airplay chart, competing strongly with the big boys (and girls like Joyce Cooling).
Despite these inroads, both are keenly aware of the challenges they face. “For me, it’s about keeping my ideas fresh, coming up with new songs that take me to the next level,” says Eric Darius. “I have the gift of being creative and have been doing this since I was a kid, so it’ll just be on a larger level now. When I graduate from college next year, I’ll have more time to devote to my career, also. I’m already learning about the ups and downs, the reality that you can think your song is the best in the world and some stations still won’t play it. I’m always learning about patience and persistence, and I’m trying to learn from the veterans I’m sharing the stage with. My minor is in business, so I’m well aware of the importance of marketing and exposure. I have to get out there and do my best to communicate with the audience, and hope that the label and promoters do a good job, too. My music has elements of R&B, pop and gospel, so I’m also dedicated to building on my success in smooth jazz and reaching a wider audience.”
In recording his label debut (he released Cruisin’, a self-promoted indie CD locally in 2001), Darius had the advantage of being taken under the wing of veteran guitarist Ken Navarro, with whom he’d shared a bill at an event for Tampa’s 94.1 WSJT. Impressed with the kid’s wild potential, Navarro not only championed the “youngster,” but also invited him up to his home studio in Maryland to record the album with his regular touring band.
Grady Nichols had a great reputation in Tulsa as an opening act for passer - throughs like The O’Jays, Temptations and Ray Charles, but knew that it would take a few bucks to get to the next level as a recording artist. “I knew I’d have to go to L.A. and meet with the big guys who could help me get my music to where it needed to be,” he says. “I met with Rick Braun and Gregg Karukas as potential producers, but had the best chemistry with Jeff. Getting Jeff Lorber and Chris Botti was not cheap, but I had the belief that all this would pay off, and it is. My goal is to keep improving as a musician and artist, learn from the best, and use some of my marketing background to understand the demographics and how to get my music out there. I had released a few albums on my own before and sold them locally, but this time, once I got over the ‘wow’ factor of working with one of my idols, I had to reign in that raw energy to have any chance in this format. I’ve also been pro-active, calling program directors on my own. Some are open, some aren’t, but I keep trying. There are so many pieces of the puzzle to consider.”
Both Darius and Nichols have unique biographical points which will further endear them to their target audience. For two years, Darius was a member of America’s Youngest Jazz Band (ages 5-12), led by trumpeter Sonny LaRosa; he played Ellington and Basie, and even hit the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Traveling to New York as a member of the Blake High School Jazz Ensemble, he jammed with no less than Wynton Marsalis and Paquito D’Rivera. And as a member of the USF Jazztet, he’s played festivals in Italy and France.
Nichols, a small town boy from the Mayberry-like, dirt road dominated Siloam, Arkansas, is less worldly, but no less interesting. Siloam was out of earshot of any jazz station, but thank goodness for cable. He loved the background music he heard on The Weather Channel so much that he called the station and asked for a set list. “They were playing David Sanborn, the Yellowjackets and Spyro Gyra, and I became a big fan of them all,” he says. “Later, while studying broadcasting at John Brown University, I would tape Sanborn on David Letterman and freeze frame him, so I could imitate his moves and technique. That was the beginning of the journey.”
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) George Collichio – The veteran performer and founder of Rochester, NY’s Collichio School of Music breaks through to the genre with gale force, mixing a Larry Carlton bluesy-rock sensibility with stylistic joyrides into samba, flamenco and brassy soul territory.
2) Brenda Russell, Between the Sun and The Moon (Narada Jazz)
3) Barry Manilow, Manilow Scores (Concord)
4) Norman Brown, West Coast Coolin’ (Warner Bros.)
5) Ronnie Milsap, Just For A Thrill (Image Music Group)