March 15, 2005

CD Reviews: Steve Cole, Acoustic Alchemy, Chuck Loeb, Paul Taylor and more

Want to hear some good new music? Check out releases by Steve Cole, Chuck Loeb, Acoustic Alchemy, Nelson Rangell, Ken Navarro, Nils, Tim Bowman, Jason Miles and Urban Knights.

Steve Cole

SteveCole_Spin.jpg Here’s proof that it’s never too late to learn a musical instrument. Steve Cole, who is definitely known for his supreme saxophone sounds, taught himself how to play the guitar for his new CD because he wanted to conceptualize the songs on the instrument. Although you hear Cole strumming his guitar throughout the CD, have no fear – the guitar is in the background and the sax is of course in the foreground. Cole has guitarists (and writing partner) David Hiltebrand, Tim Pierce and Michael Thompson strumming on tracks, as well as Ricky Peterson on organ and Todd Sucherman on drums.

The result is an organic, mostly soft-pop instrumental project that has much in common with a CD called Off the Beaten Path that fellow saxophonist Dave Koz released in 1996. Like that CD, Spin is acoustical in nature and for the most part eschews the glossy, high-production values associated with many smooth jazz works.

Cole says he was inspired on Spin by modern pop singer/songwriters such as Jason Mraz and John Mayer, and the inspiration shows on such tunes as “The Real Me” and “The Things I Do,” which you can visualize with some clever words. But throughout the CD, Cole’s memorable saxophone melodies are once again, of course, the main attraction and make the issue of words mute. Selections such as “Thursday” and “The Real Me” are as good as anything he’s done, but his acoustical approach really pays off in songs like “Spin,” which has a joyous sound while offering rapid beats and bluesy organ riffs. Cole has a way with a ballad, of course, which he does so well here with “Simple Things” and “A Letter To Laura.”

Many artists say their new CDs are unlike anything they’ve done before, but on Spin Cole can say that with a straight face. In addition to the acoustical element, he ends the CD with a hidden track that has an orchestral riff a la Praful and features some very jazzy sax with an undercurrent of chill/downtempo music. It’s delightful. Also different is “Serenity,” a gorgeous midtempo number also borrowing elements from chill music.

If this excellent CD is any indication, it’ll be interesting to see what Cole has planned to follow it up.
Smooth grade: A

Acoustic Alchemy
(Higher Octave)

The veteran smooth jazz band Acoustic Alchemy continues its focus on a more organic, acoustical sound as displayed on the band’s last album, Radio Contact. This is the band’s fourth album without guitarist Nick Webb, who died seven years ago, and now the chemistry between original member Greg Carmichael and the other guitar player – Miles Gilderdale – is reaching its peak. Webb brought the band a classical guitar sensibility that still sounds fresh today, and Gilderdale offers a blues and soul vibe and even does some scatting (he was a singer in a rock band in an earlier life), as he shows on the funky “Say Yeah.”

The title of Acoustic Alchemy’s 13th album refers to its roots as a British band that has found its niche in America. Old fans will find much to enjoy on this new CD, as the interplay between the nylon and string guitars – the band’s trademark – sounds amazingly fresh in songs such as the ballad “Cherry Hill” and “The Crossing.” These two tracks, and some others, retain the familiar soft touch that Acoustic Alchemy has long been known for.

Having said that, there is still room for advancement and new ideas, shown on “Lilac Lane,” which offers a blistering electric guitar solo and a steady, chill music-like tempo. Likewise, “So Kylie,” which makes reference to Australian dance-pop queen Kylie Minogue, is a late-night dance number with several electronica elements and an irresistible “nah-nah-nah-nah” chorus. “Trinity,” a reggae number, recalls the band’s “Jamaica Heartbeat” from the classic Back on the Case CD from 1991. Elsewhere, the band keeps things fresh with different styles – the feel-good Motown groove of “The Detroit Shuffle,” the Steely Dan-wink of “She Speaks American English,” and the jazzy swing of “The 14 Carrot Café,” a song named after a Seattle restaurant the band frequents when visiting the Pacific Northwest.

Whether listening in England or America, fans will certainly have plenty to cheer for on this latest effort by one of smooth jazz’s best-loved bands.
Smooth grade: A

Chuck Loeb
When I’m With You

After the European and techno inspired eBop, veteran electric guitarist returns with a CD that may just be his best work yet. It’s not a mainstream jazz album, but a smooth jazz one with an organic feel that simply keeps music first and gimmicks at bay. Paying homage to some of his musical heroes, first and foremost is the late saxophonist Stan Getz, who Loeb toured with for several years. What better song than Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema,” which Getz played on and brought Brazilian bossa nova to the world?

Next up is Ray Charles, one of the musicians who continuously has inspired Loeb. After Charles died last year, Loeb says he felt compelled to write “Brother Ray,” a swinging jazz and blues shuffle that’ll have those toes a-movin’. And “Double Life,” which leads off the CD, is a bluesy number dedicated to another Loeb mentor, the great guitarist Jim Hall.

Loeb can craft a smooth jazz hit as well as anyone out there, and has done so again with the unforgettable “Tropical.” His mellifluous and lyrical guitar has never as good, and the funky and tropical undercurrent will have you reaching for a margarita. And on the title track, Loeb provides a nice change of pace thanks to gorgeous vocals from his wife, singer Carmen Cuesta. It’s dreamy. And then there’s “And Then Some,” which gets into some real jazz playing.

This is the kind of music that Loeb’s many fans would follow him all over the world for. His guitar practically sings, and the jazz suits him well.
Smooth grade: A

Paul Taylor

Saxophonist Paul Taylor’s sixth solo album in 10 years since leaving the Rippingtons isn’t too much of a departure from his polished and sexy sound, which probably suits his many fans just fine. One thing you’ll notice, however, is that Taylor plays more songs on the lower-sounding alto saxophone, which is a change from his previous reliance on the Kenny G-like soprano. Still remaining are plenty of memorable melodies, inspired playing and the overall urban vibe Taylor’s known for.

The first single, the title track, picks up where Taylor’s big called “Steppin’ Out” from his previous album of the same name, left off. There’s the deep bass lines driving the song along, a disco beat in the background and a mélange of saxophones and horns. Elsewhere, there are bits of reggae, bits of funk, bits of Latin, bits of pop and jazz, all providing an up-to-date smooth jazz listening experience.

Taylor reached way back for the CD’s one cover song, the Terry Lewis/Jimmy Jam song from the 1980s called “Tender Love,” a hit for the group Force MD’s. Handling the vocals here is reggae star Maxi Priest (“Close To You”), whose vocal chops only improve with age.
The album utilizes three producers – Rex Rideout, Barry J. Eastmond and Dino Esposito – and features guest appearances by keyboardist Jeff Lorber, guitarist Dwight Sills, bassist Alex Al and drummer Ricky Lawson, among others.

Romantic and energetic as ever, Paul Taylor is another one who seems to improve with each outing.
Smooth grade: B

Ken Navarro
Love Coloured Soul
(Positive Music)

After two CDs with the Shanachie label, guitarist Ken Navarro has returned to the label he founded more than 10 years ago for his latest project. The 10 songs here signal a return to Navarro’s gentler, more acoustic side, and features two fantastic cover songs – a rousing take on Laura Nyro’s “Stone Soul Picnic” and a quiet reading of John Klemmer’s classic “Glass Dolphins.” Of course, those familiar with the veteran guitarist’s work know that he’s able to write some of smooth jazz’s most happy and memorable hooks, and once again he’s able to bring a few more bubbling to the surface. Exhibit A – the CD’s opener, “You Are Everything.”

While some of Navarro’s songs are enhanced by their simplicity, he also cannily combines radio smarts with some pretty amazing guitar playing, which he does on the song “Breathe.” It spins a driving, chugging rhythm section anchored by drummer Andre Webb and percussionist Kevin Prince, but mostly offers some pretty fast guitar picking by Navarro. Not that there was any doubt, but “Breathe” shows Navarro can play – furiously at times – but still works as one of the best smooth jazz songs to come around lately.

On this well-rounded CD, Navarro of course throws in midtempo pop gems like “Parallel Lives” and “You Did It Again.” He also goes for some very jazzy sounds with “Let It Go,” featuring the sparkling piano work of longtime bandmember Jay Rowe. And on “Summer of Love,” Navarro and Rowe quietly share a song that’s as beautiful as anything they’ve done together, and as gentle as a lullaby. It’s a perfect way to finish another winner.
Smooth grade: B+

Nelson Rangell
My American Songbook Vol. 1

Saxophonist and flutist Nelson Rangell, on his 14th album, decided to record songs that were close to his heart. Seeing as how he selected songs from the great American Songbook, it no wonder he’s calling it “volume one.” But as trumpeter Chris Botti showed on last year’s When I Fall in Love, smooth jazz artists are certainly capable of reinterpreting established songs without alienating their smooth jazz bases.

Rangell certainly couldn’t have picked a better song to begin with than Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from the movie West Side Story. A brief prelude, with handclaps, captures the spirit of the gritty but uplifting movie, and Rangell’s flute playing gives the tune an light touch. Whether intentional or not, Rangell also captures the Latin energy nicely, this time on his sax, by segueing into Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” which features upbeat percussion throughout. He returns to the flute once again for “Freda,” a song by bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker. Longtime jazz-fusion fans may recognize this gem as performed the classic band the Yellowjackets, and on this tune and elsewhere on the CD, Russ Ferrante of that band plays the piano.

A bookend to “Freda” is “Sonora” by Hampton Hawes, which is one of Rangell’s most popular songs in concert. What makes that song so popular – and why it stands out here – is that Rangell whistles the melody. It may bring up images of classic Western movies, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful song, enhanced by Chuck Loeb’s tender acoustic guitar solo.

Nelson also interprets Earth Wind & Fire's "That's The Way of The World" and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” while getting down and jazzy on the classic “Cherokee” and a very old traditional song called “Billy Boy.” And he combines “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” with James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” giving those classics a very fresh new sound. The one original on the project is “Don’t Forget Those Forgotten,” a ballad where Rangell’s sax has never sounded better.
Smooth grade: B

Pacific Coast Highway

Every once in a while, a relatively unknown musician comes along to produce a smooth jazz CD that is as good as anything on the record store shelves and contains one killer song that radio embraces. Meet Nils, a guitarist who is anything but an overnight sensation after having performed with such bigwigs as Paul Brown, George Benson and Gabriela Anders. Nils, who was born in Germany and now lives in Southern California, says he garners his musical inspiration from the scenic road running up the West Coast that he named his album after. That song, “Pacific Coast Highway,” is also the name of the single that has everyone’s attention.

Nils’ musical background shows how he was able to attract top players to the project. In addition to Albright, Chante Moore and Siedah Garrett add background vocals to “Cruisin’” while guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., keyboardist Rob Mullins, drummer Steve Ferrone and percussionists Alex Acuna and Steve Reid all contribute mightily.
Of course, there are plenty of CDs with only one great song on them. This isn’t one, as Nils shows he has the knack for smooth jazz pop melodies while keeping the listening fresh by switching between electric and acoustic guitars. The CD’s title reflects the music’s spirit, as Nils offers top-down car songs with titles such as “Cruisin’,” “Summer Nights,” “Baja California” and “Keep Rollin’,” the latter with a sax solo by Gerald Albright. By the way, if “Keep Rollin’” sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a Nils original that none other than Benson recorded on his Standing Together CD. Here, producer and co-writer of that song, Gerald McCauley, adds the Benson-like scatting.

Although Nils’ cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” isn’t too surprising, it’s got a groovy hip-hop beat, and his sashaying update of the 1980 Toto classic “Georgy Porgy” will brighten any mood.
Smooth grade: B+

Tim Bowman

This Is What I Hear
(Liquid 8)

Tim Bowman is one more example of a longtime session player who has struck it big in smooth jazz. The 45-year-old guitarist is getting tons of radio play for his breezy hit single “Summer Groove,” which comes from his third CD that is stuffed with winning hooks and dexterous guitar playing.

Bowman is a Detroit native with gospel-music influences, which come through on the project. His young life revolved around the church, where he taught himself to play in front of worshippers before getting a scholarship to the Detroit Music School. After briefly settling into work in the General Motors assembly line, he scored a gig with the gospel group the Winans. Bowman played with the band throughout the 1980s when the Winans were the best-selling gospel group in the country.

After leaving the group, he began a solo career which has reached an apex with This Is What I Hear. Bowman has a relaxed, easy way on the electric guitar, which in addition to “Summer Groove” he shows on songs such as “Dance,” “Candy’s Groove” and “New Day.” Bowman is equally adept on the acoustic guitar, and on the ballads such as “Miracle” and “Acoustic Rain” he makes his instrument sound as sweet as the best of Earl Klugh. Bowman also acknowledges his faith in the vocal tracks “Angels,” “This Song’s For You” and the rollicking gospel flavored “My Praise.” Supplying the vocals are Marvin Winans (founder of the Winans), Kayla Parker (who has collaborated with Oleta Adams and Brandy) and Bowman’s son, Tim Jr.

Even if Bowman’s gospel tracks aren’t your cup of tea, the album taken as a whole is highly recommended for its majority of instrumental smooth jazz tracks.
Smooth grade: B

Urban Knights
Urban Knights VI
(Narada Jazz)

Ten years after piano legend Ramsey Lewis created the first in a series of albums by a group called the Urban Knights, the band has decided to concentrate on a core group of musicians. Over its 10-year-history, the collective known as Urban Knights has featured many rotating stars enhancing its polished Chicago jazz-funk sound: Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright, Dave Koz, Earl Klugh and many others. In this new direction, Frayne Lewis concentrates on a group featuring guitarist Bobby Broom, keyboardist Kevin Randolph, bassist Maurice Fitzgerald, saxophonist Nick Bisesi and drummer Quinjuan Anderson.

The new focus mixes equal parts modern, drum-heavy funk-pop (“Sly” and the radio-friendly “Fall Forward”) and many nice, quiet classic jazz moments. Ramsey Lewis guests on a romantic new version of his song “Close Your Eyes and Remember,” and a reading of Usher’s “My Boo” is a pleasant surprise. In fact, the band is at its best when updating classic songs, such as Usher’s and jazz greats by Stanley Clarke (“School Days”) and Wayne Shorter (“Footprints”). Shorter’s classic is especially invigorating, with Randolph’s jazzy piano playing taking the place of Shorter’s sax and Maurice Fitzgerald handling the familiar bass line.

New songs aren’t bad, either. Smooth jazz fans will love the samba lines in “Memorias Belas,” a soft and sexy vibe with a classic mellow jazz rhythm. This assured effort should guarantee a seventh CD by the Urban Knights.
Smooth grade: B+

Jason Miles
Miles to Miles: In the Spirit of Miles Davis
(Narada Jazz/Rendezvous)

If anyone was to make an album of original songs with the late, great trumpeter Miles Davis in mind, it had to be New Yorker Jason Miles. The producer behind popular Smooth Jazz concept albums featuring the music of Ivan Lins, Weather Report and Grover Washington Jr. considered Davis a mentor and performed on some of his later fusion albums, including Tutu and Amandla.

This project is unique, though, since there is only one update of a Davis song, “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s a dandy with guest stars Marc Antoine on guitar and Keiko Matsui on keyboards. The rest of the CD does an uncanny job of approximating the kind of music Davis would probably be making today if he combined his jazz skills on the trumpet with his groundbreaking jazz-fusion vibes and a dash of in-the-pocket smooth jazz.

Miles has assembled a fist-rate band, including Michael Brecker, Gerald Albright, the late Bob Berg and the foundation of James Genus on bass and Gene Lake on drums. The music is the thing here, so not every song features the trumpet, although when it does Barry Danielian, Tom Harrell, Randy Brecker and Nicolas Payton are up to the task. Miles adds his expertise on the keyboards, drum machine and computerized loops, and the result is a rollicking good time.

The beats are slamming and in your face, such as on the opener called “Ferrari.” Elsewhere, album scratches and fuzzy guitar sounds create a swirling, dense cacophony of modern-day jazz-rock fusion Davis would surely approve of.
Smooth jazz-fusion grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at March 15, 2005 4:35 AM