June 11, 2005

CD Reviews: Jonathan Bulter, Richard Elliot, Praful, the Rippingtons and More

Want to hear some good new music? Check out releases by Jonathan Butler, Richard Elliot, Down to the Bone, Praful, the Rippingtons and others.

Jonathan Butler
(Rendezvous Music)

If you’re one of those people who swears that Jonathan Butler makes the prettiest acoustic guitar instrumental songs on the planet, you need to pat Dave Koz on the back. The smooth jazz star is the one who convinced Butler to sign to his Rendezvous Entertainment record label. And here’s the good part – nine of the 11 songs on Butler’s self-titled debut on Rendezvous are instrumentals. Not just instruments, but the hooky and alternately gorgeous and upbeat kind that typified his biggest radio successes, “Dancing on the Shore” and “Song for Elizabeth.” This is big news for Butler fans, since his last album, Surrender from 2003, was half vocals and the one before that, 2000’s The Source, contained just two instrumentals.

Ironically, the CD’s first single is a vocal version of James Taylor’s classic “Fire and Rain” with rockish electric guitar accompaniment by 24-year-old blues guitarist Jonny Lang. But that song, and the other vocal track called “Baby Love,” fit in perfectly with the CD’s overall mellow and bouncy vibe. But of course it’s instrumentals that really shine, beginning with the first track, the tropical-flavored “Rio,” which features the distinctive trumpet of Rick Braun and Butler’s spine-tingling scatting in tune with his guitar. Two other tropical-flavored songs by Butler, who grew up in South Africa but now calls Southern California home, include the bouncy “Mandela Bay” and “10 Degrees South,” both which feature the background female trio of Jodie Butler, Kurt Lykes and Toni Field. Jodie is Butler’s daughter.

Of course, Butler knows his way around a ballad, which he proves on “”Randy’s Song” – where Koz handles the sax – “Precious Things,” “For a Friend,” “Sweet Island Love” and “Spirit of a Nation.” The CD closes with “Move Me,” a bluesy midtempo number with Gerald Albright on sax. Kudos also need to be given to Butler’s band, which includes Dave Dyson on bass, Greg Wachter on keyboards, Eric Valentine on drums and David Diggs with the string arrangements.

This is an amazing return to form for Jonathan Butler. It's hard to imagine anyone else creating a smooth jazz CD this year that's so consistent from beginning to end.

Smooth grade: A+

Richard Elliot
Metro Blue

Saxophonist Richard Elliot has more than just a fleeting interest in his 15th release. Metro Blue is the first CD of all-new material by the ARTizen Music Group, a smooth jazz label based in Southern California and co-founded by Elliot and fellow musician and trumpeter Rick Brun. Elliot shouldn’t have much to worry about here, as his robust tenor saxophone consistency lays thick grooves atop some darn tempting pop songs. Produced by Braun and Elliot, the CD once again pays tribute to what must be Elliot’s favorite R&B from the 1970s, the Stylistics. Elliot’s last CD featured a cover of group’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Metro Blue’s first single is a sexy reading of the sweet soul band’s “People Make the World Go Round.”

As Elliot’s albums always are, Metro Blue is heavy on the brass, which is to be expected from a former member of the seminal band Tower of Power. Braun blows his trumpet throughout, sounding especially vivid on “Inside Out,” an upbeat number that starts the CD. This song’s sure to draw raised fists during the Jazz Attack tour this summer, which Elliot is starring in. As will the funky “Mango Tango,” which lays down a groovy echoing sax line, and “Maxi’s,” powered by a Travolta-esque disco beat. Any Richard Elliot CD must have at least song where he coaxes some growls from his sax, and that track here is “Mystique,” which also offers some pretty sweet picking by guitarist Peter White. On “Chill Bill,” Elliot perhaps winks at the chill-music sound filtering into smooth jazz, but the song is more of a traditional ballad. As are the title track and “Camella,” which he sweetly named after his wife.

I remember reviewing Elliot’s last CD in 2003, Richochet, and observing that like many of his albums it was dogged by inconsistency. There’s no such problem here, as each of the 10 songs are solid and, in turn, make for a promising debut ARTizen debut.

Smooth grade: A

Pyramid in Your Backyard
(Rendezvous Entertainment)

First things first: Except for the lead track called “Moon Glide,” the new CD by Dutch saxophonist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Praful is nothing like his smashing debut, One Day Deep. But some background is in order: That album was originally released way back in 2001, but hit the U.S. by storm in 2003 thanks to a U.S. distribution deal and the hits “Sigh” and “Let the Chips Fall.” That album helped Praful become a leader in the chill music crowd, exposed many smooth jazz listeners to the format and even helped Praful get a high-profile gig on the Dave Koz & Friends tour this summer.

With Pyramid in Your Backyard, Praful avoids mining the successful grooves that populated One Day Deep, which would have been the easy and logical thing to do. But, working with producers and Rendezvous labelmates Adani & Wolf, Praful has made a wonderfully exotic CD that further explores his love of Brazilian and Indian music. The album has several guest vocalists singing in English, Portuguese and Indian Hindi. Among them are Sandhya Sanjana from India and Katia Moraes from Brazil – who is a member of Praful’s band – and even Praful himself. The Brazilian bossa nova tracks, “Acredite,” “Ponto de Partida” and “Eternity,” are smooth and sophisticated, while the Indian-flavored tunes, especially “Says Kabir,” are exotic and unusual to Western ears but still maintain the familiar percussion-heavy beats Praful employs to great effect.

Standout instrumental tracks include the spare and jazzy “We Live On,” where you can hear for yourself – and appreciate – Praful’s skill on the sax. “Hand-Cart Puller” features a guitar loop, bountiful percussion and a rapid pace, while “Drop to the Ocean” is a chill/electronica classic with jazzy sax interludes. “Wishful Walk” comes straight from the Pat Metheny school of samba, with a languid beat and wistful vocalese, while “Naked” is a quiet smooth jazz gem with soothing vocals by Praful. And then there's "April Seven," a dirge-like slice of erotic exotica that washes over you like a great movie soundtrack. It's very moody.

Pyramid in Your Backyard takes a little getting used to if you’ve listened to One Day Deep a million times. But it quickly becomes apparent that Praful has made a compelling and worthy sequel on his own terms.

Smooth grade: A

The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman
Wild Card

The Jazz Cat may be back, but as the title of their newest album suggests, he’s leading listeners down a different alley this time. It was five years ago that the Rippingtons’ leader, guitarist Russ Freeman, traded Colorado’s snowy climate for the warm sunshine of Florida’s Boca Raton, north of Miami. Freeman played around with some Latin rhythms on 2000’s Life in the Tropics, as many in the smooth jazz genre do. But on Wild Card, the Latin influence has certainly rubbed off on Freeman and his crack band.

There’s much hear to enjoy for the everyday Rippingtons fan, especially those who appreciate Freeman’s guitar playing. I’ve always considered Freeman to be underrated as a guitarist since he’s much more known as the leader of one of the few actual bands left in the genre. What’s been most enjoyable has been his classical acoustic guitar playing, which he does here on eight songs. It’s quite a treat, as are the well-known Jerry Hey horns, Eric Marienthal’s distinctive saxophone throughout and especially on “Lay It Down” and the title track, and R&B singer Chante Moore’s vocals on a cover of the soul standard “Till You Come Back to Me.”

There’s also some beautiful Rippingtons standards like the closing track “In the End” and “King of Hearts,” both offering the type of pretty guitar ballads the band is famous for. On “Into You,” smooth jazz producer Rex Rideout’s touch is evident throughout the delicious soul groove. And on “Moonlight,” Freeman switches to the electric guitar on a song that has “hit” written all over it.

But the Latin sound is the thing here, and Freeman shines with the laid back, tropical “Gypsy Eyes” and the “Mulata de Mi Amor,” both of which will have you licking the salt off your margarita glass. “Spanish Girl” is the quintessential Rippingtons number, a funky midtempo thing with Latin strings, while “Paradise” is one of the most complex songs the band has ever done. There are layers of classical and electric guitar, and three minutes in there’s even a brief synth guitar solo a la Pat Metheny. It’s a majestic song.

Of course, the two songs that Rippington fans will be talking about are the two with Spanish-language vocals: “El Vacilon” and “Mulata de Mi Amor.” The former features the female singer Albita and the background vocals of the group Ozomatli, while the latter has the robust vocals of Willy Chirino. Don’t skip the tracks, since they fit in perfectly what the Rippingtons are trying to do – and succeeding – on this amazing CD.

Smooth grade: B+

Down to the Bone
Spread Love like Wildfire
(Narada Jazz)

Although considered a smooth jazz band as far as radio goes, Down to the Bone on its sixth CD continues to pump out its hard grooves and brassy horns that defy easy pigeon-holing. The core band remains the same, with producer and composer Stuart Wade, members Neil Angilley and Neil Cowley on keyboards, Paul “Shilts” Weimer on sax, Tony Remy on guitar, Richard Sadler on bass and percussion and Neal Wilkinson on drums.

Like the chill music counterparts, the groove is, of course, the thing. Unlike many of those bands, however, DTTB has incorporating more and more live music on its CDs, with a warmer sound the result. Guest stars always make DTTB CDs fresh, and the big one here is flutist Jeremy Steig, who has performed with legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bill Evans, Jan Hammer and Johnny Winter. He adds a new sound to the DTTB jams “Memphis Groove” and the Brazilian-influenced “Wildfire Woman.”

The standout radio track on Spread Love Like Wildfire is “Tiburon,” which was co-written by Tim Best, who assisted with the song “Brooklyn Heights” on the band’s debut CD. The song has much of the same groove as that classic CD. Like that work, the groove here is relentless, and Down to the Bone remains one of the grooviest groove bands in any musical genre.

Smooth grade: B

Lee Ritenour

Veteran smooth jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, who has been making CDs for 30 years now, celebrates his signing with a new label with a live studio recording that showcases four distinct phases of his career. It has Ritneour’s acoustic jazz period (“Blue in Green”) and his Brazilian music with vocalist Ivan Lins (“She Walks the Earth”), the fusion era (“Captain Fingers,” “Night Rhythms”) and his most current music, featuring songs from his Wes Montgomery tribute (“Boss City,” “Lil’ Bumpin’”) and the compilation “Twist Of Motown” (“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” with Chris Botti sounding very soulful on the trumpet solos).

The CD is a companion piece to a DVD by the same name. The DVD was shot in a recording studio with a small audience (hi-definition and surround sound), and the music on the CD has an incredible studio sound with the live interaction of all the great musicians on the project. They include veterans Botti, Eric Marienthal, Dave Grusin, Patrice Rushen, Harvey Mason, Ernie Watts, Dave Carpenter and others. Ritenour also showcases two new vocal talents. Kenya Hathaway, the sister of vocalist Lelah Hathaway, contributes her own song called “Possibilities,” and returns to duet with Grady Harrell on Ritenour’s smash hit, “Is It You.”

Because of the fresh interpretations of familiar songs performed live, OverTime becomes not just another artist’s look back over a career, but an artist’s look back who obviously still has a lot to say with his music. For those looking for brand-new music from Ritenour, there’s good news – he’s now working on a melodic album which should be out early next year.

Smooth grade: B+

(Rendezvous Entertainment)

Camiel is the third chill/downtempo act to be signed by Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, following Praful and the duo of Adani & Wolf. Like his Amsterdam labelmates, Camiel provides plenty of musical moments appealing to smooth jazz fans. But, also like his labelmates, there’s a sexy European vibe that can either sound fresh or weird, depending on your musical inclinations. The inside of the CD shows two scenes with Camiel strumming a guitar, but this is not a guitar-driven CD.

There’s the feeling with this CD that you never know which direction it’s headed or even if there’s a road map. That’s refreshing. For example, things begin with the downtempo and mellow “Sunset,” programmed drums bouncing happily along in the background. More than halfway through the tune, Camiel offers a pretty guitar solo that rides over swirling synth sounds. “I’m Ready” follows “Sunset,” and features an orchestral disco hook straight from 1970s. Pretty cool. There are other disco forays, as well, with soulful female, “get into the groove”-type lyrics.

There are many great moments: “Sintra” offers Larry Carlton-like guitar playing and lyrical female vocalese; “No Fuzz” is a strange trip with weird vocal-like warbling and a salsa-like melody so infectious you wish Camiel would have given it more of a presence; “El Alba” has a Spanish guitar lead that would sound appropriate on a Marc Antoine CD; and “Eighty-Eight” is an intoxicating, swirling five minutes of bossa beats, guitar, organ and vocalese.

What everyone who hears this CD will be talking about, no question, is the continuing dialog of a man who narrates the pursuit of a classy woman he meets at a bar called Thatcher’s. Preposterously humorous, it continues with “Follow Her” and continues elsewhere on the CD on an interlude and with “I Would.” Soft background music accompanies the man’s escapade, which is narrated by an American living in Amsterdam named Boyd Small. Also narrating a tune is one Cristina Arenas Gonzalez. She speaks in Spanish on “Sigume,” and I’m pretty sure she’s not the woman being chased from Thatcher’s bar. I could be wrong, but she speaks so fast in Spanish I couldn’t get much of what she was saying.

Different. But exotically also very cool.

Smooth grade: B

Various Artists
Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love
(Rendezvous Entertainment)

Rendezvous Entertainment, a smooth jazz label, has taken a big step with Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love, a vocal album featuring an all-star cast of some of the most popular singers in the world. The CD is a sequel of sorts to the Grammy-nominated Golden Slumbers: A Father's Lullaby from 2002, which was filled with appropriately sleepy lullabies. This CD, which is “a celebration of the important role father play in their children’s lives,” is more upbeat and diverse enough with its country, folk, jazz, gospel, soul and pop songs.

The CD is the creation of saxophonist Dave Koz, who performs on the album, and his brother Jeff Koz, who also collaborated on the first CD. The 13 songs are reverential in nature, of course, and in most cases poignant and heartfelt. When praising dads, country music singer Buddy Jewell takes Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” in a new musical direction, and of course the lyrics will always manage to pull heartstrings. Richard Marx’s emotive phrasing speaks universally of a father’s responsibilities in “That’s My Job.” Daughter are sung to in Michael McDonald’s “When Scarlett Smiles” and Loudon Wainwright’s “Daughter.” Universal odes to children are handled with great tenderness by Solomon Burke on “Life Is Just a Matter of Time,” Will Downing on Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel”) and Jon Secada on “Find Me in Your Dreams.”

With Dave Matthews’ “Baby” and Carlos Ponce’s “You’ll Be in My Heart” (written by Phil Collins), listeners will hear the universal longings of parents as protectors. But perhaps the CD’s most touching tune is collaboration between smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and his brother Kevin Whalum on vocals. The song is in memory of Kirk’s son, Evan, who died after only three days on this earth.

Rounding out the CD are “You Touch My Heart” by Phil Collins, Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” as sung by R&B legend Smokey Robinson, and “Children,” a spoken-word piece by famed actor James Earl Jones inspired by a poem called “The Prophet” by legendary poet and philosopher Kahil Gibran.

A portion of proceeds from Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love will benefit the National Fatherhood Initiative, which works to improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion who grow up with involved, responsible and committed fathers. The CD will also be released in conjunction with the NFI’s annual National Golden Dads campaign sponsored every Father’s Day, where celebrity fathers reach out into the community.

Smooth vocal grade: B

Keiko Matsui
Walls of Akendora
(Narada Jazz)

Keiko Matsui’s Akendora may only exist only inside her head, but it’s a place you’ll find yourself revisiting many times over.

Matsui’s latest takes its title from a mythical location of peace. That’s in character for the pianist and composer who for more than 18 years has crafted an art form of grand, cinematic sweeps of sound. Her CDs have a comforting sameness but are filled with new, concurrent strains of energy and melancholy that listening a pleasure. On the eclectic Walls of Akendora, Matsui truly throws everything into the pot, offering pop, jazz and R&B grooves while topping it off with trendy downtempo rhythms.

A wailing trumpet segueing into a swing jazz number signals the CD’s departure from the norm. But “Overture for the City” is about as frantic as it gets. That leads into one of the pure pop of “Crystal Shadow” and its repeated bass line holding up Matsui’s understated piano performance. “Gentle Sounds” sure sounds like the hit of the bunch, while the quintessential Matsui piece, “Bay of Destiny,” offers pretty piano, orchestration a shakuhachi flute from her husband and co-producer Kazu Matsui’s shakuhachi. So beautiful, and it may have you scrambling once again for the best Yanni compositions from the early 1990s.

“Canvas” provides Akendora’s most nutritious listening. It opens with whistles and a Brazilian bossa-boogie rhythm that shakes into thought-provoking and head-nodding downtempo grooviness. Longtime Matsui fans will enjoy her updating of her classic “Mountain Shakedown” from her 1997 CD Under Northern Lights, while those in a jazz mood will dig the swing-jazz of “Walking Through It” and sophisticated drum brushes of “Blue Butterfly.”

As a treat, the CD adds a bonus DVD with eight live performances of songs from previous CDs recorded at a show in Tokyo. There’s also a video of her song “Wildflower” and a home movie shot from the road in 2004. It looks like Matsui enjoyed herself almost as much as her fans surely did.

Smooth grade: A

Doyle’s Brunch

The first thing you should know is that the band’s name is pronounced “O’Toole.” Apparently the duo of Jane Mangini (keyboards) and Al Pitrelli (guitar) are big fans of the British actor Peter O’Toole. Mangini is the main force in the band, as she is the writer, producer and mixer. The second is that “eclectic” doesn’t quite do justice to this band, which is equal parts chill, downtempo, smooth jazz, new age, funk and rock.

Oh yeah. They’re a little weird, too, but in good way. The duo previously worked with an experimental collection known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, an equally indescribable group.
But no means should you let the unique nature of O’2L get in the way of listening. Amid the many musical and voice samples, there is some genuine music going on here. There’s plenty to sink your teeth into, including an uptempo cocktail-lounge version of the Doors’ “Riders of the Storm.” Track such as “Senor Wilhelm” show off Pitrelli’s manic guitar playing, which he honed while jamming with such metal band Megadeth and shock-rocker Alice Cooper.

“Come and Get It” and “Lonely Women” hark back to the soulful fusion days, while tracks such as “Cali” and “Missing Kate” are reflective, new age-type pieces.

And there’s plenty of playfulness. “Knock Knock” has a Manhattan Transfer-like vocal thing going and, believe me, the barking dog sounds work. “City Chicken” is a funky, cabaret-type groove with wailing guitars, organs and an acoustic piano melody Joe Sample would be proud of.

Different? Oh yes. Fun? Yep. Worth listening to? Go for it.

Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at June 11, 2005 10:54 PM