Artfully blending hypnotic electronic based grooves, cool melodies and subtle world music influences, Chill music is quickly becoming a substantial subgenre in the smooth jazz radio format. Trendsetting radio station WQCD (CD 101) now dubs itself New York Chill, and Chill With Chris Botti — a two hour radio show hosted by the popular trumpeter — is syndicated in 16 major U.S. markets and growing.
While it’s always a bit debatable to give one song or artist too much credit for starting any trend, there’s no doubt that the incredible success of “Sigh” — the soulful, seductive and otherworldly 2003 track from Amsterdam based saxman/flutist Praful — helped lay the foundation. “Sigh” held the #1 slot for three consecutive weeks on Radio & Records’ Smooth Jazz airplay chart, and, perhaps indicating a younger demographic, Praful’s album One Day Deep reached Top 10 on the College Radio Electronica chart. The disc also went Top 10 and Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz and Top Electronic Albums chart.
While Rendezvous Music — the L.A. based independent label co-owned by Dave Koz — at first considered the release of “Sigh” somewhat of a risk, the gamble paid off. According to Frank Cody, one of Koz’s partners who brought Praful to the label, and the artist himself, “Sigh” unofficially generated more listener calls to smooth jazz station than any track in years.
“I like what people have been saying, that I put a face on chill,” says Praful. “I hear a lot of formula music on the radio, but people would like to hear some different new stuff as well. We shouldn’t underestimate the audience. They want to be taken on a journey, and it’s radio’s obligation to support the artists trying new things and dare a bit more. It took some effort to convince them to play the song, and I hope the response has inspired them.”
Praful knows a little something about extended sojourns, musical and otherwise, having spent significant time in and absorbing the cultural influences of India, Brazil, even parts of Africa. The cover of his new album, Pyramid In Your Backyard (Rendezvous Entertainment) teases the mind with trippy and colorful, neo-psychedelic artwork, and the 12 tracks totaling 72 minutes deliver on that promise, traversing wildly across numerous cultures (Eastern and Western), unexpected rhythm patterns, and unique ethnic instruments. Where all the exotic female vocals on his debut were sung in Portuguese, here they expand to English and Hindi.
“I didn’t try to make a ‘Two Days Deep,’ because time has passed since then and both me and my co-producers (Adani & Wolf, who also have a disc on the label) have moved on,” says Praful. “The influences are more or less the same, but I think it’s more consistent and versatile. We only used a few drum loops this time and gave a lot of room to the percussion. I wanted Pyramid to be more organic with more original rhythmic arrangements, with more variety in the singing and languages. I also wanted to feature myself a bit more, with longer solos and longer electronica parts. It had to be new and fresh. Sometimes, the magic happens instantaneously, and other times, it takes a lot of experimenting.”
A perfect example of this irresistible and mind-expanding swirl is the eight minute indigenous dreamscape “Ponto De Partida,” on which he switches from bamboo flute to harmonium to soprano, as a sexy female vocal seduces us, a throbbing groove develops slowly and a sitar toys with our peripheral hearing. The seven-minute “Says Kabir” blends a playful banjo vamp with a wash of heavily percussive hypnotic electronica, wailing voices, sax and flute. “Naked” is a true chillout tune, representing the artist’s more relaxed, spiritual side, with sparse instrumentation, gentle ambience and inspirational lyrics sung softly by Praful himself. More radio friendly is “Moonglide,” whose straightforward sax melody and easy funk are swept along a trail of sweeping, spacey effects and the occasional harmonium harmony.
“This one was written in the studio during the recording and was initiated by Adani,” says Praful. “He started off with a groove, a key and a few sound fragments. We liked the Middle Eastern string sample and kept that. Then we set up all kinds of instruments and tried out different things. The Indian harmonium gave an unusual folksy flavor to the hiphop kind of groove. The next day I came later to the studio and A&W had already chopped up my recordings and made a beat and reggae kind of skank out of it. From different snippets we composed the harmonium melody that goes over the chorus and they recorded the bass with the Moog. My first take with the melody on sax was the golden one and I kept it.”
Koz and Cody have nothing but praise for their musical find who is contributing to the next big thing in smooth jazz. “He has a purity of intention in his music, focused on making something very special for listeners,” says Cody. “He combines the gift of melody with a structure that’s out of the ordinary from normal smooth jazz. It has the genre’s essential textures, but it’s unusual enough to get attention.” Koz adds, “I love the fact that he takes what he knows from other cultures and incorporates these colors into his music. What you hear when he plays is his life.”
Speaking of great projects on Rendezvous, you’ve gotta love any kind of project that gets Koz to wear pajamas out in public — as he did at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden in 2002 to celebrate the release of the all-star smooth jazz project Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Lullaby. The dads are even more famous, and from a multitude of genres on the label’s follow-up collection, Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love, a collection of heartfelt vocals that celebrate the bond between father and child.
Phil Collins is represented twice, on his own vocal “You Touch My Heart” as well as his old Disney hit “You’ll Be In My Heart,” sung by Carlos Ponce featuring Inner Voice. Same deal with Richard Marx, who co-wrote “Dance With My Father” and also sings “”That’s My Job.” Rockers old (Loudon Wainwright III) and hip (Dave Matthews) join legends (Smokey Robinson) and newcomers (Buddy Jewell) alike. Koz appears twice, on Michael McDonald’s tender “When Scarlett Smiles” and Robinson’s friendly reading of “You Are So Beautiful.” Co-producer Jeff Koz wrote the musical backdrop for a dramatic poetry reading by James Earl Jones, which closes the eclectic set.
“Golden Slumbers started as our response to request from Jeff’s wife Unique, who wanted some soft music to put their baby to sleep with,” says Cody. “Now it’s a franchise committed to creating projects that bring families together. When you ask performers to sing for their children, something special happens. There’s a purity and intensity that raises the bar. Love is a spacious phenomenon, and there’s no end to what we can do with Golden Slumbers in the future.”
Rendezvous’s growing success with chill artists and specialty projects hasn’t precluded its growth as a hotspot for some of smooth jazz’s most enduring artists. Joining Wayman Tisdale, Marc Antoine and Michael Lington is veteran saxman Kirk Whalum, who was a mainstay at Columbia and Warner Jazz for years. His indie label debut will be a tribute to the great R&B songwriter and producer Babyface. With covers of well known R&B classics like “I Said I Love You,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Breathe Again” and “Exhale,” the collection takes on a similar vibe as Whalum’s extraordinary successful 1998 hit For You, which also featured his interpretations of great pop-soul tunes.
1) A Little Space, Box of Love (Independent Records) – John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner and multi-instrumentalist/Producer “Big Al,” together with soulful L.A. based vocalist Regi Perry, celebrate the spirit of today’s ambitious indie artist with an explosive mix of jazzy neo-soul, Memphis styled R&B, anthemic jazz fusion, soulful ballads and classical-flavored pop.
2) Amici Forever, Defined (RCA Victor)
3) Styx, Big Bang Theory (New Door Records)
4) Van Zant, Get Right With The Man (Columbia)
5) John Williams, Star Wars: Episode Three Soundtrack (Sony Classical)
New and Noteworthy
1) Gerald Veasley, At The Jazz Base! (Heads Up)
2) Jason McGuire, Distancias (Bolero Records)
3) Brian Bromberg, Choices (Artistry Music)
4) Jonathan Butler, Jonathan (Rendezvous Entertainment)
5) Down To The Bone, Spread Love Like Wildfire (Narada Jazz)