January 7, 2006

Smooth Sailing: Brian Simpson, Euge Groove, Paul Hardcastle and More

New CDs from Brian Simpson, Euge Groove, Paul Hardcastle, Paul Brown, Kyle Eastwood, Paul Taylor and Earl Klugh.

Brian Simpson
It’s All Good

If you were listening to smooth jazz radio 10 years ago, you probably heard a little gem of a ditty called “Closer Still” by a pianist named Brian Simpson. You can still hear the song today, but Simpson hasn’t been heard on the airwaves since. Until now that is, with the release of It’s All Good. Simpson has a good excuse for the delay as the veteran session player for Norman Brown, Everette Harp, Michael Paulo, Najee and many others took on the weighty responsibilities as saxophonist Dave Koz’s music director.

When Simpson decided it was time to record another CD, he conveniently had an in with Koz, who just so happens to be the co-founder and senior VP for creative development at Rendezvous Entertainment. Koz liked Simpson’s demos, and the result is a 10-track CD of laid-back piano jazz that rates as one of the year’s best examples of subgenre. Simpson may have had an advantage as Koz’s musical director, but It’s All Good certainly works as a title. Like David Benoit CDs of years past, it’s a project of all original compositions written or co-written by Simpson that focus on the acoustic piano.

Simpson draws on the talents of Rendezvous labelmates Koz, guitarist Marc Antoine and saxophonist Michael Lington, but it’s the pianist’s knack for melody and the hook that drive the CD. With the title track and “It Could Happen,” he shows that a decade behind the scenes hasn’t dulled his knack for bright and uptempo grooves. And with “Here With You” and “Waiting,” he shows he knows a thing or two about ballads. In fact, the first eight songs are picture-perfect smooth jazz. Simpson draws on his love for straight-ahead jazz on the CD’s last two tracks, but smooth jazz fans will enjoy these as well: “Blues for Scott” is an original song Simpson wrote for his son, but it expresses the enjoyable melody of jazz classics you’ve heard and loved before. Finally, “Au Contraire” is a swinging bopper with a running bass line and Perry Hughes’ funky electric guitar soloing.

Euge Groove
Just Feels Right
(Narada Jazz)

Many artists say their latest CD is unlike anything they’ve done before when in fact it’s hard to tell the difference. So while saxophonist Euge Groove’s fourth does sound a little different while still maintaining his smooth jazz groove, much of what is really different about the CD occurred behind the scenes. To get a true feel for the musical era that influenced him most – the early 1970s – Euge for the most part decided to use only instruments and recording equipment made before 1976, including saxophones. To record the album, which was co-produced by Paul Brown, Groove used analog machines and analog tape, which were widely used before today’s digital era.

In addition, instead of calling on today’s most popular smooth jazz players to help him out musically, the saxophonist recruited old-school musicians Clarence McDonald on keyboards, Freddie Washington on bass, Ray Parker Jr. and David T. Walker on guitar, Lenny Castro on percussion and James Gadson on drums.

The result of all this is sublime smooth jazz that rocks, grooves and succeeds at recalling an earlier era. Although the CD features 11 songs, three are simply interludes that he calls “gimmealilclick,” “gonnatakeyouhigher” and “cantstopthefunk.” The interludes are included since Groove decided to, in another nod to the past, make a complete CD from beginning to end, a rarity in today’s 99-cent downloads. After the first interlude, the CD kicks off with the first single, the raucous “Get ‘Em Goin’,” a bold and brassy musical statement. McDonald’s keyboard solo at the song’s end definitely recalls the groovy ‘70s. And although the next track, “Chillaxin,” is Groove in a modern mood, the rest of the music is definitely old-school in nature. The one cover, “Just My Imagination,” features finger snaps and will put a sunny smile on your face, while “12:08 AM” will do the same.

“Straight Up” is the funkiest tune and is driven by a blues bass line. “This Must Be for Real” and “Just Feels Right” are bookends, catchy singles with a sunny disposition like some of the most memorable songs from the ‘70s. The former features light strings and is even a tad corny in an endearing way, while the latter is a masterful ballad. The CD closes with “Ballerina Girl,” where Groove keeps it simple with his sax over light synth work and some beautiful Spanish guitar.

Paul Hardcastle
Hardcastle 4
(Trippin ‘n’ Rhythm)

British smooth jazzer Paul Hardcastle alternates between his Jazzmasters and Hardcastle CDs, so fans may be wondering – what’s the difference? Well, Hardcastle himself says the Hardcastle CDs are a bit more experimental, while Jazzmasters ones are more controlled. What I’ve discovered, though, is that Hardcastle projects – like the latest one – feature more instrumental selections. And while the Jazzmasters CDs feature the sublime vocals of Helen Rogers, Hardcastle 4 didn’t have to look far for a brand-new singer – Hardcastle’s 19-year-old daughter Maxine. (That’s n-n-n-n-nineteen to all you who remember Hardcastle’s anti-Vietnam War dance anthem from 20 years ago).

Hardcastle fans may recall that he once wrote a song dedicated to his daughter, appropriately enough called “Maxine,” that remains one of his fans’ favorites. Now she’s all grown up and adds her breathy and sexy chops to three songs on the new CD, which she also co-wrote. Her voice sounds much like Rogers’, and does justice to “Was It Love,” “Where Are You Now” and especially on the sublime “Smooth Jazz Is Bumpin'." (The CD closes with an untitled track of a 6-year-old Maxine singing like a rock star as only kids can. Very cute.)

The remaining nine instrumentals are among the best Hardcastle has ever done, beginning with the CD’s first single, “Serene.” As its title suggest, the tune is simple and melodic and features electric guitar from Adam Drake, who also returns with some rock stylings in “Straight Ahead.” Everyone’s using drum machines these days, but Hardcastle of course was a pioneer and the in-the-groove percussion throughout the CD is always a highlight of any Hardcastle project. But Snake Davis and Scott Brooker do add some real saxophone sounds.

Each Hardcastle CD features semi-mystical tracks, and the selections here are “Eastern Winds” and “Journey of the Lost Tribes” with their sampled flutes, strings, vocals and assorted jungles noises. Whether the songs are mystical, mellow or driving, they are all the epitome of smooth and polished music, easy to listen to over and over again.

Paul Brown
The City

Paul Brown should no longer be known as “just” a super-producer hitmaker for Smooth Jazz artists. As his second CD proves, in addition to being smooth jazz’s primary architecture of sound over the past 15 years, he’s also now becoming one of its leading hitmakers. His debut, Up Front, featured two hit singles, “24/7” and “Moment by Moment.”

“Cosmic Monkey,” a trippy track that loops along with the sublime scatting of Jeffrey Osborne. Brown is a guitarist, but he’s also been known to scat on his songs and he does here on “Food for the Moon.” The whole album has a vibe that’s typified by these two songs, a kind of past meets the future. Brown’s ‘60s and ‘70s influences are clear, but they are ushered into modern times by his superb production values – natch – and those of Croatian native D.C., who bring a subtle chill vibe to some of the tunes. The title song speaks to Brown’s fond look back at his favorite music, as here he chooses a slightly obscure 12-minute song by the Mark-Almond Band. Anyone over 35 or so may recognize the song when hearing Brown’s take on it – for those who don’t, he adds an instrumental version of it you’ll probably dig.

The CD’s best moment comes on “Real Mutha For Ya,” where Brown delves into downright funkiness on the Johnny “Guitar” Watson blues classic. Brown picks up a talkbox for maximum trippiness a la Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel (Like We Do)” from 30 years ago. It just may be first smooth jazz song ever to use the talkbox exclusively throughout. But Brown’s bread-and-butter tunes are the midtempo slow burns such as “Side Steppin’,” with Wendy Moten’s summery vocalese, and the Wes Montgomery-inspired moments like Brown’s “Hello Again” and the Chuck Loeb co-written “Las Vegas.” Throw in a few memorable ballads and a peppy guitar version of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Winelight” and it’s clear that Brown has found his niche as a solo player.

Kyle Eastwood
Paris Blue

It’s not surprising that one of the first things you hear on Kyle Eastwood’s sophomore CD is the whistling of his famous dad, Mr. Clint Eastwood. The senior Eastwood is one of the country’s best-known fans of straight-ahead jazz and obviously has left his mark on the junior Eastwood. Now, the 37-year-old bass player has the distinction of being the first mainstream jazz artist signed to Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, which has concentrated on recruiting smooth jazz and chill artists.

Koz shows his musical savvy with this signing. Don’t get the idea that Paris Blue is a traditional jazz record, as Eastwood finally becomes one of the first artists to fuse jazz, smooth jazz and chill music. And much more. What recent jazz record has not one but two dance-hall remixes? Mostly recorded in Paris, where Eastwood lives (he also spends a lot of time in London), the CD has some jazzy moments but probably won’t be the kind of CD jazz purists give their thumbs-up to. But their loss is the smooth jazz fan’s gain, as the CD fuses jazz, chill music, world and – as mentioned – dance.

Clint’s whistling comes on the opening track, “Big Noise (From Winnetka),” a swinging tune originally recorded by the late jazz bassist Bob Haggart. It’s a romp, with spiraling bass lines, record scratches and some jazzy playing by bandmembers Doug Webb on saxophone and Jim Rotondi on trumpet. It’s followed by “Marrakech,” which as you might expect evokes images of the exotic and haunting city and has a chillish vibe. Those first two are remixed later on the CD and are worthy of your feet’s attention, as the reggae grooves, staccato drum loops and Eastwood’s in-your-face electric bass make these infectious listening.

“Muse” would fit on smooth jazz radio, with its muted trumpet lead and midtempo rhythm section, while “Le Pont Royal” and “Solferino” play around with the kind of smoky jazz that’s a joy to listen to. And while the title track harkens back to the jazz-fusion of the 1970s, “Cosmo” recalls the big, bold and brassy funk tunes of the same era. Paris Blue is a bold statement by an artist who uses traditional jazz as simply a starting point. No boundaries here.

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.

Earl Klugh
Naked Guitar
(Koch Records)

There’s no doubt that Earl Klugh, one of the founders of the smooth jazz format, plays some of the prettiest acoustic guitar around. He’s done if for years, on both smooth jazz and traditional jazz projects. His latest CD is his first since 1999’s Peculiar Situation, which was one of his best smooth jazz efforts, if not the best. But those expecting something similar to that classic will not find it here as – and you probably guessed this from the title – Naked Guitar is simply Klugh playing solo guitar.

As he did on his first solo guitar CD from 1989 called, not surprisingly, Solo Guitar, Klugh goes out of his way to make sure his fans know what they’re in for, even placing a disclaimer on the back of the CD that reads, “This CD contains solo guitar performances.” All that said, Naked Guitar is perfect for background listening – it maintains Klugh’s “pretty” touch – and features mostly recognizable jazz and pop songs that most fans will recognize as Klugh interprets them. Among the titles? You’ll hear new versions of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “The Summer Knows,” “Moon River” and even the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And you’ll be smiling when you hear Klugh take a stroll through “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Thirteen of the 14 songs on the CD have never been recorded by Klugh, who spontaneously takes different approaches with most of the songs’ melodies. The one song that many fans will recognize is one of the guitarist’s best and most famous: “Angelina.” The acoustic, simple version of that classic is by itself worth the cost of the CD. But, in a way, it just further serves to whet the appetite for some new and original smooth jazz or even a more mainstream jazz. There may be some hope on the horizon, as Klugh has said that he’s also writing songs for a CD of melodic music.

Posted by Brian Soergel at January 7, 2006 5:35 AM