Is smooth jazz alive and well?
For years now, many of the genre’s artists and its most ardent fans (known as P-1’s by radio station program directors in the format) have been complaining that sales are down and playlists are too limiting. Veteran artists with vibrant new releases often have to compete with their classic material as they contend with the “greatest hits” mentality dictated to many stations by the demographic research firm Broadcast Architecture. Among these “hits” are an endless stream of pop and soul oldies that bore listeners waiting to hear new tracks from Dave Koz, Praful, Bona Fide, Euge Groove, etc.
Now for the good news: 2005 yielded a bumper crop of so many great releases that narrowing down to a Top 10 list was difficult; it was painful to leave off winners like Paul Brown’s The City, Bona Fide’s Soul Lounge, Brian Simpson’s It’s All Good and Gregg Karukas’ Looking Up. On the West Coast, winery series and festivals — from the Catalina Island Jazz Trax event (which hits its 20th anniversary this year) to the Old Pasadena Jazz Fest — were packed with boisterous crowds as always.
Package tours have never been more popular, with three major traveling ensembles — Jazz Attack (Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Peter White, Jonathan Butler), Dave Koz & Friends and the perennial Guitars & Saxes — sizzling all summer. And “smoothies” seem to have enough enthusiasm and cash to now support a total of three annual genre specific cruises. Braun and Elliot’s gamble in rejecting major label deals to create their own indie label, ARTizen Records, is paying dividends already; Elliot’s single “People Make The World Go Round” tied a record by spending 11 weeks at #1 on Radio & Records smooth jazz airplay chart.
But don’t take the critic’s word for it — let’s ask the folks that make the music. More specifically, a newcomer (saxman Andre Delano) whose debut (Full Circle) on an upstart label (7th Note) is one of the year’s best (it includes a single, “Night Riders,” which was remixed by Jeff Lorber); and a veteran “founding father” (David Benoit), who took a sharp but inspiring left turn, putting radio friendliness on hold to pursue his lifelong passion for Orchestral Stories on his first effort for Peak Records.
“Where I’m at on the ground level, I see a revolution going on, and a lot of frustration among the musicians who are not getting an opportunity to make a difference,” says Andre Delano, a veteran sideman who has played with R&B icon Maxwell as well as Jeff Lorber, Peter White and Chieli Minucci. “When enough artists are upset, things will start shifting. My album is receiving airplay on 50 so called secondary markets, including many college stations, and many of the major outlets say they’re dying to play my stuff, but they have to get the OK from B.A. Just like in any other industry where there’s this kind of monopoly for so long, an underground movement starts to build.
“How do you change the face of smooth jazz?” he adds. “By bringing in new faces and being bold enough to take a chance. I’m very optimistic because I love creating music and I’m making new friends and fans all the time who enjoy what I do and can help me get to the next level. I don’t think the genre is sick, but it could be healthier. If you’ve got to give people more choices and there’s quality in the diversity, people will respond.”
Most longtime David Benoit fans are aware that even as he has amassed one of the most consistently successful catalogs in smooth jazz, he’s also scored films and conducted orchestras around the world; he took over the California-based Asia America Symphony Orchestra in 2001, and also founded the Asia America Youth Orchestra. Orchestral Stories, on which Benoit conducts the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, is a culmination of this long developing side of his artistry; the collection includes an elegiac tribute to “9/11” (featuring Dave Koz), a six part symphonic tone poem (Kobe) and a piano concerto in six movements (The Centaur and The Sphinx).
“Everyone’s been asking me, so does this mean you’re done with smooth jazz?” says Benoit, who was one of the artists played by 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles in its very first hour on the air back in 1987. “And the answer is no. Though I’ve considered moving on various times, I’m currently talking to different producers about my next genre project. It’s a different world now, the format is more competitive and they’re playing less new music. After branching out into what some might call more serious composing, the challenge is coming back with something fresh and current. But I really do still love playing smooth jazz and it’s still what pays my bills! If Bob James could do a straight ahead record and then come back and make more pop-oriented hits with Fourplay, I know I can do it.”
From the artist’s perspective, Benoit says the reason he and his peers stick with smooth jazz in the face of any potential economic struggles is simple: “We get to feel like superstars, even for a brief moment. When we play wineries and festivals and get the fans going, they treat us like we’re The Beatles or the Stones! It’s really incredible that instrumental artists can achieve that sort of stature, and we owe it all to the radio format that has exposed what we do. Commercials stations playing traditional jazz and classical music are all but extinct, so smooth jazz is one of the few outlets for instrumental music. We have to keep that going.
“Sure, it’s going through a lot of changes,” he says. “From bebop, to the cool jazz of the 60’s to jazz fusion, every genre has its heyday in a sense, and you never know how long anything will last. But it’s still fun, the fans are great, the camaraderie among musicians is wonderful and smooth jazz has the nicest people of any genre I’ve ever met. It may sound corny, but that’s the kind of magic you want to call home. I’ve enjoyed my little sojourns but here I am again. I always come back.”
1) David Lanz & Gary Stroutsos, Spirit Romance (Narada) – After a few successful jaunts into smooth jazz, new age maverick David Lanz teams with longtime friend and fellow genre icon Gary Stroutsos to create a lush and elegant set that beautifully blends melodic and rhythmic simplicity with spacious, soothing ambience.
2) So Amazing, An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross (J Records)
3) 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak)
4) The Jones Gang, Any Day Now (AAO Music)
5) Neal Schon, Beyond The Thunder (Higher Octave)
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
1) Michael O’Neill, Funky Fiesta (Green Bean Records)
2) George Benson, Live (GRP)
3) Rick Braun, Yours Truly (ARTizen)
4) Ramsey Lewis, With One Voice (Narada Jazz)
5) Boy Katindig, Groovin’ High (Kool Kat Productions)