Anyone who’s ever wondered what the distinction is between a “tribute” and an “homage” need only ask Jason Miles, Grammy nominated keyboardist and producer who has become somewhat of an expert in the field over the past decade with his vibrant all-star refashionings of the music of Weather Report, Ivan Lins and Grover Washington, Jr. On last year’s Narada Jazz debut Miles To Miles, Miles applied a unique twist to the concept, creating new songs created in the image of his idol Miles Davis - whom he worked with as an up and coming keyboardist in the 80s — and based on their creative relationship.
“The more I hear typical tribute projects, the more I realize that most don’t do anything new to the music, they just do it straightforward and unimaginatively,” he says. “To me, an homage is what I’m trying to do, showing the exciting possibilities of the music. It’s about taking the familiar and turning them up a notch and doing the unexpected. It takes a lot of thought and experimentation, picking a set list and playing the tunes over and over till I find the right rhythm structure and vibe. I get so inside the music that literally every note the artist every played fills the house. I live and breathe them to the point of emotional exhaustion. On the Miles project, I went to many different places in my mind, light, dark, under and above ground. These artists lived their music, and to do them justice, I have to relive it as deeply as I can.”
Miles and Miles connected on another interesting level the last project neglected to hint at, but which Jason Miles fully explores on his beautifully rendered latest opus What’s Going On?: a deep love for the spirit and musical legacy of Marvin Gaye. The producer and keyboardist draws from a typically broad stylistic palette to bring out the deep emotion, joy and pain, romance and social consciousness of the brilliant yet tragic icon.
On the lesser-known “I Want You,” he taps into the Lins vibe with an electronica meets slow, sexy bossa caress around the soothing vocals of Chiara Civello. “Sexual Healing” is Gaye’s parting hit from 1982, but Dean Brown’s crackling, cool guitars — which sail over a trippy atmosphere which includes Moog Bass - give it a retro feel that goes back a decade further. Though the packaging will no doubt include the typically brilliant all-star names Miles projects are famous for — including Herb Alpert (who carries the lead melody on “Let’s Get It On”), Marcus Miller (whose feisty basslines take “Heavy Love Affair” to a deeper level beyond the hypnotic, oft-repeated chorus), Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein and Scott Ambush, and Bobby Caldwell — it’s the producer’s work with his lesser known charges which really stands out.
Chief among these is vocalist Mike Mattison; smooth jazz fans have long enjoyed the anthemic title song as the encore of guitarist Peter White’s shows, but Miles’ soothing atmospheres and Mattison’s gritty vocals add a crisp urgency.
Which seems to be the point — Miles isn’t simply revisiting a beloved icon, he’s using the project as a vehicle to advocate all the ideals Gaye stood for in his time. “There’s an incredible endurance to his music because of what his life was, the emotion he had in reflecting the world around him,” he says. “It’s incredible to watch his spiritual growth from these ultra-romantic songs like ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ to ‘What’s Going On?’ An artist has to live through things to evolve like this. So here was this guy from the Motown camp singing sweet love songs, and then emerging as a voice of social consciousness.
“Look at where we are thirtysome years later,” Miles adds. “He sang about the ecology then, and now we have the spectre of global warming. He sang about Vietnam, and now we have Iraq. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina revealed the same sort of social inequities we had then… the parallels go on and on. But even deeper than all that is the fact that people are still out there, looking for love but not finding it. Even though it’s embedded in a generally upbeat love song, ‘Heavy Love Affair,’ I really connected with the power of this one line: ‘Lots of ladies love me, but it’s still a lonely town.’ That just blows me away. Even when he was being light, he was going deep. That’s a trait I try to emulate, not just scratching the surface of the music, but getting intimate and uncovering the underlying emotion.”
Miles spent the last year dividing his time between the Gaye collection (a logistical challenge, like all other all-star affairs) and helming an upcoming project by Suzy Boguss, which he calls a “mix of an NY groove and Nashville vibe.” The ever-spinning, high concept wheels in his mind are also quickly developing ways to explore a new concept he came up with while mining Marvin: Mo’chill, which will bring the much needed melodic Motown touch to today’s burgeoning chill movement.
“I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with some of the greatest musicians, artists and producers of all time, from Tommy LiPuma and Luther Vandross, to Michael Brecker, Herbie Mann and Gato Barbieri,” Miles says. “I got to see these masters working their craft and bringing their art to the next level. The smart guy in my position pays attention to all that, and absorbs every moment. From these masters, I learned not only how to produce records, but to make great albums which will stand the test of time.”
Miles is one of a growing roster of smooth jazz artists at Milwaukee-based Narada Jazz, an increasingly exciting slate that includes veterans Jeff Golub, Euge Groove, Urban Knights (and its founder Ramsey Lewis), Alex Bugnon, Down To The Bone, Joyce Cooling, Steve Cole, Warren Hill, Bob Baldwin, Incognito and Jeff Lorber. The label, which began life in the 80s as a new age powerhouse, is to smooth jazz in the current decade what GRP was in the early 90s and Windham Hill Jazz was a few years later — a one stop shop for the hippest sounds in the genre.
Two newly inked artists with fresh discs just released represent the vibrant and energetic future of the genre. 23-year-old saxman Eric Darius has been such an explosive presence on radio and at festivals over the past two years, that it’s easy to forget, as the title of his Narada Jazz debut reminds us, he’s Just Getting Started. Nothing on disc could quite compare to the heart-pounding, racing around the room joyful madness of his live shows, but sizzling funk tracks like “Steppin’ Up” and “Groove On” try pretty hard. Darius chills a bit on seductive “Secret Soul,” which features the lush keyboards of project producer Brian Culbertson.
Chicago based guitarist Nick Colionne’s label debut Keepin’ It Cool is not an ode to his guitarist labelmate Cooling, but keeps his crisp and melodic, Wes Montgomery based R&B meets the blues style flowing. In addition to 11 catchy originals (he co-wrote the up-groover “If You Asked Me” with Steve Cole and Peter White), the disc features a heartfelt vocal cover of “Rainy Night In Georgia” and “High Flyin’,” his biggest radio hit to date, which stormed up the smooth jazz charts in 2004.
1) Randy Singer, Harmonica Dreams (Randy Singer Entertainment) - In listening to the veteran harmonica player's stylistically eclectic, dreamy, and high spirited debut — billed on the packaging as "the world's first smooth jazz harmonica CD" — a quote from Clifford Brown about the legendary Toots Thielemans comes to mind: "The way you play the harmonica, they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument!"
2) Native Vibe, Luna de Nosara (Third Beat Records)
3) Neil Diamond, 12 Songs (Columbia)
4) Sam Arlen, Arlen Plays Arlen (JoSam Records)
5) Madonna, Confessions On A Dance Floor (Warner Bros.)
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
1) Brokeback Mountain, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve Forecast)
2) Grant Geissman, Say That! (Futurism Records)
3) Bob James, Urban Flamingo (Koch Records)
4) Incognito, Eleven (Narada Jazz)
5) Jaco Pastorius Big Band, The Word Is Out! (Heads Up)