July 8, 2006

Smooth Sailing: Jason Miles, Nick Colionne And More

Reviews of new CDs by Jason Miles, Nick Colionne, Eric Darius, the latest Unwrapped, Maysa, Incognito, Willie and Lobo, Victor Fields and Tom Schuman.

What’s Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye (Narada Jazz)

The first two songs on veteran producer and keyboardist Jason Miles’ tribute to iconic soul man Marvin Gaye foretell that something special’s at hand. First, Mike Mattison of the Derek Trucks Band alternately sings and growls in the still-relevant protest song “What’s Going On?” Gaye’s spirit is suitably invoked. And the next tune – the equally anthemic “Sexual Healing” – shuffles along with a reggae beat punctuated by Dean Brown’s warbling guitar licks. It’s like no “Sexual Healing” you’ve heard.

Of course, Miles and company – guitarist Nick Colionne, saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and trumpeter Herb Alpert, among others – wrap their chops around many of Gaye’s best-loved tunes. But brownie points need to extended for including lesser-known tunes such as “I Want You,” with Chiara Civello’s sexy vocals bringing the song to life; “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” with Guida de Palma’s vocals; and “Distant Lover,” with Bobby Caldwell’s straining voice giving its all. To be fair, all three tunes were pop singles, but they don’t endure today like the biggies do. That would include, of course, “Let’s Get It on,” repackaged here with Alpert’s mellow trumpet lead; “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” simply stated with Miles’ keys; “Mercy Mercy Me,” taken in a new direction with Ann Drummond’s flute; and of course, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” with Colionne’s sleek guitar lines.

With now Gaye and previous CDs giving props to Grover Washington Jr., Weather Report and Ivan Lins, it apparent that future soul, fusion and smooth jazz favorites interpretations are in good hands with Jason Miles.

Keepin’ It Cool (Narada Jazz)

Nick Colionne’s smooth guitar licks have sweetened earbuds for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until 2003’s Just Come On In that many listeners sat up and noticed. That’s because the CD offered two hit singles – “It’s Been Too Long” and the No. 1 smash called “High Flyin’.” On his much anticipated follow-up, his first for Narada Jazz, the Chicago-based guitarist once again offers fluid electric guitar ditties influenced by – natch – idols Wes Montgomery and George Benson. In fact, Colionne continues his custom of including at least one song on each CD either originally recorded or inspired by Montgomery. This time it’s a recording called “John L,” a languid number that would feel comfortable in the swingin’ 1960s.

The rest of the CD is similarly compelling and tons more of a total smooth jazz package than his previous work, which presented some mainstream jazz moments. On “This Is the Song,” for example, Colionne seems to be saying that he’s got the format down with a just-about-perfect smooth jazz number that builds to a soaring, irresistible hook. The guitarist adds two, live-n-the-studio bonuses: a reworked version of “High Flyin’ ” and a too-cool take on “Rainy Night in Georgia” with low vocals. Welcome to the show.

Just Getting Started (Narada Jazz)

Technically, 23-year-old sax phenom Eric Darius has indeed started, as he is now three CDs deep. But heck, he is still in college. And he’s on the fast-track to smooth jazz stardom, having spent the past year touring as keyboardist Brian Culbertson’s sexy sax guy. Culbertson is on board as a player and producer, as are Paul Brown and Euge Groove. Thrown in veterans Jeff Lorber, Ron Reinhardt, Paul Jackson Jr., Tony Maiden and Oscar Seaton, and you’ve got a CD guaranteed to make noise.

Fortunately, Darius and friends deliver with catchy, radio-friendly pop-jazz right out of the gate with “Steppin’ Up” and don’t let till the last notes of “Slick.” So is Darius next big thing in smooth saxophone? That’s probably premature, although Just Getting Started is leaps and bounds above his 2004 Narada debut. Then, he revisited a few favorite tunes from his self-produced debut that probably should have stayed there while occasionally flashing brilliance on a few hook-ish nuggets. But with the talent largesse on board for his new project, it was unlikely – nay, impossible – for smooth jazz nirvana to be denied. At the helm of his own compositions, though, like “That’s What I’m Sayin’ ” and “Groove On,” Darius displays a free-wheelin’ style that favors playing more than melody. Refreshing.

Unwrapped Vol. 4 (Hidden Beach)

A few years ago, someone somewhere realized that kids weaned on hip-hop might like to get their freak on listening to their favorite tunes with a funky-jazz makeover. Many CD sales later, there are plenty of CDs doing just that. But it’s working both ways. The funky fusion has also given contemporary jazz fans some hip-hop samples (pun intended) without having to drop dollars on 50 Cent. In fact, it’s a good bet that most indulging in the latest in the popular Unwrapped series haven’t found the courage to pick up recent works by said 50 Cent and Fat Joe, two of the artists re-worked here.

Back on Unwrapped are its primary musicians, saxophonist Mike Phillips, trombonist Jeff Bradshaw, guitarist Dennis Nelson, keyboardist Frank McComb and violinist Karen Briggs. What’s interesting are the couple of old-school tunes, including the grayest beard in the books: the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” bass line intact but given a Latin big band treatment, and “Rollin’ With Kid N Play.” Newer classics include Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” and 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” and “21 Questions.”

The original songs may be all that, but the real winner here are fans who get to hear some top-notch jazz jamming.

Sweet Classic Soul (Shanachie)

When not recording with British funk-jazz band Incognito, singer and songwriter Maysa Leak crafts pop-jazz tunes on CDs that too often get lost among the pile of similarly soulful efforts. But on her latest, just glance at the title to see where Maysa’s going. And with radio’s cover-song-love in full swing, there’s a good chance she’ll perk up some ears. Of course, Maysa has a warm and inviting voice that – critic cliché be damned – make these songs her own. Her strengths are in the lower registers like Anita Baker, which are well-suited to selections like the piano, vocal and drummed-brushed “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack and with Barry White’s “Playing Your Game.”

Elsewhere, Maysa displays her vocal range with the falsetto-ish “Betch By Golly Wow” by the Stylistics and with Luther Vandross’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” Also getting the Maysa treatment are Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Any Love,” Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” and Rose Royce’s sublime “Wishing on a Star.”

Any new Maysa CD is worth settling down with to discover her songwriting abilities. With the classic songs on Sweet Classic Soul, she wipes out the middle man, as it were, and allows listeners to waste no time in discovering her joys.

Eleven (Narada Jazz)

Incognito doesn’t need a gimmick, but here it is: Eleven is the veteran UK band’s eleventh recording. There are 11 songs. And an 11-piece band. That aside, the latest groove- and brass-happy outing by Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick and team brings what it has for more than 25 years – in-your-face, positive-vibe funk instrumental and vocal tunes that just won’t stop, y’all. Recording with his touring band for first time, Bluey wisely brings back longtime friend and collaborator Maysa to drench soul on four exquisite tunes.

Incognito has had a few songs on the smooth jazz charts, so there’s a tendency to lump the group in with that crowd. But Incognito rarely gets played anymore – the airwaves are too tame for Bluey’s jam-band jive, which puts the focus on the playing and the groove instead of a repeated 10-second hook. That’s just fine for the club-goers and for the best way to experience Incognito, which is live.

There’s a ‘70s vibe to Eleven that’s best expressed in “It’s Just One of Those Things,” a disco-strings number featuring a duet of Maysa and Tony Momrelle. And on “Baby It’s All Right,” vocalist Imaani sounds like a new version of Chaka Kahn doing her classic “Sweet Thing.”

Zambra (Narada)

The duo of Willie Royal and Wolfgang “Lobo” Fink can normally hang out in the new age bins. But really, these guys deserve a category of their own. Call it Gypsy-chic meets surfer-dude chic (their music was heard in a surfing documentary called “Blazing Longboards,” and they’re both avid wave hoppers). They’re Ottmar Liebert on mild sedatives, but tuned down a notch from the passionate flamenco sound of guitarist Jesse Cook. On their 10th CD, guitarist Fink and violinist Royal called on longtime friend and trumpet superstar Rick Braun to perform and produce, and the result is some hard-earned magic.

In fact, Braun – who has worked with the duo on four other CDs – helps elevate Zambra to the top of Willie and Lobo’s canon. Their music has matured and diversified, assimilating the festive with the mournful. Mournful is easy with a violin of course, but on the CD’s standout track “Donde Vayo” it’s heightened by Royal’s vocalese and Braun’s smoldering, Spaghetti-western trumpet vibe. Braun again shines in “Vellas Al Viento,” where he takes a turn adding vocal flavorings. Braun also penned song dedicated to victims of last year’s devastating hurricane: “Balada Para Katrina.”

Great chemistry, and a cheap trip to Gypsy land.

Victor (Regina Records)

There’s always room for talented R&B vocalists happy to smooth out your workday or precious weekends, and Victor Fields is as good as they come these days. He’s not on the radar like contemporaries Will Downing and Freddie Jackson, but he’s respected enough to have been able to call on smooth stars such as Chris Botti and Jeff Lorber in the past. On his new CD, produced by guitarist Chris Camozzi and mixed by the Braxton Brothers’ Nelson Braxton, Fields kicks things off with a soothing tune written by Chuck Loeb called “This Could Be Paradise.” On that song and others like “Love Will Save the Day,” Fields’ soothing chops are perfect accompaniment to the positive-vibe lyrics.

Like any vocalist on the rise, Fields sprays his songs to all fields. Half the game is choosing what’s appropriate, of course, and he makes spot-on choices with Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” and his husky version of falsetto country singer Vince Gill’s “Colder Than Winter.” For jazz fans, he wraps his chops around well-worn standards “Lush Life” and “Night and Day,” with strings sweetening the overall effect.

Nothing harsh, nothing too out there. Just mellow and soulful songs that celebrate life, with a voice to die for.

Deep Chill (JazzBridge Music/Monogram Records)

For most of his career, Tom Schuman has maintained anonymity as the keyboardist for contemporary jazz group Spyro Gyra. Once in a while he feels the need to step out, and now we have his fourth solo CD. Contrary to what the clever title, there’s only a hint of chill music on the CD, best shown with “Everybody Knows.” That tune has groovy computer-enhanced vocal inflections. But most of the CD is filled with jazz, funk, R&B vocals, Latin, pop and fusion.

Schuman called on two smooth jazz performers. Saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa, normally fairly laid back on disc, comes alive on “Fearless Fostic.” And Chuck Loeb’s clean and jazzy guitar lines prop up a tune called “Redondo Beach.” Schuman’s cover choices are interesting – Elton John’s “Your Song” gets a lounge-y treatment that grows on you, but it’s time El Barge’s “All This Love” be retired as a vocal track. Conversely, Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back To Me” comes alive as a gospel-flavored piano rag.

Spryo Grya fans who crave the raw energy of Shuman, Jay Beckenstein and the rest of the boys can pick up the band’s recent CD. But for those on the hunt for mellow, adult-contemporary vibes, Schuman’s not a bad option.

Posted by Brian Soergel at July 8, 2006 5:28 AM