True to the title concept of his debut album on Shanachie, saxophonist Everette Harp has passionately dedicated himself to blowing heavily In The Moment since his first self-titled, George Duke-produced disc came out on Blue Note in 1992. His robust, urgent voice is still a solid part of the smooth jazz landscape, but like so many of his peers, he’s no longer creating those magic moments with the marketing power of a major label behind him.
Back in the early days of the genre, before the New Adult Contemporary format was officially dubbed “smooth jazz,” majors — inspired partly by the enormous success of gold and platinum selling artists like Kenny G and Najee — would cultivate new saxmen for their unique sound and give them a hefty budget and full autonomy over their tracks. The more successful the format became over the years, however, the more it began stressing the importance of airplay singles — and, according to Harp, the artist’s identity became secondary to the need for instant hits. Record companies who were once the groundbreakers and tastemakers were suddenly taking dictation from radio stations, and musical creativity became secondary to scoring that next #1 single.
As a result of the shifting landscape, majors these days are largely out of the smooth jazz game, and veterans like Everette Harp, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Najee and Richard Elliot have all found healthy homes on independent labels. Before landing at Shanachie — which helped make In The Moment Harp’s very first disc to debut at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart — the saxman had to endure the struggle of watching his previous effort, the solid All For You, get lost in the tumble of the once thriving A440 Music.
“The biggest change that has occurred with the rise of indie labels is that there are so many more artists out there vying for airplay and chart space,” says Harp. “It seems like everyone can put out a record now, and the most important thing is that they play a nice melody. In the early days of smooth jazz, and even in the heyday of jazz fusion, everyone who put out an album was a solid artist with the potential to endure. Companies would only sign viable players with a distinct vibe. That fit me perfectly because in the mix with the pop songs I write I always like to stay away from the norm and play hard. Now, labels will sometimes put out artists who simply emulate the sound that radio wants. So things get a bit diluted.”
Harp seems to have found the best of both worlds at Shanachie, which actually had its eye on him as a potential artist for their roster even as A440 was folding. “They’re really a well-oiled machine, and they knew from the start what they wanted to do with me,” he says. “They approached me and told me they didn’t just want one hit record and out, but were committed to me for the long haul. The fact that I debuted at #1 speaks volumes. They put their money where their promises were.”
Still mindful of what today’s marketplace demands, Harp chose Rex Rideout to help him keep his sometimes overly artsy tendencies in check. Rideout, a proven genre hitmaker with credits that include Gerald Albright, Najee, Richard Elliot and Boney James, produced one cut on All For You. This time, Harp used him as a sounding board throughout and he co-produced six cuts, including the gospel blues explosion “Holla” (with Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar), the sweet seduction “Just As You Are,” and the sizzling and brassy, throbbing retro blues track “No Bout A Doubt It.” Harp trusted his own instincts and produced the track that became In the Moment’s first single, “Monday Speaks,” which was written by labelmate Chuck Loeb and features Norman Brown.
“Rex is musical enough so that he doesn’t handcuff me, but if I got self-indulgent on a solo at any point, he’d kindly sway me back to reality,” Harp says. “Because this album marks another new beginning for me, I wanted to make some changes in my writing and production approach, and Rex was the first person I thought of to help me get to the next level. On the personal side, I just love his vibe, and he’s a great guy and an extraordinary musician. I knew we were onto something when we wrote four songs in the first four days we hung out together!”
Harp has an easy answer for the logical question of why he stays in the game when such a corporate, cookie cutter mentality has largely taken over for the true fostering of creativity that existed when he began his solo career 14 years ago. “The romantic answer for me and my fellow artists is, that’s what we do,” he says. “We each have an audience who loves what we do and supports us. It becomes like a drug you want more of. For me, it’s just so incredible to get out there and play for the fans, knowing some of the personal stories about how my music has impacted their lives. Playing the sax is a God given ability, and nothing can really interfere with the joy of just doing everything I can to express gratitude for the gift.”
British born neo-soul influenced guitarist Chris Standring is another smooth jazz artist newly signed to an indie label (Trippin’ N Rhythm) who perfectly balances radio friendliness and a more trad jazz expressiveness on the eminently listenable Soul Express. While he produced ten of the slightly chill oriented light funk tracks with his longtime partner, old school groove keyboardist Rodney Lee, Standring turned to the genre’s premiere hitmaking producer, Paul Brown, for assistance on the sensual, catchy and sweetly atmospheric mid-tempo tune which became the obvious first single, “I Can’t Help Myself.”
“Artists can get self-indulgent and guys like Paul know where we have to stop,” says the guitarist. “I brought him the song and he told me to keep the track but rewrite the melody, especially the chorus, and it worked. Aside from pushing me to write a catchier tune, he’s brilliant in the mixing room. He’s good at understanding simplicity and what a song needs. He’s a bridge between the artist and the listener.”
While Soul Express — also the name of his packaged touring group with Jeff Lorber and singer Jody Watley - is chock full of shimmering tracks in this vein, Standring goes slightly bop with his crisp improvisational playing on the final two tracks, the Booker T flavored “Shooting Stars” and especially “Giant Steps,” a Coltrane standard which keeps the familiar solo section but includes reharmonized verses. Standring always loved Pat Metheny’s bossa version, and here achieves the definitive electronica take.
“With smooth jazz radio being so conservative these days, it’s not always an easy climate to make a fresh recording in,” he says. “It’s interesting that chill is now so popular because my first album Velvet in 1998 had that very European vibe to it. The key for me has always been to make music I enjoy playing and making the best record I can in a way that’s true to myself.”
1) Angelyna Martinez, Labor of Love (Mexiscott Music) – This San Antonio native has been dubbed the “Gwen Stefani of Jazz” for her unique, sexy and breathy vocal stylings, which weave a sensuous magic on sparse trio arrangements of Billie Holliday chestnuts and add explosive new energy to “Route 66” and a scorching big band arrangement (with scat galore) of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
2) Merle Jagger, Rancho Los Angeles (LPJ Records)
3) John Pizzarelli/The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc)
4) Jim Self, Innerplay (Basset Hound Records)
5) Jon Faddis, Teranga (Koch Records)
New and Noteworthy
1) Greg Vail, The Gospel Truth Revisited (Greg Vail Music)
2) Jack Prybylski, Window Shopping (SuShan Music)
3) Bill Cantos, Love Wins (GIC Productions)
4) Andy Snitzer, Some Quiet Place (Native Language)
5) Tiba, Jukebox Baby (Fynsworth Alley)