Wayman Tisdale’s accolade-filled 12 year career as an NBA all-star for the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns worked wonders in preparing him for the one thing many smooth jazz stars take a while to get used to: adoring fans. The ever-jovial, always accommodating 6’9” bassist, who toured this past summer with labelmates Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler and Brian Simpson as part of the Rendezvous All-Stars Package, laughs when his colleagues seem tired after signing some 400 post-concert autographs.
“I can’t say that fast breaks and slam dunks have helped me make great albums or become a good live entertainer,” he says, “but when I was playing basketball, I’d be with my teammates and we would meet and sign T-shirts and basketballs for thousands of fans at a time at malls all over the place. When I sit down to write and record new music, I have no idea who’s going to be listening to it or if they’re going to be a fan. So I really cherish every person who takes the time to wait in line to meet me. Connecting with the audience never gets old for me.”
Judging from the response so far to his second Rendezvous disc Way Up!, those already sizeable crowds around the guy label co-owner Dave Koz affectionately calls “the Jolly Green Giant” are going to get even bigger. The album, which keeps Tisdale’s distinctive and plucky, high toned bass as the melodic lead throughout as he ensembles with Koz, Butler and genre stars Jeff Lorber, Bob James, Kirk Whalum, Tom Braxton and George Duke, was an instant #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart.
On the strength of the tour and the infectious first radio single, a playful cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It” — which follows in the old school pop-funk spirit of his 2004 #1 airplay hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” — Way Up! scanned upwards of 8,000 CDs its first week, more than pop stars Jamie Foxx and Mariah Carey — truly amazing figures for smooth jazz these days.
“I think everyone is just responding to the overall vibe of the album, which is not just a nice feeling, but more like a state of being for me,” says Tisdale. “Wherever people are when they’re listening to it, I want them to feel good, way up and upbeat about life and think better about things afterwards. It’s been over ten years and six albums since my first project Power Forward, and I think the music reflects my feeling that I’m more comfortable with who I am now than ever before.
“I’m also excited that smooth jazz listeners are embracing the bass as a lead instrument, and I wish there were more bassists who would play it the way I do,” he adds. “I feel like I’m just following in the tradition of Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke in making it a viable melodic axe. I approach it not just rhythmically but melodically, as if it were a sax or a human voice. A great song is about telling a story you can sing along to, and that’s what I love to do.”
In addition to featuring titles reflecting the positive, forward thinking vibe of the album title (“It’s A Good Day,” for example), each track reflects a unique individual element of Tisdale’s life. He covers “Get Down On It” and Sly Stone’s “”If You Want Me To Stay” (taking a bluesy approach with the help of Kirk Whalum) not simply for commercial reasons, but because “I’m a real fan of real music. I like to think of myself as the self-appointed ambassador of old school!”
In this vein, he funks it up big time on George Duke’s “Tell It Like It Is,” mixing his bubbly bass, throbbing modern grooves, and splashes of brass amidst Duke’s 70s keyboard flavors. With the help of Jeff Lorber and Eric Benet, respectively, he shows love for his wife Regina and four children (ages 11 to 23) on the tenderhearted romantic gems “Shape Of Your Heart” and “Sweet Dreams.” Koz adds a graceful soprano touch to “My Son (A Song For Bubba),” another lush ballad that Tisdale dedicates to 15-year-old Wayman, Jr. (whose spoken words also appear on the song). Tisdale grew up in a Tulsa church led by his father, the Rev. Louis Tisdale, and faith plays a beautiful role in the expansive, soulful and beautifully ambient closing track “Sunday’s Best,” which features Butler’s soul stirring (as always) wordless vocals.
This blend of happy grooves and candlelight comes across with a huge smile onstage during every Tisdale performance, which sparks a party from the first few notes. Rather than be intimidated by his massive presence, his fellow musicians and fans riff on the physical differences and embrace him like an oversized, shaven head teddy bear. Considering his natural rapport these days with his adoring fans, and his incredible confidence both as a live performer and recording artist, it’s hard to believe that he was once what he calls “the shyest guy in the room,” turning away from the audience a la Miles.
“When I played with the Kings (1989-94), I had friends who had bands that would play around town and ask me to sit in and solo,” he says. “No matter how successful I was on the courts, I remember that I couldn’t even face the audience the first times I played because I was so nervous they wouldn’t like me. But when everyone started responding and asking for more, it got easier. I learned a lot from those Sacramento musicians, and the confidence grew with more experience and time onstage. About five years ago, I really started focusing on what it takes to become a good entertainer. Once I got more comfortable with my axe, that became a given, secondary to the showmanship. The bottom line in smooth jazz is that you can play a million notes on an instrument but if the audience is not entertained, you haven’t done your job. It’s about getting up there and keeping everyone’s spirits way up!”
This past year, “covermania” has taken over the smooth jazz airwaves, with many top artists devoting whole projects exclusively to new approaches to pop hits — Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun, Eric Marienthal and Philippe Saisse, to name a few. Fans getting a bit fed up with the trend might view Peter White’s instantly likeable Playing Favorites (Sony Legacy) as just another jump on the bandwagon, but he was actually on the case 12 years ago — long before the craze started. Two of the incredible 13 #1 Radio & Records airplay hits he’s enjoyed over the years, “The Closer I Get To You” and “Walk On By” (from 1994’s Reflections), have become enduring staples of the format. The acoustic guitarist’s recent rediscovery of the original demos from that hit project sparked his interest in creating a whole new project in this vein. As he did with his 2001 hit “Who’s That Lady?”, he sets out to mine the deeper romance and soul of songs from the past four decades that we all know from their first notes. “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” is the first radio hit, but White seems most inspired on colorful arrangements of “Sunny,” “Hit The Road Jack” (which features voices and cool fingersnaps) and the best track, a brassy, flute spiced take on “Mister Magic,” which was arranged by Paul Brown.
1) Tiba, Jukebox Baby (Fynsworth Alley) – This stylish and sexy young singer, who grew up listening to hits of the 40s and 50s on her parents’ Wurlitzer 1015 jukebox, shows a natural gift for mining the great joy, humor, romance and cabaret potential in spirited arrangements of standards and early pop hits, most effectively on the sizzling, Latin-spiced “Sway” and the big band flavored “Tuxedo Junction.”
2) Nancy Wilson, Turned To Blue (MCG)
3) Mike Stern, Who Let The Cats Out? (Heads Up)
4) Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, The Phat Pack (Immergent)
5) Regina Carter, I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)
New and Noteworthy
1) Glenn Jones, Forever: Timeless R&B Classics (Shanachie)
2) Fourplay, Ten (RCA Victor)
3) Doc Powell, Doc Powell (Heads Up)
4) Lee Ritenour, Smoke ‘N Mirrors (Peak)
5) Soul Providers, Smooth Urban Grooves (Fast Life)