Dan Siegel’s output since his late 80s-early 90s radio heyday may be a bit spotty, but every few years, the versatile keyboardist comes back with a gem that reminds us just why he was so influential in smooth jazz’s toddler years. Almost two decades ago, he helped define the melodic joys of the genre with his bestselling album Northern Nights and still-played radio hits like “Rhapsody.”
In those days, Siegel was setting trends, and now, over 25 years into his recording career, he’s happily defying them with his second Native Language disc that truly lives up to its moniker as a Departure from his tried and true approach. An all acoustic, live in the studio date featuring three performers who are as adept at straight ahead as smooth jazz - bassist Brian Bromberg, saxman Bob Sheppard and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta - the collection effortlessly mixes Siegel’s grooving pop sensibilities with his traditional jazz roots.
Like his fellow contemporary jazz fellow statesmen Tom Scott and Lee Ritenour, Siegel has always had an equal love for bebop even while cranking out the pop and funk. Departure doesn’t quite jaunt into that sacred territory, but the organic setup allows for a lot of jazzy spontaneity within his usual accessible framework. He’s come full circle with Colaiuta, who played the skins way back when on Northern Nights.
“I don’t want to scare anyone away, but this is a concept I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” he says. “I always wanted to play in the context of traditional jazz with a drummer playing brushes, and the ambience created by all unplugged instruments. We cut all the tracks live, and people don’t just make records like this anymore, particularly in smooth jazz where commerce unfortunately takes precedence sometimes over art. Going into these sessions, I wanted to see what would happen if you put four guys together with some basic song structures, and just let all of us do what comes naturally to us.”
Siegel has high praise for his cohorts, particularly Bromberg, who wound up co-producing Departure. “I’ve worked with Vinnie many times, and he played on my big hits,” he says. “A lot of the tunes here took different turns because of the way he turned the groove upside down. To me, Bob Sheppard is the ultimate sax player and I felt at ease giving him more complex harmonies. I had never recorded with Brian before, but he was immediately interested once Vinnie hooked us up. He’s a great big picture kind of guy, willing to forgo the little details to make sure I was always on track. These guys helped me reconnect with my lifelong love for Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Their playing inspired me years ago and still affects me.”
The first two tracks, the soaring, wordless vocal enhanced “Across The Sea” and the easy strutting funk tune “Street Talk” (featuring Norman Brown), show that Siegel can still be radio friendly, no matter the instrumentation. Although being on a smooth jazz oriented label like Native Language means there has to be a “hit single,” the keyboardist stuck to the integrity of the overall project by giving it what he calls an “old school CTI early 70s George Benson flavor.”
Siegel starts digging deep on “Mosaic,” whose dark and shadowy piano and sax textures rise coolly over the gentle rumble of bass and drums. The title track opens in a moody tone, then goes sunny with a spirited piano romp over aggressive high hat percussion and a bubbly bassline. Siegel contrasts this vibe with a breezy Vince Guaraldi sensibility on “Shades of Gray” (which features Grant Geissman on guitar). He can try all he wants to be gloomy, but at heart, Siegel is an optimistic romantic who has always had a great facility to write heart-tugging ballads. The emotional core of Departure is three songs in this vein: “From Here On Out,” “A World Away” and the elegant closer “Alone,” which includes Colaiuta’s restrained brushes and Sheppard’s soaring, lyrical sax.
For Siegel, introducing his built in smooth jazz audience an artsier side may incur a slight commercial risk, but in this current radio hit driven climate — where “cutting edge” means doing an album without generic cover songs — it’s easily one of the most inspired outings of the year. “Anytime you hire Vinnie or Brian, there’s going to be an element of brilliance that most smooth jazz today just doesn’t have,” he says. “This was a record I made out a desire to go in and play in a more organic way. Anytime you put an acoustic bass in there, it’s going to sound more classic, less modern and funky, a little sideways or taken down a notch. I’d like to pursue this kind of subtle ensemble thing in the future.”
The only possible frustration in Brian Simpson’s incredible emergence as a genre solo artist this year — which includes a #1 smooth jazz radio single with the title track from his Rendezvous Music debut It’s All Good — is that it should have happened over a decade ago. Back in 1995, the versatile keyboardist released the equally infectious Closer Still on Michael Paulo’s then thriving label Noteworthy Records. The disc was ahead of its time in two ways — it had an unmistakable urban flavor that would soon become the genre’s dominant vibe, and included a jamming cover (almost a requirement these days) of Janet Jackson’s “Because of Love,” an ode to his time briefly touring with the superstar.
In the intervening years, Simpson built up a ton of goodwill among genre fans as Dave Koz’s keyboardist and musical director. Even while building an incredible resume as a sideman (Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Larry Carlton, Gerald Albright), Simpson has always been working on demos of his own music. When Koz and two partners launched Rendezvous a few years ago, they liked what Simpson showed them and encouraged him to the point where his label debut would be chock full of potential hits.
The good news for fans into deeper music is that Simpson’s idol as a kid growing up in Chicago was Oscar Peterson. While he always adds a spunky sense of improvisation into his pop tunes, he balances airplay friendly tunes like “It’s All Good” and the follow-up single “Saturday Cool” with the contemplative “Blues for Scott” and the raucous, happy bebop-flavored jam “Au Contraire.”
“I have a unique style of writing, and since I’m a real jazz musician, listeners are going to hear a real jazz soloist, rather than just a nice melody and fancy production,” says Simpson, whose big band at Northern Illinois University once toured with Clark Terry. “I have to put a little meaty bebop into what I play because it’s the music I loved growing up. In this format, you sort of have to sneak it in, but it’s there for those who listen closely.
“Piano is a much harder instrument to write for than sax,” he adds, “but my songs play to its strengths, doing the melody with my right hand and comping or adding edgier chords with the left. Becoming a full-fledged solo artist has taken me a long time, but a radio hits works wonders. I play the first notes of ‘It’s All Good’ and fans start cheering. At Tokyo’s Blue Note, I was billed equally with Dave Koz and Kirk Whalum. Not only is it all good, it’s kind of unbelievable!”
1) Jeanne Newhall, Wild Blue (Blix Street) – Bookending her gently beautiful and haunting originals with an ethereal take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and a graceful soft jazz take on “These Foolish Things,” the versatile, classically trained pianist and singer proves masterful in finding subtle ways to touch the heart.
2) The Matt Savage Trio, Quantum Leap (Savage Records)
3) Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, The Phat Pack (Immergent)
4) Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol)
5) Bill Cantos, Love Wins (GIC Productions)
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY
1) J Thompson, Inside World (AMH Records)
2) Patrick Yandall, Samoa Soul (Zangi Records)
3) Marilyn Scott, Innocent of Nothing (Prana Entertainment)
4) Jazzmasters V (Trippin N’ Rhythm)
5) Joyce Cooling, Revolving Door (Narada Jazz)