With apologies to the late, great James Brown, Rick Braun and Richard Elliot have been the hardest working cats in showbiz — or at least smooth jazz-land - since launching their indie label ARTizen Music Group with their manager Steve Chapman and industry vet Al Evers in 2005.
The trumpet and sax icons signed and released projects by three solid artists in Shilts, Jackiem Joyner and Rick Kelly/Soul Ballet and criss-crossed the U.S. as half of Jazz Attack (with Peter White and Jonathan Butler) in the summers of 2005 and 2007. Along the way, each put out a solo album that spawned a hit cover song, Braun scoring with “Shining Star” from Yours Truly and Elliot spending 11 weeks at #1 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart with “People Make The World Go Round,” from Metro Blue, which was co-produced by Braun.
After all that, you can’t really blame them for wanting some RnR, the name of their cleverly titled dual album that Braun feels—after so much previous collaboration—is way overdue.
“We’ve talked about doing a full length project together for a long time,” he says, “and when we finally had the chance, it was exciting and fun for both of us. We have so much mutual respect for each other and are such great friends that it was just a matter of getting together, being spontaneous and letting things fall where they may. From start to finish, RnR was this effortless flow of energy and exchange of ideas.”
For both musicians, the overriding concept was to reach back beyond the smooth jazz era and draw on their individual roots with powerhouse horn sections, Elliot’s with Tower of Power (1982-87) and Braun’s with War (mid-80s). By tapping into those experiences and writing on the fly — the mic was permanently switched on at Brauntosoarus, Braun’s home studio in Los Angeles, to capture the melodic and arrangement ideas as they flowed - Elliot says they were able to create the raw, percolating feeling of a live date but with the polish of a studio recording. This approach offered the opportunity for many more first takes than most genre recordings.
“It was a blast to make music in such an uncontrived way and from the gut level like this,” he says. “While we didn’t fixate on the retro R&B vibe, doing it like this took us back to the old days when recordings were done more organically. These days, being retro is also keeping current, so it’s a mix of old school and contemporary sounds. The horn playing also happened naturally. There are some cool horn section passages, but we didn’t want to fall into the trap of constantly stacking up trumpet and sax in people’s faces and overpowering the melodies. Instead, we treated the project as if it were a dual vocal album, creating a lot of intimate single tenor and trumpet or flugelhorn lines. Then maybe we’d come back together on the chorus.”
After Elliot invokes inspirational works by Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, Braun adds, “The sessions were like a lot like old recordings from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, which gave the record a warm sound. Then the horn section parts were doubled to give it that oomph and muscle.”
The buoyant, hard grooving title track captures this controlled madness perfectly, opening with bright and sensual dual textures on the chorus, then jetting into urgent, brief conversations between Elliot’s tenor and Braun’s trumpet before a return to the party. The late night romantic vibe of “Sweet Somethin’” starts with Elliot at his subtle, simmering best, offering a few gentle lines before Braun chimes in on muted trumpet in response; but even when they come together for the hook, they’re cool about it.
With a funky foundation created by Braun and Jeff Lorber, the Brecker Brothers styled “Curveball” has some high octane, percussive brass; but between the scorching chorus parts, there are laid back singular passages. This sly rapport reaches deep into RnR, illuminating what Elliot calls the “just plain stinky” grooves of “Down and Dirty,” the hypnotic funk jam “Da JR Funk” and the slightly more genteel “Two Heart Tango.” Lorber’s not the only heavyweight contributing groovy ideas; Braun and Elliot also called on old pals Rex Rideout, Philippe Saisse and Shilts to launch some wild but steady foundations.
It took about three months to record the album at Brauntosoarus whenever the two were between tour dates, but Braun did a lot of the heavy lifting on the production side while Elliot was stuck in 2-3 hours traffic coming up from Escondido, in San Diego Country, to Woodland Hills in L.A. Road rage filled Southern Californians could take a lesson from Elliot, who used the gridlock to his advantage. “I was driving back and forth each day, which was about 5-6 hours roundtrip,” he says. “But I kind of liked it. It gave me time to listen to tracks in the car on the ride in so I knew what I wanted to do that day. At night, I’d drive home with what we worked on so I could listen to what I wanted to do or change at the next session.”
Braun, waiting for the screech in his driveway, was amazed every time his partner showed up refreshed and ready to work. “With a large family, outside entrepreneurial endeavors and a full life, Richard has every right to be scattered at all times,” he says. “But once you get a hold of him, he’s brilliant and completely focused. He’s capable of getting off hours on the 405 Freeway and walking into the studio without needing a minute to enter a creative headspace. Making RnR was a fascinating process, and I think without a doubt the best record I’ve ever done.”
Braun’s 20-year friendship with the versatile composer/producer Rick Kelly made it easy to choose his chill-electronica-jazz-pop instrumental outlet Soul Ballet as ARTizen’s latest signing. A veteran pop songwriter, film/TV composer and sideman to numerous pop and jazz artists (Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Madonna), Kelly launched his Soul Ballet concept in the mid-90s and scored two #1 airplay hits, “NYC Trip’n” and “Blue Girl.” His greatest success came some years later, as “Cream” became one of the biggest smooth jazz hits of 2005, staying at #1 on the R&R airplay chart for nine weeks and ranking as the #2 single of the year.
Kelly, who spends his non-musical time as a TV actor (Nip/Tuck, Days Of Our Lives, Cold Case, CSI), is a big fan of modern urban music and calls his ARTizen debut Lavish “hip jazz, smooth hop” — a hybrid of contemporary and retro soul, sweet piano melodies, orchestral flavors and hypnotic ambiences. By way of comparison, the vibe takes the beautiful ivory touch of Keiko Matsui, engages it in a lively street dance with Timbaland, Jay-Z and Pharrel and sweeps them all up into some old soaring James Bond film scores. With Lavish, ARTizen artfully expands beyond its roster of in the pocket, funky smooth jazz artists and looks to the future.
Elliot and Braun take a hands on approach to Soul Ballet’s latest as well, with the saxman playing the lead tenor melody on the title track and the trumpeter lending his own vibrant touch to the album’s catchy and soulful lead single “SmoothVegas.”
1) Carol Welsman (Justin Time) – The popular Canadian Smooth Jazz Award winner and multiple Juno nominee proves herself a true musical citizen of the world with this Latin and Brazilian flavored mix of originals, well known pop and jazz tunes and the singer’s incredible facility for singing in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
2) Colbie Caillat, Coco (Universal Republic)
3) Sara Gazarek, Return To You (Native Language)
4) Marc Antoine, Hi-Lo Split (Peak Records)
5) Kirk Whalum, Ultimate Kirk Whalum (Mosaic Contemporary)