For a guy who says he never consciously tries to compose a radio hit, Chris Standring has an awfully impressive track record on the airwaves. The popular guitarist, who’s always textured elements of retro soul, acid jazz and chill with his trademark archtop Benedetto axe, scored one of 2000’s most spun songs with the title track from Hip Sway and more recently hit in 2006 with the Paul Brown-produced “I Can’t Help Myself.” As co-writer of the Rick Braun/Richard Elliot hit “RnR,” Standring also scored one of the biggest genre songs of 2007; the track stayed at #1 on Radio & Records’ smooth jazz chart for 12 weeks.
Despite this success, Standring says he’s bothered sometimes by the way many of today’s genre recordings are so sonically cluttered, and makes it his primary objective when helming a project — as he does with his latest recording Love & Paragraphs — to simply let the music breathe. When seeking inspiration for his compositions, his major reference points are everything but the typical smooth jazz bells and whistles that would guarantee airplay. “I grew up in the 70s, so I’m always hearing old, organic sounding instruments instead of bright fake synth sounds to create a vibe that’s warm and sexy,” he says. “If I want a Fender Rhodes sound, I’ll use a real Fender Rhodes. If the song needs a Hammond B-3, the organ I use better be pretty close to it. And I love to use those old Fender four string basses.”
Standring, who studied classical guitar while growing up on a farm in Aylesbury, Buckingshire, also creates his fascinating hybrid of retro and contemporary soul by keeping his ears peeled for hip sounds coming from the DJs on his home continent. “I love listening to progressive club music from Europe,” he adds, “because these guys have a complete license to experiment and go crazy with fresh new ideas. Sometimes, I’ll hear a track I like and think, ‘wow, what can I do personally with that?’”
Case in point: the horn enhanced, mid tempo retro blues-funk song that became the eventual title track on Love & Paragraphs began as a piece for a Portis Head-styled chill/alternative trip hop project Standring is working on with singer Mary Cassidy. He came up with a basic track layered with guitars and beats that he originally wanted to put vocals on, but loved the result so much he wrote a guitar melody over it and kept it for himself; the completed song features Cassidy’s dreamy wordless vocals blending with a rising horn section on the chorus.
Beyond drawing from the classic soul-jazz tradition (on tracks like “Qwertyuiop” and the pure pop delight “CS In The Sunshine”) and the realm of moody chill ambience (the intro to “As Luck Would Have It” and the trip-chill blues jazz jam “Ooh Bop”), Standring finds another way to stir things up sonically. He puts aside his trusty longtime jazz axe, the archtop Benedetto, and digs into more earthy blues-rock territory on five tracks with two Fender Strats; he played the Strat back in the 80s until switching to the other guitar to better tackle the acid jazz grooves which caught his ear in the early 90s. “Playing a jazz guitar and then switching to a Strat is a little like playing a violin and then picking up a cello,” he says, “so I had to figure out a new approach so there wouldn’t be quite so much of a head trip. I played the Strat for years but have never recorded with it as a lead instrument. The key was to find a tone on the Strat that is reminiscent of the Benedetto so while the guitar is a little bluesier and I can dig in a little more, it still comes across with my trademark sound.”
With the release of Love & Paragraphs, Standring is also taking the initiative of launching his own indie label, Ultimate Vibe; he believes more genre artists will follow in his footsteps now that so many major labels, responding to slower CD sales in the digital age, have dumped their jazz divisions and other small companies have closed shop. He is releasing the disc via a pass through deal with Braun and Elliot’s label ARTizen and their distribution company Ryko. Thinking ahead, he is ultimately hoping to develop Ultimate Vibe into a label for niche compilations in the chill lounge arena. First up is the Cassidy recording, which Standring calls a “KCRW project” as a reference to the progressive music played on the Santa Monica, California based public radio station. He joined with ARTizen on Love & Paragraphs to increase his viability with Ryko, but isn’t yet sure what label he will partner with for the second project; he may even distribute it himself.
“Smooth jazz artists are being forced to start our own labels because lack of sales is causing conventional companies to drop like flies,” Standring says. “If we want to stay alive and viable, we have to get our left brain and right brain thing going at the same time, or at least partner up with someone who has a strong business acumen to help us. The days when artists could finish recording a project and think our work is done are over, and I believe what I and Ray Parker, Jr. are doing is the wave of the future.
“All artists who have tied to a label,” he adds, “eventually realize they can make more money if they launch their own label that’s set up just like those bigger labels are set up. Being signed to four different companies over the years, I learned how they do things, from hiring outside publicists and radio promoters to securing strong national distribution. Doing this, we can sell as many albums as before but make a larger amount of money. The record business may be in a big transitional period right now, but there have never been better opportunities for those who are willing to take the chance.”
Chris Botti is one of the few contemporary jazz artists whose home web page (www.chrisbotti.com) lists his tour schedule immediately. The mega-popular trumpeter’s latest album, Italia, was an immediate hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Jazz chart and scoring the hit radio single “Venice,” which hit the Top Ten on Radio & Records’ smooth jazz chart. A few months after its September 2007 release, the collection scored a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. But none of that jumps out at the fan browsing the site because Botti is, in every sense of the word, a musical citizen of the world, spending most of his life on the road here and abroad. His early 2008 schedule found him on some extended stays on the West Coast (Yoshi’s in San Francisco and Oakland, Blues Alley in Seattle) but also included dates throughout Canada and, in March, Poland, the U.K. (Ronnie Scott’s in London) and Mexico City. If you can’t catch him this year, there’s always 2009; he’s already booked for May at Symphony Hall in Atlanta! His musical stop in Italy is a lush and inspired one, transferring the simple and effective swirl of dreamy trumpet pieces and sweeping vocals from Botti’s previous albums When I Fall In Love and To Love Again to a balmier locale that’s even more ripe for romance. Rather than draw from The Great American Songbook, the trumpeter and his producer Bobby Colomby create magic with the music of film composer Ennio Morricone, opera classics like “Caruso” and “Nessun Dorma” and “Ave Maria.” Botti co-wrote the Andrea Bocelli-sung title track with famed pop composer/producer David Foster, but the most remarkable vocal on Italia is “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” rendered here as a Nat King/Natalie Cole style duet between Botti and the original 1957 recording by Dean Martin.
1) Brian Hughes, Live (Radio Canada) – A slew of high profile side gigs (including touring the world with Loreena McKennitt) has kept this Wes Montgomery influenced Canadian guitarist from making the same kind impact in this decade as he did as a solo artist in the 90s, but this truly riveting concert in Montreal reminds fans of his heyday while inspiring an overwhelming hunger for more.
2) Phillip Martin, Pride & Joy (Three Keys Music)
3) Chris Geith, Timeless World (Nuance Music Group)
4) Alicia Keys, As I Am (J Records)
5) Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (Island Records)