Next time you’re at a summer festival grooving to Guitars & Saxes or one of the three big smooth jazz cruises clapping along to Rick Braun, Mindi Abair or Wayman Tisdale, take a look around and ponder the demographics for a second. The music is hip and edgy, but the genre is decidedly the playground of the cool and urbane middle aged. Considering that most of smooth jazz’s core artists range in age from their mid-thirties to early 50s, it’s hardly surprising that their fans have roots in the same generation. Smooth jazz offers refuge for those who grew up on old school soul and leave the rap, hip-hop and whatever else defines urban pop nowadays to their offspring.
There’s no doubt that kids and young adults would dig Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz as much as Usher, Nelly or Justin Timberlake if given the chance — there just haven’t been many attempts to cater to this vast potential audience. What will it take to get these fans to the shows and download Candy Dulfer along with Rihanna and Chris Brown?
Eric Darius may just have the solution, and on his third album and Blue Note debut, he’s Goin’ All Out to make it happen. A genre veteran at the ripe old age of 25, he makes no bones about what he’s trying to accomplish on the disc’s ten highly rhythmic, infectiously melodic and stylistically varied tracks that feature some of his most urgent and sensual playing ever. His previous two releases, 2004’s Night On The Town and Just Getting Started (2006) scored airplay hits galore, but his aim this time was to take some bold steps forward and offer up some joyful noise to multiple generations.
“When I first started writing music for this project,” says the multi-talented Tampa born and based artist, “my goal was to create an album distinctive from anything else I’ve ever done. Immersing myself over the years in so many styles and cultures, from hip-hop to reggae, Latin, pop, gospel and funk, I wanted to mix up a lot of these elements into tracks that would appeal to everyone, including the younger demographic. The term smooth jazz is almost always automatically associated with this older sophisticated crowd, but I thought it was important to say something new as an artist and to give the kids in my generation who are not normally exposed to jazz something to relate to. The tradeoff is, I hope that it will inspire them to listen to more jazz and embrace this kind of hybrid music.”
Matching his horn, dynamic beats and infectious melodies and atmospheres to his musical idealism - and seriously not worrying about smooth jazz airplay, at least most of the time - Darius dives in with the party hearty crashing hip-hop rhythms, neo soul swirl of “Just Like That,” which, he says, “puts the listener in the mind frame of steppin’ out in the club, with lights and cameras flashing.” Darius is a big fan of superstar hip-hop/pop producer Timbaland, and puts his type of hypnotic double-up kick drum beats behind the sensual emotion of “Vibe With Me.” The saxman enjoyed success with his passionate cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” and makes some sharp twists and turns on two songs the kids have been digging in recent years: Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” (which Darius first heard at a club in Tokyo) and the seductive Grammy winning Mary J. Blige song “Be Without You.”
The most “out there joint” on Goin’ All Out, is by far “Feelin’ Da Rhythm,” a feisty explosion of sizzling horn textures and booming reggaeton/dancehall grooves. Darius comes by this island hopping thing naturally; his parents were raised in the Caribbean and he grew up on the tropical and reggae music that inspired the popular new hybrid sound in the early 90s. Mainstream smoothies shouldn’t despair if they think Darius is getting a little too young for their tastes - the lighthearted, easygoing “Just For the Moment” (featuring the always exuberant Norman Brown on guitar and vocals) and retro-soul tinged “Ain’t No Doubt About It” are harmonically soaring, smack dab in the pocket joyful expressions.
Since terrestrial stations in the format tend to reward artists for doing the same old thing release after release, Darius is something of a genre revolutionary, preferring to try new concepts and push envelopes like his heroes Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock than stagnate in an artistic safe zone. But how does he view his odds of actually pulling in the youth vote? Is having a colorful myspace page that boasts over 120,000 visits and through which he communicates with his fans enough? He’s also got a batch of video clips on YouTube that have thus far received thousands of views.
“I see great possibilities now to reach out and win over this new generation. It’s definitely a challenge, but at my age I’m in a perfect position to reach out and show them some cool things. I don’t take the responsibility lightly. The good news is, it’s already happening, because I see younger people at a lot of my shows, and I’m getting tons of messages on myspace from middle and high school kids inquiring about jazz, the saxophone and my type of music. All I need to do is play for them and that will stimulate their interest in jazz. Now that there’s myspace and YouTube, they can see videos in other places besides MTV and VH1. It’s really about making the grass roots effort and showing them that this music is as happening as anything else they’re listening to.”
Whatever the ultimate results are of his quest to bridge the contemporary jazz generation gap, he’ll always be about connecting with his fans. “They’re the reason I do what I do,” he says, “and I’m very passionate about making a difference in their lives and putting smiles on their faces. Now it’s time get more kids my own age and younger to smile, too!”
If there was ever any doubt that our friends to the north know what’s cool, it was erased when Nick Colionne succeeded Chris Botti as “International Instrumental Artist of the Year” at the 2007 Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Beyond his status as a top headliner for shows and festivals across the country, the guitarist - has also become legendary for his electrifying performances on each of the annual All-Star Smooth Music Cruises since 2005 and for hosting the after-hours “Nick At Nite” jam sessions. His quick wit and expert comic timing also served him well as the host of this year’s Seabreeze Jazz Festival on Florida’s emerald coast. He’s also the genre’s most dapper and sophisticated fashion plate in the genre thanks to his crisply tailored, colorful Stacy Adams suits. The Chicago based performer has been living up to the name of his breakthrough hit “High Flyin’” since bursting on to the national scene in 2003, and now, on his Koch Records debut, he’s doing more than just Keepin’ It Cool, the name of his 2006 disc. He’s boldly declaring there are No Limits with an album that genre crosses easily from jazz, R&B, funk and blues and includes more of his low toned, seductive vocals than ever before. He embraces the urban dance phenomenon known as the Steppers’ Circuit with the thumping retro-funk of “Steppin’ Back” and adds just the right amount of bluesy organ to his high energy ode to his hometown “The Big Windy.” Shifting gears completely, all those cruises and balmy Caribbean breezes inspired the breezy, Brazilian flavored “Ports of Call.” WGN-TV and Radio pegged him right when they proclaimed him “Wes with a new millennium twist,” and he pays homage to Mr. Montgomery on “Headin’ Wes Before Dawn.” But he’s equally effusive digging into the James Brown vibe on the wild horn jam “Godfather J.”
1) Sony Holland, Swing, Bossas, Ballads and Blues (Van Ness Records) – Globally popular for her tours and residencies in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the stylish San Francisco based singer swings effortlessly from Jobim to Paul Simon, Roberta Flack to the Great American Songbook - but saves some of her most impassioned jazz expressions for the eight originals penned by her husband Jerry Holland.
2) Steve Oliver, One Night Live (Nu Groove Records)
3) David Sanborn, Here and Gone (Decca)
4) Lee Ritenour/Dave Grusin, Amparo (Decca)
5) Eldredge Jackson, Listening Pleasure (JEA Records)