By Jonathan Widran
Considering that Jeff Lorber is one of contemporary jazz’s elder statesmen, it would be easy for him to swing into his fourth decade of recording just coasting on his laurels, pacifying his fan base and sticking to tried and true formulas that have worked over the course of two generations.
Instead, last year he celebrated 30 years since the release of his debut album Jeff Lorber Fusion with He Had A Hat, a powerfully eclectic, distinctively jazzy “players session” that took a freewheeling, stylistically varied approach. Working with legendary producer Bobby Colomby - who has taken Chris Botti from smooth jazz popularity to worldwide superstardom - the keyboardist paid homage to a wide range of influences: gospel and brass driven old school jazz-fusion, smoky and sultry Miles Davis-flavored moods, hard driving bebop and swinging jazz in addition to his bread and butter, funky pop-jazz.
While his Peak Records debut Heard That brings him from eclectic utopia back to the radio friendly stuff he’s mastered in the smooth jazz era over the past 15 years, it’s exciting to see he’s still open to last minute surprises. The hands-down highlight and first single is the hard driving, Ramsey Lewis influenced bluesy-brass spin on Amy Winehouse’s Grammy winning “Rehab,” which, intriguingly enough, was added to the collection at the last minute. This snap decision brilliance has worked well for Lorber in the past. His playful take on Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” (from 2001’s Kickin’ It) was also something of an afterthought, yet has become his biggest crowd pleaser in recent years.
“I was just home one day, messing around at the piano and realized it would be a good instrumental song, very bluesy, based on a Wurlitzer piano figure, which I included on my version,” says Lorber. “It all happened spur of the moment. My pal Tony Moore came over to my home studio and played the drum part on Bobby Colomby’s 30 year old Slingerland drum set that I had here, the one Bobby used when he played with Blood, Sweat & Tears. We jumped into that ‘In Crowd’ groove right away. I called my manager Bud Harner and he came down to hang with us while we put the track together, so it was like a little party in the studio. (Co-producer) Rex Rideout suggested I do a Motown type back beat guitar part, which I played and recorded with that cool spring reverb sound they used in the 60’s. Gary Meek and Rick Braun came over to play the horn parts a few days later. At first I didn’t know if it would make the record, but everyone we played it for gave us positive feedback.”
Lorber has been a lone studio wolf throughout much of his career, but his albums early in this decade benefitted creatively from his collaboration with producer Steve Dubin. Forging ahead and getting back to his R&B foundations, he hooked up for Heard That with one of urban jazz’s major sonic architects, Rex Rideout - whose array of credits range from soul smoothies Gerald Albright, Najee and Kirk Whalum to vocalists Maysa, Will Downing and Ledisi. Lorber first worked with Rideout when Rideout produced his track “For You To Love” on the popular 2006 Luther Vandross Tribute Forever, For Always, For Luther, Vol. 2.
Lorber’s long been the master of the vintage keyboard collection, playing piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes and synth on most of his projects. The looser vibe he and Rideout create here leads to an all-time first: actually sharing keys with Rideout on a couple of tracks. These include the jamming soul-jazz invitation of an opener “Come On Up,” the crazy, brassy fusion blast with a double entendre name (“The Bomb”) and the more laid back and sensual “Take Control,” the kind of chill-soul ballad Rideout excels at featuring co-writer Lauren Evans on vocals.
Lorber says, “The whole time we were making Heard That, Rex and I were surrounded by all of my keyboards, so every time we came up with a fresh idea, whoever was closer to the one that might have the sound we were aiming for took the lead and riffed on it. Once that approach started working for us, I enjoyed kicking back and letting his playing serve as a complement to my own. I encouraged him to take the lead where it made sense. I make up for it by playing a lot of guitar!”
Besides “Rehab,” Lorber takes the reins on two other key tracks that express his mutual love for winking at the past and embracing the soulful world to come. The intensely grooving “Gamma Rays,” which features Meek on tenor and flute and Braun on trumpet,” is a definite callback to the Lorber Fusion style that made the keyboardist famous 30 years ago. Lorber wrote the sizzling and swaying funky jazz title track with rising urban jazz saxman Eric Darius, who toured with the keyboardist in Indonesia and Japan early in 2008.
“Heard That is a fun, lighthearted album that was really a blast to make,” he says. “The best part was getting to know Rex, becoming friends with him and incorporating his unique musical perspective. Working with guys like him is a way for me to refresh myself and keep current and excited after so many years. He Had a Hat was this serious jazz exploration, but here, I’m returning to more of my quintessential vibe. The idea was to create a flow that would reflect what’s happening today but with some dashes of the high energy fusion and jazzy chord changes that I was doing back in 1979 on Water Sign, which was always one of my favorite albums. A lot of artists just write when it’s time to do the next album, but I’m open to inspiration ideas 24/7 and I think that makes a big difference.”
No wonder Nashville based singer/songwriter Anna Wilson is so jazzed on her intimate ensemble meets big band holiday collection Yule Swing!, released by her indie label Transfer Records. After 15 years as a professional country music songwriter with album cuts by, among others, Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Ray Cyrus and Chris Cagle, she co-wrote one of the hottest genre singles of the year, “All I Ever Wanted.” The track, recorded by Chuck Wicks and released as a follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Stealing Cinderella,” hit the Top 25 on both the Radio & Records Country chart and Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Wilson’s other popular recent single is Suzy Bogguss’ “The Bus Ride.” Beyond this success in country, jazz has been an ongoing passion in her and she earned raves for her official debut genre disc Time Changes Everything in 2007. Reflective of the two musical worlds that have defined Wilson’s professional career, Yule Swing - which was co-produced by her husband and longtime collaborator, famed country songwriter Monty Powell - features guest performances by Rick Braun and a duet by Wilson and Wicks (the sly and soulful, high energy “Light Me Up”).
There’s also a special holiday version of her Habitat For Humanity inspired single “A House, A Home.” Wilson’s original version, which appears on Time Changes Everything, is included in Habitat’s public service announcements that began appearing on TV and radio in the fall of 2007; since the start of the campaign, the spots have received $4.2 million in free PSA advertising. As part of her ongoing personal involvement with Habitat For Humanity, the non-profit organization dedicated to building affordable housing worldwide, the singer performed with the Mississippi Mass Choir an Yankie Stadium in Biloxi on May 11, 2008 during the opening ceremony of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.
For more information on Yule Swing!: www.annawilson.com.
1) Spyro Gyra, A Night Before Christmas (Heads Up) – The legendary ensemble led by sax great Jay Beckenstein goes for a playful, decidedly trad-jazz vibe on this cool but spirited and brilliantly played and improvised slice of holiday frolic. Special guests include former Spryo vibes master Dave Samuels and vocal greats Christine Ebersole and Janis Siegel.
2) Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (PIR/Legacy)
3) Dave Koz, Greatest Hits (Capitol)
4) Leigh Jones, Music In My Soul (Peak Records)
5) L.A. Chillharmonic (Artistry)