Smooth Sailing August 2003

Chris Standring is Groovalicious. Kevin Toney hits the Sweet Spot. Check out these reviews and others...and keep checking back, as I will add reviews periodically and let you know here.

Chris Standring
Groovalicious (Mesa/Bluemoon)

coverGroovy, baby. British guitarist Chris Standring has to be the coolest smooth-jazz hipster around. If you�ve seen him with shades, you know what I mean. But Standring is more than a cultivated image. With his previous �Hip Sway� and now with Groovalicious, Standring has leaped to the top of smooth-jazz pack with invigorating and interesting music. Unlike contemporaries who riff on the same idea each time out, Standring makes the kind of music you look forward to.

Standring, with generous help from partner, co-writer and programmer Rodney Lee, plants his roots in the blues and old R&B instrumentals from the �60s. His sound is toe-tapping and hip, with bright and airy electric guitar leads. �Miss Downtown Sugargirl� sets the tone with its party-like, Marvin Gaye atmosphere, with Dino Soldo�s refrain of �Oooh you�re so good, oooh you�re so good, my downtown sugargirl.� He brings back the party chatter elsewhere on the CD, inviting listeners to his shindig. How does Standring make you want to keep listening? Check out �All in Good Time,� with Katisse Buckingham�s breathy flute and Standring�s too-cool talkbox guitar, which he returns to with a vengeance on the title track. Peter Frampton lives! Or �Gentle Persuasion,� a lovely ballad with the CD�s prettiest hook. Or �Hypnotize,� with its tight wordless vocals riding over a syrupy melody and nonstop groove.

Elsewhere, Standring blends Earth, Wind & Fire �70s horns with his distinctive guitar licks on �Fat Tuesday,� while digging out the hooks again with �Snowfall,� which features Chris Botti�s trumpet. More than any song on the CD, �Snowfall� is the sound that Standring has defined over several albums: mid-tempo groove, Ritenour-like lead and killer hook. On �Snowfall,� Standring gets around to some serious soloing, with a locomotive rhythm section evoking �Hip Sway�s� �Ultraviolet.� I�m glad Standring ends with �Do What You Do,� another gorgeous ballad that ends this great CD on a relaxed note. Highly recommended for hipsters everywhere. Smooth grade: A

Kevin Toney
Sweet Spot (Shanachie)

coverKevin Toney delivers what his fans want � lively, groove-centered R&B smooth jazz perfect for chillin� or for the car. For the most part, pianist Toney seems to be reaching for a wider audience than he has on previous CDs, as much of the music is middle-of-the-road. His best CD remains 1999�s Extra Sensual Perception. But Toney�s got his sweet spot on, and he adds a few vocal tracks, of course. One of them, �Morning Rain,� smolders wonderfully and is given gospel sensibilities by vocalists Lamont Van Hook and Lisa Vaughn. (Do smooth jazz players still think popular radio will play smooth vocal songs? I don�t think so. At this point, I think most are simply trying to spice things up.)

There�s so great radio R&B going on these days, and Toney gives the scene a nod with �Dilemma,� the big hit for Nelly and Kelly Rowland. The Shanachie label must have a thing for this song � another of its recent CDs, by Streetwize, features the same song. The best songs here are tracks 9-12: �Nu �M� Jaz� is a trippy ride with some Middle-Eastern-sounding organ licks; �Kiss� is a beautiful ballad in an acoustic setting featuring guitarist Paul Jackson Jr.; �See You Again� is a jazz song with a touch of samba; and �Prelude to Portrait� is a solo piano piece that shows off Toney�s chops. Smooth grade: B

Sizzlin� (Shanachie)

coverBy now, San Diego�s Fattburger has become a smooth-jazz staple, having churned out radio-friendly grooves for so long it�s easy to ignore them. But behind the junk-food name and trite album titles lies a band that probably is more underrated than it should be. Guitarist Evan Marks is simply a great guitar player, and you can pretty much count on all of the band�s compositions (split among several band members) to be quality efforts. Take leader Carl Evan Jr.�s title track, for example: the jaunty little number is propelled by Marks� laid-back, gliding electric guitar. Sweet.

Since band members take turn writing songs, the CD truly sounds like a band effort. They mix up tracks, like Marks� sweet acoustic guitar-led �Irene,� bassist Mark Hunter�s jazz-rock �Bleu Cheese� and drummer Kevin Koch�s bluesy, nightclub-toe-tappin� �Mr. C.� In between, there are simply outstanding examples of smooth jazz circa 2003 � I could listen to �Stay a Little Longer� and �You�re Finally Here� all day long.

If you haven�t already, give Fattburger a chance. They�ve got the beef. Smooth grade: A

Chieli Minucci
Night Grooves (Shanachie)

coverVeteran smoothster Chieli Minucci � half of the classic Special EFX and soap opera composer extraordinaire � can be counted on for producing sweet and memorable songs every time out (check out �New Day� on this CD). Although you may have had your share of sweets after the holidays, Minucci�s guitar instrumentals are sure to pack a jolt of energy.

Although he can put out funk like the best, Minucci�s best songs have always had a touch of the spiritual, especially when he was composing with the late George Jinda and Special EFX. He carries that torch here on �Without You,� his wordless vocals carrying the melancholy beginning and his wailing guitar carrying the rest, building up to a rock anthem crescendo. Special EFX CDs were heavily influenced by Jinda�s percussion � on �Nasir di Nuevo� live and sampled percussion by Philip Hamilton and David Charles dominates the moody piece, spiced by Mincucci�s high-note ramblings and Hamilton�s otherworldly vocals. Minucci�s best work is always on the electric guitar, but he also shines on acoustic, especially on �You�re My Reason,� a beautiful ballad with Latin influences. Smooth grade: B