Rick Braun does it again, while veteran alto saxophonist David Sanborn and the classic Acoustic Alchemy release their best CDs in years.
Esperanto (Warner Bros.)
Rick Braun�s a busy dude. Two of his last three CDs were collaborations � one with the new BWB (Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) and a classic with Boney James. It seems like his music�s everywhere, but Esperanto is only his third solo CD in the last five years (Kisses in the Rain and Full Stride the other two.) It wasn�t too much of a letdown, but a lack of cohesion on Kisses in the Rain made it somewhat of a disappointment.
Well, welcome back Mr. Trumpet Player. What we have here is the CD of the year.
He kicks it off with �Green Tomatoes,� which could have been included on the BWB CD and in fact features Whalum and Brown. It�s rollicking, and you know you�re going to get healthy doses of this on a Braun CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite �Latinesque� here, for example), but if you�ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he�s got a wild streak. And you know he�s get the best-sounding horn in the business.
What to highlight on this fabulous CD, which has an exotic theme and delicious strings running throughout? How about the plaintive piano-and-trumpet �Mother�s Day�? Or the funky �Daddy-O�? Or the way he slows the tempo, then rushes it again, in a way you don�t hear much in smooth jazz, in �Sir W�? Yes, all of those. Then there�s the late-night energy of �Zona Rosa,� the in-the-pocket groove of �To Manhattan With Love,� the movie theme drama of �Turquoise.�
In a year of too-few must-haves, Esperanto stands out as a no brainer for the shelves of smoothies. Smooth grade: A
Time Again (Verve)
David Sanborn is the most imitated saxophonist of the smooth jazz generation, with good reason. Just listen to this CD. His a alto sax is alive here, on his best CD is ages. Sanborn crosses genres on his CDs, but this one is squarely for smooth fans. Listen with a proviso: the music is raw, energetic, alive, breathing. The radio single �Comin� Home Baby,� which leads the CD, is seven minutes of jazz sax, vibraphone and more. You�ll love the vibe and bass solos. The covers are sublime: �Harlem Nocturne,� �Isn�t She Lovely,� �Sugar� and the party anthem �Tequila.� Sublime, also, are the real standouts: �Cristo Redentor,� Sanborn�s sax sharing time with a churchlike chorus, and �Little Flower,� where Sanborn plays both sax and piano. The songs are all wonderful, but what you experience here is the power and magic of Sanborn�s playing. A mainstay of smooth jazz is a romantic setting with a soft sax, but with Sanborn the sax is something more urgent. And even more sexy. Smooth grade: A
Radio Contact (Higher Octave)
Acoustic Alchemy has made enough classics over the years to cement its standing as one of smooth jazz�s Hall of Fame groups. Its best songs are a long time ago, although The Beautiful Game from 2000 showed signs of AA from old. 2001�s AArt, however, was horn-heavy and featured less of the distinct melodies the group is known for. The new CD doesn�t have horns, and I was interested to see what direction the guitar duo of Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale would be taking this new project. After a few listens, it�s clear that this CD marks a return to the classic AA sound, good news for longtime fans. The band has been around for a long time, of course, so some variance in sound is in order (you can�t play the same songs over again, can you?), but AA maintains its melodic touch here without straying too far from what made it a smooth jazz favorite. Ballads (�Coffee With Manni,� �Ya Tebya Lubliu,� driving numbers (�Milo,� �Shelter Island Drive�) , some great guitar interaction. All in all, a very worthwhile listen, and a fine return to form. Smooth grade: A
Along the Way (A440)
After the sublime Shakin� Not Stirred, Brian Hughes has returned with another fine effort that shows why he�s one of smooth jazz�s top lyrical guitarists. What makes him so special? First is his playing which, although firmly schooled in the Montgomery/Benson tradition, takes it a step further with nods to Pat Metheny. Second is his skill for the hook, which he strongly believes in. Finally there�s his variety � Hughes isn�t afraid to tone it down a few notches with jazzy interludes, as he does on �Omaha Unbound� and �Endless Road,� with piano and acoustic bass taking center stage with some acoustic picking. (OK, Brian, I think I�m ready for a full CD on this jazzy stuff!) The road-themed CD begins with �Along the Way,� which by the end of the first 15 seconds you realize is going to be another Hughes classic � breezy and joyful. Other tracks in that vein are �Brighter Day� and �Wherever You Are.� Hughes� journey takes a mildly tropical turn with �Picture This,� �Son y Lola� and others, where the rhythm takes listeners south of the border.
Although there�s a lot going on here, the disparate elements make this a less well-defined work than Shakin� Not Stirred. There�s still much to recommend: some quintessential Hughes, some great new jazz pieces and a little Latin spice. Smooth grade: B+
Into My Soul (Warner Bros.)
This CD could have been titled �Memphis Soul.� Veteran smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum tapped legendary Memphis producer and writer David Porter for an homage to rich Southern soul music. This CD is a real treat for Whalum fans, who�ve been waiting for a return to form since his classic For You, a stellar collection of cover songs. There are only two covers here, though: Porter and Isaac Hayes� �Hold On I�m Coming,� which Whalum slows down from Sam and Dave�s hit; and �That�s All Right,� which Elvis Presley recorded on his Sun Records debut. Whalum�s version features a rock guitar and his brother, Kevin Whalum, on vocals.
The rest is all original material, as Whalum interprets Memphis/Southern soul music his own way. Whalum brings in the other two members of BWB (Rick Braun and Boney James) to play in �Hoddamile (Hold or Mild),� a very tasty cut. Soul man Isaac Hayes is joined on vocals by Wendy Moten on �I Loved You in Memphis,� a soul-drenched new classic. Rounding out the all-star cast is Maurice White, who adds some brief vocal power to a gorgeous ballad, �You Had Me at Hello.�
The two best songs on the CD feature Whalum�s sax out front, where it belongs. �Another Beautiful Day� has a sinful hook and toe-tapping feel, and is the first single. �Club Paradise� is its twin, an infectious soprano ditty you wish you could go on for ever and ever and�. Well, that wouldn�t work � you wouldn�t be able to take in the rest of this CD, where every song is killer, no filler. You need a dose of soul, you check out this CD. Smooth grade: A
They Journey Within (GRP)
Would New York Yankees baseball slugger Bernie Williams have gotten a record deal with GRP if he wasn�t a star in the nation�s biggest media market? Probably not. But the fact is, Williams began playing music as a youngster in his native Puerto Rico and, on his debut, shows he knows his way around the guitar and a pretty melody. Like bassist Wayman Tisdale, the former pro basketball player who now plays smooth jazz, Williams is smart enough to surround himself with some all-star talent: namely Bela Fleck, Ruben Blades, David Benoit and a great backing band.
True to his roots, Williams swings with a Latin beat on songs such as �La Salsa En Mi,� �Para Don Berna,� �Desvelado� and �Sambo Novo� (a solo number). The closest I can think to compare him to an established presence in smooth jazz is Acoustic Alchemy � some of the same warm tone on the acoustic guitar, although not matching AA�s melodic drive. Williams doesn�t hide his playing on rhythm � he plays out front quite a bit on the 13 songs, the majority of which he wrote.
The CD may be a bit raw for average smooth jazz fans, and a song with his kids singing is a bit much. But there are some fine moments, such as the pensive �Perna Don Berna� (with �Saturday Night Live�s� T-Bone Wolk on acoustic bass) and the Paul Brown-remixed �Just Because.� Smooth grade: B-