Smooth Sailing

Mr. Everything Dave Koz returns with a CD in three acts, while Marc Antoine and Ken Navarro make more great guitar music. Read all the reviews in Smooth Sailing.

Dave Koz
Saxophonic (Capitol)

coverDave Koz has one of the highest profiles in smooth, thanks to his syndicated �Dave Koz Radio Show� and a morning show on KTWV in Los Angeles. He also finds time for special tours, like one you may be catching this Christmas. He�s guest-starred on numerous pop and smooth jazz CDs. So it�s no surprise that it�s been four years since his sublime, hit-happy The Dance, his last CD of non-holiday tunes. (He also released Golden Slumbers, a CD of lullabies.) Fans have been begging for new material, and Saxophonic delivers big time in a �concept� CD that is broken into three �acts� � funky, midtempo and experimentalism. That�s only party true, as there is a ballad in the funk section and some pretty standard Dave Koz stuff in the experimental section.

No matter. Pay no attention to the �Acts.� Overall, it�s Koz�s best yet, a very strong contender for CD of the year � melodic, radio-friendly, trippy, a little different. Koz may surprise some of his longtime fans, but it will be a good surprise � that�s what make it his crowning work so far. Just when you assume a musician is going to crank out another by-the-numbers CD �.

Koz�s tenor has never sounded so robust � not a whole lot of Kenny G swirls going on here. The first single, �Honey-dipped,� and �All I See Is You� are slices of breathy sax and funk, a la Euge Groove. Koz loves wordless vocals and repeated choruses, which he has on two standouts: �Love Changes Everything,� with Brian McKnight, and �Undeniable,� with Bobby Caldwell barely registering a presence, which is kinda weird � a good weird, for it�s a Koz song, not a Caldwell vocal. Koz does dip into the soprano, with great effect, in the lush �Just to Be Next to You,� the toe-tappin� and irresistible �Let It Free� and �A View From Above,� with guitarist Marc Antoine.

The �experimental� songs are groovy. �Saxophonic (Come on Up)� has wonderfully weird loops, deep funk and some jazzy horn work. It�s like 10 songs in one. �Sound of the Underground� features a Parisian metro shuffle a la Philippe Saisse (actually, it�s a sample from a bebop classic), and Chris Botti adds trumpet. �Only Tomorrow Knows� has computer-synthed vocals a la Cher, and ya gotta love the whistling. Smooth grade: A

Marc Antoine
Mediterraneo (Rendezvous)

coverGypsy guitar god Marc Antoine � born in France and now living in Spain and Los Angeles � has long since crossed the line into smooth jazz superstardom and is one of the most well-known and liked musicians in the genre. There�s a good chance you�ll see him on tour this year, either solo or with the �Smooth Jazz Christmas� crew. His new CD seems like an early Christmas present for his devoted fans from earlier days, whose devotion to CDs such as Classical Soul and Madrid helped take him from cult hero to jazz star. What those CDs featured was Antoine�s flamenco and Gypsy acoustic stylings. With his last CDs, Cruisin� and Universal Language, Antoine stayed close to his romantic roots while exploring more urban flavors of jazz, hip-hop and dance hall.

Mediterraneo, however, harkens to the Antoine of old. Maybe this has something to do with Dave Koz, who is releasing the CD on his new label (Antoine�s most recent CDs were on GRP). He opens with �Cubanova,� which tells you the song combines Cuba stylings with a tempting Brazilian bossa nova beat. It�s a classic, enhanced by orchestral strings and trumpet. After the piazza-strolling �Funky Picante,� Antoine delivers with the one anthemic, heart-warming song that he includes on every CD, such as �Unity� on Classical Soul and �Sunland� on Madrid. This one�s the cover song, �Mediterraneo,� and you�re going to love it as much as loved the other ones.

There are no bad tracks here. �Senor Groove� has a shuffle track perfect to get the feet moving, while �Gotham� has a late-night groove and the lovely background vocals of Antoine�s wife, Rebeca Vega. He does a cover of Everything But the Girl�s �Lady� and includes a hip-hop sample throughout the frolicking �Gringo.� He closes with �Alejandro�s Lullaby,� dedicated to his young son.

This CD�s a sure thing, folks. Smooth grade: A+

Ken Navarro
All the Way (Shanachie)

coverKen Navarro is the John Grisham of smooth jazz. But where Grisham pops out a book every year but seems to going south in terms of quality, Navarro keeps getting better and improving. A Navarro CD is like a trip to the candy store to buy your favorite treat � you know what you�re getting and you know it�s going to taste great. Whether on electric or acoustic guitar, Navarro is the master of crystal-clear production, sweet harmonies and well-managed solos. You can expect a greatest-hits-type song to open a Navarro CD, and he delivers here with �It�s Up to You,� a languid breeze of a electric-guitar song that�s sure to catch the ears of the Weather Channel. He follows that with the knockout punch, �Hey Cool Breeze,� another electric number.

Just when you think Navarro should stick to electric, he follows with acoustic cuts that remind you how � like Peter White and Earl Klugh � he can make the nylon strings sound sweeter than just about anyone around. As I said, you know what you�re going to get with Navarro � hooks a plenty and no vocals � but he does add one surprise into the mix: �Play Don�t Worry,� a rocker that displays his guitar-god chops. Navarro has been such a constant we can forgive him for this. Smooth grade: A-


David Benoit
Right Here, Right Now (GRP)

coverDavid Benoit�s got the right idea. On the liner notes to his 23rd CD, the pianist includes a brief description of how he got the inspiration to record each track. That can really help listeners, especially on instrumental CDs. You may or may not have imagined that Benoit envisioned UFOs in �Third Encounter.� Of course, once you listen to the songs on this good effort, you might have your own ideas about what they mean. Benoit would probably agree that that�s cool, too. He�s always been a fan favorite, as those fans proved by naming him keyboardist of the year at the fourth annual National Smooth Jazz Awards.

Benoit gives fans what they want by way of three covers: James Taylor�s �Don�t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight� (with Peter White on guitar, in addition to an orchestra), Herbie Hancock�s fun-to-the-max �Watermelon Man� and Jesse Harris� �Don�t Know Why,� which was a huge hit for Grammy superstar Norah Jones. On other selections, Benoit�s acoustic piano sounds the same as it always does, and that�s a good thing: clear, precise and clean, like he�s playing for you only, smack dab in your living room.

Produced by Rick Braun, the CD keeps things lively with different styles: there�s the bossa nova of �Swingin� Waikiki,� the big cinema sound of �Le Grand,� inspired by composer Michel Legrand, and the jazz trio in �Wistful Thinking� (with some sax by Andy Suzuki). Very worthwhile. Smooth grade: A

Eric Marienthal
Sweet Talk (Peak)

coverEric Marienthal tanked with Turn Up the Heat in 2001, which sounded old and uninspired. He�s turned it around on his new CD, and producer Jason Miles does Marienthal justice. Whether on the title track, �Sweet Talk,� a nice ballad with a great hook, or on the rambunctious cover of �Tell Me Something Good,� Marienthal�s sax sounds vibrant and the songs modern and fresh. Miles, who produced a recent album of smooth jazz covers of the music of Brazilian legend Ivan Lins, adds a previously unrecorded Lins song called �Caprichosa.� Lins himself sings in his glorious Portuguese on the track. It�s a great idea for the CD.

Maybe Marienthal will get the airplay he deserves with this CD. General managers couldn�t go wrong with a couple of cuts here, including �Uptown� and �Secrets,� which were co-written by Jeff Lorber, and �Moonlight,� which was written by Chuck Loeb.

Marienthal talks about getting out of his �comfort zone� with this work, which is good advice for all artists. It certainly worked for him on Sweet Talk. Welcome back, Eric. Smooth grade: B+

Alex Bugnon
Southern Living (Narada)

coverPiano man Alex Bugnon looked to the American South for inspiration on his latest CD, recording it in Atlanta with co-producer Phil Davis. The result, and one he was looking for, is a mostly stripped-down, more organic sound featuring more of Bugnon�s acoustic playing. In other words, a lot different than his last work, Soul Purpose. Bugnon has always had a slightly quirky side that is reflected in his music � he isn�t afraid to experiment with new sounds (which he does here with the delightful �Cascade,� featuring claps) while staying firmly in the smooth jazz genre. Here, though, he�s in David Benoit territory with a totally relaxing, fully realized CD that will have fans of acoustic piano begging for more.

Whether while listening to the romantic ballad �Back in Love� or the pensive �Slow Drag,� it�s apparent that Bugnon has found his groove. The vocal tracks work, and are appropriately soulful: Prince�s �The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,� with Tiffany Davis background chops; and �Missing You Like Crazy,� with Ronnie Garrett, who also thumps the bass. Other highlights: Bugnon ditches the acoustic for the Fender Rhodes organ for a minimalist version of Hall and Oates� �Sara Smile�; and the upbeat title track, �Southern Living,� which will have you checking the liner notes for Joe Sample. Bugnon closes things on this remarkable CD with a �hidden track.� Smooth grade: B+

Special EFX
Party (Shanachie)

coverChieli Minucci must idolize the Energizer Bunny. I don�t see how he finds time to play on tons of CDs a year, plus manage to release solo CDs in addition to his Special EFX projects. When EFX partner George Jinda was alive, Special EFX had a distinct sound, propelled by Jinda�s percussion and Minucci�s lyrical guitar playing. The Special EFX name is obviously a commodity, as Minucci keeps it alive even without Jinda. That said, here�s one vote for Minucci pumping out the CDs year after year, no matter what he calls them. He�s always a joy to listen to.

As the CD says, it�s nothing but a party here. With David Mann on sax and flute, Jerry Brooks on bass and Emedin Rivera handling percussion, the CD may not be the kind of sounds the nose-ring crowd will play at keg parties, but it jumps pretty good for a smooth jazz gig. �Get on Up� (with its �We Are Family� nod) and �Ladies Man� speak to the overall mood of the CD � light jazz meets disco-�70s and euro-�80s. Minucci�s guitar has less of an influence here than on his solo CDs, which is probably why he continues to record as Special EFX � to get his ya-ya�s out with different styles.

Only one question: Why is the 10th song a �bonus track�? Ten songs are pretty standard for any CD � nowadays there are many with lots more. In any event, this CD may be a little tame for a beer blast, but it�s plenty good for dancing while vacuuming the rug. Smooth grade: B

Freddie Fox
Freedie Fox (freddiefox.com)

coverLongtime session player Freddie Fox steps out on his own with a self-produced CD that will appeal to guitar fans, especially those who dig the electric playing of Lee Ritenour and the acoustic stylings of Larry Carlton. It�s a solid 11-song effort, one that would expected from a player who has performed with such as Michael Lington, Najee, Warren Hill and Walter Beasley. It doesn�t hurt that his wife is famed R&B and jazz singer Evelyn �Champagne� King, who contributes background vocals to several tracks. The groove is midtempo throughout, and he saves the best for the last with �Thoughts of You,� showcasing his electric and acoustic skills against a soulful drum-machine backdrop. �From the Heart� and �Forever� display Fox�s knack for memorable melody, while �Cool� takes listeners back to groovy 1980s fusion. CD guests include Gerald Albright, Michael White, Ronnie Foster, Alex Al and Larry Kimple. If you love guitar-lead smooth jazz with a light soulful groove, Freddie�s got it going on. Smooth grade: B

Ron Jenkins
The Music of Ron Jenkins (Camnor)

ronjenkins.jpgBassist Ron Jenkins has toured with some heavyweights, from Cher and Gato Barbieri to Kirk Whalum and Chuck Loeb. He makes his debut here on a lightly funky, relaxing CD featuring guitarists Chuck Loeb and Jeff Golub and saxophonist Sam Newsome. This is one CD that I find myself going back to, and just shows that there are plenty of small-label or independent artists that can groove with the big boys. Like one half of the Braxton Brothers, Jenkins puts the bass out front a few times as the lead, with very listenable results. But Jenkins mostly put his bass in the background, such as on the ballad �Tribulations,� which features Mike Ricchiuti�s beautiful piano work. There are several very tight, in-the-groove numbers on the CD, the best being �What You Mean to Me� and �Sai You Will.�

Playing this CD in order for the first time, I kept waiting the momentum to slow, but it never did. The first two songs, �After Dark� and �Kristal Klear,� are delightful slow grooves � �After Dark� especially, with Steve Wilson�s plaintive soprano sax and Jenkins hooky keyboard snippets. This very assured, very jazzy smooth jazz CD is one that stands out among the small-label releases of recent years. Smooth grade: A