December 24, 2003

The Secret Garden Knows Bob Baldwin

Some contemporary smooth jazz tracks can be uplifting while others can be monotonous to the point of blandness. Then again there are others, and I guess this is really what it is all about, that are just great to listen to.

One artist who perhaps does not always grab the big smooth jazz superstar headlines, but is consistently great to listen to, is Bob Baldwin and although the album Standing Tall has been on release in the USA for over a year The Secret Garden, at the time of year when peoples thoughts are turning to buying gifts, thought it a good time to jog peoples attention on just how good a smooth jazz album this really is.

BobBaldwin_bw.jpgBob Baldwin was born on December 9 1960 in Mount Vernon, NY and reared in Westchester County. His father, Robert Baldwin, Sr. who is also an accomplished jazz pianist, taught Bob how to play the piano at the age of four. He studied both classical and jazz standards and includes Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye as his musical influences. Having earned a degree in Business Administration from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA while working at MCI and Sprint Communications, he later met one of the inspirations of his formative years, Herbie Hancock, at his Sony Innovators performance in Beverly Hills in 1989. It was Roberta Flack who selected Baldwin as the winner of that award for his first album, The Dream Featuring Bob Baldwin, that was released on Malaco Jazz Records in 1988.

When, in 1986, he formed the The Bob Baldwin/Al Orlo Project it was their performances at the legendary Bottom Line in New York City that led to his first production with trumpeter Tom Browne. This opportunity was also the route to his first album and eventually to his two-album deal with Atlantic Jazz Records, Rejoice in 1990 and Reflections of Love in 1992. Baldwin’s fame began to grow as Reflections of Love peaked at #7 on the contemporary jazz chart. The Project also proved to be a stepping stone for other band members. Many went on to work with some of the most popular jazz and pop bands in the world including: Spiro Gyra, Michel Camilo, Paul Simon, Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack, The Silos, The Average White Band, The Temptations and Ben E. King.

As Bobs career progressed he didn't let his business acumen go to waste. He independently produced his 2000 creation Bob Baldwin.com that was subsequently distributed through the powerful Virgin/EMI Network. It sold an impressive 60,000 copies and made #17 in the Billboard contemporary chart. Bob Baldwin.com featured such smooth jazz greats as Gerald Albright, Marion Meadows, Armsted Christian, Dean James, Eric Essex and Tom Browne.

coverHe also used his business skills to develop and negotiate his recording deal with Narada Jazz and his debut on that label is Standing Tall. The result is what has been described as a vibrant, meaningful 11 track CD filled not only with great grooves, but also uplifting, memorable works of art.
Baldwin says, "I like to keep my finger on the pulse of new trends, like neo-soul. Jill Scott, D'Angelo, Eryka Badu and so many others really have something great going on. What I'm doing on the new album is taking inspiration from them and putting it into an instrumental jazz framework."

Baldwin’s music is of such quality that he really doesn’t need to fill his releases with high-powered guest appearances. However, when you have friends like Roy Ayers, Chieli Minucci, Phil Perry, Kim Waters, Will Downing and Marion Meadows you might as well as include them in the mix.

Vibes master Roy Ayers joins Bob on the modern classic ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’, which Ayers composed and recorded in the 70s. Vocalist Will Downing also lends a hand to ‘Sunshine’, while Phil Perry does the honours on ‘Too Late’. Saxophonist Marion Meadows, also a frequent collaborator, joins Baldwin on ‘It's A New Day’.

Personal Secret Garden favourites from the album are really Bob Baldwin classic feel good smooth jazz tracks. Like Brian Culbertson but different one could say. Best examples of these are undoubtedly track #1 ‘Stand Tall’ and track #9 ‘Lets Fly Away’. ‘Too Late’, on the album twice in vocal and instrumental form, is completely hypnotic and guaranteed to have any listener with only an ounce of soul in his or her body singing along compulsively.

Bob Baldwin is a high quality artist of many parts. Those wishing to discover more could do a lot worse than starting with Standing Tall.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favourite Smooth Soul Survivor that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole@AOL.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at 4:18 PM

You Make Me Feel Brand New Is A Smooth Soul Survivor

A common thread that runs through the philosophy of The Secret Garden is the desire to maintain a genuine link between the smooth jazz of today and the smooth soul of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s 90’s and today. Principle vehicle for that is the occasional Smooth Soul Survivor feature and recent recording activity by two of the greats from smooth jazz and pop respectively has identified yet another candidate for this Smooth Soul Survivor label. In case new readers are unsure what it takes for a recording to be classed by Secret Garden as a Smooth Soul Survivor, it must be a much-loved smooth jazz track which has its origins deep in soul music. The intention is to encourage you to get out there and search the racks of your favourite record store for these items of buried treasure.

It is Richard Elliot and Simply Red whom are this time turning the spotlight onto the great 1974 hit from the Stylistics, ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’.

Along with the (Detroit) Spinners and the O’Jays, the Stylistics were the leading Philly soul group produced by the legendary Thom Bell. During the early '70s, the band had 12 straight top ten US hits, including ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New.’ The Stylistics were perhaps one of the smoothest and sweetest soul groups of their era. All of their hits were ballads, graced by the magic tones of Russell Thompkins Jr. and the lush production of Bell that added up to make the Stylistics one of the most successful soul groups of the first half of the '70s.

stylistics.jpgThe Stylistics formed in 1968, from the remnants of the defunct Philadelphia soul groups The Monarchs and The Percussions. Thompkins, James Smith and Airrion Love hailed from The Monarchs while James Dunn and Herbie Murrell came from The Percussions. After working initially with Sebring Records they were then signed to the larger Avco Records with whom they enjoyed their first top ten single in 1971.

Once with Avco, the Stylistics began working with producer/songwriter Thom Bell who had already created hits for The Delfonics. The Stylistics became Bell’s pet project and with lyricist Linda Creed he crafted a series of hit singles that included ‘You Are Everything,’ ‘Betcha by Golly, Wow,’ ‘I'm Stone in Love With You,’ ‘Break Up to Make Up,’ and, of course, ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’.

Following ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ in the spring of 1974, the Stylistics broke away from Thom Bell and began working with Van McCoy who helped move the group towards a softer, easy listening style. In 1976, they left Avco and signed with H&L. The group's American record sales declined, yet ironically it was in Europe where they remained popular with the 1975 hits ‘Sing Baby Sing’, ‘Na Na Is the Saddest Word’ and ‘Can't Give You Anything’. ‘Can't Help Falling in Love’ followed a year later. The Stylistics continued to tour and record throughout the latter half of the '70s, as their popularity steadily declined. In 1980, Dunn left the group because of poor health, and Smith followed him later that year. The remaining Stylistics, bolstered by the by then growing retro circuit, continued performing as a trio into the '90s.

‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ has been a hugely covered track. Philly compilations and reggae renditions, the ridiculous of Mantovani and James Last to the sublime of Roberta Flack, this tune has been done every which way. Truly notables come the 1995 Reachin Back from Regina Belle, a real Secret garden favorite, and from smooth jazz guitarist Norman Brown on his 1999 Celebration. Soul and jazz cross over artist Norman Connors features it on his 1978 release This Is You Life and Babyface with a style that can only be called urban smooth includes it on his 2001 Love Songs.

A real blast from a shaky past comes from The 5th Dimension and their version of ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’ from their 1995 album In The House that was critically hammered for being a cabaret characture but certainly one of the better versions can be found from Everette Harp on the 1994 CD Common Ground. This release from smooth jazz saxophonist Harp, who employs a style not dissimilar to Dave Koz and Warren Hill, has Marcus Miller on bass and executive production from George Duke. It’s a nice piece of work.

coverInto 2003 and Simply Red have made the track a single lifted from their album Home. This is another record that has come in for some criticism for being bland and is seen by some as being yet another marker along the road of Simply Red decline. Fortunately we can end on a high note with the 2003 CD Ricochet from the excellent Richard Elliot. Of the current crop of smooth jazz saxophone superstars perhaps Elliot is the most distinctive. Indeed it would not be overstating the case to say that Elliot can be heard coming a mile away. Certainly, his version of ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’, has his own very individual style written all over it and really elevates the track to the status of true Smooth Soul Survivor.

Watch this space for more great Smooth Soul Survivors, alternatively, if you have a favourite that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole@AOL.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at 2:44 PM

December 14, 2003

Soul Jazz Guitarist Richard Smith Returns With Soulidified

coverGuitarist Richard Smith released his eighth solo album last month entitled Soulidified, a collection of R&B, contemporary jazz, funk and buoyant pop tunes.  It’s his first album of all new material in three years and his debut for the A440 Music Group record label.  Currently Smith’s fun and funky version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sing A Song” is keeping smooth jazz radio programmers singing.  The cut is the only cover tune on the album as Smith penned or co-wrote the rest of the record, which was produced by bassist Brian Bromberg.  Contributing to the disc was a talented supporting cast of musicians including Jeff Lorber, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Kashiwa, Freddie Ravel, and Alex Acuna.         

Most of the compositions on Soulidified were written by Smith a few years ago while he was living abroad in Europe and were recorded over a two-year period in Los Angeles. When wielding an electric, Smith dispenses cool R&B guitar riffs with aplomb and many of the tracks lean in the urban adult direction.  With his acoustic instrument, a more sensitive and contemplative style emerges, which on occasion gives way to flourishes of seductive Latin rhythms.  The constants in the work of this guitar master are that his playing is soul-inspired and passionate.  Although Smith’s guitarwork is front and center, Soulidified is made larger-than-life with blasts of crisp horns and anchored by the deep grooves courtesy of Bromberg’s bumping bass lines and the slamming beats of drummer Derrick “D-Loc” Walker, who plays in Snoop Dogg’s band. 

There is a reason that Smith’s albums serve as textbooks for guitarists: he is also a tenured professor at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California.  Smith was the youngest guitarist to ever head the guitar department when he was appointed at age 29 and he went on to create the first doctoral program in jazz guitar in the world.  Last year, Smith founded GuitarMasters, a community outreach program for at-risk youth that provides free lessons, classes, guitars and mentoring in South Central Los Angeles through the Challengers Boys and Girls Club. In addition to his solo career, Smith has recorded and toured with such smooth jazz luminaries as Peter White, Marc Antoine, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Warren Hill and Richard Elliot, who Smith recorded six #1 albums with.  

Richard Smith’s Soulidified album contains the following songs:

“Soulidified”
“Latisimo”
“Sing A Song”
“Gotta Have You”
“Whatz Up?!”
“D’Bluze”
“Beyond The Mountains”
“Diggin’ It”
“Inspired by You”
“Intimato”

Posted by Peter Böhi at 8:29 PM

Contempo December 2003

Despite the obvious differences in their unique approaches to the art of pop-jazz vocalizing, Al Jarreau and Michael Franks for many years traveled a similar road both creatively and commercially. Both signed with Warner Bros. in 1975, an exciting era when radio playlists were more openminded, traditional jazz radio stations still existed and artists with one of a kind styles and visions were given a chance to thrive. The success of Franks’ 1976 debut The Art of Tea — which featured his trademark hit, “Popsicle Toes” — and numerous other recordings helped define a time when clever wordplays sung with ultra gentle, jazzy vocals were beautifully rewarded. Likewise, Jarreau’s We Got By launched a career where pop, jazz and R&B influences could co-exist on a single album, and radio had no trouble playing it all. Jarreau is still the only singer in history to win Grammys in all three categories (he has five total).

AlJarreau.jpgClose to 30 years later, both are still alive and kicking, hitting high on the Billboard Contemporary jazz charts, thriving mostly because of intensely loyal fan bases - but finding it increasingly difficult to get new material exposed at radio. As radio has become a more consolidated business, and demographic research and the bottom line have replaced true creativity in programming, new vocalists have been increasingly shut out. The smooth jazz format is more apt to play R&B oldies than anything new. Still, somehow, Al Jarreau sneaks in the cracks and received solid airplay with his last two GRP releases, Tomorrow Today and All I Got.

“I’m tickled to death to be played wherever I can be played, whether it’s on smooth jazz or other stations,” he says. “They can play me on country, next to polka, wherever. I’m lucky because I know it’s hard to be a vocalist in this day and age trying to be heard, unless your name is Norah Jones. I’m saddened that the jazz stations of the 70s and 80s have disappeared, and you can only hear the music of legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock on college stations. Smooth jazz is a necessity for me because I can’t get played on the R&B stations, where hip-hop dominates over pop singers like myself, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. The industry has changed, and guys like me have to find a way to survive it and figure out how to reach new and younger audiences.

“I go to Germany and France, and they still play me alongside hip-hop artists, and that’s the way it should be,” the singer adds. “Teenagers are digging it, and they’re realizing some of the songs on All I Got are as fresh and hip as anything Ja Rule is doing. But they need to be exposed to it. If someone like me came along today in the U.S. with the way radio is, I’d never get a deal.”

MichaelFranks.jpgMichael Franks strongly agrees, bluntly stating, “The smooth jazz format has changed so drastically that I don’t think it has any viability whatsoever for new vocalists.” For some reason, perhaps because his success is based on literate, poetic songs that are more about subtle panache than the groove, Franks became persona non grata as the genre shifted under the programming auspices of the market research firm of Broadcast Architecture.

This is a far cry from the beginning of the format, when Franks was hailed as one of its posterchildren. From the late 80s through the early 90s, when smooth jazz began under the name “New Adult Contemporary,” Franks’ classics were in heavy rotation, and his new material was added regularly to playlists. His 1993 hit Dragonfly Summer was the last of his recordings to enjoy regular airplay.

“Then all of a sudden, BA comes along and tells me that according to their research, my songs didn’t test well, based on listener responses to maybe 15 seconds of them,” he explains. “So I got shut out, and have had to readjust to the way the record companies can market my work. Fortunately, my sales have not been as affected as I first thought they might be. The genre as it is now doesn’t sell as many records as it did in the early days because it’s programmed more and more as an ambient lifestyle experience, and so many of the instrumental songs that are played are indistinguishable from the next one. Which is unfortunate for the listener and artist.”

Franks doesn’t tour as much as he used to, playing maybe 15 to 20 dates in the U.S. and going to Japan once or twice a year. Ironically, even the stations that seem forbidden to play him will book him for festival and winery dates that they sponsor — he’s still that popular among smooth jazz fans. He’s often the headliner, and a top instrumental artist who gets tons of airplay — he mentions Chris Botti — is billed as the opening act.

cover“When I’m at these events, I hang out with all the DJs who remember life before Broadcast Architecture, and they all say they’re sorry they don’t play me anymore,” Franks says. “It’s kind of bittersweet to be introduced by them, but I’m grateful that fans still like to buy my records and see me perform. Even with the numbers I’m doing now, I can still debut on the Contemporary Jazz charts in the Top Five. What keeps me going is the appreciation I have for this type of fan loyalty, and knowing that they still want to hear more from me.”

Jarreau is currently in the talking stages with Tommy LiPuma about his next recording for Verve, which we can expect perhaps next year. Franks is enjoying a positive reaction to this past spring’s release of The Michael Franks Anthology: The Art of Love on Warner Special Products. Columbia Records in Japan has signed on to release his upcoming holiday-winter themed disc Watching the Snow, which features all new material. He plans to sell it from his website (michaelfranks.com) while he seeks a U.S. distributor.

ParkCityJazzFest.jpgPARK CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL: Over the weekend of August 22-24, I had the privilege of attending the 6th Annual Fidelity Investments Park City Jazz Festival in Park City, Utah. Less than an hour ride from Salt Lake City up a beautiful, lush and green mountainous highway to an altitude of approximately 7000 feet, Park City is a hugely popular ski resort in the winter and a picture perfect locale for jazz in the late summer. Main Street, with all its cool Western architecture, gift shops, art galleries and wonderful restaurants, is the centerpiece of the Park City experience.

The festival was created by co-founders Lew and Arlene Fine, Boston natives who relocated later in life to Park City, who saw the festival as a way of giving back to the community. The goal of the festival, they explained, is to integrate entertainment and education, and much of the festival proceeds go to various scholarships aimed at Utah music students. On Friday and Saturday at Park City High School, well known musicians Airto Moreira, Larry Carlton and Rob Mullins conducted clinics for both youngsters and adults interested in learning more about their careers, influences, inspirations, techniques and survival in the industry.

Two unique aspects of the Park City Jazz Festival are the switch between two different venues and the starting times, which were early evening on Friday and Saturday and mid-afternoon on Sunday. Friday evening and Sunday afternoon’s shows were held at the Deer Valley Resort Outdoor Amphitheatre, with the crowd gathered at the base of a huge ski slope to watch Stigers, Brazilian husband and wife legends Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim and BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) on Friday, then Jonathan Butler, Greg Adams and straight ahead vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater on Sunday. It rained heavily earlier on both days, but the folks using blankets and chairs on the lawn didn’t seem to mind the wet grass as they grooved to BWB and Adams, who were in particularly funky form.

Saturday’s slate of the always charming Joyce Cooling, Larry Carlton (mixing some edgy fusion with his pop hits) and Gerald Albright (whose show was the most exciting of all nine by far, the perfect Saturday night closer!) was held at the far more intimate and picturesque The Canyons Forum Outdoor Amphitheatre.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) The Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones, New York City (Koch) — This delightfully surprising six song set shows us a bluesy, pre-stardom Norah Jones kicking it up with the NYC based guitarist’s group. Jones fans will be tickled by the different approach from her own CD, and I will recommend this one to her non fans who find that effort too slow and mellow. Too bad it’s so short.
2) Rick Braun, Esperanto (Warner Bros.)
3) Alex Bugnon, Southern Living (Narada Jazz)
4) Dave Koz, Saxophonic (Capitol)
5) Candy Dulfer, Sax A Go Go (BMG)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 11:57 AM

December 1, 2003

Smooth Sailing

Who put out the best smooth jazz CDs in 2003? What's in store for holiday music? Check out the latest Smooth Sailing to find out the answers, as well as to discover some CDs you may have missed this year.

There were many fine smooth-jazz CDs released in 2003. Here are my 10 favorites:

1) David Sanborn, “Timeagain” (Verve). Many smooth-jazz saxophonists get their inspiration from the veteran player. “Timeagain” is the CD that smooth jazz fans have been waiting for for a long time. The tunes are raw, energetic, alive and breathing.

2) Mindi Abair, “It Just Happens That Way” (GRP). Newcomer Abair blows a mean sax on her much-anticipated debut. Abair’s worth the hype. Every song is a winner on this keeper CD.

3) Chris Standring, “Groovaliscious” (Mesa/Blue Moon). The British guitarist certainly has a way with melody and hummable hooks. But he’s not afraid to play, and play well, on tunes that owe inspiration to the ‘60s and ‘70s.

4) Dave Koz, “Saxophonic” (Capitol). Koz, now a media mogul as co-owner of a new record label, shows that he can still play the saxophone while helming two of the country’s most popular smooth-jazz radio shows. The CD, divided into three “acts,” features elements of jazz, pop, soul and electronica.

5) Rick Braun, “Esperanto” (Warner Bros.). No one plays the trumpet smoother or better than Braun, who never releases a bad CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite “Latinesque”), but if you’ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he’s got a wild streak, too.

6) Marc Antoine, “Mediterraneo” (Rendezvous). Gypsy-guitar player Antoine returns to his roots with an uplifting work that finds him at the top of his game. Smooth jazz at its best.

7) Doc Powell, “97th & Columbus” (Heads Up). The much-traveled session player once again proves that he can be a leader on guitar.

8) Brian Hughes, “Along The Way” (A440 Music Group). The lyrical guitarist mixes Latin elements with rock and funk to once again prove he is one of the best in the biz.

9) Richard Elliot, “Ricochet” (GRP). Elliot may be small in stature, but his robust sax takes listeners to new heights.

10) Acoustic Alchemy, “Radio Contact” (Higher Octave). The veteran band makes contact here on a CD that marks a return to its roots: guitars and melodies.


HOLIDAY MUSIC
There are many holiday CDs released each year. Here’s a few:

Michael Buble, “Let It Snow!” (143/Reprise): The 20something vocalist from Vancouver, British Columbia, is hot, hot, hot. This 5-song CD should do nothing to turn down the heat. A cross between Sinatra and Darin, Buble shines on “Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” “Grown-Up Christmas List,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “White Christmas.” Produced by David Foster.

Yellowjackets, “Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration” (Yellowjackets Enterprise): The CD, only available online at yellowjackets.com, has all the standards, including “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Winter Wonderland.” On the latter, the wonderful Bob Mintzer’s sax has never, ever sounded so good. This is destined to become one of the most memorable jazz CDs ever.

Plan 9, “The 9 Days of Christmas” (Plan9Partners): Listeners downloaded a gazillion copies of Plan 9’s “God Rest Ye” from smoothjazz.com, which rightly convinced the six-member to go all out with a holiday CD. Like they say, they’re not out to trivialize the music, but to rediscover its joyful elements. That they do, in the season’s most, well, joyful holiday CD. The CD was officially released in 2002, but is now getting some publicity so it is included here. You’ll dig it if you’re in a good mood and looking for something different.

Jeff Ball, “Songs of Winter" (Red Feather Music): Have yourself a very flute-y Christmas. It’s a bit on the new age side, but it’s doubtful you’ll hear a more touching version of “Greensleeves” during the holidays. Ball plays an assortment of Indian flutes, and he’s backed by a great band on fretless and fretted bass, guitars, organ, handbells and percussion. An unexpected delight: a cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.”

Michael Franks, “Watching the Snow” (Sleeping Gypsy): The sweet-voiced singer presents 10 original songs to his fans as his Christmas gift. If you like Franks, you’ll of course like this and know what to expect: jazzy stylings, clever lyrics and a sense of well-being.

WORTH CHECKING OUT FROM 2003
There are so many worthwhile CDs. And so little time to hear and review them all. Here are some CDs you might want to check out:

Various artists, “A Twist of Motown” (GRP): Guitarist Lee Ritenour returns with another in his series of “Twist” CDs. This one has Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, George Benson, Chris Botti, Will Downing, Richard Elliot, Lisa Fischer, Dave Gruisin, Bob James, Ray Parker Jr., Brenda Russell and Peter White. Highlights: The incomparable Will Downing’s vocals on “Just My Imagination” and James’ Fender Rhodes on “Creepin’.”

Chuck Loeb, “eBop" (Shanachie): Don’t let the title give you the wrong impression. He grooves a little harder here than earlier efforts, but it still the same sweet electric guitar. Not up to his usual standards, but still worth a listen.

Nick Colionne, “Just Come on In” (Three Keys): Another guitarist in the Wes/George/Lee lineage, Colionne packs a punch and is ridin’ high with his hit, “High Flyin’. Even better is a cover of “My Favorite Things.” It’s a good effort, but suffers from sameness even though Colionne has the formula down: smooth stuff, funky stuff, some vocals. Hopefully the next one will have a tighter vision.

Richard Smith, “Soulidifed” (A440): The smooth jazz educator and musician hits pay dirt with a lively recording of electric guitar and some great ballads, including “Inspired By You” and “Intimato.” And you hafta love another version of “Sing a Song.”

The Crusaders, “Rural Renewal” (Verve): If you like the classic sound of the Crusaders’ intelligent and sophisticated contemporary jazz, you’ll like this CD featuring original members Joe Sample, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder. Guest artist Eric Clapton helps infuse the CD with its soul and gospel shadings.

Ultra Blue, “Dusk 2 Dawn” (Khaeon): This is one CD worth discovering. East Coast musicians David Mann, Pete Belasco, Dave Stryker, Rachel Z and special guest vocalist Kevin Mahogany deliver one of the most listenable works of the year: you have to hear Mahogany’s pipes on “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” Most of the tunes are instrumental, though, and perfect for chilling out. Good stuff.

Candy Dulfer, “Right in My Soul” (Eagle): The sexy sax star returned with a decent collection of very European, very hip, mostly vocal numbers that’ll have you grooving all night. Highlight: the very funky “Power to the People.” Dulfer can play, which she proves on the jazzy “It’s My Life.”

Oscar Castro-Neves, “Playful Heart” (Mack Avenue): The much-loved Brazilian musician can always be counted on for CDs that downright uplifting. It’s hard to feel unhappy with Toots Thielemans’ harmonica happily playing away. Although Castro-Neves stumbles on Jobim’s “Waters of March” (Aguas De Marco) by singing in English, at least you can now understand what you’ve been humming all these years. Simply a wonderful CD of Brazilian music. Go get it.

Abbey Lincoln, “It’s Me” (Verve): Jazz singer Lincoln’s smoky and raspy voice has never sounded better. The very mellow tracks on this CD can be enjoyed by smooth jazz fans who like Diana Krall.

Jesse Cook, “Nomad” (Narada World): Flamenco traditionalist Cook is a treat to listen to, with his swirling musical landscapes and expert guitar playing. Expect some experimentation, don’t expect a sound similar to Marc Antoine, and you’ll like it fine.

Cassandra Reed, “Cassandra Reed” (Peak): If nothing else, the CD surely rates with the sexiest packaging of the year. If you can tear your eyes away from the lovely Reed, you’ll discover the smooth jazz vocal CD of the year. Bravo to producer Jason Miles, who gets the most from Reed’s husky and emotive voice.

Incognitio, “Who Needs Love” (Narada Jazz): Jean-Paul Maunick, aka “Bluey,” returns with a smashing bunch of R&B-infused vocals supplied by a bevy of talented female singers.

Mark Winkler, “The Best of Mark Winkler” (Varese Sarabande): Gerald Albright, Joe Sample, Boney James, Dianne Reeves, David Benoit and others contribute to this compilation from an underrated jazz/lounge singer who has a touch of Al Jarreau in his chops.

David Garfield, “Giving Back” (Creatchy): Pianist Garfield has some of smooth jazz biggest stars and session players on this CD, which is kind of jazzy, kind of rock ‘n’ roll.

Ray Fuller, “The Weeper” (A Ray Artists Music): Think Lee Ritenour meets George Benson. Fuller plays a lyrical guitar and takes on some classic classics: “If You Really Love Me,” “Work to Do,” “Naima” and “She Walks This Earth.” Highly recommended, worth the search.

Hiroshima, “The Bridge” (Heads Up): Does the veteran smooth jazz group still matter these days? There are some moments, such as on “Manzanar” and “Viven,” where the smooth-meets-Eastern philosophy meshes, but there’s too much that sounds dated here or overdone. For Hiroshima long-timers only.

IGOR, “You and I” (FigorO Music): It appears that IGOR wants to be the Australian Kenny G. He’s certainly learned his lessons, as the saxophonist’s self-described “sooth and silky” sound is like the second coming of G. He was raised in Russia, so you can excuse the scary name. If you can’t get enough of Kenny G, this is your CD.

Lloyd Gregory, “Free Fallin’” (Integy): Intoxicating music. Gregory often sounds like long-lost Earl Klugh on his uptempo and ballads, and that’s good enough for most smooth jazz fans. Check out the slow-grooving “Peanut,” Gregory’s guitar expertly playing over a soft and funk drums-and-bass foundation. One of the independent highlights of the year.

Yellowjackets, “Time Squared” (Heads Up): This veteran group may be a bit too adventurous for the average smooth jazz fan, but the Mintzer-Ferrante-Haslip trio is just too in-the-pocket to escape a listen. Although swinging more and more toward jazz these days, the band’s contemporary roots occasionally shine through. And don’t forget, Mintzer is one of the best saxophonists around.

Jeff Ray, “The Walkup” (Hipnotic): Electric guitarist Ray plays the kind of instrumental rock you can never get enough of. Like Jeff Beck, he can rock (“Cinnamon Lenses”) – and he can get good and slow: check out “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” His expert group is rounded out with Aaron Swinn on Hammond B3 and Rhodes, Darryl Hall on electric bass and Victor Wise on drums. A modern blast from the past.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 5:25 AM