Smooth Sailing February 2004

Saxophonist supreme Euge Groove returns with his third CD. He's on a new label, Narada Jazz, but has lost nothing that made his earlier CDs so popular. Settle in...also reviewed are Down to the Bone, Incognito, Hubert Laws, Will Sumner and a wonderful compilation called The Love Project.

Euge Groove
Livin' Large (Narada Jazz)

coverEuge Groove came out of nowhere in 1999 with �Romeo + Juliet,� a heavily downloaded song on whose popularity led to his signing on Warner Bros. Groove had a long career as a sideman: He played on Expose�s hit single �Seasons Change� in the �80s and jammed with Richard Marx and Tower of Power. Now on his third CD, Groove�s throaty tenor sax is firmly established on smooth jazz radio. It�s another winner for Groove, although some may bypass the rap of Sly and the Family Stone�s �Thank You For Lettin� Me Be Myself� to hear the instrumental version instead.

Like Richard Elliot, Groove has a knack for memorable melodies and for coaxing the max out of his sax � it growls, hits impossibly low notes and always sounds like it�s the way the instrument was meant to sound. You hear that on �Silhouette,� which is enhanced by some snappy keyboard runs. The title track, �Livin� Large,� �XXL� and �Tool Cool� are templated Groove tunes, with their repeated melodies and midtempo grooves building to climaxes. No sax star worth his reeds would miss a chance to blow a ballad, which Groove can do like no one else: �The Gift� is a change of pace, with Groove picking up the soprano sax and laying down some beautiful notes. Elsewhere, on �Cobolicious,� Groove uses wordless vocals and some jazzy piano for a change of pace.

Perhaps the most listenable song here is one you�ll probably recognize: James Taylor�s �Don�t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.� It�s no wonder Groove included it, as it the perfect match for a smooth jazz cover. Interestingly enough, producer Paul Brown includes it on his new CD, also, although he sings computer-enhanced vocals. Groove sticks to what he does best � play the hell out of the horn. Smooth grade: A

Down to the Bone
Cellar Funk (Narada Jazz)

coverIn 1996, when Down to the Bone�s From Manhattan to Staten shook the doldrums off smooth jazz, this new sound was fresh, funky and just plain fun. It still is, as you can hear on the new CD. DTTB, led by British producer Stuart Wade, is now a veteran of the groove-jazz genre, whose dance staples are now incorporated into many smooth jazz offerings. DTTB essentially works like this: Wade hums a melody, hears what instruments might come into play, and, along with his mates in his regular band, recruits session musicians who help fine-tune melodies and rhythms. Guests include Hammond B-3 player Brian Auger and Brazilian jazz vocalists Flora Purim and Guida de Palma. The creative process works for Wade, who will admit to anyone that he can�t play a lick of music. Scoff, but the proof is in the jam.

As a true jam band, DTTB�s music often dulls senses with its repetition, such as on �I�ll Always Hold You Close.� But wait, that�s a good thing. Your mind wanders for a few minutes, then flits back to the groove when Auger�s Hammond work tears through the speakers. Same with �Timeless,� which offers a tasty acoustic guitar lick, something the band hasn�t tried before. Elsewhere, Purim�s Carioca vocalese is perfectly suited for �The Flow,� where a horn riff blows over a festival-like rhythm. �Crossing Boundaries� and �Dancing to a Samba� also have a Brazilian flavor, and are driven by percussion that shakes like dancers at Rio�s carnaval.

Although most of DTTB�s songs are fairly busy (�LA Shakedown� is inspired by Blaxplotation movies and has a great Chic-like guitar riff), once in a while the band shows it can make a tight single as well. Exhibit A is �You�re the Only Reason,� an in-the-pocket groove with some tasty Hammond work and simply stated bass-and-drum line. Smooth grade: B+

Hubert Laws
Moondance (Savoy Jazz)

coverFlutist Hubert Laws has always flirted between contemporary and mainstream jazz in his long career and, at 64, doesn�t appear to want to veer to a path less traveled anytime soon. Laws, who created some seminal work in the 1970s with the CTI label � including �Afro Classic� � looks back to the days while keeping an eye on radio formats with his latest. Many CTI fusion recordings, with George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard and others, were precursors to today�s smooth jazz, so when Laws comes out with a CD it deserves a listen from today�s stars. It turns out that Chris Botti (trumpet), Jeff Lorber (piano) and Brian Culbertson (piano) did more than listen � they also contribute to the CD, as does Herbie Hancock.

True to Laws� outlook, Moondance features several moments that would shine on smooth jazz radio, from the cover of the Van Morrison classic and the very up-to-date (with drum machine and wah-wah guitar) �Nighttime Daydream� to the breezy �Summer of �75.� Aside from those cuts, however, the remainder of the CD sticks to more traditional acoustic jazz elements as Laws rides the flute hard and harkens back to glorious sounds of the �70s. Especially compelling is the late-night jazz bar ambience of �Love Me Tonight� and the fast-paced �Clarita,� which often sounds lifted from a James Bond movie. The music swings, Laws� flute sings and the featured guests seem to be having a grand time. Smooth grade: B+

Who Needs Love (Narada Jazz)

coverAcid-jazz-meets-funk band Incognito is popular in Britain, where its combination of funk and sultry female vocals hits a melodic nerve in clubs and feet-happy dancers. The band isn�t as popular in the States, but certainly has a loyal following. Incognito is the creation of Jean-Paul Maunick � known to all as �Bluey� � and has been around for 20 years with a revolving cast of musicians. The latest is pretty much business as usual, but adds elastic Brazilian vocalist Ed Motta on the title track and features iconic Paul Weller of the late, great The Jam and The Style Council on guitar on �Stone Cold Heart,� a light samba groove with a sweet string arrangement. Vocalists Kelli Sae, Joy Rose and Joy Malcolm add the sultry vocals on the CD, which will appeal to those who enjoy both mid- and uptempo soul songs with vocals. Although maybe a bit tiring for those who only want instrumentals, there are many smooth jazz elements on Incognito CDs, and there�s no denying the musicianship. Smooth grade: B

Will Sumner
Coast Drive (Ocean Street)

coverThere�s something about smooth jazz, palm trees and an ocean drive that feels so right. Guitarist Will Sumner synergizes all three in an independent release that harkens back to the very mellow smooth jazz popular a decade ago, before sampling, electronica and hip-hop crept into the scene. Sumner, who also solos on sax and piano, alternates between acoustic and electric guitar and sounds positively Craig Chaquico-like on guitar synth songs such as �Out of the Woods� and the charming �Sunset Surf Jam.� Sumner establishes a theme early in his compositions, from mellow (�Coast Drive,� �Breathless� � the latter with some sweet piano synth/guitar answer-and-call), and tropical (the Latin-flavored �Todos Santos� and samba-ish �The Island Girl�), to uptempo rock (�Inside Job,� �Full Steam�). Sumner really shines, though, on �Second Thoughts,� where he stretches on the strings, soars with melodic piano and programs a shuffle rhythm to achieve melodic nirvana. Think Pat Metheny in a supremely relaxed mood. Smooth grade: B

Various artists
The Love Project (Narada Jazz)

coverSettle down by the fireplace with the one you love with the help of The Love Project, a sumptuous CD featuring many of your favorite artists doing 12 of your favorite love songs. Four selections are existing recordings: �Moondance� by Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson; �That Girl� by the Chicago Project; �Wonderful Tonight� by Warren Hill with Jeff Golub; and �Everyday� by Peter White.

The CD opens with Euge Groove�s languid interpretation of James Taylor�s �Don�t Let Me Lonely Tonight,� which the saxman also includes on his new CD. The group Frayne follows with one of the best covers ever of the Isley Brothers� �For the Love of You,� male and female vocals alternating the lead. Here�s what else you�ll hear on this wonderful CD: El DeBarge�s �All This Love� by pianist Jeff Lorber; a spare version of Leon Russell�s �A Song For You� by guitarist Joyce Cooling; Deniece Williams� �Free� by sexy saxman Walter Beasley; an absolutely tasty, funky retelling of Teddy Pendergrass� �Love T.K.O.� by pianist Alex Bugnon, with soulful vocal refrains courtesy of Ronnie Garrett; James Ingram and Patty Austin�s �Baby Come to Me� by Urban Knights; and a jazzy, drum-brushed version of David and Bacharach�s �What the World Needs Now� by pianist David Benoit.

This CD is highly recommended as classic smooth jazz. Smooth grade: A