Smooth Sailing March 2004

Super-producer Paul Brown makes his debut with Upfront, a filled-with-hits delight. Also reviewed: Peter White, Norah Jones, Braxton Brothers, Joyce Cooling, Praful, Chris Botti, The Jazzmasters, Dan Siegel, Keiko Matsui and two compilations by the Native Language label.

PAUL BROWN
Upfront
(GRP)

coverYou probably should have seen this coming, but it�s still somewhat of a surprise: When the king of smooth jazz producers decides to make an album, you figure it�s a vanity project. But what you get instead is one of 2004�s early surprises, top-to-bottom smooth jazz stunner brimming with bright melodies, good picking by Brown on the guitar and enough hits to fill a Christmas stocking. More than any other producer in his genre, Brown defines what makes a hit. The �Paul Brown sound� is one that smooth artists kill for, and what a long list of artists have ridden to the top, from George Benson, Al Jarreau, Norman Brown and Euge Groove to Rick Braun, Boney James, Peter White and Larry Carlton. The 12-song CD is grooving and melodic, showcasing Brown�s guitar, drums and � yes � vocals. He scats on �Wes� Coast Swing,� sings straight up on Van Morrison�s �Moondance� and alters his voice with a vocoder on James Taylor�s �Don�t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.� The CD�s first single, �24/7,� is already a smooth jazz radio smash. Other singles abound: the Wes Montgomery-penned �Angel�; the Larry Carlton-sounding �Moment by Moment,� with scatting; and the traditional �My Funny Valentine,� which Brown turns into a smooth classic and gets a chance to really play his guitar. Brown�s list of guest musicians is impressive: Peter White, Boney James � for whom Brown has produced eight CDs � Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun and Chuck Loeb. Also on board are multi-instrumentalist Jeff Carruthers, whom Brown has known since his early mixing days, and French DJ star Cam, who rewrote a rap song and stripped it down with Brown for song called �Chill Out.� An amazing debut. Let�s hope he still finds time to go into the studio and produce for others after this. Smooth grade: A


PETER WHITE
Confidential
(Columbia)

coverSmooth jazz guitar icon Peter White � his pretty acoustic picking has defined the genre for more than a decade � offers 11 sometimes intimate, sometimes jubilant, always engaging slices of his heart. You�d expect nothing less from a man who inspires a devout fan club and is eagerly welcomed onto stage and into studios by fellow musicians. Settling in with a new Peter White CD is like inviting Mr. Rogers and his Grandpa sweater and soft slippers into your living room. Super producer Paul Brown co-wrote or produced five songs on the CD, including the first single, the jaunty �Talkin� Bout Love�; �Coast Road Drive,� a classic feel-good White song with a thumping bass; �She�s in Love,� a vocal track written by Brenda Russell here featuring �80s star Christopher Cross; �Lost Without Your Love,� a ballad with David Sparkman providing a soulful vocal refrain; and �Stormfront,� a grooving cut with a tasty shuffle beat and Chris Botti�s trumpet. Brown also plays electric guitar on several cuts. In addition to Botti and Brown, other guests include Brian Culbertson, Mindi Abair, Steve Ferrone, Rex Rideout, Michael Paulo and a great percussion team. Culbertson provides some needed and jazzy piano interludes, especially on the title track, which he produced, while Abair adds sax to �Are You Mine,� a top-down driving song propelled by strings. Guests add flavor, but White of course is the brightest star here, even bringing out his accordion for �Swept Away,� which evokes images of Italy, flamenco players and flamenco dancers. �How Does It Feel� is the most unique song on the CD due to White�s playing the killer hook over a rich percussive beat. Matthew Hager, who produced the song, plays what the liner notes call �weird guitar,� keeping time with White�s acoustic. It�s a great touch. �Confidential� to smooth jazz fans: You�ll play this CD over and over. Smooth grade: A


NORAH JONES
Feels Like Home
(Blue Note)

coverNorah Jones� followup to her Grammy winning Come Away With Me, which sold millions of copies, is just as mellow and refreshing as ever, although it�s a bit more uptempo that her debut. The first single, �Sunrise,� and the rest of the CD show Jones� range in musical styles, as she�s not strictly a jazz singer, not strictly a pop singer, not strictly a country or blues singer. She�s all of them, and seems determined to cross boundaries whenever she can. Longtime friend, guitarist Jesse Harris, who wrote Jones� megahit �Don�t Know Why,� makes some guest appearances, as do legendary country singer Dolly Parton, jazz drummer Brian Blade and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of seminal rock group The Band. Parton and Jones duet on a rousing hoedown called �Creepin� In.� In addition to covers of Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt tunes, there's also a reworking of the Duke Ellington�s �Melancholia� � a concert favorite of Jones� � which she added lyrics to and retitled "Don't Miss You at All.� So why is Jones so popular? That�s easy � she makes honest music that speaks to herself and millions of others, has a great voice and reminds many of a time not too long where music was made not for profit but because it had to be. Smooth grade: A


BRAXTON BROTHERS
Rollin�(Peak)

coverTwins Wayne and Nelson Braxton couldn�t have picked a better first single than �When You Touch Me,� a joyously bouncy track that allows Wayne to solo on sax and Nelson on bass guitar. Together, the Braxtons have delivered another solid smooth jazz CD with plenty of R&B touches and slow-groove ballads with vocal refrains, such as �It�s You� and �Tonight,� the latter featuring Wayne�s romantic, insistent repeating of �tonight, tonight.� What�s set the Braxtons apart on this and previous CDs is their use of Nelson�s bass as a lead instrument, although he does play electric guitar also. You can tell a Braxton Brothers song because of this, and because of Wayne�s sax leads, which seem to be getting better and more prominent with each CD. Both are brought into play on �I Want You For Myself� and �Blue Sands,� midtempo numbers with killer hooks and with some sweet Rhodes programming thrown in for extra delight. The Braxtons wisely stick to their strengths on this CD, and don�t include as many lead-vocal tracks as they have on other CDs, although Martin Luther�s rich phrasing on �Love Is Crazy� is a worthy addition. The boys know how to funk, too, which is guaranteed on their CDs. Exibit A here: �Rollin�,� the title track, with delightful �wah-wah� sax. Smooth grade: B+


JOYCE COOLING
This Girl�s Got To Play
(Narada Jazz)

coverGuitarist Joyce Cooling continues her particular smooth jazz style with her fourth CD: plenty of tight grooves, clean electric and acoustic guitar runs, an occasional blues, rock or Brazilian aside and several chances to display her jazz-style vocals. Cooling and partner/producer/keyboardist Jay Wagner breeze through nine diverse tracks that have plenty of hit potential, beginning with opener, �Expression.� Cooling trades acoustic and electric riffs, and Wagner keeps time on the keyboards, as is their style. Wagner also plays some bouncy solos. Another potential smash is �Camelback,� a rump-shaker with a blues-lite groove. Add a come-hither piano solo, and you�ve got a song perfect for that Saharan camel ride you�ve always wanted to take. The title of �Green Impala� gives a clue to its content � it�s a funky ride down Main Street, accompanied by a right-on drum loop. �Toast & Jam� says it all too: A thumping bass beat by Nelson Braxton, bluesy organ riffs. Here Cooling shows her unabashed love of pure funk. The vocal tunes that works best is �Take Me There,� with Cooling�s refrain on the title unobtrusive while she stays within herself vocally. �No More Blues� works also, because Cooling sings likes she�s having a conversation, and it goes well with the jazz beat burnished with Alan Hall�s brushed drumstrokes. The autobiographical title track gives a glimpse into Cooling�s inspirations. The lyrics are revealing, as she allows for some insight into her struggles as a pretty woman struggling to break into instrumental music: �They said, put your guitar and sing/just look real cute and entertain/sorry, honey, it ain�t my thing.� �Natural Fact,� the last vocal track, is another slice of funk with some wonderful trumpet playing by Bill Ortiz. Subtract the vocals, however, and you�d have a head-boppin� drums-and-bass ambient and chill gem. Smooth grade: B


PRAFUL
One Day Deep
(Rendezvous)

coverPraful, a German-born-and-raised wind instrumentalist (sax, flute, plus Rhodes and other stuff) now based in Amsterdam, has injected some much-needed punch into the sometimes tepid smooth jazz scene with his single �Sigh.� The whole CD is just as good, 11 acid/chill/smooth/funky songs that often defy description and show there�s plenty of room for innovative new music on radio. You know you�re in for something special when you hear moog, weird vocals and throaty sax during the opening song on the CD, �One Day Deep,� which gradually builds in intensity. Praful�s Brazilian influences come out in �Sonhar,� �Teardrop Butterfly� and �Inspiracao,� the latter featuring Lillian Vieria�s Portuguese vocals over flighty flute runs. �Let the Chips Fall,� the second single, is a funky �70s-like number with tenor sax mixed with Indian bamboo flute. Groovy. Going into too much detail about the rest of the CD is kind of like giving away too much of a movie. You need to experience this groovy, trippy and smooth CD for yourself. Praful is expected to release a new CD early in 2005. Smooth grade: A


CHRIS BOTTI
A Thousand Kisses Deep
(Columbia)

coverTrumpeter Chris Botti�s �Indian Summer� is one of the freshest smooth jazz singles heard on the radio for awhile, and just further cements Botti�s status as one of the genre�s top stars. He gets tons of recognition opening for Sting, and deservedly so. Like fellow trumpeter Rick Braun, Botti plays notes that move the heart while writing memorable melodies that can stick in your head all day. This guy is as smooth as Burt Bacharach, whom he borrows two songs from. The well-worn �The Look of Love� is given a mild drums-and-bass treatment, a go-go groove and some vocal refrains from Chantal Kreviazuk. Is there a better song for the mournful trumpet? The other Bacharach song is �The Last Three Minutes,� which has what Botti calls a �tougher rhythm� than he�s ever done before. It�s a great track. The rest of the CD is sophisticated and cool, just the ticket for those in chill-out mode. It ends perfectly with a trumpet-piano duet with Steve Lindsey that sounds like the soundtrack to our lives. Smooth grade: A


PAUL HARDCASTLE
The Jazzmasters 4
(Hardcastle)

coverThe king of seductive, dancy and jazzy beats returns in his latest Jazzmasters project, which is typically what you�d expect. Great singles such as �Puerto Banus� and �Valley of the Harps� mix with vocal tracks featuring longtime singer Helen Rogers, who figures more into Hardcastle�s Jazzmaster CDs than his solo ones. Rogers has a dreamy voice, which she shows on songs such the gorgeous �Feeling Blue� and �Lifetime.� Her vocals are perfectly suited for smooth jazz and add significantly to Hardcastle�s appeal. But Hardcastle�s popularity draws from his unabashed love of drum programming � which he does better than anyone � mixed with sax (credit Snake Davis and Tony Woods), piano and others sounds that have been heard by millions worldwide on such hits as �19� and �Rainforest,� �Lost in Space� and most recently with �Desire.� The instrumentals are what work especially well here. Whether funky in the spare in �Emerald Stardust� or deliciously chill in songs like �Lifetime,� this CD is another in a long line of winners for Hardcastle. Even Hardcastle�s first rap, �If You Knew,� works. Smooth grade: B+


DAN SIEGEL
Inside Out
(Native Language)

coverAlmost a quarter century after his debut, Dan Siegel remains one of the kings of smooth-as-silk piano smooth jazz. No computer blips or hip-hop samples here. Siegel is such a mellow mood on his first new studio CD in six years that if you�re not completely relaxed after his latest, you should probably get your money back. Saxophonists Boney James and Jeff Kashiwa spice things up in solos and as part of a horn section, but their playing enhances the mellowness instead of taking it outside a comfort zone. None of this is bad, of course. On �Just Like That� and the cover track, Siegel�s chirpy playing and smooth backbeat are just what my doc might prescribe during the nadir of a hectic work week. Siegel steps outside his comfort zone a little with �Between the Lines,� laying down some tasty organ grooves, but soon slips back into his mellow groove with �To the Point.� He ventures into Yanni territory on the final cut, �Gone, But Not Forgotten,� a spiritual and uplifting four minutes of music cinema. Siegel is from the old school, a defining member of the smooth jazz movement who still believes in music�s healing and calming attributes. In today�s loud world, there�s still plenty of room for that. Smooth grade: B


KEIKO MATSUI
Wildflower
(Narada Jazz)

cover
Composer and keyboardist Keiko Matsui is such an established humanitarian you can practically hear the goodwill in her music. On her 14th studio recording, the diminutive but powerful artist decided that the title track would benefit the United Nations World Programme�s relief efforts in Africa, and she�s raising awareness of the organization during her worldwide tour this year. The simple but effective piano ballad is one of the most beautiful singles in her long career. Matsui�s mostly acoustic piano pieces have always been marked by gradual openings that build in pace to rousing conclusions. In between, Matsui displays her talents with memorable melodies and some fantastic runs along the keys. �Facing Up,� modernized with some interesting computer enhancing and hip-hop elements, is a good example of her power: Matsui is best listened to late at night with headphones, where you can hear the complexity of her music, which often sounds simplistic at first blush. The CD opens with �Flashback,� a hit-worthy ditty with soaring melodic moments so beautiful you begin to sense the grandeur Matsui strives for. Surprises abound: On �Sense of Journey,� Matsui dips into a jazzy groove while in �Brand New Wind� saxes, a poppin� bass and children�s joyful cries mix into a whole that somehow works. Elsewhere, Matsui throws in world elements while keeping her head firmly in 2004 with some new and interesting sounds. As always, she gets help from her husband, shakuhachi flute player and producer Kazu Matsui. Bravo. Smooth grade: A


VARIOUS ARTISTS
A Smooth Jazz Affaire
Smooth Jazz Essentials

(Native Language)

covercoverThe great thing about running a music label is that you�re able to make your own music on it. That would be a bad thing if Joe Sherbanee and Theo Bishop didn�t make some pretty good smooth jazz. They�re both featured on these compilations. On these CDs of mostly previously released material, Sherbanee�s keyboards and percussion have already been heard before, as �San Luis� and �Big City� are taken from his fine CD from 1998, The Road Ahead. But Bishop�s �Tonight�s The Night,� featured on both CDs, is a classically mellow acoustic piano ballad that fits in with Dan Seigel�s best stuff. Both CDs feature mostly Native Language artists, of course, and Affaire is targeted toward romantic evenings while Essentials includes some of the best and highest-charting music the label�s produced. Artists include Jeff Kashiwa, Brian Bromberg, Steve Oliver, Juan Carlos Quintero and Tony Guerrero. One interesting track is Los Angeles traffic reporter Jennifer York, who plays the appropriately titled �405 Jam,� a song from an upcoming CD. York leans toward the jazz fusion side of things here, but also has been known to perform in trio and quartet settings. Smooth grades: B+