Smooth Sailing June/July 2004

Saxophonist Michael Lington delivers a CD that should put place him among the smooth jazz elite. Also reviews of new music from George Benson, The Benoit/Freeman Project, Wayman Tisdale, Gerald Albright, Fourplay, Eric Darius, Brian Lenair and Matt Marshak.

MICHAEL LINGTON
Stay With Me
(Rendezvous)

coverSaxophonist Michael Lington pulls it all together on his fourth CD, a work that should lift him from the fringe and put him on stage with the top-tier of smooth jazz talent. What makes this CD so good? Lington�s a passionate player, who�s had some tasty hits before, of course, but here he picks 10 songs that all work together, gets top producers and writers such as Paul Brown, Brian Culbertson and concentrates of making 10 pop-jazz songs that could all make the charts if given a chance. And it couldn�t hurt that he�s now on Dave Koz�s Rendezvous label, which Lington calls a �musician�s label.�

All you have to hear is the first single and the lead song, �Show Me,� to see that Lington�s shooting for the top. Its guitar intro and sax hook of the year make a bold statement. Just as good is �A New Day,� a slow-tempo groove with another memorable sax hook. The most interesting song here is �Apasionada,� which was written by Michael and Daniel Sembello. Michael Sembello is best known for his �Flashdance� hit �Maniac,� but this song sounds like a movie theme you�ve had bouncing around in your head for a long time. It�s an anthem, much like Gato Barbieri�s �Europa (Earth�s Cry).�

Elsewhere, �Pacifica� is a sunny Rippingtons-like slice of pop, �Two of a Kind� is slow funk featuring guitarist Chuck Loeb, �Call Me Late Tonight� is a tasty ballad featuring Paul Brown on the mixing board and on his guitar, and �Hey You� has a late 1970s vibe and Paul Jackson Jr.�s guitar. Lington closes the CD with a straightforward reading of Paul McCartney�s �My Love,� which is just good enough for a classic song.

Smooth grade: A


GEORGE BENSON
Irreplaceable
(GRP)

coverThe title is ironic now, since this CD was originally to be a collection of all vocal tracks, but the singer/guitarist dropped three songs on the early version and included two songs produced by Paul Brown, �Arizona Sunrise� and �Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,� the latter of which is quickly climbing the smooth jazz charts. Also added was �Take You Out,� an instrumental cover of a Luther Vandross song produced by Rex Rideout and Bud Harner that�s also included on an upcoming tribute CD called For Ever, For Always, For Luther. The three instrumentals show why Benson, at 61, remains the most copied contemporary jazz guitarist of his generation. The three instrumental songs are that good.

For the rest of the album�s seven vocal tracks, Benson worked with songwriter-producer Joshua Thompson, who has collaborated with such R&B mega-stars as Joe, Alicia Keys, Babyface and Aretha Franklin. There�s nothing wrong with these songs, which include �Cell Phone,� �Black Rose,� �Six Play� and �Missing You.� After all, Benson�s had some of his biggest hits with vocal songs such as �Turn Your Love Around,� �Give Me the Night� and �This Masquerade.� And, really, the vocal songs are pretty darn good. In fact, Irreplaceable may the kind of CD that gets Benson airplay on several music charts.

Bottom line: If you�re looking for a classic smooth-jazz CD by Benson, it may be better to shop for the three instrumental songs. But if you�re a fan of both Benson�s � the guitarist and the singer � �Irreplaceable� is a good choice for your player.

Smooth grade: B


THE BENOIT/FREEEMAN PROJECT
The Benoit/Freeman Project 2
(Peak)

benoitfreeman2.jpgTen years after releasing the first Benoit/Freeman Project recording, pianist David Benoit and guitarist Russ Freeman, of the Rippingtons, are back with a triumphant recording. What makes this 10-song project so good is that, in addition to every song being burn-worthy, it keeps a Southern California laid-back groove throughout while still managing some delightful surprises. Also working in its favor is the interplay between Benoit and Freeman: Benoit has never sounded better or jazzier, and Freeman�s mostly acoustic renderings show that, when he wants to, he can sound every bit as pretty as Peter White or Earl Klugh. Far from being a CD in which the two veterans decide to stretch and try some new things, this CD instead is a present of smooth-jazz candy for their longtime fans.

One of the CD�s surprises is �Two Survivors,� a cover of an old country tune featuring the lovely vocals of country megastar Vince Gill. Another surprise come from the movie-theme-like �Moon Through the Window� and especially �Waiting for the Stars to Fall,� two heart-tugging gems enhanced by the symphonic sound of the Nashville String Section. The strings add grandeur to the CD, especially on the calming �Via Nueve.�

The first single, �Palmetto Park,� sets the tone with Benoit�s subdued intro leading into Freeman�s joyful acoustic guitar picking. Trumpeter Chris Botti adds some spice to �Club Havana,� and vocalist David Pack contributes smooth vocalese to �Montecito.�

A keeper from beginning to end.

Smooth grade: A


WAYMAN TISDALE
Hang Time
(Rendezvous)

coverWhen Wayman Tisdale released his first CD almost 10 years ago, he was still scoring points and grabbing rebounds as a professional basketball player. Music seemed like something he wanted to try on the side. With the release of Hang Time, Tisdale�s fifth and strongest CD to date, it�s clear that music is where his heart is and that he�s long-since earned the right to be called a serious musician.

On his debut for Dave Koz�s Rendezvous Entertainment, Tisdale shows that the chosen instrument, the bass, is just fine for the lead instrument. He plays it like a guitar � like Brian Bromberg and Nelson Braxton of the Braxton Brothers and says he wants his bass to sound like a �melodic vocalist.� He succeeds wonderfully. Hang Time features a mix of 12 funk, old-school-cool and up-to-date R&B songs that boast collaborations with Koz, producer Jeff Lorber (�Creative Juices,� �Everything in You,� �Off Into It�), longtime friend and gospel music producer Tracy Carter (vocal arranger for Oprah Winfrey talent-contest winner LaShell Griffin) and Pieces of Dream co-founder James Lloyd, who wrote and produced the title track.

Tisdale loves the great R&B songs of the �70s. As he did with his No. 1 song �Can�t Hide Love� from his last CD, Face to Face, Tisdale reaches back into that for two cover songs: the McFadden and Whitehead dance classic �Ain�t No Stoppin� Us Now� and Smokey Robinson�s seminal �Crusin�,� where you can really hear how Tisdale makes his bass sing. On the Koz collaboration �Better Days,� Tisdale picks the melodic lead on the bass in time with Koz�s sax. On �My World,� a ballad featuring a charming passage mimicking a children�s playground sing-song challenge, Tisdale plays all instruments as well as the bass: acoustic guitar, keyboards and drum programming. The CD closes with �Glory Glory,� a song Tisdale originally wrote and sang on for a gospel CD he released in 2003 called 21 Days.

This is a slam dunk.

Smooth grade: A


GERALD ALBRIGHT
Kickin� It Up
(GRP)

coverSaxophonist extraordinaire Gerald Albright stays true to his urban-flavored jams and smooth slow jams with his latest, which is already getting the attention of smooth-jazz radio with its fast-rising hit called �To the Max.� Similar to that song is the equally upbeat �4 on the Floor�; a killer hook and melodies Albright�s refined from years of playing make this one of the best car songs of the year, whether you�re cruising down Highway 1 in California or navigating the twisting coastal roads between Marseille and Nice in southern France.

Albright gives us many musical moods. He goes adult contemporary with a cover of John Mayer�s hit �Why Georgia,� which was suggested by GRP executives. He gets downright nasty on �Walker�s Theme,� dedicated to the late sax god Junior Walker. And he goes off into adult-contemporary R&B with �Condition of My Heart,� a Brian McKnight ballad here with vocals by Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men. Albright also slows it down on a cover of the classic R&B ballad from the 1970s, �If You Don�t Know Me By Now.� And very touching is �Father�s Lullaby,� a song Albright wrote in tribute to his father, who died recently.

Albright gets production help from some big names in the genre, such as Jeff Lorber and Rex Rideout. The result is an urban smooth jazz CD where nothing goes wrong.

Smooth grade: B


FOURPLAY
Journey
(Bluebird)

coverForeplay has always been misunderstood by much of the card-carrying legion of jazz critics, who misinterpret the band�s easygoing groove as background music. But while Foreplay has always remained true to its name � seductive rhythms to get you in the mood � on its new CD, its seventh in 13 years, more than ever the band combines those seductive sounds with some real playing that fans can feast on. It�s no surprise that Foreplay puts the talents of its leaders out front, since the band boasts the talents of superstars Larry Carlton on guitar, Bob James on piano, Nathan East on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.

Journey includes nine original songs and one cover, Sting's "Fields of Gold,� which opens the CD and substitutes Carlton�s acoustic guitar for Sting�s vocals. Carlton gets a workout over a � yes � seductive backdrop. Journey is Foreplay�s �jazziest� CD to date, and this is reflected in songs such as �147 4th St.� and �Overlabor,� both of which showcase James� jazz piano playing and the improvisational nature of the recording. It�s all done in Foreplay style, however, so longtime fans will no doubt embrace the jazzy turn of events.

There are some classic Foreplay moments: �Roil� is quiet number with vocalize; �Cool Train� throws out a shuffle beat and a bass lead by East; and �From Day One� has a surprising twist about three-quarters of the way through, as when you think it�s over the band comes back for about two more minutes in a new musical direction. And East lends his vocal talents to "Play Around it" and the title track "Journey," which also features Bike Johnson on background vocals and shaker.

Not as consistently good as other Fouplay efforts, but this one is a Journey worth buying a ticket for.

Smooth grade: B


ERIC DARIUS
Night on the Town
(Higher Octave)

Eric Darius.jpgIt�s tough for new artists to create a buzz in smooth jazz these days, so it�s refreshing that the very loud sound coming from Florida is courtesy of a 21-year-old college student named Eric Darius. It was guitarist Ken Navarro who �discovered� Darius� saxophone at a nightclub and produced his debut CD. Navarro�s band also plays on the CD.

Darius� music is bright and groove-oriented (he�s even called one song �In the Pocket�), much like fellow saxophonists Kim Waters and Walter Beasley. There so much radio-friendly stuff here, an embarrassment of riches, that you wonder if he�s set himself up for disappointment with future CDs that won�t match his debut. The first single, the title track, is already making a statement on smooth-jazz radio. Like Waters� biggest hits, it offers a sax line that just doesn�t quit and a melody that comes and goes so fast you�re left drooling, waiting for the next hook to come back. But Darius doesn�t always play that frantically, as he shows on the more softly stated songs �Heads Up� and �Let If Flow.�

Like many young players, Darius has a fondness for the �70s, and covers �Love T.K.O.� by Teddy Pendergrass and �Let�s Stay Together� by Al Green. It�s reassuring to hear these familiar songs lovingly interpreted by a new generation.

What sets Darius apart from other young sax players looking for a break is his uncanny ability to recognize a hook and shake it all day long. For Darius, the important thing is creating memorable pop-instrumental songs where the overall vibe is the thing, not necessarily the playing. The playing is top-notch, too, but the listener is No. 1. It�s worked pretty well for Kim Waters.

Smooth grade: B+


BRIAN LENAIR
The Journey
(Urban Vibe)

BrianLenair_Journey.jpgBrian Lenair is a new name on the R&B saxophone scene, and he shows his chops on this 14-song CD, featuring nine songs that he wrote. His first single, �Gone Ridin�,� is a toe-tapping, soprano sax ride that sounds a bit like Kim Waters. It�s a good song. The challenge for smooth sax players with R&B leanings is making their sound stand out from others, but it�s a challenge not too players are willing to take. Lenair is in this group, but that doesn�t mean the music here isn�t worth listening to. It�s just that you know what�s coming � some funk show-stoppers, afterglow ballads and plenty of background vocals.

Lenair draws inspiration from others before him, especially on the throaty sax work on �Forever.� It�s a good song. Likewise, he channels Dave Koz on �Love,� another winner. Over 14 songs, however, it all starts to sound a bit too much alike, and can make for a tough listen all the way through. There are some good moments here, but Lenair needs more hooks and a lot more originality. He also shouldn�t be afraid to solicit help from top smooth jazz producers and writers, but that�s easier said than done. Everybody wants these guys.

Smooth grade: C


MATT MARSHAK
This Time Around
(Nuance)

mattmarshak.jpgIndependent artist and electric Matt Marshak was named best smooth-jazz artist by New York radio station CD 101.9 during a search for new artists, so does that mean his sophomore CD is worth your time? It is, although because it�s an independent CD there are a few rough edges which, depending on your tastes, will either be welcomed or skipped over.

Marshak writes most of his material, which is largely funky with pop and rock overtones and clear, crisp production. In the true independent spirit, Marshak�s first two tunes � �Good Evening� and �Tell Me Why� � are smooth in spirit with some quirks, like a �Good evening� spoken refrain and some �funky� unidentifiable sounds, that separate them from standard fare. There�s other good stuff, like his easygoing scatting and vocals on �Autumn Breeze� and �Nu Day,� the latter which sounds like it belong on Steve Oliver�s next CD. �Quietly� is quintessential smooth tune, with Mario Cruz�s soprano sax shining things up, while Marshak�s cover of Eric Clapton�s �Wonderful Tonight� is soulful and the Larry Carlton-esque guitar lead is stunning.

What you�ll either enjoy as sidebars or skip over as breaking the overall smooth vibe are the two vocal tunes and a couple of rocking guitar songs in the middle of the CD that are usually put at the end of a project like this one.

Smooth grade: B