Smooth Sailing Nov. 8

Reviews of new CDs by Steve Oliver, Craig Chaquico, Shades of Soul and others.

Steve Oliver

Five years ago, it�s unlikely that a veteran session player for Steve Reid�s Bamboo Forest named Steve Oliver just up and decided that he just had to be one of the top crafters of smooth jazz guitar songs. With the release of First View, though, he did just that and quickly joined pickers like Peter White and Marc Antoine as experts of an often elusive beast � the catchy instrumental pop song. The album boasted three hit radio singles, and Smooth Jazz News named Oliver the Debut Artist of the Year.

His new CD, the follow-up to the equally compelling Positive Energy from 2002, is Oliver�s first for New York-based Koch Records. 3D offers nine instrumental songs in addition to several cuts where Oliver proves yet again why his vocals are considered one of the best going in any genre. Whether with straight vocals on �You Rescued Me� or dabbling in joyous vocalese on the first single, �Chips and Salsa,� Oliver�s vocal chops are always welcome.

The CD, co-produced by Spyro Gyra�s Tom Schuman, showcases Steve�s first-ever cover song, John Lennon�s �Imagine,� which is both heartbreaking and inspiring as an instrumental tune. With soft background vocalese, strings and a sweet layer of guitar work, it just shows you can never interpret a classic enough times if done in new and exciting ways.

What really drives the album, though, are the hook-filled original instrumentals, especially the CD�s opener, �Magic World.� On that and others like �3-D,� �In the Shade of Cool� and �She�s Got the Way-O,� Oliver�s �positive energy� is never more evident. He even likes to spread the joy around: The song �Funhouse� features guest hoops and handclaps by his neighbors in his hometown of Banning, California. Fun stuff.

Smooth grade: A

Shades of Soul
Shades of Soul
(Narada Jazz)

Nine years ago, keyboardist and composer Jeff Lorber got together with guitarist Marlon McClain and bassist Nathaniel Phillips, who both founded a jazz and R&B group in Portland, Oregon, called Pleasure, and began working on a new album. It was one of those projects that was never released. But Lorber kept it in the back of his mind, and in 2000, Lorber recruited smooth jazz trumpet player and Oregon native Chris Botti to help write and perform on several of the tracks, including �San Vicente� and the catchy �Gazpacho.� Now, partly because of the strength of Lorber and Botti�s name, the CD found a home on the Narada label and has now been released.

As you would expect, the music sounds very modern while still reaching back to the �70s and �80s for its soul-funk influences on songs such as �Enjoy Yourself,� with its funky Cameo-like vocals and Ohio Players-like guitar riffs. In addition to Botti, guest musicians include saxophonist Patrick Lamb, vocalist Terry Stanton and saxophonist Art Porter, who died shortly after the original recording session in a boating accident. For Porter fans, the album gives them a chance to hear the saxophonist play on songs that have never been released.

Titles include a rousing cover of Evelyn �Champagne� King�s �Love Come Down� and original tunes such as �All Night Long,� �Enjoy Yourself� and �We Got to Live Together.� There�s plenty for smooth jazz fans to grab onto, including Botti�s �Gazpacho" and �Then and Now,� with Porter�s beefy sax lead and Phillips� plucky bass lines. Shades of Soul is an interesting one-off project for Lorber which should find plenty of fans.

Smooth grade: B

Craig Chaquico
Midnight Noon
(Higher Octave)

There�s no mistaking the guitar sound � and artistry � coming from Craig Chaquico on his seventh solo CD. He uses 50 guitars on the CD, and their sound comes in and out the speakers, stack up on one another to provide some amazing sounds and provide an aurally satisfying listen. Why 50 guitars? Chaquico says he wanted to use exactly 50 since he turned 50 this year.

As the title suggests, the CD reflects the theme of opposites. Musically, this is translated through light moments that can quickly morph into rock-hero guitar runs. The song titles also tell a story, which begin with the first single, �Her Boyfriend�s Wedding,� and continue through the sexy and sassy sax-and-guitar combo in �Dream Date,� the bluesy rock-guitar licks of �Jazz Noon� and the positive and bouncy �Outlaw in the City,� among others.

There are several nods to Chaquico�s guitar heroes. On �Always With You,� one of the CD�s strongest cuts, vocalist April Hendrix � who has sung with the band 3rd Force � lends a refrain of �my love, is always with you, my love, so strong� that adds a haunting quality to the song�s texture. On that song, Chaquico�s guitar often has a trippy, psychedelic sound to it. On �Girls Night Out,� he uses the TalkBox to recall Peter Frampton.

In a departure from recent CDs, Chaquico sticks with the session band that�s played with him for years. That includes longtime co-writer and composer Ozzie Ahlers, saxophonist Kevin Paladini, bassist Jim Reitzel, drummer Wade Olson and percussionist Marquinho Brasil. It all combines for another strong effort for the former guitarist for Jefferson Starship.

Smooth grade: B

Vernon Neilly & G-Fire (With Mark Whitfield)
G-Fire II

Vernon Neilly is a Southern California guitarist who runs his own label from the Inland Empire town of Rialto. He�s one of the growing numbers of smooth jazz musicians who use their own wile and pluck to get their music heard, and his music is worth hearing. He may not be heard too often on commercial radio, but he�s a favorite at Internet radio stations and makes music as palatable and enjoyable as the top musicians in the genre.

His first CD was marketed simply as G-Fire and featured him and other longtime studio and touring guitarists Miguel Mega, Kevin Chokan and Morris O�Connor. All wrote four songs each for the album. On G-Fire II, Neilly gets more credit, Mega and Chokan play on a few tunes but O�Connor is gone and in his place is respected jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. Whitfield really leaves his mark on this project as some songs feature him exclusively while Neilly gets the spotlight on others. They don�t play on the same songs.

It�s a nice mix of guitar styles. Whitfield, for example, lays down some Benson-like lines in the CD�s opener, �LFO,� while Neilly comes back on the next track with the easy-listening �Por Mi Amor.� This song is so lounge-y it�s cool. Imagine you�re in a bar in the 1960s with a martini. Neilly also play keyboards here, and layers both that and his guitar over each other so they often play the same notes at the same time. The rest of the CD lives up to those two songs, which by the way are included on the CD as longer, non-radio cuts.

While it stays firmly rooted in easy-listening smooth jazz (none better than �Smoov Soul�), there are several musical styles that come into play. For example, both �Sweat� and �Twinkle Toes� (with Chokan) give a shout-out to reggae and are so infectiously upbeat it�s hard to grin while playing them. On �Lumi�s Song,� Neilly hands the guitar over to Mena, who plays a funky guitar on the album�s most rock-ish tune. With the marvelous �Afternoon Drive,� Neilly gets to show his vocalese skills a la Benson while programming some wonderfully quirky, 1960s-type drum sounds.

G-Fire II really shows a grasp of smooth jazz. This may be the album of the year for someone you�ve never heard of before, but deserves much wider recognition.

Smooth grade: A

Jon Lucien
A Time For Love
(Sugar Apple)

If you listened to smooth, romantic vocal jazz back in the 1970s, there�s a good chance that somewhere along the way you grooved to a sexy baritone belonging to Jon Lucien, one of the creators of the �Quiet Storm� genre. After a period of musical inactivity, Lucien resurfaced in 1991 with a comeback album called Listen Love that went straight to the top of Billboard�s Contemporary Jazz charts. After a few projects with the Shanachie label � which features many smooth jazz artists � Lucien is back on the Sugar Apple label with another stunning CD of sentimental songs. Lucien, now 62, is unabashed in his offering of sweetness that�s sure to warm hearts coast to coast.

On this 12-song collection, Lucien chose to cover songs from some of America�s finest composers with his primary musical partner and song arranger, pianist Bill O�Connell. Lucien is thoughtful enough to actually hip you to the musical style of each song in the liner notes, so you�ll hear bossa nova, swing, six-eight rhythms and swing-funk, which he calls �swunk.� He also includes an original song called �Mi Bolero,� a Spanish ballad with a soft accompaniment of congas.

On much of the CD, Lucien sings with such a determined mellowness that he almost lulls you to sleep. But on the best moments � on the swing songs �They Way You Look Tonight� and �Speak Low,� as well as the samba-ish �This Is All I Ask� � Lucien stretches his vocal chops and you can picture his energetic band smiling as they get a jazz workout.

Smooth grade: B+