July 31, 2009

Richard Elliot - Rock Steady

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a personal perspective on the very best from the world of smooth jazz and classic soul. Richard Elliot regards himself as essentially an R&B instrumentalist with jazz influences. Soul and funk are his foundation and he has used these staples to create the framework for his brand new album Rock Steady. Out now on the Artistry Music label it is a collection for which Elliot has drawn on the input of some of his most valued musical associates including touring band regulars Rob Reinhardt, Dwight Sills and Nate Phillips. Rick Braun co-writes five tracks, co-produces throughout and finds time to make a stellar contribution on trumpet while, if that wasn’t enough, keyboard maestros Jeff Lorber and Philippe Saisse also play a part.

Over a career that now spans almost thirty years Elliot has played with the best and has always produced what is now regarded as the richest saxophone sound on the smooth jazz circuit. Like others after him the experience of performing with the legendary Tower Of Power proved to be a tremendous education for Elliot who was born in Scotland and moved to Los Angeles with his parents at the age of three. In fact Elliot was in the Tower of Power line-up from 1982 to 1987 and it is plausible that with Rock Steady he uses the title of the funky and infectious ‘Retro Boy’ as a commentary on his musical direction to date. It’s a tune which shows off the combined writing prowess of Elliot and Braun that first came to prominence in 2007 with their R n R project. When they again collaborate for ‘Candice Dance’ they jointly deliver a slice of radio ready smooth jazz that takes its name from Elliot’s teenage daughter. Philippe Saisse is superb on keys and is even better for ‘The Preacher’ where his simmering Hammond B3 dovetails to perfection with Elliot’s fulsome tones.

The nostalgic vibe that permeates much of Rock Steady is complemented by several well chosen covers. Elliot’s zesty interpretation of the Eddie Kendricks hit ‘Keep On Truckin’ checks all the right soul boxes, the Aretha Franklin inspired title track is blessed by great backing vocals from the always excellent Lynne Fiddmont but best of all is Elliot’s stunning take on Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’. Already powering its way up the charts of most played on smooth jazz radio it could aptly be described as ‘classic Richard Elliot’ and in this respect is in the good company of ‘Spindrift’. Written by Elliot with Nate Phillips this tight and compelling cut is flavoured with just a hint of a world beat while ‘Restless’ proves to be another intense mid tempo number with bluesy keys from Ron Reinhardt.

‘Straight Up’ is notable for its fabulous horn riff that comes courtesy of Elliot, Braun and Gerald Albright. Co-writer Jeff Lorber is his usual immaculate self on keys and when he returns for the deliciously sensual ‘Licence To Chill’ the groove is just as good. Elliot takes it as an opportunity to demonstrate how effective he can be when turning down the tempo and does so again with the smokily seductive ‘Yaquala’. Featuring Tim Gant on keys this absolute gem resonates with Elliot’s impassioned playing.

Rock Steady is an album of considerable depth and is likely to ensure that Richard Elliot stays on the smooth jazz charts for the foreseeable future.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this edition of the Secret Garden? If so please e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at 5:43 PM

July 30, 2009

Jeff Golub - Blues For You

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a personal perspective on the very best from the world of smooth jazz and classic soul. Anyone who has been with Jeff Golub for the long haul will regard his latest CD, Blues For You, as a project that has just been waiting to happen. Indeed, functioning as he often does within the confines of contemporary jazz his music, especially in a live setting, can appear to be a paradox. Supercharged with the influences he garners from the best of rock and blues his playing is always totally from the heart and with Blues For You he is grabbing with both hands the opportunity to dig deeper into the blues and R & B roots that he holds so dear.

Blues For You was recorded over four days in New York’s Skyline Recording Studio and the ‘live feel’ that producer John Porter engenders serves to bestow the entire collection with a decidedly organic quality. Notable in this respect is ‘Goin On’ where a splash of hard driving sax provides a delightful counterpoint to Golub’s bluesy playing and his comfortable guitar style fits perfectly with the swaggeringly energetic ‘Shuffleboard’. It’s a track that is further energized by bursts of Hammond B3 and when J. Geils Band legend Peter Wolf lends his considerable vocal prowess to the ‘party ready’ ‘Rooster Blues’ the result is nothing short of sensational.

The use of guest vocalists is something of a departure for Golub but here it turns out to be a masterstroke. Mark Cohn enriches the tender but bluesy ‘I Don’t Worry About A Thing’ with his unmistakable gravelly tones while it is John Waite’s contribution that is the center piece of ‘Lost Mind’. Infectious in the extreme, ‘Everybody Wants You’ is infused with country tinged blues and magnificent vocals from Billy Squier. In fact it was Squier who back in the eighties recognized Golub’s potential by co-opting him into his live band. Golub ultimately played with Squier on three world tours and seven albums before going on to become a key member of Rod Stewart’s touring entourage.

An added facet of Blues For You is the picture perfect and subtle use of horns. The way in which they herald in the foot tapping ‘Nikki’s Walk’ feels like something right out of vintage Memphis and ‘Gone Fishin’ also demonstrates the impact that an understated horn section can have. Coupled with Golub’s wonderful playing it is a combination that serves to blend R & B with the blues in the most engaging of ways and this amalgamation is also to the fore with the even better ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’. With a horn riff borrowed from Angie Stone’s classic ‘Brotha’ Golub’s wailing guitar drives this atmospheric stunner to a blues drenched conclusion and when he slips in a ‘bonus track’ the mid tempo ‘Ease E’ is taken to a different dimension by another infusion of smoky horns.

Of course one of Golub’s many attributes is the way his music can display genuine sensitivity. ‘Fish Face’ is a case in point where his sublimely tight phrasing offsets the urgency injected by Kenny White on keyboards and Shawn Pelton on drums. The overriding vibe proves to be both relaxed and appealing while this same aura is front, back and center of the superb ‘The Blink Of An Eye’. A real Secret Garden favorite, this turned down gem shimmers with the sheer emotion that is at the core of most things that Golub does.

Blues For You is Golub’s eighth solo album and will hit record stores across the USA on August 25. For more on Jeff Golub go to www.jeffgolub.com

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this edition of the Secret Garden? If so please e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Preorder the CD at Amazon.com

Posted by Denis Poole at 9:42 PM

July 29, 2009

George Benson—Songs and Stories

You know, writers often enjoy chronicling an artist’s career from its very beginning to illustrate his or her staying power, progress or maturity over the years, etc. In the case of guitar virtuoso George Benson, clearly one of the most respected and admired guitar legends around, years just don’t seem to matter and, in fact, just melt into one huge mist of excellence that seems to simply disregard a beginning yet has no end. I can probably say nothing here that hasn’t already been said about this musical giant who sings, plays, and has indulged in practically every major musical genre almost effortlessly. Add that to the ever-growing company of artists who have come to know, experience, and respect the genius of Benson, and you’ve got an indelible chapter in the history of music that bears exploring time and time again. Here on his latest project, Songs and Stories, due for release on August 25, he again dazzles with his creativity, soul, strength, and balance.

Produced by composer/producer and bass heavyweight Marcus Miller and featuring a stellar lineup which includes guitarists Norman Brown, Wah Wah Watson, saxmen Gerald Albright, Tom Scott, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, vocalists Lalah Hathaway, Patti Austin, Carolyn, Lori, and Sharon Perry; keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, and simply too many other bright lights to list here, each tune has a charming personality of its own, starting with the elegant treatment of the sweet and bluesy James Taylor oldie “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and confidently striding through the rest of album with taste and precision.

The breezy “Show Me the Love” is reminiscent of some of Benson’s earlier up-tempo movers, like “Gimme the Night,” in many ways, but it still breathes its own air as Benson chants and riffs in that unique and buoyant manner of his. The spiritual and even bluesy “A Telephone Call Away,” performed with the pleasurable addition of Lalah Hathaway’s pipes, has much character and is about as moving as you can get without breaking out in a triumphant testimonial shout. The track, “Nuthin’ But a Party” with Norman Brown and Marcus Miller should be just the remedy for any immobile day or night in your life. As if you needed more, Benson’s handling of Brook Benton’s classic “Rainy Night in Georgia”-- complete with soulful vocals by the guitarist-- is enough to stir even the coldest heart. And how can one ignore the offering of a splendid interpretation of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”?

I could go on and on about this magnificent project with its dozen of dazzling pieces, but you truly have to “be there” to experience this one for yourself, and you will be able to do so in late August. Keep an eye and ear out for it.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:50 AM

July 23, 2009

Jay Soto -- Mesmerized

One thing that can definitely be said about the style of guitarist Jay Soto: There is always enough bounce and ambience to go around, and his latest release, Mesmerized, is no exception to this observation. His constantly smooth, tangle-free delivery seems to aim high and hit its target with each release since he landed on the scene back in 2005 with his debut album, Long Time Coming.

Not one to shy away from crafty, catchy hooks and melodies, the guitarist demonstrates his adeptness on the fretboard again with satisfying results. Backed up here by guitar ace Freddie Fox and noted bassist Mel Brown, Soto’s easily likable phrasings and rhythms are matched with tight riffs, as is evidenced on tracks like “A Love Like Mine,” the snappy and funky “Groovalicious,” “Diggin’ It,” “Sunday Smile,” and the title track, which features sunny backing vocals by Jodi Light. To add variety to this spice, Soto switches gears in between all this with the sweet and soulful “Together At Last” and the (obviously) bluesy “Bayou Blues” before finishing with “Cacophony,” the driving finale.

Not straying much from what has worked for him in the previous two releases, there’s just enough flair and polish here in Mesmerized, this latest chapter in the continuing Soto story, to keep his fans “right there” without reservation.

I think it’s safe to say that, after two in-the-groove albums that have caught the attention of many a smooth jazzer, Soto has the hang of it in a big way and will be a name we’ll hear over and over as the motor of smooth jazz keeps on running solidly, regardless of the premature news of its demise. Count on artists like Soto to keep it alive.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:51 PM

Jeff Kashiwa – Back In the Day

Saxman Jeff Kashiwa has been riding the high tide since his emergence on the scene some 20 years ago as the main horn man for Russ Freeman’s supergroup, The Rippingtons. He would exit the group some 10 years later to embark upon a lucrative solo career that just seems to get better with each release. His feel, energy, and intensity have always been quite something of serious note in identifying Kashiwa, and Back In the Day exclaims that loud and clear.

This production has Sax Pack mate and fellow saxophonist, Kim Waters, joining in on the writing/producing end, as well as contributing some keys work on a couple of slices of this impressive collection. The collection, by the way, includes tight funky cuts like the opening track, “When It Feels Good,” a tune getting much airplay these days--as well it should because of its brightness and very hooking hook. Others of note here would be the mid-tempo slinky funkster, “Creepin’,” a sax-chatty and ultra smooth jam called “Meet You There” (so nicely phrased and worked that it is quickly became one of my favs here), and my prime fav here, the melodic and hook-tight, “The Attraction.”

It may not be earth-shattering news to note than an artist, after spending years as a member of a highly regarded group, spins off and becomes a sparkling entity and valued commodity all his or her own, but it’s always fulfilling and encouraging to witness such a transition. As for the album, if you seek consistency, rich tunes, and a clear mastery of the art in a nicely colorful form, Back In the Day should easily fit the bill.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:43 PM

Leela James – Let’s Do It Again

O.k., let’s get one thing out of the way right now. I have always thought that R&B vocalist Leela James’ debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come, which often integrated a blues/jazz touch, was a meteoric smash out of nowhere. Seeing her perform that album was yet another phenomenal experience for me. This sophomore release, Let’s Do It Again, while not yet clearly surpassing that debut in my mind, is still another example of the power and remarkable drive of this young lady’s vocal style. Handling covers in such a way as not to offend the originators is one thing, but to repaint those covers with such passion and to present them with a vocal personality that clearly distinguishes them from the original is another. As obvious as that sounds, it’s not always the case.

You only have to listen to James’ interpretation of King James Brown’s 60s hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” to know that she set out to place her own thumbprint on this classic. No, it’s not really sung in its entirety—a slight disappointment for me, since the lyrics were as important to me as the melody—but it still has body and presence, and I suspect the Godfather of Soul would approve. She handles rock group Foreigner’s soul-wrenching “I Want to Know What Love Is” quite competently and with marvelous vocals (although I feel too much emphasis was placed on a portion of the instrumental hook), and her funky, mid-tempo, rock & roll spin on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” will raise your eyebrows, but I actually fell in love with this version (attribute it the diehard bluesman and classic rocker in me, I suppose). Trust me: This is certainly not your Bessie Smith version, but then, I understand that James chose Bobby Womack’s version to cover, as it was her father’s favorite. This does, in ways, more closely resemble that version, but it’s still a cool rocker!

There’s also her husky, sexy tribute to Al Green with “Simply Beautiful” (another fav of mine here). Now, this cut reminds me more of that debut album I so love. The soulful and bluesy effort to touch my inner being was quite effective. Finally, there’s the title track, a nod to the classic Curtis Mayfield composition and the inimitable Mavis Staples. James does the piece proud, again with that soulful strength that so marks her style.

Leela James is a rare find, in my mind, if only for her intense and soulful/bluesy touch that is so well-defined for one so young but so very attuned. I suspect that a lot of credit goes to her parents and the music to which she was exposed early on, as well as to her early decision to dedicate herself to the classic sound and backbone of this marvelous genre. We are all quite fortunate to have such a dedicated artist escort us to the land where memories reside oh-so-bountifully.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:38 PM

July 20, 2009

Smooth Jazz at the "Bowl"

Written by The Jazz Gypsy

Holllywood Bowl
2301 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90068

With the scarcity of club venues for smooth jazz in LA and the tremendous loss of the JVC festival franchise, it was good news to see a variety of smooth jazz events scheduled at The Hollywood Bowl. Coming up are:

7/22/09 - Boney James & Fourplay
8/23/09 - Smooth Summer Jazz (formerly the JVC Jazz Festival) with Dave Koz, Brian Culbertson, George Duke, Tower of Power & Doc Powell.

Other shows that smooth jazz fans may be interested in are:

8/7 & 8//09 - Herbie Hancock & Lang Lang w/the LA Philharmonic
8/19/09 - Patti La Belle
8/21 & 8/22/09 - Diana Krall & the LA Philharmonic
8/26/09 - Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band
9/2/09 - Chick Corea, Stanley Clark & Lenny White with special guests Jean Luc PonChaka
, Jean Luc Ponty, Bill Conners & others tba

If you've never been to the "Bowl" it's quite "the" experience. Invite your friends to join you, bring a sumptuous meal and your favorite beverages.

The Jazz Gypsy Tip: The traffic getting to the bowl can cause major delays.....the earlier your arrive the more time you can have enjoying friends and food.

Posted by JazzGypsy at 10:36 PM

July 19, 2009

Dave Koz & Brian Culbertson Together

Dave Koz and Brian Culbertson will be performing together in the Railhead Showroom at The Boulder Station Hotel, August 1st.

Otmar Liebert performed his unique guitar stylings at The Boulder Station Hotel, Friday, July 17 to a very appreciative crowd.

Paul Taylor will be home in Vegas to perform one night at Aliante Station Hotel, Sat. August 8th.

Also performing on that same night will be Diana Krall at The Palms Hotel, making a rare Vegas appearance, but not her first.

The Killer Groove Band, who stake claim as the only contemporary, all original jazz group based out of Vegas, will be performing Sat., August 8th, at The District at Green Valley Ranch. Following that gig is a stint at House Of Blues, Tue. August 11th.
The Killer Groove Band's new CD release, "Get Out", should be available by July 25th. Their CD release party TBA.

Posted by Danny Desart at 6:57 PM

July 18, 2009

Smooth Jazz Festival Munich 2009

Event-Highlight in Munich

Augsburg, 07.07.2009: On the first weekend of September, Munich will be the site of a German premiere: From 4th to 5th September the Kesselhaus – the former energy headquarters of the Krupp-subsidiary plant – opens its gates for the Smooth Jazz Festival Munich 2009. After the start-up event in the Festival House Bregenz last year, the organizers, smooth entertainment GmbH, present again some of the biggest and most successful names of the international Smooth Jazz scene: Apart from guitarist and vocalist Steve Oliver as well as saxophonist Michael Lington, the band Club des Belugas will heat up the fans with swinging sounds on Friday in the Kesselhaus Munich. On Saturday, guests will experience Peter White, Richard Elliot and Rick Braun as well as Brian Simpson and Dave Koz. Another highlight on Saturday is the American Marcus Johnson. He will also host the Smooth Jazz Brunch on Sunday, 6th September, in the Branche Restaurant Schwabing, with which the Smooth Jazz Weekend will then fade away.

The program at a glance:

Friday, 4th September:
7.30 pm Steve Oliver
8.45 pm Michael Lington
10.20 pm Club des Belugas
following Aftershow-Party

Saturday, 5th September:
7.30 pm Marcus Johnson
8.45 pm Peter White, Richard Elliot and Rick Braun
10.45 pm Brian Simpson and Dave Koz
following Aftershow-Party

Entrance to the concert area in the Kesselhaus from 6.30 pm on both days.

Sunday, 6th September:
12.00 am - 3.00 pm Smooth Jazz Brunch with Marcus Johnson at the Branche Restaurant

More information can be found at smoothjazzfestival.de.

Posted by Peter Böhi at 1:18 PM

July 15, 2009

Marcus Johnson – Poetically Justified (and interview)

Marcus Johnson’s refreshing blend of seductive, romantic, and charismatic offerings coupled with punctuations of funk in the appropriate places has been a hallmark, a musical triumph of sorts, for the accomplished pianist/keyboardist. Johnson is heralded as one of the most competent players in the field of smooth jazz, and no better witness to this fact exists than the grateful residents of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area where the Ohio-born, DC-raised virtuoso frequently pays homage. His love for and commitment to the area is truly remarkable.

Johnson’s latest project, Poetically Justified, continues the glorious journey that he embarked upon some 10+ years ago. Undaunted and unfailing in each of his efforts, this latest simply adds yet another exclamation point on an already exciting and illustrative career. The tunes here, whether fresh originals or covers, all bear the distinctive Marcus Johnson cool. Vocalist extraordinaire Maysa Leak joins Johnson on a couple of tunes here, and saxman Najee drops by, as well, just to add a flavorful touch to this delectable quality smooth jazz stew.

While the album is chock full of really smooth and harmonious vocals, catchy hooks and phrasings, and fluid keys work, some up-tempo tunes of particular note might be “Ellicott City,” a reference to a Maryland suburb of DC, the very jazzy cover of the now-late Michael Jackson’s “This Place Hotel,” and “Hold On,” a tune that’s very Maysa. Then, there are the mellower cuts like “Stand By Me” and “Cherish The Journey” that show off Johnson’s penchant for tunes that deliberately reach for and touch the soul with purpose.

All states have a few artists about which the residents love to boast. DC smooth jazz fans are certainly no exception when it comes to artists like Marcus Johnson.

I recently caught up with the artist for the following interview. Enjoy!

Ronald Jackson: Where does one begin? A lawyer turned accomplished musician turned founder, CEO, and president of Three Keys Music, which, at one point, had signed the likes of Nick Colionne, Bobby Lyle, Michael Lington, and Jaared. Couple that with having been a drive-time morning host on Washington, DC’s Smooth Jazz 105.9, and always seeming to be accessible via some local jazz happening, be it Blues Alley or some other local venue—many times even offering free concerts, and the simple question becomes: How have you done it? How have you maintained such focus and still turned out such quality?

Marcus Johnson: Well – Passion! It has been very difficult, but something happens when you follow your passion in life. When you follow your personal legend, the universe conspires to help you put it all together. Yes, that’s one of my favorite quotes from The Alchemist, but it is so true. We all have to take time out of our lives and dream. Dream the biggest of dreams. You have to have dreams that are so crazy that people can only think to smile or laugh at you when you explain what you are going to do. Then, you have to sit back and develop a plan that allows you to see exactly how you can reach your plan. Most people are good at this, and it doesn’t take passion to get this far. The execution of this plan is what necessitates passion, and I think that the reason I have been able to do a lot of what I do is based on the fact that I LOVE what I do. I love the struggles, I love the naysayers, I love the let downs (well maybe not that much). But these are all the things that one must go through on the journey of life. I love making people smile. One thing that I learned early is that we are not in the music business at all. Most musicians are in the therapy business, and they have never figured it out. We are here to make people feel better in the morning, afternoon, evening, and all of the points in-between. Thus, the free concerts; thus, the hard work to perform 4 –14 times in a week. It’s a very difficult business right now, but, when you can follow your passion and help people as you do so, it makes things a lot easier.

If you add to that a great team that makes sure that I stay focused and on point, everything becomes real easy. It’s about a flow – knowing yourself, growing yourself, and working your ass off to make sure that you realize your dream. The worst disappointment in the world is a dream unfulfilled. Mine will be, or I’ll die trying.

Ronald Jackson: Are you now actively practicing or teaching law?

Marcus Johnson: No, I never practiced law. I teach music business seminars regularly at my studio (studio8121.com) in Washington, DC. We also webcast them so that all can benefit from the discussion. I teach a music business development course at Bowie State University which is very gratifying. Each student comes in with a major field of study, they leave with a business plan – with financials and the knowledge that they are totally in control of the brand of “you.” Each last class of the semester is very touching. Many never knew that they were already young CEO’s. It’s great to see their development. Maybe I’ll get to a firm or in politics later. We’ll see.

Ronald Jackson: Some artists feel fortunate or blessed just to have made it into a studio to record. You’ve surpassed that in major leaps and bounds. What prompted your interest in actually owning a label?

Marcus Johnson: Simply put, I got screwed! I was in a development deal with one of the major labels when I was in college, and the experience was horrible. There was no guidance, no development, just “go create.” Music lacks the kind of apprenticeship that exists in other forms of art. So, on the back of a TWA 767, I vowed that I would never be on the “wrong side of the desk” again. I studied for my Law School Admissions test and was accepted into Georgetown University in 1993. After clerking at MCA/Universal my first year, I decided to listen to my parents and my upbringing and said, “Hey, if they can do it, so can I.” That was the beginning of the first day of the rest of my life (so far). Each of us controls our destiny. Some of us don’t acknowledge it, and others just give it away. That’s just not who I am. Three Keys stands for the three keys of success: spirituality, strategy, and artistry. If you take care of these three aspects of your business, you cannot help but succeed. Additionally, the spirituality component includes community. We have lost that in modern society. So I wanted to create a label that actually helped artists.

Ronald Jackson: What does Three Keys see in its future?

Marcus Johnson: Right now, we’re promoting Poetically Justified since it was just released this June, but we’re planning to create more albums for the FLO series by this year. Lifestyle CDs are the way of the future.

Ronald Jackson: Speaking of the latest album, Poetically Justified, I know that the DC scene has often been a major source of inspiration for your recordings. What is the inspiration behind this latest?

Marcus Johnson: All of my life, everyone has always told me that I can’t do music, I can’t do law, I can’t do business, I can’t do them all at the same time, I can’t produce my own CDs, and I’m too young to have a company. “Why would you do jazz? You can’t make it through the bad times; the music industry is dead,” etc. We all live with this type of discouragement. When it comes from your family, you have to know it’s out of love. When it comes from others, it’s generally from a perspective of hate or self-hate. Regardless, when we dream, it is our responsibility to follow our dreams through to the end. Is it rough? Yes. Will you have failures and obstacles? Yes. But so did Churchill, Roosevelt, Carnegie, Branson, and Winfrey. The key, as stated by author Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, is to fall down seven times and get up eight. Then, you can be poetically justified. My latest solo album allows me to spread this good news around the world. I’m not any more special than you! This message has to be told.

Ronald Jackson: In addition to all your other activities, I understand you’ve had some involvement with MTM (Mentoring to Manhood), what is the purpose of that organization, and exactly how have you been involved with it?

Marcus Johnson: Just to mentor young men into being “real men!” There is a difference. It’s spoken and demonstrated. I’ve been involved with this, breast cancer, ALS, heart disease, education, AIDS research, and the like all my life. It makes me whole.

Ronald Jackson: There are a lot of people who enjoy tracking the very beginnings of an artist’s career. As you know, many an artist was once part of a group before spinning off and finding their individual fame and fortune. Prior to the emergence of the Marcus Johnson Project, did you ever perform as a studio musician, sideman, or member of any established group?

Marcus Johnson: Nope. It’s always been just me. I was in a wedding band when I was younger, but I don’t think that counts.

Ronald Jackson: What advice does one as accomplished as you have to offer young, aspiring musicians, aspiring businessmen, aspiring lawyers, or any combination thereof? Just tell them how they can have it all, or at least a big part of it all.

Marcus Johnson: Like what I said before, from the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo: “Fall down seven times and get up eight.” If I can succeed, you can too. So, do it. Just do it, and leave it all on the stage of life. Make it your goal to have no regrets on your death bed. Educate yourself as much as possible and strive for excellence. If that’s your goal, you’ll be good.

Ronald Jackson: Finally, for those Marcus fans who don’t know, and for the curious, where can one get more information about you, your music, tours, and other activities?

Marcus Johnson: They can just visit the Three Keys Music website at www.threekeys.com. Also, I am also on Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, and they can check out updates from there, too. Or just drop an email at mij@threekeys.com.

Ronald Jackson: Thank you, Marcus. Any parting words to your fans and fans of smooth jazz in general?

Marcus Johnson: Keep the music alive in all its forms. The success of one form is the success of all forms of jazz. See ya at a show REAL soon.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:19 PM

July 14, 2009

Nocy --Rise

Here’s a colorful and rather exotic venture into the land of flamenco and world guitar, something with which Nocy Karkour (just call him Nocy) is more than a little familiar, being an accomplished musician who’s performed with such great talent as Rod Stewart, Jon Anderson of the rock group Yes, Kenny G, and Larry Coryell. My focus here on Rise, this “best of Nocy” release, was mostly on his highly charged Latin pieces, Latin music being a weakness of mine. A couple of the more world/Eastern-influenced tunes like “Mirage Sensual” didn’t quite work for me, but they were in the minority, as this album shines a brilliant light on not only the artist’s writing and production skills but on his grasp of diversity, substance, and cultural flair.

There is plenty of room to salsa, meringue, and just carry on to the irresistible rhythms of this seductive music. After the opening track pays homage to Herb Albert’s classic “Rise,” the guitarist launches into a spectacular set of lightning licks and tantalizing melodies with nicely arranged hooks that are obviously designed to excite. For those of you unfamiliar with Nocy’s music, tunes like the appropriately titled “Flamenco,” “Ya Madame,” and “Gimme Some Latin” provide the lively and up-tempo side of the album, while the more moderately-paced “You Never Left Me Alone” and the soft, sensual “Spirits of Love” handle the mellower caresses.

The album also provides some smooth jazz-accented moments, as in the cuts “My Nights in the Desert” and “Nights in Vegas,” which are delightful additions. Rise closes with “La Vida,” a fiery tune that offers the same high energy with which the project began.

As a whole, for those world and flamenco fans, this project is a well-conceived endeavor that should offer a bountiful dose of satisfaction.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:02 PM


JazzTimes magazine, one of the world’s leading jazz publications, has found a buyer and will resume publication. Early last month, JazzTimes temporarily suspended publication of the magazine and furloughed the bulk of its staff while it finalized a sale of its assets. Now, the JazzTimes brand has been purchased by Madavor Media, a publishing group based in Boston. Madavor specializes in niche and enthusiast publications. “We are very optimistic for the magazine’s long-term future given the resources and vision of Madavor and its staff,” says JazzTimes editor Lee Mergner.

The magazine’s office in Silver Spring, Md., will not be reopened. The majority of operations will be run out of Madavor’s offices in Boston; the majority of the staff that was furloughed during the hiatus will no longer be with the publication. Mergner and managing editor Evan Haga have been retained to oversee the editorial direction.

The magazine’s June issue, which was not printed, will more than likely be published as the August issue, Mergner says.

JazzTimes was founded in 1970 as Radio Free Jazz by Ira Sabin. Its named was changed to JazzTimes in 1980 and today has a circulation of more than 100,000. In addition to traditional or mainstream jazz, it also publishes stories and reviews on smooth jazz artists.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 5:55 PM

July 13, 2009

Kenny G Donates Sax To Event Benefiting Pro Golfer

Kenny G is doing what he can to support a professional golfer whose life was tragically altered on Father’s Day. Golfer Chris Smith’s wife Beth, who was 42, was killed in an automobile accident in Indiana that also critically injured the couple's children, 16-year-old Abigail and 12-year-old Cameron. A benefit to support Smith will be held August 7th at the Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin, Indiana.

Kenny, an avid golfer who has played with the pros at several Pro-Am tournaments, is one of the many celebrities donating items for auction.   He is giving a signed saxophone. Among others pledging items are golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and country music singer Kenny Chesney.

Beth Smith's funeral service will be held tomorrow (July 14th) in Peru, Indiana. To make a contribution, you can go to legendsofindiana.com. Smith, who has won five times on the Nationwide Tour and once on the PGA Tour, plans to skip the remainder of the 2009 season to be home with his children, who face extensive rehabilitation.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 3:35 AM

July 11, 2009

Rick Braun – All It Takes

The latest release by trumpeter/producer extraordinaire Rick Braun, entitled All It Takes, is scheduled for release on July 28, and are we in for a treat, as is usually the case with this master of the smooth.

Having already produced label mate Richard Elliot’s hot new release, Rock Steady, Braun collaborates with noted keyboardist/producer Philippe Saisse and features such familiar notables as Jeff Lorber and Marc Antoine to set forth some of the funkiest and most melodic material I’ve heard from him to date. Loaded with lots of rhythm, drive, and sassiness, the tone of this one is at a distinctively different level from much of his previous material, although Braun has never been one to slouch in the studio.

Cutting loose from the beginning with a solid, driving little number laced with a Latin touch, “Tijuana Dance?” (clever, huh?), the trumpeter dances through this entire album with equal doses of attitude, self-confidence, and charisma. His “Puerto Allegre Jam” is drenched in a combination of funk and island exoticism, a very potent fusion here. The pensive title track is quite effective and grants us a glimpse at the soul of Braun through the soulful notes of his trumpet while “Sleeveless in Seattle” toys with the funk element again and sports a crisp horn-tight hook. The album closes on another mellow, pensive note with “Freddie Was Here.” It’s one that can leave you sitting in a reflective state long after the music has stopped.

Having successfully partnered with Richard Elliot to create and own what is now Artistry Music, Braun has enjoyed not only the pleasure of signing such superb talent as saxmen Paul “Shilts” Weimar (of Down to the Bone fame) and Jackiem Joyner but also must be having the time of his life as he realizes that he is still at the top of his own game in writing, producing, and performing. All It Takes is proof positive of his continuing commitment to providing quality to his fans and the universe of smooth jazz.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:53 PM

July 9, 2009

j. dee – Smoove On the Move

I have to admit ignorance to the multi-talented j. dee, an artist who, on his latest effort, Smoove On the Move, demonstrates strong, solid skills on saxes and keys, and handles the drum and percussion programming, as well. I hadn’t heard of the artist before this release. I’m impressed. As a whole, Smoove On the Move is a well-conceived and executed production.

Mixing hip hop/rap, R&B, and jazz flavors, j. dee has managed to come up with a quite palatable dish of grooves that ranges from the very smooth and mellow to tunes that have a slightly more rugged edge. Examples would be the dance-invoking jazz-funky and rhythmic opening track, “On and Crackin’,” followed by the slower paced R&B-laced “Boom Ba Boom Boom Boom,” (interesting title denoting the beat of his heart when dealing with an apparent hottie).

For those line dancers who have been just bursting at the seams for a new jam will probably love “Let’s Walk.” The title track is one of those mellow smooth jazz pieces that is clearly meant to soothe, and soothe it does, as j. dee’s sax works overtime to create that aura.

An interesting piece that I quickly adopted as my fav here is the lazy but funky “Too Hip Fa Seafood (Where’s Da Yawdbird?)” (yep, that’s the title). Lots of tight sax work here. Somewhat surprisingly, this one’s has a lot of depth for a title that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Then, there’s “Is This Cool Or What?” Oh, did I fail to include this as one of my favs, also? My mistake! This cleverly arranged tune featuring some seriously classy sax work, a nice hook, and a bit of rap at the right moment works a delightfully magical blend. A taste of Latin flavor captures us with Stevie Wonder’s classic “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” This version has a certain catchy sweetness to it.

Things get lazy and slowed way down with, ironically, a mellow tune called “Keep It Movin’ Baby.” The CD closes with an instrumental version of “Too Hip Fa Seafood” in “Yawdbird (Instrumental).” I can see why this tune might be a favorite with the artist as well.

All in all, a worthy CD if you’re looking for that meld between the genres. j. dee handles it as well as any I’ve heard. I recommend this one without reservation.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 4:59 PM

Freddie Fox—Feelin’ It

I recently read a quote from Freddie Fox stating that he “gets it” when it comes to understanding what works in smooth jazz these days. Feelin’ It, the latest release from this talented and accomplished guitarist who so often serves as a side man for many other artists (which is testament enough to his skills) is definitely a strong indication that he does, in fact, “get it”-- quite well.

Illuminated by the radiance of such contributing artists as Walter Beasley, Najee, Nelson Rangell, Michael Lington, Michael Broening, and wife Evelyn “Champagne” King, Feelin’ It starts off on the perfect track (no pun intended) and just cruises along in the coolest and smoothest of fashion--not unlike Fox, if you’ve followed his style and earlier material.

Among the many full-bodied and richly melodic tunes you’ll find here are the very tasteful title track which features saxman Najee, a hypnotically smooth and gentle piece entitled, “Day Dreamin’,” with Michael Lington handling the sax action, “No U Turn,” a jamming and catchy little mover spotlighting Michael Broening on keys, “Cruise Control,” an up-tempo vibrant jam that lays down a tight rhythm, and “Happy Feelings,” a sexy, sultry tune with wife Evelyn “Champagne” King showing off her quality trademark vocals.

Smooth jazz artists all over have shown their confidence in Fox’s guitar by requesting his services time and again. Now, as he did with his polished debut CD in 2003, the suave guitarist demonstrates here how well he stands alone with his own writing and production strengths. You may be hard pressed to find a reason not to feel Feelin’ It.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:36 PM

Al Turner - Movin'

Welcome to Smoothvibes’ latest feature, What’s In Your Library?, where we will periodically select certain gems from our own respective libraries—albums or CDs that could be a few to several years old but that, in our opinion, should be in all smooth jazzers’ libraries. We hope that the column will direct some well-deserved light on a few artists and/or albums that may have flown under one’s radar screen. Enjoy!

Al Turner – Movin’

I don’t know if bassist Al Turner can be said to be flying entirely under most jazz fans’ radar, but he certainly had flown under mine. Until now. His latest album, Movin’, was released last year on the Megawave Records label . I just happened to stumble upon this gem at Amazon.com and decided to explore it. A very wise decision on my part, I must say.

While I may have missed him before now, Turner is certainly no stranger to the industry and many artists. A bassist since age 12, Turner has played with some of the brightest luminaries in the business (Earl Klugh—with whom he’s toured for 10 years—Randy Crawford, Kem, Anita Baker, Nancy Wilson, and Bob James for starters). Here on Movin’, Everette Harp, Paul Jackson, Jr., Oleta Adams, and Earl Klugh all drop by to lend their respectively highly respectable skills.

A bassist in a mold not unlike the late great Wayman Tisdale, Turner turns on the charm of his bass in a number of capturing pieces, ranging from mid-tempo sassy funksters like “Stop Watch,” “Bassin’,” and “Dreamin’” to the crankin’ up-tempo funk of the title track to more mellow in-the-zone tunes like “Te Quiero” and “Your Will” (featuring the sexy and provocative vocals of Oleta Adams).

Clearly an artist with the depth of insight and soul needed to infuse gravity in his material, Turner simply shines in this effort. There’s no wonder he’s been in demand by so many for so long. It’s always so refreshing to hear so much emphasis being afforded the bottom end of music. Cleverly and meticulously-laid bass lines are as important to me as a lead guitar riff or a sax solo, and Turner gets it done here almost effortlessly. More than worthy of a listen and, quite likely, a place in your collection.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:29 PM

July 7, 2009

Coming Up: George Benson's Songs and Stories

Singer, composer and guitarist George Benson has just finished a new album called Songs and Stories. It will be his follow-up to his 2006 Grammy Award-winning duets CD with Al Jarreau, Givin' It Up, and his first solo CD since 2004’s Irreplaceable.

The CD, to be released by Concord Records on Aug. 25, is co-produced by bassist Marcus Miller. Songs and Stories is a collection of tunes penned by some of the most prolific and enduring songwriters of the last half-century. Some were written specifically for this new recording, such as Bill Withers’s "A Telephone Call Away," Rod Temperton’s "Family Reunion" and Lamont Dozier’s "Living in High Definition," which features guitarist Norman Brown. Others, including James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" and Christopher Cross's "Sailing," were hand-picked by Benson for their ability to convey simple but universal truths about the human experience.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 11:39 PM