April 24, 2010

Contempo April 2009

By Jonathan Widran

In 2004, when the popular indie new age/jazz/world label Higher Octave Music was absorbed into Narada — which later was gobbled up by Blue Note — a great trend in instrumental pop music seemed to hit its end. In the 90s and early 2000s, Higher Octave was a major outlet for famed arena rockers getting their mellow middle year grooves on, with everyone from Craig Chaquico (Jefferson Starship) to Journey-men Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon and Yes’ Jon Anderson releasing compelling albums to a fan base that was aging as gracefully as they were.

While scattered on various independent labels that have popped up in recent years, all of them are happily still recording when they’re not doing more lucrative tours with their classic bands. But it’s their classic, ultra-soulful and melodic HOM output from a decade ago that comes to mind while enjoying the colorful mix of rock, pop, soul and jazz influenced instrumentals and vocals on Jim Peterik’s Lifeforce, the debut contemporary urban jazz offering by the still-going-strong rocker.

Unlike the above mentioned artists who are known primarily for their associations with one major band, Peterik has a unique, two fisted resume whose catchy hits define two eras in pop music. As a founder and lead singer of the 70s group The Ides Of March, he launched his career with the horn-drenched rocker “Vehicle”; Ides could be considered a one hit wonder, but since reuniting in the late 90s, they’re still touring constantly like they’re in their early 20s. Slightly younger pop fans know Peterik as the voice of Survivor, that early to mid 80s hit making machine responsible for love-‘em-or-loathe-‘em still popular karaoke hits “Eye of the Tiger,” “The Search Is Over,” “Burning Heart” and “I Can’t Hold Back.” He also penned hits for other artists, including “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You” for .38 Special.

Still in the rock and roll jungle most of the time, Peterik has divided his time these last few years between Ides and his latest band, Pride of Lions. But all that rockin’ takes its toll on a 58-year-old soul, and the Chicago area based musician is happy to chill out on occasion and listen to his longtime musical love, smooth jazz. In many ways, Lifeforce — is his coming out party after being a closet fan of the instrumental genre for so long.

“Yeah, that’s me, the secret smoothie!” Peterik laughs. “Maybe this will shock my fans, but when I get off the road and am hanging out at home, I don’t put on Kansas or Journey, I listen to classic tracks by Acoustic Alchemy, Keiko Matsui, Dave Grusin and David Benoit. And it’s not really a recent phenomenon. My wife Karen and I have been living and breathing that music even before there was an official radio format for it. When I’m away from it for too long, I need my fix and when I get back to it, I’m like the kid in the candy store. It just felt like the right time to take a shot and make music that reflects this true passion.”

While his longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan Nick Colionne is helping him build connections in the genre — and contributed a colorful guitar solo to the anthemic mystical rock jam title track — Peterik is mostly working with longtime musical cohorts, some of whom are also in Pride Of Lions. Because of his successful ongoing history as a bandleader, when the idea of doing a half vocal/half instrumental project struck after doing background music for his wife’s website, there was no question he would pursue a group concept rather than a solo effort. This extra firepower — which includes co-lead and backing vocalist Lisa McClowry, saxman Steve Eisen, guitarist Mike Aquino and drummer Ed Breckenfeld — also allowed him to dig a little deeper sonically than many of his favorite artists do on their radio singles.

And just to make the transition easier for fans of Ides and Survivor, he stocks the 10-track collection with cool revamps of “Eye of the Tiger” (taking a crisp, mid-tempo, R&B/blues electric-guitar/horn approach that Colionne no doubt digs), “The Search Is Over” (an expansive, slow-building atmospheric duet with McClowry) and “Vehicle,” all muscular punch and sizzle but which includes a surprising, swinging, West Coast trad jazz breakdown in the midst. The Matsui-like opener “Joy” and well-rendered inspiration-minded vocals like “Unconditional Surrender” and “Ghost Orchid” are likeable, but Lifeforce’s heart and soul — and the listener’s attention — is clearly on the reworked hits.

“From the get go, I was keying in on the melodies,” he says, “starting with lyrics but then stripping them away to create strong instrumentals the listener can hum, as opposed to chordally based pieces. I love lush sonic landscapes just like anybody but as I started writing, the edgier melodic vibe is what naturally emerged. Working with players who are much more well-versed in jazz than I am was a great challenge. I worked closely with (keyboardist) Scott May on ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and just told him to ‘twist the chords, do those demolished fourths and demented thirds like the jazz guys do, keep twisting.’ Then Ed my drummer would help me find the groove. For ‘The Search Is Over,’ I told them I wanted to start with an a capella, Annie Lennox flavor. And that swing thing on ‘Vehicle’ just happened spur of the moment — it wasn’t charted out or anything.

“With Lifeforce,” he adds, “I see myself as the writer with the nugget of a great idea but it was a collaborative effort and one that had a truly loose and playful jazz spirit. It’s very liberating after sticking to strict pop/rock structures over the years. Rock is so primal but jazz is a way to explore a more sensual side of my artistry. The good news is that I’m committed to making Lifeforce an ongoing thing and I’m excited about getting out and touring with this group. And yes, I’m sure I’ll be doing new treatments of other songs. The .38 Special tunes would adapt especially well — so ‘Hold on Loosely’!”


For five nights just before the 2008 election, renowned pianist and jazz educator Eli Yamin turned the reliably blue New York into a bona fide swing state, playing with his longtime quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center in celebration of his latest dynamic independent release You Can’t Buy Swing. Driven a bluesy yet romantic playing style that draws from the Thelonious Monk-Duke Ellington brand of energetic bebop, the 11-track collection opens with a lively autobiographical nod to his long fulfilled ambition (“I Want To Be A Teacher”) and includes pieces that hit a wide range of moods, from reflective (“Getting Somewhere”) to cleverly optimistic (“Bop To Normal”). Yamin sticks close to home on the charming and lyrical “Waltz on the Hudson” but shows global reach on the brooding and slightly exotic “Rwandan Child.” Yamin dedicates the album to his mentor, legendary jazz drummer Walter Perkins, who once told him that “you can have the biggest names and it’s not necessarily going to swing!” For the pianist, then, swing is “about believing in your team, listening, trusting, working together and committing to the outrageous opportunity of this moment.” A great jazz and swing ambassador who has performed at concert halls and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, Japan, India, Mali and China, Yamin’s home base is as the Artistic Director of The Jazz Drama Program and Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Middle School Jazz Academy; the latter appointment was made by Wynton Marsalis. Among his accolades are six widely performed jazz musicals for children and Suns of Cosmic Consciousness, a recording he did as part of the jazz/world music collective Solar in 2005. For more information: www.eliyamin.com


PERSONAL TASTE

1) Walter Beasley, Free Your Mind (Heads Up) – The veteran saxman gets America’s new era off to a soulful, easy funk start with the African-spiced “Barack’s Groove,” which is just part of his overall goal to engage our grooving spirits while inspiring us to chill and reduce the stress in our lives.
2) Hot Buttered Jazz: Celebrating The Genius of Isaac Hayes (Shanachie)
3) Jane Monheit, The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me (Concord Records)
4) Diane Landry, It’s A Lovely Day (JazzMaDi Productions)
5) Incognito, More Tales Remixed (Heads Up)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:49 PM

January 21, 2010

Contempo January 2009

By Jonathan Widran

In 2005, in its review of Brian Culbertson’s soulful, romantic themed release It’s On Tonight, this column dubbed the popular keyboardist “the Barry White of smooth jazz.” Since he put aside sensuality and went all super funky on his decidedly jamming last album, the “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” designation defaults with great passion to one of the genre’s most consistently candlelit saxmen, Kim Waters.

Since the Maryland native signed with Shanachie ten years ago, his urban jazz excursions have found him exploring the loving side of town with such regularity that his album titles have almost become a mantra for the magic four letter word: Love's Melody (1998), One Special Moment (1999), From The Heart (2001) Someone to Love You (2002), In the Name of Love (2004), All For Love (2005) and You Are My Lady (2007). These discs have collectively spawned over 10 #1 hits, the titles of which keep the candlelight burning, starting with “Night Fall,” “Easy Going,” “Secrets Told” and “Until Dawn.”

Waters fans looking to groove before they make out have taken heart these past few years as he’s interspersed his solo projects by producing and performing on the label’s hip-hop oriented cover projects Streetwize and Tha’ Hot Club. He’s also been engaged in some deeper rhythm making with The Sax Pack - the triple threat recording and road ensemble with fellow genre icons Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Cole. The Pack hit the top of the Radio & Records’ airplay chart (and stayed at #1 for two months) in 2008 with “Fallin’ For You,” the kickoff single from their debut release.

Waters may enjoy funking out here and there, but his heart comes back home and mines the lovelorn R&B old school on his eighth Shanachie release I Want You – In The Spirit Of Marvin, which marks a dual celebration: two decades as a recording artist (he launched his career with eight releases on Warlock Records) and the ongoing influence of Motown great Marvin Gaye on his own musical sensibilities and that of the world. No doubt the concept grew out of the spirited reception he got for his 2007 cover of Gaye’s party anthem “Got To Give It Up.”


A lot of genre fans have been slightly fed up with the trend in recent years by core artists to secure easy airplay with cover songs. Waters stirs things up a bit to create a different kind of homage than Jason Miles fashioned on 2006’s What’s Going On? Instead of just saxifying Gaye’s greatest hits, he uses his silky take on the title track (which features the sensuous vocals of Vivian Green) and a richly emotional turn on “Distant Lover” as inspiration for nine originals that help bring Gaye’s vibe into the present tense.

“My dad was a major Marvin fanatic who would play his albums in the house, so when I was growing up, I was getting a steady dose of this along with the guys who became my jazz heroes like Cannonball, Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins,” says Waters. “I think the first tune I remember hearing was the granddaddy of all sexy songs, ‘Let’s Get It On,’ and I thought it would be cool to have a little fun with the title and call one of my new songs ‘Let’s Get On It,’ even if it’s a little more uptempo. It’s like the building passion leading to the first kiss and beyond it.

“What’s always struck me about Marvin’s songs and the reason they’re so timeless is pretty simple - melodies that stick out and won’t let you go,” he adds. “The idea that (Shanachie A&R Director) Danny Weiss and I had sprang from a single question: What would Marvin himself do if he were here now, in terms of melody and groove? Quite a challenge, but I did my own thing with his basic vibe, bringing in that crazy melodic flair he had and putting across the emotion of his vocals through my horns. That’s one advantage of doing a sax album in the spirit of a singer - it’s the one instrument that’s closest in sound to the human voice. But it wasn’t just about the tone of the saxes. I also tried to capture the incredibly detailed sounds that marked the atmosphere of his recordings. There was always so much happening behind him, subtle things that only came through with deeper listening.”

The Sax Pack’s “Fallin’ For You” was still in the Top Ten when I Want You was released, so it was likely that the first single “Take Me Away,” which mixes sizzling horn textures with a dreamscape of cool atmosphere, would compete with it on the radio charts. Waters gets joyful and optimistic on the opener “Groove With Me” and takes things sonically back to the 70s on the otherworldly, spaced out soul of “Cosmic Love,” the soothing “Come With Me” (time traveling is easier when you have a Fender Rhodes handy) and the snappy, shuffling “Some Dreams Come True,” whose jumpy clavinet makes the flow reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” And will the ride on the love train ever stop? Not with the ghost of Marvin doing the conducting—“She’s the One,” “Smooth Sailing” and “Thank You” are all vintage Waters.

For years, the saxman recorded at his home studio in Aberdeen, Maryland, but makes use of his full scale setup (Waterfall Studios) in his new home in Sacramento, where he relocated last year. He recorded all the backing tracks there and came to NYC to lay down the sax parts. “The coolest thing was walking into Bass Hit Recording and doing all these tracks in a single day, sometimes in only one take,” Waters says. “It was like, we’re here, let’s go, got it, let’s move on. I also loved doing so much at home first, because that always makes the process so much easier. Beyond that, it was such a privilege to explore Marvin’s legacy and pay tribute in my own way to what he’s meant to my life. Sure, the album is old school, but to me it sounds new and fresh and that’s what good urban jazz is about. My music’s always been about love, but I finally had a chance to express a different kind beyond the typical romantic thing.”


Although vets like The Sax Pack, Boney James and Dave Koz still dominate the airwaves and the contemporary jazz charts 10 to 20 years after they first appeared on the scene, the genre can’t ultimately survive without the occasional new promising saxophonist. Eldredge Jackson, who has become a regional attraction throughout Texas and his adopted home state of Oklahoma these past few years, isn’t paving wholly new ground on his jazz, R&B and gospel infused debut album, but that’s not the point. It’s enough that he’s a fresh voice on the national scene, a new and potentially exciting name on the marquee and dedicated on his debut to everyone’s Listening Pleasure. There are also friends in high (okay, tall) places that ensure he’s got the pedigree to compete. Beyond a few 80’s covers produced by Preston Glass, the core of the collection is a rich collaboration between Jackson and his fellow Tulsan, bassist Wayman Tisdale. It’s hardly the case of just a big name helping out the upstart. Jackson and Tisdale, who co-wrote and produced many of the tracks in Tisdale’s home studio The Bassmint, have been pals since middle school. In fact, one summer when Tisdale was between NBA seasons, he sat in with Jackson’s band at the local Greenwood Jazz Festival. And they share a common spiritual bond, which comes across passionately - and not just on the churchy tunes like “Sunday Morning @ 10am”. Their fathers were both pastors of major congregations that ran in the same local church circles. Another divine commonality: they are also both members of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Tisdale was inducted in 2002, Jackson in 2005.


Personal Taste

1) Fourplay, Energy (Heads Up) – The renowned supergroup hit #1 on the Contemporary Jazz chart again with a dynamic label debut that marks Larry Carlton’s tenth year in the guitar chair. The catchy, easy flow of “Fortune Teller” snagged the radio attention, but the deeper treasures are the world music anthem “Cape Town” and “Prelude For Lovers” featuring labelmate Esperanza Spalding.
2) Frank Catalano, Bang! (Savoy Jazz)
3) Oli Silk, The Limit’s The Sky (Trippin N Rhythm)
4) Tim Bowman (Trippin N Rhythm)
5) Walter Beasley, Free Your Mind (Heads Up)

Posted by Peter Böhi at 12:33 PM

December 23, 2009

Contempo December 2008

By Jonathan Widran

Considering that Jeff Lorber is one of contemporary jazz’s elder statesmen, it would be easy for him to swing into his fourth decade of recording just coasting on his laurels, pacifying his fan base and sticking to tried and true formulas that have worked over the course of two generations.

Instead, last year he celebrated 30 years since the release of his debut album Jeff Lorber Fusion with He Had A Hat, a powerfully eclectic, distinctively jazzy “players session” that took a freewheeling, stylistically varied approach. Working with legendary producer Bobby Colomby - who has taken Chris Botti from smooth jazz popularity to worldwide superstardom - the keyboardist paid homage to a wide range of influences: gospel and brass driven old school jazz-fusion, smoky and sultry Miles Davis-flavored moods, hard driving bebop and swinging jazz in addition to his bread and butter, funky pop-jazz.

While his Peak Records debut Heard That brings him from eclectic utopia back to the radio friendly stuff he’s mastered in the smooth jazz era over the past 15 years, it’s exciting to see he’s still open to last minute surprises. The hands-down highlight and first single is the hard driving, Ramsey Lewis influenced bluesy-brass spin on Amy Winehouse’s Grammy winning “Rehab,” which, intriguingly enough, was added to the collection at the last minute. This snap decision brilliance has worked well for Lorber in the past. His playful take on Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” (from 2001’s Kickin’ It) was also something of an afterthought, yet has become his biggest crowd pleaser in recent years.

“I was just home one day, messing around at the piano and realized it would be a good instrumental song, very bluesy, based on a Wurlitzer piano figure, which I included on my version,” says Lorber. “It all happened spur of the moment. My pal Tony Moore came over to my home studio and played the drum part on Bobby Colomby’s 30 year old Slingerland drum set that I had here, the one Bobby used when he played with Blood, Sweat & Tears. We jumped into that ‘In Crowd’ groove right away. I called my manager Bud Harner and he came down to hang with us while we put the track together, so it was like a little party in the studio. (Co-producer) Rex Rideout suggested I do a Motown type back beat guitar part, which I played and recorded with that cool spring reverb sound they used in the 60’s. Gary Meek and Rick Braun came over to play the horn parts a few days later. At first I didn’t know if it would make the record, but everyone we played it for gave us positive feedback.”


Lorber has been a lone studio wolf throughout much of his career, but his albums early in this decade benefitted creatively from his collaboration with producer Steve Dubin. Forging ahead and getting back to his R&B foundations, he hooked up for Heard That with one of urban jazz’s major sonic architects, Rex Rideout - whose array of credits range from soul smoothies Gerald Albright, Najee and Kirk Whalum to vocalists Maysa, Will Downing and Ledisi. Lorber first worked with Rideout when Rideout produced his track “For You To Love” on the popular 2006 Luther Vandross Tribute Forever, For Always, For Luther, Vol. 2.

Lorber’s long been the master of the vintage keyboard collection, playing piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes and synth on most of his projects. The looser vibe he and Rideout create here leads to an all-time first: actually sharing keys with Rideout on a couple of tracks. These include the jamming soul-jazz invitation of an opener “Come On Up,” the crazy, brassy fusion blast with a double entendre name (“The Bomb”) and the more laid back and sensual “Take Control,” the kind of chill-soul ballad Rideout excels at featuring co-writer Lauren Evans on vocals.

Lorber says, “The whole time we were making Heard That, Rex and I were surrounded by all of my keyboards, so every time we came up with a fresh idea, whoever was closer to the one that might have the sound we were aiming for took the lead and riffed on it. Once that approach started working for us, I enjoyed kicking back and letting his playing serve as a complement to my own. I encouraged him to take the lead where it made sense. I make up for it by playing a lot of guitar!”

Besides “Rehab,” Lorber takes the reins on two other key tracks that express his mutual love for winking at the past and embracing the soulful world to come. The intensely grooving “Gamma Rays,” which features Meek on tenor and flute and Braun on trumpet,” is a definite callback to the Lorber Fusion style that made the keyboardist famous 30 years ago. Lorber wrote the sizzling and swaying funky jazz title track with rising urban jazz saxman Eric Darius, who toured with the keyboardist in Indonesia and Japan early in 2008.

Heard That is a fun, lighthearted album that was really a blast to make,” he says. “The best part was getting to know Rex, becoming friends with him and incorporating his unique musical perspective. Working with guys like him is a way for me to refresh myself and keep current and excited after so many years. He Had a Hat was this serious jazz exploration, but here, I’m returning to more of my quintessential vibe. The idea was to create a flow that would reflect what’s happening today but with some dashes of the high energy fusion and jazzy chord changes that I was doing back in 1979 on Water Sign, which was always one of my favorite albums. A lot of artists just write when it’s time to do the next album, but I’m open to inspiration ideas 24/7 and I think that makes a big difference.”


No wonder Nashville based singer/songwriter Anna Wilson is so jazzed on her intimate ensemble meets big band holiday collection Yule Swing!, released by her indie label Transfer Records. After 15 years as a professional country music songwriter with album cuts by, among others, Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Ray Cyrus and Chris Cagle, she co-wrote one of the hottest genre singles of the year, “All I Ever Wanted.” The track, recorded by Chuck Wicks and released as a follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Stealing Cinderella,” hit the Top 25 on both the Radio & Records Country chart and Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Wilson’s other popular recent single is Suzy Bogguss’ “The Bus Ride.” Beyond this success in country, jazz has been an ongoing passion in her and she earned raves for her official debut genre disc Time Changes Everything in 2007. Reflective of the two musical worlds that have defined Wilson’s professional career, Yule Swing - which was co-produced by her husband and longtime collaborator, famed country songwriter Monty Powell - features guest performances by Rick Braun and a duet by Wilson and Wicks (the sly and soulful, high energy “Light Me Up”).

There’s also a special holiday version of her Habitat For Humanity inspired single “A House, A Home.” Wilson’s original version, which appears on Time Changes Everything, is included in Habitat’s public service announcements that began appearing on TV and radio in the fall of 2007; since the start of the campaign, the spots have received $4.2 million in free PSA advertising. As part of her ongoing personal involvement with Habitat For Humanity, the non-profit organization dedicated to building affordable housing worldwide, the singer performed with the Mississippi Mass Choir an Yankie Stadium in Biloxi on May 11, 2008 during the opening ceremony of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

For more information on Yule Swing!: www.annawilson.com.


PERSONAL TASTE:

1) Spyro Gyra, A Night Before Christmas (Heads Up) – The legendary ensemble led by sax great Jay Beckenstein goes for a playful, decidedly trad-jazz vibe on this cool but spirited and brilliantly played and improvised slice of holiday frolic. Special guests include former Spryo vibes master Dave Samuels and vocal greats Christine Ebersole and Janis Siegel.
2) Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (PIR/Legacy)
3) Dave Koz, Greatest Hits (Capitol)
4) Leigh Jones, Music In My Soul (Peak Records)
5) L.A. Chillharmonic (Artistry)

Posted by Peter Böhi at 9:01 AM

November 25, 2008

Contempo November 2008

On the 2005 inaugural Dave Koz and Friends At Sea Cruise, George Duke rose from his piano and keyboard rack after playing his long-loved pop ballad “Sweet Baby” and declared, revival style, just before embarking on some serious grooving: “I wanna tell y’all…God made me funky, so if you got a problem with that, take it up with Him!” Longtime Dukeys who had been following the legendary performer’s dual career as a jazz fusion pioneer and slick R&B/pop producer were no doubt disappointed when he released the generally low key piano trio project In A Mellow Tone on his own label, BPM Records. If the Creator made him a funkster, the thought steam followed, why weren’t his studio projects this decade reflecting this vibe?

If those were repertoire expanding tricks, Duke is more than compensating for the departures with Dukey Treats, his decidedly old school and ultra-funkified debut on Heads Up Records. He’d been listening to his fans all along, especially those that would come up to him after his shows—which always end with nods to Sly Stone, James Brown and a big dance party—and ask when he’d be translating that feel goodness to the studio. Duke came of age in the 60s and started recording in the 70s when funk music was a powerful force not just in pop culture but in social discourse. Artists could rouse the crowd to its feet while addressing hardcore political and social issues like the battle of the sexes, poverty and racial discord.

Duke brings us back to that long celebrated R&B mindset with a mix of bouncing, horn blasting intensity (as on “Everyday Hero,” a playful ode to the unrecognized champions in our society—doctors, teachers, firefighters), spaced out humor (“A Fonk Tail”) and socially relevant commentary (“Sudan,” which features impassioned guest vocals by Teena Marie and Jonathan Butler). He also has his rhythm sections recording live like they did regularly back in the day. Yet Duke insists his aim was not really a tribute to old school, but a bridge between past and present.

One of the unique ways he accomplishes this is by working with a unique combination of band mates from 30 years ago and today. Ndugu Chancler, Byron Miller and Sheila E. (then Escovedo) were all part of his famed “Dukey Stick” band that recorded Don’t Let Go in 1978 and toured with him. Also present in the mix are his new cats, Michael Manson (bass), Jef Lee Johnson (guitar) and Ron Bruner, Jr. on drums. Rather than keep these reps of the different decades separate, the keyboardist generally makes Dukey Treats a party, with Johnson jamming alongside Sheila and Chancler on the slow burning singalong title track and the bluesy, brassy “Mercy” (featuring lead vocals and raps by Josie James, Lynn Davis and Napoleon Murphy Brock). Miller and Chancler multi-task as vocalist/rappers on the goofy and fun, George Clintonesque “Creepin’ (another track with Johnson). Duke exclusively showcases his current guys as the foundation behind “Sudan” and the spicy, highly syncopated seven and a half minute jam “Images Of Us” that closes the set. Another highlight is the vibrant “Are You Ready?” which sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” gone sideways.

“It finally dawned on me that it was time to do a funk-oriented project,” he says, “but the key was to create it as seen through my vision as an artist and musician today. I could have gone straight pop, but I laid everything on a bed of jazz improvisation. To me, the most prominent element of the classic vibe is the balance of social commentary and humorous stuff. There’s just not a lot of funny music being played in R&B today…everything’s so heavy, and I wanted the kind of light spontaneity so everyone involved, from the veterans to the new kids, could have a blast. Because I’m at the point in my career where I don’t have to create tracks just for airplay, my most important criterion was having a series of songs they could play well and that everyone could dig. The reason I called it Dukey Treats was because, like in my live shows, I want musical experience to be like Forrest Gump—a box of chocolates, never knowing what you’re gonna get. The music on an album shouldn’t have to all taste the same. Jazz does not have to be homogenized to be successful.”

Duke has been giving back in the educational arena for many years now, acting as an artist in residence at Berklee and mentoring with such organizations as the Louis Armstrong Camp and the Next Generation Festival in Monterey. Though he’s not always happy with the tendency for young musicians to create with machines rather than mastering their instruments—especially among African Americans-- he’s been encouraged by the great up and comers he’s encountered in places like New Orleans. His goal is not only to help them learn the basics about making viable and meaningful music, but also helping shape their sensibilities about it. He admits it was easier back in the 70’s for upstarts, who could score record deals that allowed them to make any kind of album they wanted without worrying about marketing till later.

“Musicians these days feel they need to have that big radio hit to be viable,” he says, “and it takes chutzpah to buck that system, but it’s not just dreaming to say there are future artists out there who will approach record making from this more independent mindset. Can you imagine someone telling Miles Davis what to do, or radio dictating that he couldn’t do this or that? The first thing people notice with Dukey Treats is the variety, but I’ve always had the freedom to be diverse. That spirit came from working with legends who saw no boundaries…Miles, Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa. They were all very inclusive stylistically, always trying to push things to another level.

“Following their example,” he adds, “I never got trapped as just a jazz or R&B artist. To me, as long as it’s honestly presented, it’s a valid means of expression. I don’t make music to please everyone, I do it first because I love it. That’s the bottom line. Music is as important to society and people as their refrigerator. Its aural nutrients do for the soul what the stuff in the fridge does for the stomach.”


While the majority of smooth fans on the festival and cruise circuits can be seen at these events sipping from a glass of wine, Shilts is the one artist they can count on to take a swig of beer between songs onstage. Well known to genre audiences for his decade plus tenure in U.K. jazz groove sensations Down To The Bone, the popular saxman can blame his lust for pints on his British roots even though he now lives in the suburbia of Palmdale, California. NuGroove, which has released his perfectly in the pocket, instantly amiable and danceable Jigsaw Life, is his third label for as many albums—a definite sign of economic instability in the genre. But there’s an upside to the story. NuGroove was actually the first label DTTB signed with in the mid-90s and the one which released their 1997 debut From Manhattan to Staten. Like his previous disc HeadBoppin’, Jigsaw Life forges a path away from the wild dance party jam band vibe of his regular ensemble and focuses on groove, style and strong pop melodies. George Duke would be proud of the major blasts of funk energy on tracks like “Back On The Hudson” and the old school soul vibe of “Too Close For The Edge,” not to mention the rousing, clubby “Time Gentlemen Please.” Shilts didn’t live it the first time but he seems eager to bring us back there—to draw from the album’s cool title concept—“Piece by Piece,” a cut he originally wrote for Rick Braun and Richard Elliot, and beat by beat.


Personal Taste

1) Linda Eder, The Other Side Of Me (Verve) – True to its title, the renowned Great White Way and pop standards powerhouse returns to the pop/country roots many of her fans may not be aware of on this spectacularly organic, harmonically colorful collection that’s every bit as compelling as her work in the genre on which she’s based her nearly two decade career.
2) Michael Lington, Heat (NuGroove)
3) Dave Koz, Greatest Hits (Capitol)
4) Althea Rene, No Restrictions (Red Cat Music Group)
5) Gregorian, Masters of Chant (Curb Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:35 AM

October 30, 2008

Contempo October 2008

Next time you’re at a summer festival grooving to Guitars & Saxes or one of the three big smooth jazz cruises clapping along to Rick Braun, Mindi Abair or Wayman Tisdale, take a look around and ponder the demographics for a second. The music is hip and edgy, but the genre is decidedly the playground of the cool and urbane middle aged. Considering that most of smooth jazz’s core artists range in age from their mid-thirties to early 50s, it’s hardly surprising that their fans have roots in the same generation. Smooth jazz offers refuge for those who grew up on old school soul and leave the rap, hip-hop and whatever else defines urban pop nowadays to their offspring.

There’s no doubt that kids and young adults would dig Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz as much as Usher, Nelly or Justin Timberlake if given the chance — there just haven’t been many attempts to cater to this vast potential audience. What will it take to get these fans to the shows and download Candy Dulfer along with Rihanna and Chris Brown?

Eric Darius may just have the solution, and on his third album and Blue Note debut, he’s Goin’ All Out to make it happen. A genre veteran at the ripe old age of 25, he makes no bones about what he’s trying to accomplish on the disc’s ten highly rhythmic, infectiously melodic and stylistically varied tracks that feature some of his most urgent and sensual playing ever. His previous two releases, 2004’s Night On The Town and Just Getting Started (2006) scored airplay hits galore, but his aim this time was to take some bold steps forward and offer up some joyful noise to multiple generations.

“When I first started writing music for this project,” says the multi-talented Tampa born and based artist, “my goal was to create an album distinctive from anything else I’ve ever done. Immersing myself over the years in so many styles and cultures, from hip-hop to reggae, Latin, pop, gospel and funk, I wanted to mix up a lot of these elements into tracks that would appeal to everyone, including the younger demographic. The term smooth jazz is almost always automatically associated with this older sophisticated crowd, but I thought it was important to say something new as an artist and to give the kids in my generation who are not normally exposed to jazz something to relate to. The tradeoff is, I hope that it will inspire them to listen to more jazz and embrace this kind of hybrid music.”

Matching his horn, dynamic beats and infectious melodies and atmospheres to his musical idealism - and seriously not worrying about smooth jazz airplay, at least most of the time - Darius dives in with the party hearty crashing hip-hop rhythms, neo soul swirl of “Just Like That,” which, he says, “puts the listener in the mind frame of steppin’ out in the club, with lights and cameras flashing.” Darius is a big fan of superstar hip-hop/pop producer Timbaland, and puts his type of hypnotic double-up kick drum beats behind the sensual emotion of “Vibe With Me.” The saxman enjoyed success with his passionate cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” and makes some sharp twists and turns on two songs the kids have been digging in recent years: Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” (which Darius first heard at a club in Tokyo) and the seductive Grammy winning Mary J. Blige song “Be Without You.”

The most “out there joint” on Goin’ All Out, is by far “Feelin’ Da Rhythm,” a feisty explosion of sizzling horn textures and booming reggaeton/dancehall grooves. Darius comes by this island hopping thing naturally; his parents were raised in the Caribbean and he grew up on the tropical and reggae music that inspired the popular new hybrid sound in the early 90s. Mainstream smoothies shouldn’t despair if they think Darius is getting a little too young for their tastes - the lighthearted, easygoing “Just For the Moment” (featuring the always exuberant Norman Brown on guitar and vocals) and retro-soul tinged “Ain’t No Doubt About It” are harmonically soaring, smack dab in the pocket joyful expressions.

Since terrestrial stations in the format tend to reward artists for doing the same old thing release after release, Darius is something of a genre revolutionary, preferring to try new concepts and push envelopes like his heroes Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock than stagnate in an artistic safe zone. But how does he view his odds of actually pulling in the youth vote? Is having a colorful myspace page that boasts over 120,000 visits and through which he communicates with his fans enough? He’s also got a batch of video clips on YouTube that have thus far received thousands of views.

“I see great possibilities now to reach out and win over this new generation. It’s definitely a challenge, but at my age I’m in a perfect position to reach out and show them some cool things. I don’t take the responsibility lightly. The good news is, it’s already happening, because I see younger people at a lot of my shows, and I’m getting tons of messages on myspace from middle and high school kids inquiring about jazz, the saxophone and my type of music. All I need to do is play for them and that will stimulate their interest in jazz. Now that there’s myspace and YouTube, they can see videos in other places besides MTV and VH1. It’s really about making the grass roots effort and showing them that this music is as happening as anything else they’re listening to.”

Whatever the ultimate results are of his quest to bridge the contemporary jazz generation gap, he’ll always be about connecting with his fans. “They’re the reason I do what I do,” he says, “and I’m very passionate about making a difference in their lives and putting smiles on their faces. Now it’s time get more kids my own age and younger to smile, too!”


If there was ever any doubt that our friends to the north know what’s cool, it was erased when Nick Colionne succeeded Chris Botti as “International Instrumental Artist of the Year” at the 2007 Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Beyond his status as a top headliner for shows and festivals across the country, the guitarist - has also become legendary for his electrifying performances on each of the annual All-Star Smooth Music Cruises since 2005 and for hosting the after-hours “Nick At Nite” jam sessions. His quick wit and expert comic timing also served him well as the host of this year’s Seabreeze Jazz Festival on Florida’s emerald coast. He’s also the genre’s most dapper and sophisticated fashion plate in the genre thanks to his crisply tailored, colorful Stacy Adams suits. The Chicago based performer has been living up to the name of his breakthrough hit “High Flyin’” since bursting on to the national scene in 2003, and now, on his Koch Records debut, he’s doing more than just Keepin’ It Cool, the name of his 2006 disc. He’s boldly declaring there are No Limits with an album that genre crosses easily from jazz, R&B, funk and blues and includes more of his low toned, seductive vocals than ever before. He embraces the urban dance phenomenon known as the Steppers’ Circuit with the thumping retro-funk of “Steppin’ Back” and adds just the right amount of bluesy organ to his high energy ode to his hometown “The Big Windy.” Shifting gears completely, all those cruises and balmy Caribbean breezes inspired the breezy, Brazilian flavored “Ports of Call.” WGN-TV and Radio pegged him right when they proclaimed him “Wes with a new millennium twist,” and he pays homage to Mr. Montgomery on “Headin’ Wes Before Dawn.” But he’s equally effusive digging into the James Brown vibe on the wild horn jam “Godfather J.”


Personal Taste

1) Sony Holland, Swing, Bossas, Ballads and Blues (Van Ness Records) – Globally popular for her tours and residencies in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the stylish San Francisco based singer swings effortlessly from Jobim to Paul Simon, Roberta Flack to the Great American Songbook - but saves some of her most impassioned jazz expressions for the eight originals penned by her husband Jerry Holland.
2) Steve Oliver, One Night Live (Nu Groove Records)
3) David Sanborn, Here and Gone (Decca)
4) Lee Ritenour/Dave Grusin, Amparo (Decca)
5) Eldredge Jackson, Listening Pleasure (JEA Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 2:48 PM

August 7, 2008

Contempo August 2008

SteveTyrell.jpgSteve Tyrell has spent the better part of the last ten years spreading the gospel of The Great American Songbook, wowing thousands of fans across the country with his gravelly voiced magic and scoring Top 5 hits on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart with his collections A New Standard, Standard Time, This Time Of Year and This Guy’s In Love. He also added a touch of class to his multi-decade pop producing resume with a Grammy win for Rod Stewart’s Stardust: The Great American Songbook, Volume III, which hit #1 on the Billboard 200; the Tyrell produced follow-up Thanks For The Memory, reached #2. This quite unexpected whirlwind phase of his career happened by request after Tyrell sang the closing credit numbers on the soundtracks he produced for the hit Steve Martin comedies Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride 2.

Fans of Tyrell the vocal interpreter are always amazed when the Texas native reaches back nearly 40 years for some precious pop anecdotes from his early days in New York when he was in charge of A&R and promotion for Scepter Records. Working side by side with the legendary songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, he not only placed their songs in the movies that made them famous but also brought his pal B.J. Thomas to pop culture consciousness via “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” which Tyrell produced. Tyrell also enjoys telling a story about Dionne Warwick, who changed “Message to Martha” to the much more recognizable, female point of view hit it became, “Message to Michael.”

While Tyrell brought tons of charm, heart and soul to his previous two bestsellers Songs of Sinatra and Disney Standards, this colorful foundational history gives Back To Bacharach, his debut on his own New Design Records (distributed by Koch), a more personal touch that brings his multi-faceted career full circle. The lushly arranged fourteen track recording, a dreamy trip back to a golden era in pop music and a compendium of the songwriting duo’s legendary hits, features Bacharach himself on the sensually melancholy “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” and co-producing a fresh twist on “This Guy’s In Love,” which has the original artist, Herb Alpert, chiming in with his unmistakable trumpet. Bacharach also appears on the all-star collective “What The World Needs Now” with a cast of stars including Rod Stewart, Dionne Warwick, James Taylor and Martina McBride. Picking up Warwick’s mantle elsewhere is the graceful power of Patti Austin, who duets beautifully with Tyrell on “I Say A Little Prayer” (which earned Tyrell his first gold record, done coolly this time from the guy’s POV) and a gently soulful take on “Don’t Make Me Over.”

While the songs on Back To Bacharach remind Tyrell of a joyful time in his life when he was a kid making pop history at the start of his career, the inherent sadness in some of them cuts deeper than it did back then due to the death of Stephanie, Tyrell’s wife and frequent songwriting/producing partner of 25 years, in 2003. The previous year, Tyrell was all set to do his big Bacharach-David tribute and called Bacharach in to work on several tracks. When Stephanie was diagnosed with cancer, the singer put everything on hold, completed This Guy’s In Love with other standards he’d already recorded and spent the last 18 months of his wife’s life by her side. Stephanie Tyrell died the day before This Guy’s In Love was released; Burt Bacharach and James Ingram performed “A House Is Not A Home” at her memorial service. The proceeds of the new version of “What The World Needs Now” will go to the National Colorectal Research Alliance (NCCRA) in remembrance of Stephanie and Jay Monahan, the late husband of TV journalist Katie Couric who died of the same disease.

“When I made my first few albums,” the singer says, “I was always happy, living the good life and celebrating this amazing marriage and musical partnership. I certainly didn’t know the pain I know now and all these great songs that Burt and Hal wrote resonate with me in a way they couldn’t have at any other time — particularly ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ and ‘A House Is Not A Home.’ They’re just such heartbreaking songs and I could feel them differently because my world was now open to brokenheartedness. Even over four years later, they’re still painful for me to perform sometimes, yet in a good way, they’re also so cathartic. People hear me sing them and the ones who have ‘been there’ know just what I’m trying to convey and what Burt and Hal meant forty years ago when they wrote them. “

Having finally gotten Back To Bacharach out of his emotional system, Tyrell finds himself at a unique crossroads. He can always return to the Songbook, but his Texas roots may come out next in a country-themed record. He also worked a lot early on in his career with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John and may head thematically to New Orleans. No matter the direction of future recordings, however, Tyrell will always be in the business of making old songs everybody loves sound as cool as the first time we heard them. “I consider the Bacharach-David songs the next generation of the Great American Songbook, rooted in the timeless influence of Gershwin,” he says. “These tunes and the songs I’ve done on my earlier albums have a certain elegance and romanticism to them that most of today’s music doesn’t have. The writers who composed them were wearing suits and sportcoats to the session, not jogging clothes. I have to confess that before I recorded those tracks for Father of the Bride, I was a rock and roll kid at heart and didn’t know a lot of the treasures of the Songbook. But I quickly fell in love with the songs and they fell in love with me. We rock kids thought we were so cool growing up in the 60s, but these artists that came before that, Billie, Duke and Louis Armstrong, they’re the ones that invented cool.”


With the release of Tales From The Beach, Incognito’s debut on Heads Up Records, the hard grooving, ever-evolving U.K. based collective closes in on three decades of fusing American R&B, the coolest aspects of the famed acid jazz movement and the exotic influences of musicians from around the globe. The ensemble’s supremely funky, old school vibe was perfectly captured by the title of their 2004 Narada jazz disc Adventures In Black Sunshine, which makes the summery title of their latest jam all the more curious — till we discover that group founder and sonic mastermind, guitarist Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, is talking about the shores of his native island Mauritius (off the coast of Madagascar). “When I was a kid,” he says, “my first taste of music came from those beaches. I spent a lot of time listening to the hotel bands or the bands playing around the bonfires and cookouts. There were beaches everywhere and I was always watching live musicians play. So for inspiration for this album, I went back to various beaches around the world— in Italy, Indonesia and elsewhere — and just let the music flow.” Maunick’s colorful, bouncy guitar, Francis Hylton’s jumping basslines, cool 70s soul atmospheres and sizzling horn accents are the foundation for stories sung by a batch of sensual soul singers: Maysa (a longtime part of the Incognito experience and popular solo artist who leads on four tracks), Joy Rose, Tony Momrelle and Imaani. While most of their tracks feature solo performances, the four of them team up for the high spirited anthem “Feel The Pressure” that sums up the happy ensemble action Incognito is legendary for.


Personal Taste
1) Sekou Bunch, The Next Level (Trippin N Rhythm) – The famed session bassist and recent Survivor contestant makes an explosive, edgy and funky bid for Wayman Tisdale-styled smooth jazz stardom with this fun-filled debut featuring Boney James, George Duke, Everette Harp and Sheila E.
2) Don Immel, Long Way Home (Elemental Music)
3) Ludovico Einaudi, Divenire (Ponderosa Music & Art)
4) Gail Jhonson, Pearls (NuGroove Music)
5) Thom Rotella 4-tet, Out of the Blues (Thom Rotella Music)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:49 PM

June 27, 2008

Contempo June 2008

MarcusMiller_live.jpgWhen Condoleeza Rice hangs it up next January, our next president should seriously consider tapping Marcus Miller for Secretary of State. Without saying a word, just plucking the funk out of his fretless bass, the masterful musical jack-of-all-trades could negotiate serious peace and soothe the hearts and minds of our toughest global foes. His resume stretches back to when he was a teenager burning up the clubs of New York in the late 70s, but last year’s string of international achievements is reason enough to appoint him. When Miller’s rockin’ the house - as he did in 2007 in Indonesia, Korea, Russia, Western Europe or Mexico - everyone’s thinking “God Bless America.”

Miller, whose latest disc Marcus is his first U.S release on his own 3 Deuces Records and distributed by the Concord Music Group, would be the only Cabinet member ever to tour with and produce Miles Davis, write trademark hits for David Sanborn, Bob James and Luther Vandross, and spend nights in hotel rooms emailing pieces of score for TV’s Everybody Hates Chris. He could enchant world leaders with stories of his 500 plus sessions with artists identifiable by one name — Dizzy, Shorter, Sinatra, Elton, Clapton, Aretha, Chaka, Grover, Snoop and Mariah. Who knows, maybe even invite their delegations on the inaugural Playboy Jazz Cruise he’s hosting in January 2009.

“In all my years of touring abroad,” says the two-time Grammy winner, “I’ve always felt that people can feel the American emotions that come across in my music, because I incorporate the best of everything we have, from jazz and soul to classical, rock, funk and blues. People really admire our sense of freedom and individuality. The key to winning them over so quickly is that we’re mostly playing instrumentals, so there are no cultural or language barriers to prevent their emotional response. The music can mean what it needs to mean to them.

“Anybody who has ever had to talk to somebody they love or someone they don’t know knows how easy it is for words to mess everything up,” he adds. “If the sentiments and words are not articulated right, you’ve got problems. I go on stage sometimes and don’t even know how to say hello in the native language, but the music and the emotions are pure and connect to the energy and feelings that all people share. There’s no fear of offending anyone with a cultural faux pas when you’re dealing solely with the sound of emotion.”

Because most of the CDs Miller has released since 1993’s Billboard Top Ten Contemporary Jazz Album The Sun Don’t Lie have different label and distribution deals for the U.S., Europe and Asia, it’s hard to count precisely the number of discs he’s put out. But the stylistically schizophrenic experience of listening to each one is a joyful throwback to the 70s, years before formats were so homogenized and divided, when independent FM stations would play anything and everything that was good. Marcus, which continues the bassist’s new association with Concord — including appearing on George Benson & Al Jarreau’s Givin’ It Up and Tom Scott’s Cannon Re-Loaded project — continues in that vein, defying modern corporate wisdom by grooving effortlessly from genre to genre.

“I’ve heard that rule, that we’re supposed to keep it tight, make sure your album’s focused and not all over the place,” he says. “But I’ve come to realize that despite the diversity, my recordings do have an important through line with my bass that holds everything together. People appreciate the fact that I start with the attitude of ‘let it ride, let it go where it goes.’”

The latest Miller thriller begins with him getting in our face with three trademark funk-jazz free for alls with apt titles like “Pluck,” “Strum” and “Ooh.” Then he makes covers fun again with Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?”, yet another Stevie Wonder jam (his wild “Higher Ground” matches the fire of Silver Rain’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman”), a tender moment with “When I Fall In Love” and two variations on soul singer Robin Thicke’s 2007 hit “Lost Without U” – one featuring actress Taraji P. Henson doing spoken word and the other a smoother reading featuring Lalah Hathaway. Miller goes spacey-bluesy with the help of Keb Mo on “Milky Way” and even introduces Italian guitarist Andrea Braldo — a cat he found on Myspace — on “Blast!” Yet the heart and soul of Marcus, hands down, is the first single, “Free,” a graceful and sensual take on Deniece Williams’ 1976 soul classic featuring the elegant vocal caress of Grammy Award winning singer Corinne Bailey Rae.

“I was in the middle of doing the album and driving my car when her song ‘Put Your Records On’ came on the radio,” Miller says. “I thought, wow, now there’s a unique voice. I live for distinctive personalities. I pulled the car right over, called my people and told them they had to find Corinne for me. There’s something so natural about the way she comes across. There are just artists who make people take notice and go, ‘wow, who’s that?’”

If we’re going to lay blame for Miller’s free-styling, multi-genre ways, let’s start with the Brooklyn born, Jamaica, Queens raised multi-instrumentalist’s parents: dad was playing Bach while mom was digging on Ray Charles. Miller loved walking the streets of Manhattan looking for gigs, hearing it all — funk, jazz, salsa and calypso. He never made distinctions - all that mattered was that the music hit a nerve.

“I may be one of the few crazy musicians in the world who can hear similarities between polka, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane,” he laughs. “But then I can break the music down and show you the exact thing that makes the music great. New artists coming along these days have to narrow their attack to break through commercially, but a lot of players would really love to do it all. I’m sure if I did one narrow thing, I’d have more commercial success, but what matters more is that people are always hungry for fresh and exciting music. That’s what I’m aiming for every time I step in the studio.”


Brilliantly melodic, hard grooving keyboardist Bob Baldwin may have launched his recording career with the gospel influenced Rejoice in 1990, but he’s clearly a child of the 2000s now. Maybe artists like him who have been bounced around from label to label have to look ahead and think big, but his popularity grew in leaps and bounds when he called his 2000 release BobBaldwin.com. Eight years later, he’s still a dot commer, calling his nuGroove Records debut NewUrbanJazz.com and making a bold statement about the future of his subset of smooth jazz. It’s hard to say why he calls it new, because Baldwin’s always been about the kind of high spirited, just enough improvisation, super catchy, touch of old school, happy funk vibe he’s putting across here. The music speaks for itself, with fun, uptempo jams like “Jeep jazz” (featuring a new vocalist named Zoiea) and “Third Wind,” which features the keyboardist scatting, Norman Brown style over the spirited ivory pounding. While he brings out many big urban and smooth jazz guns — Najee, Marion Meadows, Phil Perry, Joceylyn Brown, Freddie Jackson — he also introduces a few new names (Frank McComb, rapper Delta Croche) and gets adventurous beyond the R&B/jazz borders on the “ole skool” free for all tribute to “Joe Zawinul.” His colorful liner notes declaring “New Urban Jazz” a fresh phenomenon are curious, however, because ever since Paul Brown started producing Boney James in the early 90s, smooth jazz has seen a progressive infusion of heavy soul elements. As a result, his spoken word intro and outro hitting on an explanation of “New Urban Jazz” are slightly superfluous.

Personal Tastes

1) Michael Manson, Up Front (NuGroove Records) — One of the funkiest cats in “new urban jazz” is this Chicago based hitmaker, whose third solo disc strikes gold with new tracks featuring George Duke, Najee and Paul Jackson, Jr., mixed with re-mastered versions of long unavailable cuts from his previous release Just Feelin’ It and a “Chicago Style” take on his breakthrough single “Outer Drive.”
2) Stax Does The Beatles (Stax)
3) Soulsville Sings Hitsville (Stax)
4) Jovino Santos Neto, Alma Do Nordeste (Adventure Music)
5) The Osmonds, 50th Anniversary Reunion Concert (SLG/Denon)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 9:59 PM

May 12, 2008

Contempo May 2008

Mention the name Dave Samuels to any contemporary jazz aficionado and his legendary association with genre superheroes Spyro Gyra is the first thing that’s bound to come up. While the vibes/marimba great started jamming with the Buffalo based group in 1979, his official membership ran from 1982-97.

In the midst of those glory years, he launched a little side ensemble, the Caribbean Jazz Project, playing a one off Central Park gig in 1993 with Andy Narell and Paquito D’Rivera which led, with an evolving cast of band mates, to a Grammy winning recording and touring stretch that’s now lasted exactly as long as his time with Spyro Gyra. The original philosophy was to explore and test, via boundary-busting compositions and arrangements, the so-called limits of Latin jazz. “We’re always bringing new music and influences to the fold and expanding our scope all the time,” he says. “The music is always shifting. I like to say it this way: Are we Latin Jazz or Jazz Latin?”

A couple of years ago, somewhere between the releases of the Grammy nominated Here and Now – Live in Concert (2004) and Mosaic (2006), Samuels and CJP did some gigs in the Washington, D.C. area (including The Kennedy Center and Smithsonian) with the Annapolis Navy Band, which included three members of the Afro Bop Alliance, an Annapolis-based Latin jazz septet. Like CJP, the Alliance, which has a substantial fan base in the Mid-Atlantic region, was created from the desire to dig into and transcend just what Latin Jazz is.

Sensing a match made in Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Caribbean, salsa and samba heaven, Samuels immediately saw the possibilities in taking his own project to the next creative and rhythmic level. He enlisted the group’s trombonist Dan Drew to re-orchestrate some of CJP’s “greatest hits” — including a batch of Samuels originals (“Rendezvous,” “Five For Elvin” and others penned by Coltrane (“Naima”), Dizzy (“Soul Sauce”) and Monk (“Bemsha Swing”) — that were originally composed for a small group setting. Beyond the core group, Samuels was thinking even bigger and more vibrant, ultimately jamming with a total of 18 musicians, including 13 horns on the dually self-titled album Caribbean Jazz Project: Afro Bop Alliance featuring Dave Samuels.

“Dan very cleverly and artfully took these songs and orchestrated them for a big band,” Samuels says. “It seemed like a natural progression to try and record them and see what would happen. So the idea evolved from the music outward as opposed to the usual notion of the massive concept coming before the music. For me, it’s been a whole new sonic world. The kinds of interactions you can do when a band goes from six or seven pieces to nearly twenty are endless, yet the setting also requires more set parameters. It’s a much more elastic environment, and there’s an incredible energy and power there. I can start soloing and then cue in the background, but the solo doesn’t have to have any specific length or shape.

“Repackaging something that had been played in a more limited setting was a way to experience it in a whole new light, and of course people will react differently to it both on disc and in the live setting,” he adds. “I can take more liberties, but the new vibe still captures my core mentality of trying to capture not just specific notes but the deep, emotional feelings behind the notes. It would be easy to get all technical about how CJP with Afrobop’s help became a much more intricate, complex entity, but in the end all that really matters is, ‘what does it sound like?’ and ‘how does it affect you as a listener?’”

For Samuels, his desire to inspire an emotional response rather than simply impress with perfectly micromanaged musical details — and his lifelong philosophy that 90 percent of life consists of one long solo - extends to his incredible, quarter century dual career in the field of musical education. A Yamaha clinician for 23 years, he has been teaching at Berklee School of Music for 14 years, dividing his time between the ensemble department, small groups and private percussion, vibes and marimba lessons. He was elected to the board of directors for the Percussive Arts Society three times, a stint that runs through 2009, and he has also taught at William Paterson College, the Manhattan School of Music and NYU.

On the product front, he has published two vibraphone method books with accompanying videos and seven percussion ensemble arrangements of original tunes. Working with legendary music educator Jamey Aebersold, whose 120-plus play-a-long instructional books and CD collections are an internationally renowned resource for jazz education, Samuels created Latin Quarter: The Music of Caribbean Jazz Project. Samuels is excited that Alfred Music is putting out a play-a-long CD of Afro Bop Alliance, complete with full band tracks and others without the lead instruments. He says there are very few big band-oriented play-a-longs, and he’s excited to give budding percussionists a crack at being as feisty and creative as he was when he launched the new project.

“The truth is, even though vibes and marimba are part of the curriculum of every conservatory on the planet, not many people who play them learn to improvise properly,” he says. “A lot of students learn how to read notes but never learn how to write them or improvise their own. It’s always been a goal of mine to get them to open their eyes and ears to the fact that improvisation and composition are pretty much the same thing. Improvising should not be limited by genre, and it’s definitely not limited to traditional jazz. It’s the player who determines his or her potential to do it right. Going to music school to learn dots on the page is like attending college for four years to learn to speak a foreign language phonetically. You need to learn the vocabulary and the feeling behind the sounds, speaking through improvising. If they learn to interpret and create like it’s a language, it will help them fulfill their dreams of communicating through music.”


Saxophonist Jessy J has been winning over smooth jazz audiences since she began playing in producer/guitarist Paul Brown’s band on Valentine’s Day 2006 — a period that’s most recently included an unprecedented three weekends at 2007’s Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival and being a featured performer on The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2008. Her mix of coolly exotic Latin balm and silky tenor on “Tequila Moon,” the debut single from her Brown-produced Peak Records debut, has been getting loads of love at first listen from smooth jazz radio, quickly reaching the Top 20 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart and consistently being among the most added and most played tracks during its first month out. Aside from the cool beats, likeable melodies and swirl of Latin and samba sounds, Tequila Moon also establishes the 26-year-old as a strong vocal interpreter of classics like “Mas Que Nada” and “Besame Mucho.” Her sultry look and soulful composing and playing style will take her far, but fans will also be impressed with her sidewoman resume. After graduating from USC with a degree in jazz studies — she was named “Most Outstanding Student” in her class — she did recording sessions with artists like Michael Buble and toured with The Temptations, Jessica Simpson and currently, Michael Bolton; she’s also got ongoing gigs with two of Mexico’s most popular artists Gloria Trevi (aka “The Madonna of Mexico”) and Armando Manzanero (whom Jessy calls “the Mancini of Mexico”). Even more impressive, she’s played Carnegie Hall as part of the Latin Jazz Project put together by one of her heroes, Paquito D’Rivera. Consider that show a significant passing of the Latin jazz sax torch.


Personal Tastes

1) Kenny G, Rhythm & Romance (Concord/Starbucks Entertainment) – The biggest selling instrumentalist of all time (global sales of 75 million albums) launches a new deal with Concord Records and Starbucks Entertainment with a spirited twist of romantic and rhythmically jumpin’ salsa on a batch of originals he composed with longtime producer Walter Afanasieff as well as lively covers of “Sabor A Mi” and “Besame Mucho.”
2) Jaared, Addiction (Trippin N Rhythm)
3) Paul Hardcastle, Hardcastle 5 (Trippin N Rhythm)
4) Idina Menzel, I Stand (Warner Bros.)
5) Fiona Joy Hawkins, Ice: Piano Slightly Chilled (Little Hartley Music)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:04 PM

April 12, 2008

Contempo April 2008

For a guy who says he never consciously tries to compose a radio hit, Chris Standring has an awfully impressive track record on the airwaves. The popular guitarist, who’s always textured elements of retro soul, acid jazz and chill with his trademark archtop Benedetto axe, scored one of 2000’s most spun songs with the title track from Hip Sway and more recently hit in 2006 with the Paul Brown-produced “I Can’t Help Myself.” As co-writer of the Rick Braun/Richard Elliot hit “RnR,” Standring also scored one of the biggest genre songs of 2007; the track stayed at #1 on Radio & Records’ smooth jazz chart for 12 weeks.

Despite this success, Standring says he’s bothered sometimes by the way many of today’s genre recordings are so sonically cluttered, and makes it his primary objective when helming a project — as he does with his latest recording Love & Paragraphs — to simply let the music breathe. When seeking inspiration for his compositions, his major reference points are everything but the typical smooth jazz bells and whistles that would guarantee airplay. “I grew up in the 70s, so I’m always hearing old, organic sounding instruments instead of bright fake synth sounds to create a vibe that’s warm and sexy,” he says. “If I want a Fender Rhodes sound, I’ll use a real Fender Rhodes. If the song needs a Hammond B-3, the organ I use better be pretty close to it. And I love to use those old Fender four string basses.”

Standring, who studied classical guitar while growing up on a farm in Aylesbury, Buckingshire, also creates his fascinating hybrid of retro and contemporary soul by keeping his ears peeled for hip sounds coming from the DJs on his home continent. “I love listening to progressive club music from Europe,” he adds, “because these guys have a complete license to experiment and go crazy with fresh new ideas. Sometimes, I’ll hear a track I like and think, ‘wow, what can I do personally with that?’”

Case in point: the horn enhanced, mid tempo retro blues-funk song that became the eventual title track on Love & Paragraphs began as a piece for a Portis Head-styled chill/alternative trip hop project Standring is working on with singer Mary Cassidy. He came up with a basic track layered with guitars and beats that he originally wanted to put vocals on, but loved the result so much he wrote a guitar melody over it and kept it for himself; the completed song features Cassidy’s dreamy wordless vocals blending with a rising horn section on the chorus.

Beyond drawing from the classic soul-jazz tradition (on tracks like “Qwertyuiop” and the pure pop delight “CS In The Sunshine”) and the realm of moody chill ambience (the intro to “As Luck Would Have It” and the trip-chill blues jazz jam “Ooh Bop”), Standring finds another way to stir things up sonically. He puts aside his trusty longtime jazz axe, the archtop Benedetto, and digs into more earthy blues-rock territory on five tracks with two Fender Strats; he played the Strat back in the 80s until switching to the other guitar to better tackle the acid jazz grooves which caught his ear in the early 90s. “Playing a jazz guitar and then switching to a Strat is a little like playing a violin and then picking up a cello,” he says, “so I had to figure out a new approach so there wouldn’t be quite so much of a head trip. I played the Strat for years but have never recorded with it as a lead instrument. The key was to find a tone on the Strat that is reminiscent of the Benedetto so while the guitar is a little bluesier and I can dig in a little more, it still comes across with my trademark sound.”

With the release of Love & Paragraphs, Standring is also taking the initiative of launching his own indie label, Ultimate Vibe; he believes more genre artists will follow in his footsteps now that so many major labels, responding to slower CD sales in the digital age, have dumped their jazz divisions and other small companies have closed shop. He is releasing the disc via a pass through deal with Braun and Elliot’s label ARTizen and their distribution company Ryko. Thinking ahead, he is ultimately hoping to develop Ultimate Vibe into a label for niche compilations in the chill lounge arena. First up is the Cassidy recording, which Standring calls a “KCRW project” as a reference to the progressive music played on the Santa Monica, California based public radio station. He joined with ARTizen on Love & Paragraphs to increase his viability with Ryko, but isn’t yet sure what label he will partner with for the second project; he may even distribute it himself.

“Smooth jazz artists are being forced to start our own labels because lack of sales is causing conventional companies to drop like flies,” Standring says. “If we want to stay alive and viable, we have to get our left brain and right brain thing going at the same time, or at least partner up with someone who has a strong business acumen to help us. The days when artists could finish recording a project and think our work is done are over, and I believe what I and Ray Parker, Jr. are doing is the wave of the future.

“All artists who have tied to a label,” he adds, “eventually realize they can make more money if they launch their own label that’s set up just like those bigger labels are set up. Being signed to four different companies over the years, I learned how they do things, from hiring outside publicists and radio promoters to securing strong national distribution. Doing this, we can sell as many albums as before but make a larger amount of money. The record business may be in a big transitional period right now, but there have never been better opportunities for those who are willing to take the chance.”


Chris Botti is one of the few contemporary jazz artists whose home web page (www.chrisbotti.com) lists his tour schedule immediately. The mega-popular trumpeter’s latest album, Italia, was an immediate hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Jazz chart and scoring the hit radio single “Venice,” which hit the Top Ten on Radio & Records’ smooth jazz chart. A few months after its September 2007 release, the collection scored a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. But none of that jumps out at the fan browsing the site because Botti is, in every sense of the word, a musical citizen of the world, spending most of his life on the road here and abroad. His early 2008 schedule found him on some extended stays on the West Coast (Yoshi’s in San Francisco and Oakland, Blues Alley in Seattle) but also included dates throughout Canada and, in March, Poland, the U.K. (Ronnie Scott’s in London) and Mexico City. If you can’t catch him this year, there’s always 2009; he’s already booked for May at Symphony Hall in Atlanta! His musical stop in Italy is a lush and inspired one, transferring the simple and effective swirl of dreamy trumpet pieces and sweeping vocals from Botti’s previous albums When I Fall In Love and To Love Again to a balmier locale that’s even more ripe for romance. Rather than draw from The Great American Songbook, the trumpeter and his producer Bobby Colomby create magic with the music of film composer Ennio Morricone, opera classics like “Caruso” and “Nessun Dorma” and “Ave Maria.” Botti co-wrote the Andrea Bocelli-sung title track with famed pop composer/producer David Foster, but the most remarkable vocal on Italia is “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” rendered here as a Nat King/Natalie Cole style duet between Botti and the original 1957 recording by Dean Martin.


Personal Taste

1) Brian Hughes, Live (Radio Canada) – A slew of high profile side gigs (including touring the world with Loreena McKennitt) has kept this Wes Montgomery influenced Canadian guitarist from making the same kind impact in this decade as he did as a solo artist in the 90s, but this truly riveting concert in Montreal reminds fans of his heyday while inspiring an overwhelming hunger for more.
2) Phillip Martin, Pride & Joy (Three Keys Music)
3) Chris Geith, Timeless World (Nuance Music Group)
4) Alicia Keys, As I Am (J Records)
5) Amy Winehouse, Back To Black (Island Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:26 PM

February 12, 2008

Contempo January/February 2008

Heading into its 18th year in 2008, The Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania is an annual mecca for some 45,000 jazz fans for a few key reasons beyond an exciting ten-day lineup. Aside from its small city community spirit — the heart and soul behind the music is some 300 local volunteers — Berks is unabashed in its appeal to smoothies and jazz purists alike, juxtaposing Brian Culbertson and Pat Martino, Stanley Jordan and Rick Braun, Dave Brubeck and Mindi Abair in any given year.

JasonMiles_Studio.jpgBeyond that, while most festivals just hop from one big name to another, Berks these last few years has offered some tasty one time only all-star gatherings paying homage to icons like Marvin Gaye, Ivan Lins and Luther Vandross. The unofficial house ringleader for these events is Grammy winning keyboardist Jason Miles, who knows something about mining the old Rolodex for sweeping album projects that defy common logistical sense. He’s been the unofficial Quincy Jones of contemporary jazz over the past decade, helming star-studded discs paying homage to Gaye, Lins, Grover Washington, Jr. and Weather Report.

For Berks 2007, Miles reached back to the 60s soul that shaped his diverse musical sensibilities and put together a dream lineup of modern artists and still brilliant old school sidemen to help him re-imagine his favorite all-time R&B and soul-jazz songs. In an industry that generally shies away from live album releases, Shanachie Records shows progress by releasing this explosive concert on disc as Soul Summit. The subtitle “Can You Feel It?” comes from the easy grooving, wistfully brassy song by saxman/flutist Karl Denson and featuring Denson, Incognito singer Maysa and a host of sensual backup singers. For Miles, that track, that title, “got the message across.”

“Back when I was growing up, a lot of us didn’t know that what we were listening to was ‘soul music,’” he says. “I played organ in different bands in the late 60s and I loved Booker T and the MG’s, Howard Tate, Dyke and The Blazers and The Staple Singers. Soul is one of the building blocks of American music. From Memphis to Chicago blues, from the Mississippi Delta up to the Detroit of Motown, it represents the cultural history of our country. What was the first instrument man ever heard? The heartbeat. The music comes from that. We need to build off this legacy if we want the music to survive. With Soul Summit, I wanted to dig into these songs with the idea of revisiting classic music with a modern sense.”

To that end, he built his dream band beginning with famed Motown “Funk Brother” bassist Bob Babbitt, British skin legend Steve Ferrone (known for picking up the pieces with Average White Band and now a member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and guitarist Reggie Young (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles). The guest list grew to include saxman/flutist Karl Denson (Lenny Kravitz), singer Maysa (from Incognito), blues/soul singer songwriter Susan Tedeschi, Mike Mattison (gravel voiced lead singer from The Derek Trucks Band) and — paying as much homage to Tower of Power as the groovin’ side of smooth jazz — blistering saxman Richard Elliot.

Elliot loves playing “Shotgun” with his own band, but the experience of doing it here amongst old soul legends — where the tenor man blazes out of the gate and sets the hard driving energetic tone for the tracks to come — was somehow transcendent. He also gets in some deeper blues-soul licks than his smooth jazz catalogue allows on Miles’ hypnotic, simmer-soul composition “Chicken And Waffles,” which the keyboardist originally cut with Grover in 1996.

“When I was starting out in the early 80s, I played on sessions at Hitsville West with the Four Tops, Temptations and Smokey Robinson, who were experiencing career resurgences at the time,” Elliot says. “But Bob Babbitt and the Funk Brothers were on their original tracks that I was listening to growing up. That made Soul Summit something of a poignant experience for me. There’s an inherent, intangible quality in the way guys like him, Steve Ferrone and Reggie Young play that just comes from years of doing it. All of that is saved into a level of experience that you can’t get any other way but by touching and feeling the music of that era. Soul music to me is the one genre where the expression of pure emotion is mixed with the exactness and precision that comes with great R&B timekeeping.”

The fun part of the way this musical cirque du Miles covers the waterfront comes from some creative mixing and matching. Young played on the original “Son Of A Preacher Man” nearly 40 years ago and he adds the same simmering blues touch here behind Tedeschi’s raspy vocals and the blazing horn section. Tedeschi also adds torchy heartache to Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining.” The deep voiced but underrated soul diva Maysa is to this generation what Stax singer Linda Lyndell was to hers, which makes her the perfect choice to lead a fiery run through “What A Man,” which was reworked in the 90s by Salt ‘N Pepa with En Vogue; one of Miles’ goals is to educate young listeners, and this song is a great way to do it — i.e. all of today’s R&B had its roots back in the Stax (and Motown).

Before Soul Summit wraps with an extended crowd pleasing medley of James Brown songs (it ain’t soul without the Godfather), Miles tackles something more unexpected because it’s as much jazz as R&B driven: his connection to the late flute icon Herbie Mann. The concert goes all retro-soul/jazzy with a wistful, laid back, Denson led version of Mann’s 1969 classic “Memphis Underground”; Young played on the original track. Miles, again handing the reins to Denson’s lead flute, also includes the similar-vibed “Memphis 2000,” an original he and Mann recorded (with Ferrone on drums) in 1996.

Miles promises that Soul Summit isn’t just a one-time thing, adding, with the hope that some funky lightning can strike again, “The convergence of all these exceptional musicians onstage and on the recording was a meeting of perfection. The groove and vibe between the musicians, along with the response from the audience, let us know that something special was going on.”

Ferrone adds, “What made it memorable was that I ate the best Philly Cheesesteak sandwich I ever had! Oh, and with the show and rehearsal, it was two days of playing with some of the greatest musicians ever. ‘Shotgun’ was my favorite, the way Richard burned through the thing and scorched the rhythm section. You’ve got to be impressed with guys like that.”

GilParris_Video.jpgWhat do David Letterman’s right hand man Paul Shaffer, Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and trumpet god Randy Brecker have in common? All are buddies of one of the East Coast’s most versatile guitarists, Grammy nominee Gil Parris, who gathered for an exciting night of jamming pop/jazz in January 2007 at the Irvington Town Hall just outside NYC. The concert is now a can’t miss DVD called Gil Parris and Friends, which the guitarist — in a clever promotional tactic - is giving away with the purchase of any one of the five discs in his eclectic catalogue. The latest of these, Strength, was one of the best indie discs of 2006 but suffered from the folding of its label, 215 Records. Parris, who does over 200 dates a year in the Tri-State Area (NY, New Jersey, Connecticut) and has shared bills with Spyro Gyra, Bob James, George Benson, Robben Ford, Joshua Redman and Chris Botti, is now marketing it independently. The album’s song “Duck Walk,” a blues funk duet with Brecker, was a longtime #1 in the summer and fall 2007 on Music Choice, America’s top cable radio channel.

For more info on Parris, check out www.gilparris.com.


Personal Taste

1) Mark Berman, The Genesis Project (Mark Berman Music) – Someone was paying attention in Sunday School! The veteran NYC pianist and Broadway conductor explores the first chapter of the Bible with a witty, Manhattan Transfer-ish vocal harmony driven mix combining elements of rock, soul, samba, gospel and blues. This engaging set celebrates Judeo-Christian traditions while drawing attention to our connection to the earth itself.
2) Shannon Kennedy, Never My Love (Angel Eyes Creation Records)
3) Chris Botti, Italia (Columbia)
4) Dave Koz, Memories Of A Winter’s Night (Capitol)
5) Peter White Christmas (ARTizen Music Group)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 4:10 PM

December 27, 2007

Contempo December 2007

Kirk Whalum has engaged in a happy artistic schizophrenia since For You, his first recording exclusively featuring colorful interpretations of contemporary pop and soul tunes — that’s a nice way to say “cover songs” - became the best selling release of his career in 1998. Since then, while also pursuing a successful career in jazz gospel, he has followed highly personal statements like Unconditional and Into My Soul with The Babyface Songbook, covering well-known chart toppers from the prolific R&B/pop composer.

Roundtrip, the saxophonist’s latest disc on Rendezvous Music, is his most joyously scattered date yet, mixing songs we know well, old tunes we’ve never heard but should have and cool new tracks featuring Whalum family members, fellow contemporary jazz icons Jeff Golub, Gerald Albright and Earl Klugh, R&B singer Shanice and fluidly cool spoken word poetry by “Tootie” from “The Facts Of Life” (a now grown up Kim Fields).

This is crazy all over the map fun, for sure, but for those willing to take the passionate and funky journey, there’s a method to his madness as he celebrates 22 years since his debut album Floppy Disk — and 23 since Bob James introduced Whalum to the world on his last Columbia disc, titled 12.

Though the saxman says the idea of covering himself started as something of a half-joke, he quickly realized that refashioning some of his old songs would lay a nice foundation for a project that’s both retrospective and forward thinking. He pays homage to influential icons like Grover Washington, Jr. (this time on the bouncy old school grooving “Big Ol’ Shoes,” written with producer Rex Rideout) while also acknowledging the modern influence of rap on R&B music (with the help of his nephew “Caleb The Bridge” on “Back In The Day”).

The title Round Trip is also a reference to the frequent flyer miles Whalum racked up doing sessions for the album with top genre producers Rex Rideout and Philippe Saisse, in addition to James McMillan, who has helmed projects for various American Idols and recorded the Prague Symphony Orchestra (in the Czech Republic!) to heighten the drama on a newfangled, heavy bottomed take on Whalum’s early radio hit “Desperately.” Tracking was done everywhere from Whalum’s current home base and original hometown of Memphis to East Sussex, U.K., Atlanta, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles.

“As hectic as all this studio hopping was, it’s the perfect reflection of all the moves I’ve made with my family over the years,” says Whalum. “We started in Memphis, went to Houston, then Pasadena, Paris and Nashville before making the real round trip back home. I’m grateful to be around and still making music. Nothing’s guaranteed in this business and I’m always looking for new ways to stay relevant to what’s going on. The smooth jazz format has stagnated to some degree now, and the last thing I want to do is make a typical album whose only goal is being ‘radio friendly.’ I want to evolve and reflect something of substance. I had to ask myself, what’s more important, a #1 smooth jazz hit or a record that means something to me. The answer is obvious.”

Two standout tracks capture the heart and soul of what Whalum was aiming for on Roundtrip. The first is his crisp and balmy cover of “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby,” a song he wrote and originally played on the James album whose inspiration then and now is his wife of 27 years. Then there’s the Whalum family jam happening on the high spirited title track, which finds Kirk tradin’ fours with his 23 year old sax playing nephew Kenneth and his bassist son Kyle (also 23) as his Uncle “Peanuts” and brother Kevin contribute Al Jarreau-like wordless vocals.

“Concerning ‘Ruby, I remember writing that song in our little apartment on a Wurlitzer piano when we were both still in college,” Whalum says. “We have an empty nest now, but after all these years, it's nice to think I wrote this song for my girlfriend, who is now my wife and the mother of my children. I start the album even further back, with a song I never recorded that I wrote for my daughter ‘Courtney,’ who was a baby then but is now 29! It was fun finding fresh vibes for ‘Glow’ and ‘The Wave’ with Philippe and ‘Afterthought’ with Rex as well. But the real joy of this project hands down was working with the whole family. For me, this brings the trip home both literally and spiritually.

“When I hear my nephew Kenneth play and watch him soak in everything and memorize old Coltrane solos,” he adds, “I realize he’s starting on the journey I’ve been on for 36 years now. When I was his age, I was hanging out in Nice, France in James Moody’s hotel room, asking the master to show me how it’s done. If we ever get to the point where jazz is just a product to be sold, this cross-generational magic will be lost. I’m here to make sure it survives.”

Whalum purists who would rather hear his classic hits as they were done back in the day will enjoy Ultimate Kirk Whalum, a newly released Mosaic Contemporary collection of 12 gems from his career that includes the still vivacious original versions of “Desperately” and “The Wave.” The disc was compiled and produced by Matt Pierson, former VP of Jazz at Warner Bros. who guided Whalum to his greatest creative and commercial heights on that label in the late 90s.


Always willing to help out a brilliantly talented labelmate, Whalum brings his rich, urgent tenor color to the bluesy, Ramsey Lewis-styled “Juicy,” one of the best tracks on Above The Clouds, pianist and keyboardist Brian Simpson’s exuberant second release on Rendezvous. A familiar presence to genre fans for years as music director for Dave Koz and the ringleader on many of the recent popular smooth jazz cruises, Simpson broke out as a solo artist in 2005 with It’s All Good. The disc’s title track hit #1 on the Radio & Records Airplay chart and remained in the Top 5 for four months; his follow-up single “Saturday Cool” went Top 15. The first single from Above The Clouds is the similarly happy “What Cha Gonna Do?” but Simpson has a lot of more significant, deeper expressions to offer, including the title track (essentially a duet with George Duke’s vibes and mini-Moog), the haunting meditation “Memories Of You” and the soulful acoustic quartet closer “That’s Right,” featuring some parting tenor genius from the late, great Michael Brecker.


Personal Taste

1) Lalo Schifrin & Friends (Aleph Records) – The legendary pianist and film composer — who just scored Rush Hour 3! - gets back to his traditional jazz roots with this thoughtful and vibrant, highly improvisational jam session of classics and originals with a spirited all-star ensemble of Brian Bromberg, Alex Acuna, Dennis Budumir, James Morrison and the great James Moody.
2) Suzy Bogguss, Sweet Danger (LDR Records)
3) Les Sabler, Sweet Drive (The Music Force Media Group)
4) Jim Brickman, Homecoming (SLG Music)
5) Peabo Bryson, Missing You (Peak Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:37 PM

November 16, 2007

Contempo November 2007

With apologies to the late, great James Brown, Rick Braun and Richard Elliot have been the hardest working cats in showbiz — or at least smooth jazz-land - since launching their indie label ARTizen Music Group with their manager Steve Chapman and industry vet Al Evers in 2005.

The trumpet and sax icons signed and released projects by three solid artists in Shilts, Jackiem Joyner and Rick Kelly/Soul Ballet and criss-crossed the U.S. as half of Jazz Attack (with Peter White and Jonathan Butler) in the summers of 2005 and 2007. Along the way, each put out a solo album that spawned a hit cover song, Braun scoring with “Shining Star” from Yours Truly and Elliot spending 11 weeks at #1 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart with “People Make The World Go Round,” from Metro Blue, which was co-produced by Braun.

After all that, you can’t really blame them for wanting some RnR, the name of their cleverly titled dual album that Braun feels—after so much previous collaboration—is way overdue.

“We’ve talked about doing a full length project together for a long time,” he says, “and when we finally had the chance, it was exciting and fun for both of us. We have so much mutual respect for each other and are such great friends that it was just a matter of getting together, being spontaneous and letting things fall where they may. From start to finish, RnR was this effortless flow of energy and exchange of ideas.”

For both musicians, the overriding concept was to reach back beyond the smooth jazz era and draw on their individual roots with powerhouse horn sections, Elliot’s with Tower of Power (1982-87) and Braun’s with War (mid-80s). By tapping into those experiences and writing on the fly — the mic was permanently switched on at Brauntosoarus, Braun’s home studio in Los Angeles, to capture the melodic and arrangement ideas as they flowed - Elliot says they were able to create the raw, percolating feeling of a live date but with the polish of a studio recording. This approach offered the opportunity for many more first takes than most genre recordings.

“It was a blast to make music in such an uncontrived way and from the gut level like this,” he says. “While we didn’t fixate on the retro R&B vibe, doing it like this took us back to the old days when recordings were done more organically. These days, being retro is also keeping current, so it’s a mix of old school and contemporary sounds. The horn playing also happened naturally. There are some cool horn section passages, but we didn’t want to fall into the trap of constantly stacking up trumpet and sax in people’s faces and overpowering the melodies. Instead, we treated the project as if it were a dual vocal album, creating a lot of intimate single tenor and trumpet or flugelhorn lines. Then maybe we’d come back together on the chorus.”

After Elliot invokes inspirational works by Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, Braun adds, “The sessions were like a lot like old recordings from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, which gave the record a warm sound. Then the horn section parts were doubled to give it that oomph and muscle.”

The buoyant, hard grooving title track captures this controlled madness perfectly, opening with bright and sensual dual textures on the chorus, then jetting into urgent, brief conversations between Elliot’s tenor and Braun’s trumpet before a return to the party. The late night romantic vibe of “Sweet Somethin’” starts with Elliot at his subtle, simmering best, offering a few gentle lines before Braun chimes in on muted trumpet in response; but even when they come together for the hook, they’re cool about it.

With a funky foundation created by Braun and Jeff Lorber, the Brecker Brothers styled “Curveball” has some high octane, percussive brass; but between the scorching chorus parts, there are laid back singular passages. This sly rapport reaches deep into RnR, illuminating what Elliot calls the “just plain stinky” grooves of “Down and Dirty,” the hypnotic funk jam “Da JR Funk” and the slightly more genteel “Two Heart Tango.” Lorber’s not the only heavyweight contributing groovy ideas; Braun and Elliot also called on old pals Rex Rideout, Philippe Saisse and Shilts to launch some wild but steady foundations.

It took about three months to record the album at Brauntosoarus whenever the two were between tour dates, but Braun did a lot of the heavy lifting on the production side while Elliot was stuck in 2-3 hours traffic coming up from Escondido, in San Diego Country, to Woodland Hills in L.A. Road rage filled Southern Californians could take a lesson from Elliot, who used the gridlock to his advantage. “I was driving back and forth each day, which was about 5-6 hours roundtrip,” he says. “But I kind of liked it. It gave me time to listen to tracks in the car on the ride in so I knew what I wanted to do that day. At night, I’d drive home with what we worked on so I could listen to what I wanted to do or change at the next session.”

Braun, waiting for the screech in his driveway, was amazed every time his partner showed up refreshed and ready to work. “With a large family, outside entrepreneurial endeavors and a full life, Richard has every right to be scattered at all times,” he says. “But once you get a hold of him, he’s brilliant and completely focused. He’s capable of getting off hours on the 405 Freeway and walking into the studio without needing a minute to enter a creative headspace. Making RnR was a fascinating process, and I think without a doubt the best record I’ve ever done.”


Braun’s 20-year friendship with the versatile composer/producer Rick Kelly made it easy to choose his chill-electronica-jazz-pop instrumental outlet Soul Ballet as ARTizen’s latest signing. A veteran pop songwriter, film/TV composer and sideman to numerous pop and jazz artists (Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Madonna), Kelly launched his Soul Ballet concept in the mid-90s and scored two #1 airplay hits, “NYC Trip’n” and “Blue Girl.” His greatest success came some years later, as “Cream” became one of the biggest smooth jazz hits of 2005, staying at #1 on the R&R airplay chart for nine weeks and ranking as the #2 single of the year.

Kelly, who spends his non-musical time as a TV actor (Nip/Tuck, Days Of Our Lives, Cold Case, CSI), is a big fan of modern urban music and calls his ARTizen debut Lavish “hip jazz, smooth hop” — a hybrid of contemporary and retro soul, sweet piano melodies, orchestral flavors and hypnotic ambiences. By way of comparison, the vibe takes the beautiful ivory touch of Keiko Matsui, engages it in a lively street dance with Timbaland, Jay-Z and Pharrel and sweeps them all up into some old soaring James Bond film scores. With Lavish, ARTizen artfully expands beyond its roster of in the pocket, funky smooth jazz artists and looks to the future.

Elliot and Braun take a hands on approach to Soul Ballet’s latest as well, with the saxman playing the lead tenor melody on the title track and the trumpeter lending his own vibrant touch to the album’s catchy and soulful lead single “SmoothVegas.”


PERSONAL TASTE

1) Carol Welsman (Justin Time) – The popular Canadian Smooth Jazz Award winner and multiple Juno nominee proves herself a true musical citizen of the world with this Latin and Brazilian flavored mix of originals, well known pop and jazz tunes and the singer’s incredible facility for singing in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
2) Colbie Caillat, Coco (Universal Republic)
3) Sara Gazarek, Return To You (Native Language)
4) Marc Antoine, Hi-Lo Split (Peak Records)
5) Kirk Whalum, Ultimate Kirk Whalum (Mosaic Contemporary)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:42 PM

October 6, 2007

Contempo October 2007

candy_teaser.jpgIn 1989, 20-year-old up and coming Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer was thrust into the global limelight when Eurythmic and film composer Dave Stewart tapped her to play on his simple but undeniably catchy composition “Lily Was Here,” theme from the Dutch film De Kassiere. The song hit #1 on the Dutch radio charts, hit #6 on the U.K. singles chart and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Though she hardly felt ready for prime time, Dulfer was an instant contemporary jazz superstar, with a Grammy nominated gold selling debut album (Saxuality), a concert appearance in Knebworth, England with Pink Floyd and a tour with pop superstar Prince. Seventeen years later, “Lily” is still a smooth jazz format staple. Yet for a long time, as she came into her own as an artist, the self-critical saxophonist had a hard time listening to the song and playing it live.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love it now,” she laughs, “because finally after all these years, I can look back and see a young girl and Dave Stewart working together with something magical happening. But that first year after I did it, as everyone in the world was going crazy over it, I hated it. When I heard it, I was so hard on myself and literally cringed at every note. I realized as I was growing, I was a much better player than I was when I made that. ‘Lily’ put me somewhere I knew I didn’t belong, and I thought people would find out I wasn’t a very good player. I really would have preferred to have more years to hone my chops before emerging as an artist.

“Over the years, though,” Dulfer adds wistfully, “I had to deal with people who loved the song so much, some who had asked their wives to marry them while listening to it, others making babies to it, that I had to adjust to the fact that maybe it wasn’t so bad. Looking back at it more nostalgically, I can see beautiful things about it, being this bold young girl Dave pulled out of nowhere. For a long time in concert, I overplayed it or played it too heavy, trying to overcompensate, but now I just let it flow and put a lot of passion and love into it.”

Writing and producing with longtime musical cohorts Thomas Bank (keyboards) and Ulco Bed (guitar), Dulfer puts generous amounts of re-energized passion, love and cool flow into her aptly titled Heads Up debut Candy Store — a feisty collection that blends her longstanding penchant for bright funky melodies and bouncy grooves with silky ballads and, most impressively, includes ample improvisations that reflect her tremendous growth as a true jazz player.

Over the years, as she’s built rabid fan bases among European and U.S. jazz audiences, Dulfer has received a lot of interesting input from both sides of the Pond. In Holland, if she plays more than one slow song, people protest that there’s too much “elevator music.” At U.S. festivals, the crowds love the dance stuff and her wild alto adventures, but she still has a letter from Broadcast Architecture (which many radio stations rely on for market research) telling her to “stop playing self-indulgent solos” on disc. But Dulfer believes that life isn’t that happy or sad every day, and the music she makes should reflect both vibes of the journey.

Adding to the major funk quotient on Candy Store (typified by all out wild, edgy jam tunes like “Candy,” the buoyant anthem “Summertime” and the horn-drenched “Music=Love”) is the R&B keyboardist, songwriter and vocalist Chance Howard, a huge presence physically and musically, whom the saxophonist met when the two played on Prince’s 2004 Musicology tour. Howard is also a longtime member of the famed Minneapolis based groove band Morris Day & The Time.

“Thomas, Ulco and I have a unique, unspoken vibe when we write, and even though Chance is from the States, he fits in perfectly with the music we love, and everything clicked perfectly,” says Dulfer, who invited Howard to stay at her small form in Holland, an hour outside of Amsterdam during the making of Candy Store. “We’ve got the same click with him, and he just has a great soul-funk ear.”

Dulfer worked with two English producers (George Stewart and John Kingsley Hall) on her previous, electronics dominated studio album Right Into My Soul, but from the minute she, Bank, Bed and Howard started in on Candy Store, everything felt more free and loose and she was digging the fresh variety of organic sounds they were coming up with. The key was not thinking about sales and target audiences, but just having fun.

“Creatively,” she says, “being natural turned out better for us. But when we were done, we thought maybe there were far too many styles here. Like the reggae tune ‘Smokin’ Gun’ and that crazy Latin dance thing ‘La Cabana.’ We wondered what the U.S. record companies would think. Dave Love from Heads Up expressed interest but we thought it might be too all over the place. He got the tape and called and said, ‘Are you kidding? I love it.’ He totally got behind it. I’m really happy because Candy Store is a testament to the kind of music I really like to make. A little something for everyone, with so much stuff to check out and keep you excited. It’s like me, I can walk into the store to buy some CDs and I walk out with a pair of heels, makeup and perfume. I like when a place can mesmerize you into doing something you didn’t know you would do.”


Since jumping onto the contemporary jazz scene in the mid-90s with a uniquely exotic hybrid sound he called Classical Soul (also the name of his 1994 debut), Marc Antoine has been the genre’s answer to expedia and travelocity. The Parisian born, wanderlusting acoustic guitarist’s album titles have conveyed his status as a musical citizen of the world (Universal Language) and his desire to hop in the car (or plane) and just start Cruisin’. He released Madrid, the birthplace of his wife Rebecca, in 1998 and it’s now his family’s home. And that’s only a few hours drive from the Mediterraneo.

After experimenting sonically with DJ beats on his second Rendezvous Music album Modern Times, he’s back to a more organic vibe on his Peak Records debut Hi-Lo Split. The official story goes that on a visit to Los Angeles, his manager invited him to participate in a weekly poker game and Antoine had a major case of beginner’s luck. But when we listen to the mix of styles swirling around his infectious as ever melodies — shuffling old school R&B (“For A Smile,” “Voodoo Doll”), dynamic Latin flavors (“Cancun Blue”), Brazilian (“Bossalectro”) and cool chill ambience (“Panacea,” “Tomorrow”) — it might be more fun to imagine Antoine in a tux, with millions at stake in a casino on Monte Carlo.

Also noteworthy is Hi-Lo Split’s status as a truly homegrown creation. Not only did Antoine record everything in his home studio, he also wrote a majority of the songs, guitar in hand, by his indoor pool; the tiled floors created a cathedral like acoustic effect. The sessions were an international affair, naturally, as the guitarist flew in his longtime keyboardist and homeboy Frederick Gaillardet from Paris and used Cameroon native Andre Mange on bass. Antoine also hired a local Spanish horn section. The only fudging Antoine did can easily be overlooked, given the high cost of airfare and the power of the digital age. L.A. based percussion god Luis Conte emailed his parts from California.


PERSONAL TASTE

1) Alan Bergman, Lyrically (Verve) – The Oscar winning lyricist — who along with wife Marilyn and numerous legendary composers, has penned some of the most memorable pop songs of all time — does a beautifully arranged, Burt Bacharach-type recording of his magical hit parade. His graceful voice and the sharp, generally low-key arrangements allow the listener to hone in and appreciate anew the incredibly inspiring poetry The Bergmans have contributed to our culture for over 40 years.
2) Down To The Bone, Supercharged (Narada Jazz)
3) Jeff Kashiwa, Play (Native Language)
4) Late Night Rendezvous (Rendezvous Music)
5) Paula Cole, Courage (Decca)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:15 PM

September 16, 2007

Contempo September 2007

A mainstay on the smooth jazz charts and festival stages since the mid-90s, Paul Taylor hit a significant career milestone this past May when Ladies’ Choice — his fourth release for Peak Records and seventh overall — debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart, the first time he’d ever hit the top slot right out of the box.

The titles of his previous albums seemed designed to capture the joyful seduction the saxman conveys in his sensuous rhythms and melodies: Pleasure Seeker, Nightlife, Hypnotic. Yet the moniker of his latest project goes further, reflecting not only the grooving, retro vibe of the music, but his fascinating impact as one of the genre’s genuine sex symbols. Most smooth jazz sax players write and perform amazing make-out music, but few cast the Tom Jones like spell that Taylor does when he’s onstage.

Those big first week sales indicate that husbands and boyfriends are snatching up his music, too, but ask any female who’s ever fallen under his sway during a live performance: he’s their choice. He’s been happily married to his wife Laronda for 19 years, but that doesn’t stop his fans from coming up to him afterwards for photo op, a hug and kiss, and fantasizing about more.

Taylor enhances his natural charisma with a strong stage presence and sense of showmanship that comes across as casual, yet shows an awareness of his own personal charm and the simmering power of his music. For the past ten years or so, the ladies lucky enough to have seats in the first rows have clamored for a shot to get onstage with about ten fellow pleasure seekers and accept his invitation to come up and slow dance along as he plays one of his trademark hits, “Deeper.” The moment has become a crowd-pleasing staple of his set. Those who don’t make it up cheer vicariously for those that did and hope they’ll have a chance next time.

“The idea for the ‘Deeper’ thing happened when we were putting together a tour in support of my Pleasure Seeker CD,” Taylor says. “The title track was #1 on the radio charts and it was important for me to create a show that could keep that positive momentum going. The idea to bring one or two fans up came from Andi Howard (Taylor’s manager and co-founder of Peak Records). We started small and when it was clear that the audience was digging it, I started inviting more and more women onstage and it became a vibe. There have been shows over the years where I haven’t done it and no one complained, but I’ve learned over the years to go with my strengths. It started as an experiment, but as it grew I became more aware that this was a great opportunity to touch my fans with more than simply the music.”

Before his gig as a sideman for Keiko Matsui which led to his emergence as a solo artist with 1995’s On The Horn, Taylor cut his chops playing in numerous showrooms in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. The razzle-dazzle clearly rubbed off. “Working so many gigs in Vegas was great for building my confidence and learning the value of putting on an entertaining show,” he says. “I knew I always wanted to be a star playing the sax, so when I had the chance to do my own shows, I felt it was important to do everything I could to have an advantage. The music has to be there, but I also worked on my image. When my first album came out, I had one of those perm, bi-level haircuts that were trendy at the time, but then I grew these dreadlocks and liked how they looked.

PaulTaylor_live.jpg“It’s all about enhancing what comes naturally to you, and finding ways to be interesting to people,” he says. “It’s so flattering to have such adulation and for women to consider me sexy. Part of that’s genetic, and I think it’s the way I approach the horn as well. If the image they respond to enhances their appreciation for my music, and helps me connect with them in a more meaningful way, that’s great for everyone.”

Ironically, Taylor wasn’t thinking about his frenzied fans when the title of the new album came to him. Preferring a natural flow in the studio to over-conceptualizing his projects, Taylor came up with the cool moniker when he and producer Barry Eastmond were listening back to the song that became the title track. Its thumping, discofied Chic flavor reminded the saxman of a distinct 70s club vibe. In those days, there was a sweet moment during the night when the DJ would stop the music, take the mic and turn the moment over to “Ladies’ Choice” - an invitation for the girls to choose the guys they wanted to boogie with.

Once the concept grabbed hold, Taylor took it to heart and invited four exciting female soul singers to the party as lead vocalists on five of the eleven tracks: LaToya London (a former American Idol finalist who released her debut album on Peak), who sings the tender candlelight ballad “I Want To Be Loved By You”; labelmate Regina Belle (the crisply romantic “How Did You Know” and the soaring “Open Your Eyes”); Terry Dexter (“Long Distance Relationship”); and Lauren Evans (a horn-splashed cover of AWB’s “A Love Of Your Own.”) Taylor insists that surrounding himself with these ladies was a purely creative move, but he’s excited about the multi-format possibilities it offers as well; even as the title track was rising on the smooth jazz airplay charts, Peak released “How Did You Know” to Urban AC radio outlets.

“Obviously, this is the best reception I’ve gotten for one of my albums, but I don’t think it’s because I did anything different than what I always do,” he says. “Each time out, I just want to make the best music I can, working with great producers like Barry and Rex Rideout. I think I have a gift of making good melodies and I’m happy I can do that. I dreamed of having a #1 album when I was a kid, and now to be there after so many close calls is the coolest thing and very fulfilling. I guess I just made all the right choices.”


With the release of his Peak Records debut White Sand earlier this year, Paul Brown still only has three solo discs to his credit — but no single person has had a greater impact on the smooth jazz airplay charts over the past 15 years. Google him sometime and you’ll find close to 50 #1 Radio & Records airplay hits for everyone: Boney James, Larry Carlton, Kirk Whalum, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Patti Austin, to name a few. In 2006, he started competing with himself; his version of “Winelight” was ranked by Mediabase as the most spun track of the year, and he also had chart-toppers with Norman Brown, Euge Groove and Peter White. He’s doing it again in 2007, starting the summer with three songs on R&R’s Top Ten: “Rhythm Method,” the first single from White Sand; Norman Brown’s “Let’s Take A Ride” and Peter White’s “Mister Magic” (Brown digs Grover!).

Not surprisingly considering his resume of brilliant pals, Brown makes it a party on White Sand, keeping his guitars up front while celebrating a mix of old school and contemporary soul textures. Billing the artist credit as Paul Brown & Friends, he’s got everyone contributing: Boney James, Al Jarreau, Euge Groove, David Benoit, Rick Braun and Bobby Caldwell (a killer vocal of “Mercy Mercy Mercy”). He also spotlights his current touring sax player, Jessy J, who will soon be giving Candy Dulfer and Mindi Abair a run for their money, and another newcomer, the torchy vocalist Lina.


Personal Taste

1) Keith England, Standards, New & Used (SwingSet Music) – An homage to the idea of “it’s never too late,” the former rock backup singer joins forces with brilliant pianist, arranger and producer Mike Melvoin on a stylish mix of standards (Gershwin, Ellington, et al) and snappy Melvoin originals that fit beautifully alongside the greats.
2) Acoustic Alchemy, This Way (Blue Note)
3) Maria Guida, Soul Eyes (Larknote)
4) Dee Brown, No Time To Waste (DeLaf Records)
5) Wensday, Torch Rock (Desert Dreams Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 10:26 AM

August 18, 2007

Contempo August 2007

syprogyra_bandpic.jpgRather than make a big to-do with some sort of major retrospective or another greatest hits package, Spyro Gyra celebrated its 30th anniversary as recording artists last year the only way the band knows how: adding 60-some live shows to over 5,000 others and recording yet another high energy disc, Wrapped In A Dream, which earned the band its ninth Grammy nomination this year.

The category: Best Pop Instrumental Album, a designation that barely captures the dazzling stylistic rollercoastering Spyro brings naturally to all its projects. The slot was created several years ago to recognize in the pocket smooth jazz artists like Norman Brown, Boney James and Dave Koz. Then again, the Recording Academy had to put Jay Beckenstein and the giddy, ageless wonders in his band somewhere.

“That’s been the blessing and curse of our whole career,” says the group’s founder and saxophonist, “that we don’t fall into anyone’s categories. Are we jazz, smooth jazz, fusion, Latin, all of the above or none of the above? From a marketing standpoint, our curse is that we’ve defied categorization, but creatively, that’s a blessing. On stage and in the studio, we live in this world of combining all of these things, including the R&B that’s so much a part of smooth jazz. But that’s just one of the many things we do.”

If the high-spirited, almost constantly pulsating Good To Go-Go, Spyro’s fifth release on Heads Up, gets the Academy’s attention, they may have to shift the band into the world music realm. The vibrant calypso, playful reggae and overall Caribbean slant of tracks like “Jam Up” and “Island Time” (both featuring the glorious steel pans of labelmate Andy Narell) provide the foundational vibe of the disc; Beckenstein was also thinking a different kind of global when he wrote the bubbly, sensual funk jam “The Left Bank” based on an imaginary travelogue of Paris running through his head. The song titles say it all about the celebrating going on, from Beckenstein’s playful “Simple Pleasures” to guitarist Julio Fernandez’s blistering “Funkyard Dog” and keyboardist Tom Schuman’s intensely soulful and catchy, ultra-melodic “Get Busy” and “Wassup!”

The source of the happy island bopping? Spyro’s hot new drummer/percussionist Bonny B (short for Bonaparte), a dreadlocked. Trinidad-born groove master who began playing live with the band in late 2006; Beckenstein first saw him play at a Latin extravaganza in Las Vegas, where B is a first call drummer. In addition to his rhythmic skills, he’s also a great songwriter and vocalist who provides colorful indigenous rap and cool voicings on his tune “Jam Up!” Beckenstein is pleased to note that his band’s newest member is also a powerhouse singer in the Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye tradition. These days, that is the ultimate ingredient for a smooth jazz airplay hit. Not that Spyro will necessarily be exploiting his voice like that anytime soon.

“Bonny has an astounding voice, and the opportunity to do more vocal things is there,” Beckenstein says, “but we’ll worry about specifics when we get to the next project. The cool thing is that making Good To Go-Go was such a fun, effortless process that we all can’t wait till we get to make another. Everything just flowed so naturally. Bonny has been a big difference and has really triggered a renaissance for us. We’re really excited about making music with this guy, who is not only a great drummer but also a great spirit. The guys have always gotten along well personally, and our friendships have deepened over the years. Bonny’s talent adds the kind of creative spark that reminds us why we’re still excited about making music. That positive energy couldn’t help but translate into a more upbeat and buoyant record.”

In addition to going in a more tropical direction musically, the band was after a more unified, live sounding, less produced feeling — which translates especially well to the SACD version of the disc being released in 5.1 Surroundsound. With the Bonny B infusion, the band had been sounding super-hot on the road in recent months, and Beckenstein wanted to capture that fire in the studio as much as possible.

“There’s a more unified sound than on most of our recent albums,” he says. “In the past, we always sort of produced from tune to tune. If one needed more reverb, we gave it some. If one called for big production, it got it. If another required a sparse arrangement, the same. In the past, there might be more reverb on a ballad, where the funk tune would be dry. This time, we made an effort to put every single track in the same sort of sonic space, so it sounds natural and organic. The drums sound the same on every tune, the reverb on my sax is the same, and everything feels more live. We’re so into these songs, in fact that when we tour this summer, we plan to perform every one of them — with maybe a medley of our old hits to satisfy the fans who go way back with us.”

No matter how critically acclaimed or Grammy nominated Spyro Gyra has been, at the end of the day — on the rare occasions when the band reflects back on its incredible success - Beckenstein says the buck stops with those fans. “If you had asked the 28 year old Jay how long this ride would last, I’d have said, of course it would go on at least another 15 years,” he laughs. “Somewhere in the middle of our run, I might have said, we’d all be surprised if it goes another 15. At this point, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t last another 15. That’s how excited we are right now. There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s about a band whose members are diligent, kind, considerate and talented. But it’s really our fan base that is responsible. They keep coming to the shows and buying the CDs and inspire us to make music that delights us and in turn, brings them joy. We love what we do, but we understand that we get to keep doing it because they stay so interested.”


Currently gearing up to release their first dual album together, smooth jazz superstars Rick Braun and Richard Elliot are making good on their promise to make ARTizen Records — the label they co-own with their manager Steve Chapman and Al Evers — accessible to new artists. While HeadBoppin’, the brilliantly funky label debut from Down To The Bone’s irrepressible saxman Shilts, didn’t catch on with radio and audiences as they hoped, they’re excited about the strictly urban vibe of their latest sax signee, Jackiem Joyner. Only 26, Joyner brings a solid sideman pedigree to his debut Babysoul, including numerous gigs with Marcus Johnson, Bobby Lyle and Jaared; co-headlining a tour with Ronnie Laws, Angela Bofill and Jean Carne; and opening for India.Arie, Boney James, Spyro Gyra and George Benson.

It’s always hard to predict what will fly with smooth jazz fans that can’t get enough of their favorite star veterans and only selectively let young guns into the big leagues. But some of Joyner’s song titles show a sense of optimism that is as bright as many of his performances on the disc — “Elevation,” “Say Yes,” “Just Groove,” and perhaps as an ode to his age, closing with a sensuous declaration of “Innocence.” The soulful first single doesn’t have the most original title — “Stay With Me Tonight,” no relation to Jeffrey Osborne — but the combination of Joyner’s melodic style and Peter White’s sweet acoustic guitar is hard to resist.

Elliot and Braun also planned to showcase Joyner on select dates of their big Jazz Attack tour this summer.


Personal Taste

1) Ryan Shaw, This Is Ryan Shaw (Columbia/One Haven/Red Ink) – James Brown may be gone, but his soul train keeps chuggin’ thanks to this fiery new vocal powerhouse. A sizzling mix of covers and originals, some toe-tappin’, some romantic, this is retro-soul on steroids, taking us back to the days of Booker T., Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
2) Donny Osmond, Love Songs of the 70s (Decca)
3) Jeff Golub, Grand Central (Narada Jazz)
4) Michael Buble, Call Me Irresponsible (143/Reprise)
5) Julie Dexter/Khari Simmons, Moon Bossa (Brash Music)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:23 AM

January 13, 2007

Contempo January 2007

In 1994, when Peter White told people he was recording an album of his favorite pop classics from the 60’s and 70’s, he remembers the powers that be at smooth jazz radio telling him he was nuts — an album of reinterpretations, no matter how sincere, just won’t sell. Turns out he was just ahead of his time. Fast-forward 12 years, and “The Closer I Get To You” is still in classic rotation, played more today than it was in its original release.

Only now, it’s competing for airplay with his version of “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” which broke an all-time record recently by spending 16 weeks at #1 on the Radio & Records airplay chart. “At least no one can accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon this time, because this is a sequel I’ve always wanted to make” he says of his latest album, Playing Favorites, one of the many all-cover albums by genre artists that has hit pay dirt over the past year. “If artists are redoing great songs in a fresh and new way, I think there’s always room for that.”

To the delight of some fans that can’t get enough of the old school and the dismay of others who think their favorite artists should be creating standards of their own, that room is getting increasingly crowded. Whether it’s just a passing trend — i.e. musical comfort food during a disquieting post 9/11 period - or a phenomenon that will define smooth jazz for years to come, the cover album craze, for better or worse, was the defining story for the genre in 2006.

Aside from White, artists who have taken a breather from albums of original material over the past year and a half include Eric Marienthal (Got You Covered!), Kirk Whalum (The Babyface Songbook), Rick Braun (Yours Truly), Jason Miles (What’s Going On? The Songs of Marvin Gaye), Philippe Saisse Trio (The Body And Soul Sessions) and Michael Lington (A Song For You). Even core artists like Richard Elliot (“People Make The World Go Round”), Doc Powell (“It’s Too Late”) and Wayman Tisdale (“Get Down On It”) are scoring big radio hits with cover songs on albums of otherwise original material.

So what gives? All indications are that actual disc sales are down these past years despite the overall success of the format and annual all-star tours. Are artists simply taking dictation from their labels that want to score sure-fire commercial hits in mercurial times? Allen Kepler, the President of Broadcast Architecture, the world’s leading researching and consulting firm for the format (having worked with over 60 stations over the last 20 years), certainly hopes not. His firm has helped the format achieve its success by conducting tireless research on what listeners want and sharing its findings with its client stations. But he doesn’t want statistics to supersede passion.

“Frankly, I don’t know what facilitates an artist to want to do cover tunes, but I hope 100% it would have nothing to do with us,” he says. “An artist should create music they have a true love for, like Ramsey Lewis doing his With One Voice gospel album. He did that purely because his soul is in gospel and those are his roots. When an artist records an old song from the heart rather than strictly for commerce’s sake, that translates to an enthusiastic performance listeners will respond to.”

Saxman Michael Lington, who bills his beautifully rendered, orchestra-sweetened A Song For You as “songs from the New Great American Songbook,” says his decision to record his batch of 70s classics was less commercially than artistically motivated. “I’m not just doing cover songs for their own sake, because that would be unimaginative,” he says. “These are songs of inspiration and emotion, and I put a lot of thought into making my performances very compelling and believable. There’s nothing safe about the approach I took, with a live band, strings and newly composed intros. If anything, these elements make it a more challenging album to promote to a smooth jazz audience. My motive was to create a timeless recording and I took that task very seriously.”

Bud Harner, former VP of A&R for Verve who is now A&R consultant for Rendezvous Entertainment, has heard from some radio programmers that they’re starting to tire of the cover craze, even if the familiarity of those songs rings well with listeners. But he’s still a fan of what he calls the “unexpected” covers, like Gerald Albright doing John Mayer’s “Why Georgia” or Jeff Golub and David Benoit recording Smash Mouth tunes on albums released when he was with GRP/Verve. “Before everyone started doing these albums,” he says, “I was always trying to get my artists to consider doing a cover here and there that might raise eyebrows. If it’s unique, there’s a better chance listeners won’t get tired of it.”

One of Harner’s last projects before leaving Verve was Mindi Abair’s Life Less Ordinary, whose infectious hit radio single “True Blue” has the potential to become a genre classic in the tradition of her breakthrough hit “Lucy’s.” Abair includes a vocal of Rickie Lee Jones’ “It Must Be Love” (“because the song speaks to me, not because I was aiming for a radio hit”) but adamantly resisted the label’s strong suggestion (multiple times, she says) that she put some instrumental covers on the collection.

“Maybe this whole cover thing is just smooth jazz’s growing pains, but I think radio stations and record labels are really underestimating their audience,” she says. “It’s clear to me that people want new music, and I think we’re missing the boat and hurting the format by overdoing the covers. I’m afraid we’ve been led astray by all the testing that goes on in terms of figuring out what people want to listen to. If it doesn’t stop, I’m scared that a format built on great original melodies will just become an oldies or muzak format.

“I had to tell Verve that this is not the artist I am, that I’m someone who expresses herself through writing a song as much as playing it,” Abair adds. “I came up through the ranks of musicians who made their living playing covers at clubs and weddings, but when I became an artist, I believed I had the opportunity to rise to a different level of expression. Now I intend to stay there.”

Being both a bestselling artist and a co-owner of Rendezvous (whose roster includes Whalum, Saisse, Lington and Tisdale), Dave Koz has a unique perspective on the issue. The saxophonist, who this month is releasing At The Movies, a collection of beloved film themes produced by Phil Ramone, is not shy about addressing the economic component: “We’re living in a time in this business where even established artists have to do something unique to keep their sales figures strong. In this type of climate, it’s somewhat imperative that we give listeners event records, theme records, projects that our fans feel they must have. Creating that event mentality gives us all a better chance for success.

“Finding ways to interpret beloved songs is an opportunity to be creative in a whole new way, finding liberation in being able to focus solely on the task of playing the tune well,” he adds. “I always say that if you remain true to the songs, they will never let you down. But if you somehow get it wrong, people will criticize that so you have to bring everything you have to that performance. The genre is doing well with covers for the same reason that we love hearing Christmas songs year after year. It’s like putting on an old sweater, or a warm comfortable blanket. A classic song reminds us of another time, stirring memories of the last time or maybe the first time you ever heard it. The feelings you associate with the song have everything to do with how you respond to it.”


Personal Tastes

1) Forever, For Always, For Luther, Vol. II – Legendary soul singer Luther Vandross’ passing in 2005 makes this compelling second volume of heartfelt and funky smooth jazz interpretations of his songs by an eclectic group of inspired genre all-stars even more poignant than the first.
2) Diana Krall, From This Moment On (Verve)
3) Miki Howard, Pillow Talk: Miki Sings The Classics (Shanachie)
4) Elton John, The Captain and The Kid (Interscope Records)
5) John Legend, Once Again (Sony)


New and Noteworthy

1) Jim Brickman, Escape (SLG)
2) George Benson & Al Jarreau, Givin’ It Up (Concord)
3) Alan Hewitt, Metropolis (215 Records)
4) Michael Manson, Just Feelin’ It (215 Records)
5) Steve Cole, True (Narada Jazz)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 3:54 PM

December 9, 2006

Contempo December 2006

Ripps_live_CapitalJazzFest.jpgBack in 1994, as Jazziz celebrated its 10th anniversary, this column was asked to make subjective choices as to the most significant recording in the growing smooth jazz genre up till that time. No other option came close to Moonlighting, the 1986 debut recording by Russ Freeman and The Rippingtons, which, in addition to its still-appealing melodies and easy rhythmic energies, featured numerous performers who would go on to become staples in the genre well into the new millennium — Kenny G, Gregg Karukas, David Benoit and Dave Koz (credited then as David Koz, and playing EWI!).

True to Freeman’s initial vision of creating a group that would grow and thrive with an ever-revolving personnel, The Ripps — driven by Freeman’s powerful electric and classical guitar playing and sonically eclectic production expertise - over the past two decades have brought in numerous genre superstars (in addition to creating some, like longtime saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa) to keep things hopping.

The sessions for The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary, a part retro, part forward thinking CD/DVD package dedicated to the band’s intensely loyal fans (which have kept them on the road nearly every summer since the late 80s), ran like an all-star class reunion of sorts. Rather than take the easy way out and repackage a bunch of greatest hits, Freeman gathered all Rippingtons recording and touring members past and present to alternate on performances on ten brand new compositions and “A 20th Anniversary Bonus,” a retrospective medley featuring newly recorded snippets of nine classic Ripps cuts.

Complementing Jeff Kashiwa, original percussionist Steve Reid (both of whom rejoined the band on tour this year), longtime guest saxman Eric Marienthal and current touring members Kim Stone, Bill Heller and Dave Karasony are Paul Taylor, Kirk Whalum, Patti Austin, Jeffrey Osborne and special guest Brian McKnight, who wrote, produced and sings lead on the gentle new song “Anything.” The Rippingtons 20th Anniversary also reunites most of the lineup of L.A. musicians who performed on Moonlighting. Kenny G opted out, but Gregg Karukas, David Benoit, Dave Koz, saxophonist Brandon Fields, bassist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Tony Morales — who quit playing music some years ago to go into website design — are there.

The whole thing could have worked just as a great publicity stunt, but Freeman chose vibrancy rather than a trip down memory lane, intensity over familiarity. The relaxed but focused sessions included a few spontaneous changes from the original script, most notably the switch on the upbeat, brassy “Celebrate” from an intended Koz lead to a fanciful, soprano-tenor duet by Taylor and Whalum. Freeman wrote the song for Koz, but the saxman told him that his compadres wanted to do a duet, and thought that would be the perfect choice. Koz’s soprano works its magic instead on the romantic “A Kiss Under The Moonlight,” which features Freeman’s lyrical acoustic guitar and Karukas’ elegant piano harmonies.

“The sessions were a breeze, and I was thrilled to see that the rapport I’ve always had with these guys was still there,” he says. “But even beyond that, I saw this as an incredible opportunity as a songwriter writing parts for players I know are great but who I haven’t been challenged by in a long time. The experience was a lot like when new players joined the touring band and I was forced to take new and exciting creative paths to work with the new blood. From the start, they reminded me of why I wanted to work with them in the first place.”

With the prospect of their two-decade anniversary coming up, Freeman’s greatest challenge was trying to figure out what, if any, old material should be reworked as a reminder of the band’s contribution to the genre. “I thought the best of both worlds would be to bring back performers from across the years to play all new material. That way, we’re not dwelling on nostalgia and we’re showing that The Ripps is still a vibrant and creative group. I had a great time putting together the medley, which I thought would be the perfect way, in six minutes, to pay homage to what we had accomplished in the past.

“Each of these musicians contributed something unique to the overall sound of what the Rippingtons became, and brought their own unique perspective to the music,” Freeman adds “I wanted to get back to that embryonic stage, the enigmatic energy we had way back when. The most important thing I realized was how much more experience I have now in dealing with musicians and bringing out strong performances.

“Over the years, as my interests have expanded to include more exotic elements like flamenco guitar and salsa, I also have developed a more diverse palette of musical colors. This happened naturally, but it’s completely confirmed what my heart was telling me after we did Moonlighting, when I had the choice to continue as a band or develop a solo career. I knew a band would give me an opportunity to explore so many more facets of music, and every album has been full of exciting surprises.”


Aside from being one of Boney James’ most soulful, dynamic and consistently satisfying disc in years, the saxman’s latest project Shine — which continues his recent tradition of one word says it all titles like Ride and Pure — is a significant reminder of where the best smooth jazz is coming from these days: well-funded indie labels. His signing with Concord Records typifies the modern genre economy, where artists who once had the security and promotional machinery of major labels are now finding smaller but more dedicated organizations to keep their careers going. James, one of the few genre artists who can boast four gold records, two Grammy nominations and five Billboard #1s, stayed on at Warner Bros. even after the label dropped its jazz division, but he was generally unhappy with the commercial results of Pure, his last collection for the label (and first self-produced disc after years of hitmaking with genre superproducer Paul Brown.)

The cool news for listeners enamored of James’ spirit of collaboration and using special guest artists is that Shine boasts unique jaunts with two labelmates — the also recently signed to Concord George Benson on the bouncy sizzler “Hypnotic” and Christian Scott, a hot young straight ahead trumpeter on the label’s roster (on the brisk and breezy “The Way She Walks,” which may remind some listeners of James’ brilliant duets with Rick Braun).

While everyone else is catering to the cover happy radio format by picking very obvious, largely overplayed songs, James makes some inspired choices — going gently Rio on Jobim’s “Aquas De Marco (Waters of March),” mining the moody soul 70s with The Dramatics’ “In The Rain” (sung by newcomer Dwele) and closing the disc with an lush reading of an obscure Chuck Mangione song, “Soft,” with dreamy vocals by Sounds of Blackness singer Ann Nesby. Also appearing is contemporary R&B star Faith Evans on the rock-edged “Gonna Get It.”

“What’s interesting about my creative process,” James says, “is that I never come in the studio with the whole record in my head. Everything starts with one idea here, another there, and as I get father into it, it builds steam. Then the dust settles, the record is done, and I can reflect back on what it is. On Shine, the title says it all. There’s energy, there’s emotion in each track, each song tells an individual story reflecting different moods. When it was finished, this struck me as a very positive, upbeat album.”


Personal Tastes

1) Peter Frampton, Fingerprints (A&M/New Door) – He may have a lot less hair than in his heyday, but the pop legend still comes alive where it counts as an incredibly diverse guitarist on his first ever-instrumental album. Exploring the many musical loves of his life — American soul, rock, Latin and roots music — Frampton works with a host of all-star guests from a variety of eras, from members of The Rolling Stones to Pearl Jam
2) Five For Fighting, Two Lights (Aware/Columbia)
3) Sarah Kelly, Where The Past Meets Today (Gotee Records)
4) Cherish, Unappreciated (Capitol)
5) Jake Shimabukuro, Gently Weeps (Hitchhike Records)


New and Noteworthy

1) Hugh Peanuts Whalum (Rendezvous)
2) Lino, Miami Jam (Lino Alessio Publishing)
3) Walter Beasley, Live! (Shanachie)
4) Lara & Reyes (Fusion Acustica)
5) Ray Parker, Jr., I’m Free (Raydio Music Corp.)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 12:44 PM

November 12, 2006

Contempo November 2006

Dan Siegel’s output since his late 80s-early 90s radio heyday may be a bit spotty, but every few years, the versatile keyboardist comes back with a gem that reminds us just why he was so influential in smooth jazz’s toddler years. Almost two decades ago, he helped define the melodic joys of the genre with his bestselling album Northern Nights and still-played radio hits like “Rhapsody.”

In those days, Siegel was setting trends, and now, over 25 years into his recording career, he’s happily defying them with his second Native Language disc that truly lives up to its moniker as a Departure from his tried and true approach. An all acoustic, live in the studio date featuring three performers who are as adept at straight ahead as smooth jazz - bassist Brian Bromberg, saxman Bob Sheppard and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta - the collection effortlessly mixes Siegel’s grooving pop sensibilities with his traditional jazz roots.

Like his fellow contemporary jazz fellow statesmen Tom Scott and Lee Ritenour, Siegel has always had an equal love for bebop even while cranking out the pop and funk. Departure doesn’t quite jaunt into that sacred territory, but the organic setup allows for a lot of jazzy spontaneity within his usual accessible framework. He’s come full circle with Colaiuta, who played the skins way back when on Northern Nights.

“I don’t want to scare anyone away, but this is a concept I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” he says. “I always wanted to play in the context of traditional jazz with a drummer playing brushes, and the ambience created by all unplugged instruments. We cut all the tracks live, and people don’t just make records like this anymore, particularly in smooth jazz where commerce unfortunately takes precedence sometimes over art. Going into these sessions, I wanted to see what would happen if you put four guys together with some basic song structures, and just let all of us do what comes naturally to us.”

Siegel_Departure.jpgSiegel has high praise for his cohorts, particularly Bromberg, who wound up co-producing Departure. “I’ve worked with Vinnie many times, and he played on my big hits,” he says. “A lot of the tunes here took different turns because of the way he turned the groove upside down. To me, Bob Sheppard is the ultimate sax player and I felt at ease giving him more complex harmonies. I had never recorded with Brian before, but he was immediately interested once Vinnie hooked us up. He’s a great big picture kind of guy, willing to forgo the little details to make sure I was always on track. These guys helped me reconnect with my lifelong love for Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Their playing inspired me years ago and still affects me.”

The first two tracks, the soaring, wordless vocal enhanced “Across The Sea” and the easy strutting funk tune “Street Talk” (featuring Norman Brown), show that Siegel can still be radio friendly, no matter the instrumentation. Although being on a smooth jazz oriented label like Native Language means there has to be a “hit single,” the keyboardist stuck to the integrity of the overall project by giving it what he calls an “old school CTI early 70s George Benson flavor.”

Siegel starts digging deep on “Mosaic,” whose dark and shadowy piano and sax textures rise coolly over the gentle rumble of bass and drums. The title track opens in a moody tone, then goes sunny with a spirited piano romp over aggressive high hat percussion and a bubbly bassline. Siegel contrasts this vibe with a breezy Vince Guaraldi sensibility on “Shades of Gray” (which features Grant Geissman on guitar). He can try all he wants to be gloomy, but at heart, Siegel is an optimistic romantic who has always had a great facility to write heart-tugging ballads. The emotional core of Departure is three songs in this vein: “From Here On Out,” “A World Away” and the elegant closer “Alone,” which includes Colaiuta’s restrained brushes and Sheppard’s soaring, lyrical sax.

For Siegel, introducing his built in smooth jazz audience an artsier side may incur a slight commercial risk, but in this current radio hit driven climate — where “cutting edge” means doing an album without generic cover songs — it’s easily one of the most inspired outings of the year. “Anytime you hire Vinnie or Brian, there’s going to be an element of brilliance that most smooth jazz today just doesn’t have,” he says. “This was a record I made out a desire to go in and play in a more organic way. Anytime you put an acoustic bass in there, it’s going to sound more classic, less modern and funky, a little sideways or taken down a notch. I’d like to pursue this kind of subtle ensemble thing in the future.”


The only possible frustration in Brian Simpson’s incredible emergence as a genre solo artist this year — which includes a #1 smooth jazz radio single with the title track from his Rendezvous Music debut It’s All Good — is that it should have happened over a decade ago. Back in 1995, the versatile keyboardist released the equally infectious Closer Still on Michael Paulo’s then thriving label Noteworthy Records. The disc was ahead of its time in two ways — it had an unmistakable urban flavor that would soon become the genre’s dominant vibe, and included a jamming cover (almost a requirement these days) of Janet Jackson’s “Because of Love,” an ode to his time briefly touring with the superstar.

In the intervening years, Simpson built up a ton of goodwill among genre fans as Dave Koz’s keyboardist and musical director. Even while building an incredible resume as a sideman (Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Larry Carlton, Gerald Albright), Simpson has always been working on demos of his own music. When Koz and two partners launched Rendezvous a few years ago, they liked what Simpson showed them and encouraged him to the point where his label debut would be chock full of potential hits.

The good news for fans into deeper music is that Simpson’s idol as a kid growing up in Chicago was Oscar Peterson. While he always adds a spunky sense of improvisation into his pop tunes, he balances airplay friendly tunes like “It’s All Good” and the follow-up single “Saturday Cool” with the contemplative “Blues for Scott” and the raucous, happy bebop-flavored jam “Au Contraire.”
“I have a unique style of writing, and since I’m a real jazz musician, listeners are going to hear a real jazz soloist, rather than just a nice melody and fancy production,” says Simpson, whose big band at Northern Illinois University once toured with Clark Terry. “I have to put a little meaty bebop into what I play because it’s the music I loved growing up. In this format, you sort of have to sneak it in, but it’s there for those who listen closely.

“Piano is a much harder instrument to write for than sax,” he adds, “but my songs play to its strengths, doing the melody with my right hand and comping or adding edgier chords with the left. Becoming a full-fledged solo artist has taken me a long time, but a radio hits works wonders. I play the first notes of ‘It’s All Good’ and fans start cheering. At Tokyo’s Blue Note, I was billed equally with Dave Koz and Kirk Whalum. Not only is it all good, it’s kind of unbelievable!”


PERSONAL TASTES

1) Jeanne Newhall, Wild Blue (Blix Street) – Bookending her gently beautiful and haunting originals with an ethereal take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and a graceful soft jazz take on “These Foolish Things,” the versatile, classically trained pianist and singer proves masterful in finding subtle ways to touch the heart.
2) The Matt Savage Trio, Quantum Leap (Savage Records)
3) Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, The Phat Pack (Immergent)
4) Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol)
5) Bill Cantos, Love Wins (GIC Productions)


NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

1) J Thompson, Inside World (AMH Records)
2) Patrick Yandall, Samoa Soul (Zangi Records)
3) Marilyn Scott, Innocent of Nothing (Prana Entertainment)
4) Jazzmasters V (Trippin N’ Rhythm)
5) Joyce Cooling, Revolving Door (Narada Jazz)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 1:20 PM

October 9, 2006

Contempo October 2006

WaymanTisdale_bw.jpgWayman Tisdale’s accolade-filled 12 year career as an NBA all-star for the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns worked wonders in preparing him for the one thing many smooth jazz stars take a while to get used to: adoring fans. The ever-jovial, always accommodating 6’9” bassist, who toured this past summer with labelmates Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler and Brian Simpson as part of the Rendezvous All-Stars Package, laughs when his colleagues seem tired after signing some 400 post-concert autographs.

“I can’t say that fast breaks and slam dunks have helped me make great albums or become a good live entertainer,” he says, “but when I was playing basketball, I’d be with my teammates and we would meet and sign T-shirts and basketballs for thousands of fans at a time at malls all over the place. When I sit down to write and record new music, I have no idea who’s going to be listening to it or if they’re going to be a fan. So I really cherish every person who takes the time to wait in line to meet me. Connecting with the audience never gets old for me.”

Judging from the response so far to his second Rendezvous disc Way Up!, those already sizeable crowds around the guy label co-owner Dave Koz affectionately calls “the Jolly Green Giant” are going to get even bigger. The album, which keeps Tisdale’s distinctive and plucky, high toned bass as the melodic lead throughout as he ensembles with Koz, Butler and genre stars Jeff Lorber, Bob James, Kirk Whalum, Tom Braxton and George Duke, was an instant #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart.

On the strength of the tour and the infectious first radio single, a playful cover of Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It” — which follows in the old school pop-funk spirit of his 2004 #1 airplay hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” — Way Up! scanned upwards of 8,000 CDs its first week, more than pop stars Jamie Foxx and Mariah Carey — truly amazing figures for smooth jazz these days.

“I think everyone is just responding to the overall vibe of the album, which is not just a nice feeling, but more like a state of being for me,” says Tisdale. “Wherever people are when they’re listening to it, I want them to feel good, way up and upbeat about life and think better about things afterwards. It’s been over ten years and six albums since my first project Power Forward, and I think the music reflects my feeling that I’m more comfortable with who I am now than ever before.

“I’m also excited that smooth jazz listeners are embracing the bass as a lead instrument, and I wish there were more bassists who would play it the way I do,” he adds. “I feel like I’m just following in the tradition of Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke in making it a viable melodic axe. I approach it not just rhythmically but melodically, as if it were a sax or a human voice. A great song is about telling a story you can sing along to, and that’s what I love to do.”

In addition to featuring titles reflecting the positive, forward thinking vibe of the album title (“It’s A Good Day,” for example), each track reflects a unique individual element of Tisdale’s life. He covers “Get Down On It” and Sly Stone’s “”If You Want Me To Stay” (taking a bluesy approach with the help of Kirk Whalum) not simply for commercial reasons, but because “I’m a real fan of real music. I like to think of myself as the self-appointed ambassador of old school!”

In this vein, he funks it up big time on George Duke’s “Tell It Like It Is,” mixing his bubbly bass, throbbing modern grooves, and splashes of brass amidst Duke’s 70s keyboard flavors. With the help of Jeff Lorber and Eric Benet, respectively, he shows love for his wife Regina and four children (ages 11 to 23) on the tenderhearted romantic gems “Shape Of Your Heart” and “Sweet Dreams.” Koz adds a graceful soprano touch to “My Son (A Song For Bubba),” another lush ballad that Tisdale dedicates to 15-year-old Wayman, Jr. (whose spoken words also appear on the song). Tisdale grew up in a Tulsa church led by his father, the Rev. Louis Tisdale, and faith plays a beautiful role in the expansive, soulful and beautifully ambient closing track “Sunday’s Best,” which features Butler’s soul stirring (as always) wordless vocals.

This blend of happy grooves and candlelight comes across with a huge smile onstage during every Tisdale performance, which sparks a party from the first few notes. Rather than be intimidated by his massive presence, his fellow musicians and fans riff on the physical differences and embrace him like an oversized, shaven head teddy bear. Considering his natural rapport these days with his adoring fans, and his incredible confidence both as a live performer and recording artist, it’s hard to believe that he was once what he calls “the shyest guy in the room,” turning away from the audience a la Miles.

“When I played with the Kings (1989-94), I had friends who had bands that would play around town and ask me to sit in and solo,” he says. “No matter how successful I was on the courts, I remember that I couldn’t even face the audience the first times I played because I was so nervous they wouldn’t like me. But when everyone started responding and asking for more, it got easier. I learned a lot from those Sacramento musicians, and the confidence grew with more experience and time onstage. About five years ago, I really started focusing on what it takes to become a good entertainer. Once I got more comfortable with my axe, that became a given, secondary to the showmanship. The bottom line in smooth jazz is that you can play a million notes on an instrument but if the audience is not entertained, you haven’t done your job. It’s about getting up there and keeping everyone’s spirits way up!”


This past year, “covermania” has taken over the smooth jazz airwaves, with many top artists devoting whole projects exclusively to new approaches to pop hits — Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun, Eric Marienthal and Philippe Saisse, to name a few. Fans getting a bit fed up with the trend might view Peter White’s instantly likeable Playing Favorites (Sony Legacy) as just another jump on the bandwagon, but he was actually on the case 12 years ago — long before the craze started. Two of the incredible 13 #1 Radio & Records airplay hits he’s enjoyed over the years, “The Closer I Get To You” and “Walk On By” (from 1994’s Reflections), have become enduring staples of the format. The acoustic guitarist’s recent rediscovery of the original demos from that hit project sparked his interest in creating a whole new project in this vein. As he did with his 2001 hit “Who’s That Lady?”, he sets out to mine the deeper romance and soul of songs from the past four decades that we all know from their first notes. “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” is the first radio hit, but White seems most inspired on colorful arrangements of “Sunny,” “Hit The Road Jack” (which features voices and cool fingersnaps) and the best track, a brassy, flute spiced take on “Mister Magic,” which was arranged by Paul Brown.


Personal Tastes

1) Tiba, Jukebox Baby (Fynsworth Alley) – This stylish and sexy young singer, who grew up listening to hits of the 40s and 50s on her parents’ Wurlitzer 1015 jukebox, shows a natural gift for mining the great joy, humor, romance and cabaret potential in spirited arrangements of standards and early pop hits, most effectively on the sizzling, Latin-spiced “Sway” and the big band flavored “Tuxedo Junction.”
2) Nancy Wilson, Turned To Blue (MCG)
3) Mike Stern, Who Let The Cats Out? (Heads Up)
4) Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, The Phat Pack (Immergent)
5) Regina Carter, I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)


New and Noteworthy

1) Glenn Jones, Forever: Timeless R&B Classics (Shanachie)
2) Fourplay, Ten (RCA Victor)
3) Doc Powell, Doc Powell (Heads Up)
4) Lee Ritenour, Smoke ‘N Mirrors (Peak)
5) Soul Providers, Smooth Urban Grooves (Fast Life)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:37 PM

September 3, 2006

Contempo September 2006

EveretteHarp_LB2006.jpgTrue to the title concept of his debut album on Shanachie, saxophonist Everette Harp has passionately dedicated himself to blowing heavily In The Moment since his first self-titled, George Duke-produced disc came out on Blue Note in 1992. His robust, urgent voice is still a solid part of the smooth jazz landscape, but like so many of his peers, he’s no longer creating those magic moments with the marketing power of a major label behind him.

Back in the early days of the genre, before the New Adult Contemporary format was officially dubbed “smooth jazz,” majors — inspired partly by the enormous success of gold and platinum selling artists like Kenny G and Najee — would cultivate new saxmen for their unique sound and give them a hefty budget and full autonomy over their tracks. The more successful the format became over the years, however, the more it began stressing the importance of airplay singles — and, according to Harp, the artist’s identity became secondary to the need for instant hits. Record companies who were once the groundbreakers and tastemakers were suddenly taking dictation from radio stations, and musical creativity became secondary to scoring that next #1 single.

As a result of the shifting landscape, majors these days are largely out of the smooth jazz game, and veterans like Everette Harp, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Najee and Richard Elliot have all found healthy homes on independent labels. Before landing at Shanachie — which helped make In The Moment Harp’s very first disc to debut at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart — the saxman had to endure the struggle of watching his previous effort, the solid All For You, get lost in the tumble of the once thriving A440 Music.

“The biggest change that has occurred with the rise of indie labels is that there are so many more artists out there vying for airplay and chart space,” says Harp. “It seems like everyone can put out a record now, and the most important thing is that they play a nice melody. In the early days of smooth jazz, and even in the heyday of jazz fusion, everyone who put out an album was a solid artist with the potential to endure. Companies would only sign viable players with a distinct vibe. That fit me perfectly because in the mix with the pop songs I write I always like to stay away from the norm and play hard. Now, labels will sometimes put out artists who simply emulate the sound that radio wants. So things get a bit diluted.”

Harp seems to have found the best of both worlds at Shanachie, which actually had its eye on him as a potential artist for their roster even as A440 was folding. “They’re really a well-oiled machine, and they knew from the start what they wanted to do with me,” he says. “They approached me and told me they didn’t just want one hit record and out, but were committed to me for the long haul. The fact that I debuted at #1 speaks volumes. They put their money where their promises were.”

Still mindful of what today’s marketplace demands, Harp chose Rex Rideout to help him keep his sometimes overly artsy tendencies in check. Rideout, a proven genre hitmaker with credits that include Gerald Albright, Najee, Richard Elliot and Boney James, produced one cut on All For You. This time, Harp used him as a sounding board throughout and he co-produced six cuts, including the gospel blues explosion “Holla” (with Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar), the sweet seduction “Just As You Are,” and the sizzling and brassy, throbbing retro blues track “No Bout A Doubt It.” Harp trusted his own instincts and produced the track that became In the Moment’s first single, “Monday Speaks,” which was written by labelmate Chuck Loeb and features Norman Brown.

“Rex is musical enough so that he doesn’t handcuff me, but if I got self-indulgent on a solo at any point, he’d kindly sway me back to reality,” Harp says. “Because this album marks another new beginning for me, I wanted to make some changes in my writing and production approach, and Rex was the first person I thought of to help me get to the next level. On the personal side, I just love his vibe, and he’s a great guy and an extraordinary musician. I knew we were onto something when we wrote four songs in the first four days we hung out together!”

Harp has an easy answer for the logical question of why he stays in the game when such a corporate, cookie cutter mentality has largely taken over for the true fostering of creativity that existed when he began his solo career 14 years ago. “The romantic answer for me and my fellow artists is, that’s what we do,” he says. “We each have an audience who loves what we do and supports us. It becomes like a drug you want more of. For me, it’s just so incredible to get out there and play for the fans, knowing some of the personal stories about how my music has impacted their lives. Playing the sax is a God given ability, and nothing can really interfere with the joy of just doing everything I can to express gratitude for the gift.”


British born neo-soul influenced guitarist Chris Standring is another smooth jazz artist newly signed to an indie label (Trippin’ N Rhythm) who perfectly balances radio friendliness and a more trad jazz expressiveness on the eminently listenable Soul Express. While he produced ten of the slightly chill oriented light funk tracks with his longtime partner, old school groove keyboardist Rodney Lee, Standring turned to the genre’s premiere hitmaking producer, Paul Brown, for assistance on the sensual, catchy and sweetly atmospheric mid-tempo tune which became the obvious first single, “I Can’t Help Myself.”

“Artists can get self-indulgent and guys like Paul know where we have to stop,” says the guitarist. “I brought him the song and he told me to keep the track but rewrite the melody, especially the chorus, and it worked. Aside from pushing me to write a catchier tune, he’s brilliant in the mixing room. He’s good at understanding simplicity and what a song needs. He’s a bridge between the artist and the listener.”

While Soul Express — also the name of his packaged touring group with Jeff Lorber and singer Jody Watley - is chock full of shimmering tracks in this vein, Standring goes slightly bop with his crisp improvisational playing on the final two tracks, the Booker T flavored “Shooting Stars” and especially “Giant Steps,” a Coltrane standard which keeps the familiar solo section but includes reharmonized verses. Standring always loved Pat Metheny’s bossa version, and here achieves the definitive electronica take.

“With smooth jazz radio being so conservative these days, it’s not always an easy climate to make a fresh recording in,” he says. “It’s interesting that chill is now so popular because my first album Velvet in 1998 had that very European vibe to it. The key for me has always been to make music I enjoy playing and making the best record I can in a way that’s true to myself.”


Personal Tastes

1) Angelyna Martinez, Labor of Love (Mexiscott Music) – This San Antonio native has been dubbed the “Gwen Stefani of Jazz” for her unique, sexy and breathy vocal stylings, which weave a sensuous magic on sparse trio arrangements of Billie Holliday chestnuts and add explosive new energy to “Route 66” and a scorching big band arrangement (with scat galore) of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
2) Merle Jagger, Rancho Los Angeles (LPJ Records)
3) John Pizzarelli/The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc)
4) Jim Self, Innerplay (Basset Hound Records)
5) Jon Faddis, Teranga (Koch Records)


New and Noteworthy

1) Greg Vail, The Gospel Truth Revisited (Greg Vail Music)
2) Jack Prybylski, Window Shopping (SuShan Music)
3) Bill Cantos, Love Wins (GIC Productions)
4) Andy Snitzer, Some Quiet Place (Native Language)
5) Tiba, Jukebox Baby (Fynsworth Alley)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 9:44 PM

August 9, 2006

Contempo August 2006

MartinTaylor.jpgAnytime someone asks Martin Taylor about the happy stylistic schizophrenia that has defined his dual careers as a sideman and solo artist, he whips out a classic anecdote given to him by legendary drummer Max Roach. Some years ago, Roach told the veteran British guitarist about a moment in Charlie Parker’s storied life when rabid fans followed the saxophonist after hours from a club where he played to a bar down the street.

They watched Bird — the standard setter of bebop for multiple generations — stroll over to the jukebox and select (are you kidding?) a Hank Williams tune. “Max said that Bird turned around and told his admirers that he really loved country music, and wasn’t going to apologize for it,” says Taylor. “It inspired me to realize that even the masters like him never limited their tastes in any way. “I’m always astonished by people of narrow minds who look down on other forms of music they think of as unsophisticated. What the so-called ‘purists’ don’t understand is that jazz came about through a mixture of people and cultures and music. It’s a mélange of different things. Narrow minds could not have created the art form as we know it.”

That may be one way to explain how Taylor, over the past three decades, could tour the world and play on some twenty albums by violin master Stephane Grapelli — whose band the guitarist joined at 20 - then turn around and record spirited but much lighter weight covers of 70s pop hits like “Midnight At The Oasis” and “That’s The Way Of The World.” The kid inspired by Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Fats Waller has made peppy, virtuoso recordings in the image of his first hero, Django Reinhart, while also finding the trio jazz heart of the theme from “The Odd Couple.”

Taylor also toured for years on and off with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, then created a graceful solo rendition of “Tennessee Waltz” as a tribute to another influence, Chet Atkins. That was on his gentle hearted 2002 disc Solo, an interesting follow-up choice considering all the attention he got from the smooth jazz community after two major label releases on Columbia, Kiss And Tell (1999) and Nite Life (2001), both of which featured Kirk Whalum on sax.

The Best Of Martin Taylor, a dual CD package from The Guitar Label featuring 26 favorites handpicked by the artist himself, is a great place for the uninitiated guitar fan to experience his joyful, impossible to pigeonhole magic. It draws from a decade of popular international recordings on the UK based Linn Records, those two Columbia crossover discs, and his work over the past few years, which includes 2004’s The Valley. Since the late 70s, he’s played in many groups, used strings, and done a great deal of solo work in addition to numerous duets; a taste of each vibe is included.

Perhaps to draw newcomers (and smooth jazz fans) in quickly, Disc One begins with his soulful, ambient rendition of the Earth, Wind & Fire classic — a tune he believes sums up his playing to a tee. The next five tracks — several of which feature Whalum’s always emotional sax — are smooth sailing from his Columbia discs as well, but it’s fun to go even deeper and hear what he can do with his just guitar; the elegant “True” and hypnotic meditation “The Valley” are unadorned melodic masterpieces. Disc Two ushers in his more traditional jazz side, highlighted by a speedy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” his slow, string enhanced trio burn on “The Odd Couple,” the Django infused “Undecided” (featuring vocalist Claire Martin and Stephane Grappelli) and the samba-lite “Nuages.”

If you’re a U.S. based jazz fan and have never heard of him, trust the judgment of your peers throughout Europe (he lives in Scotland and France), Australia and Japan, who have been seeing him perform for years as he embarks on up to 100 live dates each year. In the U.S. and Canada, he has done a few jazz festivals, but he is most renowned by true guitar aficionados at acoustic music festivals that incorporate all kinds of music.

“The reason I’m more well known in some places on the guitar circuit than in jazz circles is that, for all the wonderful collaborators I have had, my bread and butter is playing solo guitar,” Taylor says. “I only have one way of playing, one sound, one voice, but I like to put that voice in different settings. Sony saw the work I did on the two albums I did for them as smooth jazz, but I don’t consider myself a smooth jazz artist, even if my focus on melody makes this a natural fit. Breaking in with and learning from Stephane, then overcoming my fear to do my first ever solo gig in 1985, I really focused on listening to the way others play, then developing my own style. But that doesn’t just come from nowhere. It comes from growing up with Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Joe Pass.

“As for ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ and the Earth, Wind & Fire cover, look, I was born in 1956, not 1926 and I remember the first time I heard that song and considered its melodic possibilities,” he says. “I grew up listening to pop music as well, and couldn’t just ignore it. I enjoy edgy jazz and classical guitar, too. I just don’t believe in limiting myself. But because of the diversity, I think if I’ve contributed anything to the musical realm over the course of my career, it’s my solo guitar playing. That’s’ really the core of what I do.”


In an age when so many artists are tailoring every composition to accommodate the narrowminded gods of airplay, percussionist Gumbi Ortiz — a 19 year vet of fusion master Al Di Meola’s band — perfectly defines the playfully genre-busting spirit of indie musicmaking on his festive, action-packed debut Miami (fashioned as a tribute to the New York native’s adopted home state). Sure, there are moments of picture perfect smooth jazz cool, typified by the Jeff Lorber composed “T-Back,” featuring Eric Marienthal, and the moody, seductive Spyro Gyra flavored “In The Groove” with Jay Beckenstein. But along the way are much more colorful free form jazz jams (look at Ortiz and Dave Weckl go at it on the frenetic interlude “Rush Hour Jam” and the easy Latin swing of “Amnesia”), some tasty samba excursions, a touch of retro-soul and even a touch of gospel. You’ve just got to admire a solo debut audacious enough to mix Lorber-controlled slickness with the wild, mindbending insanity of “Calle 8cho.” Other key contributors include Brandon Fields (on both sax and flute), flugelhornist Walt Fowler, keyboardist Rachel Z and the other Spyro Gyra guys (Scott Ambush, Joel Rosenblatt). By the time you’re done “Cruisin’ Collins” (the sensual closing track), you’ll know you’ve been on the year’s most ambitious musical excursion. If only more artists would take risks like this!


What I’m Listening To:

1) Phillippe Saisse Trio, The Body And Soul Sessions (Rendezvous) — Smooth Jazz’s pop cover craze finally elevates to a higher artistic plane on this irresistible date by one of the genre’s most inventive keyboardists. Jamming on a mix of some very familiar and gleefully obscure tunes with acoustic bassist David Finck and drummer Scooter Warner, Saisse sways away from his usual circus of sonic textures and jams to his (and our) heart’s delight on acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes.
2) Michael Franks, Rendezvous in Rio (Koch Records)
3) Regina Carter, I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)
4) Lisa B, What’s New, Pussycat? (Piece of Pie Records)
5) The Royal Dan: A Tribute (Tone Center)


New and Noteworthy

1) Chris Standring, Soul Express (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
2) Dan Siegel, Departure (Native Language)
3) David Benoit, Full Circle (Peak Records)
4) Sahnas, Romanza (Moondo/Native Language)
5) The Very Best of Tom Scott (GRP)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:22 PM

July 3, 2006

Contempo July 2006

Maysa-4.jpgOver the past year, a handful of veteran smooth jazz stars turned the concept of old school and contemporary soul cover songs into a small but hard to miss cottage industry. Leading the pack were Richard Elliot and Rick Braun, who launched their own ARTizen Music label with the monster radio hits “People Make The World Go Round” (Elliot) and “Shining Star” (Braun). Kirk Whalum paid homage to a more recent soul legend on his Rendezvous Music debut, Performs The Babyface Songbook, while Kim Waters (on All For Love) took a dreamy, ambient approach to Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming” with a great assist from the rich and smoky vocals of Maysa.

Inspired by this session, Maysa — a self-described “Underground Diva” best known to genre audiences for her decade of contributions to British neo soul/acid jazz ensemble Incognito - asked herself why these sensuous dips into retro-romance were always done by the boys. Given the green light by Waters’ label Shanachie to offer the feminine perspective, she began plowing through hundreds of songs that inspired her growing up. Her all-time fantasy top ten list translates effortlessly to her label debut, the mostly easy grooving, but sometimes surprisingly swinging and jazzy, Sweet Classic Soul.

Maysa’s mix of very familiar and obscure songs were popularized by artists who need only one name to inspire warm flashbacks — Stevie, Chaka, Teddy (“Come Go With Me”) and Barry (“Playing Your Game, Baby”), in addition to tracks originated by The Stylistics (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Love Comes Easy”), Major Harris (“Love Won’t Let Me Wait”) and Rose Royce (whose “Wishing On A Star” Maysa chooses to launch the listener friendly set). But the singer didn’t set out to just do a nice mix of favorite tunes. Feminists, listen up. Underneath that cool vibe, Maysa — whose four previous solo albums have all touched on issues of raising self-esteem — had a role-reversing agenda.

“I wanted this to be a lady’s mackin’ record, pure and simple,” she says unabashedly. “It’s time we stopped waiting around for the guys to ask us out and took the romantic initiative, which includes setting the mood with our favorite R&B songs. I want women everywhere to be inspired here, but I also admit I did it for myself because I’m out there looking for a husband, too. What’s wrong with girls seducing guys? The fun part was, even though I close the set with songs by Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack, two of the greatest female singers ever, overall I wanted to do men’s songs that nobody would expect a woman to even try.”

Khan and Rufus’ “Any Love” and Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” are by design buried beneath the boy-oriented stuff, but it’s telling that they are Maysa’s greatest artistic triumphs here. Growing up in Baltimore, she learned how to scat not from Ella Fitzgerald (the standard female response) but by listening to and analyzing instrumental solos by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. After wailing powerfully through the discofied thump of “Any Love” for a few minutes, Maysa engages in an inventive scat improvisation — a moment unlike any other on the disc that simply doesn’t last long enough.

She pays haunting homage to Flack on a version that begins with simple piano harmonies and orchestral flavoring. Boding well for Maysa’s potential to do more serious straight ahead jazz projects, the track evolves into a tender trio arrangement, with all instruments performed by project producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. It’s no surprise that this is Maysa’s self-admitted favorite track on the album; she’s long credited Flack for helping her develop her own sense of phrasing and tone. She also has a personal connection to Stevie Wonder that inspired the funky justice she does to his rollicking “All I Do.” Maysa met him when she was a senior at Morgan State University; upon graduating, she moved out to Los Angeles to be part of the legendary artist’s background vocal group Wonderlove throughout 1991 and 1992.

“I really wanted ‘All I Do’ to mean something, but also to get people on the dance floor,” she says. “He was so strong politically, and his lyrics had the power to induce change. Even though I don’t have the professional connection to the other artists, there are stories behind the reasons I chose them. I first heard The Isley Brothers (“Don’t Say Goodnight”) when I was teaching myself to sing, and they inspired me to want to sound sexy. I’m just trying to be honest here, paying full respect to the artists and writers by doing their songs in my own unique way, but without writing my own stuff on top of it or going on tangents just to be clever.”

Although Maysa has been touring extensively this year with Incognito, there’s no doubt that Sweet Classic Soul goes a long way to helping her further establish an identity apart from the vision of Incognito frontman Bluey Maunick. She’s also currently seeking grants for a proposed educational concert tour she calls “Revenge Of The Underground Divas,” which is designed to teach young singers about the realities of the music business; already signed up are Lalah Hathaway, Ledesi, Caron Wheeler and N’Dea Davenport.

“I think if singers like us had started our careers in the 70s, we’d be on a whole other level, because what we do now was the Top 40 music of the time,” Maysa says. “I just want to remind people of how they felt when they first heard these great songs. In those days, the vibe was, the more musicians in the band, the better. Musicians were allowed to create with each other in the days before everything became so producer driven. It was a time when souls were communicating through music, and it’s nice to revisit that place while giving a glimpse of this deeply personal side of myself.”


In a 2002 review of Steve Oliver’s second recording Positive Energy, I used this space to declare: “With apologies to Disneyland, wherever he is, wherever he’s playing transforms into the happiest place on earth.” Four years, two discs and hundreds of live shows (and smooth jazz cruises) later, it’s great to see that the guitarist and vocalist (sometimes he sings, sometimes he uses breezy “vocalese”) is still as chipper and lighthearted as ever. The title of his second Koch Records CD says it all: he’s downright Radiant. While he invited big guns like Eric Marienthal and Harvey Mason to the show on 2004’s 3-D, here he strips down to a pretty simple production approach — working for the most part with Michael Broening, who produced Marion Meadows’ last two projects - that gives more space to his immediately identifiable nylon strings and voice. It’s hard not to feel the essence of the album concept with perfectly titled tracks like “Feeling Good,” “Tradewinds,” and the Latin-spiced fusion gem “Good To Go.” And while he’s done covers in the past, his takes on “Midnight At The Oasis” and “Imagine” were not as memorable as his rich, soulful “Oliverization” of Stephen Stills’ Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth.” In the midst of all the jubilation and tender romance, the track comes across like stopping for a taste of social consciousness while standing in line for the next car at Space Mountain.


What I’m Listening To:

1) Donald Fagen, Morph The Cat (Reprise) - Amidst all the passing trends in pop music, it’s nice that every decade or so we can count on a brilliant solo project from the Steely Dan singer that features the same classic, brassy pop-soul-jazz the band was poppin’ in the 70s. The expansive musical frameworks allow for a lot of cool, jazzy jamming that makes this another brilliant effort.
2) David Garfield & Friends, A Tribute To Jeff (Revisited) (Creatchy)
3) Barry Manilow, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (Arista)
4) Erin Boheme, What Love Is (Concord Jazz)
5) Taylor Eigsti, Lucky To Be Me (Concord Jazz)

New and Noteworthy

1) Pamela Williams, Elixir (Shanachie)
2) Matt Marshak, Groovosphere (Nuance Music Group)
3) Steve Briody, Keep On Talkin’ (215 Records)
4) Marion Meadows, Dressed To Chill (Heads Up)
5) Nelson Rangell, Soul To Souls (Koch Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:45 PM

June 4, 2006

Contempo June 2006

Picture098.jpgOver the past year, a handful of veteran smooth jazz stars turned the concept of old school and contemporary soul cover songs into a small but hard to miss cottage industry. Leading the pack were Richard Elliot and Rick Braun, who launched their own ARTizen Music label with the monster radio hits “People Make The World Go Round” (Elliot) and “Shining Star” (Braun). Kirk Whalum paid homage to a more recent soul legend on his Rendezvous Music debut, Performs The Babyface Songbook, while Kim Waters (on All For Love) took a dreamy, ambient approach to Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming” with a great assist from the rich and smoky vocals of Maysa.

Inspired by this session, Maysa — a self-described “Underground Diva” best known to genre audiences for her decade of contributions to British neo soul/acid jazz ensemble Incognito - asked herself why these sensuous dips into retro-romance were always done by the boys. Given the green light by Waters’ label Shanachie to offer the feminine perspective, she began plowing through hundreds of songs that inspired her growing up. Her all-time fantasy top ten list translates effortlessly to her label debut, the mostly easy grooving, but sometimes surprisingly swinging and jazzy, Sweet Classic Soul.

Maysa’s mix of very familiar and obscure songs were popularized by artists who need only one name to inspire warm flashbacks — Stevie, Chaka, Teddy (“Come Go With Me”) and Barry (“Playing Your Game, Baby”), in addition to tracks originated by The Stylistics (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Love Comes Easy”), Major Harris (“Love Won’t Let Me Wait”) and Rose Royce (whose “Wishing On A Star” Maysa chooses to launch the listener friendly set). But the singer didn’t set out to just do a nice mix of favorite tunes. Feminists, listen up. Underneath that cool vibe, Maysa — whose four previous solo albums have all touched on issues of raising self-esteem — had a role-reversing agenda.

“I wanted this to be a lady’s mackin’ record, pure and simple,” she says unabashedly. “It’s time we stopped waiting around for the guys to ask us out and took the romantic initiative, which includes setting the mood with our favorite R&B songs. I want women everywhere to be inspired here, but I also admit I did it for myself because I’m out there looking for a husband, too. What’s wrong with girls seducing guys? The fun part was, even though I close the set with songs by Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack, two of the greatest female singers ever, overall I wanted to do men’s songs that nobody would expect a woman to even try.”

Khan and Rufus’ “Any Love” and Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” are by design buried beneath the boy-oriented stuff, but it’s telling that they are Maysa’s greatest artistic triumphs here. Growing up in Baltimore, she learned how to scat not from Ella Fitzgerald (the standard female response) but by listening to and analyzing instrumental solos by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. After wailing powerfully through the discofied thump of “Any Love” for a few minutes, Maysa engages in an inventive scat improvisation — a moment unlike any other on the disc that simply doesn’t last long enough.

She pays haunting homage to Flack on a version that begins with simple piano harmonies and orchestral flavoring. Boding well for Maysa’s potential to do more serious straight ahead jazz projects, the track evolves into a tender trio arrangement, with all instruments performed by project producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. It’s no surprise that this is Maysa’s self-admitted favorite track on the album; she’s long credited Flack for helping her develop her own sense of phrasing and tone. She also has a personal connection to Stevie Wonder that inspired the funky justice she does to his rollicking “All I Do.” Maysa met him when she was a senior at Morgan State University; upon graduating, she moved out to Los Angeles to be part of the legendary artist’s background vocal group Wonderlove throughout 1991 and 1992.

“I really wanted ‘All I Do’ to mean something, but also to get people on the dance floor,” she says. “He was so strong politically, and his lyrics had the power to induce change. Even though I don’t have the professional connection to the other artists, there are stories behind the reasons I chose them. I first heard The Isley Brothers (“Don’t Say Goodnight”) when I was teaching myself to sing, and they inspired me to want to sound sexy. I’m just trying to be honest here, paying full respect to the artists and writers by doing their songs in my own unique way, but without writing my own stuff on top of it or going on tangents just to be clever.”

Although Maysa has been touring extensively this year with Incognito, there’s no doubt that Sweet Classic Soul goes a long way to helping her further establish an identity apart from the vision of Incognito frontman Bluey Maunick. She’s also currently seeking grants for a proposed educational concert tour she calls “Revenge Of The Underground Divas,” which is designed to teach young singers about the realities of the music business; already signed up are Lalah Hathaway, Ledesi, Caron Wheeler and N’Dea Davenport.

“I think if singers like us had started our careers in the 70s, we’d be on a whole other level, because what we do now was the Top 40 music of the time,” Maysa says. “I just want to remind people of how they felt when they first heard these great songs. In those days, the vibe was, the more musicians in the band, the better. Musicians were allowed to create with each other in the days before everything became so producer driven. It was a time when souls were communicating through music, and it’s nice to revisit that place while giving a glimpse of this deeply personal side of myself.”


Veteran saxman Gerald Albright has himself been going retro these past few years as a member of the ongoing "Groovin’ For Grover" touring phenomenon. On his Peak Records debut New Beginnings, he extends his passion for old school to the disco era with “And The Beat Goes On,” a lively and danceable reworking of The Whispers’ hit featuring original group members Walter and Scotty Scott. While that track and his first studio recording of his longtime, blistering live show trademark “Georgia On My Mind” take us back, Albright’s mostly celebrating the present and future on a collection that’s one of the genre’s best so far of 2006.

The fresh energy he brings to the bold, pop-blues meets gospel collection speaks of the optimism of his new relationship with Peak (after many years on Atlantic and a few on GRP) and a new development deal with Cannonball Musical Instruments, for whom he’s developed a popular alto and tenor sax line. Albright, whose longtime association with Phil Collins took him last year to exotic locales in Europe and the Middle East, is also boasting a whole new outlook on life driven by his family’s move early last year from chaotic Los Angeles to the more peaceful environs of Castle Rock, Colorado. Despite the changes, he’s at his best when finding fresh musical paths while working with familiar faces like Jeff Lorber (his Grover touring mate, who helped him score three previous #1 radio singles), longtime Atlantic labelmate Chuckii Booker and R&B/smooth jazz megaproducer Rex Rideout.


Personal Tastes

1) Steve Tyrell, The Disney Standards (Walt Disney Records) – The veteran pop producer and warm, gravel voiced standards singer tackles the (mostly) instantly familiar Happiest Songs on Earth with engaging, jazzy and gently swinging arrangements of Disney film classics past and present. Included on this joyful E-Ticket is a duet with Dr. John and appearances by Chris Botti and Dave Koz.
2) Sergio Mendes, Timeless (HearMusic/Concord)
3) The Veronicas, The Secret Life Of The Veronicas (Sire)
4) The East Village Opera Company (Decca)
5) Andrea Bocelli, Amore (Decca)

New And Noteworthy

1. Steve Oliver, Radiant (Koch)
2. Eric Darius, Just Getting Started (Narada)
3. Rendezvous Lounge 2 (Rendezvous Music)
4. Randy Jacobs, From Me To You (Bad Monkey)
5. Larkin McLean, X-Rated Musical (Best Day Ever Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:35 PM

May 8, 2006

Contempo May 2006

willie_lobo.jpgTrue to the title of their latest seductively swaying, exotic Narada Jazz excursion Zambra - a gypsy term alternately meaning “gathering of musical merriment” or a dance done by the women of Spain - Willie & Lobo were world class travelers long before they met in the early 80s on the beaches and in the cantinas of San Miguel De Allende, Mexico.

The son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel, El Paso born violinist Willie Royal had the gypsy in his soul by default, raised in such locales as Turkey, Germany, France and Florida (where he now lives). Later, on his own, he experienced a wild mix of cultures living and playing music everywhere from Amsterdam (where, remarkably, he met many refugees from Argentina), Brazil and Canada.

Meanwhile, Bavarian born guitarist Wolfgang “Lobo” Fink cultivated his own wanderlust as a signalman in the German Navy, and, inspired by gypsy guitarist Manitas de Plata, lived at different times in a gypsy camp in Southern France and later, the famous caves of Sacromonte in Granada, Spain. The sounds and rhythms he picked up from real live gypsies have played a part in the duo’s success story since the early 90s, when they first hit the charts with Gypsy Boogaloo.

“When I wanted to know where the sounds came from,” Lobo says from his home in a fishing village outside Puerto Vallarta. “I went right to the source. I came out of those caves able to walk and talk gypsy music. Later, when I met Willie, it became a sound steeped in Mexico where we met but which touched on every place we’d ever been.”

From Dunedin, Florida, Willie adds, “My roots are in American rock, country and bluegrass, but living in an Ankaran village for two years, South America, Mexico and Amsterdam played a huge part in expanding my musical universe and making me who I am today. You can be influenced by artists you hear from wherever, but to really play it, you have to live it. If you want to play Brazilian music, you have to feel the rhythms of the place and experience the waves on the beach of Ipanema. To truly feel and play an expansive, emotional Arabic flavored song like ‘Zambra,’ you have to have visited mosques in Turkey and Iran and feel the passion and haunting sadness of thousands of years of history.”

Last year, at about the time Willie & Lobo were scheduled for their first recording session for Zambra, the U.S. had its own major tragedy, and the duo literally flew over the devastated Gulf Coast on their way west to record at Rick Braun’s Brauntosoarus Studios. Braun, producing his fifth overall project for the duo - both artists launched their careers around the same time on Mesa Bluemoon Records - did the actual composing of the haunting yet somehow hopeful tribute “Balada Para Katrina,” but seeing the enormity of it from the sky inspired Willie & Lobo to reach some of their deepest emotional terrain ever. Aside from giving the usually frenetic Royal a chance to display a deeper sense of artistry that draws from his classical background, the track features Braun playing a beautiful piano accompaniment.

While this track is the emotional core of Zambra, fans of the trademark, slow grooving W&L style will be more than satisfied with the graceful breezes of the opening track “Donde Vayo,” whose hypnotic melody is enhanced by Royal’s powerful distant chanting and Braun’s Spanish flavored trumpeting. Braun and Brad Dutz keep the clicking percussion rolling on the soulful South of The Border flavored “Mama Mia” and dreamy, gently rolling “La Fortuna,” tunes which perfectly reflect the vibe of the cantinas Willie & Lobo once called home. Fans who know Royal strictly as a violin master will be pleasantly surprised by his turn on rhythm guitar throughout the moody ballad “Velas al Viento,” on which Braun blends his own soft wordless vocals and muted trumpet above the gently rolling bass-drum rhythms of Juan Estria (bass) and Miguel Volpe (drums).

“Working with Rick on the new album was a fantastic experience, it just felt right,” says Royal. “Besides having a total blast in the studio, he’s always inspiring us in new ways. The last few years after our album Manana, we actually felt a little creatively dry, but when Rick came on board, there was all this fresh energy and it was like the good old days when we first started and anything was possible. This is actually the fastest we ever recorded an album in our careers. The three of us just have an incredible camaraderie and bring out the best in each other, from the heartbreaks to the great romances of our life. What you hear is what we feel.”


jfeliciano2005.jpgThis year marks the 50th Anniversary of Jose Feliciano’s very first public performance, and in the continued celebration of the guitar legend’s genre busting, trend-defying career, he’s finally met decades of fan requests with the release of his first ever instrumental album Six String Lady. The melodically accessible but sharply intricate acoustic collection explores his lifelong love for the different styles he’s mastered, from classical to jazz and rock. Tracks like the punchy, sax-infused “Street Jazz” and the title tune would be welcome, adventurous additions to smooth jazz radio. On the artsier side, there are three pieces named after Segovia, and the project is dedicated to Feliciano’s mentor and lifelong inspiration.

“People have always seen me as a guitarist and singer, but vocals are always easier to latch onto, so I became known as a vocalist who would throw in a few instrumentals here and there,” says Feliciano, who claims to be the first guitarist to use the nylon string guitar, on his classic 1968 recording of “Light My Fire.” “I just felt it was time to come out with an all-instrumental work, to show other guitarists that I can stand in their league. Because in my mind, I’ve always felt I was a better guitarist than singer! I draw from everything that has defined me musically… jazz, rock, acoustic rock. I’ve been with my Six String Lady most of my life, and nothing’s going to stop me from showing more of what I can do with it.”

For more information about Six String Lady, please go to www.josefeliciano.com.


camjam_9294203222.gifFans who love the kind of mix of R&B and Latin jazz that classic bands like Malo, Tierra and War brewed in the 70s will love heading Back In The Day, the third disc by the 15 piece, horn driven ensemble Cintron. Led by veteran percussionist Edgardo Cintron and vocalist Rocco DePersia — also a producer and promoter with more than 350 Latin dances under his belt - the band presents an irresistible old school blend of soul, street corner a capella and salsa. Going deeper into the tracking will reveal some solid original songwriting, but the covers of classics like “Suavecito,” “Hey There Lonely Girl” and “Expressway To Your Heart” form the playful, emotional core of the project.


Personal Tastes

1) Grant Geissman, Say That! (Futurism Records) – The versatile guitarist waves adios to his smooth jazz days with this spirited, supremely cool yet frequently burning - and deeply melodic - straight-ahead jazz date straight out of the Wes Montgomery school. An explosive Wes tribute and an extended version of Geissman’s TV Theme “Two And A Half Men” are highlights.
2) John Legend, Get Lifted (Sony Urban Music/Columbia)
3) Jamie Foxx, Unpredictable (J Records)
4) Van Morrison, Pay The Devil (Lost Highway)
5) Peggy Lee Sings Lieber & Stoller (Hip-o Select/A&M)


New and Noteworthy

1) Victor Fields, Victor (Regina Records)
2) Pieces of a Dream, Pillow Talk (Heads Up)
3) Chris Standring, Soul Express (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
4) Nestor Torres, Dances, Prayers & Meditations for Peace (Heads Up)
5) Spyro Gyra, Wrapped in a Dream (Heads Up)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 3:22 PM

April 8, 2006

Contempo April 2006

JasonMiles2.jpgAnyone who’s ever wondered what the distinction is between a “tribute” and an “homage” need only ask Jason Miles, Grammy nominated keyboardist and producer who has become somewhat of an expert in the field over the past decade with his vibrant all-star refashionings of the music of Weather Report, Ivan Lins and Grover Washington, Jr. On last year’s Narada Jazz debut Miles To Miles, Miles applied a unique twist to the concept, creating new songs created in the image of his idol Miles Davis - whom he worked with as an up and coming keyboardist in the 80s — and based on their creative relationship.

“The more I hear typical tribute projects, the more I realize that most don’t do anything new to the music, they just do it straightforward and unimaginatively,” he says. “To me, an homage is what I’m trying to do, showing the exciting possibilities of the music. It’s about taking the familiar and turning them up a notch and doing the unexpected. It takes a lot of thought and experimentation, picking a set list and playing the tunes over and over till I find the right rhythm structure and vibe. I get so inside the music that literally every note the artist every played fills the house. I live and breathe them to the point of emotional exhaustion. On the Miles project, I went to many different places in my mind, light, dark, under and above ground. These artists lived their music, and to do them justice, I have to relive it as deeply as I can.”

Miles and Miles connected on another interesting level the last project neglected to hint at, but which Jason Miles fully explores on his beautifully rendered latest opus What’s Going On?: a deep love for the spirit and musical legacy of Marvin Gaye. The producer and keyboardist draws from a typically broad stylistic palette to bring out the deep emotion, joy and pain, romance and social consciousness of the brilliant yet tragic icon.

On the lesser-known “I Want You,” he taps into the Lins vibe with an electronica meets slow, sexy bossa caress around the soothing vocals of Chiara Civello. “Sexual Healing” is Gaye’s parting hit from 1982, but Dean Brown’s crackling, cool guitars — which sail over a trippy atmosphere which includes Moog Bass - give it a retro feel that goes back a decade further. Though the packaging will no doubt include the typically brilliant all-star names Miles projects are famous for — including Herb Alpert (who carries the lead melody on “Let’s Get It On”), Marcus Miller (whose feisty basslines take “Heavy Love Affair” to a deeper level beyond the hypnotic, oft-repeated chorus), Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein and Scott Ambush, and Bobby Caldwell — it’s the producer’s work with his lesser known charges which really stands out.

Chief among these is vocalist Mike Mattison; smooth jazz fans have long enjoyed the anthemic title song as the encore of guitarist Peter White’s shows, but Miles’ soothing atmospheres and Mattison’s gritty vocals add a crisp urgency.

Which seems to be the point — Miles isn’t simply revisiting a beloved icon, he’s using the project as a vehicle to advocate all the ideals Gaye stood for in his time. “There’s an incredible endurance to his music because of what his life was, the emotion he had in reflecting the world around him,” he says. “It’s incredible to watch his spiritual growth from these ultra-romantic songs like ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ to ‘What’s Going On?’ An artist has to live through things to evolve like this. So here was this guy from the Motown camp singing sweet love songs, and then emerging as a voice of social consciousness.

“Look at where we are thirtysome years later,” Miles adds. “He sang about the ecology then, and now we have the spectre of global warming. He sang about Vietnam, and now we have Iraq. The government’s response to Hurricane Katrina revealed the same sort of social inequities we had then… the parallels go on and on. But even deeper than all that is the fact that people are still out there, looking for love but not finding it. Even though it’s embedded in a generally upbeat love song, ‘Heavy Love Affair,’ I really connected with the power of this one line: ‘Lots of ladies love me, but it’s still a lonely town.’ That just blows me away. Even when he was being light, he was going deep. That’s a trait I try to emulate, not just scratching the surface of the music, but getting intimate and uncovering the underlying emotion.”

Miles spent the last year dividing his time between the Gaye collection (a logistical challenge, like all other all-star affairs) and helming an upcoming project by Suzy Boguss, which he calls a “mix of an NY groove and Nashville vibe.” The ever-spinning, high concept wheels in his mind are also quickly developing ways to explore a new concept he came up with while mining Marvin: Mo’chill, which will bring the much needed melodic Motown touch to today’s burgeoning chill movement.

“I’ve had the incredible pleasure of working with some of the greatest musicians, artists and producers of all time, from Tommy LiPuma and Luther Vandross, to Michael Brecker, Herbie Mann and Gato Barbieri,” Miles says. “I got to see these masters working their craft and bringing their art to the next level. The smart guy in my position pays attention to all that, and absorbs every moment. From these masters, I learned not only how to produce records, but to make great albums which will stand the test of time.”

Miles is one of a growing roster of smooth jazz artists at Milwaukee-based Narada Jazz, an increasingly exciting slate that includes veterans Jeff Golub, Euge Groove, Urban Knights (and its founder Ramsey Lewis), Alex Bugnon, Down To The Bone, Joyce Cooling, Steve Cole, Warren Hill, Bob Baldwin, Incognito and Jeff Lorber. The label, which began life in the 80s as a new age powerhouse, is to smooth jazz in the current decade what GRP was in the early 90s and Windham Hill Jazz was a few years later — a one stop shop for the hippest sounds in the genre.

Two newly inked artists with fresh discs just released represent the vibrant and energetic future of the genre. 23-year-old saxman Eric Darius has been such an explosive presence on radio and at festivals over the past two years, that it’s easy to forget, as the title of his Narada Jazz debut reminds us, he’s Just Getting Started. Nothing on disc could quite compare to the heart-pounding, racing around the room joyful madness of his live shows, but sizzling funk tracks like “Steppin’ Up” and “Groove On” try pretty hard. Darius chills a bit on seductive “Secret Soul,” which features the lush keyboards of project producer Brian Culbertson.

Chicago based guitarist Nick Colionne’s label debut Keepin’ It Cool is not an ode to his guitarist labelmate Cooling, but keeps his crisp and melodic, Wes Montgomery based R&B meets the blues style flowing. In addition to 11 catchy originals (he co-wrote the up-groover “If You Asked Me” with Steve Cole and Peter White), the disc features a heartfelt vocal cover of “Rainy Night In Georgia” and “High Flyin’,” his biggest radio hit to date, which stormed up the smooth jazz charts in 2004.


PERSONAL TASTES

1) Randy Singer, Harmonica Dreams (Randy Singer Entertainment) - In listening to the veteran harmonica player's stylistically eclectic, dreamy, and high spirited debut — billed on the packaging as "the world's first smooth jazz harmonica CD" — a quote from Clifford Brown about the legendary Toots Thielemans comes to mind: "The way you play the harmonica, they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument!"
2) Native Vibe, Luna de Nosara (Third Beat Records)
3) Neil Diamond, 12 Songs (Columbia)
4) Sam Arlen, Arlen Plays Arlen (JoSam Records)
5) Madonna, Confessions On A Dance Floor (Warner Bros.)


NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

1) Brokeback Mountain, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve Forecast)
2) Grant Geissman, Say That! (Futurism Records)
3) Bob James, Urban Flamingo (Koch Records)
4) Incognito, Eleven (Narada Jazz)
5) Jaco Pastorius Big Band, The Word Is Out! (Heads Up)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 10:32 AM

March 7, 2006

Contempo March 2006

TomScott_bw.jpgThirty years after the heyday of his famed fusion outfit Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, the saxman is still so identified with that group — which featured Robben Ford and Joe Sample, among others who rotated in — that he’s done two recordings under that name in the past decade and recently played Tokyo with that billing. Considering his deep connection to the city (which has also included hundreds of sessions and years of well known TV and film work), it’s ironic that he’s having such a blast living in a cabin near Tehachapi, a small mountain town two hours north.

Scott’s charming local eatery The Apple Shed may be a hundred miles and many musical lifetimes removed from The Baked Potato in North Hollywood — where The Tom Scott Bebop Quartet evolved into the L.A. Express — but, to quote the title of one of his more popular 90s GRP recordings, he feels Born Again among those brilliant vistas, not to mention breathing the clean air. The title of his last smooth jazz recording, 2002’s Newfound Freedom, says it all about where he’s at these days.

Despite his vast success in the contemporary jazz funk realm, he’s taking that freedom in an unexpected direction on Bebop United, a spirited live recording of a straight-ahead jazz concert he performed at Manchester’s Craftsman’s Guild in Pittsburgh in December 2004 (and released on the MCG label). For Scott, blowing hard and exploring the subtleties of these eight selections — including three Scott originals, plus classics from Wayne Shorter (“Children of the Night”), Chick Corea (“Tones For Jones Bones”), Cannonball Adderley (“Sack O’Woe”) — takes him back to his roots when he recorded two LPs for Bob Thiele’s Impulse Records at age 19-20 in the late 60s.

“This album is basically Born Again live, with some of the same tunes I did on that record played at MCG, a totally unique jazz venue, and featuring all East Coast guys, including Gil Goldstein and Randy Brecker,” he says. “They approached me about adding Phil Woods to the bill, so I wrote special arrangements for two altos on a few tunes. I played on a session with him back in the 70s and always loved his playing. He may be in his 70s but he still plays with a lot of fire. The gig grew out of a few dates I did with the Born Again instrumentation at Catalina Bar & Grill in L.A. My agent told MCG’s Marty Ashby about it, and he suggested we do it back East. Some fans have wondered how I can switch so easily from a very pop record like Newfound Freedom to this, but it’s just a different aspect of the music I love. I just do what I enjoy doing and stay in the moment, and the way people perceive it is up to them.”

In other words, it’s the fans and critics who have issues when he jumps from traditional to contemporary and back. He likes the fact that his R&B based “smooth jazz” embraces a simpler, more accessible style, with an emphasis on passion and communicating a unique statement in an uncomplicated way that still is meaningful. “I like to bring that passion to my trad jazz dates,” he says.

Jazz purists might balk at the “meaningful” part of this, but he somewhat appeases their sense of intellectual superiority when he adds, “the challenge of bebop is different, involving a whole lot more thinking, chords, harmonies and faster rhythm patterns that are more cerebral. When I play the R&B stuff, my solos are a lot more dynamic as a result.”

TomScottBand.jpgScott refers to the Ellingtonism that “good music is good music” in adding, “Regardless of the style of music, certain principles remain the same. The best fusion and smooth jazz share certain characteristics that bebop doesn’t have, but each side must maintain a certain level of accessibility for it to appeal to people. Bebop is a more complex style of music, but when you think of the genre’s great records like Miles’ Kinda Blue, they are very easy to understand, and I try to tap into that aspect of the music when I do dates like Bebop United. I’m always fascinated about what makes audiences respond to certain things and reject other styles, but I’m grateful that my upbringing exposed me to so much that I didn’t have to make such black and white distinctions.”

Every so often, as a result of the happy jazz schizophrenia that defines his catalog, Scott has to endure critiques that certain, smooth-oriented efforts are “shamelessly contrived” in comparison with his returns to his cooler and artsier L.A. Express mode or his occasional traditional dates. But his evolution into the pop and funk realm was hardly by design or an attempt to sell more albums.

“I built a whole career by accident, discovering that I was a member of a band that was drawing large numbers of people every week to see the L.A. Express,” he says. “It occurred to me that the people coming to the shows liked the fusion more than the bebop, so we lurched into the R&B soul funk style without thinking twice. Because I had my day gig as a studio musician, I wasn’t desperate to discover a style with popular appeal. But I loved the idea of an audience enjoying what I’m doing. I mean, even Phil Woods did an album with all synthesizers, trying to reach more people through his art. The role of a jazz musician has always been to draw on the popular music of the day and create and interpret from the heart. I feel like I’m always walking on that bridge between what I want to create and what people want to hear.”


DAVE KOZ & FRIENDS AT SEA: In a sad and poignant but somehow life affirming way, the maiden voyage of Dave Koz & Friends at Sea — which sailed in November aboard Holland America’s ms Oosterdam from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta — was more than simply another spectacular musical time with great artists and enthusiastic fans aboard a state of the art ship. All thanks to Audrey.

Audrey Koz, Dave’s mom, passed away after a brief illness on November 4, the day before the cruise set sail. Koz, attending to his family and Audrey’s funeral arrangements, didn’t arrive till Tuesday, when he flew from L.A. to Mazatlan, but his opening night statement, read Pat Prescott, his morning show partner at 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles, set the tone for the week.

“Make this cruise a party,” he said, “a celebration of my Mom’s life.” Of course, there were some beautiful poignant musical tribute moments along the way, from Chris Botti and (musical director) Brian Simpson’s gentle trumpet/piano rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” to David Benoit’s dedication of “9/11,” Koz and Patti Austin’s unique improvisational take on “Smile” and Koz’s tender “Over the Rainbow”.

Then the party began, with headliners Jeff Golub, Jonathan Butler, Wayman Tisdale, George Duke, Kirk Whalum and Jeffrey Osborne going full force in making this a memorable event both musically and spiritually. Capturing both of those elements best was one of the most talked about shows of the week, a Sunday afternoon gospel hour headlined by smooth jazz apostles Whalum and Butler, who shared the joys of their faith with the smooth jazz faithful.


Personal Tastes

1) Jim Brickman, The Disney Songbook (Walt Disney Records) – Drawing on his love for all things Mickey and perhaps remembering the musical innocence of his gig years ago composing for The Muppets, the famed pop pianist romances beloved classics and creates a few of his own via two gorgeous tunes inspired by the first-ever DVD release of Cinderella.
2) Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts (Arista)
3) Rent Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Warner Bros)
4) Johnny Rodgers, Box of Photographs (PS Classics)
5) Michael Buble, Caught In The Act (Reprise)

New and Noteworthy

1) 2002, The Emerald Way (Real Music)
2) Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Long Walk To Freedom (Heads Up Africa)
3) Unwrapped Vol. 4 (Hidden Beach Recordings)
4) Jamie Cullum, Catching Tales (Verve Forecast)
5) Armik, Desires: The Romantic Collection (Bolero)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:14 PM

January 14, 2006

Contempo January 2006

Is smooth jazz alive and well?

For years now, many of the genre’s artists and its most ardent fans (known as P-1’s by radio station program directors in the format) have been complaining that sales are down and playlists are too limiting. Veteran artists with vibrant new releases often have to compete with their classic material as they contend with the “greatest hits” mentality dictated to many stations by the demographic research firm Broadcast Architecture. Among these “hits” are an endless stream of pop and soul oldies that bore listeners waiting to hear new tracks from Dave Koz, Praful, Bona Fide, Euge Groove, etc.

Now for the good news: 2005 yielded a bumper crop of so many great releases that narrowing down to a Top 10 list was difficult; it was painful to leave off winners like Paul Brown’s The City, Bona Fide’s Soul Lounge, Brian Simpson’s It’s All Good and Gregg KarukasLooking Up. On the West Coast, winery series and festivals — from the Catalina Island Jazz Trax event (which hits its 20th anniversary this year) to the Old Pasadena Jazz Fest — were packed with boisterous crowds as always.

Package tours have never been more popular, with three major traveling ensembles — Jazz Attack (Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Peter White, Jonathan Butler), Dave Koz & Friends and the perennial Guitars & Saxes — sizzling all summer. And “smoothies” seem to have enough enthusiasm and cash to now support a total of three annual genre specific cruises. Braun and Elliot’s gamble in rejecting major label deals to create their own indie label, ARTizen Records, is paying dividends already; Elliot’s single “People Make The World Go Round” tied a record by spending 11 weeks at #1 on Radio & Records smooth jazz airplay chart.

But don’t take the critic’s word for it — let’s ask the folks that make the music. More specifically, a newcomer (saxman Andre Delano) whose debut (Full Circle) on an upstart label (7th Note) is one of the year’s best (it includes a single, “Night Riders,” which was remixed by Jeff Lorber); and a veteran “founding father” (David Benoit), who took a sharp but inspiring left turn, putting radio friendliness on hold to pursue his lifelong passion for Orchestral Stories on his first effort for Peak Records.

“Where I’m at on the ground level, I see a revolution going on, and a lot of frustration among the musicians who are not getting an opportunity to make a difference,” says Andre Delano, a veteran sideman who has played with R&B icon Maxwell as well as Jeff Lorber, Peter White and Chieli Minucci. “When enough artists are upset, things will start shifting. My album is receiving airplay on 50 so called secondary markets, including many college stations, and many of the major outlets say they’re dying to play my stuff, but they have to get the OK from B.A. Just like in any other industry where there’s this kind of monopoly for so long, an underground movement starts to build.

“How do you change the face of smooth jazz?” he adds. “By bringing in new faces and being bold enough to take a chance. I’m very optimistic because I love creating music and I’m making new friends and fans all the time who enjoy what I do and can help me get to the next level. I don’t think the genre is sick, but it could be healthier. If you’ve got to give people more choices and there’s quality in the diversity, people will respond.”

Most longtime David Benoit fans are aware that even as he has amassed one of the most consistently successful catalogs in smooth jazz, he’s also scored films and conducted orchestras around the world; he took over the California-based Asia America Symphony Orchestra in 2001, and also founded the Asia America Youth Orchestra. Orchestral Stories, on which Benoit conducts the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, is a culmination of this long developing side of his artistry; the collection includes an elegiac tribute to “9/11” (featuring Dave Koz), a six part symphonic tone poem (Kobe) and a piano concerto in six movements (The Centaur and The Sphinx).

“Everyone’s been asking me, so does this mean you’re done with smooth jazz?” says Benoit, who was one of the artists played by 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles in its very first hour on the air back in 1987. “And the answer is no. Though I’ve considered moving on various times, I’m currently talking to different producers about my next genre project. It’s a different world now, the format is more competitive and they’re playing less new music. After branching out into what some might call more serious composing, the challenge is coming back with something fresh and current. But I really do still love playing smooth jazz and it’s still what pays my bills! If Bob James could do a straight ahead record and then come back and make more pop-oriented hits with Fourplay, I know I can do it.”

From the artist’s perspective, Benoit says the reason he and his peers stick with smooth jazz in the face of any potential economic struggles is simple: “We get to feel like superstars, even for a brief moment. When we play wineries and festivals and get the fans going, they treat us like we’re The Beatles or the Stones! It’s really incredible that instrumental artists can achieve that sort of stature, and we owe it all to the radio format that has exposed what we do. Commercials stations playing traditional jazz and classical music are all but extinct, so smooth jazz is one of the few outlets for instrumental music. We have to keep that going.

“Sure, it’s going through a lot of changes,” he says. “From bebop, to the cool jazz of the 60’s to jazz fusion, every genre has its heyday in a sense, and you never know how long anything will last. But it’s still fun, the fans are great, the camaraderie among musicians is wonderful and smooth jazz has the nicest people of any genre I’ve ever met. It may sound corny, but that’s the kind of magic you want to call home. I’ve enjoyed my little sojourns but here I am again. I always come back.”


PERSONAL TASTES

1) David Lanz & Gary Stroutsos, Spirit Romance (Narada) – After a few successful jaunts into smooth jazz, new age maverick David Lanz teams with longtime friend and fellow genre icon Gary Stroutsos to create a lush and elegant set that beautifully blends melodic and rhythmic simplicity with spacious, soothing ambience.
2) So Amazing, An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross (J Records)
3) 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak)
4) The Jones Gang, Any Day Now (AAO Music)
5) Neal Schon, Beyond The Thunder (Higher Octave)

NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

1) Michael O’Neill, Funky Fiesta (Green Bean Records)
2) George Benson, Live (GRP)
3) Rick Braun, Yours Truly (ARTizen)
4) Ramsey Lewis, With One Voice (Narada Jazz)
5) Boy Katindig, Groovin’ High (Kool Kat Productions)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:37 AM

December 4, 2005

Contempo December 2005

165 years after Belgian musician-inventor Adolphe Sax first presented his brass-woodwind hybrid instrument to the world, and 18 years since the birth of the format which would become smooth jazz, the saxophone reigns as the most iconic, identifiable and popular sound in both the traditional and contemporary realms. Four of the genre’s top sax-playing veterans think they know why — and all come up with the same essential answer.

“I heard a gentleman say once that it is the instrument closest to the human voice, and there’s definitely something to that,” says Najee. “There’s a flexibility in its sound that allows it to adapt to the personality of the player. We all go through our time of imitation, and I could play some of the things that David Sanborn did on alto, Grover Washington, Jr. played on soprano and Michael Brecker hit on tenor, but at the end of the day, I still play like Najee.”

In the late 80s, building upon the groundwork laid by Washington and Sanborn, Najee was one of the first players to hit paydirt by floating sweet soprano melodies over funky R&B rhythms. His Grammy nominated 1986 debut Najee’s Theme and Day By Day both sold platinum; while his star has dimmed slightly since then, he sees his diverse Heads Up debut My Point of View as a way to reconnect with old fans and perhaps gain a few new ones as well.

“The sax creates a distinctive mood in many different genres of music besides jazz, including Latin, pop, rock and R&B,” he adds. “These days, with radio programming so formulaic, when people have heard it all, the only way to stand out is having a personality tied to the instrument. There’s a reason people run out and buy the latest Sanborn CD after he’s been away for a few years. Whatever the trappings, they know his voice.”

Euge Groove, a road warrior with pop icons like Tina Turner and Joe Cocker who launched his solo career in 2000, agrees that the notes he plays on sax have a similar vibration to that of the vocal cords. “I think what excites me as a musician and fans of the sax in general is the wide palette the horn offers. The soprano has a light and feminine sound, and the alto and tenor are more husky and aggressive. I enjoy the different degrees of tension release and the opportunity to express myself. Looking back through the traditions of jazz, I think the sax was big because of its sheer volume in the days before we had P.A.s for amplification. It was the loudest instrument in the room!”

Groove’s latest Narada Jazz offering Just Feels Right offers a playful sense of history that fans who grew up when he did in the 70s will appreciate. Tired of the endless series of “programmed tracks, programmed shakers and high hats and those other artificially bright sounds in smooth jazz,” he invoked the “Spirit of ’76” and created an organic recording using only real instruments and vintage recording gear from the era before our Bicentennial. Catching his reference to “Afternoon Delight” in the liner notes will bring as big a smile to the listener’s face as the Rhodes and Wurlitzer harmonies he plays behind his feisty tenor on “Get ‘Em Goin’.”

“I wanted to get back to the human side of making records,” Groove says. “I figured out why I liked those sax records I was listening to 20 and 30 years ago. Pulling out Sanborn’s Taking Off, Grover’s Mister Magic and Stanley Turrentine’s Mr. T, I was struck by the emotion they put into those. They weren’t slick and they didn’t take out every flaw. The vibe was good, and they weren’t afraid of radio programmers telling them to keep the songs short. Plus the human interaction of musicians jamming together in the studio was awesome. Sonically speaking, they weren’t as bright but you could hear every instrument.”

Eric Marienthal is one of contemporary jazz’s most adaptable sax voices, best known for his associations with Lee Ritenour, Chick Corea, David Benoit and The Rippingtons; he released his first solo album in 1988. “The sax has an emotional connection to people that runs deeper than piano and guitar ever could,” he says. “I can pick up the same horn and same reed one day and it’ll sound one way based on how I feel. If I’m in a different mood the next day, it’ll sound totally different.”

Funny he should mention “mood,” as his softly candlelit take on “Moody’s Mood For Love” (based on James Moody’s famed 1949 improvisation of “I’m In The Mood For Love”) is the most personal statement of many on the saxman’s third Peak Records release, Got You Covered! While the album title may invoke responses of “no more covers, please!”, Marienthal will quickly win skeptics over with a brilliant, stylistically challenging sweep through music history — tackling everyone from Bach and Sinatra to Gipsy Kings, The Beatles and Billy Joel (“New York State of Mind”). Refreshingly, his approach is even more organic than Groove’s, a mostly one and two take live in the studio date with Russell Ferrante, Dave Carpenter, Peter Erskine, Luis Conte and some of album producer Russ Freeman’s most dazzling and intimate guitar work ever.

Before Kirk Whalum — celebrating two decades since his Bob James-produced debut Floppy Disk — delves into the issue of his own incredible success doing cover songs admidst a catalog of very personal original recordings, he chimes in on the technical side of the sax/human voice issue. “The sax’s dynamics and flexibility match the inflections of the voice, the way you can attack and release, and bend notes,” he says. “You play a single note with a more personal stamp than you can on piano or guitar. This is my issue with the homogenization of smooth jazz now, finding players who create a distinguishable voice. In the eras gone by, how many notes did it take you to figure out that it was Lester Young, Dexter Gordon… let’s go back to Sidney Bechet. When I hear my peers and fans say they can recognize my sound, I know that just like my speaking voice, it’s my own unique gift from God.”

In 1998, Whalum at first resisted then Warner Bros. executive Matt Pierson’s overture to balance the release of his first gospel album with For You, an album of all classic R&B covers; the album’s monstrous commercial and artistic success made Whalum’s current project, Kirk Whalum Performs The Babyface Songbook (his debut for the Dave Koz co-owned label Rendezvous Entertainment) a playful and engaging no brainer, with Pierson behind the boards.

“Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds’ songs have defined the cooler side of R&B music for more than a decade, and I really enjoy balancing my more innovative and spiritual projects with being an interpreter celebrating great songwriting in ways people haven’t heard before,” he says. “I take both very seriously, as did my musical idols like Miles and Coltrane. If smooth jazz artists only do covers, then we’re taking a serious step backward, but if we do them on occasion in such a way that celebrates the composer, then we’re carrying on a classic jazz tradition.”


PERSONAL TASTES

1) Jimmy Sommers, A Holiday Wish (Gemini Records) – Like Rod Stewart tackling the Great American Songbook, the saxman best known for his crackling urban grooves takes a gloriously romantic chill pill on this crisply arranged, lushly produced Christmas date, recorded live in the studio with some of L.A.’s top jazz musicians. The best holiday sax this year.
2) Alex Wurman, March Of The Penguins Score (Milan)
3) Wicked Original Broadway Cast Recording (Decca)
4) Carole King, The Living Room Tour (Rockingale/Concord/Hear)
5) Maceo Parker, School’s In (BHM Productions)


New And Noteworthy

1) Marc Antoine, Modern Times (Rendezvous Music)
2) David Benoit, Orchestral Stories (Peak Records)
3) Warren Hill, Pop Jazz (Native Language)
4) Gregg Karukas, Looking Up (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
5) Kyle Eastwood, Paris Blue (Rendezvous)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 3:49 PM

November 1, 2005

Contempo November 2005

In 1993, Brian Culbertson was a skinny, introverted but enormously talented college student putting the finishing touches on his debut recording Long Night Out between classes at DePaul University in Chicago. Working diligently among the small rack of machinery in a spare bedroom in his campus apartment, the 20 year old keyboardist had no clue that his ultra-catchy, easy grooving tunes would someday become all the rage in smooth jazz.

Anyone with a prescient ear might have predicted that his style would work well on radio, but 12 years and eight hit albums later, he’s also emerged as one of the genre’s most riveting live acts. When he’s not swaying sensuously around his keyboards, he’s grabbing the trombone (actually his first instrument), blowing heavy with his horn section - which now includes his father Jim, still the band director at Culbertson’s old high school in Decatur, Illinois - and prowling around the stage like a giddy madman, jamming with his band. On the ballads, his seductive moves perform double duty, seducing the women in the audience and the keys at the same time.

“When my first album came out and Mesa Records asked me to do some dates, I was really gun shy,” he remembers. “I spent my high school years working on music in the basement of my parent’s house, and the only live gigs I’d ever done were playing trombone in high school jazz bands and a few gigs in sections. Thankfully, Harry Hmura, my guitar player friend who played on my early recordings, knew the ropes and told me how to handle things on the road. The first gig was a disaster, though. It was bad weather in Cleveland and maybe six people showed up. So I pretended it was like batting practice. I started to get more comfortable and confident as more of my songs became radio hits and people started coming to the shows to hear me specifically. That’s when I started adding sexier moves onstage, too!”

With the release of It’s On Tonight, his debut for GRP Records which of all his albums most effectively transfers that soothing eroticism to disc, he’s officially become the Barry White of smooth jazz. He’s paler and slimmer than the late soul legend, but there’s no mistaking what this 12 song set - which features romantic vocal textures by Will Downing, Ledisi and Patti Austin, silky touches by genre pals Chris Botti, Kirk Whalum and Boney James, and even a violin harmony Culbertson’s multi-talented wife Michelle - is designed to do.

The concept for an all “bedroom eyes” disc - which he more formally describes as “grooves designed to accompany every stage of romance” - came to Culbertson after years of hearing fans tell him that they and their spouses or boy/girlfriends (fill in the blank) to his songs. “The idea is, it’s gonna be on tonight, it’s gonna happen, and the listener can decide what it is, but most of us can guess pretty easily,” the keyboardist laughs.

“I’ve always said that music is the soundtrack for people’s lives, and it’s great to be able to provide inspiration and something to set the mood,” he adds. “My last album, Come On Up, was such a party album that I had to hire a horn section to play a lot of the songs on the road. This time, I stripped down to a simpler story about creating an evening from start to finish. The first track, ‘Let’s Get Started,’ is the funkiest track, capturing the energy of anticipation. You’re getting ready for a night on the town. ‘Hookin’ Up’ is more playful, and by the time you hit the title track, you hear Will Downing’s invitation, ‘if you come home with me, baby, it’s on tonight.’” Later, there’s the danger of ‘Forbidden Love’ which prompts you to catch yourself and remember your true love on ‘Dreaming of You.’ The album ends with a soft new age/classical piano solo which could be a chillout song or a lullaby.”

With his last album, Culbertson capitalized on radio’s love for instantly recognizable instrumental cover tunes with the airplay hit Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire.” But he felt that throwing in a familiar classic this time would break the heartfelt effect he was aiming for. “I knew that a remake would evoke memories of earlier relationships,” he says, “and I wanted this project to be all about creating new memories, living and loving in the moment. So someday when people hear these songs, they can remember when they ‘filled in the blank’ listening.”

Likewise, he instinctively knew when one of his original songs was worthy of becoming a chapter in his lighthearted tale of love, unlimited. “It was fun making a concept record because I wasn’t just focused on gathering a bunch of cool tracks,” he says. “When I was working on a song, I instantly knew whether it would fit. There were no ‘maybes’ or ‘I’ll get back to this,’ it was just obvious. All that aside, though, it’s just an enjoyable disc to listen to, and a fun journey no matter what you use it for. You don’t have to be having sex to enjoy it, but it’s there if you need it.”


Another groove-intensive genre keyboard great taking the conceptual approach these days is Joe McBride, who wants us to get jazzed up for a night of hardcore poker playing - capitalizing on the current national craze - on Texas Hold ‘Em, his first release for Heads Up since 2002’s Keepin’ It Real. The front cover photo shows him all smiles, holding a jack and king of hearts, surrounded by hotties in cowboy hats; the back, two aces and assorted chips. Musically, the generally happy and optimistic, uptempo funk vibe (read: he and his band, The Texas Rhythm Club, have got a winning hand) comes across with the help of casino friendly titles like “Big Slick,” “Double Down” and “No Limit.” The closing tune “One Eyed Jack,” has more of a sinister dark vibe, modal in the Miles-Coltrane sense, invoking the atmosphere of a tense, smoke filled room. Slightly off the topic but no less engaging are the moody, wistful “The River” and the most unexpected treat, a bluesy, darkly chorded, heavy bottom jam of the Iron Butterfly classic “”In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” McBride’s spirited piano improvisations make this version - which clocks in some 13 minutes shorter than the original - far less doom laden than the original.

Blind since his teen years, McBride reveals just why he’s so happy that he can turn darkness to light so effortlessly: “I have a someone custom making me a deck of Braille cards to play with, and I vow I’m going to master this game. Funny thing, though. If I want, I’ll be able to feel what the card is when everyone else has theirs face down and out of sight. But that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”

Expanding towards metaphor, McBride muses, “Poker and jazz are a lot alike in their unpredictability and their exploration of the unknown. As a musician, the things I’ve been through and the people I’ve played with to this point have provided me with a certain hand, and it’s up to me to make that experience work to my advantage. I like to think that with each new album and development in my life, I am enjoying a unique evolutionary process. I love music, it’s a part of my soul and I enjoy the constant challenge of creating new ways to express it. For me, the greatest thing is taking certain risks yet not knowing where they’re all going to take me... yes, very much like playing poker.”


PERSONAL TASTES

1) Jamie Oldaker, Mad Dogs and Okies (Concord) – The all-star brainchild of popular sideman rock drummer Jamie Oldaker, this gritty, roots rocking collection celebrates a wealth of Oklahoma based songwriting and performing with Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson Peter Frampton, Taj Mahal, J.J. Cale and a host of other heartland blues/rockers.
2) Seal, Live in Paris (Warner Bros.)
3) Coldplay, X&Y (Capitol)
4) Jim Chappell, Coming Through (Unspeakable Freedom Music)
5) John Stevens, Red (Maverick)


NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

1) Paul Brown, The City (GRP
2) Bona Fide, Soul Lounge (Heads Up)
3) Euge Groove, Just Feels Right (Narada Jazz)
4) Various Artists, Def Jazz (GRP)
5) Earl Klugh, Naked Guitar (Koch Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:28 PM

October 7, 2005

Contempo October 2005

beasleyw.jpgWalter Beasley jokes that back when he was a student circa early 80s at the Berklee College of Music, he was so serious about his jazz studies that he was like “an old man, never going out and having fun, just practicing, doing research and writing.” On the rare occasions when he did socialize, the California native took the opportunity to learn from some of the genre’s future greats who were fellow students at the time — Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Rachelle Ferrell, Mark Ledford and Kevin Eubanks. In fact, the restless saxophonist — who was in love with traditional jazz but wanted to study more contemporary, R&B influenced styles as well — says that he gained more insight from his peers than any of his professors during his time there.

“The teachers there were good, but we were coming of age at a time when the market for bebop and older forms of jazz was dying, and the curriculum was too focused on the ways of old,” Beasley says. “As much as I appreciated the past, I didn’t want to graduate and try my luck at a genre that wasn’t viable, so I chose to educate myself and ultimately found the perfect balance.”

Tapping into the groove oriented pulse of the emerging genre that came to be known as smooth jazz, Beasley has amassed a solid catalog of hit albums since his self-titled Polydor debut in 1987. After a four disc stint from 1997-2002 at Shanachie and a single disc (Go With The Flow) on N-Coded Music, he’s still at the top of his game both creatively and commercially on his Heads Up debut For Her. While he claims to be one of smooth jazz’s top selling saxmen since the late 90s, he’d probably be even more famous if he wasn’t still so busy teaching at — where else? — his alma mater, where he joined the faculty in 1984.

His first classes were rhythm section ensembles and jazz improvisation, and as the school accepted more vocal students, Beasley — whose recordings often feature a few of his own lead vocals — became a voice coach as well. Currently, he divides his time between vocal rhythm section ensembles, saxophone classes and private horn lessons. This year, he joined the brigade of teacher/musicians with instructional DVDs as well, releasing Hip Hop Improvisation and Sound Production for Saxophone on Warner Bros. The second of these addresses the fine art of “embouchere,” or proper mouth and lip placement around the reed.

These projects are simply the latest extracurricular outgrowths of a mission he felt called to shortly after he graduated. “A lot of what initially drew me into education was culturally based,” he says. “All the other black sax students were leaving, and I felt compelled to stay in Boston because there was no one else there to help younger black musicians who needed the right guidance. I felt that a curriculum that was good for the development of black youth is good for all young people. The struggle is still continuing, but I’m excited about being involved in Berklee’s new Presidential Scholarship program, which offers a free education (20 this year, 25 next) to kids who are extremely talented but don’t have the financial wherewithal to attend otherwise.

“I’m also on the board of the Association of Faculty of African Descent, whose mission is to increase the number of African-American faculty members and students,” he says. “While I’ve loved making records, my goal has never been to be the highest selling saxman. It’s more important that I am honest and balanced, and make a difference in people’s lives.”

Beasley is only too happy to plug some of his student success stories, from singers Lalah Hathaway and Tim Owens to saxophonists Walter Smith and Ian Rypien, the latter of which is, in the teacher’s eyes, potentially the next Joshua Redman. Well aware of the commercial marketplace based on his career as an artist, he’s committed to preparing them for the future, even as they study jazz forms of the past. Beasley believes that 60% of the instruction for modern music students should be business related, and he’s grateful that while Berklee dictates the overall curriculum, he is also free on occasion to create his own. Current tensions regarding the instruction of hip-hop related styles led him to embark on the instructional video venture.

“I feel that music did not die with Miles Davis, and my responsibility is to teach students to survive in the world they live in, rather than the one I live in,” he says. “I’ve always tried to remain current, and my recording career has helped a great deal. As hip-hop has progressed and become more popular, I’ve incorporated it more into the agenda. If you teach groove related material appropriately, students will be prepared for anything.”

Although Beasley himself enjoys the double blessing of a loyal fan base and 20 years of tenure to support his outside musical endeavors, he’s constantly concerned that a shrinking marketplace may hurt his students’ chances to succeed as he has in the real world. “What gives me hope is that I get these great, eager students every year, and I know they’ll go out and make some noise,” he says. “But as recording opportunities become more limited, it becomes my job to help them break the barrier of self-expression and give them the fundamentals they need to deal with what’s out there. My advice is always that they create a market for themselves. My responsibility is to educate, focusing not on what I’ve accomplished, but what they’re going to accomplish.”


After six successful albums on Heads Up, bassist Gerald Veasley celebrates the bustling jazz/funk energy of his ever-evolving live show on At The Jazz Base!, a recording culled from two nights of performances in November 2004 at the intimate nightclub named for him (Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base) at the Sheraton Reading near Reading, Pennsylvania. “One of the most elusive qualities of studio recordings is the sense of being in the moment, being spontaneous,” says the Philly based musician. “It’s much more fun to let these tunes breathe and see what develops naturally in front of a live audience, with an approach of no redo, no undo, just do. Going on the ledge a little bit creates an exciting end result.”

Every March during the Berks Jazz Festival, Veasley’s Jazz Base also hosts a show put on by select students of all ages who participate in his annual Bass Boot Camp — an intense 30-plus hour program held the first weekend of the festival and open to amateurs and accomplished musicians alike. Among its 300 alumni are kids who just got their first bass for Christmas, professionals who let their hair down playing in bands on weekends, and even a retired coal miner.

Veasley, who also holds the title of “Master Lecturer” at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts — where he began teaching in 1992 — launched the program in 2002 as a way to encourage breakthroughs for developing bassists who hit creative plateaus. “Our goal is to help them get unstuck by giving them concrete information and hands-on guidance,” he says. Boasting a ratio of no more than 15 students per teacher, classes are held at the Institute of the Arts near Reading; students can also take individual lessons in the evening. Past instructors read like an all-star “who’s who” in contemporary jazz/fusion: Victor Wooten, Gary Willis, Brian Bromberg, Michael Manring, Jimmy Haslip and Doug Wimbish of Living Colour. The next Bass Boot Camp will be held March 17-19, 2006. Information is available at www.geraldveasley.com.


Personal Tastes

1) Turning Point, Matador (Native Language) – Celebrating over a decade as a dominant force on the Phoenix club scene, the five piece band’s Latin-fired, ethnically eclectic breakthrough project brilliantly captures its crackling evolution into a jazz/rock instrumental powerhouse.
2) Ringo Starr, Choose Love (Koch International)
3) Bo Bice, Inside Your Heaven/Vehicle (RCA)
4) Daniel Rodriguez, In the Presence (Blix Street)
5) Alison Moyet, Voice (Sanctuary)


New and Noteworthy

1) Andre Delano, Full Circle (7th Note)
2) Warren Hill, Pop Jazz (Pop Jazz/Native Language)
3) Najee, My Point of View (Heads Up)
4) Paul Hardcastle, 4 (Trippin’ N Rhythm)
5) Brian Culbertson, It’s On Tonight (GRP)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 12:08 PM

September 10, 2005

Contempo September 2005

Praful_bw.jpgArtfully blending hypnotic electronic based grooves, cool melodies and subtle world music influences, Chill music is quickly becoming a substantial subgenre in the smooth jazz radio format. Trendsetting radio station WQCD (CD 101) now dubs itself New York Chill, and Chill With Chris Botti — a two hour radio show hosted by the popular trumpeter — is syndicated in 16 major U.S. markets and growing.

While it’s always a bit debatable to give one song or artist too much credit for starting any trend, there’s no doubt that the incredible success of “Sigh” — the soulful, seductive and otherworldly 2003 track from Amsterdam based saxman/flutist Praful — helped lay the foundation. “Sigh” held the #1 slot for three consecutive weeks on Radio & Records’ Smooth Jazz airplay chart, and, perhaps indicating a younger demographic, Praful’s album One Day Deep reached Top 10 on the College Radio Electronica chart. The disc also went Top 10 and Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz and Top Electronic Albums chart.

While Rendezvous Music — the L.A. based independent label co-owned by Dave Koz — at first considered the release of “Sigh” somewhat of a risk, the gamble paid off. According to Frank Cody, one of Koz’s partners who brought Praful to the label, and the artist himself, “Sigh” unofficially generated more listener calls to smooth jazz station than any track in years.

“I like what people have been saying, that I put a face on chill,” says Praful. “I hear a lot of formula music on the radio, but people would like to hear some different new stuff as well. We shouldn’t underestimate the audience. They want to be taken on a journey, and it’s radio’s obligation to support the artists trying new things and dare a bit more. It took some effort to convince them to play the song, and I hope the response has inspired them.”

Praful knows a little something about extended sojourns, musical and otherwise, having spent significant time in and absorbing the cultural influences of India, Brazil, even parts of Africa. The cover of his new album, Pyramid In Your Backyard (Rendezvous Entertainment) teases the mind with trippy and colorful, neo-psychedelic artwork, and the 12 tracks totaling 72 minutes deliver on that promise, traversing wildly across numerous cultures (Eastern and Western), unexpected rhythm patterns, and unique ethnic instruments. Where all the exotic female vocals on his debut were sung in Portuguese, here they expand to English and Hindi.

“I didn’t try to make a ‘Two Days Deep,’ because time has passed since then and both me and my co-producers (Adani & Wolf, who also have a disc on the label) have moved on,” says Praful. “The influences are more or less the same, but I think it’s more consistent and versatile. We only used a few drum loops this time and gave a lot of room to the percussion. I wanted Pyramid to be more organic with more original rhythmic arrangements, with more variety in the singing and languages. I also wanted to feature myself a bit more, with longer solos and longer electronica parts. It had to be new and fresh. Sometimes, the magic happens instantaneously, and other times, it takes a lot of experimenting.”

A perfect example of this irresistible and mind-expanding swirl is the eight minute indigenous dreamscape “Ponto De Partida,” on which he switches from bamboo flute to harmonium to soprano, as a sexy female vocal seduces us, a throbbing groove develops slowly and a sitar toys with our peripheral hearing. The seven-minute “Says Kabir” blends a playful banjo vamp with a wash of heavily percussive hypnotic electronica, wailing voices, sax and flute. “Naked” is a true chillout tune, representing the artist’s more relaxed, spiritual side, with sparse instrumentation, gentle ambience and inspirational lyrics sung softly by Praful himself. More radio friendly is “Moonglide,” whose straightforward sax melody and easy funk are swept along a trail of sweeping, spacey effects and the occasional harmonium harmony.

“This one was written in the studio during the recording and was initiated by Adani,” says Praful. “He started off with a groove, a key and a few sound fragments. We liked the Middle Eastern string sample and kept that. Then we set up all kinds of instruments and tried out different things. The Indian harmonium gave an unusual folksy flavor to the hiphop kind of groove. The next day I came later to the studio and A&W had already chopped up my recordings and made a beat and reggae kind of skank out of it. From different snippets we composed the harmonium melody that goes over the chorus and they recorded the bass with the Moog. My first take with the melody on sax was the golden one and I kept it.”

Koz and Cody have nothing but praise for their musical find who is contributing to the next big thing in smooth jazz. “He has a purity of intention in his music, focused on making something very special for listeners,” says Cody. “He combines the gift of melody with a structure that’s out of the ordinary from normal smooth jazz. It has the genre’s essential textures, but it’s unusual enough to get attention.” Koz adds, “I love the fact that he takes what he knows from other cultures and incorporates these colors into his music. What you hear when he plays is his life.”


Speaking of great projects on Rendezvous, you’ve gotta love any kind of project that gets Koz to wear pajamas out in public — as he did at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden in 2002 to celebrate the release of the all-star smooth jazz project Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Lullaby. The dads are even more famous, and from a multitude of genres on the label’s follow-up collection, Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love, a collection of heartfelt vocals that celebrate the bond between father and child.

Phil Collins is represented twice, on his own vocal “You Touch My Heart” as well as his old Disney hit “You’ll Be In My Heart,” sung by Carlos Ponce featuring Inner Voice. Same deal with Richard Marx, who co-wrote “Dance With My Father” and also sings “”That’s My Job.” Rockers old (Loudon Wainwright III) and hip (Dave Matthews) join legends (Smokey Robinson) and newcomers (Buddy Jewell) alike. Koz appears twice, on Michael McDonald’s tender “When Scarlett Smiles” and Robinson’s friendly reading of “You Are So Beautiful.” Co-producer Jeff Koz wrote the musical backdrop for a dramatic poetry reading by James Earl Jones, which closes the eclectic set.

“Golden Slumbers started as our response to request from Jeff’s wife Unique, who wanted some soft music to put their baby to sleep with,” says Cody. “Now it’s a franchise committed to creating projects that bring families together. When you ask performers to sing for their children, something special happens. There’s a purity and intensity that raises the bar. Love is a spacious phenomenon, and there’s no end to what we can do with Golden Slumbers in the future.”

Rendezvous’s growing success with chill artists and specialty projects hasn’t precluded its growth as a hotspot for some of smooth jazz’s most enduring artists. Joining Wayman Tisdale, Marc Antoine and Michael Lington is veteran saxman Kirk Whalum, who was a mainstay at Columbia and Warner Jazz for years. His indie label debut will be a tribute to the great R&B songwriter and producer Babyface. With covers of well known R&B classics like “I Said I Love You,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Breathe Again” and “Exhale,” the collection takes on a similar vibe as Whalum’s extraordinary successful 1998 hit For You, which also featured his interpretations of great pop-soul tunes.


Personal Tastes

1) A Little Space, Box of Love (Independent Records) – John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner and multi-instrumentalist/Producer “Big Al,” together with soulful L.A. based vocalist Regi Perry, celebrate the spirit of today’s ambitious indie artist with an explosive mix of jazzy neo-soul, Memphis styled R&B, anthemic jazz fusion, soulful ballads and classical-flavored pop.
2) Amici Forever, Defined (RCA Victor)
3) Styx, Big Bang Theory (New Door Records)
4) Van Zant, Get Right With The Man (Columbia)
5) John Williams, Star Wars: Episode Three Soundtrack (Sony Classical)


New and Noteworthy

1) Gerald Veasley, At The Jazz Base! (Heads Up)
2) Jason McGuire, Distancias (Bolero Records)
3) Brian Bromberg, Choices (Artistry Music)
4) Jonathan Butler, Jonathan (Rendezvous Entertainment)
5) Down To The Bone, Spread Love Like Wildfire (Narada Jazz)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 11:56 AM

August 14, 2005

Contempo August 2005

In the mid-70s, shortly after forming the L.A. based, East Meets West jazz ensemble Hiroshima but years before releasing its self-titled Arista debut in 1979, Dan Kuramoto remembers playing in a Top 40 band at the hotspot Humperdincks in Hermosa Beach. After packing his gear every night, he gravitated immediately down the block to listen outside the door of The Lighthouse, a legendary club for over 30 years where jazz was blowing heavy at all hours.

This could seem like an insignificant memory in light of his band’s incredible success over the past quarter century — two gold records, three million albums sold, Emmy and Grammy nominations, a Soul Train Award for Best Jazz Album (1987’s Go) and numerous toppings of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.

And yet, “The Lighthouse,” a moody, straight-ahead flavored first take tune featuring Kuramoto’s hearty tenor and Kimo Cornwell’s shimmering piano improvisations, is the perfect starting point for the deeper spiritual inspirations behind Obon, Hiroshima’s 15th release and second for Heads Up.

Obon CD Cover.bmpJune Kuramoto, the band’s koto player and the only member born in Japan, describes Obon (a Buddhist term) as “respecting and honoring ancestors, grandparents, parents, children… expanding to all life, past and present.” There are Obon festivals in Japan and even in Los Angeles’ Japanese community which blend reverence and gratitude with heavy-partying celebrations — much like any of the thousands of shows Hiroshima has done over the years. In addition to marking 25 years in the recording business, the band also wanted the music to acknowledge the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Japanese after World War II.

“People who know the traditions ask why we’re so upbeat if we’re observing something so solemn,” says Kuramoto. “Sometimes, in order to appreciate things with a grateful heart, you have to get up and dance. All the Obons in Japan have dancing. It’s a religious festival about appreciating the past but with the vision of moving forward. It gives us a full sense of grasping life. It seemed like an exciting place for a starting concept. The idea of any band staying together a quarter century is pretty heavy, but we see it as a new beginning. It’s like drawing a line in the sand. ‘Here we are, let’s see what happens next.’”

For Kuramoto, part of that legacy is acknowledging that for all their commercial success, Hiroshima’s mixture of trad jazz and light pop with such traditional Asian sounds as the koto, shakuhachi flute and the booming taiko drum — which, as played by twenty something wunderkind and band newcomer Shoji Kameda, creates a dramatic and ominous underscore to the koto and flute melody on “Obon Two-Five” — goes completely against the grain of today’s more conservative smooth jazz playlists. Hiroshima has softened that effect (and achieved much of their airplay success) by having a variety of lead vocalists — the latest one was Terry Steele — but Obon is their first all-instrumental recording.

Other odd, decidedly off the beaten path excursions on Obon include “Swiss Ming,” which begins with a gong and features Kuramoto paying homage to one of his icons, Eddie Harris, by filtering his sax into a lower register using a pitch shifter; “Atomic Café,” a blend of old school soul-jazz and modern hip-hop scratches dedicated to L.A.’ Japantown’s “best noodles in town” joint; and the swinging, koto and sax-driven slow jam “Pharoah,” inspired by the legendary Mr. Sanders.

In tune with the theme of the album, the saxophonist is grateful for the band’s extremely loyal following, which stays dedicated through all the wanderlust and cultural juxtapositions.

“They let us get away with anything,” Kuramoto says. “Last night we played at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and despite it being a weeknight with bad weather, we had a sellout. Having no vocalist has been challenging and liberating at the same time. It’s allowed us to explore new, less safe territory. During the show, we played the first song from our first album called ‘Lion Dance,’ and when we jokingly offered a free CD to the first person who could name it, 20 people stood up and yelled it out! It was amazing. I think they respond to our philosophy that if you have a lot of ideas and like to play, this is the band for you. There’s never been a true category for what we do, and we’re very comfortable with that fearless approach now.”


After 15 years, Nelson Rangell is still motivated by what one young critic said after seeing his performance at the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival — that the then upstart saxophonist and flutist would be the next contemporary jazz superstar. Though that hasn’t quite happened, Rangell has built a strong catalog with releases on numerous labels, most of which have charted and gotten great reviews. Perhaps the problem is that these labels tried too hard to limit the depth of his talents and affinity for diverse styles into a world overcrowded with more fashionable saxmen whose pop gems were slightly catchier to the ear.

His new deal with Koch Records, which began with last year’s beautifully produced, stylistically varied All I Hope For Christmas, may just change all that. It’s up to the jazz gods (and radio promoters and marketing execs) whether or not the old prediction comes true, but with My American Songbook, Volume 1, Rangell has created a project with some familiar tunes yet unlimited horizons exploring territory beyond any of his previous commercially defined confines.

Redefining classics familiar (Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way of the World”) and lesser known (the traditional “Billy Boy,” once recorded by Miles Davis), Rangell’s labor of love is a majestic undertaking that reflects his deep love for jazz (straight-ahead and smooth), pop, Latin and R&B. More importantly, aside from the sax, he is featured on flute and piccolo (most explosively on the trad-jazz piece “Freda,” with the help of Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip) and even whistles his way through Hampton Hawes’ “Sonora,” a longtime staple of his live shows.

“My fans have called it ‘the whistle tune’ for years and wondered when I’d get around to recording it,” he says. “So here it is. In a performance long ago in a noisy club, instead of playing a piccolo solo, I simply whistled. A strong human connection was made with audiences ever since, and I thought its vulnerability fit in perfectly on an album which captures a truer essence of me and is also designed to express the diversity of American society along with the common humanity of what we share with the world. Plus, as the idea of ‘Volume 1’ indicates, there are so many great songs which capture the American experience.

“The ideals our country is based on are broad, humanitarian ideals than extend beyond one country or tribe,” Rangell adds. “The music touches upon my love for America but extends to show that we are also citizens of the world and that musically, our nation is a great melting pot. There are so many intense and important things happening here that not only affect us but also the global community. I hope to strike a positive tone in all this. With my one original, ‘Don’t Forget Those Forgotten,’ I’m saying it’s only an illusion that any of us are greater or lesser than anyone else. We always have to get back to that humanitarian thread that defines the best in us.”


Personal Tastes

1) Tobaj (Tobaj Music) – The Portland based singer/guitarist blends easy and romantic vocals in Spanish and English with spirited acoustic accompaniment that tackles numerous genres from flamenco to samba. The smoldering seduction is broken up, joyously, by the Santana-like electric fire of “Sensacional.”
2) Acoustic Alchemy, American English (Higher Octave)
3) Kat Parsons, No Will Power (Kat Parsons Music)
4) Saucy Monky, Turbulence (429 Records)
5) Curtis Stigers, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Concord Jazz)


New and Noteworthy

1) Praful, Pyramid In Your Backyard (Rendezvous)
2) Down to the Bone, Spread Love Like Wildfire (Narada Jazz)
3) Richard Elliot, MetroBlue (Artizen Music Group)
4) Lee Ritenour, OverTime (Peak Records)
5) The Rippingtons, Wild Card (Peak Records)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 1:26 PM

July 7, 2005

Contempo July 2005

KeikoMatsui_bw.jpgThe title of Keiko Matsui’s third album, 1990’s No Borders, has proven remarkably prophetic over the past 15 years as the composer-keyboardist has become one of contemporary jazz’s great global ambassadors. While the bulk of her 70-plus annual concert dates happen in Matsui’s native Japan and her adopted home of the United States - she and husband/producer Kazu Matsui live in Huntington Beach, California half the year - Matsui has truly emerged as a musical citizen of the world.

She squeezes in this early April interview from the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, where she is performing on a bill with Jane Monheit and Roberta Flack at Earl Klugh’s A Weekend of Jazz at the Broadmoor. The next week, she’s off to Moscow for her first-ever performance in the Russian capital city. Matsui’s been in parts of the former Soviet Union before, with dates these past few years in Latvia, Kiev in the Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. She’s played Johannesburg, South Africa annually since 2002. The crowds are enthusiastic everywhere, but for the best combination of food and beautiful scenery, nothing beats Istanbul.

“Everyplace I go, it’s wonderful to hear that people are passionate towards my music and very much into the concert, even if they are unfamiliar with some tunes going in,” she says. “Playing in front of 15,000 folks in Johannesburg, I heard something from the stage and wondered, are they singing? Turns out, after just one or two choruses, they were humming along, then chanting my name over and over. They also lit a bonfire there.

“They don’t have traditional radio outlets in these places,” Matsui adds, “but they’ve seen me on BET Satellite. In Hong Kong and Vietnam, I heard they use my music as background for TV shows. One of the girls at a top figure skating tournament in Moscow used my song ‘Whisper From the Mirror.’ There are so many unique ways to reach people. It reminds me how, despite our different religions and cultures, we can put our minds and hearts together through music and find common ground.”

True to her deep spiritual and often mystical nature, Matsui doesn’t limit her travels to physical realms. The million-plus fans who have bought at least one of Matsui’s previous recordings — her catalog from 1986 to present totals over a dozen — will likely be pouncing on maps of Japan or some other mystical Eastern land looking for the locale which inspired the title concept of her latest Narada Jazz disc Walls of Akendora. But it’s a place she created in her mind, where she escapes for contemplative ventures and moments of inner peace.

“Akendora is a fictional place of my own device,” she says. “It’s an imaginary city of another dimension, where everything is in harmony, all cultures exist in balance and man is at one with nature. I want the music to inspire a sense of adventure, where listeners can go and have wonderful experiences and enjoy beautiful visuals. I hope that I can communicate with my fans in this special place.” The mother of two daughters, 16-year-old Maya and nine year old Mako, adds, “The ‘walls’ do not refer to any barriers around this haven, but rather milestones. It’s like marking your child’s height on the wall. It’s about seeing where you have been and where you can go.”

Those who board the Akendora Express hoping for a return to Matsui’s jazzier side after several classical and world beat oriented releases will find ample rewards. She focuses on spirited, even swinging jazz, both free-form and ultra-playful. “Blue Butterfly” is a spacious, ambient jazz exercise with crazed piano runs and faint horn calls. She also spruces up her 1989 genre classic “Mountain Shakedown” with trip hop textures, a quicker bassline and richer piano improvisation.

“I’m always asking myself, why am I creating music, and as a musician, what can I do for a world in need?” she says. “I’m always looking to get involved and give something back. The world is getting more complicated and I think it’s hard to find solutions to our problems only with our heads. I think when people open up to music’s healing powers, together we can feel the oneness that the earth was intended to be. Someone recently told me that musicians have the magical power of shamans, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do my part.”


CarolDuboc.jpgThe recent return of Basia with Matt Bianco has led many smooth jazz fans to mourn the radio format’s early days — before pop oldies became the norm - when new vocalists and vocal albums had more of a presence. The sultry, intimate tones of Carol Duboc would have been all over the map in those days, but in 2005, the L.A. based singer-songwriter considers it a great accomplishment to hit the Radio & Records’ Indicator chart, which tracks more of the smaller market (and more openminded) stations.

“Use Me,” Duboc’s torchy take on the Bill Withers classic and first single from her Gold Note Music disc All Of You, has received airplay in places like Houston, Washington, D.C., Cleveland and several cities in Alabama. Duboc’s doing even better at XM Satellite Radio, and in May did a West Coast tour of Borders Bookstores, which also hosted dates in support of 2003’s Duboc. Thanks to her regular Sunday Brunch performances at Spaghettini’s in Huntington Beach, California, she’s also been interviewed on Los Angeles’ influential 94.7 The Wave. Making her publicist’s job even easier was her recent memorable film appearance as Pumpkin, a backup singer for a band managed by Vince Vaughn’s goofball character in Be Cool.

True to the album’s inviting balance of covers and Duboc originals, the second single is her soothing title track. In addition to 60’s hits “Sunny” and “Blackbird,” she also discovers gentleness in The Police hits “Every Breath You Take” and “Spirits In The Material World.”

“In the past, I’ve always written everything I sing, but I enjoyed the new challenge of interpreting pop and rock classics to fit my voice,” says the singer, whose composer resume includes cuts by Chante Moore, Patti Labelle and Stephanie Mills. “I’m working here with the band I’ve had for two years, and I’m particularly fond of the subtleties of John Leftwich’s upright bass and Land Richards’ beautiful brushes. But I approached all the songs from the point of view Darrell Crooks’ guitar, using his chords as a starting point for these arrangements. Taking the jazz quartet approach automatically softens things.”

After several years of success as an R&B songwriter under the tutelage of mega-producer Teddy Riley, The Kansas City born and raised Duboc saw an Al Jarreau performance which inspired her to consider a jazz-oriented vocal career. “A friend invited me to a live recording session for Al’s (1994) Tenderness album, and it changed my life. I loved the idea of using my voice as an instrument, since my favorite thing to do is write for instruments. So I focused my passion and followed my philosophy of never simply duplicating a song, but finding something authentic about myself within it.”


Currently riding high on the charts with Sweet Sensations, her bestselling album to date, soulful saxtress Pamela Williams is also featured on two upcoming Shanachie compilations — an R. Kelly collection and a gathering of classic R&B hits entitled Touch Me in the Morning, which includes performances by Will Downing. Williams plays lead on “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Betcha By Golly Wow” and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Close the Door.”


Personal Taste:

1) Rena Scott, Let Me Love You (Amor Records) – The one time backup singer for Aretha Franklin and featured performer with The Crusaders works up a soothing and romantic, ballad heavy collection that makes for the perfect soundtrack to a balmy summer night.
2) The Reverend Al Green, Everything’s OK (Blue Note)
3) Don Murray & Vuelo, Romanza (Whaling City Sound)
4) Patrick Yandall, Just Be Thankful (Apria Records)
5) David Pack, The Secret of Moving On (Peak Records)

New & Noteworthy

1) O’2L, Doyle’s Brunch (Peak Records)
2) Mark Carter, West Coast Groove (Mark Carter Productions)
3) Jeff Golub, Temptation (Narada Jazz)
4) Steve Cole, Spin (Narada Jazz)
5) Jim Brickman, Grace (Windham Hill/RCA Victor)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 11:56 AM

June 2, 2005

Contempo June 2005

DaveKoz_ship.jpgAs one of smooth jazz’s biggest stars, Dave Koz has been many things to many people—from top-selling recording artist to morning show co-host on 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles — but this November 5-12, he’ll be adding a whole new chapter to his resume. Dave Koz & Friends at Sea sets sail from San Diego for a weeklong cruise to Mazatlan, Cabo and Puerto Vallarta aboard Holland America’s m.s. Oosterdam. His friends are among the biggest names in the genre — Chris Botti, David Benoit, George Duke, Wayman Tisdale and Kirk Whalum.

Koz has a bit of island experience to draw from. He flew into St. Thomas last January for a special concert that was part of the 2nd Annual Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz Cruise, a popular event that will run again out of Fort Lauderdale aboard the m.s. Zuiderdam January 21-28, 2006, headed for San Juan, Nevis and St. Barths.

According to the saxman, some 60% of the cabins for the 2006 run of the Hill cruise were sold by the time the 2005 cruise returned to port. But wait, there’s more. Fans who prefer to hop islands in the Gulf of Mexico can hop aboard The All-Star Cruise (November 11-20), which is being billed by its promoters, Mark Vrabel and Tony LaBarbera, as “the ultimate Smooth Jazz Experience.”

This one, on the Carnival Elation, leaves from Galveston, hits Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel and Belize, and features a mix of established artists (Peter White, Mindi Abair, Craig Chaquico, Brian Culbertson) with newer faces (Nick Colionne, Alan Hewitt). Vrabel and LaBarbera tapped the gregarious Rick Braun as host, and the trumpeter is also something of an adviser, suggesting the recent addition of Gerald Albright to the established lineup. Al Jarreau (Friday) and Boney James (Saturday) are slated to perform at pre-cruise land shows the nights before the Sunday launch.

Clearly, the open sea is becoming the hippest place for fans and artists alike to experience what gushing smooth cruisers often call the event of a musical lifetime. All you need is a few grand, a week off and a rabid desire to interact with your favorite stars. Late night jam sessions, autograph sessions, even mini-seminars where participating artists talk about their craft add to the intimacy.

“Artists and promoters are constantly trying to figure out new and exciting ways to bring music to the people who support us,” says Koz. “I think the success of Warren’s cruises and the high anticipation and aggressive sales for the new ones are due to the feeling of exclusivity, where only 900 couples or so can experience what is truly a ‘floating backstage.’ Fans can marinate in all this music for a week and interact with artists, both formally at autograph sessions and informally at the pool or bar. That makes this a very personal experience they can’t get anywhere else.”

zuiderdam_exterior.jpg“Regular festivals have the vibe of set up, play, tear down for the next act, with minimal opportunity for spontaneity or hang time,” he says. “On a ship, we’re a captive audience. Artists can not only come up and jam impromptu with the headliners, but also act as fans themselves. It’s the ultimate working vacation for us, keeps us employed between summer festival season and any Christmas touring. We have a chance to slow down, relax and enjoy a deeper companionship with our fans. My mom’s gonna love it, too.”

Jazz cruising is not limited to the smooth genre. Michael Lazaroff, executive producer and financier of the Hill and Koz cruises, along with promoter Scottland Concerts, also helms The Jazz Cruise, currently in its 5th year (October 29-November 5) and billed as “straight ahead jazz’s only full-ship charter.” Vrabel and LaBarbera, however, believe that the relatively small, tight knit community of smooth jazz artists and the genre’s fans — who, demographically speaking, lean upscale - lends itself perfectly to a fun-filled, action packed week at sea.

Part of the pre-launch research for their All Star Cruise is an alliance with 22 top smooth jazz stations, which have helped them better understand the potential audience for their event — from six figure professionals who travel often to their secretaries who’ve been saving for a while, age 35-55, multi-racial, and perhaps most importantly, 50% prone to coming again if they have a good time.

“The average smooth cruiser is a huge fan of one or two of the artists who leaves loving others they had never heard of,” says LaBarbera. Vrabel adds, “We’re bringing together a sophisticated audience with similar tastes and values, finding folks who are passionate about the music and have the need to share this with some 1,900 other people who feel the same way. They’re excited about spending that week getting so close with the stars.”

While Koz, LaBarbera and Vrabel are all optimistic that the genre can support three annual cruises, they know it’s not the quality of the ship, the rooms, the buffets or the ports that will sell the experience. “It’s purely artist driven,” says LaBarbera. “They will come because they are getting something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Koz adds, “Looking at the flier with the names that will be on my cruise, I am blown away by the variety. That’s what people are responding to. When we first announced a Dave Koz & Friends at Sea, people’s interests were piqued, but they weren’t sold. The minute they found out the lineup, sales started skyrocketing. They’re putting their money on the lineup that appeals most to them.”

For information on The All-Star Cruise, please call 1-877-529-9729 or visit www.allstarcruise.com. For Dave Koz & Friends At Sea, 1-877-DAVE-KOZ or www.davekozcruise.com. For Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz Cruise 2006, call 877-330-JAZZ or visit www.warrenhillcruise.com.


MATT’S MOOD: Fans who remember the early days of the format (even before it was officially dubbed “Smooth Jazz”) will be excited about the return of Basia, truly a long lost prodigal daughter, as part of a reunion of the original Matt Bianco lineup on Matt’s Mood (Decca). Funny thing, though — the new disc, which captures the sensual lounge jazz vibe that is so popular in 2005, sounds like it could have been recorded just after the British based trio’s only previous full length project, 1984’s multi-million selling Whose Side Are You On?

The nine vocals on Matt’s Mood — some led by Basia, some featuring her harmony lines behind the ultra-cool leads by Mark Reilly - run the gamut from those flavors to deeper explorations of the trio’s lifelong passions for classic soul, Latin and Brazilian styles.

For Reilly, the playful samba-flavored “Ordinary Day,” perfectly captures the seamless connection between 1984 and 2004. “This for me, sums up Matt Bianco,” he says. “It has a really nice bossa groove, Basia’s vocal is so inviting.”
The third link in the chain is Basia’s longtime partner, keyboardist Danny White, who has always been the singer’s sonic architect. He also invites his well-known brother, Peter White to add his trademark acoustic guitar and accordian lines to four tunes.

The trio toured the U.S. throughout April and May. “This has really been such a therapeutic process for me,” says Basia. “I have so much more life experience to draw from now. The chemistry works between us. I love working with Mark, and enjoy the interplay of our voices. Making music is the only thing that gets me going like this, and everything about this project was so natural. It’s great to be back.”

Personal Taste

1) Steve Barta, Another Life Brazil (Steve Barta Music) –The late Herbie Mann, who makes a final appearance here, called the versatile, Brazilian styled pianist, “a curious blend of Aaron Copland and Antonio Carlos Jobim.” This easygoing collection features brilliant guest spots by Dori Caymmi and Hubert Laws.
2) Stanley Jordan, Flying Home (EMI Manhattan)
3) Michael Buble, It’s Time (143 Records/Reprise)
4) Secret Garden, Earthsongs (Decca)
5) Real Piano: A Collection (Real Music)

New and Noteworthy

1) Devoted Spirits: Tribute to Earth Wind & Fire (Thump Records)
2) Urban Knights VI (Narada)
3) Tobaj (Tobaj Music)
4) Chuck Loeb, When I’m With You (Shanachie)
5) Chieli Minucci, Got It Goin’ On (Shanachie)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:31 AM

May 1, 2005

Contempo May 2005

cjp.jpgWith apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, someone told Dave Samuels it was all happening at the zoo - and the impromptu result was the Caribbean Jazz Project, now a decade long, Grammy Award winning phenomenon that has become one of contemporary jazz’s most compelling live attractions. Fresh from nearly two decades with Spyro Gyra, the vibes and marimba master got a call in 1993 from a promoter doing a jazz series at New York’s Central Park Zoo. His simple request: to put together “something interesting” for a September concert.

Although the personnel has evolved over the years, fans listening to the new two CD set Here and Now – Live in Concert — a two hour plus date recorded in March 2004 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Concert Hall in Pittsburgh - will no doubt feel as gleefully seduced by the same type of spontaneity and infectious percussive energy that launched the franchise over 11 years ago.

“For the first gig in 1993 my thought was to call Andy Narell, who I had played with previously, and Paquito D’Rivera, who I had always wanted to play with,” says Samuels from a tour stop in Houston with one of his other gigs, the vibe/marimba duo ‘Double Image’. “When we started rehearsing, we realized that we had discovered a unique and unexpected chemistry, sonically and personally. No one had ever heard vibes, steel pans and sax together with a Latin rhythm section before. We played a gig in Kentucky a few months later, and were soon seeking out a booking agent.”

The idea of a Caribbean Jazz Project recording was an easy sell to Heads Up founder Dave Love, whose label released the unit’s first two projects, a self-titled 1995 debut and 1997’s Island Stories. Soon the trio—backed by a rhythm section featuring the group’s current rhythm section - Argentinian pianist, Dario Eskenazi, Peruvian bassist, Oscar Stagnaro and drummer, Mark Walker — was performing upwards of 100 shows a year, delighting audiences with a wide-reaching Latin jazz mix that extended far beyond the typical Afro-Cuban and Nuyorican styles that were popular at the time. Narell brought his Trinidadian and Martinique pan sensibilities, D’Rivera mixed in his Brazilian influences and Samuels brought jazz to the party. The idea was to explore the roots of Latin music via the melding of musical cultures from Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa as a result of the slave trade.

CJP might have disbanded in the late 90s when D’Rivera and Narell left and Samuels did his tribute project Tjaderized for Verve in 2000, but instead it found a new lease on life with two new all-star members (guitarist, Steve Khan and flutist, Dave Valentin) and a deal with Concord. For the next 2 studio recordings, the CJP was “the only Latin jazz band without a pianist.” Their subsequent discs with piano and no guitar — The Gathering and Birds of a Feather - earned Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Recording; The Gathering won in 2003. The latest lineup chronicled on Here and Now features the original CJP rhythm section Dario Eskenasi on piano, bassist Oscar Stagnaro and drummer Mark Walker along with Argentinian Diego Urcola blowing heavy trumpet and flugelhorn and Venezulean percussionist Roberto Quintero.


“I didn’t know what to expect with all the personnel changes, but they turned out to be an incredible gift that reinvigorated the whole process of touring and recording,” says Samuels. “We’re bringing new music and influences to the fold and expanding our scope all the time. We’re always shifting. Are we Latin Jazz, or Jazz Latin? The recipe keeps changing, according to the tune or player we spotlight. On the live album, in addition to some originals, we take standards and redecorate them. ‘Stolen Moments’, ‘Naima’ and ‘Caravan’ all have shifting rhythmic feels and time signatures. We like to call ‘Night In Tunisia,’ ‘Nightmare in Tunisia’ because it starts out as a free improvisation piece. When we perform, our trademark is flexilibity.”

Of course, releasing a live CD means that one performance — and thus one evening of whimsical rhythm patterns and improvisations - is captured for posterity above any other. Which suits Samuels just fine. “It was time to do a live album and make a definitive statement about what Caribbean Jazz Project is now. We wanted to capture the intensity and flexibility of the music we make . Studio recordings have time limitations and a certain sheen to them, while Here and Now gives us an opportunity to strip down to the bare wood. Rather than a snapshot, it’s like a motion picture.”

**

Creating a joint venture with Native Language Music founder Joe Sherbanee, veteran guitarist Juan Carlos Quintero originated his indie label Moondo Records as a vehicle for licensing his last three solo projects Los Musicos (2002), Medillin (2003) and Los Primos (2004). 2005 marks Moondo’s first year as a full-fledged world music label, distributed by Navarre. The exciting slate of initial releases display the inspiring, wide-ranging musical wanderlust that drives Quintero: From Mykonas to Madrid, a mix of Greek and Mediterranean acoustic guitar music from brothers Dimitrius and Thano Sahnas of the smooth jazz band Turning Point; a reissue of Brazilian singer Kleber Jorge’s Trovador, including a bonus track; and Guitarras De Pasion, a compilation of Spanish nylon guitar pieces from throughout Quintero’s career. In late 2004, six weeks prior to its official release, Quintero’s disc was released to iTunes, where it quickly went #1 on the world and general pop charts in numerous European countries.

Forthcoming Moondo artists include Venezuelan singer Thania Sanz, Brazilian band Katia Moraes & Samba Guru (featured last year at the Playboy Jazz Festival), Mexican folkloric group Son de Madera, and East L.A.’s world music rockers Quetval.

*

Extreme world music fans should pay special attention to two other can’t miss releases, Luis Munoz’s multi ethnic Latin romp Vida and Maria de Barros’ polyrhythmic West African romp Danca Ma Mi (Dance With Me).

Inspired by a spiritual journey in the wake of his wife’s open heart surgery and his brother’s death, Luis Munoz — a brilliant composer, producer, keyboardist and percussionist — explores everything from brassy, bop oriented Afro/Latin jazz to bossa, meringue, joropo and acoustic folkloric music. Drawing from one of the song titles, Vida it’s a gloriously “mad bop” around the soul of Latin America.

Although Narada, Maria de Barros’ label, calls her a “Cabo Verdean chanteuse” based on the country of her ancestry and creative focus, the singer is actually a native of nearby Senegal. Situated at the crossroads of three continents, the Cabo Verdean islands are a well known melting pot of African, Argentinean, Portuguese and Cuban music; its greatest ambassador is Caesaria Evora, the five time Grammy winning “barefoot diva” who is de Barros’ godmother and chief inspiration. But while Evora is known for her mornos, de Barros — who bears a favorable, gently raspy vocal resemblance to Gloria Estefan — is being hailed as Queen of the Coladeiras, a salsa flavored dance music. Danca Ma Mi is a lively and sensuous, multi-faceted romantic party disc, highlighted by de Barros’ colorful interaction with adult and children’s choirs and rich percussion textures.

Musically, she traverses the many emotional facets of her culture, from coladeiras and mornas to meringue like funana rhythms. Since she’s singing in her native language, English speaking listeners will enjoy the challenge of feeling de Barros’ rich joys and sorrows without the benefit of translated lyrics.


What I’m Listening To:

1) Nicolas Bearde, All About Love (Right Groove Records) – The cover of the soulful vocalist’s disc finds him offering a few dozen roses, and his easy way with a mix of covers and originals delivers big time on the promise of romance, with a few touches of edgier blues for good measure.
2) Beyond The Sea, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Atco/Rhino)
3) Bobby Caldwell, Perfect Island Nights (Music Force Media Group)
4) The Chris Walden Big Band, Home of My Heart (Origin)
5) Tim Bowman, This Is What I Hear (Liquid Records Entertainment)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:43 PM

April 8, 2005

Contempo April 2005

MindiAbair_sax.jpgForget family, friends, fans and significant others — Mindi Abair’s closest, most enduring companion throughout her meteoric rise in smooth jazzdom is none other than her treasured Selmer Mark VI, the vintage alto she’s played exclusively since she was 13.

The saxophonist, whose second release Come As You Are is perched in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart as its title single is all the rage at radio, remembers the way her father Lance — who played B-3 and sax touring with numerous R&B bands when she was growing up — tricked her into getting the horn that became her best friend.

When Abair’s school-issued sax had to go in the shop, she took the liberty of bringing dad’s instrument to school on the sly, and fell in love with its robust tone (“which filled up a room with its warmth”) and easier fingering. She continued sneaking it even after her own was fixed, till one day Lance caught on and forbade her to do it again. Then he had a great idea.

Over tacos at Lucy’s El Adobe in Hollywood, the namesake of her breakthrough 2003 single “Lucy’s,” which was #1 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart for a record breaking nine weeks (and declared by the publication as the “top played cut of the year”), Abair — who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida — tells the sweet coming of age tale: “My mom, dad and I were visiting D.C. and walked by this store called Washington Music. It was like sax heaven in there, and dad and I started testing all sorts of models. He said he wanted to buy a new one for himself so I could have the one I kept stealing. He led me to the Selmer and told me to try it first. I liked it even more than his! He said, keep playing, it’s yours. My mom and I had tears in my eyes. It was like a Christmas movie. He tricked me, but he got his sax back and I’ve been playing the one he bought me ever since.”

Abair’s fans have gotten to know Lance pretty well this past year, as daughter has invited father to join her onstage for rousing versions of “Mercy Mercy Mercy” at the City of Lights Festival in Las Vegas, back home at the Come As You Are release party at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden, and over four nights at Jazz Alley in Seattle, where Lance and her mom currently make their home. The goosebump factor was undeniable each time.

“The first show in Vegas, my band was skeptical but in no time, they realized how good dad was and how, even unrehearsed, we played perfectly in synch, as if it were instinctive and somehow genetically ordained,” Abair says. “I remember watching my dad rock out when I was a kid, and it brought back great memories. He was signing autographs and everything.”

That sort of family spirit provides the underlying creative energy of Come As You Are, which — like her debut It Just Happens That Way — is produced by Abair’s longtime friend from her Berklee College days, Matthew Hager. Amidst the always spirited, just edgy and funky enough pop-jazz fare and three instantly likeable vocals are two decidedly straight ahead pieces which find the saxtress exploring deeper emotional, “real jazz” territory than ever before. “New Shoes,” a sly and soulful piece driven by the upright bass of Stan Sargeant and a piano harmony line by Russell Ferrante, features Lance on tenor and horn arrangements by Abair’s old college roommate Karen Guthery. Ferrante and Abair wrote the more honking, swinging Cannonball-esque affair “26 Hemenway,” which is included as a lengthy hidden track.

“My first album captured the quirkier aspects of my personality, and was all about exploring my pop sensibilities and having a good time,” she says. “A lot of it was fun ‘ear candy’ which made me smile. I felt like I wanted to go deeper on Come As You Are, to push myself into some new areas and show different aspects of who I am. I felt like it was time to open up more and explore what’s inside and some of my other influences. The vocal ‘I Can Remember’ was an emotional response to several good friends who passed away recently. ‘New Shoes’ expresses Matthew’s and my love for the Pink Panther and Henry Mancini’s theme. People forget I used to play a lot of gigs with jazz trios and quartets. Every song on here reflects some aspect of who I am. Album cuts like these explore more of an artist’s real soul.”

Lunch at Lucy’s is scheduled two days after a Tsunami Relief fundraising concert at Knott’s Berry Farm, sponsored by 94.7 The Wave Los Angeles and featuring a lineup of Dave Koz, Wayman Tisdale, Michael Lington, Jonathan Butler, Rick Braun, Peter White, David Benoit and Michael McDonald. Abair’s participation in this event prompts a heartfelt discussion about the spiritual and emotional role of musicians on a planet full of suffering: “Music’s not only something that can bring people together to raise money for crucial purposes, but it can also help people in ways that are less tangible. Music has the power to heal and make you feel, whether it brings out joy or a healthier way to grieve. My job is to get people in touch with their emotions, and touch them either by providing an escape or tapping into something deeper. You always wonder if what you do matters. But then people come up to me and tell me how my music played a role in their life, as a soundtrack for a wedding or even a funeral, and the answer is clear. What can I do to help? Do the thing I do best. Make music.”


After Pat Metheny’s vitriolic commentary on Kenny G’s 1999 Unforgettable-like “duet” with Louis Armstrong, the megaselling saxman probably figured that tandems with some popular living artists were a better way to go. At Last…The Duets album is yet another huge hit for the saxman, and might actually earn him a bit of credibility beyond the AC pop world since he’s working with no less than Arturo Sandoval on a beautiful rendition of the title track, and best of all, trading fours on his little heard alto with David Sanborn on “Pick Up The Pieces.” Old and new school soul never had it so good on Earth, Wind & Fire’s rendition of Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” Well-rendered cuts like these will probably appeal to folks inclined to dismiss the G-man. Generally, though, the project plays it safe but appealing as it teams him with numerous familiar vocal legends (Daryl Hall, Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan) and instrumentalists (Burt Bachrach, David Benoit) on adult standards both ancient and very recent.


The best sax album of early 2005 is, by a long mile, Paul Taylor’s Nightlife. Taylor’s been unstoppable this past year, with the title track from his 2003 disc Steppin’ Out becoming Radio & Records’ third biggest genre airplay cut of 2004 as he was on tour with the all-star Groovin’ For Grover gang. He also performed and made his acting debut on the soap One Life To Live. Nightlife, his fourth release on Peak Records, finds him playing slightly more alto than soprano, a nice change of pace. The collection also mixes retro soul with hip-hop, includes sizzling live horn textures, touches of Latin and reggae, a vocal by Maxi Priest and the production expertise of Rex Rideout, Barry J. Eastmond and ambient trip-hop master Dino Esposito.


WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Pamela Williams, Sweet Saxations (Shanachie) – The soulful saxtress has been a smooth jazz favorite for years, but has never overwhelmed with the kind of in your face melodies, horn textures, retro-ambience and emotional pull she brings to this very inviting date.
2) Aj, Joy Ride (Integy Records)
3) Lisa Lauren, It Is What It Is (Planet Jazz)
4) Shapes, The Big Picture (Burnin’ Down The House)
5) Kazu Matsui, The Stone Monkey (Narada)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:16 PM

March 9, 2005

Contempo March 2005

WillAckerman.jpgRevisiting ancient catalog gems in the planning process of creating and recording Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970-2004, Will Ackerman realized that there are two distinct ways to view a 29 year old composition. First, there’s the perspective of the acoustic guitar icon’s fans, who may no longer number enough to fill the Hollywood Bowl or Carnegie Hall — as they did in his early 80’s heyday, when the term “new age” was truly new — but are still rabid enough to maintain a sentimental attachment to the original recordings that inspired a phenomenon.

Although Ackerman is currently playing “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter” with much more conviction, passion and dynamics than he did on his 1976 debut The Search For the Turtle’s Navel, that cheaply made recording bears a deep historical significance; it inspired him to create Windham Hill Records, which over the next fifteen years became the premier purveyor of New Age Music. “We dared to be different in the disco era, and by treating the music and fans with love and respect, created a cultural movement that endures,” Ackerman says.

The label’s roster began with cousin and fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi and grew to include George Winston, Michael Hedges, Shadowfax, Liz Story and Tuck & Patti. After producing numerous gold and platinum recordings of his own music and many of his artists, Ackerman sold his interest in the company to BMG in 1992. He still retains control of the publishing catalog from 1976-1992.

Still, Ackerman has long been his own worst critic, and until contemplating the idea of Returning, never listened back to his old recordings. It was, of course, those fans who pointed out that he was playing his classics with much more vigor and heart. So, fresh off a Best New Age Album Grammy nomination for his 2001 date Hearing Voices, he decided to do some long overdue time traveling. Although he considers his seminal solo piece “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter” probably the best song he ever wrote, he cringed upon listening to it when he pulled out …the Turtle’s Navel for the first time in years.

“It was a joke,” he says, “very metronomic and hurried, completely reflective of a kid entering a studio for the first time who had no money, a limited concept of dynamics and no sense of the emotional power a song could have. The kid who recorded that was basically scared to death. Just being in the studio was intimidating. I was just trying to get the notes in the right order and avoid any terrible mistakes. And yet, the notes and the writing were there. I was astounded at the difference 20 years of playing the song live had made. The emotional impact of it was totally different. I’m a much more mature player, and I wanted to showcase that over an entire recording.”

With an adult-sized budget and an incredible array of new technological advances to work with, Ackerman — a native of Palo Alto, California who has lived for years in (where else?) Windham County, Vermont - beautifully realizes the rich, emotional potential of eleven of his beloved songs, including “Anne’s Song,” “The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit,” “Hawk Circle,” “In The Region of Clouds” and “Processional.” Technophiles might be fascinated to know that Returning is a 96/24 recording mastered by Bob Ludwig, and that Ackerman is also working on a second version of the album in a 5.1 surround mix. Over the years, Ackerman gradually added other instruments to his recordings mix, and by 1983 was recording his pieces exclusively with an ensemble. Returning marks the first time many of these pieces have been heard stripped down to just the guitar.

“Thirty years of audience reactions has helped me hone in on what works,” says Ackerman, who is planning this year to release an as yet untitled book detailing his deep emotional life’s journey and success as a businessman. “I wanted the songs to reflect where I was with them live. Having better guitars helps tremendously, of course. My early performances were played on good off the rack production guitars, long before I knew that handmade guitars existed. Today, I’m playing Froggy Bottom guitars made by Michael Millard and Andy Mueller, two of the most talented guitar builders on earth. The sound that comes from one of these instruments is simply unique and irreplaceable.”

On a more personal level, Ackerman at 55 reached a stage where he stared out at the Vermont snowball on a February day and began contemplating what he will leave behind when he was gone. “After eight years of personal therapy, I can finally accept people’s thanks for what my music means to them,” he says. “The concerts I give are more meaningful and I have a renewed confidence in the ability of my songs to touch and inspire people’s lives. I knew I wanted these songs to be left behind in a way that more completely reflected my knowledge of what they were meant to be. The most important criteria was feeling emotionally connected to every single note.”

*****

FavoredNationsLogo.gifAs founder of the Encino, California based independent jazz label Favored Nations, legendary guitar master Steve Vai has built a thriving creative home for legends dedicated to the fostering the art of their axe, most recently adding Adrian Legg, Stanley Jordan and Tommy Emmanuel to the company’s ever diversifying roster. With the recent release of James Robinson’s label debut Colours, the company shows a deep commitment to the future of the instrument as well.

The return of Stanley Jordan to the realm of studio recordings after a decade long hiatus is the biggest news. Dreams of Peace, the culmination of his long association with the popular Italian jazz ensemble Novecento, is an artsy blend of ambient music, funky and smooth soul-jazz and blistering rock fusion featuring appearances by legendary jazz artists Randy Brecker, Guy Barker, Dave Liebman and Danny Gottlieb.

Tommy Emmanuel chose the title Endless Road as a colorful metaphor about life’s mysterious twists and turns. Yet it could apply equally as well to the multi-talented guitar virtuoso’s breakneck touring schedule, which tops 300 dates a year throughout Europe, the U.S. and his native Australia. In many ways a follow-up to his 2000 solo recording Only, the new all-acoustic recording reflects Emmanuel’s last six years on the road as a solo performer.

From 1993-96, the British born Adrian Legg was voted Best Fingerstyle Guitarist by the readers of Guitar Player magazine. On Inheritance, his second release for Favored Nations and ninth overall, Legg blends his well known acoustic sound with a sonic arena that harkens back to the musical textures of his childhood life before the guitar—which includes electric rock, folk, Irish jig and traditional church music.

Although he’s the rookie in this bunch, James Robinson has been something of a regional legend in San Francisco and his native San Jose for years. Larry Carlton once remarked of his fanciful fingerstyling that he’s “an extraordinary talent that deserves to be heard.” But it’s doubtful that Robinson will need that sort of hype once guitar fans get wind of his very accessible, pop-oriented mix of Latin, Brazilian, Middle Eastern and jazz influences.


WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Nicholas Gunn, Breathe (Gemini Sunn) – It’s been nearly 12 years since the flutist/keyboardist, composer and producer redefined the joys of Southwestern flavored Native American styled music via Afternoon in Sedona. Incredibly, he’s still finding new and innovative ways to mine the emotional, spiritual and very percussive riches of that region and its indigenous culture.
2) Philip Martin, Fourpoint (Carzino)
3) Joss Stone, Mind Body & Soul (S Curve)
4) The Crickets & Their Buddies (Sovereign Artists)
5) Doobie Brothers, Live at Wolf Trap (Sanctuary)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:24 AM

February 14, 2005

Contempo February 2005

SybillSheperd.jpgStill beautiful, vivacious and in fantastic spirit and voice nearly twenty years beyond Moonlighting and over 30 since she first charmed us in The Last Picture Show, Cybill Shepherd has suffered her whole professional life from one overriding struggle — she’s just too darn talented.

Over the past three decades, she’s put out well-received jazz recordings, dating from 1976’s Cybill Getz Better (with Stan Getz) and 1979’s Vanilla (with Phineas Newborn, Jr.) to 2001’s Live From The Cinegrill. Yet in most American psyches, she’s still Maddie Hayes, Cybill Sheridan (her character on her late 90s hit sitcom Cybill) or, more recently and dramatically, star of the TV movie Martha Stewart, Inc.

Shepherd sang two songs on 1987’s Moonlighting Soundtrack, and was thrilled in 1999 when Cybill: Songs from the Cybill Show hit #1 on the Amazon sales charts. She performed a handful of times over the course of the Top 10 show, but was continuously frustrated that those 20 hour days as star and producer kept her from pursuing monstrous musical opportunities — like performing with Quincy Jones and opening the Minneapolis Opera House.

“It’s great when people are tuning in, but it almost killed me doing the show,” she says. “When I’m not performing and singing regularly, I’m missing something important. We always got big ratings when I did sing, but it was never often enough for me. Growing up in Memphis, my parents imparted to me their wild love of swing, and I’d dance, then sing as often as I could. I’ve loved swing jazz my whole life. I’d sing along with Ella as a vocal exercise, and I was crazy about Sinatra, Basie, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford… they’re all a part of me. It’s hard to bottle it for any length of time.”

CybillSheperdAtHomeWith.jpgNo need anymore. Several years removed from the TV grind, she’s back to her first love. Recorded in her home studio with longtime accompanist Tom Adams on piano, the romantic, intimate At Home With Cybill grew out of rehearsals they did for her successful one woman variety show “Cybill Disobedience… With Music!” which ran at the Soho Theatre in London for two weeks last October — and also hit Melbourne, New York, Vegas, Scottsdale, and her two hometowns, L.A. and Memphis. Using a mic placed in her wardrobe closet, Shepherd runs through lush and restrained treatments of standards she’s long loved — “I’ve Learned A Lot About The Blues,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “My Romance,” “I Have Dreamed” — plus a wistful original about her hometown icon, “Graceland Revisited.” An intense perfectionist, she got most songs down in a handful of takes, but worked through “Begin the Beguine” 150 times before giving it the thumbs up.

“The song was growing as we were doing it, and it’s just a difficult song to get right,” she says. “It’s always haunted me. What’s it about? I have found that in jazz, sometimes the best takes come from mistakes you make along the way. I respond to those and the song gets better. I don’t concern myself with compromise. If I connect with it, I’m going to make sure it’s right.”

Apart from her jazz life, Shepherd these days is enjoying raising two 17 year olds and deflecting the snickers she gets as national spokeswoman for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, part of her ongoing association with the National Women’s Health Resources Center. She talks about it in her act, in lectures and on talk shows. It’s a crippling condition, she says, that women have suffered from in silence long enough.

“It’s all about doing something only I can do,” she says. “I survived a rare form of skin cancer and IBS and I’m in a position to educate and help people. And it’s not like I haven’t found entertaining ways to tackle taboo subjects. The two episodes of Cybill where we talked about menopause were among our highest rated. The DVD that comes along with At Home With Cybill features a performance of ‘Menopause Blues,’ which I did on the show. It’s like jazz. Have fun, improvise, try something new, but make sure the message gets across.”


Having a three year plus layoff between releases seems to have added a sense of urgency to Everette Harp’s sax playing on his A440 debut All For You, one of the most feisty smooth jazz outings of the past year. Perhaps guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., who graces four of the twelve tracks, said it best about the veteran saxman: “You play every solo as if it’s your last.” Harp’s always been the master of cool, mid-tempo ballads like “Back In Your Arms” (which features an interesting EWI solo, a sound we haven’t heard much of in recent years) and the Babyface cover “When Can I See You Again.” But the funk jams (“Kisses Don’t Lie,” “Just Like Ole Times”) take a super-aggressive approach focused around Harp’s intense sax thrust and the throbbing bass of masters like Alex Al and Larry Kimpel. He also indulges us with a powerful, Hubert Laws-like flute harmony line (usually a smooth jazz no-no) on “Can You Hear Me Now.” Producing or co-helming every track, Harp works with numerous genre stars who also happen to be old pals, including guitarists Dwight Sills, Norman Brown and Earl Klugh. Mentor and longtime Harp collaborator George Duke makes a cameo on Fender Rhodes on the closing chillout tune, “In The Blink of An Eye,” which the two co-wrote.


Longtime legends in their native Colorado, the raucous jazz pop fusion locomotive Dotsero once again whipped up a frenzy at last October’s Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Led by The Watts Brothers, guitarist David and saxman Stephen, they’re one of the rare genre bands that captures this same sort of energy in the studio. Their recordings over the years consistently demonstrate their abilities to both rock out with blistering intensity, yet also touch the heart with romantic and lyrical subtleties. Fresh Pants (Cinderblock Records) rocks heavy immediately with the raucous, horn drenched jam “You Talkin To Me?” and the edgy, sizzling “Sweetness #34” before chilling out for the trippy, atmospheric tracks “My Leap of Faith” and the mid-tempo title tune, which includes soothing wordless vocals on the chorus. The contrast in tone and style will keep listeners on their toes as the Watts dart through the hot funk of “Green Goblin” before calming down for the sweet soprano sax/acoustic guitar lullaby “Sleep Tight Katydid.” And for smooth jazz fans who love rock and roll, their scorching take on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” is up there with their best cover ever, “She Drives Me Crazy.” The tune features interesting production effects which make David Watt’s guitar sound distorted in spots, and his powerful aggression throughout does Aero guitarist Joe Perry proud.


Anyone concerned that legendary Tower of Power trumpet great and arranger Greg Adams would have a tough transition into solo stardom need worry no longer — his 2002 Blue Note hit Midnight Morning was excellent and Firefly, his nearly flawless debut on 215 Records, is even better. While still best known on smooth jazz radio for his somewhat pedestrian muted horn cover of Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” Adams’ pop sensibilities ensure numerous potential airplay hits on Firefly. The best tracks are of course the horn-section drenched ones, led by Adams himself — the peppy and percussive, retro-soul spiced title track, a moody and atmospheric ride up the “5 North,” the rolling with the top down, Herb Alpert-like “Time Is Of the Essence” (with Mark Hollingsworth’s alto blending into a lush harmony with Adams’ horn), the gentle, swaying romance “Not So Long Ago” and the all-out party hearty whirlwind “Loco Motive,” which out-TOPs TOP, if that’s possible. Trad jazz fans will also enjoy the late night closing track “Just Like Breathing,” with its subtle synth bass, brooding piano and slight drum brushes.


WHAT I’M LISTENING TO

1) Kai Alece, Reason, Season or Lifetime (G-Rod Records) – Fans of the much more renowned Alicia Keys and Lalah Hathaway will find strength, warmth and conviction in the cozy old-school soul meets sly jazz sensibilities of this remarkable, silky voiced indie artist.
2) Dave Hill, Two Seasons (Dave Hill Music)
3) Nicholas Gunn, Breathe (Gemini Sun Records)
4) Soul Ballet, Dream Beat Dream (215 Records)
5) Tony Bennett, The Art of Romance (RPM Records/Columbia)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:12 PM

January 2, 2005

Contempo January 2005

Unlike the realm of pop music where The Who’s credo “Hope I Die Before I Get Old” can translate these days to being a has-been once you hit the big 2-5, smooth jazz thrives on the grooves of veteran artists making it hip to be any age. A quick glance at the charts at any given time shows a preponderance of artists past 40 (Rick Braun, Russ Freeman, Boney James, Dave Koz), even 50 (Jeff Lorber, David Sanborn, three fourths of Fourplay) — all making music as relevant as they did as wide-eyed twentysomethings. This is good news reflecting our culture’s belief that “40 is the new 30” and so on, but it doesn’t leave a lot of airplay openings and festival slots for young up and comers determined to join their ranks.

Judging from the critical, consumer and radio response to their 2004 releases, Eric Darius, a 21-year old saxman and senior at Florida State University, and the just over 30 Grady Nichols, an alto playing local hero in his adopted hometown of Tulsa for ten years, are ready for prime time, the most likely to spearhead the next generation of great genre artists.

“Night On The Town,” the brisk, funky title cut from Eric Darius’ Higher Octave debut Night On The Town (an instant shoo-in for this critic’s Top Ten), had (according to the Radio & Records’ indicator) close to 70 spins a week nationally in September, when the song re-entered the R&R Smooth Jazz New & Active chart at #7. He also gave rousing performances at two high profile West Coast events — 94.7 The Wave’s weekly jazz series at the Garden of Eden in Hollywood and the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival.

Grady Nichols headlined at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival last spring and in December opened for Vanessa Williams in Baltimore, while also getting bookings in several new markets — Memphis, St. Louis and Kansas City. “Allright,” the breezy and ultra-sleek first single from his Lorber produced Sophistication release (Compendia Records) broke through to the Top 15 on R&R’s prestigious main smooth jazz airplay chart, competing strongly with the big boys (and girls like Joyce Cooling).

EricDarius.jpgDespite these inroads, both are keenly aware of the challenges they face. “For me, it’s about keeping my ideas fresh, coming up with new songs that take me to the next level,” says Eric Darius. “I have the gift of being creative and have been doing this since I was a kid, so it’ll just be on a larger level now. When I graduate from college next year, I’ll have more time to devote to my career, also. I’m already learning about the ups and downs, the reality that you can think your song is the best in the world and some stations still won’t play it. I’m always learning about patience and persistence, and I’m trying to learn from the veterans I’m sharing the stage with. My minor is in business, so I’m well aware of the importance of marketing and exposure. I have to get out there and do my best to communicate with the audience, and hope that the label and promoters do a good job, too. My music has elements of R&B, pop and gospel, so I’m also dedicated to building on my success in smooth jazz and reaching a wider audience.”

In recording his label debut (he released Cruisin’, a self-promoted indie CD locally in 2001), Darius had the advantage of being taken under the wing of veteran guitarist Ken Navarro, with whom he’d shared a bill at an event for Tampa’s 94.1 WSJT. Impressed with the kid’s wild potential, Navarro not only championed the “youngster,” but also invited him up to his home studio in Maryland to record the album with his regular touring band.

GradyNichols2.jpgGrady Nichols had a great reputation in Tulsa as an opening act for passer - throughs like The O’Jays, Temptations and Ray Charles, but knew that it would take a few bucks to get to the next level as a recording artist. “I knew I’d have to go to L.A. and meet with the big guys who could help me get my music to where it needed to be,” he says. “I met with Rick Braun and Gregg Karukas as potential producers, but had the best chemistry with Jeff. Getting Jeff Lorber and Chris Botti was not cheap, but I had the belief that all this would pay off, and it is. My goal is to keep improving as a musician and artist, learn from the best, and use some of my marketing background to understand the demographics and how to get my music out there. I had released a few albums on my own before and sold them locally, but this time, once I got over the ‘wow’ factor of working with one of my idols, I had to reign in that raw energy to have any chance in this format. I’ve also been pro-active, calling program directors on my own. Some are open, some aren’t, but I keep trying. There are so many pieces of the puzzle to consider.”

Both Darius and Nichols have unique biographical points which will further endear them to their target audience. For two years, Darius was a member of America’s Youngest Jazz Band (ages 5-12), led by trumpeter Sonny LaRosa; he played Ellington and Basie, and even hit the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Traveling to New York as a member of the Blake High School Jazz Ensemble, he jammed with no less than Wynton Marsalis and Paquito D’Rivera. And as a member of the USF Jazztet, he’s played festivals in Italy and France.

Nichols, a small town boy from the Mayberry-like, dirt road dominated Siloam, Arkansas, is less worldly, but no less interesting. Siloam was out of earshot of any jazz station, but thank goodness for cable. He loved the background music he heard on The Weather Channel so much that he called the station and asked for a set list. “They were playing David Sanborn, the Yellowjackets and Spyro Gyra, and I became a big fan of them all,” he says. “Later, while studying broadcasting at John Brown University, I would tape Sanborn on David Letterman and freeze frame him, so I could imitate his moves and technique. That was the beginning of the journey.”

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) George Collichio – The veteran performer and founder of Rochester, NY’s Collichio School of Music breaks through to the genre with gale force, mixing a Larry Carlton bluesy-rock sensibility with stylistic joyrides into samba, flamenco and brassy soul territory.
2) Brenda Russell, Between the Sun and The Moon (Narada Jazz)
3) Barry Manilow, Manilow Scores (Concord)
4) Norman Brown, West Coast Coolin’ (Warner Bros.)
5) Ronnie Milsap, Just For A Thrill (Image Music Group)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 4:05 PM

November 14, 2004

Contempo November 2004

jasonmiles.jpgBased on Jason Miles’ incredible track record producing all-star tribute recordings these past few years, fans picking up a copy of the cleverly titled, star-studded Miles to Miles (due in January from Narada Jazz) are bound to think it’s the keyboardist’s latest homage to another deserving legend — his old friend Miles Davis. He started the current decade inviting top fusion, smooth jazz and R&B names (Brecker Brothers, Joe Sample, Chaka Khan, Dave Koz) to record the classics of Weather Report (Celebrating The Music of Weather Report, 2000) and the late Grover Washington, Jr. (To Grover With Love, 2001). In 2001, Miles received a Grammy Award certificate in conjunction with Sting’s Best Male Pop Vocal win for “She Walks This Earth Alone,” part of A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins, ode to the famed Brazilian singer-songwriter.

Miles insists, however, that his current project is not a tribute at all, but rather a multi-faceted, rhythmically diverse musical chronicle, telling the never-a-dull-moment tale of his five and a half year professional relationship with Davis from the mid-80s till the trumpeter’s death in 1991. Although there’s a lush update on Kind of Blue’s “Flamenco Sketches” featuring Keiko Matsui’s ambient keys and Marc Antoine’s Spanish guitar, the album is “new music, my music, not Miles music. It’s about him and the great influence he’s had on me, almost like a poem that captures different moments we shared together. Each song is a single impression of the overall experience.”

Miles entered the sacred realm in the mid-80s as synth programmer for Marcus Miller, who produced from 1986-89 Tutu, Music From Siesta and Amandla, Davis’ first three Warner Bros. recordings after decades with Columbia. At their first encounter, Davis told the young keyboardist in his inimitable rasp, “Hey, kid, I like your name.” Later that session, the legend was about to toss a sketch of a stick figure woman in the trash. When Miles asked for it as a souvenir, Davis doodled a small trumpet and wrote on it, “Miles To Miles”; the framed piece has long been on proud display in Miles’ home.

“It wasn’t just being a kid around a famous icon,” says Miles. “He honestly had a glow and an aura that came out. He had this incredible, powerful spirit that lived up to the myth. The original approach was, Marcus is the artist and I am the paint. Miles thought I had my own air of mystery because he didn’t know how I used my synths to get all these sounds he was hearing. We were trying to bring a new edge to his music, and he treated us well. On my website (jasonmilesmusic.com), I even have a rare photo of him with me, smiling. He’d always say, ‘Make the music you feel you have to make.’ I always took that to heart.”

The joy of Miles to Miles is the personal scrapbook of anecdotes the living Miles brings to the party. This personal touch makes the collection far more than a breakneck journey through a lot of wild funk, ambience and hardcore fusion with cats like Gerald Albright (whose blistering sax on the bubbling blues funk of “Butter Pecan” has more punch than most of his smooth jazz output), Michael Brecker (the hip-hop scratch jam “Ferrari”), Randy Brecker (the strutting, similarly scratch happy “King of the Bling”) and Nicholas Payton (trumpeting gently over a lilting African flavored seduction of “Love Code”). There’s also a three song “Street Vibe Suite” inspired by the New York neighborhood around The Bottom Line, where Miles saw Miles play organ for an hour before switching to the horn in 1975; Bernie Worrell’s descending organ line on “Voices on the Corner” reflects this experience. “Guerilla Jazz,” featuring the late Bob Berg and cool-throbbing bass of Me’shell Ndegeocello, reflects the danger and adventure Miles felt Davis always brought to his music.

The New Yorker’s stories just keep coming: “I was in L.A. working with Luther Vandross and had the day off. Miles was at his house in Malibu and invited me out for a ride in his ‘Ferrari’. He drove like a wildman on Pacific Coast Highway, and the song captures that energy. ‘Butter Pecan’ is totally crazy, but so was the ice cream story that inspired it. In 1988, I brought over an Alesis drum machine and we were working out tunes and beats on it. He was afraid to shut it off for two days before my next visit. We’re busy and all of a sudden he calls my wife Kathy and asks her to pick up some bread, milk and Haagen Daas Butter Pecan ice cream. I reminded him that he was diabetic, but he didn’t care. The tune has something of a James Brown beat, and that’s the kind of stuff we were working on that day.”

Miles believes the secret to Davis’ success was that the trumpeter always surrounded himself with the “best of the best, which offered him the chance to reach new creative heights.” Taking a cue from the master, and building on the success of his tribute albums, Miles earlier this year masterminded, co-wrote and produced Coast To Coast, a eclectic, melodic and groove-intensive session under the name Maximum Grooves on Telarc Jazz. Despite the presence of both the fusion and smooth jazz elite (Albright, Michael Brecker, Andy Snitzer, Russ Freeman, Jay Beckenstein, Jeff Kashiwa), the disc — truly one of the most dynamic contempo releases of the year - has been hard pressed to get mainstream airplay in the format. Miles is excited about alternative outlets like Satellite XM radio’s Watercolors station (where he first heard Kashiwa’s solo work), but like many others, laments the lack of true jazz creativity in increasingly corporate controlled, demographically driven program choices.

“I like music with a real pulse, and I think commercial melodies and individuality can both be part of the smooth jazz radio experience,” says Miles, who’s had slightly better airplay luck with his recent projects by Gato Barbieri, Eric Marienthal and vocalist Cassandra Reed. “I think listeners are open to taking more chances than the powers that be give them credit for. I’m tired of albums that sound the same from cut to cut. To me, the spirit of America is that of individual expression, not a corporate culture that takes that away. Sometimes, it’s as if an a new release can’t fall beyond the 100% safety net, and that mindset does little to encourage real innovation from up and comers who have something significant to say. Miles blazed trails in his time because he was slightly dangerous and unpredictable. I love catchy grooves and melodies, but I’m never going to abandon the spirit of uniqueness that I experienced with him and which continues to inspire me.”


In a cynical time like ours, it’s always good to have a musical pied piper who looks beyond today’s headlines and reminds us that in America, we can still partake of The Good Life — the title of pianist David Lanz’s second disc for Decca (after 2002’s similarly upbeat Finding Paradise). A new age icon in the 80s and 90s — his 1988 hit Cristofori’s Dream was #1 for 27 weeks and sold platinum — Lanz has shifted to smooth jazz in recent years. Finding Paradise had just enough of the old Lanz vibe for him to refer to it as “smooth age,” but on The Good Life, he surrounds his catchy, to the point melodies with thick, soulful grooves and occasional dashes of brass, courtesy of the usual smoothie suspects — Paul Jackson, Jr., Michael Paul, Eric Marienthal, Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun, the Jerry Hey horns and producer Steven Dubin. Amidst the radio friendliness, the most compelling cut is the Vince Guaraldi-inspired “Sorry Charlie” and for fans of the Lanz of yore, there’s the orchestral grandeur of “A Song For Helen.”


Pieces of a Dream, the R&B driven Philly pop-jazz ensemble led by keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon, celebrated its 25th anniversary as a unit on 2001’s Heads Up debut Acquainted With The Night. As teenagers, they were discovered and originally signed to a production deal by Grover Washington, Jr. and they since evolved into one of smooth jazz’s most enduring units. Their latest, No Assembly Required, is cheery, light in the pocket light funk at its finest, with Lloyd writing or co-writing every track. In the jubilant tradition of labelmate Joe McBride (who makes a cameo on background vocals on the Earth, Wind & Fire cover “Devotion”), “Swerve” and “On Her Wings” are bright showcases for his playful keyboard persona, but the project is generally sax dominated. The best of these sax tracks are “It’s Go Time” (Eddie Baccus, Jr. and Jeff Robbins) and “Who U Wit?” with Jason Davis.

Like his first two R&B influenced hit albums Power Forward (1995) and In The Zone (1996), Hang Time, the title of bassist Wayman Tisdale’s debut on Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Music, is a fond glance back at his previous career as an NBA All-Star from 1986-97 with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. His 1998 album Decisions reflected his choice to retire from the hoops and focus on music full time, and after a three year hiatus from smooth jazz recording, he was back fully in the limelight last summer as part of Dave Koz’s A Smooth Summer Night Tour. Show highlights included the 6’9” Tisdale picking up and carrying the petite saxman around, and a crowdpleasing run through the disco classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” which is also Hang Time’s first single. Other highlights are the bouncy retro-soul flavored opening tracks “Ready To Hang” and “Creative Juices” (the latter featuring the Rhodes shimmer of Jeff Lorber) and the moody romance “Better Days” which features a gentle soprano sax-bass conversation by Tisdale and Koz.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company (Concord) – Just months before he passed, Brother Ray left us a tremendous, musically diverse gift with this vibrant, Phil Ramone produced, blues and jazz oriented collection of duets with legends from all genres—Elton John, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, BB King, Van Morrison, et al.
2) Shades of Soul (Narada Jazz)
3) Forever, For Always, For Luther (GRP)
4) Dotsero, Fresh Pants (Cinderblock)
5) Eva Cassidy, Wonderful World (Blix Street)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:13 PM

October 11, 2004

Contempo October 2004

For most jazz fans, the festival experience means spending a few days and nights hanging with friends, sipping a little wine or champagne and grooving to the sounds of favorite artists, hopefully discovering a new musical treasure here and there. But more and more festivals are moving beyond just fun in the sun or under the stars, developing rich educational agendas designed to cultivate the jazz we’ll be listening to tomorrow. Among the major fests that go heavy on the learning in between or after the jamming are the First Energy Berks Jazz Festival in Reading, Pennsylvania and Utah’s Park City Jazz Festival, as well as Jazz Aspen Snowmass, whose events are held at the base of lush green ski slopes in tourist friendly Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado.

JazzAspenSnowmass_Logo.gifNow in its 14th year, JAS features two major musical weekend events in late June and over Labor Day sandwiched around the heart of the festival, the JAS Academy Summer Sessions, held this year in Snowmass from July 19-26. Advertised as the nation’s only all-scholarship jazz residency program, the ninth annual Summer Sessions featured master classes by jazz masters Russell Malone, Benny Green, Eddie Palmieri and Tierney Sutton, joining Program Director Loren Schoenberg and Artistic Director Christian McBride, who has held the chair since 2000. Previous participants ranged from the late Rosemary Clooney and Ray Brown to Arturo Sandoval, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis.

This year, for the first time since the program’s inception, JAS selected a group of five bands, instead of individuals, to participate in four categories—Mainstream with vocalist (the U.K. Bradley Webb Trio and California’s Gerald Clayton Trio); Soul-Jazz Groove (the East-West Quintet, with members from New York and L.A.); Latin Jazz (Insight, from Connecticut); and New Orleans (Adonis Rose Quintet).

“It’s a very intense program, and the level of playing from the individual musicians we selected in the past has always been incredible,” says JAS Founder and Executive Producer Jim Horowitz. “But it never seemed long enough for each person to receive enough quality time from our masters, so we decided to try the group approach. The plan was to create a lab setting where these ensembles from different backgrounds could listen, interact and be challenged to move out of their comfort zones. The ongoing hope is that exposure to other styles and genres will broaden these student’s musical horizons.”

For Horowitz, the early years of JAS — which he patterned after the “European village oriented festival” concept of the 26 year old French event Jazz Marciac — were focused on survival, but once the event was established, the educational element began taking shape. “This was not part of my original vision for the festival, but it has become a vital part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass and an important way to keep the traditions of jazz alive for the next generation,” he says. “At some point the idea of starting a jazz school, devoted solely to performance and education, became a logical next step. We received an initial $100,000 grant from the Danny & Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation, and then began an association with the Thelonius Monk Institute. We’ve hosted 20-25 students each year who match our main criteria — that they be not only exceedingly gifted but also have demonstrated a commitment to pursuing jazz performance as a career.”

ParkCityJazz_Logo.gifThe JAS Academy Summer Sessions have a regular structure of activities allowing for practice, reflection and performance. McBride and Schoenberg host a series of morning jazz seminars, combo rehearsals and instrument sectionals, while afternoons include master classes taught by the attending artist faculty (including sectionals broken up by instrument) and later, performances by student bands in the JAS Sessions tent. In the evening, the students take to the local club scene, where they apply what they’ve learned (and, in the spirit of true jazz, hopefully stretch beyond these concepts) in public performances.

Horowitz draws upon his dual background as a pianist/vocalist and agent and manager for such artists as Monty Alexander and the late Ray Brown to teach a seminar on the nuts and bolts of the biz — including how to get gigs, and the importance of a positive and humble attitude. “I talk about smiling, getting the chip off your shoulder, the facts about getting work, all the things that make you realize it’s not enough to simply be a great musician,” he says. “The purpose here is to create a great experience for the potential jazz legends of tomorrow. It’s really an art form learned by experience, and our program has the feel of the passing of a torch and a real sense of legacy. It’s really all about sustaining the music and finding new ways for it to survive and thrive.”

Lew Fine, co-founder with his wife Arlene of the seven year old Park City Jazz Festival - whose musical events are held over a late August weekend (August 26-29 this year) at the Deer Valley Resort about 36 miles east of Salt Lake City — echoes Horowitz when speaking of the educational aspects of his own event. “The idea is to continue keeping our minds open to new and worthy talent,” he says. “The most gratifying thing is watching young children performing with expertise and talent, and know that you may be helping influence decisions they may make in their lives.”

While the Park City shows run from the afternoon through the night, the late mornings are devoted to one hour clinics (for both young students and interested adults) by visiting musicians at the local high school; past participants include T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Arturo Sandoval, Rick Braun and Larry Carlton. This year’s slate included three members of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and guitarists Gennaro Cannelora and Jeff Linsky. According to Fine, some 3,000 students have attended these sessions over the years.

BerksJazzFest_Logo.gifEvery March in Reading, some 70 miles west of Philly, the town plays host to the First Energy Berks Jazz Festival a ten day extravaganza featuring a wide slate of superstars from all jazz denominations. The festival is also a community based event which provides numerous opportunities for young aspiring jazz musicians to hone their crafts. Some of the educational events this past year: a small combo contest held at Reading High School for high school and college students and a free jazz concert and clinic featuring Berks County saxman Tim Price and pianist Rachel Z’s trio. Berks also has played host three years running to Gerald Veasley’s “Bass Boot Camp,” which offers a unique weekend of workshops, performances and master classes taught this year by its host along with Gary Willis, Victor Wooten and Adam Nitti.

JAZZ ASPEN SNOWMASS: Held for the second year under a massive, triangular white tent in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, JAS’ late June festival (24-27) featured a lineup so wonderfully diverse that the fist time attender might have wondered why they stick with the jazz moniker. The Thursday night opening act, Wynton Marsalis, whose fiery straight ahead set featured the frenetic tenor work of Walter Blanding and a Dixieland/gospel closing medley of “The Old Rugged Cross/Down By The Riverside,” got things off to a true jazz start. For more adventurous fusion fans, the wild and densely percussive organ-bass-drum machinations of Medeski, Martin & Wood filled the jazz bill on Sunday. But the greatest enjoyment — and most enthusiastic reponses — came from headliners who reflect Horowitz’s take on his event as “an American music festival with a jazz heart.” Natalie Cole wowed ‘em with an eclectic set of her Unforgettable era standards and her old 70’s R&B hits, plus an encore version of the U2/B.B. King classic “When Love Comes To Town”; Saturday night featured soul and gospel legend Al Green throwing roses and kisses to the crowd while musically preaching “Love and Happiness” and conducting a singalong “Amazing Grace” as if he was using the tent for revival purposes. The spiritual element continued at noon on Sunday with a rousing performance by gospel legends Mighty Clouds of Joy. Green’s opening act Shelby Lynne did country rock, while Cole’s opener Curtis Stigers performed his trademark compelling acoustic jazz twists on classic pop tunes.

Another notable aspect of the festival was its impressive slate of afternoon and late night performances, in a smaller tent among the shops of Aspen and at several five star hotels. Among the best of these were The Soul Survivors (Cannonball Adderly styled soul-jazz by Ernie Watts, Cornell Dupree and Les McCann), the sexy and exotic, acoustic jazz driven vocal stylings of San Francisco based Jenna Mammina and the scorching Latin fusion of Yerba Buena.

DocPowell_CoolLikeThat.jpg** More smooth jazz artists should take the lead of veteran R&B influenced guitarist Doc Powell, whose latest Heads Up release Cool Like That combines the funky sizzle and easy grooving of his previous hits with colorful ventures that take risks beyond mainstream radio readiness. Before becoming a solo artist, he jammed it up with soul legends like Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin and Grover Washington, Jr. and established himself as a grooving presence on the smooth scene with his 1994 album named after a Grover hit, Inner City Blues. His 1996 disc Laid Back pretty much defines the cool side of what he does, and remains his biggest radio success to date. The new collection has its share of instantly likeable potential singles, from the Kirk Whalum punched “Push” to the gently lyrical “Sweet 6.” But it’s his other demonstrated influences that push it over the top — his affinity for classic rock (a gospel-tinged “Let It Be”) and African rhythms (the soundscape and percussion dense “Hatujambo (We Are Well).” Powell continues to be inspired by the New York jazz scene where he cut his teeth in the 80s. His label debut 97th and Columbus was named after the classic Manhattan haunt Mikell’s and featured tributes to Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, et al.

The new album’s “To The East” takes us uptown for more snazzy, strutting Big Apple fusion. To quote another of his album titles, Don’t Let The Smooth Jazz Fool Ya! There’s more to Powell than first meets the ear.


1) Daryl Stuermer, Retrofit (Urban Island Music) – A mix of blistering funk and cool, laid back soulful electric guitar originals from Phil Collins and Genesis’ veteran right hand man.
2) Eric Darius, Night on the Town (Higher Octave Music) – Guitarist Ken Navarro not only championed this twentysomething, classic soul driven saxman, he also produced his impressive debut and co-wrote two tracks.
3) Dances With Wolves (Sony Music Soundtrax) – This beautifully packaged reissue of the Oscar winning John Barry score includes previously unreleased film versions of two new tracks.
4) A Star Is Born (Sony Music Soundtrax) – Numerous classic cuts (three never before released) by Judy Garland are the highlight of this expanded and remastered film soundtrack, featuring a score by Ray Heindorf.
5) Fantasia, I Believe (J Records) – Even those who take pleasure scoffing at the American Idol phenomenon will be hard pressed to extend that to the astounding R&B/gospel vocal talent of this year’s winner.

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:58 PM

September 5, 2004

Contempo September 2004

Three weeks after overseeing production of the instrumental tracks with the likes of John Pizzarelli, Will Lee, Lew Soloff and Gil Goldstein for their new Telarc album Vibrate in late January at Sear Sound in New York, The Manhattan Transfer is out in rain soaked Sun Valley, California, laying down vocals and additional overdubs at the home studio (TGV Studios) of engineer (and former Sting guitarist) Thomas Baraka Di Candia.

Bad traffic up to horse property country caused by the heavy downpour sets the day’s session back a half hour or so, but within minutes of drying off, the no-nonsense vocal quartet of Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne, Tim Hauser and Alan Paul is ready to do the thing that has endeared them to jazz and pop audiences (and won them 12 Grammy Awards) for more three decades—harmonize. “It’s easy to get into it quickly if we’ve lived with the song a while and understand the emotion of it,” says Bentyne later. “It’s shaped relative to that emotion. It’s like snapping into a zone.”

manhattantransfer04.jpgAlternately, rain touches gently and heavily on the roof of the studio building, but “Baraka” assures them it won’t affect the recording. They start with a series of slight tweaks to the chorus of Rufus Wainright’s “Greek Song.” It quickly becomes clear that Janis Siegel, dressed in ski cap, a yellow and red jersey and black rimmed glasses, is the group’s perfection police when it comes to perfect vocal harmony matching to the musical track. Bentyne says she traditionally gets frustrated when the voices don’t match correctly after eight or nine run throughs, but as the resident “pitch officer,” she tries to be patient. They spend some ten minutes going over a few lines that start sounding like a travelogue mantra after a while:

“All the pearls of China/Fade astride a Volta/Don't sew your beelines to anybody's hide…One way is Rome and the other way is Mecca…On either side, on either side of our motor bike.”

That tune and another clever Wainright song, the title track whose key line goes, “My phone’s on vibrate for you,” form the centerpiece of the very eclectic project, their first studio recording on Telarc after debuting on the label with last year’s live date Couldn’t Be Hotter. In tune with the CD title, Vibrate is also the Transfer’s first to be recorded in 5.1 Surround Sound, which requires each member to have an individual mic this time, rather than gather their harmonies around a single, larger mic.

Paul explains their basic song selection process pretty simply: “We all get together with wish lists of songs we want to do, then we discuss them. It’s all about good material.” This time out, that includes “Tutu,” the Marcus Miller tune that Miles made famous (with lyrics by Jon Hendricks), Brenda Russell’s “Walkin’ In New York,” John Yano’s “The Twelfth,” the early Beach Boys tune “Free Flows” and Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.”

Once they rehearse “Greek Song,” it’s lunchtime. Over Subway and egg salad (Bentyne) and sipping Starbucks (Siegel), they talk about the song they’re going to do overdubs on later, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s tune “Modhina.” They first heard it on his album Terra Brasilis, and whose original Portuguese lyrics by Vincicius De Moraes were translated into English by Paul close to 15 years ago.

“I felt inspired to take a stab at the lyrics and wanted to contain the phonetic shaping of De Moraes' original lyric but also convey an emotional perspective about finding joy and love,” says Paul. “Core of Sound is a reflection of the vibratory aspect of God, the Aum sound that permeates everything that exists and within us. We called Jobim in Brazil and sang him the lyrics, and he thought they were beautiful. But the song wasn’t appropriate for our Brasil album. Once we had compiled the set list for Vibrate, we remembered this one almost as an afterthought and figured better late than never.”

ManhattanTransferVibrate.jpgA bit later, sitting informally on chairs in front of “Baraka”’s monstrous console, the quartet begins vocalizing along with the haunting arrangement of “Modhina,” which features Pizzarelli on guitar. Bentyne’s getting in goosebump mode (always a good sign, she says) and Paul chimes in with an occasional, “Too Loud,” while shaking his head. He mentions another song once which required him to do an individual overdub because “I was singing ‘ma’ while they were singing ‘ba.’”

Later, Hauser goes into the adjacent iso booth (with one bright bulb illuminating the pitch black walls) to work on a specific few bar section of “Modhina.” Siegel in the main room focuses attentively and tries to match his timbre to notes on the keyboard. “Lay on that G flat, it’s a sad note,” she says over and over like a mantra. “Yeah, baby,” she says finally, “you got it!” Hauser looks up above and says, “I hope the sound of the rain doesn’t interfere.” Paul thinks it’s too claustrophobic.

After telling me how she warmed up for this session by exercising her vocal cords en route to Sun Valley, Bentyne comments, “We’re always working on different areas with our voice, sometimes the chest, sometimes falsetto or pronunciation. Tongue placement is important. It’s about getting a balance and not being sterile. I’m not the technical one. I don’t always want everything to sound perfect. It gets pretty microscopic sometimes.”

Bentyne, wearing an oversized black sweater and jeans, also comments on the value of the proper attire: “Clothes make a difference, and should be worn based on the attitude of the song. These songs today have a casual feeling, so we’re dressed pretty down. Other times, Janice and I put on lipstick, do our hair and wear dresses. Alan wore suspenders when we did our swing album.”

While Siegel and Paul go over charts, Hauser chats about his marinara sauce business (“I Got Sauce”) and then, turning the conversation to business, laments, “The hardest adjustment we’ve had to make in our careers is being out of the era of huge recording budgets. We don’t have the same luxury of time that we used to have, that’s why everything seems so rushed. Companies were out of control years ago, spending too much money, so I understand. But I’d be happier with more days to get these vocals right. Where we could do a tune a day in the past, now we have to do one and a half. It’s stressful, but on the good side, we are forced to hone on important things quicker.”

Paul surveys the equipment in the studio’s main room and talks about the value of Pro Tools, focusing on his observation that “the 192 high definition sampling rate helps create a sound much closer to analog. He mentions that the four are friends outside the live and studio settings (and that some of their children are close, too) and the fact that he’s naturally a baritone but sings tenor. Siegel talks about all the major “shleppage” the Manhattan Transfer will experience in support of Vibrate and talks about trips to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.

Soon they’re ready to squeeze into the iso booth with the black walls, gather around the single mic hanging from the ceiling and commit “Greek Song” to digital “tape.” They appear cramped but relaxed, and listen to the rain. To quote one of their classic tunes, the “Trickle Trickle,” splash splash of the rain stops just as Baraka gets rolling. To the ear untrained in harmonic precision, the first run-through sounds great, but it’s only mid-afternoon. The harmony police will have plenty of time to listen before they work on the next song tomorrow.

FESTIVALS: The West Coast jazz festival season started strongly the last weekend in April with City of Lights in Las Vegas. Held for the second year at Desert Breeze Park, just a few miles off the Strip, the 11th annual event featured energetic performances by Brian Culbertson with Michael Lington (the saxman spotlighted his new single “Show Me” from his Rendezvous Music debut Stay With Me), BWB (an effective closer, though no match for last year’s Guitars & Saxes finale) and Bobby Lyle. The most memorable moments were the half hour set by Chicago guitarist Nick Colionne (who plays like a madman and also sang a soulful “Rainy Night in Georgia”) and the intense father-daughter horn fiesta of Mindi Abair and her dad (and chief musical inspiration) Lance.

Another great West Coast smooth jazz tradition is the annual KIFM Anniversary Party (held on the Saturday before Memorial Day) in the Gaslamp Quarter of Downtown San Diego. The usual suspects — Dave Koz, Peter White — were joined in the lineup by the more legendary Fourplay (even two blocks away, Larry Carlton crackles) and David Sanborn. Many opted to forgo Sanborn to hear Dutch world groove sax master Praful weave his seductive body magic in the more intimate confines of the outdoor courtyard of the Horton Grand Hotel.

What I’m Listening To:

1) Pieces of a Dream, No Assembly Required (Heads Up) – Still grooving after nearly 30 years, the ensemble, driven by founding members Curtis Harmon (drums) and melodic master James Lloyd (keyboardist) serve it up funkier than usual with a variety of vibrant saxmen
2) Wilson Phillips, California (Columbia)
3) Sergio Lara, Con La Lluvia (Fusion Acustica)
4) Torcuato Mariano, Diary (215 Records)
5) Avril Lavigne, Under My Skin (Arista)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:01 AM

August 1, 2004

Contempo August 2004

BenoitFreeman2_2.jpgRuss Freeman had to suppress a chuckle when his old compatriot and fellow smooth jazz pioneer David Benoit walked into one of the sessions for The Benoit/Freeman Project 2 wearing his shopworn satin Moonlighting jacket with the first stitched rendering of the Rippingtons’ famed jazz cat.

“I was amazed that I still had it,” Benoit says, “and it brought back so many good memories of the old days. Honestly, I can’t believe how long I’ve been doing this and how long Russ and I have known each other and worked together. I knew keeping the jacket on would help create the kind of casual, relaxed atmosphere and type of spontaneity we wanted on this new project. But it was also fun to reminisce about making the first Rippingtons album and the players who were on it.”

About ten years ago in this very column space, I declared 1986’s Moonlighting as the most influential smooth jazz recording of all time, not only for its Freeman penned genre classics like the title track, “Angela” and “She Likes To Watch,” but also for its roster of future genre superstars just starting to hit their creative stride — Russ Freeman (as leader of the ever-popular Ripps), David Benoit, Kenny G (who would soon achieve unparalleled instrumental superstardom beginning with “Songbird”), Dave Koz (then known as David, who played EWI), Gregg Karukas (a top genre keyboard artist/producer over the past 15 years) and bassist Jimmy Johnson, who scored early smooth hits with Flim & The BB’s.

Over ten years after their first all-out collaboration The Benoit/Freeman Project, and nearly two decades after first working together on Moonlighting, the piano great and guitar icon and Ripps mastermind composer/producer are still thriving in the genre they helped create. Perennial fixtures in the upper reaches of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, David Benoit’s 2003 release Right Here, Right Now went Top Ten, while Let It Ripp!, Freeman’s latest project with The Rippingtons, hit the Top 5.

benoitfreeman2.jpgDuring breaks from the sessions of The Benoit/Freeman Project 2, as the two played golf, tennis and sipped martinis, they enjoyed reflecting on the phenomenon of smooth jazz and the roles they’ve played in its initial and ongoing success.

“Neither of us could have foreseen the way our music would be brought into the mainstream, or that there would come a time when the average man on the street would know us by sight,” says Benoit, who has parlayed his genre success into film and television scoring, as well as a budding career as a classical composer and conductor.

“When we did Moonlighting, in L.A. there was just one jazz station KKGO and people might see jazz artists at festivals,” he adds. “But the rise of The Wave (94.7 FM) and the smooth jazz format created a whole touring base for us and we went from obscurity to being famous. I think it’s been successful because the artists in the genre are some of the friendliest in the business, we are hands-on with our fans, and the music just feels good. It’s not over everyone’s head, but it appeals to mature adults. People can relax and enjoy it and have a great time at the shows. Everyone just has so much fun.”

Freeman mentions an epiphany he had recently flying home to Florida from a Palm Springs music conference: “They had Smooth Jazz TV on America West Airlines, and it hit me after all these years that the music of this genre had caught on to that extent and was finally popular enough to create such a demand. When I started The Ripps, I only wanted to bring together my loves for jazz and pop. Our timing was good, because there was a whole demographic of adults not being catered to. The heydays of classic rock bands were over, and grunge was a few years away. People needed something good to listen to. Now they relate to it in the context of their lives. It has a history, and it’s been a positive musical force which defies trends and doesn’t have to worry about negative lyrics. I like the urban element, but because I’m a guitarist, I hope it swings back to a rock/blues element.”

BenoitFreeman2Botti.jpgOnce Freeman and Benoit found mutual openings in their schedules, the creative elements for the project fell into place and they quickly picked up where they left off. Perhaps in response to the format’s trend in recent years to play more oldies and make ultra-safe programming choices, The Benoit/Freeman Project 2 — Benoit’s first recording since finishing his longtime deal with GRP - was fueled by a desire to stretch beyond the confines of the typical music fans expect from their usual releases. As Freeman says, “The first project was very anthemic, with huge production values, but we’re going here for a greater sense of nuance and intimacy.”

Both love to stretch into Latin territory on their own projects, and thus enjoyed the intense percussive fire of “Club Havana,” which features Chris Botti, and the more sensual bossa-flavors on the tender vocal ballad whose title sums up the journey perfectly — “Two Survivors,” sung in a sweet understated way by Vince Gill. Benoit’s enormous success conducting major symphony orchestras and composing for film and television also influenced numerous tracks; many, in fact, were written specifically with a sensuous, harmonic orchestral sweetening in mind.

“David was on a real mission on this one, and everything was fueled by his desire to really expand his sensibilities and go deeper,” says Freeman. “Our fans had been asking about a follow-up album for years, and I’m glad we waited until each of us was at a place where we could make great music that could also surprise them. We’ve always been musically compatible, but the energy here was more incredible than we could have dreamed.”

LeeRitenour.jpgLIVE RIT RETROSPECTIVE: “Captain Fingers” fans take heart, your fearless guitar god (aka Lee Ritenour) is releasing later this year what he considers one of his biggest, most exciting projects in ages — a high definition live in the studio DVD recorded in 5.1 Surroundsound which features three hours of the legend playing some of his best known classics with an all-star lineup comprising Rit associates from over the past three decades. The guest list includes Dave Grusin, Patrice Rushen, Ivan Lins, Harvey Mason, Ernie Watts, Anthony Jackson, Steve Forman, Eric Marienthal, Kenya Hathaway (Donny’s youngest daughter), Melvin Davis, Oscar Seaton Jr., Barnaby Finch and Alex Acuna.

Recorded over two nights in April at The Enterprise studio in North Hollywood in front of audiences ranging from 10 to 100 people, the as yet untitled recording will be released by Japan’s Video Arts, which has done three other Rit videos and released a Fourplay video when he was part of the group. It features material from 1974 to the present that draws from four jazz styles that Ritenour is best known for — acoustic jazz, Brazilian, 70s fusion and modern funk. The intimate five camera shoot was helmed by director Charlie Randazzo, whose bread and butter is pop music videos and commercials, but who was also the lead singer in high school of the band which became Toto.

“This is the 20th anniversary of Video Arts and coincidentally, my 30th as a recording artist, so the project is something of a mutual celebration where we’re looking both back and forward,” says Ritenour. “We’re hoping it will be sold for television in America, and that by crossing so many lines, will help increase awareness of the diversity of jazz. The greatest thing was being together with my old compadres and the new talent I’ve had the chance to work with in recent years, all in the same room. I was able to bring 30 years of experience to life in a few hours in a setting that was creative and really a lot of fun.”

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Alan Hewitt Project, Noche De Pasion (215 Records) – Veteran pop writer, producer and keyboardist dives head first into smooth jazzland, enlisting an incredible array of genre stars (Euge Groove, Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Michael Lington) to enhance his thumping grooves and graceful piano melodies.
2) Kimberley Locke, One Love (Curb Records)
3) Jim Brickman, Greatest Hits (Windham Hill)
4) Jamie Cullum, Twentysomething (Verve)
5) Diana Krall, The Girl In the Other Room (Verve)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 10:27 AM

July 2, 2004

Contempo July 2004

cooling.gifOne would think that close to three years down the road, chronicling yet another personal story about 9/11 would be a bit redundant, yet it’s the only way to fully appreciate the crossroads Joyce Cooling found herself at while writing and recording her Narada Jazz debut This Girl’s Got To Play. A few days before the tragedy, the popular guitarist, in New York visiting relatives, hung out at the World Trade Center, bagel and coffee in hand. On September 10, she and Jay Wagner, her longtime keyboardist and musical partner, flew home from Newark to San Francisco on the same flight that a day later would be brought down in a Pennsylvania field. She was excited — her album Third Wish, was hitting the bins the next day.

“Then, it was as if nothing else really mattered,” she recalls. “First I panicked about where some of my family members might be, then I just sat like everyone dumbfounded as the impact of the day hit me. I forgot all about my CD coming out, it seemed so insignificant. Watching rescue workers going about their very essential jobs, my role in the world seemed like the fluff of society. Jay and I hit a major dry period, and at one point we seriously considered getting out of the music business. We thought it might be fun to open up a hip café in San Francisco, where artists and photographers could display their work, and bands could play.”

The title of her album came about from a line she uttered spontaneously after three months of this kind of talk. She turned to Wagner during a discussion and said, “I don’t know about you, but this girl’s got to play!” All at once, it hit her that if there was indeed a purpose to her existence after all, it was somehow connected to the deep love of music she senses runs in her marrow. She realized that, in a world where 9/11s can happen, artists may not have much to offer at the point of impact — but they become essential in the healing process.

cover“All of this was very freeing for me, and I came into the new project rejuvenated, with fervor and passion to spare,” she says. “When you come close to abandoning something you can’t imagine your life without, and then you come full circle, it’s like returning home, and it’s the right place to be.”

Not surprisingly with all the soul searching that went on, This Girl’s Got To Play! is the most personal of her four smooth jazz recordings, balancing in the pocket, hip and snappy radio-ready tunes like the opening cut “Expression” and “Green Impala” with deeper bluesy explorations (“Toast & Jam”) and the exotic, Middle Eastern tinged “Camelback,” named for a well known mountain in the Phoenix area. For Cooling, the lonesome desert vibe of this tune reflects the gray area in the mystery of dusk, a sort of journey through a no-man’s land she can fully relate to.

Cooling has always included a lead vocal or two on her albums, but here goes deeper into the singer/songwriter side of her artistry with a total of four. The playful title track finds her taking a bemused, sometimes tongue in cheek look back at high school and the world of day jobs, where she was always the odd girl out; music, it seems clear, was her only salvation, and this song reaffirms her wise choice in continuing. The other noteworthy vocal is “No More Blues,” whose lyrics speak of her personal crossroads and taking risks over a rootsy, organic acoustic jazz-blues vibe that’s perfectly in between the realms of smooth and straight ahead jazz; Jon Evans’ upright bass drives the laid back piece, which also features a thoughtful guitar solo between her declaration that she’s “through with my crying.”

Although some might view the title of the disc as an invitation for more women to take a stand in the male dominated genre, Cooling insists her overall theme of “whatever your passion is, just do it” should be genderless. “When I say the word ‘Play,’ I don’t just mean music, it’s whatever you do that drives you and makes you happy,” she says. “It’s about coming to those points in your life where decisions have to be made, and following your heart.”

While she’s always excited to learn that young women consider her success in smooth jazz an inspiration for their own creative endeavors, Cooling truly longs for a culture that wouldn’t put such a premium on image to sell a product.
“I might not have had this opportunity to play music for so many people if I wasn’t a woman, because the industry sees us as a novelty in some ways,” she says. “Companies sometimes see it as a marketing angle. But nothing could happen if I didn’t put the music first. I want people to close their eyes and feel me in that way. And if they are getting into the music, does my image matter? I’ve met a lot of women musicians who are good and should get a chance, not because they are attractive and female, but because their music is great. It’s a turn off to me to see an album cover with a dolled-up chick whose talent doesn’t measure up.

“The music must come first before anything,” she emphasizes. “On the other hand, if my being a woman intrigues people and they want to come check me out based on that, that’s wonderful. Whatever gets them out to hear the music. Once this girl starts playing, they’ll know I’m all about the music.”


gwashington.jpgGROOVIN’ FOR GROVER: Smooth jazz promoters are always coming up with clever ways to package a handful of beloved players on one value-packed ticket. Guitars & Saxes has been an institution over the past decade, and this year’s summer tour lineup features G&S vets Jeff Golub and Warren Hill with newcomers to the fold Marc Antoine and Euge Groove. A brand new package called Sax Pack is also hiting the festival circuit, with old faves Kim Waters, Jeff Kashiwa and Steve Cole (who did G&S last year). The spring into summer Groovin’ for Grover tour allows participants Paul Taylor, Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright and Jeff Lorber a handful of solo spotlights, but after intermission, the four focus totally on soulful, blistering versions of classic, pre-smooth jazz era tunes that inspired a generation of saxmen.

Aside from being a celebration of the life and spirit of the late Grover Washington, Jr., the tour is designed to help raise awareness of and funds for the legendary saxophonist’s Protect the Dream Foundation, which seeks to enrich children’s lives through music education. By providing funding and public and nonprofit institutions devoted to music education, the 5013c charity keeps alive Grover’s hopes as founder that young people’s lives will be uplifted through music.

The show in early April in the ballroom at the St. Regis Resort & Spa in Dana Point, California was a powerful display of the spontaneous energy that can happen when musicians pay tribute to an influential master. Egos were set aside and the spirit of Washington was allowed to come in and drive the show. Elliot and Taylor are strong players and consummate performers, but the underrated Albright was a cut above, especially wailing on the increasingly improvisational elements of the smooth funky workout tune “Winelight.” Elliot recognized Albright’s genius in a playful way, at one point bowing to him after the two engaged in a healthy competitive solo section exchange during “Black Frost.”

Groovin’ For Grover is one of the most unique sax packages smooth jazz has ever offered, and shouldn’t be missed. Summer dates include stops in Oakville, CA, Kettering, OH, Saratoga, CA and at the Hollywood Bowl’s JVC Jazz Festival on August 22.


WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) To Grover With Love (Q Records) – The excitement of the concert prompted me to dig out this magnificently fashioned, Jason Miles-produced 2001 all-star tribute disc, which features Albright doing “Winelight,” Elliot covering “Take Me There” and Taylor jamming with Peter White on “Come Morning.”
2) Eric Clapton, Me and Mr. Johnson (Warner Bros.)
3) Alan Hewitt Project, Noche De Pasion (215 Records)
4) Grady Nichols, Sophistication (Grady Nichols Music)
5) A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (Warner Bros.)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:00 PM

June 7, 2004

Contempo June 2004

david_garfield.gifGeorge Benson was the one packing the seats and commanding center stage at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 13, but it was hard to keep eyes and ears off of keyboardist, musical director and overall band cheerleader David Garfield for more than a split second.

Garfield’s appearance at the 14th Annual FirstEnergy Berks Jazz Fest, one of the 50 or so dates he does annually with Benson, added frenetic energy and real jazz chops to a memorable, smooth jazz heavy opening weekend. Whether he was running lightning fast piano solos (be-bop style on “Mambo Inn,” tropical Latin on the 10 minute showstopper “On Broadway”), scampering back towards the percussion and drum kits playing tambourine, calling out changes with a wave of his arm or encouraging the crowd to clap along, Garfield was always in motion. He’s always finding freshness in a routine he knows very well; he’s four years into his second tenure as Benson’s MD, after an original run from 1986 through 1990.

garfield.jpgThe pace continued after the show in the lobby, as he stuck around to sign copies of his latest, just released solo CD, Giving Back, an eclectic mix of the smooth stuff, fusion and R&B-tinged vocals featuring an impressive lineup of L.A. based musical talent from the city’s studio scene Garfield has been a part of for two decades plus: The Brecker Brothers, Lee Ritenour, Paul Jackson, Jr., Airto Moreira, Eric Marienthal, Michael O’Neill (his Benson bandmate) and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who also plays with Garfield in the L.A. club band Los Lobotomys.

Even as he was gearing up for this year’s dates with Benson, the album’s first single, “Desert Hideaway,” featuring Gerald Albright and June Kuramoto, was the #1 most added smooth jazz single the week it was released. That’s just the tip of the iceberg this year for his independent label, Creatchy Records. Garfield not only runs the company, but also produces the artists he signs, including a new ensemble called Potato Salad, whom he discovered as they were promoting themselves as a “David Garfield cover band.” The group’s debut album, partially recorded live at The Baked Potato in North Hollywood, will be released this year.

The Creatchy catalog now has 20 releases, and its stable of artists, including several by the keyboardist’s own band Karizma, enjoy a loyal following worldwide, from Australia to Japan to all points European. “Running the label myself takes a lot of work, and it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to practice and write songs,” says Garfield, who moved to L.A. from St. Louis thirty years ago, while still in his late teens. “There’s not always a lot of creative time when you’re taking care of business, but I’m very committed to our success. Even though it looks like a lot of hard work when I’m up there with George, I actually like the break it gives me from being totally in charge. I can enjoy being in a supporting role and the different level of responsibility that brings.”

coverGarfield’s handful of 80’s recordings as a solo artist and with Karizma were so popular in Japan that a big conglomerate there gave him money to start Creatchy Productions and produce eight CDs for other artists - which he fulfilled with projects by Karizma, Phil Perry, Los Lobotomys, Michael Landau and Brandon Fields. It took him a a handful of years to get around to another solo project, but when he did, it was a doozy; Tribute to Jeff, a Quincy Jones like all-star affair dedicated to the music and memory of the late drummer Jeff Porcaro, featured 78 musicians, including pop rockers Don Henley, Eddie Van Halen, Michael McDonald and Richard Marx. To date, it has sold over 50,000 worldwide. Garfield is currently remixing the album for a re-release entitled Tribute to Jeff Revisited, with additional vocals by Phil Perry and Alex Ligertwood.

“Everything in the Creatchy catalog is still selling around the world, including those records I did in the 80s, and that’s proof that American jazz is a great form of expression,” he says. “We’re now a full fledged record company, not just a label, the difference being that I’m responsible for all the manufacturing and marketing. I’m always learning more about the business end of music, but the best thing has always been getting to work with my heroes, like Chick Corea, Horace Silver and of course, George Benson. I love listening to their stories and learning from them. One thing I know after all these years is, you never stop learning.”

BERKS JAZZ FESTIVAL

The one place Garfield was nowhere to be found that night at the Sovereign was the lower level green room, where I snagged a few sacred moments with George Benson after his bandmates left to change for the show. Offering an abundance of the kind of stories the keyboardist is talking about, the down to earth star was eager to share historical anecdotes about Count Basie, segregation for black musicians and his own love for chief influence Charlie Christian. After holding me rapt for twenty minutes, Benson also kindly said, “You write good things about jazz, keep it up.”

The entire festival had that sort of mix of casually wonderful moments and titillating excitement. Over the years, I’ve been to countless well-run and well-attended West Coast festivals, and have been on two smooth jazz cruises. To me, the combination of strong organization, friendly people, hospitality and extreme community involvement put this right at the top of fest experiences for me. All this, combined with a commitment to put the profits back into the community’s arts programs, have made this a globally significant festival that now stretches for ten days. Philadelphia’s smooth station KJJZ is intimately involved in promoting the event.

The city of Reading, just over an hour East of Philly, becomes jazz central for ten days, and my hosts — festival organizers and marketing folks Mike Zielinski and John Ernesto (from the Reading Eagle newspaper) and Connie Leinbach from the Berks Arts Council — became fast friends. I was treated to lunch at the 80 year old institution The Peanut Bar and to a minor league hockey game played by the Reading Royals, as well as a tour of the newspaper’s offices.

My schedule limited me to one weekend, and I chose the first at the expense of some certainly phenomenal jam sessions and shows on the second. So apologies to Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Jim Brickman, Jeff Kashiwa, Joe McBride, Kim Waters, et al, who I would have loved to see!

culbertson_lington.jpgOpening night at the Sovereign featured another knockout performance by Brian Culbertson (one of the genre’s most popular artists locally) with special guest saxman Michael Lington, but this was expected. I enjoyed the great surprise of Culby’s opening act, keyboardist/producer Jason Miles, whose Maximum Grooves band (featuring the incredible Andy Snitzer and singer Cassandra Reed) rocked and funked steady. Miles is an East Coast guy who doesn’t do many live shows, but hopefully the title of his new Coast to Coast CD will prove prophetic.

Other irresistible first weekend shows were George Benson’s and afternoon delights by keyboardist Bob Baldwin (who I had lunch with later that day) with Phil Perry (whose gospel-tinged renditions of R&B classics added feisty electricity to the Lincoln Plaza Ballroom), and Steve Oliver (at first unfamiliar to some new smooth fans, but not anymore) with the ladies’ favorite Chris Botti. Botti goes a bit too artsy at times, but Oliver was, as always, pure pop delight with his mix of melodic guitar and catchy vocalese. Heartthrob Peter Cincotti brought a unique audience to the room a night later.

Aside from all the hospitality and the great music, I enjoyed hanging out at the famed Outlet Center (Reading is known as the Outlet Capital of the World), and watching 5 inches of snow fall just days before returning to 85 degree weather in SoCal. In another publication, I reported that the event takes place near Amish country, but as Mike Zielinski pointed out, no one from that culture attended the festival or actually lives that close to town. This city and Berks County loves its jazz and puts on a wonderful event. I look forward to a repeat visit in 2005.

What I’m Listening To:

1) Joe Kurasz, Soul Searching (Ren Music) – An immediately enjoyable indie gem featuring a mix of funk, smooth jazz and the tastiest Hammond B-3 lines this side of Joey DeFrancesco, a few sparkling piano pieces and a sensuous cameo by Gerald Albright.
2) Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (Blue Note)
3) Jazz For Couch Potatoes (Shanachie)
4) Will Sumner, Coast Drive (Ocean Street)
5) Starsky & Hutch, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (TVT Soundtrak)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:35 PM

May 5, 2004

Contempo May 2004

Smooth jazz fans unfamiliar with Bob Baldwin’s truest musical heart may look at the title of his A440 Music debut Brazil Chill and think it’s just another exotic experiment by a guy better versed in gospel and funk edged soul-jazz. Actually, it’s the extraordinary musical equivalent of a decade of playful flirtation leading to a full-fledged, life changing romance, with the happy ending kiss reaching full rhythmic bloom before the backdrop of the Rio sunset.

Enamored by the likes of Eliane Elias and Brazilian themed projects by adventurous jazz cats like George Duke and Pat Metheny, the keyboardist—stuck in numerous studios Stateside—has danced with Braz jazz before on individual tracks from his popular discs Reflections of Love (“Billy’s Smile”), Cool Breeze (“Bahia Maria”) and BobBaldwin.com (“Those Eyes”).

coverA visit to Rio in early 2001 with jazz promoter Frazier West intensified Baldwin’s fascination and left him enamored with more than the 400 types of rhythms he learned existed in Brazilian music; he literally purchased 100 native CDs on trips before the one he took there to record the album.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the sexiness of their music, and the comfort that Brazilians seem to have living in their own skin,” he says. “If there’s one word to describe their culture, it’s ‘festive.’ The people there have fewer economic resources by far, but seem much happier than the average American. That joy is reflected in the music, and the pop music there has a certain sophistication I was attracted to. The thing that entranced me musically was the percussion. When I first met (percussionist) Café Da Silva, he had a beat up drum, like a djembe mixed with a garbage can, and I loved how he hit it. The sound transported me. I was excited by the idea of turning my core sound as a piano and keyboard player over to top level native musicians.”

Baldwin knew that the only way to create an authentic musical experience was to brush up on his Portuguese, call his old saxophonist pal from New York Leo Gandelman (now owner of Zaga Studios in Rio) and jam right in the heart of things with the indigenous cats who make the music happen down there. Brazil Chill includes Baldwin’s feisty interaction with guitarist Torcquato Mariano, the legendary Marcos Ariel (a famed keyboardist who plays chorinhi styled flute passages on the swinging “Cafezinho”), vocalist Zolea Ohizep and drummer/percussionists Da Silva, Armando Marcal and Juliano Zanoni. Joining Baldwin on the easy rhythms of the title track are members of the legendary funk band Azimuth — who literally got tears in their eyes when they heard some of Baldwin’s music for the first time.

“I began half the tracks with a Brazilian rhythm and later added my keyboard textures, and on the other half I started with an established groove and added percussion textures onto that,” he says. “The most important element was having a powerful percussive flavor and native feel. The concept grew beyond my expectations. Once we had the studio, the musicians and the vibe going, everything came together. I wouldn’t direct the guys too much. Instead, I’d offer the framework and let them do the rhythmic interpretations. Once the bass locked into the drum track, everything blew up from there.”

Although certain songs, particularly the insanely dense with percussion street samba “Carnival,” find Baldwin’s regular keyboard voice getting a bit overwhelmed by his surroundings, the key to the success of Brazil Chill is in his blending of his North American sensibilities with a distinctly Rio itinerary. He makes sure we know where we’ve landed on the brief opening track “Street Sounds,” 15 textured tracks of urban ambience (with a little spoken Portuguese), and on mini celebrations like “Everybody’s Beautiful (In Brazil).” Baldwin mixes those exotic flavors with some homespun grooving on the hybrid “New York Samba.” Digging deeper into this funk roots, Baldwin calls us home on the hip-hop flavored ballad “Last Call,” which features scratches by New York drummer Dennis Johnson.

“The title Brazil Chill was a very straightforward way to convey the idea that I’m an American exploring the flavors of Brazil, very much a student whose education is in progress throughout,” he says. “And that includes learning Portuguese. The real trip was the fact that most of the musicians only knew a little English, and we had to rely on one of the engineers who was bilingual to help us out. But it was really a testament to music being the universal language which allows you to communicate in a way that goes beyond words.”


*****************


smoothjazzcruise.gifBaldwin was a very welcome last minute invitee onboard the second weekend of Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz Cruise 2004, something of an ultimate seafaring excursion for the extreme genre fan seeking island sun and tourist shopping by day and rockin’ funk jazz till all hours after the moon rose on the choppy but warm winded Caribbean. The overwhelming success of these cruises — which included shows during the day, late in the evening and wild jam sessions till 2 a.m. — ensure that the event, co-promoted by Hill and Akron, Ohio travel agent Peter D’Attoma — will become an annual tradition, perhaps on par as a yearly destination with the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Hearty advance sales for next year’s excursion began during the week, much like future season ticket sales during a championship season.

Bob Baldwin and headliner Jonathan Butler hopped on the Costa Atlantica for the January 25 - Feb. 1 voyage from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Nassau. Baldwin shone (like the pink morning sun on the deep blue, enjoyed by most fans from their private balconies) with some colorful Crusaders-like Rhodes flavors at the first night’s jam session and picked his spots throughout the week, subbing in spots for regular keyboardists Brian Simpson (from Hill’s band) and Michael Logan (from Kirk Whalum’s band) to play along with Kirk Whalum, Peter White and Jeff Golub. There was a real spirit of mix and match throughout, as different headliners would run onstage for an impromptu number or two, the most exciting of these being saxman Euge Groove with White (gliding up the balcony stairs in perfect symmetry) and Butler scatting and singing to Hill’s rousing singalong closer “Hey Jude.”

Flutist Alexander Zonjic, who rarely performs solo gigs, also added incredible soloing to Hill’s feisty, tropical dance classic “Mambo 2000.” Best musical moment hands down was when guitar lords Golub, Chieli Minucci and wildman Randy Jacobs exploded on a Hill-written rock blues blast, with Hill retreating into the trusty horn section of Harris brothers Bill and Don.
Some of the mixing and matching was unintentional as Groove, White and then Hill were cabin bound for days with a nasty flu that inspired 104 degree body temps. All thankfully recovered and the fans had no trouble adjusting their schedules and enjoying extra shows by Groove, Marion Meadows (who renewed his wedding vows with minister’s son Whalum officiating on the sand) and bassist Michael Manson along the way. Artist-fan interaction was enhanced by autograph sessions and spirited Q&A sessions, one of which found Zonjic obliging with his version of Bob James’ “Theme From Taxi.” Zonjic summed up the spirit of the week by opening his own gig with the quip, “I’m the guy with the flute, not the flu.”


WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Larry Carlton, Sapphire Blue (Bluebird) – Why the guitar great waits a decade between blues dates is a mystery, as this fiery and locomotive, yet frequently cool and restrained jam session shows off a deeper talent than any of his recent solid pop efforts.
2) The Love Project (Narada Jazz)
3) Nestor Torres, Sin Palabras (Heads Up)
4) Keiko Matsui, Wildflower (Narada Jazz)
5) Dan Siegel, Inside Out (Native Language)


Posted by Jonathan Widran at 8:39 PM

April 2, 2004

Contempo April 2004

Back in 2000, when veteran touring saxman Steve Grove gave himself the cooler moniker of Euge Groove and dove headfirst into the solo artist waters of smooth jazz, his well established pals Boney James, Rick Braun and Peter White gave him some wise advice: be patient.

He would be touring the world with Tina Turner through the end of that year, but Groove - whose resume includes Joe Cocker, Richard Marx and Tower of Power - was determined to go out on a limb and give up the lucrative sideman life. “They knew the supreme sacrifice I was going to make,” Groove recalls, “but said it would take time to get my feet in the door at radio and to expect some tough going for the first few years.”

Well meaning as they were, the cats were wrong; in a competitive marketplace, the Hagerstown, Maryland native, newly signed to Warner Bros., was an immediate smash on the airwaves and at retail. His first single “Vinyl” (from his self titled debut) set a record by spending 27 weeks on the Radio & Records NAC/Smooth Jazz chart. “Sneak A Peak” was nominated for Song of the Year at the Oasis Smooth Jazz Awards, and his follow-up album Play Date had two #1 radio hits, starting with “Slam Dunk.”

coverThe economic realities of the music business caught up with Groove’s charmed life in the middle of 2002, ironically the very week “Rewind” hit the top spot on the airplay chart. He was about to enter the studio to record his third album when Warner Bros., facing cutbacks in its jazz division, put him in a holding pattern. Euge quickly opted out of his contract and was quickly snatched up by Narada Jazz. The concept behind his new Livin’ Large was finding ways to express gratitude and enjoy life to the fullest extent, despite such wavering fortunes.

“The one thing I can always control is writing and recording great songs, but it’s about more than that,” he says. “It’s about rediscovering a zest for living and life, and when I look at the big picture, the blessings have been over the top for me. For a long time, I was so caught up in the business aspect of my life that it was affecting things at home. Even to the point of being too upset to help my six year old daughter with her homework. So a year ago I told my wife, we have got to figure out a way to enjoy life more.

“Because I’m so focused on the positive, I’m totally at peace with what happened at Warner’s, and know I’m lucky to have gotten this far,” Groove adds. “I’ve been in the business a long time and know the realities. You think you’ve got it made when you sign with a major label, but really, anything can happen. The most important thing is still having the opportunity to express myself. I included the two versions of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You (For Letting Me Be Myself)’ (one with vocals and rap) as a way of telling my fans I appreciate their support.”

That tune and a sweet, lyrical cover of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (his wife’s favorite all-time song) set the listener up for a batch of Groove originals (all written or co-written by him) that create a perfect balance of modern urban flavors and 70s sensibilities. “While I was working on the album, I was thinking of the music of TOP, Barry White, David Sanborn, The Brecker Brothers and all that old school funk and R&B,” he says. “That’s what I grew up on.”

Consistent with its theme, Groove ensured that he would enjoy the process of recording this album more than previous projects by handing over all the reins to genre super producer Paul Brown, who had done four tracks each on the first two. Groove took off the producer hat and just played the sax for the first time.

“It was a much better experience just being able to concentrate on playing,” he says. “I could concentrate on making the sound as good as possible, without worrying about sitting and editing things for 12 hours at a time, like I used to. I’m still learning to be patient. I’m always working on my style and my chops, and hopefully a unique style has come through. I’ve been fortunate, but the competition among sax players at radio is intense. When I sit down and write a tune, I’m never thinking about airplay but just making the most romantic and soulful record I can.”

After completing the recording, Groove figured out a way to live large in the ultimate way, combining business with pleasure. He and his family rented a house for several months on Lake Como in Italy as the saxman toured Europe and parts of Russia with world renowned Italian singer Eros Ramazotti.

“I had toured with him before, and believe me, it wasn’t easy being a sideman again, after all this time away,” he says. “In some ways, it’s easier, but after tasting solo success, it’s obviously less rewarding. I had a lot of excess energy to deal with. Still, the opportunity was too good to pass up. My wife and I dreamed of living in Italy, and this gave us the chance. We are truly living large, living in a dream world that only opened up for us when we started focusing on the positive and finding joy in every moment.”

coverMORE NARADA JAZZ: In time for Valentine’s Day, Narada Jazz released a engaging 12 track compilation called The Love Project, a nice way to experience smooth jazz/funk versions of classic romantic tunes and sample the label’s increasingly diverse roster and other genre greats. Euge Groove’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” leads the pack, followed by “For The Love Of You” (Frayne Lewis, producer of the Urban Knights series), “All This Love” (Jeff Lorber), “A Song For You” (Joyce Cooling) “Free” (Walter Beasley), “Love TKO” (Alex Bugnon), “Moondance” (Nancy Wilson & Ramsey Lewis), “Wonderful Tonight” (Warren Hill with Jeff Golub), “Baby Come To Me” (Urban Knights), “What The World Needs Now” (David Benoit) and “Everyday” (Peter White).

Hopefully, the intent of this disc is less to give radio easy playlist additions (when these artists have more deserving original material) and more to expose them to new audiences. Over the years, Narada’s other divisions have made an art form out of artist samplers, and it’s good to see its smooth jazz division following suit.

cover**Over the holidays, my jazz photographer friend Cary Gillaspie and I were going over our respective top ten lists for 2003, and he told me that Art Good, host of the syndicated JazzTrax show and promoter of the Catalina Jazz Festival, picked Jeff Golub’s Soul Sessions as his top pick. I remember being blown away by it as well, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t included it in my Top Ten or runner up lists. Most likely, it was a scheduling issue, as Jazziz asked me to compile the list just before the Golub CD came out. Embarrassed by my oversight, I urge all lovers of blues, rock and funky jazz to enjoy this disc at once.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Michael McDonald, Motown (Motown) – The husky voiced Doobie goes groovy on this shimmering tribute, a Grammy nominated adult contemporary valentine to an era that continues to serenade us. As good as it is, it makes me hungry for the originals.
2) A Smooth Jazz Affaire (Native Language)
3) Richard Smith, Souldified (A440 Music)
4) Elton John, Here and There (MCA)
5) Down To the Bone, Cellar Funk (Narada Jazz)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:09 PM

March 6, 2004

Contempo March 2004

coverThe cover of Chris Standring’s 2000 hit album Hip Sway features the bespectacled guitarist wearing a cool suit and crouching on a curb while holding his Robert Benedetto arch top jazz guitar. The implication is, he’s going places, career and otherwise. Good thing that his chosen instrument is portable enough to count as carry on luggage, because traveling - geographically, stylistically and even through time - is a key element in the lives and music of Standring and many of his fellow top smooth jazz guitarists.

Standring’s first important trip was moving from London to L.A. for a year at age 20. He started hanging out at the famed Baked Potato club, listening to guitar masters like Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. Ford advised the young musicians that if he wanted to work in the studios, he should start a band when he returned to England. Standring heeded the advice, using his classical studies as an excuse to play jazz every free hour of the day while enrolled at the London College of Music.

Some ten years later, he took another transatlantic flight, this one for a more permanent stay to make L.A. his home. While pursuing session work, he jammed in clubs at night with a fiery type of fusion that he now dismisses as self-indulgent. He has a two word answer for his fans who wondered how he went from trying to be the next Allan Holdsworth to being the retro-soul minded, hook conscious smoothie who would someday be hip and funky enough to call a recording Groovalicious (2003): Rodney Lee.

coverThe guitarist first met Lee, his longtime keyboardist and collaborator, when the two played behind pop singer Lauren Christy (who later evolved into a member of the pop hitmaking trio The Matrix). “He helped me reshape my sound and introduced me to the funkier side of jazz,” says Standring. “I was influenced heavily by Wes Montgomery and Jeff Beck growing up, and he was the Parliament Funkadelic guy. We appreciated each other’s separate backgrounds and clicked immediately, first when we formed Solar System for one album and then when I went solo and released Velvet (1998).”

Cue the time traveling music. Groovalicious’ retro tastes move up a decade from the decidedly 60s vibe of Hip Sway, firmly into those deep funk pockets of the 70s (with the possible exception of the Lee Morgan-styled “Say What!”). You’ll swear Marvin Gaye is waking from the dead to join in on the irresistible choruses, throbbing grooves and party atmosphere of the latest single “Miss Downtown Sugar Girl.”

“The feel for the bass and drums is a bit thicker and deeper and the groove and horn arrangements show the inspiration of a lot of our favorite 70s funk acts like Parliament, Cameo, Ohio Players, Average White Band and, of course, Earth, Wind & Fire,” Standring adds. “It’s great shifting gears a bit each time out. Conventional wisdom says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but I say, break it!”

Explaining the ongoing appeal of the electric guitar to smooth audiences inundated with saxmen, he says, “I think it goes back to the rock and roll days, a tangible connection to the guitar gods of the past. There’s just something about the way you can feel a guitar string and make it sustain a direct sound coming out of an amp.”

coverRichard Smith has done most of his traveling as a longtime member of saxman Richard Elliot’s band throughout the 90s. Most of the original songs he wrote for his A440 Music debut Souldified (his eighth solo album since 1988) were written while living for a time in Europe before returning to L.A. But the cover-happy smooth jazz radio format instantly gravitated to the one cool retro moment, a spirited twist on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sing a Song.”

When he’s not globe and time trotting, he’s busy raising up the next generation of great guitarists as chairman of the studio and jazz guitar department at the Thornton School at USC. Last year, he also founded GuitarMasters, a community outreach program for at-risk youth that provides free lessons, classes, guitars and mentoring in South Central L.A. through the Challenger Boys and Girls Club.

Even within the often rigorous confines of academia, Smith uses his smooth jazz experiences to help expand the creativity of his charges. “Smooth jazz celebrates the inclusive tradition of jazz, rather than the archival elements which are tempting for so many educational environments,” he says. “Jazz incorporates a wide spectrum of tempos and degrees of difficulty, and students can explore more of their potential by not limiting the perceptions of their chosen idiom.”

coverUSC also has the only flamenco guitar program of its kind at a major university. Which leads us to another well-worn traveler, Marc Antoine, whose six smooth jazz releases have all featured a hybrid gypsy/Latin/flamenco/Spanish foundation. For the past few years, he has lived in Madrid, the name of his 1998 release and also the birthplace of his wife Rebecca. But he was born in Paris and played jazz and Afro-pop in the clubs there before moving to London to pursue a professional career. He later lived in L.A.

All of this frequent flier buildup makes him a joyful non-purist. “I can’t play classical like a purist, or bebop, or Latin,” he says. “I just take elements of whatever’s out there and make it my own.” Over the years, he’s beautifully chronicled his fascinating musical wanderlust via recordings bearing titles about the ongoing journey — Universal Language (2000), Cruisin’ (2001) and Madrid (1998). Finding a cool, exotic and decidedly Latin leaning oasis, Antoine stays joyfully grounded in his adopted homeland of Spain on his latest release, Mediterraneo, his first for Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment.

“The most important element of my career has been the fact that I’m always open to new places, styles and experiences,” he says. “There’s always a great travel element to my music, and I’m always wanting to experiment with new ideas and influences. Maybe being a Gemini goes along with being a gypsy, a sense of never wanting to settle in one place. Paris is home, London was home, Los Angeles was home, now I’m settling into Madrid, and it’s also my home. My wife’s relatives are there, and my family is not far, in Brittany and the South of France. No matter where I am, I’m always going home.”


coverSmooth jazz fans didn’t have to just dream of a White Christmas in late 2003 as acoustic guitarist Peter White, after several years with the Dave Koz holiday tour, launched his own with saxtress Mindi Abair. He joked that he created the show so as to have an excuse to get out of holiday shopping, but more importantly, he had a chance to play selections from his underrated 1997 disc Songs of the Season. “The Blond and the Bloke,” as he jokingly referred to himself and Abair, performed Thanksgiving Weekend at Lake Tahoe’s North Shore Jazz Festival, held at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort. The crowd wasn’t quite as large as the night before for the latest incarnation of the Koz tour, but everyone had a blast as he and Abair traded hits, let their hearts be light, and ended with a rousing singalong version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Abair needed a little something to sell outside the ballroom door, and came up with the two song disc featuring the adorable vocal original “I Can’t Wait For Christmas” and a muscular cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Speaking of traveling, White planned the tour so as to visit places the old Koz tour frequently skipped over — Boston, Annapolis and Huntington, Long Island. It ended with a show at the Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) The Cooler (Commotion Records) – The explosive jazz score to this powerful Las Vegas based film features heavy brass and lush trumpet solos by composer Mark Isham. Also on tap are Diana Krall and Bobby Caldwell, who sizzles on “Luck Be a Lady.”
2) Ruben Studdard, Soulful (J Records)
3) Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys (J Records)
4) Windham Hill Chill 2 (Windham Hill)
5) Jim Brickman, Peace (Windham Hill)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:09 PM

February 2, 2004

Contempo February 2004

When the word came down that February was a special Miles Davis Tribute Issue, I had to chuckle. Its kind of like an oldies station declaring an All Elvis weekend when are oldies stations not in Elvis worship mode? And has there ever been an issue of Jazziz without at least one reverential mention of Miles? Like his fellow one name only icons Bird, Dizzy and Trane, Miles spirit and influence is as pervasive in jazz circles as the wind, even among smooth jazz artists. Not simply for his lyrical and romantic trumpet playing, but for his commitment to growth and innovation. Skeptics who get upset when artists do too many cover songs should realize the magic Miles brought to everything from "My Funny Valentine" to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" (which appears on over 20 Miles CDs and compilations!).

MilesDavis.jpgI had an immediate fantasy of setting up a great panel discussion to talk about the enduring meaning of Miles. First would be actor/sometimes trumpeter Peter Robocop Weller, who got to hang out and travel some with Mr. Davis in his last year of touring. Weller once told me about his first meeting, when he walked backstage and Miles turned around slowly to him and muttered in his inimitable rasp, Robo-COP? But I have no idea how to get in touch with him now. Rick Braun, whose dashing Euro-inspired album Esperanto is one of the genre hits of the year, always got a kick out of that story, so he would be ideal, too. But he was on vacation in Germany visiting his in-laws as I wrote this. And Mark Isham, the great trumpeting film scorer whose snazzy-jazzy score for The Cooler on Commotion/Koch Records stands brilliantly on its own, once did a project called Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project. Couldnt connect with him, either.

Fortunately, somewhere in between Dave Koz's Saxophonic and Christmas tours, Chris Botti was reachable for a moment at home in New York City. After world tours with Sting and Paul Simon, and a ten year strong career helping bring the trumpet into the mainstream of smooth jazz, the Oregon native finally got around to recording "My Funny Valentine" on his sultry as always new disc A Thousand Kisses Deep. The breezy first radio single "Indian Summer" is seducing listeners into the deeper treasures of the recording, but the spiritual heart is the tender, much space between the notes rendition of "Valentine", with only Billy Childs understated piano accompaniment.

Botti claims his musical life was changed as a kid when he first heard Miles 14 plus minute version of the song, played live in 1964 at the Avery Fisher Hall with George Coleman, future legend Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.

Do I want to talk about Miles? Botti enthused. He's only the greatest musician who ever lived! That song just turned the key for me. What drew me in was his ability to soften the trumpet from its be-bop roots into something more beautiful, lyrical and haunting. He was much more sensual than my early heroes like Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, and helped me appreciate the idea that melodies could be stronger if played with an economy of notes. As I developed my own playing style, listening to his recordings helped bring out a darker side of my playing, and I found the darkness to be quite beautiful. On a purely musical level, with anything that Ive done well in my career, I tip my cap to Miles.

Having told Botti that my fantasy panel didnt come together as planned, he happily obliged me with more quotables regarding his favorite subject. When he bought his first Manhattan apartment on 77th Street, he was floored that he shared a common wall with the building next door where his hero once lived. Not surprisingly, then, Botti sometimes referred to Miles in the present tense, as if his spirit has always been present even as the body has been absent for 12 years: Hes fearless and amazing, and no one has ever come close. Hes all about the way music could take you to a deep, emotional place, finding those real brooding emotions in the space between the notes. When people think of Miles, its never about high or low register or one particular song. Its his ability to communicate melodies and feelings. Romance was his driving force. His impact endures, and its a joy to turn my younger fans onto him when they ask who inspired me. I think hes the reason why I never played flugelhorn on any of my albums. From the first time I heard him, the trumpet was my sole obsession.


coverMEMORIES OF CATALINA: Several bright musical moments stand out from the second weekend of the 17th Annual Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival: what a fantastic live performer Mindi Abair has become (she performed there last year before the release of her hit debut It Just Happens That Way, and its success seems to have inspired a deeper confidence); what a soulful singer Hiroshima lead vocalist Terry Steele is; how much better the Lee Ritenour/Gerald Albright Twist of Motown tribute would have been had it been ALL Motown songs; how sad it is that the sizzling Denver ensemble Dotsero (featuring saxman Stephen Watts) has not achieved genre superstar status despite a sound this explosive; and how much more effective Dutch groovemaster and windplayer Praful's sexy beats and exotic melodies are in dance clubs (like the aftershow party at The Landing) than on center stage.


STOCKING STUFFERS: By the time you read this, youll be breaking your New Years resolution to lose that holiday weight, but why not trumpet the best new sounds of this past Christmas season? On Peace (Windham Hill), romantic piano sensation Jim Brickman did a sequel of sorts to 1997s classic The Gift, blending graceful piano renditions of carols and new songs with exciting, larger productions featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama, Kristy Starling and Collin Raye. The Yellowjackets get festive and moody on Peace Round (available only at their website www.yellowjackets.com). But its the surprises from lesser known artists that have best enduredthe sizzling and brassy pop-fusion energy of Florida-based funk-jazz ensemble Plan 9 tackling the classics on The 9 Days of Christmas (available via www.plan9theband.com); the jazzy-gospel flavored This Christmas by vocalist Clairdee (Declare Music); and Grammy nominated songstress Chris Bennett's subtle and sensuous mix of acoustic jazz and contemporary pop (including some emotional homespun originals), When I Think of Christmas (Rhombus).


coverMUSICAL VALENTINE: If your dance partner is a fan of Latin music, forget the Whitman Sampler hearts and embrace Armik's Romantic Dreams (Bolero Records). It's ironic that they released this disc to specially coincide with Valentine's Day 2004, as if it's presenting a different, more romantic side of the brilliant modern flamenco player's artistry. The truth is that while he's never gotten the attention of Ottmar Liebert, his music has been for ten years a vibrant and ultra sensuous part of the whole Nouveau Flamenco movement. The vibrant production colors help the guitarist keep grounded in a Latin setting, but the focus throughout is more on the picture perfect melodies and sweet atmospheres, which sometimes play like a film score to the listener's romantic daydreams.


WHAT IM LISTENING TO:

1) Seal, Seal IV (Warner Bros.) Love is indeed divine when its sung about by this sensuous voiced modern soul giant with the retro-ambient edge. If your faith in life, love and spirituality is waning, hes the cure. 2) The Cooler (Commotion/Koch) Jazzy soundtrack fun with a Mark Isham Score and performances by Bobby Caldwell and Diana Krall 3) The Red West (Atlantic) cool, thoughtful modern rock from a dynamic new West Coast band 4) Steve Tyrell, This Guy's in Love (Columbia) Speaking of musical valentines 5) Nnenna Freelon, Live (Concord Records) If you cant see this dynamic diva live, at least you'll have this very listenable facsimile.

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 9:19 PM

December 14, 2003

Contempo December 2003

Despite the obvious differences in their unique approaches to the art of pop-jazz vocalizing, Al Jarreau and Michael Franks for many years traveled a similar road both creatively and commercially. Both signed with Warner Bros. in 1975, an exciting era when radio playlists were more openminded, traditional jazz radio stations still existed and artists with one of a kind styles and visions were given a chance to thrive. The success of Franks’ 1976 debut The Art of Tea — which featured his trademark hit, “Popsicle Toes” — and numerous other recordings helped define a time when clever wordplays sung with ultra gentle, jazzy vocals were beautifully rewarded. Likewise, Jarreau’s We Got By launched a career where pop, jazz and R&B influences could co-exist on a single album, and radio had no trouble playing it all. Jarreau is still the only singer in history to win Grammys in all three categories (he has five total).

AlJarreau.jpgClose to 30 years later, both are still alive and kicking, hitting high on the Billboard Contemporary jazz charts, thriving mostly because of intensely loyal fan bases - but finding it increasingly difficult to get new material exposed at radio. As radio has become a more consolidated business, and demographic research and the bottom line have replaced true creativity in programming, new vocalists have been increasingly shut out. The smooth jazz format is more apt to play R&B oldies than anything new. Still, somehow, Al Jarreau sneaks in the cracks and received solid airplay with his last two GRP releases, Tomorrow Today and All I Got.

“I’m tickled to death to be played wherever I can be played, whether it’s on smooth jazz or other stations,” he says. “They can play me on country, next to polka, wherever. I’m lucky because I know it’s hard to be a vocalist in this day and age trying to be heard, unless your name is Norah Jones. I’m saddened that the jazz stations of the 70s and 80s have disappeared, and you can only hear the music of legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock on college stations. Smooth jazz is a necessity for me because I can’t get played on the R&B stations, where hip-hop dominates over pop singers like myself, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. The industry has changed, and guys like me have to find a way to survive it and figure out how to reach new and younger audiences.

“I go to Germany and France, and they still play me alongside hip-hop artists, and that’s the way it should be,” the singer adds. “Teenagers are digging it, and they’re realizing some of the songs on All I Got are as fresh and hip as anything Ja Rule is doing. But they need to be exposed to it. If someone like me came along today in the U.S. with the way radio is, I’d never get a deal.”

MichaelFranks.jpgMichael Franks strongly agrees, bluntly stating, “The smooth jazz format has changed so drastically that I don’t think it has any viability whatsoever for new vocalists.” For some reason, perhaps because his success is based on literate, poetic songs that are more about subtle panache than the groove, Franks became persona non grata as the genre shifted under the programming auspices of the market research firm of Broadcast Architecture.

This is a far cry from the beginning of the format, when Franks was hailed as one of its posterchildren. From the late 80s through the early 90s, when smooth jazz began under the name “New Adult Contemporary,” Franks’ classics were in heavy rotation, and his new material was added regularly to playlists. His 1993 hit Dragonfly Summer was the last of his recordings to enjoy regular airplay.

“Then all of a sudden, BA comes along and tells me that according to their research, my songs didn’t test well, based on listener responses to maybe 15 seconds of them,” he explains. “So I got shut out, and have had to readjust to the way the record companies can market my work. Fortunately, my sales have not been as affected as I first thought they might be. The genre as it is now doesn’t sell as many records as it did in the early days because it’s programmed more and more as an ambient lifestyle experience, and so many of the instrumental songs that are played are indistinguishable from the next one. Which is unfortunate for the listener and artist.”

Franks doesn’t tour as much as he used to, playing maybe 15 to 20 dates in the U.S. and going to Japan once or twice a year. Ironically, even the stations that seem forbidden to play him will book him for festival and winery dates that they sponsor — he’s still that popular among smooth jazz fans. He’s often the headliner, and a top instrumental artist who gets tons of airplay — he mentions Chris Botti — is billed as the opening act.

cover“When I’m at these events, I hang out with all the DJs who remember life before Broadcast Architecture, and they all say they’re sorry they don’t play me anymore,” Franks says. “It’s kind of bittersweet to be introduced by them, but I’m grateful that fans still like to buy my records and see me perform. Even with the numbers I’m doing now, I can still debut on the Contemporary Jazz charts in the Top Five. What keeps me going is the appreciation I have for this type of fan loyalty, and knowing that they still want to hear more from me.”

Jarreau is currently in the talking stages with Tommy LiPuma about his next recording for Verve, which we can expect perhaps next year. Franks is enjoying a positive reaction to this past spring’s release of The Michael Franks Anthology: The Art of Love on Warner Special Products. Columbia Records in Japan has signed on to release his upcoming holiday-winter themed disc Watching the Snow, which features all new material. He plans to sell it from his website (michaelfranks.com) while he seeks a U.S. distributor.

ParkCityJazzFest.jpgPARK CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL: Over the weekend of August 22-24, I had the privilege of attending the 6th Annual Fidelity Investments Park City Jazz Festival in Park City, Utah. Less than an hour ride from Salt Lake City up a beautiful, lush and green mountainous highway to an altitude of approximately 7000 feet, Park City is a hugely popular ski resort in the winter and a picture perfect locale for jazz in the late summer. Main Street, with all its cool Western architecture, gift shops, art galleries and wonderful restaurants, is the centerpiece of the Park City experience.

The festival was created by co-founders Lew and Arlene Fine, Boston natives who relocated later in life to Park City, who saw the festival as a way of giving back to the community. The goal of the festival, they explained, is to integrate entertainment and education, and much of the festival proceeds go to various scholarships aimed at Utah music students. On Friday and Saturday at Park City High School, well known musicians Airto Moreira, Larry Carlton and Rob Mullins conducted clinics for both youngsters and adults interested in learning more about their careers, influences, inspirations, techniques and survival in the industry.

Two unique aspects of the Park City Jazz Festival are the switch between two different venues and the starting times, which were early evening on Friday and Saturday and mid-afternoon on Sunday. Friday evening and Sunday afternoon’s shows were held at the Deer Valley Resort Outdoor Amphitheatre, with the crowd gathered at the base of a huge ski slope to watch Stigers, Brazilian husband and wife legends Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim and BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) on Friday, then Jonathan Butler, Greg Adams and straight ahead vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater on Sunday. It rained heavily earlier on both days, but the folks using blankets and chairs on the lawn didn’t seem to mind the wet grass as they grooved to BWB and Adams, who were in particularly funky form.

Saturday’s slate of the always charming Joyce Cooling, Larry Carlton (mixing some edgy fusion with his pop hits) and Gerald Albright (whose show was the most exciting of all nine by far, the perfect Saturday night closer!) was held at the far more intimate and picturesque The Canyons Forum Outdoor Amphitheatre.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) The Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones, New York City (Koch) — This delightfully surprising six song set shows us a bluesy, pre-stardom Norah Jones kicking it up with the NYC based guitarist’s group. Jones fans will be tickled by the different approach from her own CD, and I will recommend this one to her non fans who find that effort too slow and mellow. Too bad it’s so short.
2) Rick Braun, Esperanto (Warner Bros.)
3) Alex Bugnon, Southern Living (Narada Jazz)
4) Dave Koz, Saxophonic (Capitol)
5) Candy Dulfer, Sax A Go Go (BMG)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 11:57 AM

November 8, 2003

Contempo November 2003

coverAsk smooth jazz whiz kid-turned genre star Brian Culbertson about his chief influences, and you might expect the keyboardist to list guys like Joe Sample, George Duke and Chick Corea — melodic and improvisational innovators whose success paved the way for his own. He’ll get to that list eventually, but there’s no doubt that growing up in Chicago, horn players and horn bands were the true catalyst for his ultimate musical development. His father Jim, a high school jazz band director, was a trumpet player and Culbertson — who started playing trombone so he could join a school band himself - couldn’t get enough of Chicago, Tower of Power, Maynard Ferguson, David Sanborn and The Brecker Brothers.

Is that perhaps the reason that his series of bestselling recordings over the past decade feature so many sax-keyboard lead melodies, brass sections and horn harmonies? Come On Up, his latest hit on Warner Bros, features longtime Culbertson compatriot and fellow Windy City native Steve Cole (who was the keyboardist’s sideman while cultivating his own solo career) on two key tracks, including the raucous first single “Say What?” and Rick Braun on the moody “Last Night.” Or does the overwhelming success of sax (and Braun’s trumpet) on smooth jazz radio mean that a keyboardist must have that sound to receive airplay?

“The genre definitely has a love affair with the sax, but the reason I like using it on my songs has to do with writing good arrangements, something I keep getting better at,” Culbertson says. “The piano’s notes are transitory, while the sax gives you longer notes. So if I’m looking for a strong hook sometimes, I want to double the piano with it. It takes home the emotion a little more. The second single, ‘Serpentine Fire,’ kicks without that. I never do anything just to get played. What gets airplay and attention are songs with good melodies, hooks and grooves. Horns just add punch where it seems appropriate.”

In a genre where sax players are the most recognizable faces (think Kenny G, Dave Koz, Boney James), Culbertson believes that playing keys helps him stand out. Listeners may have trouble distinguishing one sax god from another, but when a piano oriented track comes on, chances are they can say with confidence who it is.

“There are always 500 new sax players trying to break through, and that’s probably because it’s the instrument that has brought the most success to smooth jazz,” he adds. “Sax used to be used a lot in pop music, but these days is very much pigeonholed as a traditional or contemporary jazz instrument. If you play sax well, this is where you’ve got to be. On the other hand, piano and keyboard players have more options in terms of musical genres. Every rock and R&B band needs a keyboard player. Instrumental music is just one viable alternative.”

Culbertson has also, on occasion, played a little trombone on his recordings. Over the years, as he’s developed into one of the genre’s most dynamic live performers, he’s also spiced things up by jumping up, running around the stage and blowing away. “I enjoy the freedom of cutting loose and wailing, and like most keyboardists, I get a little stir crazy just having to stand in one place. It allows me to be mobile. I still toy with the idea of doing a trombone record someday.”

coverLike Culbertson, Kevin Toney — whose new, funk drenched and elegance spiced Shanachie outing Sweet Spot, is one of the best discs of the year - is a popular melodic pianist and keyboardist with a great appreciation for classic horn players, albeit from a previous generation — Bird, Trane and Lester Young. Toney, who launched his career as a member of the 70s R&B outfit The Blackbyrds, has a ready explanation for the sax’s dominance over piano in both generations as the most popular instrument: “People want a sound that emulates the human voice, because that brings them closer to the emotion of a song. The piano is the only instrument that can play a complete arrangement of any song without accompaniment, but it doesn’t touch the heart the same.”

Still, Toney prefers letting his primary instrument carry the weight of the songs, without sax accompaniment. A notable exception on the new project is “Coast To Coast,” which features labelmate Pamela Williams on soprano sax. “One of the reasons I do my records without horns is that there are so many out there and I really strive to be different,” he says. “I’ve been told by record and radio people alike that songs with sax sell more records, but I’m a pianist and I like to feature what I do best. Like Brian says, making a keyboard oriented album gives us an edge, a healthy alternative. I have a lot of things I want to say, and I can say them like this. I could use tons of keyboards and use synth for the main melody more than I do, but focusing on the piano is my way of keeping the human element front and center.”

cd_bestof.jpgEARTHLY DELIGHTS: Mark Winkler is an L.A. based singer/songwriter who since the late 1980s has mastered both smooth and straight ahead jazz, applying his deft lyrics and cool phrasing to both types of projects over the years. In June, I profiled his latest and one of his best labor of loves ever, Sings Bobby Troup, which updated the “Route 66” songwriter’s tunes for the modern martini lounge era. Winkler’s prodigious catalog extends back nearly 20 years, and he recently struck a deal with the Varese Sarabande label to compile 16 top tracks on The Best of Mark Winkler: Garden of Earthly Delights. The tunes reflect a wide range of styles, and the marketing hook is such that even if you’re new to the vocal experience, the great musicians he’s played with should pique your interest. Among those on hand are Gerald Albright, David Benoit, Boney James, Brian Bromberg, Dianne Reeves, The Rippingtons, Joe Sample, Tom Scott and Dan Siegel. A real treasure from an often underappreciated talent.

HOT SUMMER JAZZ: Everyone makes a huge deal of the annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, but Southern California smooth jazz fans know the best festival for “our” kind of music is also the (literally) hottest at Central Park in Old Town Pasadena. The mid-July weekend featured temperatures well into the 90s and powerful performances by Euge Groove, Acoustic Alchemy (back to their guitar focus after a sensuous and funky flirtation with lots of horns), Gerald Albright with Jonathan Butler and, closing it down on Saturday night, the funk-intensive BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown).

ALL ABOARD – Last month, this column profiled an upcoming genre event that will hopefully become a popular annual tradition with a touch of exotica, a la my favorite event, The Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. The 3rd Annual Smooth Jazz Cruise aboard the Costa Atlantica (part of the Costa Cruise Line), headed for the Western Caribbean January 18-25, was an immediate sellout, leading DaVinci Travel to offer a second week of smooth jazz cruising to the Eastern Caribbean (San Juan, St. Thomas, St. John, Nassau, etc.) from January 25-February 1. The musical lineup for the second week includes Warren Hill, Jeff Golub, Euge Groove, Marion Meadows, Chieli Minucci, Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum, Peter White and Alexander Zonjic making the nights at sea funky and smooth. For information and reservations, please call the Davinci Travel Group, 800-887-4379 or check out www.smoothcruise2004.com.

What I’m listening to:

1) Eva Cassidy, American Tune (Blix Street) — The late songstress who became renowned long after her passing seems to have left a lot of incredible recordings behind that friends and former bandmates keep finding. This latest batch finds her redefining tunes made famous by Billie Holliday, The Beatles, Paul Simon and even Cyndi Lauper.
2) Kirk Whalum, Into My Soul (Warner Bros.)
3) Jimmy Sommers, Lovelife (Higher Octave)
4) David Lanz, Cristofori’s Dream (Narada)
5) Vince Guaraldi, The Charlie Brown Suite & Other Favorites (Bluebird)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 4:38 PM

October 4, 2003

Contempo October 2003

sjcruise2004.gifIn the fall of 2000, I had the distinct pleasure to experience a week of paradise mixing two of the great loves of my life — smooth jazz and travel to exotic, windswept places with miles of golden beaches and aqua blue water. For one week, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ venerable SS Norway headed from Miami to the Western Caribbean, in the process magically transforming into a smoothie experience of a lifetime.

Imagine lolling on the beach in St. Maarten and shopping in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas by day, then listening to Craig Chaquico, Jonathan Butler, Patti Austin and Warren Hill at night? For genre fans who love personally mingling with their favorite stars, I thought, what could be more exciting than having them as a captive audience on a ship, surrounded only by breeze and blue, for a week?

While I was enjoying my fancy suite with a view, the outstanding shows and my first dips ever into the steamy tides of the Caribbean, Warren Hill struck up some interesting conversations with Peter D’Attoma, owner for 25 years of the Akron, Ohio based Davinci Travel Group, which signed on a large contingent of Midwestern based fans for the cruise. Both on board and throughout the following months, the two discussed what they liked and disliked about the event, and how they might have made it an even greater experience.

In the meantime, the original promoters’ goals of making this an annual event fell through, creating an opening for Hill and D’Attoma’s talks to take shape as an upcoming, exciting new reality. On January 18, 2004, the Italian based Costa Cruise Lines’ Costa Atlantica sets sail from Miami for a weeklong jaunt through the Western Caribbean, including stops in Key West, Cozumel, Ocho Rios (Jamaica) and Grand Cayman. Over two thousand enthusiastic smooth jazz fans will be joined by a slate of genre all-star performers — Peter White, Jeff Golub, Kirk Whalum, Chieli Minucci, Euge Groove and Marion Meadows (who played on the 2000 cruise) — in addition to singer Angela Bofill and popular flutist Alexander Zonjic. Their host? None other than the guy who booked them, Warren Hill, who also happens to be headlining.

“There are a lot of great jazz festivals out there, but our goal is to create a one of a kind experience, mixing the luxuries of a world class cruise line, the beauty and fun of these tropical islands and nights full of the best smooth jazz artists I know,” says Hill. “A lot of those signing up are first time cruisers who used to think ships were full of retirees. We’ve been successful at showing them that the audience will be the types that attend most of the regular festivals. There’s so much potential to make this the ultimate event.

“Peter knows the travel and cruise business,” he continues, “and I know the artists and managers, so we each have our strengths. Both schedule wise and creatively, I could look at the gig from an artist’s perspective. I like to think I’m creating a dream gig for myself, and I simply made a wish list of artists and started making calls. We’re basically offering them and their families a great working vacation. January seemed to be the perfect time to both cure the post Christmas blues for some, and offering something more fun and self-indulgent for those whose holidays are full of stressful obligations.”

While the more challenging elements of Hill’s role have instilled in him a newfound respect for what promoters go through, he’s excited about the prospect of creating an ongoing event, annually or perhaps bi-annually. “Already, as the buzz has got going and the best cabins (which start at $829 per person, double occupancy) are selling out, other artists are calling me, wondering why I didn’t ask them,” he says. “I really believe that if everything goes as well as we expect it to, artists will be calling me to sign up for the next cruise. It’s fun to create this kind of excitement.”

Hill describes the Costa Atlantica enthusiastically, noting all of its lush amenities, from a top of the line spa and health club to lovely Italian décor and great food, plus the Coral Lounge, which is actually a lounge made from a bed of coral! Also key are the concert facilities, including the 1,300 seat theatre and secondary lounge which will accommodate Hill’s goal of featuring a total of four artists a night for six nights, plus a midnight jam session for the headliners and their supporting players. Hill is also trying to coordinate a series of master classes, taught by some of the featured musicians, for passenger fans who are also fledging players. Smooth Jazz TV will be on board, chronicling the festivities for fans who need further proof that this may just be the genre’s premier event for years to come.

For more information and reservations, call Davinci Travel Group at 800-887-4379, visit www.smoothcruise2004.com or send email requests to davincitravel@msn.com.

coverSMOOTH AFRICA ARRIVES: In conjunction with the magazine’s world music issue this past May, I featured an interview with Dave Love, President of Heads Up Records whose love for the music and beauty of South Africa (and appreciation of that country’s explosive interest in smooth jazz) has led him to create the Smooth Africa recording franchise. Smooth Africa II, the long awaited sequel to the 2000 release, is every bit as spirited, funky and celebration-driven as the first, an exciting cultural exchange featuring label artists (and popular SA live attractions) Joe McBride, Andy Narell and even Spyro Gyra (an immediate smash hit when they played the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival) jamming between tracks by heretofore unsung (at least to us Americans) native performers and some we Stateside fans know well, including the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The more notable of these are guitarist Jimmy Dludlu (who drives the playful rhythms of “Walk of Life”), singer/guitarist Allou April (joined by a lush wordless vocal chorus on his Cape Town hit “Bringing Joy”) and vocalist/guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi, one of the country’s greatest stars whose raspy tones capture the gentle emotions of “Neria,” title song from a Zimbabwean film soundtrack. McBride’s happy keyboard funk and Andy Narell’s cool island “Punch” are joined by several local musicians. The title of Spyro Gyra’s festive closer “Cape Town Love” sums up the vibe of this engaging international extravaganza.

RISING STARS: Keep your ears attuned to three new solo artists currently trying to break into the ranks of the tightknit handful of regulars we see on the charts and festival lineups over and over. Smooth jazz has never been overly kind to violinists, despite the moderate success of brilliant composers and performers like Doug Cameron and Charlie Bisharat (both of whom have been off the commercial radar for a few years). A cool, midtempo burst of passion like Noel Webb’s “Fever” (from The Soul of Noel Webb on Labrador Records) could change the instrument’s fortunes. He’s romantic and melodic, into great grooves and slick production, and — if programmers would give him a shot - radio friendly.

coverI’ve only heard the crisp, brass-tinged funk single “She’s So Fine” by Blake Aaron (from Bringin' It Back on Innervision Records), but his slick electric guitar packs some strong, Jeff Golub-like punch, and Greg Adams’ trumpet adds snazzy texture. An even better guitarist, and one you’ve probably heard before working for the likes of Quincy Jones, David Foster, Whitney Houston and George Duke, is Ray Fuller. His R&B driven self-released debut The Weeper (A Ray Artists Music) is chock full of his all-star pals — Eric Marienthal, Everette Harp, Phil Perry, Teri Lynn Carrington, Ricky Lawson, and George Duke, who gave him his nickname. While Fuller’s crisp, precise electric strings and brilliant mix of material (both originals and covers of classics from Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane and Teena Marie) stand out, it’s clear that he’s enjoying interacting with the company.

EDUCATIONALLY SPEAKING: This being Jazziz’s education issue, I took it upon myself to ask saxman/cruise talent booker Warren Hill the name of his greatest teacher on his chosen instrument. It took him about two seconds to mention Joe Viola, longtime head of the woodwind department at Berklee College of Music.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Shapes, The Last Farewell (Burnin’ Down the House Productions) – How could someone not appreciate six of L.A.’s top session/club cats (Roger Burn, Michael Higgins, Andy Suzuki, etc) joining with a couple of Yellowjackets (including producer Jimmy Haslip) for a genre-defying jam session that goes bop, bossa, ballad and even a little twangy steel guitar country at times?
2) Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Hip-O Records)
3) Annie Lennox, Bare (J Records)
4) Lizz Wright, Salt (Verve)
5) American Idol Season 2: All Time Classic Love Songs (RCA)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 7:08 AM

August 12, 2003

Contempo August 2003

Peak LogoPerhaps it’s appropriate that the snowy mountain logo of Peak Records also implies something of a challenging climb. Before you hear too many more cries about how narrowminded smooth jazz/Adult Contemporary playlists, prohibitive marketing costs and increasing competition for airplay and shelf space spell doom for independent labels, climb over the apparent obstacles and witness the Malibu, California based label’s growth since becoming a joint venture with Concord Records in 2000.

Gato BarbieriLabel co-founders Andi Howard and Russ Freeman have rode the tide in the smooth jazz game long enough to spot and sign winners with all-important built-in fan bases. Their roster of veterans includes Freeman’s 17 years and going strong supergroup The Rippingtons (which Howard has managed from the start) and saxmen Eric Marienthal and Paul Taylor. When 70 year old legend Gato Barbieri decided to keep his late 90s comeback going, Peak signed him, and last year’s brilliant The Shadow of the Cat is up for Billboard’s Latin Jazz album of the year.

Last year, the influential industry publication Radio & Records nominated Peak for Best Smooth Jazz indie label of the year; this year, the R&R nomination came in the Urban AC category. That’s due to Peak’s success on the R&B side, including Phil Perry and popular 2001 releases by veteran soul divas Regina Belle and Miki Howard. Belle’s This is Regina and Howard’s Three Wishes competed in 2002 in the same Grammy category, Best Traditional R&B vocal album.

The accolades are all the sweeter considering that Howard and Freeman had tried to build Peak as a classic boutique label for nearly ten years with GRP and Windham Hill (who had deals with the Rippingtons), but continued to face, shall we say, corporate obstacles, along the way. The first non-Ripps disc boasting the Peak imprint was by a British vocalist named Mark Williamson in 1993.

Peak Records“The most important element of our relationship with Concord as our partner and distributor is that we value their input, but also have total autonomy,” says Howard. “They believe in what we are doing and trust us to create and sell good music. One of the things we loved about the old GRP before the mid-Nineties regime changes was the family atmosphere where it was all about the music. That’s what we’re about, the artists and their vision. We want to make music that appeals to a lot of different people, that’s artist friendly, and that rises to the challenge of the competitive climate with clever marketing techniques. These include internet campaigns, digi-postcards and showcases to create new fan bases. It’s not always easy being an indie doing marketing promotions at major label prices, and to get the acts we want, we have to stay competitive with those majors as well. But the artist gets the experience of being with a major but with a more friendly attitude.”

Having been one of his genre’s top performers for nearly 20 years, Freeman can empathize with artists seeking a home where they feel appreciated. “In this age of corporate downsizing and consolidating, rosters are shifting pretty quickly,” he says. “Stability is hard to come by. So when they see that they’ll be the third of five artists we’re focused on rather than low on the list of 50 or 100, that’s appealing. They know they’re free to express themselves here, and understand that Peak is all about breaking new ground both creatively and from a marketing standpoint.”

Cassandra ReedThe latest and greatest testament to this is Peak’s newest phenomenon, singer/songwriter Cassandra Reed, whose self-titled debut is currently hitting the shelves.

She had a hit dance record in Japan under Sandy Reed at one point, and numerous majors were interested in signing her. She was introduced to the label via Jason Miles, who produced the Barbieri project, and immediately felt, as Howard says, “like these people ‘get me.’ She didn’t want to go the major route. She knew we would be the right place for her to establish herself in the 25-40 market we sell to.”

It’s easy to see why Peak is excited. Reed’s edgy yet soulful, sultry writing and singing styles have earned her comparisons to everyone from Billie Holliday to Alicia Keys, Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch. The label is also booming in smoothville with two hot new releases by The Rippingtons and Paul Taylor.

RippingtonsFans may wonder why it took so many years for Russ Freeman to use the pun Let It Ripp as an album title, but it’s not just lip service; he’s referring to the take no prisoners, cutting loose and often live in the studio approach that Freeman and his bandmates took to the recording process. Freeman has been so impressed with the dynamics of his revamped lineup (which includes special guest Eric Marienthal on an ongoing basis) that he wanted to feature more of the energy of the live band than on any previous studio project. Freeman’s always taking his fans on musical tours through his many passions, and relocating to South Florida has fostered his Tiger Woods-like dedication to golf. The song “Mr. 3” is named for the idea that if you make a three on a par 4, you’ve birdied the hole; the album packaging features the legendary “jazz cat” on the links, swinging away.

Paul TaylorLike Freeman, the charismatic, dreadlocked Paul Taylor builds on his success by creating new challenges for himself. On Steppin’ Out, these involve using live horns and drums for the first time, playing the vocorder and connecting with Rex Rideout and Barry J. Eastmond, two of modern R&B’s most acclaimed and legendary producers. The vibe on Steppin’ Out is decidedly split between West and East Coasts, as he worked on six tracks in L.A. with Rideout (who first suggested the horns and drums) and five in Manhattan with Eastmond, who encouraged Taylor to include the Herbie Hancock retro vibe of the vocoder—which has also proven a big hit live. It’s classic Taylor cool, but with many impressive new twists.

HEY RUSS: Because this is the blues issue, it made sense to ask Freeman about one of the wilder elements of The Ripps live gig over the years—his crowd pleasing medley of classic Jimi Hendrix tunes “Purple Haze,” “Fire” and “Star Spangled Banner” (a la the classic Woodstock performance). The band did it off the cuff one time and the fan response never let up; it’s now an essential staple of an increasingly more aggressive contemporary jazz experience.

“I think they respond to it because it’s a refreshing break from the sometimes constrictive mode that they’re used to hearing in this genre, and it’s a blast both to play and to listen to,” he says. “I grew up more as a classical guitar buff, but got into blues when I moved to L.A. and started appreciating guys like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Steve Lukather. Hanging around studios, I could see the way young guitarists were tracing back to Hendrix. Nobody comes close to him as an icon or guitar wizard. Hendrix took the blues and put it in the rock format, using a fuzz box, wah wah and other effects. He packaged the blues vocabulary in a new way. I’ve heard that before he died, he was really leaning more towards wanting to record jazz. That would have been interesting.”

Freeman is happy to do his part introducing blues/rock elements to smooth jazz, and appreciates guys like Jeff Golub who do the same. But he believes to be a true bluesman, you’ve got to be like B.B. King and live the life. “I’m always amazed at the depth of influence smooth jazz guitarists have that we don’t get to hear on radio, and much of that is blues,” he says. “But we haven’t really lived it like the legends did. If you’re looking for real blues, smooth jazz just isn’t the place for it.”

FAVORITE BLUES RECORDINGS:

1) Larry Carlton, Renegade Gentleman (1993, GRP) – Just in case all his lighter hearted smooth jazz success made us forget the roaring rock/blues side of this legendary guitarist, he broke free for this incredibly credible, blistering jam session featuring his regular harmonica player Terry McMillan.
2) B.B. King, Blues Summit (MCA, 1993)
3) Blues Brothers 2000 (Universal, 1997)
4) Tony Bennett, Playin’ With My Friends (Bennett Sings the Blues) (Columbia, 2001)
5) Eric Clapton, From the Cradle (1994, Reprise)


Posted by Jonathan Widran at 6:03 PM

July 26, 2003

Contempo July 2003

In the column I wrote in the Spring of 2002 about the 3rd Annual National Smooth Jazz Awards, I offered high praise for the moment in the show when guitarist Joyce Cooling, bassist Jennifer York and saxtress Pamela Williams jammed together in a true display of musical “girl power.” Then came my oft-repeated lament about the strange reality that, despite this moment and the wonderful subsequent performances by Keiko Matsui and Sheila E., smooth jazz is such a male dominated genre. In an age long past the dawn of women’s lib, when women run corporations and Hollywood studios and are regularly appointed to key Cabinet positions and elected to Congress, why do so many jazz fans still think it’s a bonus when an attractive female with a sax or axe in her hand can actually play?

I remembered an interview I did with Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer in 1991, when her laid back instrumental hit “Lily Was Here” was all the rage. Despite her impressive pedigree (her dad was popular sax player, she toured with Prince), she had no problem admitting that all the attention she was getting was less due to her funky, Sanborn-styled alto than her exotic physical attractiveness. Has this changed now that we’ve crossed into the 00’s?

coverWho better to ask than another “hot chick” saxwoman who has a Berklee education, a good decade plus of major side gigs (Backstreet Boys, Jonathan Butler, Adam Sandler) and, by the way, can truly blow the horn — Mindi Abair? Early airplay and consumer response to her long-awaited, crisply produced, fresh alt-pop-edge-funk-smooth-jangly rhythm guitar spiced GRP debut It Just Happens That Way are encouraging. Out of the box, it was a fixture in the Top Ten on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart. Her fresh faced, blond good looks and the fact that she’s dynamite in a mini skirt may pique male hormones, but spin the disc, check her out onstage (as hundreds, including numerous male all-star smoothies, did for her March record release party at Hollywood’s Garden of Eden), and those looks truly become the side attraction.

“The guys I play with both in my band and in others I’ve played with over the years get a kick out of the whole ‘Can she play’ routine,” says Abair over lunch at a trendy Hollywood eatery near her home. “When I toured with Adam in ’96, the whole time, fans came up to me after the shows and said it’s extraordinary, it looks like you were actually playing it. Then their jaws dropped when I said, ‘uh, dude, I was.’ I loved playing in all sorts of bands at Berklee and in those developing days, I had less of a sense of humor about it, because of insecurity.

“I think it takes incredible confidence as a woman to be an artist,” she continues via email. “I walk out onstage every night, as a new artist, and I have to prove myself because people expect me to be less than average. I’m not sure men deal with that. They can walk onstage and be at ground zero. They’re expected to be good, and looks don’t come into play. I played the Berks County Jazz Festival recently and one of the promoters came up to me at the end of the week and said that I was the real thing. He said that surprised him because when you see a pretty face, you expect that it’s just an image covering something up. I think one of the reasons I stayed in the industry despite this stereotype is that I don’t mind walking on stage with something to prove. The women I’ve known who have been successful in music have all been self-confident, not bitchy or arrogant, just sure of themselves. It takes that to survive.”

Even with one of the most exciting and listenable and successful genre CDs of 2003 thus far, Abair can’t quite be expected to singlehandedly spark an explosion of new female star power in the genre. Still, she’s encouraged that this is an amazing time for women in jazz and as her ilk becomes more commonplace, people’s fears of a woman pushing boundaries (music, mountain climbing, whatever) will subside. She was encouraged on her world tours with the Backstreet Boys when little girls would come up to her and view her as a role model.

“They’re happy to see that it’s possible for a woman to thrive in a boy dominated club, as if there are no limits anymore,” she says. “When I was younger and fell in love with the sax, there were no women role models, per se. My dad was a big influence and my boys were Sanborn, Cannonball, The Yellowjackets and Wayne Shorter. But no one discouraged me. I don’t hold it against anyone that I’m judged by different standards, but I know there would be more women out there if those standards were a bit easier. I’m doing my part, though. Hopefully after me, sparkly eyeshadow on jazz artists will be more acceptable to the masses.”


coverNext, we take this question to the vocal side of the genre, where Phoenix based R&B/jazz/pop singer Khani Cole seems especially qualified to comment. Her type of steady success gives hope to those who aren’t the one in a million Norah Jones type global phenomenons. Cole has the best of two worlds, doing various tour dates domestically and/or internationally every year while enjoying the comfy fruits of being a regional phenomenon. The sultry voiced Milwaukee native has three popular indie CDs to her credit, and her most recent, the retro-meets-modern soul influenced Lifetime (scheduled for re-release on A440 Music later this year), spawned two European chart hits “Sunshine” and “All About You.”

She’s packed clubs and swanky hotel lounges for ten years in Southern Arizona, leading her band (all males, all brilliant, naturally) before nightly standing room only crowds for seven years running at A Different Pointe of View at The Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs resort. Local radio support has been constant. If we want to know what the smooth jazz elite thinks of her, all we have to do is look at a recent roster of weekend sit-ins at her gig — Brian Bromberg, Eric Marienthal, Nelson Rangell, Michael Lington and Richard Smith.

“There’s something people love about that old fashioned, voice-piano, Fabulous Baker boys style of performing, where a singer can combine belting with the laid back, sexy approach,” she says of her unique niche. “I have some wonderful loyal fans both here in Phoenix and in many other places. They come back many times and bring friends along. There’s a time and a place for the power thing, but people who come to hear adult oriented music want some peace in their lives, something mellow and not overproduced.”

As for the “women in jazz” issue, “I’ve always been a singer, and I’ve been somewhat annoyed by the common misconception that a singer is not a musician, because the voice is truly an instrument. That said, being a singer has always been the more acceptable, traditional role for a woman. It’s been a struggle for those who play instruments to gain credibility, maybe because talented girls growing up just don’t see a lot of success stories with the sax or rock guitar. I always loved the Wilson sisters from Heart because they were great guitar players, but generally people always ask, ‘Can she play?’

“It’s certainly gotten better,” Cole continues, “and there are more women out there doing well who are not singers than ever before. I lead a band full of guys and they’re great to work with. There’s no ego getting in the way. I just expect them to do their best, and they trust me. When a young woman comes up to me and says she wants to do what I do, I tell her if she works hard and is good, everyone, male and female, will respect her. Music fans always want to hear a good, honest female vocalist. It’s a totally viable career.”

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:

1) Rick Derringer, Free Ride (Big3 Records) — What’s amazing is not how much fun it is to hear the guitarist’s classic rockers like “Frankenstein” revamped as cool instrumentals (“Smooth Frank”), but the fact that he’s not on Higher Octave Music, which has helped make adults out of 70s rock legends Craig Chaquico, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain. The originals are a blast, too.
2) Steve Cole, NY LA (Warner Bros.)
3) Streetwize, Work It! (Shanachie)
4) Lisa Marie Presley, To Whom It May Concern (Capitol)
5) Peter Cincotti (Concord)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at 2:17 AM