September 12, 2011

Reza Khan – A Simple Plan

Producer/keyboardist/guitarist Reza Khan definitely knows and handles his niche in music well. His hard-to-pigeonhole style of intermixing a little country, a little rock, and a lot of world influences gives his projects a unique sound that followers of such a blend have to really appreciate.

Here with his latest release, A Simple Plan (a title that I’m sure was inspired by his daughter-inspired song of the same name here), Khan lays out simple catchy melodies representative of lands and settings from every corner of the earth in many ways.

As I implied in my review of his previous release, Painted Diaries, his music touches a special kind of palate. While not for everyone, its appeal is undeniable among “world travelers.”

Khan employs the saxy sax of Andy Snitzer on this project on select tracks, and it only enhances those tunes. My fave here would “Painted Stories” where the saxman exhibits his noteworthy skills passionately. The beautiful finale “September Morning,” with all of its world touch, is a truly appropriate way to end this potpourri of global journeys.

Using the sitar, accordion, and a kind of “riding on horseback into the sunset” approach, this album covers many of the universal moods.

On the jazz side of things, a couple of tracks get the job done. The tunes that come to mind would be “Language of Love,” “Sweetest Things,” and the funky-in-a-country-kind-of-way track, “Funktionality”—this latter piece features a very impressive accordion solo by Viviane Amoux, by the way. The rest of the album is a well-done world-flavored project, especially if you like that “outdoorsy/frontier” kind of world material.

Overall, another fine effort by a fine artist who knows the landscape of his music and how to paint vivid images of it.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:47 PM

July 6, 2011

Nocy -- Simplicity

Spanish flamenco jazz always gets a real lift when veteran guitarist Nocy sets out to produce a new project. His last release, Rise, was truly a testament to his marvelous and sensuous kill at crafting authentic and exotic melodies reminiscent of other lands and islands. His latest, Simplicity, is another stop along this enjoyable journey around the world as he explores not only the attraction of flamenco but the romanticism of Brazilian and salsa music and the beautiful mystique of Japan, In addition to tossing in his own version of reggae, new age, and even country.

This album is dedicated to a big influence and inspiration in the guitarist’s life, his dad, who departed this life last year. The tracks reflect the closeness as you can sense the emotion in each piece which played with definite purpose.

Here's another artist who’s great with a melody, and some will argue that it’s hard not to make good of a Spanish-influenced melody (to which I would beg to strongly differ), Nocy turns simple pieces into great exotic moments. There is one track on which I might differ with him with respect to how he classifies it. His beautiful “Forever Dad,” an obvious tribute to the man he cherished, is indeed soulful but hardly “hip hop,” as he tends to see it. At any rate, whatever you may want to call it, it affects and impacts.

Others of note here—and there are many—include track two’s nice reggae-laced “No Way,” which has some really tight vocals by Felice Hernandez, the riveting “Watashimo (Me Too”), a Japanese-flavored, wonderfully alluring piece with Spanish undertones sung by one Yuka Nakano , the totally moving, rhythmic “Sambaramba,” and “Echa Pa’lante,” among others. Personally, the house music remix of “No Way,” which serves as the finale, could have been omitted, in my opinion. Aside from that, this CD is most appealing.

Nocy’s tradition of fine, Spanish jazz and quality world sounds is in no way in jeopardy as long as he continues producing such material as Simplicity, which stands up proudly with its competition

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:28 AM

November 17, 2010

Urban Funk – Heroes and Legends

Bringing us some East Coast jammin’ is this MD-based group, Urban Funk, which does a really decent job of incorporating a solid group of covers with some competent original material to create Heroes and Legends, a nice collection to add to your smooth jazz goodies.

Designed with the intent, as the group says, “to pay homage and elaborate on the creativity of our teachers, gurus and masters of an art form we love” as well as to “add original material as the culmination of the experiences performing, recording and representing the pulse of the eras in we which we participated,” this album obviously has a direction. The covers are nicely interpreted though only conservatively tweaked. I suppose that was to drive home the point that the approach to these tunes was to preserve the integrity of the compositions and to show respect for the work of those coming before this group. A noble gesture.

The original material suggests that the group didn’t just sit down and bang out a few notes, record them, and thrust them forward without regard to the listening public’s sensitivities.

After a funky and snappy opening track, their original “Urban Phunk,” the group goes right after Steely Dan’s “Josie,” a brave gesture in my opinion, since I highly respect Steely Dan’s work, and it handles it most effectively.

There are other examples of some satisfying quality playing (and singing, as is evidenced on Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love,” sung here quite well by one Tommy Lepson), and you can hear that time was truly used wisely-- and not wasted-- in creating this production.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:28 PM

September 15, 2010

The Eric Evans Project -- Waves of Grace

Flutist Eric Evans describes his latest release, Waves of Grace, as being as much spiritual as it is a smooth jazz offering, and he’ll get no argument from me. While he offers a good deal of smooth and rhythmic jazzy vibes, there’s as healthy a dose of a rather country, southern-style spiritual feel to a quite a few of these tracks, as well. He says, in part, “…waves hug and draw me graciously and consistently to the Spirit of Life and Light that wash over me…bringing light, peace and fullness to a once stranded soul…I am the story of…Waves of Grace.” His light flute melodies and other attractive properties often make this album whatever you feel it to be. It is full of a lot of positive energy and flow.

A lot of these tracks (“Seaside,” “Only You Can Believe,” and “Shoreline Highway” come to mind right now) are nicely enhanced by the “dance” orchestrated between Evans and various guitarists like Lance Taber, Steve Laury, Michael Roe, and Curtis Harvey, performing individually on select tracks. It makes for a decently rich blend, indeed.

Keyboardist Cecil Ramirez is also featured on this project and contributes handsomely, especially evident on a beautiful track called “Finding The Reasons Why,” which simply soars with melody, starting off softly and slowly and building in a measured intensity.

Eric Evans apparently set out to create a CD that spoke more than just conventional smooth jazz. He seems to have wanted to reach out with a message of spirituality and have it be delivered in a palatable manner. Depending upon your state of mind and perspective whenever you settle down with this one, you may find that he achieved his goal. Aside from the solid funkiness found in “Seaside” and the spry upbeat rhythm in “Shoreline Highway,” there’s no real “party down” vibe here, but I think this might strike home for those who would like a change of pace in the form of a cool, rather humble groove for once.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:48 AM

May 17, 2010

James Colah (multiple singles)

I don’t normally review singles, preferring a full CD project, but I found exception in three super smooth and funky singles that you can scoop up on I-Tunes by multi-instrumentalist James Colah. One single called “Ocean Tide” (actually found under The Parlett-Colah Project) glides along with a kind of bop-and-stroll feel that is both joyful, funky, and, yes, even sexy in its own way. It has a marvelous hook that stays with you. Another by the artist, “Better Days,” (performing as The James Colah Project) has that mellow mid-tempo drive with really cool guitar chops, courtesy of one Ant Law, rather reminding one of a Norman Brown or Nick Colionne groove. Bright horns, funky piano, excellent phrasing, and smart chords certainly mark this one as a keeper.

The third single, “Blissful,” (also performed by The Parlett-Colah Project) is loaded with soulful funk and attitude. Highlighted by colorful sax work by Mike Parlett, it had no problem capturing my attention.

For those unfamiliar with Colah, he hails from and still lives in London, England. He’s an accomplished keyboard player, producer, arranger, composer and session man. In a three decade career to date, he has worked as a musical director or session man with a range of high profile international artists which include : Edwin Starr, Ballet Rambert Dance Company, Virgin Records, Sheena Easton, Haysi Fantaysi, Pendragon and EMI. He now steps forward with these singles, and I certainly hope and look forward to a full CD project from him. His talent and insight are clearly evident.

More information on Colah can be found at www.jazznet247.com/jamescolah.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:01 AM

April 25, 2010

Gregg Holsey--Can't Stop

This cool and airy CD, Can’t Stop, from bassist/vocalist Gregg Holsey has a suave, rather debonair R&B/smooth jazz swagger to it that instantly reminds one in spots of the good ol’ Earth, Wind & Fire years, especially when listening to track one, which is also the title track and bears an uncanny resemblance to EW&F’s “That’s the Way of the World.” Nice R&B phrasing and hook.

The entire CD is a very tasteful easy one. While there’s nothing exceptionally innovative or groundbreaking here, it’s an album you can easily display in your library as one that upholds the appeal of “smooth.” Tunes like “Just Cooling,” “Guitar Man,” and “Missing You” do a decent job of blurring the line between R&B and jazz while adding the sweet touch of memorable melodies with some sharp horn action. “The One” has an appealingly bouncy rhythmic groove to it. It could have been almost tropical if he’d gone with what appeared to be developing in the piece. Nonetheless, as a smooth mid-tempo jam with a nice feel, it works.

The one real stand-out observation about this album would be the competent blend of catchy melodies with that laid-back aura about it all. It’s what keeps you connected to the project and listening. Holsey definitely does his part to exclaim that the breath of life in smooth jazz is not exhausted by any means. Take this one on that coastal drive with the top down, and just bask in the glow of the sun and the draw of the smooth melodies that have always served as the signature for smooth jazz.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:13 AM

March 28, 2010

Tomazz – Lucid Dream

Here’s a decently flavorful collection of smooth grooves from Tomazz, an artist who’s been around for a while performing and serving as a keys tech for such artists as Boyz II Men and our beloved late great Grover Washington Jr. His sophomore smooth jazz release, Lucid Dreams, seems to be a gentle, breezy ride along the smooth jazz coastline. Not having heard his first, Orient Bay, released in 2007, I’m not sure if this is a retreat or more of the same from him, but this seems quite capable of standing on its own two legs.

Obviously produced with an abundance of synth work (no other accompaniment is mentioned in the credits), Tomazz starts off with his Hardcastle-like title track and saunters through the remainder of the CD with some pretty impressive melodies and soft vocals that almost seem shy.

All of the 12 tracks are composed exclusively by him and, while I thought I might be in for a lot of repetition, as these synth-only projects often tend to be, Tomazz offers some light and welcome surprises with his display of compositional skills. No, there are no extraordinarily complex runs and riffs here, no mind-blowing bridges or hooks, but the project holds together quite nicely with the tickling of the ivories and the effective way he pulls the bass and rest of the rhythm section around the quaint melodies…and there are genuinely catchy hooks, by the way.

There is an abundance of good ol’ chill-out-and-let-go music that’s meant to massage and soothe. However, while there’s a lot of, as one of his tracks puts it, “Smooth Dancin’” going on, he shows that he’s not afraid to cut loose a bit every now and again, as “Sanctify” demonstrates.

Not a unique CD, but certainly fitting for that lazy afternoon where a good melody will do the trick.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 12:22 AM

March 18, 2010

Steve Raybine -- In the Driver's Seat

Vibraphonist Steve Raybine sets out here on his latest release, In the Driver’s Seat, with the intention of showcasing how all-encompassing vibes can be, especially in the jazz, blues, and even Latin arenas. This album is an attractive collection of grooves, containing both original compositions and well-interpreted covers.

Raybine, for those who may not know, has been respected in many circles as an accomplished vibist who’s worked with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Rick Braun. He’s released two other releases since 2000 (Balance Act and Bad Kat Karma), and, if this latest is any indication, the man is well-rounded in his tastes.

In the Driver’s Seat flirts with smooth jazz, blues, and Latin in an unpretentious way. The album starts with a blues-influenced mid-tempo track, “Step It Up,” that has the vibes front and center, along with a bright array of horns featuring saxman Michael Paulo leading the smooth seduction with his tenor and alto solo offerings. The groove is clearly laid out here for the rest of the album, but one mustn’t make the mistake that it’s the only direction the CD takes, as a Latin gem, “Hummingbird,” pleasantly cha-cha’s its way through just before a flavorful smooth jazz popper called “Coffee Break.” Raybine then heads further down the blues trail with the up-tempo “Strut Your Stuff” and the hot and smoky “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” with sultry vocals by Jennifer Hill. His cover of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” is refreshing, as are his covers of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” the Gerhswin/Heyward classic “Summertime,” and Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love.”

There are a few times when a certain atypical instrument just doesn’t “fit” in a particular style. As has been evidenced by fusion/funk vibist Roy Ayers, the vibes have a home here. Raybine does a great job of punctuating that point with this release.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:54 PM

March 4, 2010

Osaru -- Home With the Keys

This is a good, melodic piece of work from Osaru, a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything on this, his sophomore release, Home With the Keys.

I have to admit that I have a few misgivings about the album, however. As nice as it is, it could have used a good, old fashioned human touch in the form of other live musicians accompanying Osaru on this project, in my opinion. I get it that this is supposed to be a keys/synth-based project, but there is a certain amount of monotony that distracts a bit from this otherwise fine album of really pleasant melodies and hooks.

Still, those melodies are strong enough to make it very difficult not to like this CD. Actually, the CD walks a fine line, in my opinion, between smooth jazz and new age.

Also, you may be able to say that the synth-induced sax has its good and its monotonous moments, but you cannot say that the tunes are, in and of themselves, unpleasant. Tender, with a certain sense of melancholy, the album puts you in the right place if that’s the mood where you find yourself at any given time.

Appealing tunes are not always funky, up-tempo, and in-your-face. Sometimes, a production like this is what’s needed to strike a good balance. As a balancer, Home With the Keys can certainly work.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:30 PM

Lynn Riley -- Too Cool

This debut CD from saxophonist/flutist Lynn Riley, Too Cool, is just that. A cool mix of delicious grooves, controlled funk, and smooth and traditional jazz influences, with a sultry swinging rhythm snaking its way throughout the album.

Lynn Riley is a Philadelphia, PA, native who has seen a large measure of success in the form of recognition via significant awards. Among them are an award from the Trane Stop Resource Institute for her contribution in preserving and promoting Afro-American Classical Music and an award from the National Association of Jazz Educators for Outstanding Service to Jazz Education.

On Too Cool, the traditional jazz influence meshes well with the subtle Caribbean touch, and the funk is as funk should be: bold and in your face. The tasteful and classy sax runs clearly denote one who knows how to milk the scale for all it’s worth and who is all too familiar with the nuances of good smooth jazz.

The opening and funky title track sets a congenial tone that draws you deeper inside to explore the many experiences that Riley paints vividly, both on flute and sax. Speaking of flute, the romantic flair of track 4, “Island Breeze,” is simply seductively exotic and engaging as that flute lulls you into a state of sheer bliss. You can imagine strolling along that island beach without a single care in the world.

After this journey through all of the lovely moods and textures, Riley wraps it all up with the lilting and serene “Pamela.” Most of these tracks were either solely or co-written by Riley’s bassmeister, Rubin Edwards, who clearly shows why he is such a complement and asset to the sax lady.

All of the tunes here are delightfully well-conceived and approached with equal measures of seriousness and fun. Tonally crisp, well structured, and weighty, this is a solid project from start to finish. Lynn Riley shows here that she is truly Too Cool.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:25 PM

Bickley Rivera -- Chillin' After Five

Oh, the innovativeness of many smooth jazz artists. You’ve gotta love it! Here’s an artist whose vocals and keys skills might well have been enough to get her on the smooth jazz radar screen, but Bickley Rivera has taken it a step further and combined an abundance of tenor steel pan in a way that is quite interesting. Here on her debut CD, Chillin’ After Five, there’s not just a Caribbean flavor with the steel pan, but, as she puts it, she knew that “the steel pan had more to say than just Caribbean island notes…the instrument’s acceptance as a solo instrument has begun, and it’s time for fans to experience its full beauty.” Well, while there are noted steel pan artists (Andy Narell comes to mind), Rivera plans to ensure that the instrument gets its just due in this genre. This project is a good start.

With a little guest sax help from Praful and Ed Calle, along with comely melodies and hooks and a groove that just says “chill,” this new, attractive young artist shows us that she knows her way around not only the pans and keys but how to comfortably intermingle her style with the type of magnetic magic that has propelled other artists with a vision to produce a solo signature touch (e.g., Hardcastle and Soul Ballet’s Rick Kelly – though, obviously, with different styles).

Rivera easily captured my attention with the opening and title track and kept me riveted throughout this melodic excursion through her creativity. Certain tracks just take on a life all their own. Cases in point, in addition to the charming title track, would be the Brazilian-influenced “Groovin’ in Rio,” the near-gritty “Pan Funk” (oh, you just have to feel this one), the island-flavored “Sending My Love” with a soothing chorus, and several others (“Caress” does just that to the mind and soul. Just what the doctor ordered after a hard day at the office).

Bickley Rivera should prove to be a really welcome addition to our SJ family, as she tightly and warmly embraces what we hold dear, and vice versa. Chillin’ After Five sounds like a good idea, and with this album in hand, I’d say it’s a great state of mind.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:23 PM

December 27, 2009

Stephan Earl -- Origins

One-man-band Stephan Earl does a nice job here of merging new age with some pretty decent smooth jazz touches on his debut release, Origins. With mellow and soothing tracks that are not at all boring, Earl tickles the ivories and offers us a healthy showing of his saxophone skills, as well.

I may not have been taken by the opening track, which is melodic but a tad lacking in terms of any kind of dazzle, but the artist settles in with more definition as the album progresses.

The title track has smooth jazz written all over it as its mid-tempo drive and decent sax take center stage here. The track, “In My Time,” starts off as a really chilled-out piece then suddenly erupts in searing rock riffs. Its lightness-turned-heaviness has a strange beckoning to it. Nice, and a bit unexpected. If you’re an Electronic Wind Instrument fan, you’ll perhaps really get into “Day Dreamin’,” which combines piano with thick traces of the EWI. It has an interesting way of nestling in on the rather appealing melody. Very new age.

A lazy and smoky “Till It Be Morrow” follows with a hint of straight-ahead jazz and blues sprinkled in with that new age flavor. I wasn’t particularly crazy about the melody, but the sax work and the fact that Earl included such a piece are noteworthy, considering the theme that was set early on this album. That bluesy, smoky feel continues with the next track, “Stars in Your Eyes,” but there’s a wee bit more smooth jazz sax woven in here. The mellow and melodic “Rhapsody” wraps up this project.

Earl doesn’t pump it up or attempt to get the dance muscles moving here with this album, but it’s an effective, mellow effort, designed for the reflective and introspective moments in your life.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:25 AM

November 14, 2009

Reza Khan – Painted Diaries

Critics often talk about “interesting” projects, and I certainly have heard my share. The term is sometimes loosely tossed around. However, here with this latest release from Reza Khan, entitled Painted Diaries, the term could not be more appropriate, as the product involves so much in terms of diversity. The “problem” might be that it could be seen by some as too much. While there are definite smooth jazz elements here, this project is probably as much (if not more of) a soft rock project, even a hint of a country rock project. There is also some world flavor tossed in for good measure.

For sure, the vast majority of these tunes are well-done and quite melodic; so, you may not care how to categorize the CD. On the other hand, for those who are not necessarily into rock or some unique variation or hybrid of it or any of the other genres touched on here, you might have a dilemma. You just might have a problem blowing off some of the catchier melodies and hooks just because they don’t “fit” in your library.

Admittedly, while the CD has some fine melodies and hooks, I’m not so crazy about some of the instrument choices. There are spots where sax could have reached me far better than a guitar. By the way, Andy Snitzer is one of two saxophonists who sit in on this project.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, after you listen to “Dawning,” a dreamy type of precursor coming in at track one, and you’re confronted with the lengthy rockin’ “Day Break” and the equally alive soft rocker “Catalina’s Dream,” the island-flavored mellow “Bahia Mama,” with the tender vocals of one Jennifer Grimm (who also treats us to her charms on “Coast to Coast” and “Tomorrow?”), you’re faced with a simple decision: Let this atypical potpourri of sound come in and find a comfy place in your collection, or pass it by. I personally chose the former option. For me, the plusses are worth it.

As I said at the outset, this CD (available via Amazon and CDbaby) is truly one of the more “interesting” pieces of work I’ve heard lately. Listen closely. Depending upon your level of receptivity, you may or may not be up for the somewhat unique but colorful ride it offers, but you’ll find that the tunes are quite worthy of your undivided attention nonetheless.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:01 PM

November 6, 2009

Kyle Eastwood -- Metropolitain

Here’s a slice of hot and cool fusion jazz you’ve gotta thoroughly enjoy, even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool smooth jazzer. Kyle Eastwood, actor Clint Eastwood’s bass-wielding son, should have you fully engaged and acknowledging the quality, poise, and eloquence of his compositions here on Metropolitain by record’s end. Maybe it was the melodies; maybe it was the sheer power. Whatever it was, this album caught and held me fast. Clearly an artist with magnificent and laudable skills on bass, complete with stylish chords and harmonics, Eastwood’s writing is as superb. Ordinarily, I restrict my reviews to the tastes of smooth jazzers, but this one drove me to such a state of sheer appreciation that I felt I would be totally remiss—not to mention grossly unfair-- to ignore the tightness, the clarity, and the boldness of the splendid piece of fusion going on here.

This latest effort was recorded in Paris and co-produced by Miles Davis’ son, Erin, as well as Eastwood’s writing partner, Michael Stevens. There, Eastwood formed collaborations with some of the artists he admires most on the current scene, including drummer Manu Katché, trumpeter Till Bronner, French vocalist Camille, and Pianist Eric Legnini. This team put together some of the most savory sounds a purist--or a fusionist--could seek.

With offerings like the steamy and melodic “Bold Changes,” brought forward with some superior Bronner trumpet work and a crisp sax contribution by Graeme Blevins, as well the smokin’ tune, “Hot Box” (you’ve gotta check out Andrew McCormack on electric piano here, as well as awesome runs by Eastwood) that hints at some of the stuff Herbie Hancock might conjure up (think “Actual Proof” from Thrust), Eastwood sets out to add even more definition to both straight-ahead and fusion jazz with a serious spirit. Knocking it out of the park with the funky “Rue Perdue” and capping it all off with the finale, “Live for Life,” which is quite an atypical piece of funk for this particular CD (complete with some sassy rap, no less!), coupled with the fiery vocals of Nigerian-born Toyin (it’s the album’s only vocal-led track), Eastwood’s got the stuff here to make even the strictest of smooth jazzers sit up and take notice. It is, after all, what should cause all jazzers to celebrate the vastness of the world of jazz and to appreciate all of its diversity and radiance. Well done, indeed.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:32 PM

November 5, 2009

Terri Brinegar - Having the Time of My Life

With a style that, at times, could be considered akin to the bluesiness of pop/R&B vocalist Joss Stone, Terri Brinegar has some nice choice cuts here on her latest CD, Having the Time of My Life, with a leaning toward a little of everything from soft rock to blues to R&B. I would be hesitant to classify this project as purely smooth jazz, but the lady can sing, and she does possess a type of rhythmic bluesiness (and there is a difference between my definition of a rhythmic bluesiness and R&B, by the way). Cases in point would be very pleasant tracks such as the title track, “Surrender to Loving You,” “Now My Heart,” “The Sun Shines For You,” and “That’s How I Know.”

No newcomer to the music biz, Brinegar has released three CDs of original tunes and one classical CD. There is strong evidence here that this lady could probably rip into some serious smooth jazz material if she chose to do just that. I would have preferred a more defined leaning toward smooth jazz as we know it, but that’s just me. Still, this might be just what many of you seek: Diversity and material that can’t be pigeonholed as just smooth jazz. If so, she definitely deserves a listen.

There’s no denying Brinegar’s vocal “chops.“ They’re certainly right for the blues; they work for certain types of R&B; they’re right for soft rock. Also, like I've mentioned, there's no doubt that, taking a clearly smooth jazz route, she can be quite a presence there, as well. However you would wish to classify this, there are quality melodies here that should definitely be taken seriously.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:04 PM

October 7, 2009

Mekiel Reuben--Cookin' In East L.A.

Since 1994, Mekiel Reuben has been teasing our jazz sensitivities with tantalizing offerings. Here, with Cookin’ in East L.A., he seeks to stays true to form.

For those unfamiliar with the saxman, let’s start with a little bio. Born in the windy city (Chicago), Reuben later ventured out and took up residence in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. After several years of touring and performing with several theatrical/dance companies there, he decided to continue following his dream of becoming a recording artist in the States and would later return here to study with the legendary saxophonist Bill Greene, in addition to studying at Los Angeles City College and West Los Angeles City College. When he had compiled over a hundred original compositions, he started his own label under the name of MekMuse Records. He now has several releases to his label’s credit: Miles Away (a dedication to Miles Davis) in 1994, Simply Peaceful in 1996, Shadows of Love in 2000, Hangin’ in the Moonlight in 2005, and this well-done 2009 release. Quite the accomplishment for an independent artist. Also of considerable note is his 20-year (and counting) dedication to helping disabled students at the Benjamin Banneker Special Education Center in Los Angeles whenever he’s not on tour.

Now, to the CD, Cookin’ in East L.A. This album provides some steady funk in the form of either originals or competent interpretations of covers-- and there are quite a handful of covers here (I know, I know, but don’t shy away. They’re good!). In fact, he opens with the Chaka Khan classic “Ain’t Nobody” with a pretty nice slice of funk and mid-tempo rhythm. It is a tad sluggish for me, but his sax does attempt to fill a lot of the void. However, anything lacking in the first cut is pretty much nullified by the “phat” grooves that follow, as with the 2nd track, “Sure Thang,” another mid-tempo groove with a lot of bottom and swagger. The rhythmic track that follows, “Blackwood,” carries with it some light magic, as well.

I have to tip my hat to Reuben for his handling of the Patti Austin/James Ingram signature charmer, “Baby Come To Me,” done quite well, indeed. His sax works hard to show that this can be accomplished without one disturbing the charm and grace of Austin’s and Ingram’s rendering of the tune. He succeeded quite notably, in my opinion. He also renders an interesting take on Jim Croce’s hit “Operator,” as close to the coziness of the original as one can hope to get, though the nostalgia of it does make you miss the folk rocker. Reuben’s own “Love Triangle” and the cover of crooner Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’” bring that snappy, soulful funk to which I am extremely partial, and he delivers it with the zest I always seek, as well. Lots of supportive bottom, and—in the case of his original--a really decent hook and melody. Of course, what else but drive and danceability would you expect from a cover of the classic Kool & The Gang hit “Too Hot?” He closes with the sharp and decently funky title track with a lot of bounce (and a few chuckles thrown in for effect).

Mekiel Reuben has talent to boot, and his selections here are, for the most part, smart and full of body. There are clear indications that he knows how to “bring it.” Watch this cat closely.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:16 PM

October 2, 2009

Patrick Bradley – Come Rain or Shine

Now, as I sit here listening to this fusion-heavy offering from one Patrick Bradley, a keyboardist with obvious skill and presence, I am reminded again of how many artists fly so low under the radar that it is almost a duty to us all to bring their style and sound to the ears of Smooth Jazz America (and the world) if we hope to keep the genre alive and relevant. How is it that these guys with these fresh ideas “miss the boat” with so much to offer? This album, Come Rain or Shine, released back in 2007, was totally invisible to me until I began sniffing around in the shadows of the land of the “big and bright.” Lo and behold, up pops this product worthy of grabbing a seat and lending an ear.

Nothing terribly flashy, nothing terribly “out there,” just a certainly fitting project for those seeking a bit of variety and some new spunk in their smooth and fusion jazz. Come Rain or Shine has the markings of what you just may be seeking.

Now, Bradley is not totally an unknown, at least among artists (sax giant Eric Marienthal is featured on this project, for crying out loud!). Bradley began playing keyboards at the age of eight and has an impressive and diverse background of smooth jazz, jazz fusion, gospel, funk, rock, and classical music under his belt. It shows. He has sold internationally in 12 countries and has reached # 26 on Radio Waves top 100. His internet presence continues to grow, as well. So, this guy is not completely off the screen, but a little recognition here in Smooth Jazz America certainly wouldn’t hurt the man. He possesses good insight into what constitutes a groove that will sail.

There are tunes of note here, and what immediately struck me was the voice of one Darlene Koldenhoven who provides the vocals on a cool little ditty called “Gabby’s Groove.” Remarkable job. There’s also a cut called “Summer Sunday”” that lays out some serious fusion work with Bradley displaying that he is no novice to the intricacies of fusion...and the man can flat-out play! Add that to some really nice and innovative interpretations and renderings, like that shown on “Mending Fences,” “Peach Cobbler,” and just a whole host of other tracks here (including one hot finale), and you’ve got a consummate product.

I understand that certain jazz fusion is not everyone’s cup of tea, but this music, a mostly light and airy variety of fusion, has the potential to (ugh, here comes the cliché!) easily lighten your load and brighten your day—but I don’t mean that as some empty cliché. I was truly excited by this artist. Maybe it’s his melodies, his style, his hooks, whatever. I do believe that he has much to offer, if only “the door” will remain open, and I think listeners play a big role in that happening.

Just give Bradley a minute of your time and see if he can’t convince you to listen for perhaps a few more minutes, and then a few more, and so on… Maybe you won’t stay for the full ride; maybe you will. You can’t know until you sit back, relax, and listen.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 4:21 PM

October 1, 2009

Guitarist Russ Hewitt and Vocal Duo Kloud 9 Eyeing Awards

Russ Hewitt, reviewed here a while back, has made the first cut for the 52nd Grammy Awards in 5 categories for his fine release, Bajo El Sol: Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Lydia”); Best Pop Instrumental Album, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical . His new single, “Lydia,” has hit the top 25 on the Smooth Indie chart and # 34 on the Smooth AC charts. Hewitt is also currently the # 1 Smooth Jazz artist played on Music Choice Satellite/Cable TV for 14 weeks and counting.

Also, the smooth R&B vocal group, Kloud 9, also reviewed here much earlier, has been nominated for a Nashville Music Award for Urban Recording of The Year for their Enjoy the Ride album. They’re also on the Grammy Ballot in 3 categories: Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group ("Can't Be Love"); Best R&B song ("Can't Be Love"); and Best R&B Album (Enjoy The Ride).

Congrats, guys!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:27 PM

September 16, 2009

Melba Moore and Phil Perry--The Gift of Love

Every now and again, I’ll slip into something R&B just because some material is just far too enticing to ignore based on a label/”pigeonhole” or the general theme of a site. I’ve reviewed Leela James and Gianna and held a conversation with Kloud 9. They’ve all proven to be more than worthy of such attention. On September 29, two of the most brilliant voices to ever grace soul, R&B, jazz, and any other genre you can imagine—crooner Phil Perry and the incomparable Melba Moore--will join forces on The Gift of Love to belt out some of the sweetest and most inspirational covers of quality gems to ever come along. With uncanny pitch and harmony, these two do so much for music past that it brings tears to one’s eyes. The R&B cuts like “You’re All I Need to Get By” are one thing, but the spiritual-tinged inspirational pieces are also sure to happily carry you to church as you chime in on the choruses. This CD, so full of heart and soul and loaded with moving, smartly selected tunes, is bound to capture you where you live.

It’s such a blessing to us all that Melba Moore can still belt like the canary she was when starring in Broadway hits like Hair and Purlie. It’s all still there, as creamy, yet as stinging, as only she can deliver. Perry is likewise nowhere near hanging up the pipes, as his falsetto carries as much force, bite, and sweetness as it’s always carried. Singers like these two will always remind us of what vocals were when we had Tammy Terrell and Marvin Gaye (a duo to whom these two pay respect, among others) stood before us and left it all on the recording studio--or stage--floor. Why buy another CD full of covers, you ask? Just listen, and I think you'll have your answer.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 10:42 PM

U-Nam to Host Cellar Nightclub’s Weekly "ONESOUL Jazz Series"

International recording artist, U-Nam, will be hosting The "ONE SOUL Jazz Series" every Sunday evening from 6PM - 9PM, beginning October 18, with special guest Oli Silk at The Cellar in Long Beach, California. U-Nam will open the show with his 6-piece band of world renowned musicians and feature chart topping keyboardist Oli Silk. Oli's current hit, "Chill or Be Chilled" from his current CD entitled, The Limit's the Sky, climbed to #3 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart and remained in the Top 10 for 4 months. He has been a featured keyboardist with Peter White's Band, Euge Groove and Marc Antoine to name a few .

Hailing from Paris, France, U-Nam best known for his #1 instrumental single, "Street Life" from the CD entitled, Back from the 80's , topped Billboards Top 10 charts for an entire year. U-Nam's recently released CD, Unanimity, is sure to take the world by storm with his unique guitar sound and funky soul filled melodies.

The Cellar is located at 201 E. Broadway (on the Promenade) in downtown Long Beach and offers an intimate vibe not unlike the nightclubs of a bygone era. Tickets are $15 (general admission) and $25 (VIP seating). For more ticket information, visit http://www.instantseats.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.venue&VenueID=109. On October 25, U-Nam will host the Official Grand Opening of the Jazz Series and will be celebrating his birthday at The Cellar, as well. VIP's and Press from all over the country are expected to attend along with several surprise guest musicians for a great night of smooth jazz and funk.

Other artists scheduled to appear with U-Nam are Michael Paulo (November 8) and Gregg Karukas (November 22). For more information on the series, visit www.onesoulstars.com.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 10:17 PM

September 13, 2009

Kloud 9 -- Interview

Twin brothers Kendall and Kelvis Duffie (aka Kloud 9) flew somewhat under the American radar before the introduction of their smooth and hot release, Enjoy the Ride, but they have been seducing audiences in the U.K. for some time now. Finally, American R&B and smooth jazz fans are starting to “get it,” and the duo has just signed with Shanachie Records and has re-released Enjoy the Ride, a pearl of an album, under that label. The sweet vocals and tight arrangements surely indicate that these guys will be around for years to come. I spoke with both Duffie brothers on September 11. Here’s what they shared with me.

RONALD JACKSON: First of all, congratulations on both releases of your latest project, Enjoy the Ride, as well as signing with Shanachie Records. I’ll bet the signing had to be a thrill and a milestone for you.

KENDALL & KELVIS: Definitely.

RONALD JACKSON: You originally started out as members of a contemporary gospel outfit. Is that right?

KENDALL: Yes, Well, we’re originally from Chicago but we grew up in Denver, CO. It was there that we met our first producer by the name of Jerry Weaver. He’d moved to Denver from L.A. where he’d spent a majority of his career. He was a guitarist for Aretha Franklin, produced Janet Jackson’s first album, and had worked with various other artists. He moved to Denver because he wanted to do more Christian and inspirational music and that’s where he stumbled upon us. He worked with us for several years, giving us our name, Meekness. He gave us our first professional taste of music.

RONALD JACKSON: Are you from a musical family?

KENDALL: Our mother was a church musician and a singer, and we grew up like many artists in any genre, getting our chops in church. We’d get around the piano and sing with her. Often, we didn’t even want to sing but she would call us up to sing, telling us that we had to give God the honor. Our mom was the musical genius behind what perpetuated us to do what we’re doing. In fact, when she was pregnant with us, she said that, every day during the nine months she carried us, she would play and sing to us. Hearing that hit me extremely hard and really served as a motivator for me.

RONALD JACKSON: You’re pretty close to Maysa and Incognito. How did you come to meet them, and how did that meeting lead to your current relationship with them?

KENDALL: That relationship was born out of a trip that became an extended stay in London back in 1999. To get the whole picture, I’ll have to give you a bit of detail about us.

The Kloud 9 thing started after Meekness disbanded in the early 90s, we moved to Nashville to further our careers. At the time, we were continuing in the gospel industry as artists. After moving to Nashville, we lost our mother to cancer and, so, we took a bit of a layoff. During that layoff, we ended up doing other things, individually, though still musically. All the while, it was just killing me not to be really creating music the way I wanted to create music. So, Kelvis and I got together and decided to try something together. We didn’t want to restrict ourselves to just gospel. We have always been Christians, but we also enjoyed smooth R&B and always listened to artists like the Jackson Five, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, and the like. So, we wanted to do material like that. We chose the name, Kloud 9, because it was representative of the type of sensation we wanted to create in people. Of course, the “K” in Kloud names represents the first letter of our names.

We put a few tunes together and started shopping around for labels. In the 90s, most labels were looking for the “rugged sound,” which wasn’t us, because we had a clean and smooth sound. So, there was disappointment. But I’m a firm believer that disappointment and failure don’t define you; they refine you.

We had been to the U.K. in the late ‘80s when we had the gospel group, and I knew that there was a great appreciation for great music overseas. I decided to head there and was determined not to return to the States until I found an outlet for my music. I packed my suitcase, took my keyboard, $800, and headed out alone. I spent many nights for 2 years sleeping on floors. I didn’t have the money to even pursue my plan to visit every major and independent label in London, so I eventually bought a map, and I would literally walk 5 – 6 hours one way, for 15-20 minute appointments until I had literally worn out the bottoms of my shoes.

I eventually met a guy who took me to a studio owned by a guy named Ray Hayden who produced Maysa’s first solo album. So, it was through Ray that I met Maysa. The funny thing is that she and I had met as part of a blind date arrangement but, when we met, we found that our love for music was so kindred that we just focused there and clicked automatically. One day, I was walking to an address she had given me for a rehearsal, and as I approached it, I heard these incredible familiar horns in the distance, and in this warehouse were Bluey and Incognito. So, it was there that I met Bluey, and it was amazing how quickly we clicked.

RONALD JACKSON: So, tell me about Enjoy the Ride. You released one version in 2008, originally in the U.K., and that became available in the States under the Expansion record label. Then, Shanachie signed you and re-released the CD with new material. Is that right? What new material appears on the latest version?

KELVIS: Right. Once we got the deal with Expansion, which is a U.K. label, we wanted to offer that sound to the States on the heels of our U.K. popularity. After initially releasing the album in the U.K. in 2008, then releasing it in the States, we added a couple of new tracks for the U.S. version, including the single with Incognito called “Everything Is Good Tonight,” and Shanachie re-released the album once we signed with them.

We just celebrated our 10th anniversary, so we’ve also released a “best of” album that captures a lot of our earlier material and remixes. It includes the new single with Incognito and a remake of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. The album’s out on the internet now and is a commercial release under Expansion Records.

RONALD JACKSON: I understand that you’ve toured with the Isley Brothers and the Whispers. Your style is often compared to theirs-- and some have even mentioned Phil Perry whose vocals do seem to belong in that style group. Is that just coincidental, or did you consciously set out to capture that style?

KENDALL: Every artist is inspired by another great artist. Certain music, like that of the Isleys and Michael Jackson, just seeps into your subconscious and, in our case, while we may have our own style, we just can’t help letting that Isley Brothers or Michael Jackson style influence us a little.

RONALD JACKSON: You produce most—if not all--of your own material as well as material for other artists. I understand that you’ve even produced gospel material for others. Anyone we know or for whom we should keep an eye open?

KENDALL: I just produced Vicki Yohe’s latest album, Reveal Your Glory...Live From the Cathedral, which is doing very well on the Billboard gospel charts. She’s best known for her single “Because of Who You Are.” I’ve also produced pieces for jazz flutist Althea Rene and a fantastic new R&B vocalist named Gianna. We really feel that we’ve been greatly blessed to do what we’ve always aspired to do.

RONALD JACKSON: On a much more personal note, is either of you married? Any kids?

KELVIS: I have been wonderfully married for 16 tears, and I have 2 kids: Kelvis, who’s 9, and Niko, who’s 4. Kendall, on the other hand, is available and looking, ladies! (laughs)

KENDALL: I’m single, but I’ve also been quite married to my music, and my “kids” are my songs. Not that I’m not open to marriage, mind you. I believe that time will come. But, for now, I’m quite content with my music.

RONALD JACKSON: Kelvis, are your kids musically inclined?

KELVIS: Yes, especially Niko. We’re watching him very closely. There’s a lot of potential there.

RONALD JACKSON: So, what lies on the immediate horizon for Kloud 9 now that you’re with Shanachie? Is there an Enjoy the Ride tour under way or lined up? If so, where will it take you?

KELVIS: Well, there have been several spot dates with Maysa during her Metamorphosis tour and a couple of other appearances, as well, like in DC and CA. Of course, I guess you could say that each date has its own “Enjoy the Ride” tour incorporated.

RONALD JACKSON: Any advice to the aspiring artists out there who still struggle to get to where you are now?

KELVIS: Just remember that music is a business. While you may be a great singer, there are many, many great singers who never get discovered because they don’t have the proper representation. Surround yourself with great people and learn the business. It’s all 90% business and 10% talent.

KENDALL: Just adding to that, if you’re serious, just stay focused on that dream. Let your desire be the driving force that keeps that fire going.

RONALD JACKSON: Where can one get further information on Kloud 9?

KENDALL: People can reach us on MySpace (www.myspace.com/kloud9twin), on Twitter, on Facebook (“soultwins”), and on almost all of the other social network sites. Of course, Enjoy the Ride is practically everywhere music is sold, including on Amazon.

RONALD JACKSON: Thanks so much to both of you. All the best to Kloud 9 for your continued success. You certainly deserve it.

KENDALL: Thank you, and thank you so much for doing this and giving us your great support.

Here’s one gracious, charismatic, and focused duo quite deserving of the recognition it has garnered and will garner moving forward. America, do as the U.K. has done: Sit back and Enjoy the Ride.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:55 AM

September 2, 2009

Four80East – Roll On

If you’re expecting Roll On , the latest Four80East offering, to be a typical Four80 East electro/smooth jazz kinda funky thing, you’ll not be disappointed. However, you may find some really decent additional effects, like the funky slap bass and lead bass contributions thrown in for a lot of good measure here. Toronto-based producers/composers/programmers and Boomtang Records owners Rob DeBoer and Tony Grace take the group’s fans on yet another interesting journey into electronica-enhanced jazz.

This group has always prided itself on innovativeness and diversity. It delivers that here once again. In addition to the funky opening and title track with its nifty hook, take a listen to tunes like “One Night Only” and its heavy bass lines and presence, as well as the very typical Four80East signature sound on “Shot In the Dark,” “After All This Time,” which actually does take its time developing into a nice smoldering groove, and the very hot, sultry closing track, “Back in 5,” which bears a cool resemblance to Paul Brown’s “Cosmic Monkey” from a few years ago, but with a lot of Four80East sound effects interjecting themselves in model form.

Four80East’s unique quality and sound have found their mark for many, and that’s obviously what keeps the group on the main radar screen of smooth jazzers. Roll On does nothing to hurt that uniqueness and even opens the door to the possibility that you’ll hear more innovation as the group stays with the tide of smooth jazz tastes.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:57 AM

August 20, 2009

Palmdale Jazz and Wine Festival Uncorks September 12

The City of Palmdale Mayor, Jim Ledford, and Director of Parks & Recreation, Russ Bird, announced the entertainers who will perform at the third annual Palmdale Jazz & Wine Festival, coming Saturday, September 12 at the Palmdale Amphitheater at Marie Kerr Park, 2723 Rancho Vista Boulevard, Palmdale, CA.

The entertainment lineup opens with contemporary jazz guitarist Richard Smith, whose latest album, Soulidified, spent 17 weeks at the top of the jazz charts.

With eight Top 5 Radio & Records singles, four of which hit #1, contemporary jazz saxophonist Euge Groove will perform beginning at 7:30 pm (PST).

The evening closes with a 9:00 pm performance by guitarist/singer/songwriter Norman Brown. Since the release of his critically acclaimed 2002 album, Just Chillin' –which won a Grammy in the prestigious Best Pop Instrumental Category – this innovative and original guitarist has been front and center in the fast evolving fusion of pop, R&B, and jazz that has captured the imagination of true music aficionados across the country and around the world.

The Festival will be announcing an additional performer and special guest MC in the next few weeks.

The Palmdale Jazz and Wine Festival will feature a variety of outstanding local and California wineries. Guests will also be able to purchase a delicious selection of gourmet foods and micro brewed beers.

Tickets are on sale at www.cityofpalmdale.org/jazz. Reserved seating tickets are $50, and festival seating tickets are $35. Guests who purchase Festival-seating tickets are encouraged to bring short back lawn chairs or blankets. Both tickets include four wine tasting tickets and a commemorative wine glass upon arrival. A designated driver ticket is available for $25. Designated drivers are encouraged to bring short back lawn chairs or blankets. Advance ticket sales end Friday, September 11 at 11:59 pm (PST) or when tickets sell out, whichever occurs first. On the day of the festival, tickets are $60 Reserved, $45 Festival and $35 Designated Driver. Parking is free.

The Palmdale Jazz & Wine Festival is generously sponsored by Wine and Jazz.com (presenting sponsor), American Medical Response, Antelope Valley Mall, Antelope Valley Harley-Davidson, AT&T Real Yellow Pages, Fresco II, The Palmdale Hotel, Robertson's Palmdale Honda, Time Warner Cable, Valleywide Dental, and WineandJazz.com. Sponsorships are still available, and businesses that would like to participate as a sponsor to promote their business, products and services should contact parks and recreation at 661/267-5611.

For more information about the festival, please call the parks and recreation department at 661/267-5611 or visit http://www.cityofpalmdale.org/jazz/.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:02 PM

August 19, 2009

Soul Ballet -- 2019

No sitting down allowed here. The Soul Ballet party is always alive and pulsating. Since launching the pseudonym’s debut release in 1996, producer/multi-instrumentalist/composer/programmer (and just the consummate one-man music machine) Rick Kelly has managed to keep Soul Ballet in the forefront of the collective mind and conscience of smooth jazz audiences everywhere with his signature mix of jazz and electronica. His marked journeys into the dark recesses of space and the future are so heavy, it often boggles the mind how he’s able to create such a masterful and funky groove from themes that others have tried but have hardly been as consistently successful as Kelly. Heavy, fat, and loud are sometimes terms one uses to describe someone or something in a negative manner, but it also works in a most creative and positive manner when describing Soul Ballet’s latest project, 2019, to which “tastefully done” must be added to that description

So often, electronica can be monotonous, even boring, with the artist simply programming the same runs and hooks to repeat over and over again against the backdrop of some beat that is expected to drown out the monotony and try to convince the listener that it’s all about the dance. Soul Ballet has shown consistently that its sound is unique in quality and in its ability to always remain fresh, expressive, and almost introspective. Therefore, Kelly plows forward with a huge sense of pride and bravado with each release.

Each tune here, from the driving opening track, "Boom! It’s On!" through the powerful groove and hook of "Her Tears Transform U," provides its own push and pull, a life full of breathless energy and purpose. I have to admit that here is yet another artist who never fails to impress me, but it goes beyond the music. It speaks to his commitment to thinking outside the box, to looking ahead (as his futuristic tendencies demonstrate) and to be certainly atypical of the average electronica/techno project, even those who may attempt the merge with jazz. Only a very limited handful can pull off the one-man extravaganza thing with any real success, and Kelly is undoubtedly one of them.

In addition, the subtle vocals provided by Ariah Firefly and Deborah Cade add a touch of sweetness to this otherwise in-your-face experience, as vocals always have on Soul Ballet releases, and it makes the project even sexy. The saying goes that if something works, you don’t mess with it. I’d say Rick Kelly/Soul Ballet learned that a long time ago while still managing to introduce originality in each effort. And so the story continues on into the future…

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:18 PM

August 3, 2009

Peter White - Good Day

So, there I am, rolling along the highway, coming up on my exit while listening to my advance copy of the upcoming Peter White CD, Good Day, and I completely missed the exit—so into what was emanating from my car speakers: One of the best “returns” I’ve heard in years-- Peter White back from several years of covers to the splendor of original material as only he can render. This is truly a beckoning to all smooth jazzers to return to the Peter White of the 90s and early 2000s, to recall the images and good feeling his originals always conjured up. It is all here in abundance. Those of us who have waited for the guitar master’s fascination with covers (great though they were) to subside a bit and for his return to that which fascinated us so fully over the years will definitely not be disappointed. The wait, the patience, and the undying allegiance to the man who has always offered contemporary jazz acoustic guitar with so much color and flair have truly paid off in immeasurable manner, and that's no overstatement. True, I have always admired the effortless, silky skills of the Londoner, but anyone who’s into real smooth or contemporary jazz will have to admit to the appeal of this one.

With guest appearances by Philippe Saisse (who appears on all but the last three tracks) and Basia, each tune here has legs of its own. No fillers. Each melody carries its own signature, each hook its own bite. From the flavorful title (and opening) track with its funky emphasis on solid bass lines, percussion, and rhythm to “Bright,” his rousing tribute to our fallen brother, Wayman Tisdale, to the Latin-flavored “Ramon’s Revenge” and beyond, the British gentleman again dazzles with melody, style, and grace, proving once again why he is such an integral component of the contemporary jazz engine.

By the way, “Ramon’s Revenge,” which just happens to be one of—and I stress one of-- my favorites here, has a marvelous little tale that comes with it. It seems that White viewed this piece as one with epic cinematic quality that tells the tale of two rival Spaniards vying for the affections of the same woman. “In the end,” White states, “I imagine Ramon riding away on his horse with his girl, who has come back to him after leaving his rival in the dust.” Realizing that the tune has no lyrics to bear this out, White then smiles and adds that listeners are welcome to make up their own version. Well, guess what, Peter? Your version works extremely well for me. My mind’s eye immediately captured that image and totally endorsed it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt the imagery when the last sound you hear in the piece is that of a galloping horse.

The final track, “Say Goodnight,” speaks volumes as it appears to quiet things down a bit and ask listeners to reflect on what just transpired here.

Peter White fans—and just general lovers of great contemporary jazz—have waited for this one for years (and it has been years in the making, according to White). The wait will be over on September 8 as Peak Records sends this one forward to charm jazzers as only Peter White can charm them. I think a hearty “Thank you” is in order. That’s my take, and so as not to miss the obvious opportunity: Have a Good Day!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 11:04 PM

August 2, 2009

Calvin Richardson -- Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack

O.k., o.k., so this is definitely not smooth jazz, and I may have just pushed this one through to my column with a bit of bias. However—and this is a big “however”—this is a CD that begs to be taken as a worthy exception. Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack is a tribute to one of the greatest soul vocalists to ever tackle the genre with equal amounts of grit, blues, and melody. The gentleman brave enough to don this hat in tribute is Calvin Richardson. When you hear this dedication, you’ll understand why I just had to render an opinion here.

Richardson is himself a recognizable force in soul. The native North Carolinian has built a reputation since his 1999 debut album, Country Boy, as one of the finest soul singers of his generation. Facts of Life is Richardson’s fourth effort, and it packs a decent wallop, worthy of Womack’s nod of approval.

The kind of soul vocals made famous by the likes of Womack and many of his comrades of that inimitable era that birthed soul music is so robust and gut-wrenching that I would have doubted if it would ever be duplicated again. Richardson’s efforts here clearly prove me wrong. The swaying, bluesy, gospel-filled renderings and the churning moving up-tempo vibes have always been of the one-of-a-kind variety, and it is evident that Richardson, through his mighty performance here, knows this all too well. Tunes like “Across 110th Street,” “Woman Got to Have It,” and “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” are done with much pride, and the appearance of the charming Ann Nesby and her darling, stirring vocals on “Love Has Finally Come At Last” only add to the charm of the entire project . Richardson has a winner here. One listen, and you just might thank me for slipping in this soulster.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:12 PM

Gianna – Something True

For an R&B vocalist to capture your attention even before you catch the melody is a testament to the strength and full-bodied presence of that vocalist. Newcomer Gianna Welling (aka Gianna) is such a vocalist. Her debut release, Something True, produced in large part by the superb R&B/smooth jazz duo Kloud 9, has a distinct air and quality that was instantly alluring to me. Then came the melodies: At once and in varying spots classy, bouncy, reflective, and neatly arranged.

While mostly in an R&B vein, gentle tones of smooth jazz subtly edge their way in on this attractive production. Gianna’s voice seems to gently ride the wave of the music like a surfer in a manageable current. The two elements definitely complement each other. Evidence of this can be found in the opening track, as well as in the soulful and enticing “In You” and the Kloud 9-like phrasings and dance grooves in “Maybe I Can Be” and the title track. My favorite tune, “The Things That I Do” is a magnetic and magical charmer sporting an unpretentious but lively hook that you’ll sing to yourself over and over again.

Another handsome track, “Took the Last Train” adds the cool, calming effect of a touch of flute, acoustic guitar, a very catchy hook, sweet verses, and an interesting bridge to create a collage of sound that’s hard to resist. There’s also the treat of some smooth handling of Basia’s “Time and Tide.” Nice touch with the sax. The album closes with an up-tempo dance number, “One Step Closer,” that somewhat resembles the movers and shakers found on albums by the British jazz group, Shakatak.

Much of the material here is not overwhelming with the tricks of the studio but, rather, very well-balanced with well-placed horns and solid rhythms and bass lines. It’s R&B sparingly laced with the special comeliness of smooth jazz. Only a voice laced with a satiny touch can enhance such a project. Gianna does so nicely and effectively.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:07 PM

Ray Gaskins – A Night In The Life

This is another installment from Ray Gaskins, a prolific saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist who comes to me totally unannounced before now. In a word, I’m impressed. The music is full-bodied, the soul is obvious, and the fact that vibist Roy Ayers was drawn to this talent’s side on this latest effort, A Night in the Life, is ample proof that the cat has earned the attention of the players in the business that, quite simply, are.

This CD comes with good choices of covers and is comfortably mellow, with blues, comely scatting, and hints of straight-ahead jazz intermixed in decent doses. There’s even some touching spiritual material (“I Want to Talk About God”) that’s truly moving and inspirational, done with that smooth jazz flair. The blues gets a visit from Gaskins with an original called “Down Home,” featuring some potent horn arrangements, especially a soul-wrenching solo demonstrating his navigational skills around the sax.

Check out the flashy yet oh-so-jazzy manner he handles the classic “New York State of Mind” (easily my fav here), and you’re instantly reminded of the value of interpretation and self-expression. The marvelously bluesy presence of it all is indeed quite striking. In fact, Gaskins’ interpretations are all noteworthy here, taking aurally iconic pieces and reworking them in such palatable fashion that it becomes instantly clear that the man has the ability to reach out and feel the space for flexibility and improv in a piece. I mean, I’ve always duly noted and respected a few of these traditional and classic tunes, but never have I focused as much on them as Gaskins has made me do here. “When I Fall In Love” has as much passion and blue intensity as I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve never heard “Summertime” grooved like this since its conception. Truly an artistic approach. Add to that his own snappy and grasping mid-tempo, blues-soaked “Shady Lane,” and I had it just the way I like it.

There may be a few tunes here that didn’t quite floor me, but for the most part, this is a well-produced effort with a lot of emphasis on interpretation and feel. The original melodies are fresh and tight; the covers are colorful; and Gaskins’ love for the blues is as evident as his love for good jazz of both the mellow and funky variety. Yes, A Night In The Life is a handsome piece of art that works for me.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:03 PM

July 29, 2009

George Benson—Songs and Stories

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:50 AM

July 23, 2009

Jay Soto -- Mesmerized

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:51 PM

Jeff Kashiwa – Back In the Day

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:43 PM

Leela James – Let’s Do It Again

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:38 PM

July 15, 2009

Marcus Johnson – Poetically Justified (and interview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:19 PM

July 14, 2009

Nocy --Rise

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:02 PM

July 11, 2009

Rick Braun – All It Takes

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:53 PM

July 9, 2009

j. dee – Smoove On the Move

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 4:59 PM

Freddie Fox—Feelin’ It

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:36 PM

June 30, 2009

Jessy J—True Love

Here’s an interesting and romantic project, True Love, from the gorgeous Latina sax sensation, Jessy J. With the stylish contributions from producer/guitarist Paul Brown (who actually produced this effort, as well as Tequila Moon) and keyboardist Gregg Karukas, among others, the artist has managed to lock into her rich Latin heritage for a light, airy, laid-back journey through the tropics and beyond. There are distinct differences between True Love and Tequila Moon, and I’m still deciding if I like this latest venture better—or even as much--as that debut wonder, but this project is replete with comfortable and pretty melodic passages and hooks, as well as sexy Latin vocals, that soothe and beckon and certainly take nothing away from this young lady with a host of gifts.

As is the saxophonist’s style, lots of Latin flavor race through this polished recording from the opening track, “Tropical Rain” to the hot finale, “Baila.” My favorites are many and certainly include the aforementioned “Baila” (in my opinion, this one is simply the most demanding when it comes to calling you to the dance floor) and the title track.

Ah, the imagery conjured up throughout this release definitely involves beaches, exotic drinks, and late night sambas, cha-chas, salsas, and Brazilian grooves. If you’re not there with someone, find someone. This is truly meant for two, unless you’re just in a reflective mood calling for complete solitude.

While I’m not floored by the Brazilian touch (sorry, that’s never seemed to grab me), I can say that, when one is pretty much “funked out,” this is where you might come for any number of “time-outs” offered here. She also shows here, particularly on track 9, “Brazilian Dance,” that she knows her way around a sax in settings other than typical smooth jazz for example, and she demonstrates this with clever and classy runs and cool phrasings.

True Love, scheduled for release on August 4, does an amazing job of making sure that the added emphasis on the Latin flavor, almost to the exclusion of all else, is fitting and capable of upholding her sudden and deserved rise in the world of smooth jazz. While more laid-back than Tequila Moon, it loudly proclaims this Latina’s pride in her colorful and exotic culture. A pride well placed.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:43 PM

June 29, 2009

Paul Taylor – Burnin’

People often talk about hearing an artist as he or she has never been heard before. Well, truer words were never spoken when listening to this new project, Burnin’, from master saxman Paul Taylor, scheduled for release on July 21. Here is Taylor in a new but no less electrifyingly appealing fashion. His use of the tenor sax on 9 of the 10 tracks, with a lot of retro or old school touch (think Junior Walker & The All Stars and other drivers and churners of that era), is a welcome and fresh diversion.

How this approach came about is humorously interesting. As Taylor puts it, “The focus on the tenor happened by very happy accident. I thought it would be cool to bring my tenor along with my soprano and alto to the sessions…When I got to the studio and opened up my cases, I saw that the soprano was damaged.” Now, a more unprepared, unimaginative, and rigid artist might have postponed the sessions and replaced the soprano. Taylor, being quite insightful and adventurous, decided to plow ahead and write, along with veteran producers/keyboardists Barry Eastmond and Rex Rideout, some of the gutsiest and tightest material Taylor has released to date.

When you hear such tracks as “Groove Shack,” you just want to look for the nearest jukebox and see if a Junior Walker tune has been punched up. Yet, there’s still a very Paul Taylor signature on tunes like “Remember the Love,” full of sultry romance and charm. The funk element is very much present on this project, as well. “It’s Like That” is proof enough of that, and other tracks here lend witness, as well.

Granted, I had to settle into Taylor’s new touch, having been so used to the seductive call of his alto and soprano saxes. I wondered if I could train my mind’s eye to seeing him perform tunes that I’d usually liken to Richard Elliot or any number of others who wear the tenor regularly. I wonder no more. This just confirms that this artist can adapt to any style, anywhere, without so much as the bat of an eye.

I’ve followed Taylor for much of his career since his early years with world class pianist/keyboardist Keiko Matsui to and beyond his Kazu Matsui-produced debut album, On The Horn. I’ve never been disappointed with the charismatic, melodic, and spot on approach Taylor always seems to bring to the studio and to smooth jazz in general. Burnin’ continues his tradition of excellence in a big way, this time with a creative little twist.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 9:54 PM

June 28, 2009

The Jazz Attack – Live at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA

Last Thursday, June 25, I had the distinct satisfaction of attending a concert by the Jazz Attack (Richard Elliot, Jonathan Butler, and Rick Braun) at one of our esteemed local hot spots for smooth jazz, the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA. To say I definitely received my money’s worth is like saying LeBron James is an "o.k." basketball player!

These guys are only one of two acts I’ve seen so far this year that could qualify, in my mind, as the concert of the year. Seriously. Flawlessly exhibiting style, charm, charisma, a genuine love for the music and its fans, the Jazz Attack was the concert you always hope you’ll get but perhaps, more than once and for whatever reason, don’t.

Combining the artsy flair, top-tier skill, and musicianship they each easily and unquestionably possess with comedic barbs and skits to keep the audience engaged and at a fever pitch, the group stormed through a magnificent set (with superb, crisp sound quality, I might add. Kudos to the sound engineer that evening) that left us all gasping and deliciously exhausted.

From trumpet master Rick Braun’s initial kickoff and entrance (through the audience, as is a custom of his) to the familiar sound of his classic “Cadillac Slim” through the fiery, fat sound of sax wiz Richard Elliot’s covers of “Rock Steady” and “Move On Up” in a rousing medley to the ever-effervescent and engaging Jonathan Butler and his jamming opener, “Wake Up,” these guys poured it on non-stop. The magic further included the soulful and nostalgic call of Elliot’s sax on The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and the all-too-funky "Who," as well as Butler’s trademark vocal proficiency on "Sarah Sarah," his version of Bob Marley’s gut-wrenching “No Woman, No Cry,” and his spritually uplifting "Brand New Day." There was also Braun's smooth, cool, and tight "Notorious," and a sneak preview of his upcoming album featuring a rhythmic little Latin jazz ditty. The group initially closed with Braun’s always-hot cover of “Grazin’ in the Grass,” then encored with Butler’s “Lies” with plenty of audience participation.

Those in attendance have to feel immensely gratified that they were there. Those outside of the Birchmere circle of fans who have not yet witnessed this experience should definitely watch for it in their respective cities and add it to their must-see list.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:07 PM

June 23, 2009

Alexander Zonjic – Doin’ the D

“In the classical world, the flute has a huge stature, but it has struggled in recent years to be considered as a solo jazz instrument on the same level as the saxophone or guitar or piano.” So says jazz flutist Alexander Zonjic. Well, with his persistence and perseverance-- along with that of fellow flutists like Althea Rene and Nestor Torres-- the flute, as an enticing entity with its own personality and presence, is certainly on course to being anything but “lightweight.” This is quite evident with Zonjic’s latest effort, Doin’ the D, a reference, by the way, to a popular catchphrase in the Detroit area, where Zonjic has resided for the better part of 30 years. The phrase is said to mean spending an evening or a weekend checking out any of the various cultural attractions offered by the city’s rich musical history and cultural diversity. This recording captures the essence of that adventure.

This album contains some seriously colorful melodies and hooks by Zonjic and includes the masterful contributions of such stellar jazz celebs as Jeff Lorber, Maysa, Kenny G, Bob James, James Lloyd, Rick Braun, and Chieli Minucci. The opening track, “Top Down,” smacks of Lorber’s artistry and songsmithing, while track 2, “From A to Z,” has that funky rhythmic drive symbolic of a Pieces of a Dream tune, and well it should, considering that keys wiz James Lloyd wrote and sits in on this one, as well as one other.

Not to be outdone, Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” gets a workout from Kenny G on sax. Some nicely vibrant Latin flavor (a touch never to be ignored in today's smooth jazz arena) is also brushed on in “Passion Island.” Toss in Maysa’s always amazing vocal talents on a cool take of “Undun,” originally written and recorded by Canadian rockers, The Guess Who, and a funky little Lorber piece (Lorber penned a number of these tunes, by the way) called “Tourista”-- which features trumpeter Rick Braun--and you’ve got a really well-rounded album. Of course, all of these contributions are well-served by Zonjic’s lilting, soothing, and oft even funky flute offerings. With such a delightful blend of tastes and feels, this project is truly one for the senses.

While Zonjic doesn’t lend any writing to this project (instead, he graciously redirects that spotlight onto his musical colleagues), each tune here is electrified by the powerful presence of his dancing flute, and it is that presence that gives this project that extra caress and lift and should allow the flutist to claim this one as one of his finest to date. Indeed, a well-conceived and most pleasurable effort.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 11:43 PM

June 22, 2009

Najee – Mind Over Matter

This latest from veteran saxophonist Najee is pure Najee with new motivation and vision. Mind Over Matter, the CD’s title (a title inspired by the late Miles Davis’ improvisational approach to songwriting toward the end of his career), is due to hit stores on August 25 and focuses on the feel and groove of the music as opposed to the usual mechanics of it all (phrasings, harmony and melody balancing, etc.). This is an at-its-core production that simply goes with the flow, and what a flow it is. Najee’s inherently polished skills in both musicianship and songsmithing remain clearly intact and devoid of the ho-hum of some jazz that’s rushed through just to keep the bills paid.

The album is full of freshness and evidence of the serious yet fun experience that Najee brings with him to the studio with each recording. The opening track, a mid-tempo light yet funky and smoky piece, is flavorful and catchy. The second track, co-written by newly highlighted saxman/writer Darren Rahn, has the hook, rhythm, and melody that fit Najee like a glove. Then, there’s the title cut, a groove-rich tune with a pinch of spicy funk and a lot of that smooth jazz rhythm we’ve all come to know and love. This one not only features some really well-done sax runs by Najee but some sharp keyboard action from co-writer Will Brock.

A cool horn arrangement and the suave vocals of Eric Benet do the trick for the slinky and soulful “We Gone Ride,” then it’s back on the dance floor with the moving “Stolen Glances,” a piece written by the iconic composer/keyboardist Jeff Lorber. One listen and you can’t help discerning that the veteran keys wizard had his hands all over this one, as his flair for that mid-tempo pausing kind of funk seeps through unambiguously. Of course, Najee’s sax does wonders with this fine collaboration. The same thing holds true with the other piece on which these two collaborated, “One More Thing.” As its finale, the album escorts in the fine, smooth vocals of Gary Taylor to complement the soul-stirring sax work from Najee with a mellow R&Bish nod in “Moon Over Carolina.”

And so it goes throughout the album. Once again, Najee proves why he’s lasted so long in this business of smooth. Placing mind over matter does work as is evidenced on this hefty project.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 11:10 PM

June 17, 2009

Noel Webb – Give It All

Five tunes. Ordinarily, seeing an album offering just 5 tunes might give one pause. That’s if they were just 5 tunes. These are five tunes from the very talented and insightful violinist Noel Webb who manages to wrap so much of himself in a tight fusion net that he unfurls here with equal doses of fervor and finesse. Give It All does just what its name commands and in electrifying fashion. These are not even long tunes (average is about 4 ½ minutes). Geez, it’s over before you can grasp what’s going on, you say? Wrong! This short ride is as enjoyable and defined as any 12-track project you’ve experienced. Obviously when you’ve limited yourself to such a short amount of time to strut your stuff, you want it to be with everything you’ve got. Webb has done that here.

The opening, very catchy tune sets the indelible mark on this project, and the rest of the album simply sails along, punctuating that opener. The fresh version of the classic “Where is the Love” with some really effective vocals provided by Trena Steward and Joel Gaines is quite refreshing, as is the popping, rather funky mid-tempo ditty at track three, “Take the Journey”, and track four with its lazy, soulful melody caressed by Webb’s fluid violin. Track 5, appropriately entitled “Cool,” is a finale that leaves us with a slinky, catchy melodic groove that has a mind of its own as it rolls along before the hook explodes in a marvelous crescendo.

Noel Webb is one who can definitely get away with a truncated CD. This production is loaded with some nicely arranged aural pleasures that most won’t have a problem replaying and replaying, despite its length. More is not always better. Sometimes, as singer Joss Stone once put it, “Less is More.” Case in point is certainly found in Give It All.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 9:12 PM

June 14, 2009

Hiroshima--Legacy

Well, there are “best of” collections and then there are testaments to legacies. Heads Up recording artists Hiroshima couldn’t have tagged their latest project in a better manner. Having more years under their recording/performing belt than some artists have had birthdays, this veteran jazz fusion group dropped in on us with its unique brand some 30 years ago and has been welcomed back with robust enthusiasm ever since. Legacy, in stores on August 18, captures some sensational moments in the group’s career, and while including original members, also includes appearances and stellar performances by guest artists embraced as "family" by the group (e.g., Terry Steele -- "Save Yourself For Me" will always be one of my favs!).

I understand that founders Dan and June Kuramoto hope to build a series from this pilot. Personally, from what they’ve presented here, they could do that successfully and easily. By the way, they’ve not only chosen the tunes well, but they’ve made certain that more than a few lengthy ones are tossed in. Such generosity is not lost on this writer.

As wonderful to behold in person (witnessing June Kuramoto on the koto is something at which to truly marvel) as they are on record, Hiroshima has been secure and secured in its position in the jazz world for as long as I can remember. Their signature sound has yet to be matched. Imaginative compositions and melodies boasting of the tight, meticulous integration of East and West music, coupled with charming collective personalities, have worked wonders for this fine group over the years, and, with Legacy, you can see how they’ve withstood the test of time oh-so-easily.

The album opens with the tasteful, groove-tight “Winds of Change,” weaves its way through more of my favs (“One Wish” and “Dada”), and just has fun taking us all on a very cool reminiscent journey of truly classy music that utilizes elements of soul, jazz, funk, and Eastern charm to punctuate and affect.

Here’s a group that really needs no introduction, but always deserves a grand entrance. As mentioned earlier, there are all sorts of “best of” collections available in any genre in abundance. To term this project as just another such production not only is diminishing but is inaccurate because this is certainly only the tip of the iceberg of “bests” for Hiroshima.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 12:40 AM

June 12, 2009

Jason Weber--5

Jason Weber is one of those cool, smooth saxmen who can pour out funk, attitude, and polish all in one note. Five is the latest undertaking by this artist who now has--you guessed it--five albums under his belt, each with its own personality.

I first learned of Weber a while back, just after the 2002 release of his funky Something Blue album. I was so impressed then that I dashed off a note of personal congrats to him (I don’t even think I had started reviewing CDs as a contributing editor or staff writer for any site then). It certainly gives me great pleasure to report here that the man still “has” it and simply lays on the line all of his fine smooth, funk, and bluesy touches, just as he did “way back” in 2002.

Over the years, Weber has established himself well and competent enough to accompany such artists as Gerald Albright, Nathan East, Everette Harp, and Steve Ferrone (who appears with him on this latest endeavor). Still, I think he is long overdue for the personal spotlight he deserves, as is evident in this satisfying production.

The opening track, "U Know U Like It," is a mid-tempo funk groove that gets the motor started on this quality album. Its melody, body, and call to the individual soul of smooth jazz are most evident and becoming. It’s followed by a mellow, tastefully soulful piece called "For The Children." Something about this tune makes its title so very appropriate. It seems so befitting the love and protectiveness that parents and others should feel for the little ones. That may be a lot to read into a track without lyrics, but I certainly would find it easy to set words to this piece that would reflect such sentiment.

As you will quickly note with track 3, "La Isla Bonita," Weber can turn a mean Latin melody, as well. In fact, this is probably my favorite track here. Very rhythmic and alive with all of the exoticism of a Latin island, dancing yourself away to such a peaceful setting with this one shouldn’t be hard at all.

"Some Day" is a tune that especially hints at the soulful stylings of veteran saxman Richard Elliot (in fact, you’ll find a lot of similarities between the two artists in a few other instances, though there are also very distinct differences, to the credit of each). In addition, Weber’s apt handling of Santana’s "Europa" at track 9 and Desiree’s "You Gotta Be" at track 10 are sure to catch and keep any listening ear, and what would a Jason Weber album be without a parting nod to some good ol’ jazz funk as classily displayed on the finale, "D-Funked?"

Weber has obviously devoted himself to stylish compositions that help shape him as a complete jazz entity to fully appreciate. Five goes a long way in helping with this objective. Visit CDbaby.com and give it a listen. It’s good quality stuff that may well work for you as much as it did for me.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 10:54 PM

May 31, 2009

Joyce Cooling – Global Cooling (and interview)

Joyce Cooling is happy. No, I don’t just mean her mood at any given point in her obviously productive and lucrative career. I mean she represents happy. Her music sings happy, it cries happy, it feels happy. Her latest release, Global Cooling, with all of its smoothness and bluesiness and even exoticism, is happy. You feel the smiling groove from the opening notes of track one, a mid-tempo funky blues ditty, and that feeling follows you throughout this fine production.

From the moment the sassy, bluesy “Grass Roots” jumped off to the up-tempo title track with its pumping, driving rhythm section (kinda reminds one of the disco era), courtesy of Billy Johnson and Jay Wagner, to the sweet and sensual “Save This Dance For Me” with its modest hints of the Latin touch to “Cobra” with its tasteful nod to Indian culture and all of the exoticism of the East--and then through all cuts beyond, Cooling again shows why she is among the finest and most imaginative smooth jazz artists around.

The talented guitarist’s handling of themes and ideas is superb, as is evidenced in the hints of her leanings toward environmentalism which are on display on “What Are We Waiting For?” as she talks about a sun that may or may not warm you “to your core” and as she refers to a “clean machine that’s very green…to get us off gasoline.” The album even grabs a piece of Brazil in a couple of places, like on “Dolores In Pink,” and then there’s Joyce with some pretty ripe jazz rap on “We Can” (you’ve gotta witness this one firsthand!).

Oh, and one can’t omit the appeal of the tongue-in-cheek teasing found on “Chit Chat,” a reference to the chatter found at any table or around any water cooler as folks talk about celebs they’ve never met as if they knew them intimately. The lyrics are cool here and hit the mark. I could go on and on about this topic, but that would actually take me off topic.

The album is just so inundated with groove, rhythm (as in “Rhythm Kitchen”), and spirit that it’s an understatement to say it’s truly a work of art. I recently interviewed this fascinating woman, and I’d be horribly remiss if I didn’t share that experience with you here and now.

Ronald Jackson: I’ve always admired your distinctive sound and technique. I know you’ve played with a lot of greats like Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, and Al Jarreau, and you list a great deal of artists as your influences (from Joe Henderson to the late, great Jimi Hendrix). Who would you say has played the biggest role in influencing you and your style?

Joyce Cooling: My uncle, who was a phenomenal jazz guitarist and musician, has probably influenced me the most. He played with people like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and many other jazz greats. He has since passed on, but if I could play music with anyone today, it would be him.

Ronald Jackson: I learned a short while ago that the late, talented bassist Wayman Tisdale was self-taught. Now, I read that you also are self-taught. Amazing. Does that also mean that you didn’t read or write music when you first began, and do you read and write now?

Joyce Cooling: I can read chord charts, but really struggle with notes on a page. It’s so much easier and faster for me to do things by ear.

Ronald Jackson: Another part to this same question: Since I’m discovering that so many are self-taught and may not read or write music, what would you say to those aspiring musicians who feel that they can’t possibly perform well unless they’re proficient in reading and writing music? Is exhaustive knowledge of music theory a bit overemphasized, in your opinion?

Joyce Cooling: I don’t think that any knowledge is overemphasized, as it all contributes to a greater understanding and insight into whatever you are trying to learn. Music is something that is so deep and far-reaching by nature that you never “arrive” -- meaning that there is always something else to learn or improve upon no matter how proficient you may be. It seems to me that any path that provides more knowledge is a road worth traveling.

Ronald Jackson: Having reviewed your Revolving Door album, I learned that you are also an advocate of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of that album went to that organization, as will a portion of the proceeds from this latest effort. What a worthy and noble cause and gesture! How is work in that area going now? Are you currently involved in any benefit concerts or other activities for the organization?

Joyce Cooling: We are always working on something for NAMI as it is near and dear to my heart. I grew up with a brother who has schizophrenia, and NAMI saved us as a family. So little is understood about diseases of the brain that people afflicted with mental illness and their families often find themselves in a dark, tumultuous ocean without a life raft. NAMI threw us a buoy.

On the immediate horizon, we are doing a walk for NAMI in San Francisco on Saturday, May 30th in Golden Gate Park with our walk team, “Music for the Mind.” If anyone is interested in walking with us or joining our team, all of the info is posted on our website at www.joycecooling.com.

We’re also playing at the NAMI National Convention in San Francisco on July 7th and are playing a benefit for NAMI Urban Los Angeles on July 16th. Again, all of the info is on our website.

Ronald Jackson: By the way, aside from the obvious play on words with this current album’s catchy title, there seems to be much more significance there, such as perhaps a concern for or commitment to environmental issues. Would I be correct in that assumption?

Joyce Cooling: Yes, you are correct. By the way, Global Cooling is a green product. We used 100% renewable source/ recycled paper and non-toxic inks. We used minimal packaging and no shrink wrap.

Besides the eco-friendly packaging, Global Cooling is also about what I like to call our global neighborhood. I love the fact that our world is shrinking with the digital age. We are now in touch with music lovers and kindred spirits from all over the world. Universal concepts have always turned me on, and the music on Global Cooling celebrates our interconnectedness.

In addition, we wanted Global Cooling to be like taking a fun trip where you can visit different places. It’s still contemporary jazz, but we musically touch down in some cool places.

Ronald Jackson: Regarding concerts, I imagine you’re planning a Global Cooling tour. Where will it take you? From a purely biased vantage point, I also have to ask: Do you have any plans to visit the Washington, DC, area at some point in the near future? We so love you here.

Joyce Cooling: We love playing in the DC area and look forward to a return visit. Have gig, will travel! All our dates are posted on our web site.

Ronald Jackson: Of all your magnificent albums, do you have a favorite? If so, any reason why?

Joyce Cooling: I suppose I am always partial to our latest CD. Recording a collection of songs is like taking a snapshot of where you are musically and creatively at the moment. Since things are always evolving, I guess the last snapshot is the one that feels the most relevant to me. Having said that, there are things that I love and hate about all of my CDs. Sometimes you feel like you really nailed something and hit what you were trying to do. Other times I listen back and am flooded with thoughts of woulda, shoulda, coulda. I don’t listen back very often and prefer to move forward.

Ronald Jackson: Thank you, Joyce. All the best to you with Global Cooling and all of your ventures. Before we close, any final thoughts or words to smooth jazz aficionados in general and to your fans in particular?

Joyce Cooling: Thank you, Ron, for taking time to chat with me. I appreciate your support and for keeping us in your corner and on your radar!

My final thought would be to let our music friends know that they are IT. We are interested in what they think and in communicating with them directly. The digital social networks and, of course, our live shows, allow us to be in touch with our music friends. They mean the world to me, and they are the reason we do this as well as the reason we are able to do this. A huge thanks goes out to them, and I’m looking forward to continuing a close, interactive relationship!

‘Nuff said. Here is class with a capital “J.” Global Cooling should be well on its way to the top of the charts by the time you read this.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:10 PM

May 27, 2009

Smooth Jazz Dead? Look again!

O.k., here’s how the optimist in me sees this dramatic—and seemingly traumatic-- scenario being played out by broadcasters, advertisers, and program directors all across “Radio America:” The smooth jazz format is being flipped more than a stack of pancakes at IHOP. There’s no denying that anymore (although I admit to being in such a state of denial for quite awhile). For advertisers and broadcasters, being the kind of marketing beings they were trained to be, the format is spelling so-called disaster to them now, even though it was the rave for well over 20 years. Why? I’m told because there is frustration over “what the music has become.” What has it become that is such a turn-off? And who’s saying this, by the way?

Anyway, all of this means that one source of information about new releases and CD signings, after-work parties, etc. has been drastically reduced, although one of my colleagues here has just reported the “resurrection” of the genre in Chicago--just as the dirt was being poured over its gravesite.

Keeping things in perspective, I just happen to know many, many smooth jazzers who, like me, consider themselves quite resourceful. Until the artists stop making recordings and stop performing live, we will always have ways of finding out what’s happening. There’s Art Good’s Jazztrax.com; there’s Amazon.com and CDbaby.com, both of which offer samples of releases; there are the web sites, like Smoothvibes.com, that get and review new releases, often directly from the labels; there are the smooth jazz live venues that are still effectively advertising upcoming shows, and so on and so on. Online stations and the like are not the only sources remaining, and serious smooth jazzers know this. Now we hear of stations finding the courage, resourcefulness, and commitment to keep the genre intact and alive.

When record sales for the genre slip significantly and the concert halls become hard to fill, then I say: PANIC! Until then, what will keep smooth jazz alive will be, quite simply, its resourceful fans…who, by the way, complained long and loudly about the lack of new material and the stale repetition of music on the contemporary stations, anyway. Now that smooth jazz has been thrown a lifeline in Chicago, I am also happy to hear that fans there will soon experience what it’s like to be taken seriously and have their concerns addressed regarding the format. We are always aware that there are artists who have been seldom aired and who are deserving of airplay.

So, fans, please, let’s not panic because the stations and their representatives and cohorts are telling us to do so. Take a look again at the resources, as well as the encouraging move by WLFM (The “L”), and just keep on jazzin’! Just one man's opinion, but I am both hopeful and confident that it's shared by many. I'd love to hear from you on this, so please feel free to e-mail me with any comments. Do keep 'em clean!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:29 PM

May 26, 2009

Torcuato Mariano—So Far From Home

So Far From Home is the fifth effort by Argentinian guitarist Torcuato Mariano and is quite a refreshing and crisp production. His skill on guitar is more appealing with each release. There are those signaling that this may be his best to date. That may well be true, although I still hold a certain affinity for his 2006 “Lift Me Up” release. The very pleasant hints of Brazil and Latin influences on this latest project do a remarkable job of enhancing the mood and flow of the album.

Mariano lists several artists who have influenced or caught his ear, but the artist he considers to be his primary influence is rocker Jeff Beck, whose unique style often included some really decent jazz fusion material. Apparently, Mariano listened well, as is evidenced here.

So Far From Home has some melodic moments that are both stirring and appealing. There’s “Back to the Road,” a mid-tempo “conversation” that has a lot of rock and fusion guitar bite and clarity. Adding some nice sax work by Marcelo Martins, it’s definitely one of my favorites here. The tight and funky “British Time” gets my vote, as well, for its spunkiness and brilliant instrument phrasing. The romantic and soothing piece, “Tell Me Your Dreams” is quite enough to coax those dreams out of you with ease. In addition, the coolness of some great straight-ahead tendencies blend well with smooth jazz elements on “DF,” and the exotic allure of Brazil abounds in “Ipanema Sunset.” The adept guitarist even treats the blues with his own interpretation, flavor, and soulfulness in, appropriately, “Blues Days.”

Diversity is the order of the day on this project. Obviously conceived with such eclecticism in mind, Mariano has hit his mark dead-on here.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:20 PM

May 25, 2009

Tony McGhee--The Jazzy Side of Smooth

Last year, I wrote at Jazzreview.com about an up-and-coming drummer, Tony McGhee, his right-hand man, a heavy-handed funk bassist named Darryl Braswell, aka “Brazz,” and their smokin’ release, Who Is Tony McGhee? Anyone following my lead and picking up a copy of that album quickly and happily discovered the answer to that question. Well, to further elaborate on this artist’s—and his cohort’s—identity, the pair has just released a follow-up album, The Jazzy Side of Smooth, which keeps the groove in that slick, funk vein.

The bite and “phatness” of the bottom-heavy tunes here are quite prevalent. After a brief and interesting “Intro,” the project comes out of the starting gate with a smooth and snappy little piece called “Come On Let’s Ride.” This overall “ride,” by the way, gets quite interesting very early on as, on its heels, comes the tight, slinky, and funky “Bounce,” surely to appeal to all those sexy ladies who love to take their time strutting their stuff on the dance floor in that oh-so-deliberate, seductive fashion. That’s a visual that’s simply commanded by the piece.

Other funksters include “Lil’ Heartbreaker,” “Brazztone” (hmm…wondering how they arrived at that title?), and “Cha Cha Momma” with its catchy vocals and hook (I just wish this one had been longer. It’s quite an addictive groove and is my fav here). These are just the tip of the iceberg, as the album struts tasteful funk throughout.

The Jazzy Side of Smooth is not only laced with good, solid funk, it’s well-written and contains very tasteful melodies, runs, and quite decent vocal harmonies. It’s a consummate piece for the jazz funkster who likes his/her material with teeth. The Jazzy Side of Smooth is available via CDbaby.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:49 PM

May 17, 2009

Paul Brown and Marc Antoine – Foreign Exchange

One would have to wonder why this incredibly exotic collaboration of guitar virtuosos, Foreign Exchange , didn’t happen until now. No matter, we’re all the happy recipients of it now. What a wonderfully melodic blend of iconic talent, depth, and insight. The bluesiness and smoothness of songwriter/producer/performer Paul Brown (who stayed out of the public eye until his inevitable rise to prominence on the public scene could be denied no more) and the refreshing and brilliant exoticism of the smooth guitar sound of Marc Antoine (one of the most pleasant, buoyant artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, by the way) was simply a stroke of genius bound to pay dividends in more ways than one.

I had so much fun reviewing this one and determining who was playing what (which isn’t really that difficult, considering their very distinct sounds and differences—all of which made this recording that much more appealing).

There are the bouncy and invigorating Latin-tinged tunes showcasing the Antoine touch like “Feel the Love” and the jazzier “Wine Night,” combined with the bluesy, funky, and smooth presence of Brown’s experienced fingers on cuts like “Brother Earl,” “On The Down Low,” and “French Connection,” which still points a finger at the Antoine influence, as well. Then, there’s the magnificent handling of some light Brazilian cool with “Flight of the Conchords.” Also, the moving, driving title track is so full of melody and a lively hook that it is truly representative of the entire album and the union between these two guitar greats who are so different yet so similar.

Each tune is a journey across lands and cultures that “get it,” and each tune shows an eagerness to share the powerful magic possessed by these two with all who’ll listen.

Blues, Latin, Brazilian, the smoothest of smooth jazz, and just a major cool presence all exist here to mark this project as one bound to rise to and remain at the top of the charts as a clear embrace of foreign exchanges of musical ideas and styles that will surely appeal to many an aficionado of smooth jazz, as well as to fans of either or both of these gentlemen. A fun project for those in the studio, no doubt, but it’s also one cool party for those of us who watch and listen from outside that studio.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:39 PM

May 16, 2009

Wayman Tisdale, Fallen Giant

As one of my colleagues has already noted here, and as many already know by now, jazz bassist and former NBA basketball star Wayman Tisdale passed away yesterday after a two-year battle with bone cancer. To say that Wayman was an icon both onstage and on the court is an understatement.

The jovial, pleasant giant saw the fruit of his labor manifest itself in the form of some of the most dedicated and excited fans around, and rightfully so. A prince among his peers and fans alike, Wayman always sported a “can do” attitude, as is evidenced by his recent album, “Rebound,” and time and again each time he hosted the Smooth Jazz Cruise, an event always guaranteed to be a memorable party. I am one of those who routinely joined Wayman on those cruises, and I’m signed on for the next two, as well. Obviously, the next cruise--and all subsequent cruises--will be bittersweet as we recall the man who embodied the essence of smooth jazz and wowed smooth jazz aficionados everywhere with his winning and infectious personality.

I will sorely miss this gentle giant, and, like my Smoothvibes colleagues and fans everywhere, my heartfelt sympathies go out to his family. Now more than ever, we need to rebut those naysayers who have predicted the demise of smooth jazz by dedicating our devotion and support of the format Wayman so loved and to which he devoted so much of his energy, even to the end. God bless and keep you, big guy. You will always be in our hearts, and I am sure your eternal party has just begun.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:54 PM

May 14, 2009

Down To The Bone -- Future Boogie

Here we go again! After granting us a “breather” from the happily exhausting Supercharged, Down to the Bone, one of the heaviest, funk-laden, and groove-smart groups in modern time, is back with yet another relentless funk-in-motion smash in Future Boogie. These guys just know how to get folks to dispose of the chairs in a party room! With guests appearances by Hil St. Soul and the iconic master vibraphonist Roy Ayers (who should be a candidate for the eighth wonder of the world), the return of the absolutely coolest keyboardist in the U.K., Neil Angilley, and produced by the group’s “rock,” Stuart Wade (who writes a majority of the tunes here), one has to wonder what else could have possibly been done to ensure another over-the-top smash project by these "dancemongers."

Future Boogie has all the tastiness of a juicy filet mignon with all the trimmings and misses no opportunity to stomp and thunder through with all of the funk it can muster in any given tune. As is always the case with DTTB, you get a generous dose of each tune (nothing under 5 minutes and a handful well in excess of 7 minutes). I can imagine these guys just chuckling with joy as they envision what they’re doing to folks the world over. Imagining a gyrating, dance-crazed global party prompted by their thick music has to be one sensational high. No wonder they’re never in danger of being toppled as one of the absolute finest in acid jazz, or jazz/funk, or whatever you care to deem this high-energy concoction.

Track after track has its own personality, and Hil St. Soul’s appearance on “Should’ve Been You” and “The Brighter Side” as well as Ayers’ funky contribution at track 4 with “Good to Me” only stoke the flames of an already raging blaze of sound. Add to that such selections as “Spiderlegs” and “Get On It,” both of which feature some of the baddest collection of horns in the business, as well as the ingenuity and command of the Neil Angilley touch on keys, and you instantly know that Stuart Wade remains one of the most “in-touch” and prolific maestros around. The other cuts here are also of equal heat, and none takes a back seat to any of the others.

While “funk” and “dance” always come to mind as appropriate adjectives when referring to this supergroup, much credit has to be given to the professional and sharp manner in which they present melodies, hooks, rhythm, and, of course, soul on each of their projects. Future Boogie is no exception to that steadfast work ethic. Bring your dancing shoes-- and your appreciation for high-end quality—to this funk ball.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:06 AM

May 1, 2009

Shakatak--Afterglow

The sensational UK jazz/funk group Shakatak, featuring the usual smooth and sultry vocals of Jill Saward and the suave, distinctive keys of Bill Sharpe (along with healthy doses of George Anderson on bass and Roger Odell on drums)—just keeps on trucking along. Not missing a single beat, literally, this marvelously groove-tight veteran band has always possessed the ability to turn heads with its unique blend of smooth jazz, funk, and even a hint of the disco era. Remember the tune, “Dazz,” by the group Brick back when? Shakatak has always had that special ability to kick out some runaway “disco jazz” while also throwing in that heavy funk and then smoothly caressing you with the mellowest of rich tunes and melodies. You can see the strobes and globes of the ‘80s on a couple of cuts and yet still feel so today when listening to these very talented artists who have withstood the test of time and consistently kept their groove alive and well.

The group’s latest release, Afterglow, is actually available only as an import (the group has, much to the chagrin of its fans here in the States, concentrated much of its energies on the overseas circuit), as is its 2007 release, Emotionally Blue, another project I’ve yet to experience and review. Because of its lack of concert dates here in the States, I’d once thought the band has dissolved. Thankfully, I was wrong---very wrong! I only hope that they will heed the words of this writer, words that I’m sure represent the feelings of a multitude of other U.S. Shak fans, and toss in a few State dates! I am fully confident that they would be one excellent experience for all who attend.

All musical feels are represented here. Check out the wide and very appealing diversity of this production as you listen to the disco-like “Footprints” and “Groove Me Tonight” while “Tower of Babel” gets sweaty with deeply laid funk, and the title track, “First Light,” and “Out of Town” just plain smooth away your rough edges with serious soul rhythms and bravado.

Afterglow bears witness to the fact that this is and has always been a quality group that stays plugged into the vibe of jazz listeners who like their music tinged with that something different. THe group's signature sound is as unchallenged today as ever. Yes, Shakatak's mark on smooth jazz is undeniable for any who take this soulful and fun form of jazz seriously.

In closing, I have two messages. To Shakatak: Don’t forget that you have fans here in the U.S. who love you! Share your live musical riches with us, and I bet you’ll see that love show up at the concert halls and jazz festivals in abundance. To Shak fans: After listening to this one, you will surely come away with the satisfying feeling of drowning in the afterglow.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:53 AM

April 15, 2009

Dominic Amato -- Fresh From the Groove

Dominic Amato is yet another of the up-and-coming young smooth jazz artists with powerful charisma and skill combined with an uncanny sense of what this music is really all about: character, soul, and intense groovability. The young saxophonist has apparently been able to wrap his head and heart around this concept and exhibits this understanding boldly and brightly on his debut release, Fresh From the Groove.

Grammy award-winning producer/composer/keyboardist Michael Broening joins in the celebration of this maiden voyage for the young talent, along with bassist Mel Brown and guitarist Freddie Fox (both of whom are instantly recognizable as serious, personified vibes in the business).

The collection of material here shows that Amato and Broening are no strangers to finely sculptured hooks, effects (e.g., the talkbox makes an appearance on “Greezy,” a slinky, funky, tight piece), and diversity in style (check out the rhythmic Caribbean flavor of “Jamaica,” one of my top cuts here). For the romantic, you will find “Still With You” (another fav of mine) a sweet and apropos title for a soulful and seductive tune that , if you pay close attention, sounds like the whisper from one lover to the other, professing his or her commitment and undying love for the fortunate mate. The intensity yet softness is there, the unseen yet felt gaze is there, the bond that was perhaps formed a long while ago still holds as firmly as ever. Yeah, you hear all of that in this piece. When an artist can take you there, he or she has truly arrived.

There are plenty of other examples of how successful Amato should be in reaching his listeners with this project. The chilled “Jazzy’s Flow” will certainly strike a chord (no pun intended) with most, as will the up-tempo “Out The Gate,” and two other sweet and soulful journeys entitled “Letsjustchill” and “Myluvsounds Juslikethis (For Wifey)”—more talkbox action on the latter. All in all, a great first effort for an artist whose work promises more of the same (or even better) in future endeavors. Welcome, Dominic!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:01 PM

April 13, 2009

Cindy Bradley--Bloom

Newcomer trumpeter Cindy Bradley is escorted onto the smooth jazz scene here by the Trippin N Rhythm record label with a ton of class and finesse in this beautifully sassy and sexy debut album, Bloom, due in stores nationwide on June 23. Full of sultry rhythm and passion, this young lady adds a distinct touch of silky-to-the-soul flair in such a manner as to make it undoubtedly a part of her identity now and, hopefully, in future endeavors.

Bloom’s first and title track is about as soft and swaying a rhythmic introduction to this lovely addition to our world of smoothness as one could imagine. It’s a delicate piece with a very catchy and delightful melody, a strong preview of what’s to follow. What immediately does follow is another “groove-while-you-stroll-or-ride” tune with a lot of body.

Buoyed by strong support from guest appearances by such prominent artists as guitarists Tim Bowman, Jay Soto, Freddie Fox, and saxmen Marion Meadows and Jaared, Bradley bolts from the starting line in a blinding blaze and never lets up.

Trumpeters always have a tendency to be completely noticed or unnoticed. In my view, the sound and phrasings either fit or they don’t. Unlike the late inimitable Miles Davis, many are just ornaments or decorations for an already erected base of sound, and some offer little by way of mystique. Then, there are the Bottis, the Brauns---and the Bradleys of the scene. They get it done. Leads that are meant to be leads—not just propped up as leads. Cindy Bradley is definitely here to show us the difference. Tunes teeming with funk (e.g., “Uptown Drive”), tease (“Sycamore Soul”), and exoticism (“Catch the Wind,” with its alluring hook and melody) are here in one magnificent production designed to embrace all of your senses. You can taste, feel, smell, hear, and see this stuff all in one fell swoop. It’s a smooth jazz aficionado’s ideal image of smooth in the hands of a properly played, properly phrased/massaged/caressed trumpet.

Maybe not exclusively so, but Trippin N Rhythm has a knack for grabbing the suave, debonair, and just generally laid-back yet funky smooth artists bound to be magnetic with poise and style. Cindy Bradley, this formally trained bold young lady who’s worn trumpet since 4th grade, who’s already had the pleasure of touring with the renowned Pieces of a Dream, and who regularly works with Maceo Parker’s bassist and his band, just claimed a place at the table of not only Trippin N Rhythm’s elites, but of all discriminating smooth jazzers with Bloom. Congrats, lady. Pull up a chair. Let’s all sit, chat, and drink of the creatively prepared “wine” you’ve created with this project. What a wonderful taste.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:33 PM

April 11, 2009

Gregg Karukas -- GK

Here is Gregg Karukas (a native of my neck of woods ) tantalizing us with the mellower side of his superb keys work with help from so many notables that the studio probably needed no electrical light—just the glow from this array of talent. Needless to say, the keyboardist himself is here again with all of the keen smoothness that he’s always embodied.

GK (guess what that stands for and you get a lollipop, kids!), in my opinion, is considerably more laid-back than, say, his funkier “Looking Up” album. Nonetheless, it only speaks to the tastes and versatility of the man who touts this vibe of smooth jazz so well.

“Manhattan,” the lead-off track is a perky yet somewhat “quiet” little gem set in a moderate tempo with nifty piano runs, while “Napa Road” comes at us in a snappy up-tempo setting with melodic runs and bright horns featuring world class trumpeter Rick Braun & the cool of saxman Michael Paulo. The style is definitely typical Karukas. “Floating in Bahia” does truly float lazily and seductively and hints of an earlier melody – I’m thinking mostly of the George Howard version of “Love Will Find A Way,” just slower and “easier” here. This cuddly piece features Braun and guitarist Ricardo Silveira.

The track, “Wildwood,” brandishes an up-tempo and swinging mood with authoritative sax work from Paulo. A tune of special note to me is the rhythmic, very samba, and very jazzy “Jamba Samba” with Silveira on guitar and Luis Conte on percussion just settling into one of those grooves that lets you know they would have been comfortable right there all day and all night. “Coyote Party” is perhaps the most like a “party” on this cozy and reflective album. Its bluesy yet popping rhythm and melody are quite effective, as guitarist Paul Brown jumps in, adding his special concoction of spice to the tune.

If you like Karukas in a mellow mood (or mellower mood, considering that this is already a pretty laid-back artist), this is just the stuff for what ails you. Whether he is going all out in a funky setting or just tickling the ivories as you slip into a delicious state of oblivion, he remains on top of his charming and fluid game.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:26 PM

John Swanson's "Rent Party"

Malindy Music, Inc. founder John Swanson—also the producer of this effort-- has turned out a quality product here in Rent Party with the help of veteran saxophonist Cal Bennett (who has played and recorded with Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, and Donna Summer) and veteran multi-instrumentalists. Generally well-conceived and orchestrated, the R&B-flavored project should have broad appeal to smooth jazzers, who generally enjoy tight, crisp execution of smooth jazz as it is finely interwoven with this soulful element, anyway.

Rent Party wastes no time in pushing the funk-laden tracks at you in measured paces, starting with the competent and calling sax of Cal Bennett in the smooth-dancing opening track, “Can I Spend the Night,” which includes some really decent harmony backing vocals from a number of apt vocalists including Cristi Black, Shea Chambers, Sandy Simmons, and others.

The album rolls effortlessly along, providing grooves to chill by, to whisper by, to love by. A case in point would be the steady “Swing It,” a tune not big on bridges, hooks, and the like but huge on hitting that “spot” and providing that good ol’ “that’s it” feel. Track 3, “I Wanna Dance” is a gritty, very nastily funky, mid-tempo piece that also provides little by way of bridges, etc, but calls on the animal in you to get on the floor and burn it up with sheer sensuality. If slow and sweet is your thing, Cal Bennett’s sax and the endearing backing vocals bring it home on “Johnny’s Amour” with mellow yet pulsating spirit and depth. Wanna work up a sweat? Try “I Wanna Be Your Man.” This one is on fire from the opening note and comes adorned with nicely arranged horns to complement the overall aura of funk.

As mentioned a couple of times, many tunes on this album seem to focus more on the continuity of the groove and feel than on any diversity of “twists and turns” in the compositions themselves (e.g., bridges, breaks, etc.). Many of the hooks that are present are a bit repetitive, but they work. The vocals—sometimes taking on a spiritual light-- often step in to really color the pieces in ways that bring brilliance to the forefront. “If You Only Knew” is truly representative of this. A tune that does offer both continuity and diversity might be the well-crafted “I Believe.” Again, those quality backing vocals don’t hurt at all!

Overall, this is an album very much worth its weight and does what it apparently set out to do: Partner the serious the urban R&B/funk groove with the cleverness and taste of smooth jazz. As I’ve said, it works. Check this out at CDbaby.com.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:10 PM

April 6, 2009

e.s.p. -- Time's Up!

While this is not an exclusively contemporary offering—at least not from many a smooth jazzer’s perspective, ESP is a group of extremely talented and competent musicians who quite obviously take their jazz seriously —as equally straight-ahead as it is contemporary in spots (actually, I’d say it is predominantly straight-ahead). Time’s Up is a fine piece of work that both contemporary fans and jazz purists can easily enjoy. This project is not really my personal preference, mind you, but that takes nothing at all from the caliber of material set forth here.

The tone, cadence, “swells,” and overall groove of many of these tunes do periodically flirt with contemporary elements, as with tunes like the generously lengthy “La Hija,” a rhythmic, melodic Latin-tinged piece that does brightly bring to light that element. “Copper Room,” with guitarist John Magnante’s stylish work, would be another that nods at the contemporary in a very handsome, controlled way. I also absolutely love Brian Scherer’s sax work on that tune. Coming to mind would also be “Stone Cold,” a real exercise in the art of timing and another testament to contemporary jazz. On the other hand, pieces like the opening track are a purist’s dream come true.

Throughout the album, Scherer’s brilliant scale work on sax and sweet melodic flute, coupled with really tasty string and electric bass lines by Matthew Vacanti, the bright guitar work by Magnante, and soothing keys by special guest Brian Blumenthal, do much to add flair to what can surely be found in the quaint, dimly lit jazz clubs across the country.

The album’s title is obviously a witty effort to speak to the diverse timing found here. “Post Bob Republic” the “walking” straight-ahead offering differs, of course, from the timing on the aforementioned “La Hija,” “Meet Me in Paris,” a smoky slow tempo bluesy little thing, “Merge,” or the previously mentioned “Stone Cold.” Blues fans should enjoy “Be-Bop-Da-Wop,” a bright yet bluesy/jazzy stroll that highlights the sharp skills of Magnante and Scherer.

All in all, this is a refreshing predominantly straight-ahead project with enough contemporary jazz infused to give it a nice shape. Not necessarily a completely balanced shape, but a nice shape nonetheless. The appeal of the marvelous melodies and the styles of the musicians and their obvious connection to the music in an easy, unimposing way speak volumes about the character of both the artists and their music. Classy effort indeed.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:08 PM

Candy Dulfer -- Funked Up!

Ah, the Mistress of Funk has returned from the Candy Store all Funked Up! What a birthday treat I can expect on May12, the release date of the monster on the horizon, Candy Dulfer’s Funked Up! album. What can I say? After clearing the smoke from my ears and settling down after a sweatfest of dancing, I was able to assess the dynamics of this one and this explosive artist. Simple question: How does she keep it up??

This titan production kicks it in high gear from track 1, “First in Line,” a primo place to be when going to one of her fiery concerts. It’s followed by a hip-hop-laced funkster called…“My Funk” (imagine that!). Joining the sexy saxtress from Holland on this endeavor is a rapper/vocalist from the Netherlands, Pete Philly who adds that sassy, in-your-face energy so needed to keep pace with Dulfer’s fly-high style. Among others, bassist Chance Howard and drummer Kirk Johnson are right here with her, offering their great talents as key components of this Candy engine.

Every tune here is cut from the colorful, textured cloth that has come to define the sweet and marvelously talented character of the Dutch beauty whose sax has become as much a household item in a smooth jazzer’s life as a hammer. By the way, I have several favs here, and among them would be the opening track, the oh-so-melodic “Don’t Go,” the reggae-flavored “True and Tender,” and the finale, “Roppongi Panic.” There are others, but these are at the top of the heap for me on this one. Such an abundance of structure and soul.

For added effect, there’s a sound bite on ”CD 101” that I just love as she pays tribute to the New York radio station that gave her plenty of airplay around the time of the band’s 1st visit to the States in 1991. The DJ talks about the music not being for the “faint of heart” and how the station would need to take a break while they get some “roofing experts” in to repair the damage that was certain to have been caused by the heat of the Candy sound! Well said.

You know, there is such a marvelous story behind this talented wonder. I’ll just touch on a few key points. Her dad, Hans Dulfer (with whom she collaborated on a joint effort a while back, I seem to recall), was a well-known Dutch saxophonist who founded the Bimhaus, the famous jazz club that was originally subsidized by the Dutch government to promote the arts. Ironically, her dad was ousted from the organization for embracing styles outside the strict confines of traditional jazz. Can you imagine? This, of course, motivated the young Candy, who went on to form her own funk/R&B band, Funky Stuff. Nothing “traditional” about that, I’d say. The rest, as they say, is history.

At any rate, this is quality and trademark Candy. If you’ve loved her in the past, you’ll certainly eat her up here.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 4:59 PM

April 1, 2009

JaR -- Scene 29

JaR’s brand of contemporary jazz is unique and appealing in many different ways. Its Steely Dan feel, tone, chord phrasings, and stinging guitar riffs are quite polished and sophisticated. I remember shying away from the later Steely Dan material (post-“Countdown to Ecstasy” or maybe later) when I was regularly playing guitar because I found their intricate chords and techniques somewhat intimidating. I thought then: Nobody will ever be able to tap and emulate that sound! Well, judging from JaR’s moving project here, Scene 29, I was apparently very wrong.

The witty and deep lyrics, coupled with chords reserved for serious jazz along with a jolt of the acidity of rock, make for a rather cerebral production of monumental proportions. This is the stuff a formal contemporary jazz student should be studying (and probably does!).

I have to admit that, when I first opened this CD and read the 2nd page of the liner notes, I was put off by what appeared to be a self-serving and very esoteric rant about “level wars” and the “over-compression” of music in the studio. How many average listeners really care about that?, I thought. Sure, musicians may get it, but are they the audience?? However, after listening to this quality product—while I still feel that the esoteric chatter was unnecessary—the feel of this one is spot on in terms of capturing the essence of the genre. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan must be impressed! Tunes like “Cure Kit,” “Call Donovan,” “Make Somebody” (a tune that reminds me of another cool artist, Raul Midon), the title track, and “GPS” convinced me that the snap, crackle, and pop of this style is alive and well, thanks to this superb duo. By the way, some may ask: Who are these guys? Well, let’s look into that.

Among his many accomplishments over the years, guitarist Jay Graydon was once nominated by the Grammy board as Studio Guitarist of the Year. One of the most notable achievements for me is that he was also the soloist chosen over several other auditioning guitarists by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for the legendary guitar solo on the tune “Peg” on the duo’s “Aja” album. Ah, so that’s why he seems so comfortable and familiar with the “Dan” sound!

Graydon played on practically every "A" list session in Los Angeles, acquiring a glowing reputation as an ace studio guitarist/solo specialist on numerous albums with all the major artists of the era, including the Motown luminaries such as the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Diana Ross, and on and on. He was voted the second favorite guitarist in the world by the readers of the Japanese music magazine, ADLIB. His 2006 solo album at the time, "Past to Present - the 70s," was ranked by that magazine as number 9 of the favorite albums.

Another major notable: Some may already know Jay Graydon as the key songwriter/producer for smooth crooner Al Jarreau during the ‘80s. That could surely raise a few eyebrows, considering the appeal of Jarreau then, as well as now.

As for Randy Goodrum, as a most prolific songwriter/producer, he has had songs recorded by such diverse artists as Phoebe Snow, Tammy Wynette, Gladys Knight, Earl Klugh, Alabama, Ray Charles, Chaka Kahn, and a multitude of others.

Goodrum has also performed on keyboards on hundreds of recording sessions with such legendary artists as Chet Atkins, Roy Orbison, Dionne Warwick, Steve Perry, Earl Klugh, DeBarge, Al Jarreau, Steve Wariner, and George Benson.

Goodrum's numerous awards include being inducted into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame in October 2000. He has also won dozens of ASCAP Songwriter and Publisher Awards for the many hits throughout his career.

So, you can see how beneficial and electrifying the union should be between these two. The evidence is already present in this debut product. Scene 29 should be the promising start of something that just may be quite a long and fruitful partnership, much to the delight of listeners.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:11 PM

March 31, 2009

U-Nam's "Unanimity" headed to stores on April 28

Paris-born guitarist U-Nam has opened the “funkgates” on his latest album, Unanimity, scheduled for release on April 28 on the Trippin N Rhythm record label. The drive on this project is so infectious that you can actually feel and visualize the energy spewing forth. The combination of R&B grooves, jazz runs, and the unmistakable funk factor give this one a running start toward the top of the charts.

The opening, rather atypical piece (at least from a jazz perspective), “Viva La Revolucion” is a slowly marching brief tune that is so clean, melodic, and universal in appeal, while “Funk-4-U-Nity” is one of those “down & dirty” jams that begs motion and calls for a clear understanding of just what funk is all about. Following that, the up-tempo and catchy “Shine On” is a hook-rich and soulful offering that’s sure to get a huge chunk of airplay. Then, there’s the highly electric, stratospherically-charged title track which just sizzles with the vibrancy of U-Nam’s Ibanez guitar coupled with superior and harmonic backing vocals.

Gathering together some superb help from master flutist/saxman Najee, Matt Rohde on Rhodes, and canary-like vocals from Marva King, as well as stellar support from his own group of fine musicians (Franck Sitbon on the Rhodes, piano, clavinet, organ, and backing vocals; Dennis Bennarosh on percussion; Mike White on drums; and a keenly sharp collection of horns and strings), U-Nam (who’s personally handling guitars, basses, and keys) puts forth a sterling effort here bound for the highest musical ground.

Getting back to the tunes offered here, there are worthy selections that evoke memories of tunes and artists past--as well as cuts that demonstrate U-Nam’s ability to compose, mold, and play quality original material. The hooks throughout are distinct, the melodies are refreshing and pleasurable, the alternately bluesy and lightning riffs and chops (e.g.,”4 Ever Urs” and “My Heart and Soul”) from U-Nam’s Ibanez are fluid and masterful, the bass lines are definitely bottom-heavy and chock full of funk, and the percussions and drums add that undeniable rhythm and “flava.”

There’s flash and an occasional surprise throughout this album. A case in point would be the moderately paced “Soul Boy Reincarnation,” which begins as a handsome arranged slice of smooth jazz and funk and ends up with a nod to some cool ragtime. Love it! Oh, and then there’s a cleverly arranged cut that, while original, offers a throw-back chorus reminiscent of my favorite R&B duo of all time, Sam & Dave, as snippets of “Hold On I’m Comin’” are heard in “(Hang On) U- Is Comin’.” I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Martha & The Vandellas monster oldie, “Dancing In The Streets,” as performed by the marvelous Marva King. Just try to sit this one out! Loving the mix between jazz and blues the way I do, I have to also tip my hat to the strollin’ “Losin’ My Mind.” Excellent work.

I tell you, one is truly in for a potpourri of listening treats with this project, as U-Nam sets out to truly provide the listener with some quality and diverse sounds. All in all, Unanimity is one of those productions that will enjoy a long, happy life everywhere smooth jazz and serious grooves are taken seriously.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 11:24 PM

March 12, 2009

The Rippingtons -- Modern Art

In 2006, guitarist Russ Freeman and his band of oft-changing members famously known as The Rippingtons set out to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary on the contemporary jazz scene. Since the debut album, Moonlighting, was released in 1986, Freeman & Co. have ground out magnificence as if it were a foregone conclusion that magnificence is all they can create. Well, judging from yet again another such production with the release of Modern Art, one would be hard-pressed to challenge that conclusion. This collection of new, refreshingly fresh material, 99% of which is penned by Freeman, comes with a yet another regrouping of the group as veteran bassist Kim Stone is replaced—but not shoddily so—with sharp, funky bassist Rico Belled. Though I will sorely miss Stone’s stylish and weighty bass, Belled fits really nicely and brings his own commanding touch to the bass lines that the band seems to relish.

The album is also marked by the return, if only temporary, of alumni sax man Jeff Kashiwa. His contribution here only serves to shed light on why Freeman made certain that the illustrious artist stayed put with the group for nine glorious years before venturing out on his own and establishing a successful career as a giant in his own right.

For a few albums, Freeman mesmerized so many (yours truly included) by incorporating a heavy dose of the elegance, exoticism, and sweetness of Latin-laced compositions (e.g., Life in the Tropics and Wild Card). Here, though, he returns to the original trademark sound he introduced to us over 20 years ago (witness the title and opening track and “Body Art”) and also rolls out the funk and some blues elements with as much ease (check out cuts like “One Step Closer,” “Jet Set,” and the ultra-funky mid-tempo finale, “Love Story,” featuring master trumpeter Rick Braun – nope, nothing like the Mancini tune you may have in mind!), as well as trying his hand at some European flavors (“Paris Groove”).

As any serious Ripps fan knows, Freeman has an affinity for theme-based albums, as he loves to share his life’s experiences and loves with his audience. Cases in point would be Black Diamond (where he spotlights the joys of skiing), Let It Ripp (golfing), Life in the Tropics and Weekend in Monaco (both pretty self-explanatory). With Modern Art, we’re treated to his affinity for, not surprisingly, art. In fact, I’ve seen samples of his “photo realistic illustrative” artwork. Great living, breathing stuff.

Freeman’s Rippingtons and their sure-handed handling of the entire set leaves no question that this supergroup has all of the angles of this genre covered with bullish authority. They’re just plain good! This latest effort is every bit as good as--if not arguably better than—its predecessors. In fact, it may well replace Life in the Tropics as my personal fav. Major feat. This is definitely not one to bypass.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:25 PM

March 6, 2009

Spyro Gyra – Down The Wire

Talk about veracity and staying power. The powerhouse group, Spyro Gyra, has seen 30 years come and go without missing a beat (pardon the pun) in providing stirring, superior contemporary jazz. With driving rhythms, witty nuances, meticulous hooks, chords, and melodies, Down the Wire, the latest triumph for the group—to be released in late April—will again stake a firm claim on the fertile turf of this genre.

Jay Beckenstein, as much as icon as any in the business, is and has always been quite the entertainer, live and in the studio. Growing up listening to Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie has obviously paid dividends for this prolific leader and sax man for the group. Add to that the longtime devoted and extraordinary skills of keyboardist Tom Schuman and guitarist Julio Fernandez, as well as the dazzling style and presence of Trinidadian drummer Bonny B and the mightily supportive bottom provided by bassist Scott Ambush, and you don’t have to wonder how the group stays at the top of its game--release after release.

Down the Wire delivers different touches and textures throughout. There’s the driving and funky title track featuring monstrous thumps and runs by Ambush and Bonny B laying down that irresistible backbeat. That’s followed by the beautifully mellow second track, “Unspoken,” featuring guest alumnus/percussionist Geraldo Velez (who reappears on track 7, “Flower for Annie Jeanette,” by the way). Track 5, “The Tippin’ Point” highlights some cool, melodic straight-ahead swing jazz interplay between Beckenstein and Schuman. Amazing stuff. The interesting time signature and brilliant runs on “Ice Mountain” at track 6 get a major thumbs-up from this reviewer, and some Latin fire gets stoked up on “La Zona Rosa,” which is a hot, rhythmic piece featuring Marc Quinones--another alumnus and current member of the legendary southern rock group, the Allman Brothers Band. Ah, then there’s the smokin’ finale, “Make It Mine,” where we’re treated to not only Bonny B’s muscular drumming style but his spirited and clever vocal prowess and a heavy dose of funk bass, Scott Ambush-style. What a way to exit!

There you have it. Spyro Gyra as…Spyro Gyra…again. Veracity, creativity, and consistency in excellence continue to dominant this group’s mantra. Don’t worry; the end of April isn’t that far away…

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:11 PM

Marion Meadows -- Secrets

You know Peter White when you hear him, you know Paul Taylor when you hear him, serious followers of smooth jazz know Keiko Matsui’s beautiful Far East melodies and her gentle keystrokes when they hear them, and you certainly know the tell-tale soulfully sweet sax of Marion Meadows, one of the true masters of this rich sound we’ve come to appreciate as smooth jazz. From his 1991 For Lovers Only release to this splendid group of compositions set forth here on Secrets, set for release in late April, Meadows has proven time and again that his love of music and his cool, pristine approach to its beauty is not a “secret” but something he lives to share openly and with all the daring that his marvelous sax can muster.

Secrets is a most creative, organic collection of moods and styles (no studio “additives” or “preservatives” such as drum machines and overdone synths), ranging from his tell-tale mid-tempo cuts like the opening and title track and “Soul Sugar,” as well as “The Child In Me” (each of which comes at you with a different degree of smooth and suave self-assurance) to a mellow and rather spiritual nod demonstrated on “You Lift My Heart” (sung by Charlie Karp) to the exotically rhythmic “Sand Dancers,” which requires a different style of dancing shoe (or maybe no shoes at all) with its swaying and very melodic island flavor. Then, there’s the “slanky” funky-with-attitude “Playtime” (clearly one of my favs here) with its catchy hook and robust, effective vocals by Will Brock, who also wrote the tune. Yes, this production has the complete Marion Meadows feel, and, as we've come to regularly expect, it feels great.

The artist sums it all up this way: “ I’ve been involved in a lot of projects, both my own and group efforts, and my main objective is to keep growing as an artist and engage the fans who have invested so much emotion in my music and my career.” As one who’s followed and invested such emotion in this incredible talent, I can offer my thanks to his dedication. Secrets, once on the streets, won’t be one for long. Just let it hit the airwaves, and stores may have a hard time keeping this one in stock.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:04 PM

February 25, 2009

Walter Beasley – Free Your Mind

When you possess awe-inspiring instrumental and vocal talent, then combine that with a 20-year “side job” as a Berklee College of Music teacher, and you’ve achieved name recognition that’s also associated with someone who is easily deemed a constant “hitmaker,” life has to look pretty sweet! Walter Beasley laid claim to all of this ages ago, yet, as if he’s some new kid on the block who has to prove something, he approaches this latest production, Free Your Mind, with the deep passion that again finds him pouring everything he has into the project. This spectacular new album comes with a very cool and encouraging theme: In this time of overwhelming bad news and stress from economic and other vantage points, we need to just relax, enjoy a moment of release, and lose ourselves to a precious moment of peace and tranquility. It is remedial; it is therapeutic; it is needed.

Often working in concert here with renowned Pieces of a Dream keyboardist James Lloyd, who’s penned several of the classy tunes here, Beasley further cements his powerful name and talents in the collective mind and soul of smooth jazz. We are treated to some real treasures here in the snappy, funky opener, “Steady As She Goes,” (another implied bit of sound advice for our troubled times, by the way), a dazzling display of his vocal skills on smooth artist Kem’s “Love Calls,” the swaying, melodically sound “Oh Yeah,” more rousing funk on “Shirlitta” (my fav here), and the casual, mellow title track (oh-so-aptly named!).

As if that weren’t enough, the cool saxman offers a series of moving tributes. There’s the hot, Latin-tinged tribute to master composer/keyboardist George Duke on “DukeZilla,” a suave tribute to President (then-contender at the time the tune was composed) Barack Obama ("Barack's Groove"), and a sweet, delicate melody called “Miss Minnie” for a dear, departed friend referred to by the artist as his “second mom.” All of this simply speaks to the humble and gracious nature of Beasley. I’m sure I’m joined by throngs of jazzers who too are humbled and extremely grateful for his dedication to providing us with his best effort each and every time he sets his mood to music. Thanks are definitely in order!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 4:02 PM

February 24, 2009

Pieces of a Dream – Soul Intent

Anyone who’s followed the smooth/contemporary jazz genre for any considerable amount of time has become dearly familiar with the Philly duo, Pieces of a Dream, who’ve withstood the test of time (practically 3 decades together!) with grace, elegance, and an equal dose of good ol’ feel-good funk. In addition to providing some of the most memorable rhythms and melodies ever captured in smooth jazz, keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon have been mainstays in writing and producing for as long as I can recall, often unselfishly offering their talents to other heavyweights in the business. Their latest venture, Soul Intent, is a commentary on maintaining some old-school values that, in my opinion, should always go into making a quality album, like the gathering of all principal musicians in the studio simultaneously rather than relying on technology to bring the groove together.

I see that this “back to basics” approach is appealing to a growing number of other artists in the industry now, and it’s pretty clear as to why that’s the case. There’s a lot to be said for the energy, the vibe, that intangible “something” that’s thrown into the mix and makes everything just come together so perfectly in a groove-rich blend. Maybe it’s the look on a band member’s face at a given point in the tune or tunes; maybe it’s just simply that irreplaceable chemistry from vibin’ off another’s vibe. Whatever it is, Pieces of a Dream has tapped it and molded it to perfection as evidenced on this latest project.

This latest gem opens with “Sway On,” a classy, up-tempo jam graced with another of Lloyd’s tell-tale magnetic hooks and further enhanced by the sharp and delightful sax work of Tony Watson, Jr., who provides us with many more sweet runs on this album. That tune’s followed by the very satisfying “Vision Accomplished,” jointly written by Lloyd and Harmon. It’s a tune reminiscent of the group’s earlier days and, as Harmon, states “really captured the true Pieces of a Dream flavor.”

This undisturbed thread of Pieces of a Dream’s trademark excellence runs throughout the project (examples would be the mega-funky “Apb,” the lively “Step On It,” and the snappy, sassy “Things Are Looking Up”), never leaving one flat or unfulfilled. Besides Tony Watson, Jr., other contributors to this album include guitarists Rohn Lawrence and Randy Bowland, bassists David Dyson and Bennie Sims, and saxman Eddie Baccus, Jr. Plenty to love here, and boy, does the imagery of everyone actually jamming together in the studio work for this old-schooler! Another must-have from Philly’s smooth jazz dynamic duo.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:57 PM

February 22, 2009

Vance Taylor -- Long Overdue

This debut solo album by keyboardist/pianist Vance Taylor is of the stuff major infernos are made. This extremely well-produced project is simply hot, hot, hot, and totally laced with heavy, heavy, funk. After one listen, smooth jazzers everywhere will mutter “Where has this guy been hiding?” Well, he’s certainly no newcomer, as he’s played in the shadows for such artists as Cece Winans, Candi Staton, George Howard, and Toni Braxton, to name a few. Also, for those of you who’ve managed to keep up with stars who’ve earned a “home” on your “Memory Lane,” Taylor has been a member of Maze featuring Frank Beverly for the past 5 years. Now, he comes forth to stand in the broad and bright sunlight of public view and dares to mesmerize with some of the boldest music I’ve heard to date on Long Overdue. Here are refreshing, new, and innovative compositions so rich in flavor that repetitive play is absolutely necessary to get one to the point where he or she can stop dancing and grooving long enough to simply wonder why this much great material has not emerged before now. No matter. It’s here now.

I’ve been fortunate enough lately to have heard a lot of premium smooth jazz, and Vance Taylor belongs to that elite group without any doubt. With a style and funkiness similar to keyboard wiz and former Tower of Power member, Roger Smith, Taylor is guaranteed to set any stage ablaze with nothing more than his marvelous material—no theatrics needed. As I’ve found myself saying over and over lately about some of these splendid productions I’ve heard, I challenge listeners to find one weak cut in this masterful batch of tunes. If you find one, please write to me and let me know which one and why. There! That’s my dare for the month!

For the lover of artsy, dazzling tunesmithing, Taylor brings all you could possibly need and then some. The album opens with a very fine version of the classic Stylistics piece, “People Make the World Go ‘Round” and offers one other tune not penned by Taylor (“Dirty Old Man”), then muscles through a set of bright originals worthy of much airplay anywhere.

Taylor’s accompaniment is strong and serves as an amazing complement to these tunes. There are some very worthy and funky bass lines laid down by Jeff Smith and drums and percussion contributions from Marcus Williams, George “Spike” Nealy, and Stacey "Quick" Ellis. The crisp horn arrangements are actually provided by Taylor himself on synths, except for the classy sax work by Larry Jackson.

The hooks are incredibly clever and original, as evidenced by “See You in the Morning” and—what else?—“Off Da Hook.” All in all, Taylor’s stroll into the open sunlight was well worth waiting for. Find this gem at www.cdbaby.com and grab yourself a slice of smooth jazz at its most appetizing. I’m sure you’ll agree: Taylor’s emergence is truly long overdue.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:17 PM

February 21, 2009

Here comes #10 for Patrick Yandall

I have to admit to a certain bias here, as I personally think that Patrick Yandall is one of the most polished and accomplished guitarists around (and I speak from the vantage point of one guitarist to another, although I’m sure we’re miles apart in terms of overall ability and talent!). He wears smooth jazz like a well-fitting suit, and his clear, distinctly melodic sound clearly supports that view. As for his writing talents, we’re talking solid pieces, well interwoven into the very fabric of his music. A New Day, his latest, whose scheduled release date is April 3, bears all the markings of yet another aural treasure.

A New Day is simply loaded with shiny excitement right from the very start. The 1st and title track is most aptly named, as it’s just right for starting a new day: Sunny, driving, and with purpose and direction. That’s followed by the rocking, rhythmic “Urban Flight,” a tune definitely designed for getting on your dance groove. Anyone who can sit through “Pistons Stomp” without giving in to—or at least fighting--the urge to get up and get the party started has to be made of some immobile solid substance, like a brick wall! Other tracks that follow are notably characteristic of this prolific author of 10 superb releases, each bearing its own signature.

It’s perfectly alright, and has become acceptable to most jazzers, if an artist should opt to revisit in some clever way sounds or tunes from his or her earlier releases (and many have even embarked on a couple of CDs comprised largely of covers). However, what appeals to me most about Yandall is his ability to create something perfectly separate from previous work while staying rooted in a style that has defined him. His material is almost always fresh with new and exhilarating melodies, and one finds oneself anxiously awaiting the next tune or album because of this remarkable ability. Now, on A New Day, he approaches different styles that still suit his personal style. There are selections that may remind you of Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Isley Brothers, Larry Carlton, Carlos Santana, Fattburger, and various forms of funk—in fact, there are specific tributes to a few of these greats here. In the end, however, this is Patrick Yandall, in all his glory, recognizing those superb and different styles in his own very special way.

If you’re like me, you like your smooth jazz with motion, definition, and something that stirs the soul as well as tantalizes the ear. Something slightly different from the last album you heard (by any artist)-- but not unidentifiably different--doesn’t hurt, either, right? Well, that’s what you get when you listen to Yandall. Here’s another album without a single throw-away track, in my opinion. I don’t know of very many albums about which I can say that easily, although there have been a notable few lately. At any rate, remember the release date for this one. You can thank me later.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:02 PM

February 19, 2009

Nils Set to Release "Up Close and Personal"

Up Close & Personal, the decidedly funky, brawny new smooth jazz project by guitarist Nils with an emphasis on some very nicely played blues, is another fine production by the artist and just shows that his consistently high standards and insistence on quality continue. This upcoming gem by one of smooth jazz’s finest guitarists has nary a mediocre track, and each tune stands on its own as a high-end individual composition not at all borrowing from or piggybacking on another in the collection.

Track 1, “Soul mates,” is a lazy, sweet, and soulful R&B cut trumpeting the values of being “soul mates” with nothing more by way of lyrics than a chorus of “We are soul mates, baby,” but you definitely get it. The title track and track 3, “Jazz Cruise,” (featuring British sax man Shilts of Down to the Bone fame) are both undeniably snappy and very “Nils” with crisp guitar riffs and solidly melodic chords. Shilts’ sax, of course, adds that soulful brightness for which he is so well known. “Europa,” with all the elegance and romanticism that Santana and Tom Coster captured so aptly years ago in that now-classic piece, is done to the nines here by Nils. Another funky mover—and perhaps my fav, though tough to say which is actually my fav-- is the curiously titled “60 10 29.” I’ve no clue as to what that means, but it just adds to the appeal of the funky blues it lays down, as does the very bluesy “Until I See You Again,” which immediately follows with a ton of class.

The quality just goes on and on from here, with tracks like “East Bay” and “Getting Hooked” strutting out sharp, spiffy, and jazzy hooks that never seem to stray very far from the funk and blues that clearly identify this magnificent piece of work.

Nils fans will not be disappointed with this project in the least, and those unfamiliar with this talent extraordinaire will quickly see why those fans are so dedicated. They simply know top-shelf excellence when they hear it. Up Close and Personal is expected to hit stores nationwide on March 17. Trust me: You want this one.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:47 PM

February 18, 2009

Mars Lasar -- At the End of the Day

If you like prolific artists, how about an artist who manages to crank out an album or two each year with each being uniquely special in its composition one way or another? Such is the case with Mars Lasar who’s released over 20 albums and has a rather extensive resume of productions, arrangements, and other credits. We’re talking about affiliations with everyone from Seal to Herbie Hancock to Aerosmith! That’s about as eclectic and diverse as one can get, wouldn’t you say? This experience doesn’t go untapped with At the End of the Day, a project that, upon hearing, I was driven to review.

With an oft-common thread with the fresh silk of Paul Hardcastle, Lasar shows here on At the End of the Day, with the help of accomplished saxophonist Greg Vail (who adds a really nice touch), that he’s as comfortable with the vibe of smooth jazz and wears its grooves as well as he would with any element of new age (which still maintains a presence here), electronica or any of the other genres he’s noted for exploring and conquering. When I think about his previous themes of preserving our planet and resources, protecting our parks, etc., this project--though mostly created in a smooth jazz setting--is not so far removed from those earlier themes of environmental appreciation, with tunes like “A Drive Through Vineyards,” “City Skyline,” and “Sweet Summer Haze.”

The music here is addictively soothing and unimposing, yet boasts a heavy presence in the room just through its moving, lush melodies and smart, well-conceived hooks. In many cases, an album will put forth an up-tempo, driving piece as its opener to get the listener’s attention. To demonstrate Lasar’s confidence in his ability to capture a listener regardless of the type of tune that sets off his album, this album begins with a slow, hauntingly mellow little ditty called “Warm Nights.” It may not be the pacesetter for the entire album (just listen to the aforementioned “A Drive Through Vineyards,” as well as “Good Times” and “Uptown,” and you’ll get my point), but it’s certainly capable of influencing one to have a seat and give a good, hard listen to the fluid sweetness of the whole production. That fluidity strolls through each track seamlessly. The diversity here is quite satisfying and complete. For example, in addition to tunes I’ve already mentioned here, there’s “Come and Join Us,” which brings to mind the slinky, kinda bluesy cuts like Rick Braun’s “Cadillac Slim.”

Overall, just listen, and you’ll agree at the end of the day that Mars Lasar has a bonafide winner.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:57 PM

February 16, 2009

David Boswell -- I Like That

Here’s a brow-raising meld of jazz styles that clearly spells fusion in a most interesting manner. In some places resembling the stylings of Craig Chaquico and rocker Neil Schon (on the couple of fusion projects that Schon produced, that is), I Like That, is also very close to the tight fusion triumphs of the Mike Sterns and Yellowjackets of the world (Jimmy Haslip sits in here, as well, btw). David Boswell has a good grip on, as he deems it, “coloring outside the lines.” Crisp, skilled, and well composed pieces easily elevate this offering as one to be taken seriously. Having studied under the likes of Pat Metheny, you’ll have no trouble identifying the innovativeness of his music.

There are enough intricacies to easily impress and convince the true “at the edge” fusion fan (the melodies and riffs can get a bit complex and involved), but the “meat & potatoes” smooth jazzer who prefers to keep it simple and close to the ground should find some satisfaction in this finely tuned production, as well. Boswell’s nifty hooks (check out “It’s Possible” and “Did I Tell You” for great examples) will appeal to anyone who truly appreciates good jazz, and Haslip’s expressive bass is, well, as usual, expressive. Nelson Rangell offers his tell-tale sax work, and it fits in here perfectly like that hard-to-find note in a five-part harmony vocal group.

This album possesses so many pieces that are just very there. To put it another way, I Like That is like one long but entertaining story told without a lot of words but with all the expression in the world needed to get the point across. That story is nowhere better represented than on cuts like “Shake and Bake” a potpourri of sound, and the very electric title track (both the opener and the “radio edit” versions—but especially the latter!). All in all, the mood, the aura, and the phrasing all place this piece of work in that special category with many of the great fusion pieces.

Not to be confused with conventional smooth jazz as many of us know it, I Like That carries its own smoothness and character with it. While some may choose to pass on it, many more will love its daring and its pure freshness. It’s got clear definition and direction, and I like that.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:55 PM

February 5, 2009

DW3 -- Life, Love, & Music

Here’s an R&B/smooth jazz group with vocal chops that are easily as competent and prominent as their instrumental skills. Based in sunny California, I understand that DW3 is a household name out there. Their 2007 release, Life, Love, & Music, is proof positive as to why they enjoy such notoriety.

I first learned of them on this year’s Smooth Jazz Cruise with Wayman Tisdale. They provided some of the fullest sound imaginable as they offered poolside and late night grooves for the smooth cruisers, as well as backing vocals for acts like bassist Marcus Miller. These guys proved to be the perfect party band, but with the serious depth and substance that generally pushes certain artists into the arena of the contemporary and R&B heavyweights. I would recommend that all serious music lovers watch the scene for the emergence of these guys on a national scale in very short order.

On this releasa, exotic numbers like “I Can’t Help It” and “Can’t Imagine” work wonders in conjuring up a nice unruffled island evening sipping on some smooth remedy for the blues, while the rhythmic but unfortunately short “Ordinary People” gets the feet moving in a coolly Latin direction. Their elegant soul sound clearly surfaces in tunes like “Share My World” and "Goodbye Love.”

As I’ve already stated, this is a production that will capture your attention as much for vocal aptitude as for the melodic compositions. Treat yourself to a taste of DW3. Look them up for yourself at MySpace and see if you don’t agree that this is a group deserving of riding the high tide to national fame.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 9:46 PM

February 4, 2009

Everette Harp -- My Inspiration

Everette Harp is quite the busy man in the studio and on the road, and his prolific nature never ever takes any negative hits where quality production is concerned. While much has probably been written of his 2008 release, All For You, I want to take a special moment to recognize his 2007 effort, My Inspiration, for so many reasons. First, the album, not unlike many of his others, is a smokin’-hot example of the man’s intensity, smoothness, and ability to feel out a song while it’s probably still no more than a mere budding thought. Second, he is as beholden to his departed father as I am to mine, and I relate to the dedication of his album to the memory of his dad, of whom he obviously thinks the world. I cannot begin to tell you how such dedication appeals to people like me.

My Inspiration wastes no time blowing it out with the fiery, funky opening track, “Juke Joint,” and just steamrolls straight through to his heart-warming vocal tribute to his dad on the final and title track. Never at a loss for expression via his music, Harp has such a knack for striking that perfect note, literally, through the backdrop of nicely phrased passages and awesome scale work. His soulful, bluesy touch comes through loud and clear on such cuts as “In Time.” He plays and wears his intense sound so well, as is obvious on this rich production. The clarity, the fat bass lines, the gliding rhythms, and superbly structured melodies and chords are all unmistakably Harp.

Harp was one of the performers on this year’s Smooth Jazz Cruise with Wayman Tisdale, and, this being my very first time actually seeing the man perform (shame on me after so many years of being a smooth jazz fan!!), the searing magnificence of his sax and his effervescent presence floored me from the moment he strode on stage. Needless to say, when I realized what an insightful and reflective artist he is, as well, I counted myself among the very fortunate who were there that evening in the ship’s main entertainment lounge to bear witness to his consummate artistry. Oh, and this album? Continuing quality from a quality artist who apparently never allows his undeniably superior talent to outweigh his humility.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 9:38 PM

February 3, 2009

Joe Johnson -- The Afterparty

"There should be some type of bridge built between contemporary jazz lovers and fans of Hip-Hop and R&B music," says international jazz saxophonist Joe Johnson. Well, while I think that bridge has pretty much been defined now by the likes of Kim Waters, Mike Phillips, and Jeff Lorber (witness the Unwrapped and Streetwize projects), Johnson places his indelible signature on this hybrid sensation that has swept the smooth jazz world by storm. Let’s examine this smooth character from Memphis, Tennessee, and his soulful, charismatic style, shall we?

Johnson touts among his early musical influences Charlie Parker, Hank Crawford, David Sanborn, Grover Washington, and Kirk Whalum. A young man in his mid-thirties, he has amassed an impressive resume and list of musical accomplishments that include opening national concerts for or sharing the stage with such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Sade, Vanessa Williams, Gerald Levert, KEM, Roy Ayers, Boney James, and Phil Perry. Impressive.

His latest release, The Afterparty, is a swaying groove that combines sharp, tight alto sax work with other horns to create melodic, textured, and alluring rhythms and hooks. One tune of note involves his clever manipulation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s melody and bass line from “Can’t Hide Love” to create his own “Guess Who Loves You More.” That tune is so strikingly creative. The horn arrangements here and elsewhere on this project are boldly expressive, as if arranged by someone with a great deal of well-deserved self-confidence. Clearly, Johnson is someone who is more than justified in his self-confidence. Selections like “Doing It Right,” ”Slow Jam,” “Find Myself in You,” and “Free Yourself” are but a small sampling of the “feel” Johnson sought—and found--on this album.

Take a moment and stroll through this vibrant fabric of sound. You will undoubtedly want to stick around for awhile, close your eyes or bob your head when and where appropriate, and allow the colors to just cascade around you as this masterful saxophonist works his magic on your aural senses. Deep down, you’ll know that this is where you want to be. It’s where all smooth jazzers want to be when the alto sax (or any other instrument for that matter) is played with such command...

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:32 PM

January 31, 2009

Sailing the Seas with Wayman & Co.

I just returned from another year of smooth jazz cruising with jovial, big-hearted bassist Wayman Tisdale and a heavenly lineup of other artists, all bent on providing us with the best in smooth jazz entertainment.

I was, as usual, taken by the personable and gracious nature of most of the artists. These are the folks with whom you sense a kinship and friendship so uncanny that it all can seem so surreal at times. Artists like Wayman, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler, Marcus Miller, and surprise guest Dave Koz all seem to be so much more than smiles designed to drum up future business or patronage. The feeling of well-being that exuded from them was all too genuine.

From the engaging talent of Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler, and Dave Koz to the riveting journey through Marcus Miller’s career, told via his irresistible music and Q&A session held jointly with Wayman, this array of personalities made this cruise something over which those who missed it might moan and groan for some time!

Not a moment of electric, pulsating funk or silky, mesmerizing smoothness was lost on me--or any other cruiser, I’ll bet. Each sun-baked day and each star-filled night was enveloped by the sweet ambience of music made to move. Add to that the very special accommodations that were arranged for those of us who still wanted to part of our new president’s inauguration (big screen TV displays in the concert lounges), an event that was swollen with jubilation, and we, quite simply, had it all.

When I think about what motivates me to sign on for yet another year of this spectacular and never-disappointing outing, I am often at a loss for any one motivator. Of course, the music and artists would top the list, but there’s more. Coming in as a close second is the camaraderie among fellow fans, camaraderie that says all’s just so right with the world--at least for one entire week of some of the most blissful vacations this side of a dream.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 8:26 PM

January 11, 2009

Gail Jhonson -- Pearls

While we’re awaiting the rush of hot new 2009 releases, I thought I’d reach back in 2008 and highlight an artist whose contribution was more than noteworthy. The beautiful and talented pianist/keyboardist Gail Jhonson released a real piece de resistance entitled Pearls. Truly, this is a suave, steady, and most melodic album.

Jhonson is joined here by such wonderful masters as Pieces of a Dream’s keyboard genius James Lloyd, the Braxton Brothers’ multi-talented Nelson Braxton, guitarist extraordinaire Norman Brown (for whom Jhonson serves as musical director), sax great Marion Meadows (ask this guy about which artists have influenced him the most, and you’ll undoubtedly be quite impressed!), and guitarist Paul Brown, who stayed out of public sight for many years, opting to work behind the scenes producing and doing the whole studio thing before finally deciding to publicly strut his stuff just a few short years back, much to smooth jazzers’ delight.

Back to Pearls, this project is so heavily laden with well-composed, clearly exotic selections that it’s quite easy to discern how she arrived at the album title. I honestly can’t pick a favorite here because each tune is a gem in and of itself. Each piece clearly shows how much energy and love she and those like Lloyd (who composed quite a few here) placed into composing it. Nothing is a “filler” or “fluff.” Most cuts here could be a showstopper at any concert, in my opinion.

So, we’re now in 2009, and what a great year I expect it to be from a musical standpoint. However, if Gail Jhonson doesn’t release an album this year, Pearls will stand on its own to compete with the newest of new smooth jazz releases. I personally promise it.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 3:21 AM

January 4, 2009

Russ Hewitt -- Bajo el Sol

Bajo el Sol (translation” Under the Sun”), the debut album from guitarist Russ Hewitt is an offering that contains some of the most colorful, vibrant, and exotic Latin/flamenco-style smooth jazz found on any shore. Hewitt, an obviously brilliant and skilled guitarist whose touch is quite reminiscent of the brilliance of the renowned world fusion/flamenco/jazz guitar duo Strunz and Farah, has a very fluid technique that takes charge early on and serenades us exotically and seductively throughout with catchy tunes like, among others, the opening and title track, “Lydia,” “Palma De Mallorca,” “Simatai” (“View From the Great Wall”), and “Ojos Bonito” – one of my favorites. This young man clearly has a love affair with effective hooks, substantive scale work, and overall well-conceived compositions, all of which he handles magnificently.

Being one who is quite partial to well-played and well-produced Latin music, this project does no harm whatsoever to my perception of where and how this type of Latin music fits into the scheme of smooth jazz. Home is where the heart is, and many a smooth jazz heart will surely welcome this album.

The artist took great care to isolate and accentuate each note of a riff or chord in a crystal clear manner that beckons you to the shores of whatever island or Latin American country may happen to call to you with the enveloping embrace of each selection.

Hewitt has surrounded himself with very competent support, as well, to help polish Bajo el Sol. For example, there are members from Santana, Strunz and Farah—which is evident—Miami Sound Machine, Ricky Martin, and Shakira. Combined with Hewitt’s full sense of what he’s creating here, the added flair of this talent goes a very long way in buffing this production to a fine sheen.

After a single listen, you could very easily find yourself agreeing that this album is one of the finer Latin jazz projects bajo el sol.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 6:14 PM

December 29, 2008

Darren Rahn -- Once In a Lifetime

Once In a Lifetime is a smooth jazz gem that completely slipped under my radar, as it’s been around now for a year. Saxman Darren Rahn (who is actually quite the all-around musician, proficiently switching off to bass, keys, and drum programming when and where he deems it necessary) is joined here by some familiar heavyweights and fellow comrades in the form of Dave Koz, Wayman Tisdale, and Jeff Lorber. What they add to this already sassy project begs to be personally witnessed.

This young man has done wonders in terms of stepping in and implanting himself in this glorious arena of smoothness. His work can be heard on such smashes as Tisdale’s “Way Up,” “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” and “Get Down On It.” From what I hear, his headline performance at the 2006 Catalina Jazz Festival was of the stuff smooth jazzers crave. If this latest release is any indication of that, I’m a believer!

Thirteen of the 14 cuts here were written by Rahn (now, that’s originality in a form I can truly appreciate!), and the one cover, “Take My Breath Away,” is so masterfully undertaken that he can proudly claim the style as his own without reservation. From cuts so slick with groove and swagger like the opening track to the soulful, whispery, let-me-massage-your-soul pieces like “A Greater Love” and “Heartbreak” to funky movers like “On the Rebound” with Tisdale’s tell-tale bass lines and the popping, melodic “Groove Du Jour” (perhaps my favorite--well, next to “A Greater Love” or maybe…oh, you get the picture).

The deeper you go into this album, the more difficult it becomes to pull away, as each cut is just a delectable precursor to the next. Rahn has tapped into something musically special here…himself. Grab a listen.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 10:27 PM

December 23, 2008

Spyro Gyra -- A Night Before Christmas

Veteran contemporary jazz group Spyro Gyra is parading its signature form on some of the most splendid and admired traditional Christmas classics, as well as more modern holiday compositions, on its latest, A Night Before Christmas. This memorable collection features, of course, the masterful sax work of musical powerhouse Jay Beckenstein, as well as the genius of all of the other shining stars in this immortal union that we’ve enjoyed for decades in varying forms of membership.

From the telling sax on “O Tannebaum” to the bluesy, crystal clear vocals of Christine Ebersol on “It Won’t Feel Like Christmas” to so many of the traditional tunes transformed here by the magic of this group’s interpretations, this is one of those albums you can proudly add to your library, dig out year after year, and hear for the very first time every time.

Everything Beckenstein and his group has ever embarked upon smacks of meticulous and painstaking attention to detail while ensuring that it’s an enjoyable experience not just for fans, but for the group itself. A Night Before Christmas is no exception.

If I had to single out my favorites here, I’d have to include all of the bluesier cuts like the aforementioned “It Won’t Feel Like Christmas,” as well as “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (I’ve always so loved this piece with its cool dialogue!), and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Of course, the handling of the older, more traditional cuts like “Winter Wonderland,” “The First Noel,” and “The Christmas Song” is certainly replete with that extraordinarily smooth style and manner claimed solely by Spyro Gyra. Speaking of "The Christmas Song," this is an absolutely appropriate finale, highlighted by colorful drummer Bonny B's ever-buoyant vocals--including just marvelous scat work!

This is Spyro Gyra. Plain and simple. For those of us who live in the colder climates and experience the winter season, nothing says Christmas like a warm offering from one of the true smooth/contemporary jazz mainstays. To those in warmer climates, this one will add that touch of coolness when and where needed. In either case, grab this one, either get nestled near the fireplace, or just hang out enjoying the warm sun, and have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 5:43 PM

December 18, 2008

Millienium Promise Jazz Project feat. Kirk Whalum -- Promises Made

As can always be expected from the illustrious saxman from Memphis, Kirk Whalum, along with other artists performing under the pseudonym, The Millennium Promise Jazz Project, delivers another very creative blockbuster here with the release of Promises Made. This effort is part of a most promising fundraiser to combat extreme poverty, hunger and disease. Specifically, the proceeds from this album heavy with nostalgia are being channeled to Africans in need of essential survival tools. Now, how many of you did not expect such a humanitarian gesture from one whose spirituality and generous soul would allow him to do no less? Also, for those who didn’t know, Whalum is spelled
C-L-A-S-S.

On May 15th, 2008, the Lincoln Center event came off proudly and without a hitch, and the evidence of Whalum’s unwillingness to ever fade into obscurity in any way is emphatically presented here on this marvelous, Whalum-style smooth undertaking.

The album features classics like “Stand By Me,”“Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “People Get Ready,” “I’ll Take You There”and “War,” among some other delectable hits. As The Millennium Promise Jazz Project, Whalum is joined here by guitarist Earl Klugh, pianist Takana Miyamoto, Take 6 and keyboardist/producer extraordinaire George Duke. Lineups like this simply command attention. The attraction here is not just Whalum's ever-effervescent and oft bluesy playing style, but the sheer innovativeness with which he approached this recording. It’s as if you are hearing many of these for the very first time. Only one as talented as Whalum can pull this off time and time again with his tell-tale soulful sax and the bevy of formidable gospel-style vocalists.

To say that this recording should be a huge success, which probably has already happened, would be one of the biggest understatements of modern time. So it is that the prolific and always uplifting Kirk Whalum presents yet again another to be placed in his “masterpiece” column.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 2:59 AM

December 13, 2008

Tim Bowman -- Tim Bowman

The satiny guitar of Tim Bowman just keeps getting better with each magnificently melodic release. His latest-- self-titled—is so palatable that it takes a real effort to stop playing it and move on to something else. It’s that magnetic. The effortless riffs and clear, cool, bright chords have always pierced the fabric of a Bowman tune in a way that clearly defines and distinguishes this very polished guitarist time and again. This release is certainly no exception.

We get an extra treat in the form of splendid vocals from his son, Tim Bowman, Jr. The passion and enjoyment is clearly evident in his contribution. The musical genes in the Bowman family must be of unspeakable dimensions!

Add to that the contributions from the one and only charismatic saxman Kirk Whalum, keyboard mastermind Jeff Lorber, and brother Bryan Bowman (also on keys), not to mention all of the other heavyweight cohorts like Gerald Albright, Jeff Golub, Najee, Nate Phillips, and Freddy Fox, and you’ve got one of those explosive, can’t-miss, straight shooting projects that’s bound for the outer spheres of the universe. Appeal, form, structure, phrasing, originality, and just a plain pleasure to enjoy, this Tim Bowman project, like all of his projects before it, will hit the spot.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:45 PM

Marcus Miller -- Marcus

One of the most electrifying and prolific—not to mention monumentally talented-- bassist/producers in the business, has stepped forward with yet another resoundingly creative and superior release in Marcus.

Marcus Miller definitely needs no introduction. Even novices have certainly heard the name floated about in conversation about musical innovators and key playmakers. His list of accomplishments and liaisons is too extensive to tackle here and now, but trust me when I say that, if you’ve heard or seen a prominent jazz or R&B musician, he or she has probably had some direct or indirect association with this master of the bottom. Well-traveled, accomplished, and gifted are terms that are simply too mild to adequately describe Miller.

The CD, Marcus, comes with so much energy and creativity that you’re practically overwhelmed with it all right from the beginning. Case in point: You will be very hard-pressed to identify a tune with more intensity, hot chops, and super-cool hooks than the opening track, “Blast!” Still, listen further--as you most assuredly will--and there will be tunes competing for your attention beyond this torrid opener.

Try his crafty and flawless covers of “Free,” with sweet vocals provided by Corinne Bailey Rae, Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” a smooth bass clarinet version of “When I Fall In Love,” and renditions of Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without U” and Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?” Then, tackle the originals like “Funk Joint,” Pluck,” “Milky Way,” and “Strum.” Diverse offerings are not new to contemporary or fusion jazz, but never have they been offered with more fire, soul, touch, and ingenuity. There are conventional (and not-so-conventional) guitarists, both aspiring and well-established, who will marvel at the funk-loaded licks. No wonder he has been admiringly dubbed by peers as the “Thumbslinger!”

If you’ve not had the profound pleasure of owning one of Miller’s creations, grab this one and feel the pull, the drive, the unparalleled heat of funk. I should think that you will find it difficult to deny any understanding as to why the man has the following he has. Will you be among them? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one if you enjoy music with both power and class.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:37 PM

Jim Adkins -- City Streets

Jim Adkins is one of those gifted, quality musicians whose guitar has that calming tendency while losing none of the tell-tale soulful yet subtle funk that’s often intermixed in smooth jazz in varying degrees. Adkins has the right formula for the mix, and it works every time for me. With a magnetic style, beckoning hooks, and high-end melodies, he is noted for stroking the notes of a well-constructed chord as if he were stroking a delicate flower or a lovely woman. On his latest project, City Streets, the highs, the lows, the midrange are all perfectly calibrated and send forth such magical tone that it’s no wonder that this guy stays at the top of his game with each recording.

City Streets is truly a continuation of Adkins’ clear insight and vision with respect to the smoothest of jazz guitar. The title and opening track is very indicative of the ride he will engineer when you hear this. This is all so cool-air refreshing, such that it will melt away your cares if only for the lilting time you spend with this recording. You almost have to set aside some Jim Adkins time each day to put things in proper perspective and maybe realize that there is a positive solution to whatever bugs you in your life at the moment.

There are several cuts here to absolutely love (I couldn’t find one that begged exception). However, one that simply mesmerized me was “Mystic Vista,” which carries such a heady exoticism about it, even in its moderate tempo cadence, because of its eloquently structured melody, hook, and riffs. In one word: Wow! Then again, you’ll find plenty on this set that strive to rival it, and, in the opinions of many of you, some cuts will rival it.

In my eyes, Jim Adkins has easily established himself as a serious force in this genre. In the eyes of his colleagues and fans, he definitely should be there. For smooth jazzers who’ve yet to experience him, I’m sure you will easily place him there after one good listen. Grab this one and covet it as a masterful production from a masterful artist who obviously aims to please.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 7:31 PM

November 29, 2008

Althea Rene -- No Restrictions

Althea Rene instantly became one of my favorite artists when I first heard her In the Moment album, a rich, happy, rhythmic, and sexy offering a couple of years ago. I had the great pleasure of reviewing that one. Since that first listen, I have witnessed her rise on the smooth jazz scene to become one of the clear frontrunners with style and class that demand to be witnessed.

This latest project, No Restrictions, is again loaded with all sorts of aural goodies that consists of crafty hooks, sexiness, soulfulness, funk, exoticism, and more. Accompanied here on this collection of originals and covers by such notables as saxophonist extraordinaire Candy Dulfer, keyboardist/producer/vocalist Kendall Duffie (of Kloud 9), guitarist Freddie Fox and the prolific producer Rex Rideout, this flutist who acknowledges Donald Byrd and Ian Anderson as being among those who influenced her the most, dives into equal amounts of flair and grit with an abundance of confidence. Her handling of the Gershwin classic, “Summertime,” is uniquely soulful, jazzy, rhythmic, and romantic.

Working backward from that finale, examples of her fine touch are displayed on the saucy and tender “Island Breeze,” the catchy and melodic “Never Givin’ Up,” which just sways with each note and practically hypnotizes with its character. The key change just propels it into another realm of taste and technique. Very well done, to say the least. Did I mention that it’s one of my favs? I guess it’s obvious. Another favorite, “Do You Like Dat?,” is a funky, sexy-hot teaser, complete with her sexy murmurings (e.g., “Let me blow this in your ear”) and an exoticism that smacks of some Egyptian undertones. Interesting and undeniably attractive mix. Then there’s Tamara Jones’s tight vocal offering on the nice-paced “Come My Way.” Did I forget to mention the very original rendition of the cover of “Wishing On A Star?”

All in all, Althea Rene’s emergence onto the smooth jazz circuit is certainly a pleasant and welcome one. This latest album is further evidence that she is a bona fide playmaker in this arena, and I, for one, certainly hope she’s around for a very long time.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:23 AM

Kloud 9 -- Enjoy the Ride

I’m now totally convinced that the incredibly talented Duffie twins, Kelvis & Kendall (aka Kloud 9) are just blessed with the ability to crank out quality production after quality production. I’ve heard each of their projects, and the professionalism, the style, the charisma, the utter smoothness just keeps coming at a relentless pace. This latest offering, Enjoy the Ride, is no exception, by any means.

I have always been in awe of the phrasing similarities between these very adept musicians and, say, Ronald Isley, yet there are distinct differences that give Kloud 9 the identity they so enjoy with ease.

Kloud 9 has a real handle on smooth. Their hooks are contagious, the lead vocals are, as usual, rich and crisp, and the backing vocals are super-tight with strong harmonies. The mellow, effortlessly flowing vocals so complement the melodic compositions that they pen. Listening to velvety cuts like “Never Give It Up” and “I’m Calling You” contrast nicely with tunes like “All That Matters,” a lively up-tempo piece that features some really cool and expressive sax work by Donald Hayes and the punchy, funky “Grateful,” which features Kendall Duffie’s own hot synth work. There are also hook-rich cuts like “Can’t Hold This Love” featuring the satiny vocals of Tamara Jones.

In listening to the Duffies, you find it as no surprise that the duo has worked with Kirk Whalum and has close ties to the legendary Maysa Leak. Such company can only lead to the highest of precise productions, even if only via inspiration.

This album simply bolsters Kloud 9’s bragging rights as one of the purest up-and-coming talents around. Those who hear this work will agree that this duo is more than deserving of the mainstream limelight. I feel that I can almost guarantee that they will capture the ears and hearts of all who experience them. Go ahead. If this will be your first time listening, do yourself that favor.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:18 AM

Maysa -- Metamorphosis

There are voices in jazz that are so distinctively seductive and powerful that “incomparable” does no real service in describing these gems. The ever-popular and magnetic Maysa fits into that category like a glove. In fact, I’m inclined to say that she practically owns it. Opera-trained and as fluid as smooth wine, this magnificent, sexy songstress never disappoints, as is evident in her latest, Metamorphosis.

From the opening track, “Simpatico,” a melodic mover that features her on lead and backing vocals (as is the case with most of the tracks here) to the sultry “Destiny” featuring saxman/flutist Najee on through the scat-happy “A Conversation With the Universe,” Maysa just keeps pulling at your soul strings with the confidence only found in one so gifted.

Going from the sultry to the powerfully driving, the tunes all tease, inspire, push, and pull. An example of this drive would be “Let’s Figure It Out,” the piece written for Bluey Maunick, the masterful founder of Incognito, featuring the energetic guitar of Nick Colionne, who is also featured here on “Higher Love.” In a word, the album will affect you.

Whether this phenom is joining Bluey and Incognito or treating us to a solo project, the same unmistakable quality shines through almost effortlessly. The title of this project suggests that, as she states, “I am changing, rearranging my mind, my body, my soul, growing better, feeling stronger…slowly, but surely, my metamorphosis has begun.” I would say that, whatever metamorphosis she has set out to effect can only be a huge success, but, in my opinion, that which has always defined and identified her as one of the premier voices in the business remains very much intact. Her perceived need to change only reveals her desire to perfect the perfect. How commendable and remarkable! That just means her music will always strive to please, motivate, and excite—with each album seeking to outdo the last. How’s that for commitment??

As if her music and extraordinary vocals weren’t enough, this exciting sweetheart of smooth jazz has a way with the spoken word, as she addresses issues that others would rather avoid for fear of offending, like admitting that she needs a man, as track 5 conveys, despite her numerous individual and personal accomplishments—acknowledging that we all need each other and that the once-traditional and acceptable desire to have someone special with whom to share life is not something that shows weakness or dependence but rather perhaps the way things were intended to be...shared.

This is just the latest of greatness displayed by this vocal virtuoso with the enviable range. An album of change but of more of the same, as well. Witness it.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 1:12 AM

S.M.V. - THUNDER

It just doesn’t get any better than this. It just doesn’t. No meteorologist could have predicted this phenomenon. There has been “rainmaker” folklore, and whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, no amount of exotic fiction can even come close to the reality of serious thunder-makers. Enter the architects of the most robust, earth-shattering man-made thunder, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten, aka S.M.V., with the release of -- what else?--Thunder. Hold on to your hats and seats, but release your inhibitions and let your spirit just soar wildly with this one. You’ll surely feel it down to the core of your spine!

The energy and fat, funky bottom here are no strangers to any of these three virtuosos. After all, we all should know that Stanley Clarke is truly nothing less than legendary. His handling of the low frequency has been compared to the mastery of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong on their respective instruments. Jamming and being a mainstay in such giant collaborations as Return to Forever and the Clarke/Duke Project, among zillions of other ventures while coming up with his own line of basses, are just beyond words. His assertion that the bass is a permanent, internal part of him is spot on and totally undeniable. Watching this master in action is almost a religious experience.

Marcus Miller, a kingpin who, besides being at the top of the Who’s Who list in jazz bassists, has collaborations, compositions and productions that cause all up-and-coming bassists, as well as established bassists, to gape in awe. Once dubbed the “Thumbslinger” by his peers, this giant among giants has produced, played with or laid down monster tracks for such greats as Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, our late and beloved Luther Vandross, Wayne Shorter, Roberta Flack, the late great Grover Washington Jr. and on and on and on…not to mention his legendary 6-album stint with the great Miles Davis, producing three of them, including the renowned Tutu. The definition of funk and power bass was revamped with the emergence of this master of the bottom.

The third sensation of this trio is Flecktones master bassist, Victor Wooten. Though skilled in a variety of instruments, Wooten has managed to remain a formidable force to be reckoned with in the land of low frequencies. Another one to have an extensive list of greats with whom he’s jammed and recorded, his 6-album success has clearly demonstrated that this “low-end” genius is quite capable of reaching your “center.” In addition to superb playing, Wooten also extends his expertise to giving music and life lessons through his popular Bass Nature Camps in his native Tennessee. Being one of his students has to be a true honor.

Now, about Thunder. Well, suffice it to say, be prepared to sit and just groove and marvel for a bit, as this set, which includes such biting funk as the title cut (naturally), “Hillbillies On a Quiet Afternoon,” “Lopsy-Lu Silly Putty,” Marcus’ immortal “Tutu” and the riveting finale “Grits” is simply more than a set of compositions. It’s a testimony, an unabashed shout, to greatness. It’s material that obviously bore bold witness to itself from concept to its very birth…via Thunder.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at 12:21 AM