July 8, 2006

Smooth Sailing: Jason Miles, Nick Colionne And More

Reviews of new CDs by Jason Miles, Nick Colionne, Eric Darius, the latest Unwrapped, Maysa, Incognito, Willie and Lobo, Victor Fields and Tom Schuman.

What’s Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye (Narada Jazz)

The first two songs on veteran producer and keyboardist Jason Miles’ tribute to iconic soul man Marvin Gaye foretell that something special’s at hand. First, Mike Mattison of the Derek Trucks Band alternately sings and growls in the still-relevant protest song “What’s Going On?” Gaye’s spirit is suitably invoked. And the next tune – the equally anthemic “Sexual Healing” – shuffles along with a reggae beat punctuated by Dean Brown’s warbling guitar licks. It’s like no “Sexual Healing” you’ve heard.

Of course, Miles and company – guitarist Nick Colionne, saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and trumpeter Herb Alpert, among others – wrap their chops around many of Gaye’s best-loved tunes. But brownie points need to extended for including lesser-known tunes such as “I Want You,” with Chiara Civello’s sexy vocals bringing the song to life; “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” with Guida de Palma’s vocals; and “Distant Lover,” with Bobby Caldwell’s straining voice giving its all. To be fair, all three tunes were pop singles, but they don’t endure today like the biggies do. That would include, of course, “Let’s Get It on,” repackaged here with Alpert’s mellow trumpet lead; “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” simply stated with Miles’ keys; “Mercy Mercy Me,” taken in a new direction with Ann Drummond’s flute; and of course, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” with Colionne’s sleek guitar lines.

With now Gaye and previous CDs giving props to Grover Washington Jr., Weather Report and Ivan Lins, it apparent that future soul, fusion and smooth jazz favorites interpretations are in good hands with Jason Miles.

Keepin’ It Cool (Narada Jazz)

Nick Colionne’s smooth guitar licks have sweetened earbuds for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until 2003’s Just Come On In that many listeners sat up and noticed. That’s because the CD offered two hit singles – “It’s Been Too Long” and the No. 1 smash called “High Flyin’.” On his much anticipated follow-up, his first for Narada Jazz, the Chicago-based guitarist once again offers fluid electric guitar ditties influenced by – natch – idols Wes Montgomery and George Benson. In fact, Colionne continues his custom of including at least one song on each CD either originally recorded or inspired by Montgomery. This time it’s a recording called “John L,” a languid number that would feel comfortable in the swingin’ 1960s.

The rest of the CD is similarly compelling and tons more of a total smooth jazz package than his previous work, which presented some mainstream jazz moments. On “This Is the Song,” for example, Colionne seems to be saying that he’s got the format down with a just-about-perfect smooth jazz number that builds to a soaring, irresistible hook. The guitarist adds two, live-n-the-studio bonuses: a reworked version of “High Flyin’ ” and a too-cool take on “Rainy Night in Georgia” with low vocals. Welcome to the show.

Just Getting Started (Narada Jazz)

Technically, 23-year-old sax phenom Eric Darius has indeed started, as he is now three CDs deep. But heck, he is still in college. And he’s on the fast-track to smooth jazz stardom, having spent the past year touring as keyboardist Brian Culbertson’s sexy sax guy. Culbertson is on board as a player and producer, as are Paul Brown and Euge Groove. Thrown in veterans Jeff Lorber, Ron Reinhardt, Paul Jackson Jr., Tony Maiden and Oscar Seaton, and you’ve got a CD guaranteed to make noise.

Fortunately, Darius and friends deliver with catchy, radio-friendly pop-jazz right out of the gate with “Steppin’ Up” and don’t let till the last notes of “Slick.” So is Darius next big thing in smooth saxophone? That’s probably premature, although Just Getting Started is leaps and bounds above his 2004 Narada debut. Then, he revisited a few favorite tunes from his self-produced debut that probably should have stayed there while occasionally flashing brilliance on a few hook-ish nuggets. But with the talent largesse on board for his new project, it was unlikely – nay, impossible – for smooth jazz nirvana to be denied. At the helm of his own compositions, though, like “That’s What I’m Sayin’ ” and “Groove On,” Darius displays a free-wheelin’ style that favors playing more than melody. Refreshing.

Unwrapped Vol. 4 (Hidden Beach)

A few years ago, someone somewhere realized that kids weaned on hip-hop might like to get their freak on listening to their favorite tunes with a funky-jazz makeover. Many CD sales later, there are plenty of CDs doing just that. But it’s working both ways. The funky fusion has also given contemporary jazz fans some hip-hop samples (pun intended) without having to drop dollars on 50 Cent. In fact, it’s a good bet that most indulging in the latest in the popular Unwrapped series haven’t found the courage to pick up recent works by said 50 Cent and Fat Joe, two of the artists re-worked here.

Back on Unwrapped are its primary musicians, saxophonist Mike Phillips, trombonist Jeff Bradshaw, guitarist Dennis Nelson, keyboardist Frank McComb and violinist Karen Briggs. What’s interesting are the couple of old-school tunes, including the grayest beard in the books: the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” bass line intact but given a Latin big band treatment, and “Rollin’ With Kid N Play.” Newer classics include Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” and 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” and “21 Questions.”

The original songs may be all that, but the real winner here are fans who get to hear some top-notch jazz jamming.

Sweet Classic Soul (Shanachie)

When not recording with British funk-jazz band Incognito, singer and songwriter Maysa Leak crafts pop-jazz tunes on CDs that too often get lost among the pile of similarly soulful efforts. But on her latest, just glance at the title to see where Maysa’s going. And with radio’s cover-song-love in full swing, there’s a good chance she’ll perk up some ears. Of course, Maysa has a warm and inviting voice that – critic cliché be damned – make these songs her own. Her strengths are in the lower registers like Anita Baker, which are well-suited to selections like the piano, vocal and drummed-brushed “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack and with Barry White’s “Playing Your Game.”

Elsewhere, Maysa displays her vocal range with the falsetto-ish “Betch By Golly Wow” by the Stylistics and with Luther Vandross’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” Also getting the Maysa treatment are Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Any Love,” Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” and Rose Royce’s sublime “Wishing on a Star.”

Any new Maysa CD is worth settling down with to discover her songwriting abilities. With the classic songs on Sweet Classic Soul, she wipes out the middle man, as it were, and allows listeners to waste no time in discovering her joys.

Eleven (Narada Jazz)

Incognito doesn’t need a gimmick, but here it is: Eleven is the veteran UK band’s eleventh recording. There are 11 songs. And an 11-piece band. That aside, the latest groove- and brass-happy outing by Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick and team brings what it has for more than 25 years – in-your-face, positive-vibe funk instrumental and vocal tunes that just won’t stop, y’all. Recording with his touring band for first time, Bluey wisely brings back longtime friend and collaborator Maysa to drench soul on four exquisite tunes.

Incognito has had a few songs on the smooth jazz charts, so there’s a tendency to lump the group in with that crowd. But Incognito rarely gets played anymore – the airwaves are too tame for Bluey’s jam-band jive, which puts the focus on the playing and the groove instead of a repeated 10-second hook. That’s just fine for the club-goers and for the best way to experience Incognito, which is live.

There’s a ‘70s vibe to Eleven that’s best expressed in “It’s Just One of Those Things,” a disco-strings number featuring a duet of Maysa and Tony Momrelle. And on “Baby It’s All Right,” vocalist Imaani sounds like a new version of Chaka Kahn doing her classic “Sweet Thing.”

Zambra (Narada)

The duo of Willie Royal and Wolfgang “Lobo” Fink can normally hang out in the new age bins. But really, these guys deserve a category of their own. Call it Gypsy-chic meets surfer-dude chic (their music was heard in a surfing documentary called “Blazing Longboards,” and they’re both avid wave hoppers). They’re Ottmar Liebert on mild sedatives, but tuned down a notch from the passionate flamenco sound of guitarist Jesse Cook. On their 10th CD, guitarist Fink and violinist Royal called on longtime friend and trumpet superstar Rick Braun to perform and produce, and the result is some hard-earned magic.

In fact, Braun – who has worked with the duo on four other CDs – helps elevate Zambra to the top of Willie and Lobo’s canon. Their music has matured and diversified, assimilating the festive with the mournful. Mournful is easy with a violin of course, but on the CD’s standout track “Donde Vayo” it’s heightened by Royal’s vocalese and Braun’s smoldering, Spaghetti-western trumpet vibe. Braun again shines in “Vellas Al Viento,” where he takes a turn adding vocal flavorings. Braun also penned song dedicated to victims of last year’s devastating hurricane: “Balada Para Katrina.”

Great chemistry, and a cheap trip to Gypsy land.

Victor (Regina Records)

There’s always room for talented R&B vocalists happy to smooth out your workday or precious weekends, and Victor Fields is as good as they come these days. He’s not on the radar like contemporaries Will Downing and Freddie Jackson, but he’s respected enough to have been able to call on smooth stars such as Chris Botti and Jeff Lorber in the past. On his new CD, produced by guitarist Chris Camozzi and mixed by the Braxton Brothers’ Nelson Braxton, Fields kicks things off with a soothing tune written by Chuck Loeb called “This Could Be Paradise.” On that song and others like “Love Will Save the Day,” Fields’ soothing chops are perfect accompaniment to the positive-vibe lyrics.

Like any vocalist on the rise, Fields sprays his songs to all fields. Half the game is choosing what’s appropriate, of course, and he makes spot-on choices with Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” and his husky version of falsetto country singer Vince Gill’s “Colder Than Winter.” For jazz fans, he wraps his chops around well-worn standards “Lush Life” and “Night and Day,” with strings sweetening the overall effect.

Nothing harsh, nothing too out there. Just mellow and soulful songs that celebrate life, with a voice to die for.

Deep Chill (JazzBridge Music/Monogram Records)

For most of his career, Tom Schuman has maintained anonymity as the keyboardist for contemporary jazz group Spyro Gyra. Once in a while he feels the need to step out, and now we have his fourth solo CD. Contrary to what the clever title, there’s only a hint of chill music on the CD, best shown with “Everybody Knows.” That tune has groovy computer-enhanced vocal inflections. But most of the CD is filled with jazz, funk, R&B vocals, Latin, pop and fusion.

Schuman called on two smooth jazz performers. Saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa, normally fairly laid back on disc, comes alive on “Fearless Fostic.” And Chuck Loeb’s clean and jazzy guitar lines prop up a tune called “Redondo Beach.” Schuman’s cover choices are interesting – Elton John’s “Your Song” gets a lounge-y treatment that grows on you, but it’s time El Barge’s “All This Love” be retired as a vocal track. Conversely, Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back To Me” comes alive as a gospel-flavored piano rag.

Spryo Grya fans who crave the raw energy of Shuman, Jay Beckenstein and the rest of the boys can pick up the band’s recent CD. But for those on the hunt for mellow, adult-contemporary vibes, Schuman’s not a bad option.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 5:28 AM

January 7, 2006

Smooth Sailing: Brian Simpson, Euge Groove, Paul Hardcastle and More

New CDs from Brian Simpson, Euge Groove, Paul Hardcastle, Paul Brown, Kyle Eastwood, Paul Taylor and Earl Klugh.

Brian Simpson
It’s All Good

If you were listening to smooth jazz radio 10 years ago, you probably heard a little gem of a ditty called “Closer Still” by a pianist named Brian Simpson. You can still hear the song today, but Simpson hasn’t been heard on the airwaves since. Until now that is, with the release of It’s All Good. Simpson has a good excuse for the delay as the veteran session player for Norman Brown, Everette Harp, Michael Paulo, Najee and many others took on the weighty responsibilities as saxophonist Dave Koz’s music director.

When Simpson decided it was time to record another CD, he conveniently had an in with Koz, who just so happens to be the co-founder and senior VP for creative development at Rendezvous Entertainment. Koz liked Simpson’s demos, and the result is a 10-track CD of laid-back piano jazz that rates as one of the year’s best examples of subgenre. Simpson may have had an advantage as Koz’s musical director, but It’s All Good certainly works as a title. Like David Benoit CDs of years past, it’s a project of all original compositions written or co-written by Simpson that focus on the acoustic piano.

Simpson draws on the talents of Rendezvous labelmates Koz, guitarist Marc Antoine and saxophonist Michael Lington, but it’s the pianist’s knack for melody and the hook that drive the CD. With the title track and “It Could Happen,” he shows that a decade behind the scenes hasn’t dulled his knack for bright and uptempo grooves. And with “Here With You” and “Waiting,” he shows he knows a thing or two about ballads. In fact, the first eight songs are picture-perfect smooth jazz. Simpson draws on his love for straight-ahead jazz on the CD’s last two tracks, but smooth jazz fans will enjoy these as well: “Blues for Scott” is an original song Simpson wrote for his son, but it expresses the enjoyable melody of jazz classics you’ve heard and loved before. Finally, “Au Contraire” is a swinging bopper with a running bass line and Perry Hughes’ funky electric guitar soloing.

Euge Groove
Just Feels Right
(Narada Jazz)

Many artists say their latest CD is unlike anything they’ve done before when in fact it’s hard to tell the difference. So while saxophonist Euge Groove’s fourth does sound a little different while still maintaining his smooth jazz groove, much of what is really different about the CD occurred behind the scenes. To get a true feel for the musical era that influenced him most – the early 1970s – Euge for the most part decided to use only instruments and recording equipment made before 1976, including saxophones. To record the album, which was co-produced by Paul Brown, Groove used analog machines and analog tape, which were widely used before today’s digital era.

In addition, instead of calling on today’s most popular smooth jazz players to help him out musically, the saxophonist recruited old-school musicians Clarence McDonald on keyboards, Freddie Washington on bass, Ray Parker Jr. and David T. Walker on guitar, Lenny Castro on percussion and James Gadson on drums.

The result of all this is sublime smooth jazz that rocks, grooves and succeeds at recalling an earlier era. Although the CD features 11 songs, three are simply interludes that he calls “gimmealilclick,” “gonnatakeyouhigher” and “cantstopthefunk.” The interludes are included since Groove decided to, in another nod to the past, make a complete CD from beginning to end, a rarity in today’s 99-cent downloads. After the first interlude, the CD kicks off with the first single, the raucous “Get ‘Em Goin’,” a bold and brassy musical statement. McDonald’s keyboard solo at the song’s end definitely recalls the groovy ‘70s. And although the next track, “Chillaxin,” is Groove in a modern mood, the rest of the music is definitely old-school in nature. The one cover, “Just My Imagination,” features finger snaps and will put a sunny smile on your face, while “12:08 AM” will do the same.

“Straight Up” is the funkiest tune and is driven by a blues bass line. “This Must Be for Real” and “Just Feels Right” are bookends, catchy singles with a sunny disposition like some of the most memorable songs from the ‘70s. The former features light strings and is even a tad corny in an endearing way, while the latter is a masterful ballad. The CD closes with “Ballerina Girl,” where Groove keeps it simple with his sax over light synth work and some beautiful Spanish guitar.

Paul Hardcastle
Hardcastle 4
(Trippin ‘n’ Rhythm)

British smooth jazzer Paul Hardcastle alternates between his Jazzmasters and Hardcastle CDs, so fans may be wondering – what’s the difference? Well, Hardcastle himself says the Hardcastle CDs are a bit more experimental, while Jazzmasters ones are more controlled. What I’ve discovered, though, is that Hardcastle projects – like the latest one – feature more instrumental selections. And while the Jazzmasters CDs feature the sublime vocals of Helen Rogers, Hardcastle 4 didn’t have to look far for a brand-new singer – Hardcastle’s 19-year-old daughter Maxine. (That’s n-n-n-n-nineteen to all you who remember Hardcastle’s anti-Vietnam War dance anthem from 20 years ago).

Hardcastle fans may recall that he once wrote a song dedicated to his daughter, appropriately enough called “Maxine,” that remains one of his fans’ favorites. Now she’s all grown up and adds her breathy and sexy chops to three songs on the new CD, which she also co-wrote. Her voice sounds much like Rogers’, and does justice to “Was It Love,” “Where Are You Now” and especially on the sublime “Smooth Jazz Is Bumpin'." (The CD closes with an untitled track of a 6-year-old Maxine singing like a rock star as only kids can. Very cute.)

The remaining nine instrumentals are among the best Hardcastle has ever done, beginning with the CD’s first single, “Serene.” As its title suggest, the tune is simple and melodic and features electric guitar from Adam Drake, who also returns with some rock stylings in “Straight Ahead.” Everyone’s using drum machines these days, but Hardcastle of course was a pioneer and the in-the-groove percussion throughout the CD is always a highlight of any Hardcastle project. But Snake Davis and Scott Brooker do add some real saxophone sounds.

Each Hardcastle CD features semi-mystical tracks, and the selections here are “Eastern Winds” and “Journey of the Lost Tribes” with their sampled flutes, strings, vocals and assorted jungles noises. Whether the songs are mystical, mellow or driving, they are all the epitome of smooth and polished music, easy to listen to over and over again.

Paul Brown
The City

Paul Brown should no longer be known as “just” a super-producer hitmaker for Smooth Jazz artists. As his second CD proves, in addition to being smooth jazz’s primary architecture of sound over the past 15 years, he’s also now becoming one of its leading hitmakers. His debut, Up Front, featured two hit singles, “24/7” and “Moment by Moment.”

“Cosmic Monkey,” a trippy track that loops along with the sublime scatting of Jeffrey Osborne. Brown is a guitarist, but he’s also been known to scat on his songs and he does here on “Food for the Moon.” The whole album has a vibe that’s typified by these two songs, a kind of past meets the future. Brown’s ‘60s and ‘70s influences are clear, but they are ushered into modern times by his superb production values – natch – and those of Croatian native D.C., who bring a subtle chill vibe to some of the tunes. The title song speaks to Brown’s fond look back at his favorite music, as here he chooses a slightly obscure 12-minute song by the Mark-Almond Band. Anyone over 35 or so may recognize the song when hearing Brown’s take on it – for those who don’t, he adds an instrumental version of it you’ll probably dig.

The CD’s best moment comes on “Real Mutha For Ya,” where Brown delves into downright funkiness on the Johnny “Guitar” Watson blues classic. Brown picks up a talkbox for maximum trippiness a la Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel (Like We Do)” from 30 years ago. It just may be first smooth jazz song ever to use the talkbox exclusively throughout. But Brown’s bread-and-butter tunes are the midtempo slow burns such as “Side Steppin’,” with Wendy Moten’s summery vocalese, and the Wes Montgomery-inspired moments like Brown’s “Hello Again” and the Chuck Loeb co-written “Las Vegas.” Throw in a few memorable ballads and a peppy guitar version of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Winelight” and it’s clear that Brown has found his niche as a solo player.

Kyle Eastwood
Paris Blue

It’s not surprising that one of the first things you hear on Kyle Eastwood’s sophomore CD is the whistling of his famous dad, Mr. Clint Eastwood. The senior Eastwood is one of the country’s best-known fans of straight-ahead jazz and obviously has left his mark on the junior Eastwood. Now, the 37-year-old bass player has the distinction of being the first mainstream jazz artist signed to Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, which has concentrated on recruiting smooth jazz and chill artists.

Koz shows his musical savvy with this signing. Don’t get the idea that Paris Blue is a traditional jazz record, as Eastwood finally becomes one of the first artists to fuse jazz, smooth jazz and chill music. And much more. What recent jazz record has not one but two dance-hall remixes? Mostly recorded in Paris, where Eastwood lives (he also spends a lot of time in London), the CD has some jazzy moments but probably won’t be the kind of CD jazz purists give their thumbs-up to. But their loss is the smooth jazz fan’s gain, as the CD fuses jazz, chill music, world and – as mentioned – dance.

Clint’s whistling comes on the opening track, “Big Noise (From Winnetka),” a swinging tune originally recorded by the late jazz bassist Bob Haggart. It’s a romp, with spiraling bass lines, record scratches and some jazzy playing by bandmembers Doug Webb on saxophone and Jim Rotondi on trumpet. It’s followed by “Marrakech,” which as you might expect evokes images of the exotic and haunting city and has a chillish vibe. Those first two are remixed later on the CD and are worthy of your feet’s attention, as the reggae grooves, staccato drum loops and Eastwood’s in-your-face electric bass make these infectious listening.

“Muse” would fit on smooth jazz radio, with its muted trumpet lead and midtempo rhythm section, while “Le Pont Royal” and “Solferino” play around with the kind of smoky jazz that’s a joy to listen to. And while the title track harkens back to the jazz-fusion of the 1970s, “Cosmo” recalls the big, bold and brassy funk tunes of the same era. Paris Blue is a bold statement by an artist who uses traditional jazz as simply a starting point. No boundaries here.

Paul Taylor

Saxophonist Paul Taylor’s sixth solo album in 10 years since leaving the Rippingtons isn’t too much of a departure from his polished and sexy sound, which probably suits his many fans just fine. One thing you’ll notice, however, is that Taylor plays more songs on the lower-sounding alto saxophone, which is a change from his previous reliance on the Kenny G-like soprano. Still remaining are plenty of memorable melodies, inspired playing and the overall urban vibe Taylor’s known for.

The first single, the title track, picks up where Taylor’s big called “Steppin’ Out” from his previous album of the same name, left off. There’s the deep bass lines driving the song along, a disco beat in the background and a mélange of saxophones and horns. Elsewhere, there are bits of reggae, bits of funk, bits of Latin, bits of pop and jazz, all providing an up-to-date smooth jazz listening experience.

Taylor reached way back for the CD’s one cover song, the Terry Lewis/Jimmy Jam song from the 1980s called “Tender Love,” a hit for the group Force MD’s. Handling the vocals here is reggae star Maxi Priest (“Close To You”), whose vocal chops only improve with age.

The album utilizes three producers – Rex Rideout, Barry J. Eastmond and Dino Esposito – and features guest appearances by keyboardist Jeff Lorber, guitarist Dwight Sills, bassist Alex Al and drummer Ricky Lawson, among others. Romantic and energetic as ever, Paul Taylor is another one who seems to improve with each outing.

Earl Klugh
Naked Guitar
(Koch Records)

There’s no doubt that Earl Klugh, one of the founders of the smooth jazz format, plays some of the prettiest acoustic guitar around. He’s done if for years, on both smooth jazz and traditional jazz projects. His latest CD is his first since 1999’s Peculiar Situation, which was one of his best smooth jazz efforts, if not the best. But those expecting something similar to that classic will not find it here as – and you probably guessed this from the title – Naked Guitar is simply Klugh playing solo guitar.

As he did on his first solo guitar CD from 1989 called, not surprisingly, Solo Guitar, Klugh goes out of his way to make sure his fans know what they’re in for, even placing a disclaimer on the back of the CD that reads, “This CD contains solo guitar performances.” All that said, Naked Guitar is perfect for background listening – it maintains Klugh’s “pretty” touch – and features mostly recognizable jazz and pop songs that most fans will recognize as Klugh interprets them. Among the titles? You’ll hear new versions of “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “The Summer Knows,” “Moon River” and even the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And you’ll be smiling when you hear Klugh take a stroll through “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Thirteen of the 14 songs on the CD have never been recorded by Klugh, who spontaneously takes different approaches with most of the songs’ melodies. The one song that many fans will recognize is one of the guitarist’s best and most famous: “Angelina.” The acoustic, simple version of that classic is by itself worth the cost of the CD. But, in a way, it just further serves to whet the appetite for some new and original smooth jazz or even a more mainstream jazz. There may be some hope on the horizon, as Klugh has said that he’s also writing songs for a CD of melodic music.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 5:35 AM

June 11, 2005

CD Reviews: Jonathan Bulter, Richard Elliot, Praful, the Rippingtons and More

Want to hear some good new music? Check out releases by Jonathan Butler, Richard Elliot, Down to the Bone, Praful, the Rippingtons and others.

Jonathan Butler
(Rendezvous Music)

If you’re one of those people who swears that Jonathan Butler makes the prettiest acoustic guitar instrumental songs on the planet, you need to pat Dave Koz on the back. The smooth jazz star is the one who convinced Butler to sign to his Rendezvous Entertainment record label. And here’s the good part – nine of the 11 songs on Butler’s self-titled debut on Rendezvous are instrumentals. Not just instruments, but the hooky and alternately gorgeous and upbeat kind that typified his biggest radio successes, “Dancing on the Shore” and “Song for Elizabeth.” This is big news for Butler fans, since his last album, Surrender from 2003, was half vocals and the one before that, 2000’s The Source, contained just two instrumentals.

Ironically, the CD’s first single is a vocal version of James Taylor’s classic “Fire and Rain” with rockish electric guitar accompaniment by 24-year-old blues guitarist Jonny Lang. But that song, and the other vocal track called “Baby Love,” fit in perfectly with the CD’s overall mellow and bouncy vibe. But of course it’s instrumentals that really shine, beginning with the first track, the tropical-flavored “Rio,” which features the distinctive trumpet of Rick Braun and Butler’s spine-tingling scatting in tune with his guitar. Two other tropical-flavored songs by Butler, who grew up in South Africa but now calls Southern California home, include the bouncy “Mandela Bay” and “10 Degrees South,” both which feature the background female trio of Jodie Butler, Kurt Lykes and Toni Field. Jodie is Butler’s daughter.

Of course, Butler knows his way around a ballad, which he proves on “”Randy’s Song” – where Koz handles the sax – “Precious Things,” “For a Friend,” “Sweet Island Love” and “Spirit of a Nation.” The CD closes with “Move Me,” a bluesy midtempo number with Gerald Albright on sax. Kudos also need to be given to Butler’s band, which includes Dave Dyson on bass, Greg Wachter on keyboards, Eric Valentine on drums and David Diggs with the string arrangements.

This is an amazing return to form for Jonathan Butler. It's hard to imagine anyone else creating a smooth jazz CD this year that's so consistent from beginning to end.

Smooth grade: A+

Richard Elliot
Metro Blue

Saxophonist Richard Elliot has more than just a fleeting interest in his 15th release. Metro Blue is the first CD of all-new material by the ARTizen Music Group, a smooth jazz label based in Southern California and co-founded by Elliot and fellow musician and trumpeter Rick Brun. Elliot shouldn’t have much to worry about here, as his robust tenor saxophone consistency lays thick grooves atop some darn tempting pop songs. Produced by Braun and Elliot, the CD once again pays tribute to what must be Elliot’s favorite R&B from the 1970s, the Stylistics. Elliot’s last CD featured a cover of group’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Metro Blue’s first single is a sexy reading of the sweet soul band’s “People Make the World Go Round.”

As Elliot’s albums always are, Metro Blue is heavy on the brass, which is to be expected from a former member of the seminal band Tower of Power. Braun blows his trumpet throughout, sounding especially vivid on “Inside Out,” an upbeat number that starts the CD. This song’s sure to draw raised fists during the Jazz Attack tour this summer, which Elliot is starring in. As will the funky “Mango Tango,” which lays down a groovy echoing sax line, and “Maxi’s,” powered by a Travolta-esque disco beat. Any Richard Elliot CD must have at least song where he coaxes some growls from his sax, and that track here is “Mystique,” which also offers some pretty sweet picking by guitarist Peter White. On “Chill Bill,” Elliot perhaps winks at the chill-music sound filtering into smooth jazz, but the song is more of a traditional ballad. As are the title track and “Camella,” which he sweetly named after his wife.

I remember reviewing Elliot’s last CD in 2003, Richochet, and observing that like many of his albums it was dogged by inconsistency. There’s no such problem here, as each of the 10 songs are solid and, in turn, make for a promising debut ARTizen debut.

Smooth grade: A

Pyramid in Your Backyard
(Rendezvous Entertainment)

First things first: Except for the lead track called “Moon Glide,” the new CD by Dutch saxophonist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Praful is nothing like his smashing debut, One Day Deep. But some background is in order: That album was originally released way back in 2001, but hit the U.S. by storm in 2003 thanks to a U.S. distribution deal and the hits “Sigh” and “Let the Chips Fall.” That album helped Praful become a leader in the chill music crowd, exposed many smooth jazz listeners to the format and even helped Praful get a high-profile gig on the Dave Koz & Friends tour this summer.

With Pyramid in Your Backyard, Praful avoids mining the successful grooves that populated One Day Deep, which would have been the easy and logical thing to do. But, working with producers and Rendezvous labelmates Adani & Wolf, Praful has made a wonderfully exotic CD that further explores his love of Brazilian and Indian music. The album has several guest vocalists singing in English, Portuguese and Indian Hindi. Among them are Sandhya Sanjana from India and Katia Moraes from Brazil – who is a member of Praful’s band – and even Praful himself. The Brazilian bossa nova tracks, “Acredite,” “Ponto de Partida” and “Eternity,” are smooth and sophisticated, while the Indian-flavored tunes, especially “Says Kabir,” are exotic and unusual to Western ears but still maintain the familiar percussion-heavy beats Praful employs to great effect.

Standout instrumental tracks include the spare and jazzy “We Live On,” where you can hear for yourself – and appreciate – Praful’s skill on the sax. “Hand-Cart Puller” features a guitar loop, bountiful percussion and a rapid pace, while “Drop to the Ocean” is a chill/electronica classic with jazzy sax interludes. “Wishful Walk” comes straight from the Pat Metheny school of samba, with a languid beat and wistful vocalese, while “Naked” is a quiet smooth jazz gem with soothing vocals by Praful. And then there's "April Seven," a dirge-like slice of erotic exotica that washes over you like a great movie soundtrack. It's very moody.

Pyramid in Your Backyard takes a little getting used to if you’ve listened to One Day Deep a million times. But it quickly becomes apparent that Praful has made a compelling and worthy sequel on his own terms.

Smooth grade: A

The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman
Wild Card

The Jazz Cat may be back, but as the title of their newest album suggests, he’s leading listeners down a different alley this time. It was five years ago that the Rippingtons’ leader, guitarist Russ Freeman, traded Colorado’s snowy climate for the warm sunshine of Florida’s Boca Raton, north of Miami. Freeman played around with some Latin rhythms on 2000’s Life in the Tropics, as many in the smooth jazz genre do. But on Wild Card, the Latin influence has certainly rubbed off on Freeman and his crack band.

There’s much hear to enjoy for the everyday Rippingtons fan, especially those who appreciate Freeman’s guitar playing. I’ve always considered Freeman to be underrated as a guitarist since he’s much more known as the leader of one of the few actual bands left in the genre. What’s been most enjoyable has been his classical acoustic guitar playing, which he does here on eight songs. It’s quite a treat, as are the well-known Jerry Hey horns, Eric Marienthal’s distinctive saxophone throughout and especially on “Lay It Down” and the title track, and R&B singer Chante Moore’s vocals on a cover of the soul standard “Till You Come Back to Me.”

There’s also some beautiful Rippingtons standards like the closing track “In the End” and “King of Hearts,” both offering the type of pretty guitar ballads the band is famous for. On “Into You,” smooth jazz producer Rex Rideout’s touch is evident throughout the delicious soul groove. And on “Moonlight,” Freeman switches to the electric guitar on a song that has “hit” written all over it.

But the Latin sound is the thing here, and Freeman shines with the laid back, tropical “Gypsy Eyes” and the “Mulata de Mi Amor,” both of which will have you licking the salt off your margarita glass. “Spanish Girl” is the quintessential Rippingtons number, a funky midtempo thing with Latin strings, while “Paradise” is one of the most complex songs the band has ever done. There are layers of classical and electric guitar, and three minutes in there’s even a brief synth guitar solo a la Pat Metheny. It’s a majestic song.

Of course, the two songs that Rippington fans will be talking about are the two with Spanish-language vocals: “El Vacilon” and “Mulata de Mi Amor.” The former features the female singer Albita and the background vocals of the group Ozomatli, while the latter has the robust vocals of Willy Chirino. Don’t skip the tracks, since they fit in perfectly what the Rippingtons are trying to do – and succeeding – on this amazing CD.

Smooth grade: B+

Down to the Bone
Spread Love like Wildfire
(Narada Jazz)

Although considered a smooth jazz band as far as radio goes, Down to the Bone on its sixth CD continues to pump out its hard grooves and brassy horns that defy easy pigeon-holing. The core band remains the same, with producer and composer Stuart Wade, members Neil Angilley and Neil Cowley on keyboards, Paul “Shilts” Weimer on sax, Tony Remy on guitar, Richard Sadler on bass and percussion and Neal Wilkinson on drums.

Like the chill music counterparts, the groove is, of course, the thing. Unlike many of those bands, however, DTTB has incorporating more and more live music on its CDs, with a warmer sound the result. Guest stars always make DTTB CDs fresh, and the big one here is flutist Jeremy Steig, who has performed with legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bill Evans, Jan Hammer and Johnny Winter. He adds a new sound to the DTTB jams “Memphis Groove” and the Brazilian-influenced “Wildfire Woman.”

The standout radio track on Spread Love Like Wildfire is “Tiburon,” which was co-written by Tim Best, who assisted with the song “Brooklyn Heights” on the band’s debut CD. The song has much of the same groove as that classic CD. Like that work, the groove here is relentless, and Down to the Bone remains one of the grooviest groove bands in any musical genre.

Smooth grade: B

Lee Ritenour

Veteran smooth jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, who has been making CDs for 30 years now, celebrates his signing with a new label with a live studio recording that showcases four distinct phases of his career. It has Ritneour’s acoustic jazz period (“Blue in Green”) and his Brazilian music with vocalist Ivan Lins (“She Walks the Earth”), the fusion era (“Captain Fingers,” “Night Rhythms”) and his most current music, featuring songs from his Wes Montgomery tribute (“Boss City,” “Lil’ Bumpin’”) and the compilation “Twist Of Motown” (“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” with Chris Botti sounding very soulful on the trumpet solos).

The CD is a companion piece to a DVD by the same name. The DVD was shot in a recording studio with a small audience (hi-definition and surround sound), and the music on the CD has an incredible studio sound with the live interaction of all the great musicians on the project. They include veterans Botti, Eric Marienthal, Dave Grusin, Patrice Rushen, Harvey Mason, Ernie Watts, Dave Carpenter and others. Ritenour also showcases two new vocal talents. Kenya Hathaway, the sister of vocalist Lelah Hathaway, contributes her own song called “Possibilities,” and returns to duet with Grady Harrell on Ritenour’s smash hit, “Is It You.”

Because of the fresh interpretations of familiar songs performed live, OverTime becomes not just another artist’s look back over a career, but an artist’s look back who obviously still has a lot to say with his music. For those looking for brand-new music from Ritenour, there’s good news – he’s now working on a melodic album which should be out early next year.

Smooth grade: B+

(Rendezvous Entertainment)

Camiel is the third chill/downtempo act to be signed by Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Entertainment, following Praful and the duo of Adani & Wolf. Like his Amsterdam labelmates, Camiel provides plenty of musical moments appealing to smooth jazz fans. But, also like his labelmates, there’s a sexy European vibe that can either sound fresh or weird, depending on your musical inclinations. The inside of the CD shows two scenes with Camiel strumming a guitar, but this is not a guitar-driven CD.

There’s the feeling with this CD that you never know which direction it’s headed or even if there’s a road map. That’s refreshing. For example, things begin with the downtempo and mellow “Sunset,” programmed drums bouncing happily along in the background. More than halfway through the tune, Camiel offers a pretty guitar solo that rides over swirling synth sounds. “I’m Ready” follows “Sunset,” and features an orchestral disco hook straight from 1970s. Pretty cool. There are other disco forays, as well, with soulful female, “get into the groove”-type lyrics.

There are many great moments: “Sintra” offers Larry Carlton-like guitar playing and lyrical female vocalese; “No Fuzz” is a strange trip with weird vocal-like warbling and a salsa-like melody so infectious you wish Camiel would have given it more of a presence; “El Alba” has a Spanish guitar lead that would sound appropriate on a Marc Antoine CD; and “Eighty-Eight” is an intoxicating, swirling five minutes of bossa beats, guitar, organ and vocalese.

What everyone who hears this CD will be talking about, no question, is the continuing dialog of a man who narrates the pursuit of a classy woman he meets at a bar called Thatcher’s. Preposterously humorous, it continues with “Follow Her” and continues elsewhere on the CD on an interlude and with “I Would.” Soft background music accompanies the man’s escapade, which is narrated by an American living in Amsterdam named Boyd Small. Also narrating a tune is one Cristina Arenas Gonzalez. She speaks in Spanish on “Sigume,” and I’m pretty sure she’s not the woman being chased from Thatcher’s bar. I could be wrong, but she speaks so fast in Spanish I couldn’t get much of what she was saying.

Different. But exotically also very cool.

Smooth grade: B

Various Artists
Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love
(Rendezvous Entertainment)

Rendezvous Entertainment, a smooth jazz label, has taken a big step with Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love, a vocal album featuring an all-star cast of some of the most popular singers in the world. The CD is a sequel of sorts to the Grammy-nominated Golden Slumbers: A Father's Lullaby from 2002, which was filled with appropriately sleepy lullabies. This CD, which is “a celebration of the important role father play in their children’s lives,” is more upbeat and diverse enough with its country, folk, jazz, gospel, soul and pop songs.

The CD is the creation of saxophonist Dave Koz, who performs on the album, and his brother Jeff Koz, who also collaborated on the first CD. The 13 songs are reverential in nature, of course, and in most cases poignant and heartfelt. When praising dads, country music singer Buddy Jewell takes Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father” in a new musical direction, and of course the lyrics will always manage to pull heartstrings. Richard Marx’s emotive phrasing speaks universally of a father’s responsibilities in “That’s My Job.” Daughter are sung to in Michael McDonald’s “When Scarlett Smiles” and Loudon Wainwright’s “Daughter.” Universal odes to children are handled with great tenderness by Solomon Burke on “Life Is Just a Matter of Time,” Will Downing on Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel”) and Jon Secada on “Find Me in Your Dreams.”

With Dave Matthews’ “Baby” and Carlos Ponce’s “You’ll Be in My Heart” (written by Phil Collins), listeners will hear the universal longings of parents as protectors. But perhaps the CD’s most touching tune is collaboration between smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and his brother Kevin Whalum on vocals. The song is in memory of Kirk’s son, Evan, who died after only three days on this earth.

Rounding out the CD are “You Touch My Heart” by Phil Collins, Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” as sung by R&B legend Smokey Robinson, and “Children,” a spoken-word piece by famed actor James Earl Jones inspired by a poem called “The Prophet” by legendary poet and philosopher Kahil Gibran.

A portion of proceeds from Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love will benefit the National Fatherhood Initiative, which works to improve the well-being of children by increasing the proportion who grow up with involved, responsible and committed fathers. The CD will also be released in conjunction with the NFI’s annual National Golden Dads campaign sponsored every Father’s Day, where celebrity fathers reach out into the community.

Smooth vocal grade: B

Keiko Matsui
Walls of Akendora
(Narada Jazz)

Keiko Matsui’s Akendora may only exist only inside her head, but it’s a place you’ll find yourself revisiting many times over.

Matsui’s latest takes its title from a mythical location of peace. That’s in character for the pianist and composer who for more than 18 years has crafted an art form of grand, cinematic sweeps of sound. Her CDs have a comforting sameness but are filled with new, concurrent strains of energy and melancholy that listening a pleasure. On the eclectic Walls of Akendora, Matsui truly throws everything into the pot, offering pop, jazz and R&B grooves while topping it off with trendy downtempo rhythms.

A wailing trumpet segueing into a swing jazz number signals the CD’s departure from the norm. But “Overture for the City” is about as frantic as it gets. That leads into one of the pure pop of “Crystal Shadow” and its repeated bass line holding up Matsui’s understated piano performance. “Gentle Sounds” sure sounds like the hit of the bunch, while the quintessential Matsui piece, “Bay of Destiny,” offers pretty piano, orchestration a shakuhachi flute from her husband and co-producer Kazu Matsui’s shakuhachi. So beautiful, and it may have you scrambling once again for the best Yanni compositions from the early 1990s.

“Canvas” provides Akendora’s most nutritious listening. It opens with whistles and a Brazilian bossa-boogie rhythm that shakes into thought-provoking and head-nodding downtempo grooviness. Longtime Matsui fans will enjoy her updating of her classic “Mountain Shakedown” from her 1997 CD Under Northern Lights, while those in a jazz mood will dig the swing-jazz of “Walking Through It” and sophisticated drum brushes of “Blue Butterfly.”

As a treat, the CD adds a bonus DVD with eight live performances of songs from previous CDs recorded at a show in Tokyo. There’s also a video of her song “Wildflower” and a home movie shot from the road in 2004. It looks like Matsui enjoyed herself almost as much as her fans surely did.

Smooth grade: A

Doyle’s Brunch

The first thing you should know is that the band’s name is pronounced “O’Toole.” Apparently the duo of Jane Mangini (keyboards) and Al Pitrelli (guitar) are big fans of the British actor Peter O’Toole. Mangini is the main force in the band, as she is the writer, producer and mixer. The second is that “eclectic” doesn’t quite do justice to this band, which is equal parts chill, downtempo, smooth jazz, new age, funk and rock.

Oh yeah. They’re a little weird, too, but in good way. The duo previously worked with an experimental collection known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, an equally indescribable group.
But no means should you let the unique nature of O’2L get in the way of listening. Amid the many musical and voice samples, there is some genuine music going on here. There’s plenty to sink your teeth into, including an uptempo cocktail-lounge version of the Doors’ “Riders of the Storm.” Track such as “Senor Wilhelm” show off Pitrelli’s manic guitar playing, which he honed while jamming with such metal band Megadeth and shock-rocker Alice Cooper.

“Come and Get It” and “Lonely Women” hark back to the soulful fusion days, while tracks such as “Cali” and “Missing Kate” are reflective, new age-type pieces.

And there’s plenty of playfulness. “Knock Knock” has a Manhattan Transfer-like vocal thing going and, believe me, the barking dog sounds work. “City Chicken” is a funky, cabaret-type groove with wailing guitars, organs and an acoustic piano melody Joe Sample would be proud of.

Different? Oh yes. Fun? Yep. Worth listening to? Go for it.

Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at 10:54 PM

March 15, 2005

CD Reviews: Steve Cole, Acoustic Alchemy, Chuck Loeb, Paul Taylor and more

Want to hear some good new music? Check out releases by Steve Cole, Chuck Loeb, Acoustic Alchemy, Nelson Rangell, Ken Navarro, Nils, Tim Bowman, Jason Miles and Urban Knights.

Steve Cole

SteveCole_Spin.jpg Here’s proof that it’s never too late to learn a musical instrument. Steve Cole, who is definitely known for his supreme saxophone sounds, taught himself how to play the guitar for his new CD because he wanted to conceptualize the songs on the instrument. Although you hear Cole strumming his guitar throughout the CD, have no fear – the guitar is in the background and the sax is of course in the foreground. Cole has guitarists (and writing partner) David Hiltebrand, Tim Pierce and Michael Thompson strumming on tracks, as well as Ricky Peterson on organ and Todd Sucherman on drums.

The result is an organic, mostly soft-pop instrumental project that has much in common with a CD called Off the Beaten Path that fellow saxophonist Dave Koz released in 1996. Like that CD, Spin is acoustical in nature and for the most part eschews the glossy, high-production values associated with many smooth jazz works.

Cole says he was inspired on Spin by modern pop singer/songwriters such as Jason Mraz and John Mayer, and the inspiration shows on such tunes as “The Real Me” and “The Things I Do,” which you can visualize with some clever words. But throughout the CD, Cole’s memorable saxophone melodies are once again, of course, the main attraction and make the issue of words mute. Selections such as “Thursday” and “The Real Me” are as good as anything he’s done, but his acoustical approach really pays off in songs like “Spin,” which has a joyous sound while offering rapid beats and bluesy organ riffs. Cole has a way with a ballad, of course, which he does so well here with “Simple Things” and “A Letter To Laura.”

Many artists say their new CDs are unlike anything they’ve done before, but on Spin Cole can say that with a straight face. In addition to the acoustical element, he ends the CD with a hidden track that has an orchestral riff a la Praful and features some very jazzy sax with an undercurrent of chill/downtempo music. It’s delightful. Also different is “Serenity,” a gorgeous midtempo number also borrowing elements from chill music.

If this excellent CD is any indication, it’ll be interesting to see what Cole has planned to follow it up.
Smooth grade: A

Acoustic Alchemy
(Higher Octave)

The veteran smooth jazz band Acoustic Alchemy continues its focus on a more organic, acoustical sound as displayed on the band’s last album, Radio Contact. This is the band’s fourth album without guitarist Nick Webb, who died seven years ago, and now the chemistry between original member Greg Carmichael and the other guitar player – Miles Gilderdale – is reaching its peak. Webb brought the band a classical guitar sensibility that still sounds fresh today, and Gilderdale offers a blues and soul vibe and even does some scatting (he was a singer in a rock band in an earlier life), as he shows on the funky “Say Yeah.”

The title of Acoustic Alchemy’s 13th album refers to its roots as a British band that has found its niche in America. Old fans will find much to enjoy on this new CD, as the interplay between the nylon and string guitars – the band’s trademark – sounds amazingly fresh in songs such as the ballad “Cherry Hill” and “The Crossing.” These two tracks, and some others, retain the familiar soft touch that Acoustic Alchemy has long been known for.

Having said that, there is still room for advancement and new ideas, shown on “Lilac Lane,” which offers a blistering electric guitar solo and a steady, chill music-like tempo. Likewise, “So Kylie,” which makes reference to Australian dance-pop queen Kylie Minogue, is a late-night dance number with several electronica elements and an irresistible “nah-nah-nah-nah” chorus. “Trinity,” a reggae number, recalls the band’s “Jamaica Heartbeat” from the classic Back on the Case CD from 1991. Elsewhere, the band keeps things fresh with different styles – the feel-good Motown groove of “The Detroit Shuffle,” the Steely Dan-wink of “She Speaks American English,” and the jazzy swing of “The 14 Carrot Café,” a song named after a Seattle restaurant the band frequents when visiting the Pacific Northwest.

Whether listening in England or America, fans will certainly have plenty to cheer for on this latest effort by one of smooth jazz’s best-loved bands.
Smooth grade: A

Chuck Loeb
When I’m With You

After the European and techno inspired eBop, veteran electric guitarist returns with a CD that may just be his best work yet. It’s not a mainstream jazz album, but a smooth jazz one with an organic feel that simply keeps music first and gimmicks at bay. Paying homage to some of his musical heroes, first and foremost is the late saxophonist Stan Getz, who Loeb toured with for several years. What better song than Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema,” which Getz played on and brought Brazilian bossa nova to the world?

Next up is Ray Charles, one of the musicians who continuously has inspired Loeb. After Charles died last year, Loeb says he felt compelled to write “Brother Ray,” a swinging jazz and blues shuffle that’ll have those toes a-movin’. And “Double Life,” which leads off the CD, is a bluesy number dedicated to another Loeb mentor, the great guitarist Jim Hall.

Loeb can craft a smooth jazz hit as well as anyone out there, and has done so again with the unforgettable “Tropical.” His mellifluous and lyrical guitar has never as good, and the funky and tropical undercurrent will have you reaching for a margarita. And on the title track, Loeb provides a nice change of pace thanks to gorgeous vocals from his wife, singer Carmen Cuesta. It’s dreamy. And then there’s “And Then Some,” which gets into some real jazz playing.

This is the kind of music that Loeb’s many fans would follow him all over the world for. His guitar practically sings, and the jazz suits him well.
Smooth grade: A

Paul Taylor

Saxophonist Paul Taylor’s sixth solo album in 10 years since leaving the Rippingtons isn’t too much of a departure from his polished and sexy sound, which probably suits his many fans just fine. One thing you’ll notice, however, is that Taylor plays more songs on the lower-sounding alto saxophone, which is a change from his previous reliance on the Kenny G-like soprano. Still remaining are plenty of memorable melodies, inspired playing and the overall urban vibe Taylor’s known for.

The first single, the title track, picks up where Taylor’s big called “Steppin’ Out” from his previous album of the same name, left off. There’s the deep bass lines driving the song along, a disco beat in the background and a mélange of saxophones and horns. Elsewhere, there are bits of reggae, bits of funk, bits of Latin, bits of pop and jazz, all providing an up-to-date smooth jazz listening experience.

Taylor reached way back for the CD’s one cover song, the Terry Lewis/Jimmy Jam song from the 1980s called “Tender Love,” a hit for the group Force MD’s. Handling the vocals here is reggae star Maxi Priest (“Close To You”), whose vocal chops only improve with age.
The album utilizes three producers – Rex Rideout, Barry J. Eastmond and Dino Esposito – and features guest appearances by keyboardist Jeff Lorber, guitarist Dwight Sills, bassist Alex Al and drummer Ricky Lawson, among others.

Romantic and energetic as ever, Paul Taylor is another one who seems to improve with each outing.
Smooth grade: B

Ken Navarro
Love Coloured Soul
(Positive Music)

After two CDs with the Shanachie label, guitarist Ken Navarro has returned to the label he founded more than 10 years ago for his latest project. The 10 songs here signal a return to Navarro’s gentler, more acoustic side, and features two fantastic cover songs – a rousing take on Laura Nyro’s “Stone Soul Picnic” and a quiet reading of John Klemmer’s classic “Glass Dolphins.” Of course, those familiar with the veteran guitarist’s work know that he’s able to write some of smooth jazz’s most happy and memorable hooks, and once again he’s able to bring a few more bubbling to the surface. Exhibit A – the CD’s opener, “You Are Everything.”

While some of Navarro’s songs are enhanced by their simplicity, he also cannily combines radio smarts with some pretty amazing guitar playing, which he does on the song “Breathe.” It spins a driving, chugging rhythm section anchored by drummer Andre Webb and percussionist Kevin Prince, but mostly offers some pretty fast guitar picking by Navarro. Not that there was any doubt, but “Breathe” shows Navarro can play – furiously at times – but still works as one of the best smooth jazz songs to come around lately.

On this well-rounded CD, Navarro of course throws in midtempo pop gems like “Parallel Lives” and “You Did It Again.” He also goes for some very jazzy sounds with “Let It Go,” featuring the sparkling piano work of longtime bandmember Jay Rowe. And on “Summer of Love,” Navarro and Rowe quietly share a song that’s as beautiful as anything they’ve done together, and as gentle as a lullaby. It’s a perfect way to finish another winner.
Smooth grade: B+

Nelson Rangell
My American Songbook Vol. 1

Saxophonist and flutist Nelson Rangell, on his 14th album, decided to record songs that were close to his heart. Seeing as how he selected songs from the great American Songbook, it no wonder he’s calling it “volume one.” But as trumpeter Chris Botti showed on last year’s When I Fall in Love, smooth jazz artists are certainly capable of reinterpreting established songs without alienating their smooth jazz bases.

Rangell certainly couldn’t have picked a better song to begin with than Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from the movie West Side Story. A brief prelude, with handclaps, captures the spirit of the gritty but uplifting movie, and Rangell’s flute playing gives the tune an light touch. Whether intentional or not, Rangell also captures the Latin energy nicely, this time on his sax, by segueing into Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” which features upbeat percussion throughout. He returns to the flute once again for “Freda,” a song by bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker. Longtime jazz-fusion fans may recognize this gem as performed the classic band the Yellowjackets, and on this tune and elsewhere on the CD, Russ Ferrante of that band plays the piano.

A bookend to “Freda” is “Sonora” by Hampton Hawes, which is one of Rangell’s most popular songs in concert. What makes that song so popular – and why it stands out here – is that Rangell whistles the melody. It may bring up images of classic Western movies, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful song, enhanced by Chuck Loeb’s tender acoustic guitar solo.

Nelson also interprets Earth Wind & Fire's "That's The Way of The World" and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” while getting down and jazzy on the classic “Cherokee” and a very old traditional song called “Billy Boy.” And he combines “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” with James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” giving those classics a very fresh new sound. The one original on the project is “Don’t Forget Those Forgotten,” a ballad where Rangell’s sax has never sounded better.
Smooth grade: B

Pacific Coast Highway

Every once in a while, a relatively unknown musician comes along to produce a smooth jazz CD that is as good as anything on the record store shelves and contains one killer song that radio embraces. Meet Nils, a guitarist who is anything but an overnight sensation after having performed with such bigwigs as Paul Brown, George Benson and Gabriela Anders. Nils, who was born in Germany and now lives in Southern California, says he garners his musical inspiration from the scenic road running up the West Coast that he named his album after. That song, “Pacific Coast Highway,” is also the name of the single that has everyone’s attention.

Nils’ musical background shows how he was able to attract top players to the project. In addition to Albright, Chante Moore and Siedah Garrett add background vocals to “Cruisin’” while guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., keyboardist Rob Mullins, drummer Steve Ferrone and percussionists Alex Acuna and Steve Reid all contribute mightily.
Of course, there are plenty of CDs with only one great song on them. This isn’t one, as Nils shows he has the knack for smooth jazz pop melodies while keeping the listening fresh by switching between electric and acoustic guitars. The CD’s title reflects the music’s spirit, as Nils offers top-down car songs with titles such as “Cruisin’,” “Summer Nights,” “Baja California” and “Keep Rollin’,” the latter with a sax solo by Gerald Albright. By the way, if “Keep Rollin’” sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a Nils original that none other than Benson recorded on his Standing Together CD. Here, producer and co-writer of that song, Gerald McCauley, adds the Benson-like scatting.

Although Nils’ cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” isn’t too surprising, it’s got a groovy hip-hop beat, and his sashaying update of the 1980 Toto classic “Georgy Porgy” will brighten any mood.
Smooth grade: B+

Tim Bowman

This Is What I Hear
(Liquid 8)

Tim Bowman is one more example of a longtime session player who has struck it big in smooth jazz. The 45-year-old guitarist is getting tons of radio play for his breezy hit single “Summer Groove,” which comes from his third CD that is stuffed with winning hooks and dexterous guitar playing.

Bowman is a Detroit native with gospel-music influences, which come through on the project. His young life revolved around the church, where he taught himself to play in front of worshippers before getting a scholarship to the Detroit Music School. After briefly settling into work in the General Motors assembly line, he scored a gig with the gospel group the Winans. Bowman played with the band throughout the 1980s when the Winans were the best-selling gospel group in the country.

After leaving the group, he began a solo career which has reached an apex with This Is What I Hear. Bowman has a relaxed, easy way on the electric guitar, which in addition to “Summer Groove” he shows on songs such as “Dance,” “Candy’s Groove” and “New Day.” Bowman is equally adept on the acoustic guitar, and on the ballads such as “Miracle” and “Acoustic Rain” he makes his instrument sound as sweet as the best of Earl Klugh. Bowman also acknowledges his faith in the vocal tracks “Angels,” “This Song’s For You” and the rollicking gospel flavored “My Praise.” Supplying the vocals are Marvin Winans (founder of the Winans), Kayla Parker (who has collaborated with Oleta Adams and Brandy) and Bowman’s son, Tim Jr.

Even if Bowman’s gospel tracks aren’t your cup of tea, the album taken as a whole is highly recommended for its majority of instrumental smooth jazz tracks.
Smooth grade: B

Urban Knights
Urban Knights VI
(Narada Jazz)

Ten years after piano legend Ramsey Lewis created the first in a series of albums by a group called the Urban Knights, the band has decided to concentrate on a core group of musicians. Over its 10-year-history, the collective known as Urban Knights has featured many rotating stars enhancing its polished Chicago jazz-funk sound: Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright, Dave Koz, Earl Klugh and many others. In this new direction, Frayne Lewis concentrates on a group featuring guitarist Bobby Broom, keyboardist Kevin Randolph, bassist Maurice Fitzgerald, saxophonist Nick Bisesi and drummer Quinjuan Anderson.

The new focus mixes equal parts modern, drum-heavy funk-pop (“Sly” and the radio-friendly “Fall Forward”) and many nice, quiet classic jazz moments. Ramsey Lewis guests on a romantic new version of his song “Close Your Eyes and Remember,” and a reading of Usher’s “My Boo” is a pleasant surprise. In fact, the band is at its best when updating classic songs, such as Usher’s and jazz greats by Stanley Clarke (“School Days”) and Wayne Shorter (“Footprints”). Shorter’s classic is especially invigorating, with Randolph’s jazzy piano playing taking the place of Shorter’s sax and Maurice Fitzgerald handling the familiar bass line.

New songs aren’t bad, either. Smooth jazz fans will love the samba lines in “Memorias Belas,” a soft and sexy vibe with a classic mellow jazz rhythm. This assured effort should guarantee a seventh CD by the Urban Knights.
Smooth grade: B+

Jason Miles
Miles to Miles: In the Spirit of Miles Davis
(Narada Jazz/Rendezvous)

If anyone was to make an album of original songs with the late, great trumpeter Miles Davis in mind, it had to be New Yorker Jason Miles. The producer behind popular Smooth Jazz concept albums featuring the music of Ivan Lins, Weather Report and Grover Washington Jr. considered Davis a mentor and performed on some of his later fusion albums, including Tutu and Amandla.

This project is unique, though, since there is only one update of a Davis song, “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s a dandy with guest stars Marc Antoine on guitar and Keiko Matsui on keyboards. The rest of the CD does an uncanny job of approximating the kind of music Davis would probably be making today if he combined his jazz skills on the trumpet with his groundbreaking jazz-fusion vibes and a dash of in-the-pocket smooth jazz.

Miles has assembled a fist-rate band, including Michael Brecker, Gerald Albright, the late Bob Berg and the foundation of James Genus on bass and Gene Lake on drums. The music is the thing here, so not every song features the trumpet, although when it does Barry Danielian, Tom Harrell, Randy Brecker and Nicolas Payton are up to the task. Miles adds his expertise on the keyboards, drum machine and computerized loops, and the result is a rollicking good time.

The beats are slamming and in your face, such as on the opener called “Ferrari.” Elsewhere, album scratches and fuzzy guitar sounds create a swirling, dense cacophony of modern-day jazz-rock fusion Davis would surely approve of.
Smooth jazz-fusion grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at 4:35 AM

February 4, 2005

CD Reviews: Jeff Lorber, 3rd Force, Jesse Cook

Jeff Lorber, 3rd Force and Jesse Cook all have new music.

Jeff Lorber

You could say that pianist and producer-extraordinaire Jeff Lorber is getting a new lease on life. Fresh off a live-saving kidney transplant donated from his wife, Lorber now offers one of the best CDs in his storied career. Following Gigabyte and Philly Style, which grooved with fresh and modern sounds, he now returns to an organic and jazzier approach. Lorber says he felt like he’d gone as far as he could with that style, and the result is a fresh and cerebral project that’s a joy to listen to and is an early lock for many of 2005’s Top Ten lists.

Although he keeps the familiar jazzy grooves his fans love, Lorber aims to surprise listeners with the unexpected twists and turns of old-school swing rhythms and modern hip-hop, with a fair amount of be-bop improvisation. The ten songs on the album, co-produced by Lorber and Steve Dubin, feature Ron King on trumpet, Gary Meek on saxophone and additional keyboards by Nelson Jackson.

In addition to a new version of “Tune 88,” a song Jeff originally recorded for his 1980 album Water Sign showcasing the Wurlitzer organ, standout tracks include “Everybody Knows That,” where Lorber’s rapid playing show his tremendous skills; the first single, “Ooh La La,” a languid and memorable musical stroll that swings, baby; the jazzy joy and electric keyboard-driven “Santa Monica Triangle”; and “Sun Ra” and “Enchanted Way,” where King and Meek get a chance to improvise around Lorber’s melody.

This is kind of hip jazz you’ll like.
Smooth grade: A

3rd Force
Driving Force
(Higher Octave)

On their last CD, veteran smooth jazz group 3rd Force slowed things down for the very mellow, and very intoxicating, Gentle Force. Now, as a bookend to that project, William Aura, Craig Dobbin, Richard Hardy and Alain Eskinasi offer the appropriately named Driving Force, the band’s seventh CD. The album pays homage to Detroit funk and adds modern elements such as samples and turntable scratches by DJ Radius.

3rd Force has always had an in-the-pocket groove and high production qualities that left nothing out of place. The sound was chill music before it even existed. You could dance to their music or mellow out to it, all the while keeping your feet shuffling. A few years ago, 3rd Force – always just a studio band – played live for the first time, and this may have led to the energetic direction of Driving Force. New to this project is veteran drummer and musical director Xavier Marshall, who keeps the overall sound funky and hip-(hop)notic with plenty of horns and percussion.

Guest stars add to the vibe, with guitarist Brian Hughes strumming along on the first single, “Believe In Me,” and Greg Adams throwing in some flugelhorn. Guitarist Marc Antoine lends his unmistakable touch to “You Got It,” a dreamy vibe that recalls the band’s mellower mood. Also contributing are saxophonists Eric Darius and Tom Scott.
The upbeat CD closes with “Inside,” a New Age-ish tune featuring the Nepali flute of Reuben Shresha and vocals by Rashmi. It was recorded in Kathmandu, where Aura makes frequent trips to record music.
Smooth grade: B+

Jesse Cook

Ten years ago, Canadian rumba flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook burst onto the smooth jazz scene with a CD called Tempest, an exotic and bouncy effort that Ottmar Liebert fans immediately took to. Cook has continued to release music but flamenco and world music stylings have fallen out of favor on smooth jazz radio, meaning Cook hasn’t gotten much notice recently.

Montreal, a live album recorded in July at the Metropolis Theatre during an international jazz festival in the Canadian city, reminds us of Cook’s amazing talents on the guitar. A live album is a perfect setting for him and for listeners. Whether bouncing along with such memorable songs such as “Breeze From Saintes Maries,” “Rattle And Burn” and “Jumpstart” or slowing it down on melancholy ballads like “Cascada,” the crowd’s constant cheers and spontaneous clapping put you right in the middle of the action.

Throughout the 14 songs, the listener absorbs the full range of Cook’s musical influences (he was born in Paris and moved to Canada at a young age with his parents), with elements of sounds from Spain, Egypt, France, Africa, Cuba and Brazil. At the same time, Cook reminds us of why flamenco music continues to have a hold on smooth jazz listeners.

This is the kind of CD that gives live albums a good name.
Smooth grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at 6:13 AM

December 19, 2004

Holiday Albums 2004

Christmas Day is only a few days away, and no one really wants to hear Christmas music after it’s over, right? With that in mind, here a few holiday CDs that would be worth listening to this week. All were released this year.

Xmas_tree.jpgWill Downing, Christmas, Love and You (GRP): On Will Downing’s first-ever holiday recording, listeners are treated to a sensual Christmas delivered by one of music’s most emotive singers. Songs include traditional classics such as “The Little Drummer Boy,” “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Also included are three new original holiday tunes written by Will, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Christmas Time After Time” and the title track. Musical guests include guitarist Jonathan Butler, saxophonists David Sanborn, Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum, keyboardist Joe Sample and saxophonist Najee on flute.

Vanessa Williams, Silver & Gold (Lava): The velvety voiced singer has always been one of the most popular singers in the smooth jazz genre, and she does nothing here to dispel that. This CD marks her first in seven years, and she has another one on the way in February 2005. Williams’ earlier version of “What Child Is This” remains one of the most popular holiday songs on smooth jazz radio. There are many new classics on this new collection, including a duet with Brian McKnight on "Joy to the World," the touching title track and "Mary's Little Boy Child" has a reggae/calypso beat. And “Merry Christmas, Darling” has the ring of a brand-new hit to it.

Dionne Warwick, My Favorite Time of the Year (DMI): Smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz helps Dionne Warwick get into the holiday spirit as he performs on three songs on the legendary singer’s holiday album. You can hear Koz’s distinctive saxophone on "White Christmas," "Joy to the World" and "Winter Wonderland." Warwick’s first holiday project also features duets with Gladys Knight on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and BeBe Winans on an original tune Winans wrote called “I Believe in Christmas.”

James Taylor, A Christmas Album (Hallmark): James Taylor's first seasonal collection is a charming treat for his many longtime fans. Trumpet player Chris Botti, vocalist Natalie Cole and pianist Dave Grusin all contribute to the project, his first since 2002’s “October Road.” Botti has a trumpet solo on the album’s opening song, the classic “Winter Wonderland,” while Cole sings a duet with Taylor on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Grusin plays piano on several tracks and also produces the album. Other songs on the album include “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Deck The Halls,” “Auld Lang Syne” and “Jingle Bells.” “A Christmas Album” is available exclusively at Hallmark stores. Regularly priced at $10.95, the CD is $6.95 with the purchase of any three Hallmark cards.

Hiroshima, Spirit of the Season (Heads Up): The veteran smooth jazz group, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, re-released its first-ever holiday album, “Spirit of the Season.” It was released independently two years ago, but is now offered for wider distribution by the Heads Up label. The band is led by Dan Kuramoto and June Kuramoto. Song titles include familiar songs such as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” as well as new original holiday tunes including “Spirit Of The Season,” “Listen (To The Falling Snow)” and “Peace On Earth.” In addition, the album features a new arrangement of the band’s classic song “Thousand Cranes” originally released in 1989.

Christian Jazz Artists, Hymn Favorities (Songs of David): Don't let the title fool you. This delightful CD features several well-known session players, including Alex Acuna, David Diggs, Greg Vail and Ric Flauding. The arrangements are jazzified and alternately funky, smooth and very mellow. The track "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," featuring pianist Ray Lyon, sounds like a composition Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny would write. It's a great CD, available at www.songsofdavid.com. At that site, you can also stream music from Songs of David's Internet radio station.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 11:49 PM

December 14, 2004

CD Reviews: Dec. 14, 2005

Chris Botti's sublime When I Fall in Love is one of several great new releases.

Chris Botti
When I Fall In Love

After the great success of A Thousand Kisses Deep and his nationwide exposure opening for Sting, trumpeter Chris Botti decided to strike again with his popularity at an all-time high. Wise move. This new album has already soared to the top of Billboard’s jazz charts, making Botti one of the few smooth jazz artists who’s been able to successfully cross over into mainstream jazz.

The 13-song CD of classic and new romantic songs is lushly orchestrated by the London Session Orchestra and ably put together by producer Bobby Columby. The mood is mellow and just so beautiful throughout as Botti wisely doesn’t deviate from his romantic, cuddle-by-the-fireplace theme. There are so many instrumental highlights – kudos to band members Billy Kilson on drums, Dean Parks on guitar, Billy Childs on piano and Brian Bromberg on bass – but the vocal tracks really shine.

Paula Cole’s quiet elegance on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” is right up there, and the song even showcases Botti’s own vocal chops. Botti recruits Sting to sing on “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” a composition Sting wrote for one of his earlier CDs. And gospel singer Jill Zadeh adds vocalese to a cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love,” which features Jeff Lorber on piano.

Botti also interprets songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ("My Romance"), Ira and George Gershwin ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (the swinging “Let’s Fall in Love,” "One For My Baby" and "One More For The Road"), among others. Another highlight is Botti’s interpretation of the familiar song “Time to Say Goodbye (Con te Partiro),” a worldwide smash for opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

Botti has said that this is the one CD he’s always wanted to make, and it’s obvious that he’s having a good time interpreting jazz songs. This project is so excellent you wonder if Botti will ever return to smooth jazz.

Smooth grade: A+

Garry Goin
Goin’ Places

Veteran guitarist Garry Goin has paid his dues and is amply rewarded on his debut CD, which is co-produced by his longtime associate David Porter. Goin, raised in Cleveland, has performed as a session guitarist for many years in Memphis, where he was introduced to saxophonist Kirk Whalum. Goin’s influence is all over Whalum’s last CD, Into My Soul, as he co-produces, co-writes and performs on most of the tunes.

Although his songs are crisp and definitely in the middle of a groove, Goin isn’t afraid to play some real guitar and attack melodies. But Goin also has a playful and energetic approach, which begins with the lead song, “Riverside Drive.” It begins as a melody blues dirge, but morphs into a something much more cheerful, propelled by a reggae beat. It’s one of nine original songs on the CD; Goin also covers Bill Withers' classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the Emotions ballad “Don’t Ask My Neighbors,” which features an appearance by Whalum, who also contributes to two other songs. Goin is able to evoke many moods, as he shows on the quirky soulfulness of “Blue House” and on the straight-up smooth jazz on “Is It Deep Enough” and “Will You Marry Me.”

With its blues and rock influences, Goin Places is a Memphis type of record. But it also falls nicely into smooth jazz with a bit of a bite, which makes it an interesting addition to any collection.

Smooth grade: A

Novecento Featuring Stanley Jordan
Dreams of Peace
(Favored Nations Cool)

Novecento is an Italian pop group which has been around for 20 years and features three brothers and sisters sharing the last name of NicolosiRosanna on bass, Lino on guitar and Pino on keyboards. In addition, Lino Nicolosi’s wife, Dora, adds vocals. This CD is on the new Favored Nations label, which was founded by guitarist Steve Vai and is best-known for a guitar duo release a few years ago with Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather.

The CD marks the return to the studio in a decade for Stanley Jordan, who has toured with Novecento and has a long relationship with them. In addition to his playing, there are also contributions by established musicians such as trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Danny Gottlieb, saxophonist Dave Liebman and flugelhornist Guy Barker.

Although Jordan can play some pretty esoteric jazz and helped pioneer a type of guitar playing where he vigorously taps on the strings, this is a smooth and welcoming project. The best songs here are the instrumentals that showcase Jordan’s playing. Novecento lets Jordan let loose on his axe on the frenetic “Spring,” but mostly it’s just pretty good smooth jazz, especially on songs such as “Flying on the Sky.” Wordless vocals and breezy guitar lines make it very appealing. And on the head-nodding “Too Close to the Sun,” Jordan’s guitar lines playfully spar with Barker’s flugelhorn.

Elsewhere, Dora Nicolosi quietly channels the vocals of Basia on “Destination of My Heart,” while her singing on “Tell Me Something” sounds like a cross between Enya and Loreena McKinnet. That’s not such a bad thing. This is good instrumental pop.

Smooth grade: B

Greg Adams
(215 Music)

The trumpet is a vital lead instrument in smooth jazz, and listeners have several styles to choose from. Rick Braun offers flawless pop. Chris Botti digs mellow jazz with downtempo influences. With Greg Adams, you get what you’d expect from someone who helped co-found the seminal rock-funk group Tower of Power. Partly due to his long association with that band and his many movie and TV scores, Adams has only released three solo albums. But the first two found favor with smooth jazz radio, which have played “Smooth Operator” and “Midnight Morning” to death.

Now with FireFly, Adams offers 10 more original and funk-inspired songs, including the first radio single, the chugging title track. Adams and his nine-piece band are, as you might expect, energetic and above all brassy. Listen to “Loco Motive” – you won’t like this album if you don’t like horns. Above all, though, FireFly is a project by a seasoned artist in fine form. This is a well-balanced smooth jazz album, with bouncy, Braun-y numbers like “Not So Long Ago” and “5 North” mixing nicely with slow burners like “The Crossing,” “She Still Waits” and “Afterglow.”

Adams closes the CD with “Just Like Breathing,” a quiet, jazzy number that shows that he’d probably do just fine if he decided to make a jazz standard CD like Botti’s When I Fall in Love.

Smooth grade: B

Brenda Russell
Between the Sun and the Moon
(Narada Jazz)

Soulful vocalist Brenda Russell, long a presence on the smooth jazz scene due to hits such as “Piano in the Dark” and her association with Dave Koz’s Christmas tours, offers her first new album in four years. Welcome back.

There’s an international influence here, as Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick of Incognito co-wrote and produced two songs – “Make You Smile,” which has a happy bossa-nova beat, and “Ain't No Smoke,” which has the background vocals of Hamish Stuart of Average White Band. Victor Redwood-Sawyer, a member of the band Hil St. Soul, co-produced the languid “Too Cool For The Room,” while the team of Simon Law and Lee Hamblin co-produced “When You Comin' Back to Me” and “You Know Our Day Will Come.” It’s no surprise that vocalist Patti Austin replaced Russell on Koz’s 2004 Christmas tour after Russell was diagnosed with diabetes. The two are close friends, and Austin co-wrote the title track with her during a rare lunar eclipse several years ago. Austin also adds her vocals to the track.

Russell is one of the best representatives of smooth jazz vocals because most of her songs could probably stand as instrumentals without her vocals. But that would be beside the point and a waste of her lovely singing. Standouts here include a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears,” a personal illumination of Russell’s faith in “The Message,” and the simple and acoustic “Different Eyes.” She closes the CD with the charming “It’s a Jazz Day,” where she uses clever wordplay to pay homage to many of her musical heroes.

Smooth grade: B+

Posted by Brian Soergel at 7:52 PM

November 8, 2004

Smooth Sailing Nov. 8

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

Steve Oliver

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

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

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

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

Smooth grade: A

Shades of Soul
Shades of Soul
(Narada Jazz)

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

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

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

Smooth grade: B

Craig Chaquico
Midnight Noon
(Higher Octave)

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

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

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

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

Smooth grade: B

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

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

His first CD was marketed simply as G-Fire and featured him and other longtime studio and touring guitarists Miguel Mega, Kevin Chokan and Morris O’Connor. All wrote four songs each for the album. On G-Fire II, Neilly gets more credit, Mega and Chokan play on a few tunes but O’Connor is gone and in his place is respected jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. Whitfield really leaves his mark on this project as some songs feature him exclusively while Neilly gets the spotlight on others. They don’t play on the same songs.

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

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

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

Smooth grade: A

Jon Lucien
A Time For Love
(Sugar Apple)

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

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

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

Smooth grade: B+

Posted by Brian Soergel at 7:37 PM

September 7, 2004

Smooth Sailing Sept. 7

There are so many smooth jazz, vocals and instrumental CDs released these days that it’s easy for many artists not named Boney, Mindi and Kenny to get lost in the shuffle.

Here’s a look at some CDs that are worth listening to:

James Hollihan
The Funky Misfit

You know by looking at the CD cover and title that this is going to have its “weird” moments. Surprisingly, though, this album has some of the best musical moments of the year. Guitarist Hollihan is influenced by cocktail composers such as Henri Mancini and Michel Legrand, but he also has a real ear for mellow jazz, such as on the “The Waltz of Leaves” and “The Hush of Love.” On “Cypress Shores,” his Wes Montgomery-like guitar makes this tune sound like it came gift-wrapped from the groovy 1960s.

A solid CD throughout, The Funky Misfit will appeal to those who enjoy jazzy guitar and piano work in songs that are easy to listen to. Think mellow jazz from a Clint Eastwood movie. This CD is destined to become one of the best CDs no one’s ever heard of.

Smooth grade: A

Various Artists
Unwrapped Vol. 3
(Hidden Beach)

Like hip-hop and R&B served with your smooth jazz? Hidden Beach Recordings has your cup of tea with Unwrapped Vol. 3, which features jazzy interpretations of some of today’s hottest urban and rap music from such contemporary musicians as guitarists Dennis Nelson, bassist Andrew Gouche, violinist Karen Briggs and saxophonist Mike Phillips.

Here are hits like 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Outkast’s “The Way You Move.” The CD also honors three late rap stars, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Jam Master Jay, with medleys of their songs. Keyboardist Jeff Lorber appears on three tracks: “P.I.M.P.,” “Tupac Tribute Medley” and “Doo Wop (That Thing).”

Smooth grade: B

Plan 9
(Plan 9)

Plan 9 is a quirky, fun band that on its new album offers 13 versions of songs from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that have definitely stood the test of time. The first single is "Watcha Gonna Do," which features David Jenkins on vocals, who performed on the original 1977 version of the Top Ten hit with the '70s pop group Pablo Cruise.

The album, a combination of instrumentals and vocals, features vocalist Larry Hoppen on “Dance With Me” (an original member of the group Orleans, which had a big hit with the song) and Rick Melvern on “Blinded by the Light.” Other tracks on this delightfully fun CD include two – count ‘em – two version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme, “You’ll Never Find,” “FM,” “Too Hot” and “Superfriction.”

Smooth grade: B

Various Artists
Windham Hill Chill 2
(Windham Hill)

Given today’s popularity of chill music, it’s not surprising that the original chill label, Windham Hill, has released another compilation of music from its ultra laid-back catalog. These songs may not get played in trendy New York clubs, but it’s worth a listen to hear the great, new age-ish compositions but such top artists as Jim Brickman, Patrick O’Hearn, Liz Story, Yanni, Shadowfax, Will Ackerman, Scott Cossu and many others. More than two hours of music makes this a great buy.

Smooth grade: B

Patrick Yandall
From the Ashes

Patrick Yandall is a San Diego-based guitarist who was forced to flee devastating fires in Southern California in 2003. He made it, and so did his house, but he was inspired enough by others’ show of courage that he used the experience to guide his latest CD. Yandall doesn’t get much airplay, but he writes memorable smooth jazz songs and has a sweet, Lee Ritenour style of guitar playing that goes down easy. “Heart Promise,” “Club Humphrey’s” and “Hope Springs Eternal” – the first three songs – could all find favor on radio if given a chance.

Although Yandall knows how to play smooth jazz, it’s obvious that there’s a rock star just dying to get out and show his stuff, which he does on the last song, “Firestorm.”

Yandall makes smooth, intelligent guitar-based instrumental music that draws from his rock, jazz and blues influences. It’s good stuff.

Smooth grade: B+

Alan Hewitt Project
Noche de Pasion
(215 Records)

Alan Hewitt is a keyboardist who biggest coup was gathering some pretty impressive players for this CD, including Euge Groove on the title track, Michael Lington on “Love Feeds the Fire,” Jonathan Butler on “Sweet Thing” and Mindi Abair on “U Touch Me.” The best songs on the album, though, don’t have the big stars. “Blue Sky” is a jazz ride with guitarist John Defaria and “Reminisce” is a gorgeous ballad with Gerald Spikes on saxophone.

This is a pretty typical smooth jazz album, but it’s also one that has its good-to-great moments.

Smooth grade: B

Rhian Benson
Gold Coast

Rhian Benson is a vocalist who is marketed to the smooth jazz audience much like Sade is. Benson obviously has a great voice, deep and jazzy, and she puts it to good use on 14 songs. Actually, there are only 13, but Benson is obviously the superstitious type, as track 13 is four seconds of silence. Track 14, “Spirit,” is the best one of the album – it has choruses are sung in the Ghanaian and Ashanti languages. It’s a very spiritual song.

If you like soulful vocals over a smooth-jazz/pop beat, you could do a lot worse that Gold Coast.

Smooth grade: B

Ed Johnson & Novo Tempo

Guitarist Ed Johnson’s third CD is a musical treat, a breezy slice of Latin rhythms featuring five vocal tracks sung in English, Portuguese and Spanish. But the CD has an overwhelming Brazilian presence, which is helped by a stunning cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade.” Johnson’s guitar takes most of the leads, of course, but there are plenty of horns, samba shuffles and beautiful vocalese. And, of course, Johnson has the kind of lilting, sing-song voice perfect for this kind of music.

Especially compelling is “For T,” which is the kind of dreamy ballad with wordless vocals that Pat Metheny would have done on his Brazilian-influenced CDs. Put it on and be transported to the beaches of Rio.

Smooth grade: B+

William Joseph
(143/Records Reprise)

Pianist William Joseph is a protégé of legendary composer David Foster, who leaves his classical and movie-theme imprint all over this CD than can for the most part be described as “beautiful music.” Joseph is best when accompanying sweet strings on the original and utterly gorgeous “Stella’s Theme” and on the album’s best track, Bach’s classic “Ave Maria.”

To show he’s a modern guy, Joseph interprets Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Kansas’ oft-heard “Dust in the Wind,” which both break up the mood a bit. Overall, though, Within is the kind of CD that fits nicely on the shelf next to Jim Brickman, Yanni and John Tesh.

Smooth grade: B

Ron Fattorusso
Up All Night
(Secret Formula)

You don’t have to hear much of the first song on this CD to realize veteran session player and saxophonist Ron Fattorusso knows his way around a smooth jazz song. His throaty sax leads a memorable melody, and a guitar solo breaks things up nicely.

It’s hard to maintain that pace over 15 songs, however. “Up All Night” has some nice moments, but to make a more memorable CD Fattorusso has to concentrate more on the melodies and hooks.

Smooth grade: C

Here are some brief reviews of other CDs:

On Rare Requests Volume III (Liquid 8), the third installment of this popular series, you can find all in one place 12 songs that may be hard to find. They “Last Look” by Torcuato Mariano, “Passion Theme” by Warren Hill, “Always There” by Ronnie Laws, “Rise” by Leo Gandleman and “Tell It Like It Is” by Michael Lington and Bobby Caldwell. Smooth grade: B

Jazz trumpeter Vince Mai says his newest CD, Subte (Mai-Music) is inspired by Latin American music and the European club scene. This eclectic mix is a delightful combination, and while this is far from a smooth jazz CD it’s very listenable with some memorable songs. Highlights include the blues-samba of “U&I,” the Chris Botti-like horn lines in “El Castillo” and “For Carole” and the radio-friendly “Nova Bossa” and its dreamy vocalese. An impressive CD. Smooth grade: B+

The British musical funk and groove adventure known as Incognito, with lead man Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, returns with slamming instrumental grooves and soulful vocals with Adventures in Black Sunshine (Narada), the group’s 10th Cd. The 15-song album is inspired my soul music from the 1970s and features such songs as “Don’t Turn My Love Away,” “Autumn Song,” “Beyond the Clouds” and a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ classic “Listen to the Music.” Vocalist Maysa, who earned her chops with the band, returns to sing on the vocal tracks. Smooth grade: B

You’ve probably heard the work of guitarist Daryl Stuermer many times. He’s played on all of Phil Collins’ solo CDs and is currently touring on Collins’ slyly named First Final Farewell Tour. On Stuermer’s work, Retrofit (Urban Island), he offers nine original songs plus one, “The Least You Can Do,” that Collins co-wrote. Stuermer likes to rock with his electric axe, but he can also play pretty smooth jazz songs and even layers his guitar a la Craig Chaquico on “I Will Remember You.” That and “Promises” and “Midnight Traveler” are the smooth jazz highlights. Smooth grade: B

Alto saxophonist Tom Meston on Upside (Stir-Fry) offers 11 songs that combine fusion, funk, R&B all into one tidy package. Jazzy and meaty, it’s worth a listen for adventurous types. Smooth grade: B

Smooth jazz fans who like Brazilian music may be interested in In Your Dreams (Exit) by vocalist and acoustic guitarist Barry Wedgle. It’s easy listening, and Wedgle has a nice style that recalls Earl Klugh. Standout tracks are “Sea Level,” “Lluvia en Avila” and “Voce se Lembra.” Smooth grade: B+

To hear two of the best chill-music CDs around, check out the Higher Octave label’s Jazzy Chill Out (featuring Eric Jan Harmsen) and Bluesy Chill Out (featuring Dave “BK” Jeffs). You’ll understand what all the fuss is about on these eighth and ninth in an amazing series of music that relaxes, inspires and even make you want to dance. Many jazz and blues samples wrap around ambient grooves that are perfect for those after-party chill sessions. Smooth grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at 9:32 PM

August 23, 2004

Smooth Sailing: Aug. 23

New reviews of Boney James, Soul Ballet, Rick Braun, Everette Harp, Al Jarreau and Theo Bishop.

Boney James
(Warner Bros.)

Saxophonist Boney James is one of the few smooth jazz artists who is able to cross over into the R&B genre, which is one reason why his latest CD, the follow-up to 2001’s Ride, entered the Billboard Top 200 charts at No. 66. He’s able to do this because he picks either established or up-and-comers to sing on his vocal tracks. But James is also savvy enough to actually make sure that his vocal tracks are memorable, instead of throwaways. You can hear this on “Better With Time,” the first single to R&B radio featuring singer Bilal. It’s a righteous groove that’s “getting better baby, like a stone-soul record, baby.” On the equally good “Appreciate,” soulful Debi Nova adds a rapid vocal groove that harkens to radio soul songs of the ‘80s and has a killer hook, to boot.

Of course, no one does smooth sax songs better that Boney J. His first single, “Here She Comes,” is racing up the smooth jazz charts, and there are plenty more to follow. Hooks and unforgettable melodies abound. The title track, “Pure,” opens with groovy organ and seamlessly segues into James’ sensual and deep sax sound. “2:01 AM” is a slow burning ballad with Boney blowing long, long lines. And Joe Sample adds keys to “Stone Groove,” an uptempo groove. Perhaps the best number of the lot is “It’s On,” which is classic James material – gorgeous and bright sax lines leading into a head-boppin’ melody.

Smooth grade: A

Soul Ballet
(215 Records)

The dreamy, sexy music that Soul Ballet offers comes courtesy of Rick Kelly, who imagines Soul Ballet as a conceptual process. What kind of process? Well, it you like downtempo instrumentals with elements of classical, rock, new age and smooth jazz music, Soul Ballet is your musical nirvana. This is the style of romantic of music that is huge in Europe and in “chill music” circles. Kelly plays keyboards and uses samples, beat boxes and all available modern musical technology to provide a saucy sound that’s unique to smooth jazz. Anyone who’s heard Kelly’s first single from the CD, the luscious “Cream,” will agree.

Not surprisingly, Kelly has a knack for music with a cinematic sweep. He’s a handsome guy who’s directed a few short films and during the last year has guest-starring roles in such hot TV series such as “Nip/Tuck” and “Cold Case.” Although cinematic, the Soul Ballet sound is also music you can dance to, even if it’s a late-night sway with someone special. The CD title is dead-on – just when is appears a musical lull looms, a percussive beat comes booming back.

Trina Dye and Sera Lynn add comely voice-overs throughout the CD, and Ken Ross blows many seductive horn lines. In fact, horns seem to be a central in many of Soul Ballet’s hits, including here on “Cream” and on earlier songs such as “Black Sun.”

A second CD included in the package, All the Pretty Lights, has extended remixes of three songs from Soul Ballet’s debut, self-titled album: The songs are “Love, Juliet,” “Man and Woman” and “Exotique.” The remix CD directs you to soulballet.com to get the rest of the remix project. This is the kind of stuff that Soul Ballet diehard fans will really groove to, as the selections are perfect for those special chill-out moments with your honey.

Smooth grade: A

Rick Braun
Sessions Volume 1

Sessions Volume 1 is the debut CD from Artisan Records, an independent label co-founded by trumpeter Rick Braun and saxophonist Richard Elliot. Although the label will release all new music beginning with Elliot next year, this project is a live-in-the-studio recording featuring many of Braun’s greatest hits. Braun calls it a gift to his fans, and it’s no denying that. They’ll hear new version of favorites such as “Cadillac Slim,” “Notorious,” “Missing in Venice,” “Groovis,” “Nightwalk” and “Marty’s Party,” among others.

Although saxophonist Boney James didn’t make it to the session, there are also two songs from Braun and James’ classic collaboration from 2000, Shake It Up: “RSVP” and “Grazing in the Grass.” Artists who did drop into the studio for the live recording include such established sessions players and longtime Braun cohorts Mitch Forman, Luis Conte, Jimmy Roberts, Andre Berry and Rayford Griffin. On “Notorious” from Braun’s Body and Soul CD, Elliot plays the saxophone lead originally played by James. An undeniable highlight is the only new song on the CD, a track called “TGIF” co-written by Braun, Dave Koz and Brian Culbertson. Koz and Culbertson also play on the brassy, upbeat party song, which was recorded in one take.

The real draw on this album is to hear these smooth jazz musicians getting a chance to let their hair down and do some serious jamming, something fans have seen many times in concert but rarely on studio CDs. And there’s more good news: Braun plans more Sessions CDs with other artists in the genre.

Smooth grade: B+

Everette Harp
All For You

Sweet, sexy sax man Everette Harp makes a triumphant on his first CD in four years, on a new label and in charge of his musical direction, as he again returns as producer and the main songwriter. There’s no denying that Harp can play and perform memorable smooth jazz, which he shows on the instrument of choice, the alto saxophone. What you’d expect from Harp is what you get here among the 12 tasty, R&B songs infused with Harp’s passionate playing. There are undeniably catchy fast-tempo tunes such as the summery “Kisses Don’t Lie” and the first single, “Can You Hear Me,” the latter co-written by keyboardist and producer Rex Rideout, who contributes elsewhere on the CD as well.

There are unexpected delights sprinkled throughout, such as some groovy EWI (electronic wind instrument) runs on “Back in Your Arms,” spiced by Rhodes and Clavinet piano sounds that much welcome as you don’t hear those sounds much in smooth jazz anymore. It’s also a pleasure to hear Harp’s longtime collaborator and mentor, George Duke, laying down an inspired synth solo a la Pat Metheny on a groove-fest appropriately called “Groove Control.”

Harp can lay down the languid, cool-breeze sax groove as well as anyone, which he shows on “Hey Yah.” He also reinforces his fondness for genre-switching R&B vocal tunes such as “Time of Our Lives” and “I Like the Way,” the former showcasing his ample vocal chops. Harp tones it down for a cover of Babyface’s “When Can I See You Again,” in which he plays all the instruments, and “In the Blink of An Eye,” a beautifully jazzy respite featuring longtime collaborator George Duke on the Rhodes organ. On this tune, Harp changes sounds by switching to the soprano saxophone, and it’s one of the most emotional smooth jazz songs of the year.

Guitarists Earl Klugh and Norman Brown add their distinctive touches on “Just Like Ole Times” and “I Remember When,” respectively. On the latter tune, Harp switches to the deeper tenor saxophone a la Richard Elliot, which is the perfect counterpoint to Klugh’s plucky and pretty guitar work.

All For You is solid work from a seasoned professional that won’t disappoint his fans. For those who aren’t hip to Harp’s charms, this is a good starting point.

Smooth grade: B

Al Jarreau
Accentuate the Positive

The elastic vocals of Grammy winning Al Jarreau have never been as prominently displayed as they are in his new CD, the 18th in the 64-year-old singer’s career. The album, recorded live in the studio with a quartet, reflects Jarreau’s philosophy on life, as the album is his first purely straight-ahead jazz recording. The project also reunites him with producer Tommy LiPuma, who collaborated with him on his second and third albums. The album features such well-known standards as “Cold Duck” – the album’s first single – “The Nearness of You,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Waltz for Debby” and the title track. The quartet features pianist Larry Williams, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Peter Erskine and guitarist Anthony Wilson.

Jarreau’s many fans will buy anything he puts out, and this one is worthy for its jazz sensibilities. They’ll hear all of his vocal powers – his whispering, his vocal caresses, his growls and scats, his sighing, his crazy trips up and down the octaves. In fact, you can hear many of his styles on just one song, the raucous “Groovin’ High,” with music by the late, great Dizzy Gillespie and new lyrics by Jarreau. There are several new tracks as well, including “Betty Bebop’s Song,” written by Jarreau and pianist Freddie Ravel as a tribute to the late jazz singer Betty Carter.

Accentuate the Positive is Jarreau at his purest and best.

Smooth grade: B+

Theo Bishop
Newport Nights
(Native Language)

Theo Bishop, a smooth jazz producer and co-founder of the Native Language label, shows on his debut CD that he’s learned a thing or two in the business. It was Bishop who co-wrote Native Language star Jeff Kashiwa’s biggest hit, the No. 1 song “Hyde Park (The ‘Ah,’ ‘Ooh’ Song).” On the 10-song Newport Nights, Bishop plays keyboards and sings vocalese on the “Put the Top Down,” a sunny tune that seems lifted from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, the entire CD is perfect while cruising down a beach road, or any road, for that matter. Named after the town of Newport Beach, the CD reflects Bishop’s sunny world view that is obviously inspired by living in Southern California’s Orange County. The result is a treat for smooth jazz fans, full of tight rhythms, hummable melodies and great playing by keyboardist Bishop. Helping out are Kashiwa, Juan Carlos Quintero, Jimmy Haslip, Jill Hennesey and Dave Hooper, among others. In addition, guitarist Brian Hughes works his magic on a song called “Too Kool for School.”

This CD might get lost among the sheer amount of music available these days, but that would be a shame. There’s nothing too fancy, no DJ scratches and no bombastic brass passages. It’s a quiet, engaging work and a perfect soundtrack to lazy summer days.

Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at 1:19 AM

June 28, 2004

Smooth Sailing June/July 2004

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

Stay With Me

coverSaxophonist Michael Lington pulls it all together on his fourth CD, a work that should lift him from the fringe and put him on stage with the top-tier of smooth jazz talent. What makes this CD so good? Lington’s a passionate player, who’s had some tasty hits before, of course, but here he picks 10 songs that all work together, gets top producers and writers such as Paul Brown, Brian Culbertson and concentrates of making 10 pop-jazz songs that could all make the charts if given a chance. And it couldn’t hurt that he’s now on Dave Koz’s Rendezvous label, which Lington calls a “musician’s label.”

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

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

Smooth grade: A


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

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

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

Smooth grade: B

The Benoit/Freeman Project 2

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

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

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

A keeper from beginning to end.

Smooth grade: A

Hang Time

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

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

Tisdale loves the great R&B songs of the ‘70s. As he did with his No. 1 song “Can’t Hide Love” from his last CD, Face to Face, Tisdale reaches back into that for two cover songs: the McFadden and Whitehead dance classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and Smokey Robinson’s seminal “Crusin’,” where you can really hear how Tisdale makes his bass sing. On the Koz collaboration “Better Days,” Tisdale picks the melodic lead on the bass in time with Koz’s sax. On “My World,” a ballad featuring a charming passage mimicking a children’s playground sing-song challenge, Tisdale plays all instruments as well as the bass: acoustic guitar, keyboards and drum programming. The CD closes with “Glory Glory,” a song Tisdale originally wrote and sang on for a gospel CD he released in 2003 called 21 Days.

This is a slam dunk.

Smooth grade: A

Kickin’ It Up

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

Albright gives us many musical moods. He goes adult contemporary with a cover of John Mayer’s hit “Why Georgia,” which was suggested by GRP executives. He gets downright nasty on “Walker’s Theme,” dedicated to the late sax god Junior Walker. And he goes off into adult-contemporary R&B with “Condition of My Heart,” a Brian McKnight ballad here with vocals by Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men. Albright also slows it down on a cover of the classic R&B ballad from the 1970s, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” And very touching is “Father’s Lullaby,” a song Albright wrote in tribute to his father, who died recently.

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

Smooth grade: B


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

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

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

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

Smooth grade: B

Night on the Town
(Higher Octave)

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

Darius’ music is bright and groove-oriented (he’s even called one song “In the Pocket”), much like fellow saxophonists Kim Waters and Walter Beasley. There so much radio-friendly stuff here, an embarrassment of riches, that you wonder if he’s set himself up for disappointment with future CDs that won’t match his debut. The first single, the title track, is already making a statement on smooth-jazz radio. Like Waters’ biggest hits, it offers a sax line that just doesn’t quit and a melody that comes and goes so fast you’re left drooling, waiting for the next hook to come back. But Darius doesn’t always play that frantically, as he shows on the more softly stated songs “Heads Up” and “Let If Flow.”

Like many young players, Darius has a fondness for the ‘70s, and covers “Love T.K.O.” by Teddy Pendergrass and “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. It’s reassuring to hear these familiar songs lovingly interpreted by a new generation.

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

Smooth grade: B+

The Journey
(Urban Vibe)

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

Lenair draws inspiration from others before him, especially on the throaty sax work on “Forever.” It’s a good song. Likewise, he channels Dave Koz on “Love,” another winner. Over 14 songs, however, it all starts to sound a bit too much alike, and can make for a tough listen all the way through. There are some good moments here, but Lenair needs more hooks and a lot more originality. He also shouldn’t be afraid to solicit help from top smooth jazz producers and writers, but that’s easier said than done. Everybody wants these guys.

Smooth grade: C

This Time Around

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

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

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

Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at 4:19 AM

May 4, 2004

Smooth Sailing May 2004

Pete Belasco is divine on his first CD in seven years, while Kim Waters and James Vargas play the sax to perfection. Also reviewed: Marion Meadows, Pieces of a Dream, Bob Baldwin, Brian Bromberg, Tery Disley and Joe Kurasz.


coverPete Belasco has just about made the perfect smooth-jazz-with-vocals CD. Meaning, the vocals aren’t strategically placed to attract a wider demographic. Most of these attempts to grab the masses fail miserably, anyway, and work as filler on otherwise fine efforts. On this CD, Belasco’s feathery falsetto is what the CD’s all about and every vocal track is hit-worthy. Heck – and this is almost unfair – he can play sax like the devil, deep and resonating, as well as holding his own on keyboard and vibes. Belasco tips his hat to professed idols Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye (especially on “Fool’s World’) and the Isley Brothers on the liner notes, and while it may be tempting to think of Deeper as derivative, that would miss the point. It’s more of an homage to smooth ‘70s soul, which Belasco makes his own with provocative and endearing lyrics.

Rather than mixing tempos and moods, Belasco makes the right decision in sticking to the lovers-by-the-fireplace setting, make the CD as a whole function as both a great listening experience and an hour-long trip into slow-is-good foreplay. Whether urging to look “Deeper” in the world around us or seducing us with “Hurry Hurry,” Belasco writes lyrics that can mean something, even it’s just about plain ‘ol love and stuff. If “I’ll Come to You” – even with its industry nudge-nudges with refrains of “smooth sounds” and “Quiet Storm” – doesn’t get you in the mood…

Belasco doesn’t forget his sax on Deeper, as several cuts are instrumentals. Well, “Crazy” has computerized vocals, but it’s an instrumental in spirit, with Belasco’s sexy sax and JK’s wah-waa guitar. Belasco’s a family man, and names two songs for his daughters, “Nia” and the lullaby “Zoe.” And he sings lovingly to his wife in “Wonderful Woman.”

So how does a smooth-jazz CD get a top rating? By never faltering, sticking to a theme and balancing commercialism with artistic expression. Smooth grade: A+

In the Name of Love

coverComing off two No. 1 hits, saxophonist Kim Waters is now undoubtedly one of the top names in smooth jazz. His newest CD should do nothing to bring him down. Fans of his megahit “The Ride” will be pleased to find a remixed version of it here, which closes the project. Waters is all about hits, whether writing his own or for others such as Pamela Williams, so it’s no surprise that the first single is “In Deep,” a driving number with Waters soprano marching along to the uptempo rhythm. Even better is “Sunset,” which may be the catchiest single he’s ever written. Listen, and don’t even try to get the melody out of your head for a while. A big plus is that Waters, who tends to leave his real playing to his Streetwize side projects, gives himself a chance to get some playing in when not hammering on the melody.

Waters chooses two tasty covers: R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love,” with Charles Smith handling the “step, step, slide, slide” refrain; and Barry White’s seminal “Love’s Theme,” which Waters introducing with “And right now, we’re gonna go way back.” The sax man can slow things down, of course, and his bedroom-pleasers “All I Wanna Do (Is Please You),” “Tell Me So” and the Kenny G-like “Alone With You” are among his best at that. Co-produced by Dave Darlington, who also remixes “The Ride,” In the Name of Love shows Waters at the top of his commercial powers. Smooth grade: A-

James Vargas
(Trippin ‘N Rhythm)

coverJames Vargas is a British saxophonist (alto, tenor and soprano) who has echoes of Walter Beasley, Steve Cole and other contemporary sax players on his debut, a winning collection of 12 songs firmly rooted enough in the sax-led smooth jazz tradition. After getting gigs in clubs around in London, Vargas drew the attention of Oli Silk, the force behind the soulful British smooth-jazz group Sugar and Silk, who invited him to play on a CD. Silk and Vargas collaborate on the majority of the songs here, which are suitably funky-smooth and show an amazing grasp of sax skill.

Vargas couldn’t have picked a better song than “Curtain Call” to open the CD and his career as it offers a killer hook on alto – his instrument of choice – and a drum line that’s surprising at first but becomes more welcome with each listen. There’s a lot to be said by not “filling in all the spaces” while playing sax, but Vargas proves that filling pretty much all the spaces can work as well, especially on the romantic “One Fine Day” and the fast-paced “Push Da Button.” On the CD’s best vocal track, “Say You Will,” Vargas wraps his soprano lines around Yvonne John-Lewis’ soulful singing on a Quiet Storm treat that works to perfection, while on other tracks the vocal refrains are unobtrusive and fit in. On “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever,” Vargas plays a pretty soprano duet with acoustic guitar by Yuzuru Matsuda.

Like another smooth-jazz newcomer, saxophonist Grady Nichols, Vargas seems to have a bright future ahead of him. He’s a commanding presence on the sax – he does some real playing but never lets that get in the way of a good song – and has no problem finding radio-friendly melodies. It’s no surprise that Trippin ‘N Rhythm, which also boasts Paul Hardcastle, Roger Smith, Joe Fuentes and Thom Rotella, snatched Vargas. Get ready for a new British Invasion. Smooth grade: A-

Player’s Club
(Heads Up)

coverMarion Meadows has always been a bit underrated as a commercial sax player in smooth jazz, but his latest – which he dedicates to all musicians – shows promise and features a number of songs that could keep him on the charts for some time. The title track is a funky number enhanced by solos by Matt King’s on baritone sax, Mike B on keyboards and Freddie Fox on guitar. The first single, “Sweet Grapes,” is a lilting slice of ear candy where Meadows’ soprano has never sounded better. The best song on the CD, however, just may be the oft-covered “Wishing on a Star,” which combines the unbeatable combination of Marion’s plaintive sax, wah-wah guitar on stuttering drum beat.

Elsewhere, Meadows juices “Noche Privada” with some tropical shadings, gives the enjoyable “Diggible” some electronica/drums & bass touches and puts some jazz into “After 6:00,” a perfect way to end this CD, Meadows’ best yet. Smooth grade: A-

No Assembly Required
(Heads Up)

coverJames Lloyd and Curtis Harmon, co-founders of the veteran smooth-jazz group Pieces of Dream, keep cranking out CDs and their fans keep buying them, so they must be doing something right. You can always be guaranteed tons of soul, rubbery-voiced female vocals, funk and smooth as silk grooves on a Pieces CD, and that’s what you get here. The first single, “It’s Go Time,” is a good choice and is the closest thing you’re going to get to a Brian Culbertson song that’s not on a Brian Culbertson CD. Said female vocals – courtesy of Tracy Hamlin – limber up on Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Devotion,” while the funk gets nasty on “Dyse It Up,” the title coming from bassist David Dyson’s thumb-popping playing. The CD’s closing song, “Lunar Lullaby,” is a gorgeous downtempo cut and can remind you of a slow-downed 3rd Force song.

But although the band writes songs with titles like “Who U Wit?” and and throws record scratches into “Want a Piece of This?,” Pieces of a Dream has not offered a CD that has “2004” written all over it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Who U Wit?,” for example, offers some great sax playing by Jason Davis, the kind that makes you stand up and go, “Yeah!” Pieces of a Dream will forever have elements of ‘70s and ‘80s jazz-fusion in its playing, which is just the tonic for those days when you want your music with the emphasis on “jazz” and not “smooth,” along with some bite and talented musicianship. That James Lloyd can play the piano – yeah! Smooth grade: A-

Brazil Chill

coverThe music of Brazil has always tempted jazz musicians, and it’s no wonder. It can be sexy, rhythmic, soulful, sexy and even more sexy. Bob Baldwin traveled to Rio to record Brazil Chill, which is all smooth jazz and shouldn’t be confused with “chill music.” It’s in Brazil that Baldwin recruited some of the country’s best players, including the great saxophonist Leo Gandleman, guitarist Torcquato Mariano, percussionist Café and others. Baldwin plays his piano to perfection, alternately jazzy and smoothy. The beauty of Brazilian music is expressed many times of this CD, but nowhere more so than “Manhattan Samba,” with Baldwin’s expressive wordless vocalese, Baldwin’s jazz-steeped piano runs and a grooving samba beat. Ditto for “Cafezinho,” which is named for Brazil’s famous morning staple, a small cup of rich espresso.

The famous sunny disposition of Rio’s natives obviously made a big impression on Baldwin, who has singers sing of good things in “Everybody’s Beautiful (in Brazil)” and the title track, where Baldwin breaks up the pretty acoustic sounds with a electric keys solo. The first radio single, “ I Wanna Be Where You Are,” is a pretty ditty with a memorable piano hook – hence its appeal as a single. Although Baldwin should probably be commended for not including a Jobim classic on Brazil Chill, a standard would have cemented that Rio feeling. As it is, Brazil Chill is a perfect way to travel without leaving your music systems. Smooth grade: A-


coverBassist Brian Bromberg wants to make sure you know that there are no guitars on this recording, which is why the first page of the liner notes screams, “There are no guitars on this recording!” That’s good to know, because it sure sound like it. That means if you’ve hesitant to purchase a bass-lead smooth-jazz CD, you shouldn’t be in this case because, as Bromberg writes, “Piccolo basses are tuned to the register of a guitar.” So why doesn’t Bromberg just play a guitar? Good one. But Bromberg is a bass player, and a good one. His single “Bobblehead” brightens the airwaves each time it’s on, and the overall CD is his best so far. And with Bromberg playing several types of basses and Brian Culbertson, Jeff Lorber, Gary Meek, Eric Marienthal, David Benoit and others along for the ride, Choices is a top-notch effort.

Bromberg has a bit of the rocker in him, but he’s aware of the smooth-jazz format throughout the CD, on “Bobblehead,” “Choices,” “Snuggle Up,” the gorgeous “When I Look Into Your Eyes” and other selections. On “B2 (B Squared)” and “Bass Face,” though, he gives himself a chance to get down with his bad self. The CD closes with two songs that together almost consume 12 minutes, but it’s a interesting 12 minutes. “Hear Our Cry Intro” and “Hear Our Cry” are Bromberg’s tributes to the indigenous people of Africa, and are both very moving and musically interesting. Smooth grade: B+

Experience(Disleyword Music)

coverYou might not recognize his name, but you’ve heard Disley piano many times, as he’s played keyboards for Acoustic Alchemy best songs, including the hit “The Beautiful Game.” He’s been much in demand as a session player in his career, and Experience shows why. It’s not a solo piano CD, but is for the most part low-key and relaxing. Heck, he even named one song “Smooth Sailing.” “Experience” is the kind of a CD that would have been comfortable being released in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, as its blend of new age and smooth jazz sounds fit perfectly in that era. In 2004, then, this CD can take the listener back to those days, when sounds were maybe a touch more real and production a little-less perfect.

Disley plays most acoustic piano, but does add some electric here and there. Alex Murzyn and Norbert Satchel add some sax, and the rest of the musicians are a top-notch bunch. It’s a very even CD, but the songs that stand out are “3 Arabian Nights” because you can hear echoes of Acoustic Alchemy, and “Swingmatism,” because of its delightful and jazzy sax and piano solos. Smooth grade: B

Soul Searching
(Ren Music)

coverYou know, guitars, saxes and acoustic piano don’t have to lead all instrumental music. How about the Hammond B3 organ? It’s long been a staple in jazz, of course, and Kurasz manages to put a fresh spin on the sound with song such as “Funky B,” a good-time, swinging ditty where you remember that the organ doesn’t always to sound like it’s being played in church. Soul Searching has more in common with smooth jazz than traditional jazz, though, as there are plenty of horns, guitars and smooth grooves. Kurasz is best when keeping things simple, such as on the hit-sounding “Uncommon Ground,” where he switches to acoustic piano and on “Crossroads,” which features Gerald Albright on alto sax. Less successful, though, are readings of “Operator” and “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right,” which are OK in a new light, but “Fooled Around an Fell in Love” come across as sounding like a MIDI sample. But when Kurasz is on, he adds a different and often quirky element to smooth instrumental music. Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at 3:27 AM

April 4, 2004

Smooth Sailing April 2004

Rendezvous Lounge makes a nice place to chill out, while Bass X is for those who their smooth music on the urban side. Also reviewed: Hil St. Soul, Maximum Grooves, Bobby Lyle, Will Downing, Ronny Jordan, Richard Smith, Michael Buble, Grady Nichols, Nestor Torres, Tha' Hot Club, The Couch Potato All-Stars, Jon Dalton, Blake Aaron, Gabriela Anders and Sergio Caputo.

Rendezvous Lounge (compiled by Mark Gorbulew)

cover“Chill” music may just be the next big thing in smooth jazz, and seems to be the perfect fit. It’s already a mainstay in Europe, heard in expensive restaurants and will be the focus of a radio show later this featuring Chris Botti. Curious? A good starting point is this compilation, which features 14 deliciously intoxicating tracks compiled by Mark Gorbulew, a DJ at the Au Bar in New York and a veteran chill-music compiler. With chill music, it’s not so important who the artist is, and many times it’s one person alone with a computer. Most of the artists will be unfamiliar to smooth jazz listeners except for Praful, whose smash hit “Sigh” is remixed to give it a Moorish/surf-guitar flavor. Every song is worth listening to, and the mood is overwhelmingly mellow and chillish, although there are some backbeats and the rock guitar in the White Nights’ “Natural True” is a bluesy trip. Here are some more highlights: the first single, “Time to Lounge,” has some playful wordless vocals and trumpet solos; “Paradise Island” has piano tinkling and acoustic guitar leads, wheeling gulls and a man’s voice chanting “sea,” “sound” and other subliminal asides to get you in the mood; Gorbulew’s own “Dreamsville” has tight rhythmic nodding and a killer piano hook by Jerry Friedman; “Pablo’s Blues” features a running vocal sample from long-ago bluesman Robert Johnson; and the delightfully droll “Monkey Business” keeps you smiling. If you’re a smooth jazz fan tiring of the same old stuff, take a break on this “Lounge.” Smooth grade: A+

Heir Wave
(Liquid 8)

BassXHeirWave.jpgBass X, featuring Chicago musicians Larry Hubbard, Tim Gant, Keith Henderson, Michael White and a host of studio help, has gained attention in smooth jazz circles for a big hit called “Vonnie,” and it’s easy to see why. It’s got a slow, deep groove, some nice sax work and a hook you wait anxiously for. The CD blends smooth jazz with urban soul you might find on a “Quiet Storm” radio station. Smooth jazz and urban love grooves have always blended well, so this CD seems a natural project to try to grab listeners who listen to both styles and frequently cross over. The one killer track on the CD, even better than “Vonnie,” is “Rainy Day.” On this effort, which blends a sprightly Brian Culbertson-like piano lead with a nice groove and “rainy day” vocal refrains, Bass X has composed a song that sticks in the craw. Ditto with “PR Too!,” where Michael Manson plays a bass-guitar lead. As this CD targets both markets, there are plenty of male and female vocal leads – “All Inside” with Teresa Griffin matches the mood of the work, but “My Heart” is fairly pedestrian. This CD hits and misses, but with such lofty intentions that was probably bound to happen. Still, great playing and some tasty grooves make this CD worth a listen. Smooth grade: B

Copasetic & Cool

coverOn their first CD, Hil St. Soul – Hillary Mwelwa and Victor Redwood-Sawyer – had a hit with a cover of “When You Come Back to Me.” On the funky new CD, they have a hit with the Isley Brothers’ sublime “For the Love of You.” But there are other nuggets if you look beyond the covers, and “For the Love of You” is the only one on Copasetic & Cool. The CD is a vocal one, filled with soul songs, rap, hip-hop and other catchy soul stirrings. Mwelwa, born in Zambia and now living in London, says this CD is more personal, and it shows with songs like “Pieces,” where she vents about the “constant arguing” involved in a relationship. But on “All That (+ A Bag O’ Chips),” she sings about a good-looking guy who really stands out. And on the autobiographical “I’ve Got Me,” Mwelwa riffs on accepting herself and living through her music. It’s very empowering, and the CD on the whole is the kind of uplifting project that sounds fresh and alive anytime you hear it. Smooth grade: B+

Coast to Coast

coverMaximum Grooves is a new supergroup of jazz and smooth jazz musicians assembled by producer Jason Miles, who’s had success in his compilations featuring the music of Ivan Lins, Grover Washington Jr. and Weather Report. Coast to Coast is a winning, satisfying CD rooted in smooth jazz but with a slight edge as Miles, who does the bulk of songwriting, attempts to bring back some of the flavor of the fusion ‘70s. There’s a killer rhythm section, rooted by drummers Gene Lake and Steve Ferrone, and thumping bass by Wayman Tisdale, James Genus and Will Lee. The best tracks here are those featuring brass. Jeff Kashiwa blows a robust tenor on “Everyday Magic,” while the radio-friendly “Attitude” features Walter Beasley on soprano sax and Robbie Nevil’s hit “Chest La Vie” has Jared’s blistering alto sax. Herb Alpert sounds ageless with his trumpet on “Chasing Shadows,” while Gerald Albright’s unmistakable alto sax brightens “When I Get There.” Miles pays tribute to his roots with “Cactus,” a juicy funk-rock track with Buzz Feiten’s guitar-god licks and the bluesy “You Da Mann,” which is dedicated to the late Herbie Mann and has the versatile Derek Trucks’ guitar out front. Guitar fans take note: Russ Freeman of the Rippingtons gets airtime in “Chasing Shadows’ and Jeff Golub gets the same in “Hypnotize,” which features the bluesy vocals of Cassandra Reed. Miles is trying for something different here, and only time will tell if his beefy mixture of musical styles will continue. Here’s one “yes” vote. Smooth grade: B+

Straight and Smooth
(Three Keys)

coverTroublemaker Bobby Lyle has got something going on here, releasing a double CD featuring both smooth and mainstream jazz. That’s a bold move. Although he’s got some real jazz roots, pianist Lyle has mostly made his mark with the smooth stuff, and the material here will be gobbled up by his fans. The “smooth” side of the music features 11 songs, including covers of R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” and Barry White’s “I’m Going to Love You Just a Little More Baby.” The rest feature Lyle’s jazzy, Joe Sample-like acoustic piano playing that always seem to have a foot in the jazz door, unlike harder-edged contemporaries such as Brian Culbertson and Jeff Lorber. He closes the “smooth” side with a solo called “Easy Living.” The “straight” material comes from the trio of Lyle, bassist Brennen Nase and drummer Mark Simmons. Lyle covers some well-known material, like Kern and Hammerstein’s “The Song Is You,” Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and everyone’s favorite, “Body and Soul.” Four of the songs were recorded at XM Radio Studios before a live audience. Lyle also writes some original tunes, including “New World Order.” So you really get two for the price of one here, although it’s probable smooth jazz fans might not have too much patience for the “real” jazz, and it’s more than probable that “real” jazz fans will feel the same about the smooth stuff. Smooth grade: A. Straight-ahead grade: B


coverWill Downing has the kind of voice Ruben Stoddard wishes he had. Downing’s the richest singer smooth jazz, which is why he’s sought after by many in the genre. Every CD he does is a treat, and Emotions may be his best yet. Ladies love him, of course, and the lead track “A Million Ways,” a lesson is pleasing a woman, should help convert a few more. So should songs like “Falling in Love,” where Downing’s voice reaches impossibly low registers. Sexy, charming and romantic as hell, Downing chooses his songs well and gets the best collaborators he can when writing his own. On Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming,” Downing reunites with saxophonist Gerald Albright, who he collaborated with for 1998’s Pleasure of the Night CD. Word is they’re thinking of getting together again for another CD, and fans can only hope it’s true. Downing also covers the classic “Hey There Lonely Girl.” Of course, getting superstar musicians and producers to guest on his projects is no problem, and here, among others, Downing boasts Norman Brown, Rex Rideout, George Duke, Dwight Sills, Nicholas Payton and Paul Jackson Jr. Many smooth jazz stars add vocal tracks to their CDs in an attempt to gain new fans or spice up their mostly instrumental works. Forget that – just call Mr. Downing. First class all the way. Smooth grade: A

At Last

coverAnother in the long line of George Benson admirers, guitarist Ronny Jordan has crafted some of the most memorable smooth jazz songs in the past decade – remember the ubiquitous “Tinsel Town” from about 10 years ago? Jordan has always been at the forefront of England’s acid-jazz movement, and he’s not been afraid to add hip-hop, rap and some eclectic stuff on his CDs. He does that here to some degree on one track, “(In) The Limelight.” And he closes the project with “St. Tropez (club mix),” a bass-heavy dance song. The rest of the CD is pure smooth jazz magic, with hooks galore, some great playing and some inescapable grooving. The title track is five minutes of pure bright heaven that approaches smooth jazz nirvana, while “Heaven” is just that too – a jaunty and bouncy ride that rivals the best of Earl Klugh. On “Rondezvous” and “Island Paradise,” Jordan takes out his acoustic guitar for two gems you’ll keep listening to over and over again – especially the latter song, where Jordan does more picking than usual. Smooth grade: A


coverNote to students in guitarist Richard Smith’s classes at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California: You want to make a smooth jazz CD? Listen to your professor’s latest, a catchy gob of ear candy mixing delicious guitar licks and slammin’ grooves. For good measure, check out a rollicking cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Sing a Song,” and learn that it’s always a smart move to include a boomer classic on your smooth jazz CD. And remember, it doesn’t hurt to have established stars as Brian Bromberg, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Kashiwa and Jeff Lorber pop into the studio while you’re recording your next radio-friendly effort. Lesson aside, although Smith has the formula down it doesn’t mean his CDs are oppressingly formulaic. On his eighth CD, he riffs mostly on the electric guitar on cuts such as “Whatz Up?” and “Diggin’ It,” but countenances a more sensitive side on the acoustic, which you can hear on “Gotta Have You” and on “Beyond the Mountains,” where he really allows himself to play guitar. On that selection and on “Intimato,” you hear why Smith teaches guitar at USC: He knows how to play with passion, which he occasionally shows in his smooth jazz efforts. Smooth grade: A

Come Fly With Me
(143 Records/Reprise)

coverIf ever one CD was worth a little extra money, this one’s it. Of course, fans of the Canadian old-style crooner trapped in a young body, whose style is a mix of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, will have snatched this off the shelves the first day it arrived. There are eight songs on the CD – “Nice ‘n Easy” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” were recorded in the studio and “My Funny Valentine,” “Mack the Knife,” “Fever,” “You’ll Never Know,” “For Once in My Life” and “Moondance” were recorded live. What fans will really love, though, is the DVD that comes with the package, featuring 12 songs (including many of the eight on the CD) and interviews with Buble. Also, you can see Buble and his band recording three songs in the studio: “They Way You Look Tonight,” “For Once in My Life” and “Kissing a Fool.” Most of these tracks were part of Buble’s first, self-titled CD, so the hook for fans are the two new studio songs and the chance to hear Buble live. Buble’s got a great, traditional-sounding voice that sounds so fresh because he’s so young. And he’s shown he’s got a way with the classics, which don’t get that distinction because the songs suck. With so many great old songs out there, it’ll be interesting to see if Buble decides to tackle the new canon of today’s singer-songwriters. John Mayer, anyone? Smooth grade: A

(Grady Nichols)

coverSaxophonist Grady Nichols is getting some attention because he’s produced by Jeff Lorber and features Lorber and trumpeter Chris Botti on his CD. The attention is deserved. Nichols has a polished alto sax voice, which he prefers for the most part on these 10 songs, which were co-written by Nichols and Lorber. Lorber knows talent when he sees it, and this wonderfully smooth CD signals the arrival of a fresh new talent. Nichols’ sax style is similar to Euge Groove’s, and although he doesn’t provide as many hooks as Groove, Nichols main asset thus far is his superb playing. He obviously knows his way around his instrument, and isn’t afraid to hold long notes and dip and groove with those notes, all the while staying within the framework of his songs and never losing the melody. His alto works best, but he does switch to soprano on several selections, “Within the Blue“ and “Quiet Times.” But the alto is what he does best, which he shows on “Tuesday Morning,” the memorable radio hit “All Right,” “Livin’ the Life” and on “End of the Night,” which he duets with Botti to make some delightful sounds. While there’s plenty of generic sax stuff out there, Nichols is able to make a thoroughly modern smooth jazz CD without sounding derivative. That’s an accomplishment. Smooth grade: A

Sin Palabras (Without Words)
(Heads Up)

coverLatin Grammy winner Nestor Torres returns to his roots on his eighth CD, with all original compositions except two. Torres, a flautist, picked several of his favorite songs to cover for his seventh CD, Mi Alma Latina (My Latin Soul), including “Smooth,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Hero” and “Europa.” Here Torres, a Puerto Rican native, goes for a more traditional approach. Contrary to the CD’s title, there are several song phrases thrown around, and “Labios Dulzes” – a spicy R&B and Latin stew – has quite a few vocal flavors, thanks to Torres, bassist Jimmy Haslip (who co-produced along with Torres and James Lloyd) and keyboardist Baby Boy. The two covers are good ones: “Contigo Aprendi,” a Latin classic written by Armando Manzanero, who’s written many romantic ballads. It veers toward Muzak, but is undeniably romantic. The other cover is “Regalame La Silla Donde Te Espere,” a hit for Alejandro Sanz. Although both of these choices are a touch sleepy (after all, it is flute music), Torres kicks it up just a tad elsewhere on the CD. For the most part, however, it’s a shame Torres didn’t go for more songs like the title cut, which manages to be both radio-friendly and expressive. Smooth grade: B

Tha’ Hot Club

ThaHotClub.jpgThe Shanachie label is quickly becoming the king of smooth jazz interpretations of today’s hits. It adds a feather in its cap with this one featuring the core team of Kim Waters, David Mann, Davy D, Wayne Bruce and vocalist Dequina Moore. Taking today’s top R&B and hip-hop hits and giving them a fresh spin, Tha’ Hot Club is just the ticket urban wannabes looking for a touch of jazz with their bad selves. Featuring such smashes as “Crazy in Love,” “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” “Frontin’,” “Hot in Heere,” “Baby Boy” and Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” for the old folks, these CD is deeper than you’d think. Sax man Waters leaves the sax playing to Mann, instead concentrating on keyboards – unlike his Streetwize projects, where he wails on sax. There are plenty of extended jams here, which lift the project above a lesser one that might have played the songs note by note. This is fun. Smooth grade: B+

Jazz For Couch Potatoes!

JazzForCouchPotatoes.jpgWith this Chuck Loeb project, smooth jazz stars get a chance to show off their traditional jazz roots with over the course of 11 interpretations of some of the most-recognized TV theme songs, including the just-exited “Sex and the City” and oldtimers such as “Sanford and Son,” “Peter Gunn,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and – yes – “Gilligan’s Island.” Saxophonist Kim Waters plays the piano lead on an interesting take of Bob James’ “Taxi,” while Loeb takes the guitar lead on the whistle-happy “The Andy Griffith Show.” Besides Loeb and Waters, the band includes Eric Alexander, Dave Samuels, Randy Brecker, David Mann and Ron Jenkins, among others. If successful, Loeb says he’s like to put out another version. Just think of the possibilities – hmm, how about “The Addams Family,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Get Smart” or “The Simpsons”? Smooth grade: B+

The Gift

coverJon Dalton is a Londoner now living in Southern California. Like ex-pat Chris Standring, whom he most compares to musically, Dalton plays mostly electric guitar, but also dabbles in acoustic and computerized riffs on The Gift, a seasoned smooth-jazz effort that shows maturity and a keen eye for the smooth genre. Like Standring, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton, Dalton is a leader in taking smooth jazz into a new era, one where smooth jazz hangs on to its aural friendliness while also serving ample tasty chops. Along with Jon Barton on tenor sax and John O’Hara on percussion and other instruments, Dalton offers 10 easily digestible excursions frequently jumping into playful asides. For example, a strolling, whistle-like accompaniment rings throughout “Champosium,” and “You Can’t Do That!” throws out computerized strings, tambourine shakes and other fun blips and noises. They’re playful, but Dalton’s songs are firmly about radio-friendly memorable melodies and tight grooves. At the same time, he’s not afraid to actually play the guitar, like Standring, Metheny and Carlton do successfully. One of the CD’s many highlights is the cover tune, a slow Lee Ritenour-like groove over a soft percussive bed featuring record scratches. Dalton pays homage to smooth jazz-guitar father figure Wes Montgomery on “The Dark Man” and “Westory,” two intoxicating tracks. The CD closes with “A Gift Returned,” a spare ballad where Dalton’s emotive guitar evokes hope and longing. He wrote the song in memory of a friend. Dalton released the CD independently, which is available through www.amazon.com and www.cdbaby.com. Smooth grade: A

Bringin’ It Back

BlakeAaronBringinItBack.jpgBlake Aaron looks like a rock ‘n roll guitar player and, on selected moments on his second CD, plays like one. But for the most part, Aaron is a fresh new player on the smooth jazz scene, as he shows on radio-friendly songs such as “Infatuation” and the rollicking “Keepin’ It Real,” which is beefed up with organ and horns. Aaron comes from the Montgomery/Benson/Ritenour school of pretty, sliding guitar sounds, and that’s not a bad thing. On Marcus Miller’s classic “Chicago Song,” which David Sanborn made his own a few years back on sax, Aaron does the same here, digressing on a nice solo about half way through. Aaron also has a nice way with smooth jazz ballads, as he shows with “One Beautiful Day (IFY)” and “So in Love,” accompanied by Michael Whittaker on piano. He rocks on “Bringin’ It Back” and “Gonzo’s in the House,” which feel out of place on this for the most part on this compelling smooth jazz effort. But it looks like you can only tame a rocker so much. Smooth grade: B

(East River Joint)

GabrielaAndersEclectica.jpgArgentine-born and now living in New York City, vocalist Gabriela Anders had a welcome debut several years ago with Wanting. She’s without a label now in these tough times, though – you can only get this CD by going to www.cdbaby.com. Free from a label, though, Anders is able to make the kind of music that moves her, and those who admire her heavenly vocals will no doubt be pleased with the eight songs here. As the title suggests, Anders has a few things going on. “Together Again” is just about the most “normal” song here, a great midtempo love song. That leads the CD. Then things get interesting. “Pearls and Gold” features a great drums-and-bass interaction, and dips into Top 40 territory with its memorable melodies. Great song. On “Naufragio” and “Socamerengue,” Anders sings in her native tongue (note: She plans an all Spanish-language CD later this year). “Naufragio” has a mild bossa nova beat, but “Socamerengue” is a rap and hip-hop inflected party jam. “Fading Light” is a simple piano-and-vocal gem, where Anders vocals really get the presence they deserve, while “I Wait” has a late-night jazz vibe. It’s all very eclectic, of course, which is the point. In this case, it keeps things interesting and is held together by Anders’ pleasant chops. Smooth grade: B+

That Kind of Thing

coverBay Area musician by way of Italy Sergio Caputo makes his smooth jazz debut after more than 14 CDs and many session dates. You hear the CD’s first song, the hit “Everything I Do” and the darn happy “Guess I Miss You Again,” and you get the feeling he made the right choice. Caputo is a guitarist who also plays keyboards, bass and programs much of his music. Overall, it’s a relaxing blend of jazz and pop with some Latin influences, especially on the lovely “Serenata Roja” and “Like a Shooting Star” where Caputo, who plays mostly electric guitar, switches to acoustic. It’s a laidback affair, and Caputo settles nicely into it and keeps that groove throughout, thankfully not feeling the need to add any vocal tracks or crazy rock asides. This makes a nice addition to any smooth jazz collection. Smooth grade: B+

Posted by Brian Soergel at 4:12 AM

March 7, 2004

Smooth Sailing March 2004

Super-producer Paul Brown makes his debut with Upfront, a filled-with-hits delight. Also reviewed: Peter White, Norah Jones, Braxton Brothers, Joyce Cooling, Praful, Chris Botti, The Jazzmasters, Dan Siegel, Keiko Matsui and two compilations by the Native Language label.


coverYou probably should have seen this coming, but it’s still somewhat of a surprise: When the king of smooth jazz producers decides to make an album, you figure it’s a vanity project. But what you get instead is one of 2004’s early surprises, top-to-bottom smooth jazz stunner brimming with bright melodies, good picking by Brown on the guitar and enough hits to fill a Christmas stocking. More than any other producer in his genre, Brown defines what makes a hit. The “Paul Brown sound” is one that smooth artists kill for, and what a long list of artists have ridden to the top, from George Benson, Al Jarreau, Norman Brown and Euge Groove to Rick Braun, Boney James, Peter White and Larry Carlton. The 12-song CD is grooving and melodic, showcasing Brown’s guitar, drums and – yes – vocals. He scats on “Wes’ Coast Swing,” sings straight up on Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and alters his voice with a vocoder on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” The CD’s first single, “24/7,” is already a smooth jazz radio smash. Other singles abound: the Wes Montgomery-penned “Angel”; the Larry Carlton-sounding “Moment by Moment,” with scatting; and the traditional “My Funny Valentine,” which Brown turns into a smooth classic and gets a chance to really play his guitar. Brown’s list of guest musicians is impressive: Peter White, Boney James – for whom Brown has produced eight CDs – Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun and Chuck Loeb. Also on board are multi-instrumentalist Jeff Carruthers, whom Brown has known since his early mixing days, and French DJ star Cam, who rewrote a rap song and stripped it down with Brown for song called “Chill Out.” An amazing debut. Let’s hope he still finds time to go into the studio and produce for others after this. Smooth grade: A


coverSmooth jazz guitar icon Peter White – his pretty acoustic picking has defined the genre for more than a decade – offers 11 sometimes intimate, sometimes jubilant, always engaging slices of his heart. You’d expect nothing less from a man who inspires a devout fan club and is eagerly welcomed onto stage and into studios by fellow musicians. Settling in with a new Peter White CD is like inviting Mr. Rogers and his Grandpa sweater and soft slippers into your living room. Super producer Paul Brown co-wrote or produced five songs on the CD, including the first single, the jaunty “Talkin’ Bout Love”; “Coast Road Drive,” a classic feel-good White song with a thumping bass; “She’s in Love,” a vocal track written by Brenda Russell here featuring ‘80s star Christopher Cross; “Lost Without Your Love,” a ballad with David Sparkman providing a soulful vocal refrain; and “Stormfront,” a grooving cut with a tasty shuffle beat and Chris Botti’s trumpet. Brown also plays electric guitar on several cuts. In addition to Botti and Brown, other guests include Brian Culbertson, Mindi Abair, Steve Ferrone, Rex Rideout, Michael Paulo and a great percussion team. Culbertson provides some needed and jazzy piano interludes, especially on the title track, which he produced, while Abair adds sax to “Are You Mine,” a top-down driving song propelled by strings. Guests add flavor, but White of course is the brightest star here, even bringing out his accordion for “Swept Away,” which evokes images of Italy, flamenco players and flamenco dancers. “How Does It Feel” is the most unique song on the CD due to White’s playing the killer hook over a rich percussive beat. Matthew Hager, who produced the song, plays what the liner notes call “weird guitar,” keeping time with White’s acoustic. It’s a great touch. “Confidential” to smooth jazz fans: You’ll play this CD over and over. Smooth grade: A

Feels Like Home
(Blue Note)

coverNorah Jones’ followup to her Grammy winning Come Away With Me, which sold millions of copies, is just as mellow and refreshing as ever, although it’s a bit more uptempo that her debut. The first single, “Sunrise,” and the rest of the CD show Jones’ range in musical styles, as she’s not strictly a jazz singer, not strictly a pop singer, not strictly a country or blues singer. She’s all of them, and seems determined to cross boundaries whenever she can. Longtime friend, guitarist Jesse Harris, who wrote Jones’ megahit “Don’t Know Why,” makes some guest appearances, as do legendary country singer Dolly Parton, jazz drummer Brian Blade and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of seminal rock group The Band. Parton and Jones duet on a rousing hoedown called “Creepin’ In.” In addition to covers of Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt tunes, there's also a reworking of the Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” – a concert favorite of Jones’ – which she added lyrics to and retitled "Don't Miss You at All.” So why is Jones so popular? That’s easy – she makes honest music that speaks to herself and millions of others, has a great voice and reminds many of a time not too long where music was made not for profit but because it had to be. Smooth grade: A


coverTwins Wayne and Nelson Braxton couldn’t have picked a better first single than “When You Touch Me,” a joyously bouncy track that allows Wayne to solo on sax and Nelson on bass guitar. Together, the Braxtons have delivered another solid smooth jazz CD with plenty of R&B touches and slow-groove ballads with vocal refrains, such as “It’s You” and “Tonight,” the latter featuring Wayne’s romantic, insistent repeating of “tonight, tonight.” What’s set the Braxtons apart on this and previous CDs is their use of Nelson’s bass as a lead instrument, although he does play electric guitar also. You can tell a Braxton Brothers song because of this, and because of Wayne’s sax leads, which seem to be getting better and more prominent with each CD. Both are brought into play on “I Want You For Myself” and “Blue Sands,” midtempo numbers with killer hooks and with some sweet Rhodes programming thrown in for extra delight. The Braxtons wisely stick to their strengths on this CD, and don’t include as many lead-vocal tracks as they have on other CDs, although Martin Luther’s rich phrasing on “Love Is Crazy” is a worthy addition. The boys know how to funk, too, which is guaranteed on their CDs. Exibit A here: “Rollin’,” the title track, with delightful “wah-wah” sax. Smooth grade: B+

This Girl’s Got To Play
(Narada Jazz)

coverGuitarist Joyce Cooling continues her particular smooth jazz style with her fourth CD: plenty of tight grooves, clean electric and acoustic guitar runs, an occasional blues, rock or Brazilian aside and several chances to display her jazz-style vocals. Cooling and partner/producer/keyboardist Jay Wagner breeze through nine diverse tracks that have plenty of hit potential, beginning with opener, “Expression.” Cooling trades acoustic and electric riffs, and Wagner keeps time on the keyboards, as is their style. Wagner also plays some bouncy solos. Another potential smash is “Camelback,” a rump-shaker with a blues-lite groove. Add a come-hither piano solo, and you’ve got a song perfect for that Saharan camel ride you’ve always wanted to take. The title of “Green Impala” gives a clue to its content – it’s a funky ride down Main Street, accompanied by a right-on drum loop. “Toast & Jam” says it all too: A thumping bass beat by Nelson Braxton, bluesy organ riffs. Here Cooling shows her unabashed love of pure funk. The vocal tunes that works best is “Take Me There,” with Cooling’s refrain on the title unobtrusive while she stays within herself vocally. “No More Blues” works also, because Cooling sings likes she’s having a conversation, and it goes well with the jazz beat burnished with Alan Hall’s brushed drumstrokes. The autobiographical title track gives a glimpse into Cooling’s inspirations. The lyrics are revealing, as she allows for some insight into her struggles as a pretty woman struggling to break into instrumental music: “They said, put your guitar and sing/just look real cute and entertain/sorry, honey, it ain’t my thing.” “Natural Fact,” the last vocal track, is another slice of funk with some wonderful trumpet playing by Bill Ortiz. Subtract the vocals, however, and you’d have a head-boppin’ drums-and-bass ambient and chill gem. Smooth grade: B

One Day Deep

coverPraful, a German-born-and-raised wind instrumentalist (sax, flute, plus Rhodes and other stuff) now based in Amsterdam, has injected some much-needed punch into the sometimes tepid smooth jazz scene with his single “Sigh.” The whole CD is just as good, 11 acid/chill/smooth/funky songs that often defy description and show there’s plenty of room for innovative new music on radio. You know you’re in for something special when you hear moog, weird vocals and throaty sax during the opening song on the CD, “One Day Deep,” which gradually builds in intensity. Praful’s Brazilian influences come out in “Sonhar,” “Teardrop Butterfly” and “Inspiracao,” the latter featuring Lillian Vieria’s Portuguese vocals over flighty flute runs. “Let the Chips Fall,” the second single, is a funky ‘70s-like number with tenor sax mixed with Indian bamboo flute. Groovy. Going into too much detail about the rest of the CD is kind of like giving away too much of a movie. You need to experience this groovy, trippy and smooth CD for yourself. Praful is expected to release a new CD early in 2005. Smooth grade: A

A Thousand Kisses Deep

coverTrumpeter Chris Botti’s “Indian Summer” is one of the freshest smooth jazz singles heard on the radio for awhile, and just further cements Botti’s status as one of the genre’s top stars. He gets tons of recognition opening for Sting, and deservedly so. Like fellow trumpeter Rick Braun, Botti plays notes that move the heart while writing memorable melodies that can stick in your head all day. This guy is as smooth as Burt Bacharach, whom he borrows two songs from. The well-worn “The Look of Love” is given a mild drums-and-bass treatment, a go-go groove and some vocal refrains from Chantal Kreviazuk. Is there a better song for the mournful trumpet? The other Bacharach song is “The Last Three Minutes,” which has what Botti calls a “tougher rhythm” than he’s ever done before. It’s a great track. The rest of the CD is sophisticated and cool, just the ticket for those in chill-out mode. It ends perfectly with a trumpet-piano duet with Steve Lindsey that sounds like the soundtrack to our lives. Smooth grade: A

The Jazzmasters 4

coverThe king of seductive, dancy and jazzy beats returns in his latest Jazzmasters project, which is typically what you’d expect. Great singles such as “Puerto Banus” and “Valley of the Harps” mix with vocal tracks featuring longtime singer Helen Rogers, who figures more into Hardcastle’s Jazzmaster CDs than his solo ones. Rogers has a dreamy voice, which she shows on songs such the gorgeous “Feeling Blue” and “Lifetime.” Her vocals are perfectly suited for smooth jazz and add significantly to Hardcastle’s appeal. But Hardcastle’s popularity draws from his unabashed love of drum programming – which he does better than anyone – mixed with sax (credit Snake Davis and Tony Woods), piano and others sounds that have been heard by millions worldwide on such hits as “19” and “Rainforest,” “Lost in Space” and most recently with “Desire.” The instrumentals are what work especially well here. Whether funky in the spare in “Emerald Stardust” or deliciously chill in songs like “Lifetime,” this CD is another in a long line of winners for Hardcastle. Even Hardcastle’s first rap, “If You Knew,” works. Smooth grade: B+

Inside Out
(Native Language)

coverAlmost a quarter century after his debut, Dan Siegel remains one of the kings of smooth-as-silk piano smooth jazz. No computer blips or hip-hop samples here. Siegel is such a mellow mood on his first new studio CD in six years that if you’re not completely relaxed after his latest, you should probably get your money back. Saxophonists Boney James and Jeff Kashiwa spice things up in solos and as part of a horn section, but their playing enhances the mellowness instead of taking it outside a comfort zone. None of this is bad, of course. On “Just Like That” and the cover track, Siegel’s chirpy playing and smooth backbeat are just what my doc might prescribe during the nadir of a hectic work week. Siegel steps outside his comfort zone a little with “Between the Lines,” laying down some tasty organ grooves, but soon slips back into his mellow groove with “To the Point.” He ventures into Yanni territory on the final cut, “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” a spiritual and uplifting four minutes of music cinema. Siegel is from the old school, a defining member of the smooth jazz movement who still believes in music’s healing and calming attributes. In today’s loud world, there’s still plenty of room for that. Smooth grade: B

(Narada Jazz)

Composer and keyboardist Keiko Matsui is such an established humanitarian you can practically hear the goodwill in her music. On her 14th studio recording, the diminutive but powerful artist decided that the title track would benefit the United Nations World Programme’s relief efforts in Africa, and she’s raising awareness of the organization during her worldwide tour this year. The simple but effective piano ballad is one of the most beautiful singles in her long career. Matsui’s mostly acoustic piano pieces have always been marked by gradual openings that build in pace to rousing conclusions. In between, Matsui displays her talents with memorable melodies and some fantastic runs along the keys. “Facing Up,” modernized with some interesting computer enhancing and hip-hop elements, is a good example of her power: Matsui is best listened to late at night with headphones, where you can hear the complexity of her music, which often sounds simplistic at first blush. The CD opens with “Flashback,” a hit-worthy ditty with soaring melodic moments so beautiful you begin to sense the grandeur Matsui strives for. Surprises abound: On “Sense of Journey,” Matsui dips into a jazzy groove while in “Brand New Wind” saxes, a poppin’ bass and children’s joyful cries mix into a whole that somehow works. Elsewhere, Matsui throws in world elements while keeping her head firmly in 2004 with some new and interesting sounds. As always, she gets help from her husband, shakuhachi flute player and producer Kazu Matsui. Bravo. Smooth grade: A

A Smooth Jazz Affaire
Smooth Jazz Essentials

(Native Language)

covercoverThe great thing about running a music label is that you’re able to make your own music on it. That would be a bad thing if Joe Sherbanee and Theo Bishop didn’t make some pretty good smooth jazz. They’re both featured on these compilations. On these CDs of mostly previously released material, Sherbanee’s keyboards and percussion have already been heard before, as “San Luis” and “Big City” are taken from his fine CD from 1998, The Road Ahead. But Bishop’s “Tonight’s The Night,” featured on both CDs, is a classically mellow acoustic piano ballad that fits in with Dan Seigel’s best stuff. Both CDs feature mostly Native Language artists, of course, and Affaire is targeted toward romantic evenings while Essentials includes some of the best and highest-charting music the label’s produced. Artists include Jeff Kashiwa, Brian Bromberg, Steve Oliver, Juan Carlos Quintero and Tony Guerrero. One interesting track is Los Angeles traffic reporter Jennifer York, who plays the appropriately titled “405 Jam,” a song from an upcoming CD. York leans toward the jazz fusion side of things here, but also has been known to perform in trio and quartet settings. Smooth grades: B+

Posted by Brian Soergel at 1:53 AM

January 31, 2004

Smooth Sailing February 2004

Saxophonist supreme Euge Groove returns with his third CD. He's on a new label, Narada Jazz, but has lost nothing that made his earlier CDs so popular. Settle in...also reviewed are Down to the Bone, Incognito, Hubert Laws, Will Sumner and a wonderful compilation called The Love Project.

Euge Groove
Livin' Large (Narada Jazz)

coverEuge Groove came out of nowhere in 1999 with “Romeo + Juliet,” a heavily downloaded song on MP3.com whose popularity led to his signing on Warner Bros. Groove had a long career as a sideman: He played on Expose’s hit single “Seasons Change” in the ‘80s and jammed with Richard Marx and Tower of Power. Now on his third CD, Groove’s throaty tenor sax is firmly established on smooth jazz radio. It’s another winner for Groove, although some may bypass the rap of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Myself” to hear the instrumental version instead.

Like Richard Elliot, Groove has a knack for memorable melodies and for coaxing the max out of his sax – it growls, hits impossibly low notes and always sounds like it’s the way the instrument was meant to sound. You hear that on “Silhouette,” which is enhanced by some snappy keyboard runs. The title track, “Livin’ Large,” “XXL” and “Tool Cool” are templated Groove tunes, with their repeated melodies and midtempo grooves building to climaxes. No sax star worth his reeds would miss a chance to blow a ballad, which Groove can do like no one else: “The Gift” is a change of pace, with Groove picking up the soprano sax and laying down some beautiful notes. Elsewhere, on “Cobolicious,” Groove uses wordless vocals and some jazzy piano for a change of pace.

Perhaps the most listenable song here is one you’ll probably recognize: James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” It’s no wonder Groove included it, as it the perfect match for a smooth jazz cover. Interestingly enough, producer Paul Brown includes it on his new CD, also, although he sings computer-enhanced vocals. Groove sticks to what he does best – play the hell out of the horn. Smooth grade: A

Down to the Bone
Cellar Funk (Narada Jazz)

coverIn 1996, when Down to the Bone’s From Manhattan to Staten shook the doldrums off smooth jazz, this new sound was fresh, funky and just plain fun. It still is, as you can hear on the new CD. DTTB, led by British producer Stuart Wade, is now a veteran of the groove-jazz genre, whose dance staples are now incorporated into many smooth jazz offerings. DTTB essentially works like this: Wade hums a melody, hears what instruments might come into play, and, along with his mates in his regular band, recruits session musicians who help fine-tune melodies and rhythms. Guests include Hammond B-3 player Brian Auger and Brazilian jazz vocalists Flora Purim and Guida de Palma. The creative process works for Wade, who will admit to anyone that he can’t play a lick of music. Scoff, but the proof is in the jam.

As a true jam band, DTTB’s music often dulls senses with its repetition, such as on “I’ll Always Hold You Close.” But wait, that’s a good thing. Your mind wanders for a few minutes, then flits back to the groove when Auger’s Hammond work tears through the speakers. Same with “Timeless,” which offers a tasty acoustic guitar lick, something the band hasn’t tried before. Elsewhere, Purim’s Carioca vocalese is perfectly suited for “The Flow,” where a horn riff blows over a festival-like rhythm. “Crossing Boundaries” and “Dancing to a Samba” also have a Brazilian flavor, and are driven by percussion that shakes like dancers at Rio’s carnaval.

Although most of DTTB’s songs are fairly busy (“LA Shakedown” is inspired by Blaxplotation movies and has a great Chic-like guitar riff), once in a while the band shows it can make a tight single as well. Exhibit A is “You’re the Only Reason,” an in-the-pocket groove with some tasty Hammond work and simply stated bass-and-drum line. Smooth grade: B+

Hubert Laws
Moondance (Savoy Jazz)

coverFlutist Hubert Laws has always flirted between contemporary and mainstream jazz in his long career and, at 64, doesn’t appear to want to veer to a path less traveled anytime soon. Laws, who created some seminal work in the 1970s with the CTI label – including “Afro Classic” – looks back to the days while keeping an eye on radio formats with his latest. Many CTI fusion recordings, with George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard and others, were precursors to today’s smooth jazz, so when Laws comes out with a CD it deserves a listen from today’s stars. It turns out that Chris Botti (trumpet), Jeff Lorber (piano) and Brian Culbertson (piano) did more than listen – they also contribute to the CD, as does Herbie Hancock.

True to Laws’ outlook, Moondance features several moments that would shine on smooth jazz radio, from the cover of the Van Morrison classic and the very up-to-date (with drum machine and wah-wah guitar) “Nighttime Daydream” to the breezy “Summer of ’75.” Aside from those cuts, however, the remainder of the CD sticks to more traditional acoustic jazz elements as Laws rides the flute hard and harkens back to glorious sounds of the ‘70s. Especially compelling is the late-night jazz bar ambience of “Love Me Tonight” and the fast-paced “Clarita,” which often sounds lifted from a James Bond movie. The music swings, Laws’ flute sings and the featured guests seem to be having a grand time. Smooth grade: B+

Who Needs Love (Narada Jazz)

coverAcid-jazz-meets-funk band Incognito is popular in Britain, where its combination of funk and sultry female vocals hits a melodic nerve in clubs and feet-happy dancers. The band isn’t as popular in the States, but certainly has a loyal following. Incognito is the creation of Jean-Paul Maunick – known to all as “Bluey” – and has been around for 20 years with a revolving cast of musicians. The latest is pretty much business as usual, but adds elastic Brazilian vocalist Ed Motta on the title track and features iconic Paul Weller of the late, great The Jam and The Style Council on guitar on “Stone Cold Heart,” a light samba groove with a sweet string arrangement. Vocalists Kelli Sae, Joy Rose and Joy Malcolm add the sultry vocals on the CD, which will appeal to those who enjoy both mid- and uptempo soul songs with vocals. Although maybe a bit tiring for those who only want instrumentals, there are many smooth jazz elements on Incognito CDs, and there’s no denying the musicianship. Smooth grade: B

Will Sumner
Coast Drive (Ocean Street)

coverThere’s something about smooth jazz, palm trees and an ocean drive that feels so right. Guitarist Will Sumner synergizes all three in an independent release that harkens back to the very mellow smooth jazz popular a decade ago, before sampling, electronica and hip-hop crept into the scene. Sumner, who also solos on sax and piano, alternates between acoustic and electric guitar and sounds positively Craig Chaquico-like on guitar synth songs such as “Out of the Woods” and the charming “Sunset Surf Jam.” Sumner establishes a theme early in his compositions, from mellow (“Coast Drive,” “Breathless” – the latter with some sweet piano synth/guitar answer-and-call), and tropical (the Latin-flavored “Todos Santos” and samba-ish “The Island Girl”), to uptempo rock (“Inside Job,” “Full Steam”). Sumner really shines, though, on “Second Thoughts,” where he stretches on the strings, soars with melodic piano and programs a shuffle rhythm to achieve melodic nirvana. Think Pat Metheny in a supremely relaxed mood. Smooth grade: B

Various artists
The Love Project (Narada Jazz)

coverSettle down by the fireplace with the one you love with the help of The Love Project, a sumptuous CD featuring many of your favorite artists doing 12 of your favorite love songs. Four selections are existing recordings: “Moondance” by Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson; “That Girl” by the Chicago Project; “Wonderful Tonight” by Warren Hill with Jeff Golub; and “Everyday” by Peter White.

The CD opens with Euge Groove’s languid interpretation of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Lonely Tonight,” which the saxman also includes on his new CD. The group Frayne follows with one of the best covers ever of the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You,” male and female vocals alternating the lead. Here’s what else you’ll hear on this wonderful CD: El DeBarge’s “All This Love” by pianist Jeff Lorber; a spare version of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” by guitarist Joyce Cooling; Deniece Williams’ “Free” by sexy saxman Walter Beasley; an absolutely tasty, funky retelling of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love T.K.O.” by pianist Alex Bugnon, with soulful vocal refrains courtesy of Ronnie Garrett; James Ingram and Patty Austin’s “Baby Come to Me” by Urban Knights; and a jazzy, drum-brushed version of David and Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now” by pianist David Benoit.

This CD is highly recommended as classic smooth jazz. Smooth grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at 8:34 PM

December 1, 2003

Smooth Sailing

Who put out the best smooth jazz CDs in 2003? What's in store for holiday music? Check out the latest Smooth Sailing to find out the answers, as well as to discover some CDs you may have missed this year.

There were many fine smooth-jazz CDs released in 2003. Here are my 10 favorites:

1) David Sanborn, “Timeagain” (Verve). Many smooth-jazz saxophonists get their inspiration from the veteran player. “Timeagain” is the CD that smooth jazz fans have been waiting for for a long time. The tunes are raw, energetic, alive and breathing.

2) Mindi Abair, “It Just Happens That Way” (GRP). Newcomer Abair blows a mean sax on her much-anticipated debut. Abair’s worth the hype. Every song is a winner on this keeper CD.

3) Chris Standring, “Groovaliscious” (Mesa/Blue Moon). The British guitarist certainly has a way with melody and hummable hooks. But he’s not afraid to play, and play well, on tunes that owe inspiration to the ‘60s and ‘70s.

4) Dave Koz, “Saxophonic” (Capitol). Koz, now a media mogul as co-owner of a new record label, shows that he can still play the saxophone while helming two of the country’s most popular smooth-jazz radio shows. The CD, divided into three “acts,” features elements of jazz, pop, soul and electronica.

5) Rick Braun, “Esperanto” (Warner Bros.). No one plays the trumpet smoother or better than Braun, who never releases a bad CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite “Latinesque”), but if you’ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he’s got a wild streak, too.

6) Marc Antoine, “Mediterraneo” (Rendezvous). Gypsy-guitar player Antoine returns to his roots with an uplifting work that finds him at the top of his game. Smooth jazz at its best.

7) Doc Powell, “97th & Columbus” (Heads Up). The much-traveled session player once again proves that he can be a leader on guitar.

8) Brian Hughes, “Along The Way” (A440 Music Group). The lyrical guitarist mixes Latin elements with rock and funk to once again prove he is one of the best in the biz.

9) Richard Elliot, “Ricochet” (GRP). Elliot may be small in stature, but his robust sax takes listeners to new heights.

10) Acoustic Alchemy, “Radio Contact” (Higher Octave). The veteran band makes contact here on a CD that marks a return to its roots: guitars and melodies.

There are many holiday CDs released each year. Here’s a few:

Michael Buble, “Let It Snow!” (143/Reprise): The 20something vocalist from Vancouver, British Columbia, is hot, hot, hot. This 5-song CD should do nothing to turn down the heat. A cross between Sinatra and Darin, Buble shines on “Let It Snow, Let it Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” “Grown-Up Christmas List,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “White Christmas.” Produced by David Foster.

Yellowjackets, “Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration” (Yellowjackets Enterprise): The CD, only available online at yellowjackets.com, has all the standards, including “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Winter Wonderland.” On the latter, the wonderful Bob Mintzer’s sax has never, ever sounded so good. This is destined to become one of the most memorable jazz CDs ever.

Plan 9, “The 9 Days of Christmas” (Plan9Partners): Listeners downloaded a gazillion copies of Plan 9’s “God Rest Ye” from smoothjazz.com, which rightly convinced the six-member to go all out with a holiday CD. Like they say, they’re not out to trivialize the music, but to rediscover its joyful elements. That they do, in the season’s most, well, joyful holiday CD. The CD was officially released in 2002, but is now getting some publicity so it is included here. You’ll dig it if you’re in a good mood and looking for something different.

Jeff Ball, “Songs of Winter" (Red Feather Music): Have yourself a very flute-y Christmas. It’s a bit on the new age side, but it’s doubtful you’ll hear a more touching version of “Greensleeves” during the holidays. Ball plays an assortment of Indian flutes, and he’s backed by a great band on fretless and fretted bass, guitars, organ, handbells and percussion. An unexpected delight: a cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.”

Michael Franks, “Watching the Snow” (Sleeping Gypsy): The sweet-voiced singer presents 10 original songs to his fans as his Christmas gift. If you like Franks, you’ll of course like this and know what to expect: jazzy stylings, clever lyrics and a sense of well-being.

There are so many worthwhile CDs. And so little time to hear and review them all. Here are some CDs you might want to check out:

Various artists, “A Twist of Motown” (GRP): Guitarist Lee Ritenour returns with another in his series of “Twist” CDs. This one has Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, George Benson, Chris Botti, Will Downing, Richard Elliot, Lisa Fischer, Dave Gruisin, Bob James, Ray Parker Jr., Brenda Russell and Peter White. Highlights: The incomparable Will Downing’s vocals on “Just My Imagination” and James’ Fender Rhodes on “Creepin’.”

Chuck Loeb, “eBop" (Shanachie): Don’t let the title give you the wrong impression. He grooves a little harder here than earlier efforts, but it still the same sweet electric guitar. Not up to his usual standards, but still worth a listen.

Nick Colionne, “Just Come on In” (Three Keys): Another guitarist in the Wes/George/Lee lineage, Colionne packs a punch and is ridin’ high with his hit, “High Flyin’. Even better is a cover of “My Favorite Things.” It’s a good effort, but suffers from sameness even though Colionne has the formula down: smooth stuff, funky stuff, some vocals. Hopefully the next one will have a tighter vision.

Richard Smith, “Soulidifed” (A440): The smooth jazz educator and musician hits pay dirt with a lively recording of electric guitar and some great ballads, including “Inspired By You” and “Intimato.” And you hafta love another version of “Sing a Song.”

The Crusaders, “Rural Renewal” (Verve): If you like the classic sound of the Crusaders’ intelligent and sophisticated contemporary jazz, you’ll like this CD featuring original members Joe Sample, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder. Guest artist Eric Clapton helps infuse the CD with its soul and gospel shadings.

Ultra Blue, “Dusk 2 Dawn” (Khaeon): This is one CD worth discovering. East Coast musicians David Mann, Pete Belasco, Dave Stryker, Rachel Z and special guest vocalist Kevin Mahogany deliver one of the most listenable works of the year: you have to hear Mahogany’s pipes on “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” Most of the tunes are instrumental, though, and perfect for chilling out. Good stuff.

Candy Dulfer, “Right in My Soul” (Eagle): The sexy sax star returned with a decent collection of very European, very hip, mostly vocal numbers that’ll have you grooving all night. Highlight: the very funky “Power to the People.” Dulfer can play, which she proves on the jazzy “It’s My Life.”

Oscar Castro-Neves, “Playful Heart” (Mack Avenue): The much-loved Brazilian musician can always be counted on for CDs that downright uplifting. It’s hard to feel unhappy with Toots Thielemans’ harmonica happily playing away. Although Castro-Neves stumbles on Jobim’s “Waters of March” (Aguas De Marco) by singing in English, at least you can now understand what you’ve been humming all these years. Simply a wonderful CD of Brazilian music. Go get it.

Abbey Lincoln, “It’s Me” (Verve): Jazz singer Lincoln’s smoky and raspy voice has never sounded better. The very mellow tracks on this CD can be enjoyed by smooth jazz fans who like Diana Krall.

Jesse Cook, “Nomad” (Narada World): Flamenco traditionalist Cook is a treat to listen to, with his swirling musical landscapes and expert guitar playing. Expect some experimentation, don’t expect a sound similar to Marc Antoine, and you’ll like it fine.

Cassandra Reed, “Cassandra Reed” (Peak): If nothing else, the CD surely rates with the sexiest packaging of the year. If you can tear your eyes away from the lovely Reed, you’ll discover the smooth jazz vocal CD of the year. Bravo to producer Jason Miles, who gets the most from Reed’s husky and emotive voice.

Incognitio, “Who Needs Love” (Narada Jazz): Jean-Paul Maunick, aka “Bluey,” returns with a smashing bunch of R&B-infused vocals supplied by a bevy of talented female singers.

Mark Winkler, “The Best of Mark Winkler” (Varese Sarabande): Gerald Albright, Joe Sample, Boney James, Dianne Reeves, David Benoit and others contribute to this compilation from an underrated jazz/lounge singer who has a touch of Al Jarreau in his chops.

David Garfield, “Giving Back” (Creatchy): Pianist Garfield has some of smooth jazz biggest stars and session players on this CD, which is kind of jazzy, kind of rock ‘n’ roll.

Ray Fuller, “The Weeper” (A Ray Artists Music): Think Lee Ritenour meets George Benson. Fuller plays a lyrical guitar and takes on some classic classics: “If You Really Love Me,” “Work to Do,” “Naima” and “She Walks This Earth.” Highly recommended, worth the search.

Hiroshima, “The Bridge” (Heads Up): Does the veteran smooth jazz group still matter these days? There are some moments, such as on “Manzanar” and “Viven,” where the smooth-meets-Eastern philosophy meshes, but there’s too much that sounds dated here or overdone. For Hiroshima long-timers only.

IGOR, “You and I” (FigorO Music): It appears that IGOR wants to be the Australian Kenny G. He’s certainly learned his lessons, as the saxophonist’s self-described “sooth and silky” sound is like the second coming of G. He was raised in Russia, so you can excuse the scary name. If you can’t get enough of Kenny G, this is your CD.

Lloyd Gregory, “Free Fallin’” (Integy): Intoxicating music. Gregory often sounds like long-lost Earl Klugh on his uptempo and ballads, and that’s good enough for most smooth jazz fans. Check out the slow-grooving “Peanut,” Gregory’s guitar expertly playing over a soft and funk drums-and-bass foundation. One of the independent highlights of the year.

Yellowjackets, “Time Squared” (Heads Up): This veteran group may be a bit too adventurous for the average smooth jazz fan, but the Mintzer-Ferrante-Haslip trio is just too in-the-pocket to escape a listen. Although swinging more and more toward jazz these days, the band’s contemporary roots occasionally shine through. And don’t forget, Mintzer is one of the best saxophonists around.

Jeff Ray, “The Walkup” (Hipnotic): Electric guitarist Ray plays the kind of instrumental rock you can never get enough of. Like Jeff Beck, he can rock (“Cinnamon Lenses”) – and he can get good and slow: check out “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” His expert group is rounded out with Aaron Swinn on Hammond B3 and Rhodes, Darryl Hall on electric bass and Victor Wise on drums. A modern blast from the past.

Posted by Brian Soergel at 5:25 AM

November 7, 2003

Smooth Sailing

Mr. Everything Dave Koz returns with a CD in three acts, while Marc Antoine and Ken Navarro make more great guitar music. Read all the reviews in Smooth Sailing.

Dave Koz
Saxophonic (Capitol)

coverDave Koz has one of the highest profiles in smooth, thanks to his syndicated “Dave Koz Radio Show” and a morning show on KTWV in Los Angeles. He also finds time for special tours, like one you may be catching this Christmas. He’s guest-starred on numerous pop and smooth jazz CDs. So it’s no surprise that it’s been four years since his sublime, hit-happy The Dance, his last CD of non-holiday tunes. (He also released Golden Slumbers, a CD of lullabies.) Fans have been begging for new material, and Saxophonic delivers big time in a “concept” CD that is broken into three “acts” – funky, midtempo and experimentalism. That’s only party true, as there is a ballad in the funk section and some pretty standard Dave Koz stuff in the experimental section.

No matter. Pay no attention to the “Acts.” Overall, it’s Koz’s best yet, a very strong contender for CD of the year – melodic, radio-friendly, trippy, a little different. Koz may surprise some of his longtime fans, but it will be a good surprise – that’s what make it his crowning work so far. Just when you assume a musician is going to crank out another by-the-numbers CD ….

Koz’s tenor has never sounded so robust – not a whole lot of Kenny G swirls going on here. The first single, “Honey-dipped,” and “All I See Is You” are slices of breathy sax and funk, a la Euge Groove. Koz loves wordless vocals and repeated choruses, which he has on two standouts: “Love Changes Everything,” with Brian McKnight, and “Undeniable,” with Bobby Caldwell barely registering a presence, which is kinda weird – a good weird, for it’s a Koz song, not a Caldwell vocal. Koz does dip into the soprano, with great effect, in the lush “Just to Be Next to You,” the toe-tappin’ and irresistible “Let It Free” and “A View From Above,” with guitarist Marc Antoine.

The “experimental” songs are groovy. “Saxophonic (Come on Up)” has wonderfully weird loops, deep funk and some jazzy horn work. It’s like 10 songs in one. “Sound of the Underground” features a Parisian metro shuffle a la Philippe Saisse (actually, it’s a sample from a bebop classic), and Chris Botti adds trumpet. “Only Tomorrow Knows” has computer-synthed vocals a la Cher, and ya gotta love the whistling. Smooth grade: A

Marc Antoine
Mediterraneo (Rendezvous)

coverGypsy guitar god Marc Antoine – born in France and now living in Spain and Los Angeles – has long since crossed the line into smooth jazz superstardom and is one of the most well-known and liked musicians in the genre. There’s a good chance you’ll see him on tour this year, either solo or with the “Smooth Jazz Christmas” crew. His new CD seems like an early Christmas present for his devoted fans from earlier days, whose devotion to CDs such as Classical Soul and Madrid helped take him from cult hero to jazz star. What those CDs featured was Antoine’s flamenco and Gypsy acoustic stylings. With his last CDs, Cruisin’ and Universal Language, Antoine stayed close to his romantic roots while exploring more urban flavors of jazz, hip-hop and dance hall.

Mediterraneo, however, harkens to the Antoine of old. Maybe this has something to do with Dave Koz, who is releasing the CD on his new label (Antoine’s most recent CDs were on GRP). He opens with “Cubanova,” which tells you the song combines Cuba stylings with a tempting Brazilian bossa nova beat. It’s a classic, enhanced by orchestral strings and trumpet. After the piazza-strolling “Funky Picante,” Antoine delivers with the one anthemic, heart-warming song that he includes on every CD, such as “Unity” on Classical Soul and “Sunland” on Madrid. This one’s the cover song, “Mediterraneo,” and you’re going to love it as much as loved the other ones.

There are no bad tracks here. “Senor Groove” has a shuffle track perfect to get the feet moving, while “Gotham” has a late-night groove and the lovely background vocals of Antoine’s wife, Rebeca Vega. He does a cover of Everything But the Girl’s “Lady” and includes a hip-hop sample throughout the frolicking “Gringo.” He closes with “Alejandro’s Lullaby,” dedicated to his young son.

This CD’s a sure thing, folks. Smooth grade: A+

Ken Navarro
All the Way (Shanachie)

coverKen Navarro is the John Grisham of smooth jazz. But where Grisham pops out a book every year but seems to going south in terms of quality, Navarro keeps getting better and improving. A Navarro CD is like a trip to the candy store to buy your favorite treat – you know what you’re getting and you know it’s going to taste great. Whether on electric or acoustic guitar, Navarro is the master of crystal-clear production, sweet harmonies and well-managed solos. You can expect a greatest-hits-type song to open a Navarro CD, and he delivers here with “It’s Up to You,” a languid breeze of a electric-guitar song that’s sure to catch the ears of the Weather Channel. He follows that with the knockout punch, “Hey Cool Breeze,” another electric number.

Just when you think Navarro should stick to electric, he follows with acoustic cuts that remind you how – like Peter White and Earl Klugh – he can make the nylon strings sound sweeter than just about anyone around. As I said, you know what you’re going to get with Navarro – hooks a plenty and no vocals – but he does add one surprise into the mix: “Play Don’t Worry,” a rocker that displays his guitar-god chops. Navarro has been such a constant we can forgive him for this. Smooth grade: A-

David Benoit
Right Here, Right Now (GRP)

coverDavid Benoit’s got the right idea. On the liner notes to his 23rd CD, the pianist includes a brief description of how he got the inspiration to record each track. That can really help listeners, especially on instrumental CDs. You may or may not have imagined that Benoit envisioned UFOs in “Third Encounter.” Of course, once you listen to the songs on this good effort, you might have your own ideas about what they mean. Benoit would probably agree that that’s cool, too. He’s always been a fan favorite, as those fans proved by naming him keyboardist of the year at the fourth annual National Smooth Jazz Awards.

Benoit gives fans what they want by way of three covers: James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (with Peter White on guitar, in addition to an orchestra), Herbie Hancock’s fun-to-the-max “Watermelon Man” and Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why,” which was a huge hit for Grammy superstar Norah Jones. On other selections, Benoit’s acoustic piano sounds the same as it always does, and that’s a good thing: clear, precise and clean, like he’s playing for you only, smack dab in your living room.

Produced by Rick Braun, the CD keeps things lively with different styles: there’s the bossa nova of “Swingin’ Waikiki,” the big cinema sound of “Le Grand,” inspired by composer Michel Legrand, and the jazz trio in “Wistful Thinking” (with some sax by Andy Suzuki). Very worthwhile. Smooth grade: A

Eric Marienthal
Sweet Talk (Peak)

coverEric Marienthal tanked with Turn Up the Heat in 2001, which sounded old and uninspired. He’s turned it around on his new CD, and producer Jason Miles does Marienthal justice. Whether on the title track, “Sweet Talk,” a nice ballad with a great hook, or on the rambunctious cover of “Tell Me Something Good,” Marienthal’s sax sounds vibrant and the songs modern and fresh. Miles, who produced a recent album of smooth jazz covers of the music of Brazilian legend Ivan Lins, adds a previously unrecorded Lins song called “Caprichosa.” Lins himself sings in his glorious Portuguese on the track. It’s a great idea for the CD.

Maybe Marienthal will get the airplay he deserves with this CD. General managers couldn’t go wrong with a couple of cuts here, including “Uptown” and “Secrets,” which were co-written by Jeff Lorber, and “Moonlight,” which was written by Chuck Loeb.

Marienthal talks about getting out of his “comfort zone” with this work, which is good advice for all artists. It certainly worked for him on Sweet Talk. Welcome back, Eric. Smooth grade: B+

Alex Bugnon
Southern Living (Narada)

coverPiano man Alex Bugnon looked to the American South for inspiration on his latest CD, recording it in Atlanta with co-producer Phil Davis. The result, and one he was looking for, is a mostly stripped-down, more organic sound featuring more of Bugnon’s acoustic playing. In other words, a lot different than his last work, Soul Purpose. Bugnon has always had a slightly quirky side that is reflected in his music – he isn’t afraid to experiment with new sounds (which he does here with the delightful “Cascade,” featuring claps) while staying firmly in the smooth jazz genre. Here, though, he’s in David Benoit territory with a totally relaxing, fully realized CD that will have fans of acoustic piano begging for more.

Whether while listening to the romantic ballad “Back in Love” or the pensive “Slow Drag,” it’s apparent that Bugnon has found his groove. The vocal tracks work, and are appropriately soulful: Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” with Tiffany Davis background chops; and “Missing You Like Crazy,” with Ronnie Garrett, who also thumps the bass. Other highlights: Bugnon ditches the acoustic for the Fender Rhodes organ for a minimalist version of Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile”; and the upbeat title track, “Southern Living,” which will have you checking the liner notes for Joe Sample. Bugnon closes things on this remarkable CD with a “hidden track.” Smooth grade: B+

Special EFX
Party (Shanachie)

coverChieli Minucci must idolize the Energizer Bunny. I don’t see how he finds time to play on tons of CDs a year, plus manage to release solo CDs in addition to his Special EFX projects. When EFX partner George Jinda was alive, Special EFX had a distinct sound, propelled by Jinda’s percussion and Minucci’s lyrical guitar playing. The Special EFX name is obviously a commodity, as Minucci keeps it alive even without Jinda. That said, here’s one vote for Minucci pumping out the CDs year after year, no matter what he calls them. He’s always a joy to listen to.

As the CD says, it’s nothing but a party here. With David Mann on sax and flute, Jerry Brooks on bass and Emedin Rivera handling percussion, the CD may not be the kind of sounds the nose-ring crowd will play at keg parties, but it jumps pretty good for a smooth jazz gig. “Get on Up” (with its “We Are Family” nod) and “Ladies Man” speak to the overall mood of the CD – light jazz meets disco-‘70s and euro-‘80s. Minucci’s guitar has less of an influence here than on his solo CDs, which is probably why he continues to record as Special EFX – to get his ya-ya’s out with different styles.

Only one question: Why is the 10th song a “bonus track”? Ten songs are pretty standard for any CD – nowadays there are many with lots more. In any event, this CD may be a little tame for a beer blast, but it’s plenty good for dancing while vacuuming the rug. Smooth grade: B

Freddie Fox
Freedie Fox (freddiefox.com)

coverLongtime session player Freddie Fox steps out on his own with a self-produced CD that will appeal to guitar fans, especially those who dig the electric playing of Lee Ritenour and the acoustic stylings of Larry Carlton. It’s a solid 11-song effort, one that would expected from a player who has performed with such as Michael Lington, Najee, Warren Hill and Walter Beasley. It doesn’t hurt that his wife is famed R&B and jazz singer Evelyn “Champagne” King, who contributes background vocals to several tracks. The groove is midtempo throughout, and he saves the best for the last with “Thoughts of You,” showcasing his electric and acoustic skills against a soulful drum-machine backdrop. “From the Heart” and “Forever” display Fox’s knack for memorable melody, while “Cool” takes listeners back to groovy 1980s fusion. CD guests include Gerald Albright, Michael White, Ronnie Foster, Alex Al and Larry Kimple. If you love guitar-lead smooth jazz with a light soulful groove, Freddie’s got it going on. Smooth grade: B

Ron Jenkins
The Music of Ron Jenkins (Camnor)

ronjenkins.jpgBassist Ron Jenkins has toured with some heavyweights, from Cher and Gato Barbieri to Kirk Whalum and Chuck Loeb. He makes his debut here on a lightly funky, relaxing CD featuring guitarists Chuck Loeb and Jeff Golub and saxophonist Sam Newsome. This is one CD that I find myself going back to, and just shows that there are plenty of small-label or independent artists that can groove with the big boys. Like one half of the Braxton Brothers, Jenkins puts the bass out front a few times as the lead, with very listenable results. But Jenkins mostly put his bass in the background, such as on the ballad “Tribulations,” which features Mike Ricchiuti’s beautiful piano work. There are several very tight, in-the-groove numbers on the CD, the best being “What You Mean to Me” and “Sai You Will.”

Playing this CD in order for the first time, I kept waiting the momentum to slow, but it never did. The first two songs, “After Dark” and “Kristal Klear,” are delightful slow grooves – “After Dark” especially, with Steve Wilson’s plaintive soprano sax and Jenkins hooky keyboard snippets. This very assured, very jazzy smooth jazz CD is one that stands out among the small-label releases of recent years. Smooth grade: A

Posted by Brian Soergel at 3:43 AM

September 1, 2003

Smooth Sailing September 2003

Rick Braun does it again, while veteran alto saxophonist David Sanborn and the classic Acoustic Alchemy release their best CDs in years.

Rick Braun
Esperanto (Warner Bros.)

coverRick Braun’s a busy dude. Two of his last three CDs were collaborations – one with the new BWB (Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) and a classic with Boney James. It seems like his music’s everywhere, but Esperanto is only his third solo CD in the last five years (Kisses in the Rain and Full Stride the other two.) It wasn’t too much of a letdown, but a lack of cohesion on Kisses in the Rain made it somewhat of a disappointment.

Well, welcome back Mr. Trumpet Player. What we have here is the CD of the year.

He kicks it off with “Green Tomatoes,” which could have been included on the BWB CD and in fact features Whalum and Brown. It’s rollicking, and you know you’re going to get healthy doses of this on a Braun CD. His best songs are often ballads or midtempo smooth stuff (such as the exquisite “Latinesque” here, for example), but if you’ve seen Mr. Energy in concert, you know he’s got a wild streak. And you know he’s get the best-sounding horn in the business.

What to highlight on this fabulous CD, which has an exotic theme and delicious strings running throughout? How about the plaintive piano-and-trumpet “Mother’s Day”? Or the funky “Daddy-O”? Or the way he slows the tempo, then rushes it again, in a way you don’t hear much in smooth jazz, in “Sir W”? Yes, all of those. Then there’s the late-night energy of “Zona Rosa,” the in-the-pocket groove of “To Manhattan With Love,” the movie theme drama of “Turquoise.”

In a year of too-few must-haves, Esperanto stands out as a no brainer for the shelves of smoothies. Smooth grade: A

David Sanborn
Time Again (Verve)

coverDavid Sanborn is the most imitated saxophonist of the smooth jazz generation, with good reason. Just listen to this CD. His a alto sax is alive here, on his best CD is ages. Sanborn crosses genres on his CDs, but this one is squarely for smooth fans. Listen with a proviso: the music is raw, energetic, alive, breathing. The radio single “Comin’ Home Baby,” which leads the CD, is seven minutes of jazz sax, vibraphone and more. You’ll love the vibe and bass solos. The covers are sublime: “Harlem Nocturne,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Sugar” and the party anthem “Tequila.” Sublime, also, are the real standouts: “Cristo Redentor,” Sanborn’s sax sharing time with a churchlike chorus, and “Little Flower,” where Sanborn plays both sax and piano. The songs are all wonderful, but what you experience here is the power and magic of Sanborn’s playing. A mainstay of smooth jazz is a romantic setting with a soft sax, but with Sanborn the sax is something more urgent. And even more sexy. Smooth grade: A

Acoustic Alchemy
Radio Contact (Higher Octave)

coverAcoustic Alchemy has made enough classics over the years to cement its standing as one of smooth jazz’s Hall of Fame groups. Its best songs are a long time ago, although The Beautiful Game from 2000 showed signs of AA from old. 2001’s AArt, however, was horn-heavy and featured less of the distinct melodies the group is known for. The new CD doesn’t have horns, and I was interested to see what direction the guitar duo of Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale would be taking this new project. After a few listens, it’s clear that this CD marks a return to the classic AA sound, good news for longtime fans. The band has been around for a long time, of course, so some variance in sound is in order (you can’t play the same songs over again, can you?), but AA maintains its melodic touch here without straying too far from what made it a smooth jazz favorite. Ballads (“Coffee With Manni,” “Ya Tebya Lubliu,” driving numbers (“Milo,” “Shelter Island Drive”) , some great guitar interaction. All in all, a very worthwhile listen, and a fine return to form. Smooth grade: A

Brian Hughes
Along the Way (A440)

coverAfter the sublime Shakin’ Not Stirred, Brian Hughes has returned with another fine effort that shows why he’s one of smooth jazz’s top lyrical guitarists. What makes him so special? First is his playing which, although firmly schooled in the Montgomery/Benson tradition, takes it a step further with nods to Pat Metheny. Second is his skill for the hook, which he strongly believes in. Finally there’s his variety – Hughes isn’t afraid to tone it down a few notches with jazzy interludes, as he does on “Omaha Unbound” and “Endless Road,” with piano and acoustic bass taking center stage with some acoustic picking. (OK, Brian, I think I’m ready for a full CD on this jazzy stuff!) The road-themed CD begins with “Along the Way,” which by the end of the first 15 seconds you realize is going to be another Hughes classic – breezy and joyful. Other tracks in that vein are “Brighter Day” and “Wherever You Are.” Hughes’ journey takes a mildly tropical turn with “Picture This,” “Son y Lola” and others, where the rhythm takes listeners south of the border.

Although there’s a lot going on here, the disparate elements make this a less well-defined work than Shakin’ Not Stirred. There’s still much to recommend: some quintessential Hughes, some great new jazz pieces and a little Latin spice. Smooth grade: B+

Kirk Whalum
Into My Soul (Warner Bros.)

coverThis CD could have been titled “Memphis Soul.” Veteran smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum tapped legendary Memphis producer and writer David Porter for an homage to rich Southern soul music. This CD is a real treat for Whalum fans, who’ve been waiting for a return to form since his classic For You, a stellar collection of cover songs. There are only two covers here, though: Porter and Isaac Hayes’ “Hold On I’m Coming,” which Whalum slows down from Sam and Dave’s hit; and “That’s All Right,” which Elvis Presley recorded on his Sun Records debut. Whalum’s version features a rock guitar and his brother, Kevin Whalum, on vocals.

The rest is all original material, as Whalum interprets Memphis/Southern soul music his own way. Whalum brings in the other two members of BWB (Rick Braun and Boney James) to play in “Hoddamile (Hold or Mild),” a very tasty cut. Soul man Isaac Hayes is joined on vocals by Wendy Moten on “I Loved You in Memphis,” a soul-drenched new classic. Rounding out the all-star cast is Maurice White, who adds some brief vocal power to a gorgeous ballad, “You Had Me at Hello.”

The two best songs on the CD feature Whalum’s sax out front, where it belongs. “Another Beautiful Day” has a sinful hook and toe-tapping feel, and is the first single. “Club Paradise” is its twin, an infectious soprano ditty you wish you could go on for ever and ever and…. Well, that wouldn’t work – you wouldn’t be able to take in the rest of this CD, where every song is killer, no filler. You need a dose of soul, you check out this CD. Smooth grade: A

Bernie Williams
They Journey Within (GRP)

coverWould New York Yankees baseball slugger Bernie Williams have gotten a record deal with GRP if he wasn’t a star in the nation’s biggest media market? Probably not. But the fact is, Williams began playing music as a youngster in his native Puerto Rico and, on his debut, shows he knows his way around the guitar and a pretty melody. Like bassist Wayman Tisdale, the former pro basketball player who now plays smooth jazz, Williams is smart enough to surround himself with some all-star talent: namely Bela Fleck, Ruben Blades, David Benoit and a great backing band.

True to his roots, Williams swings with a Latin beat on songs such as “La Salsa En Mi,” “Para Don Berna,” “Desvelado” and “Sambo Novo” (a solo number). The closest I can think to compare him to an established presence in smooth jazz is Acoustic Alchemy – some of the same warm tone on the acoustic guitar, although not matching AA’s melodic drive. Williams doesn’t hide his playing on rhythm – he plays out front quite a bit on the 13 songs, the majority of which he wrote.

The CD may be a bit raw for average smooth jazz fans, and a song with his kids singing is a bit much. But there are some fine moments, such as the pensive “Perna Don Berna” (with “Saturday Night Live’s” T-Bone Wolk on acoustic bass) and the Paul Brown-remixed “Just Because.” Smooth grade: B-

Posted by Brian Soergel at 10:24 PM

August 5, 2003

Smooth Sailing August 2003

Chris Standring is Groovalicious. Kevin Toney hits the Sweet Spot. Check out these reviews and others...and keep checking back, as I will add reviews periodically and let you know here.

Chris Standring
Groovalicious (Mesa/Bluemoon)

coverGroovy, baby. British guitarist Chris Standring has to be the coolest smooth-jazz hipster around. If you’ve seen him with shades, you know what I mean. But Standring is more than a cultivated image. With his previous “Hip Sway” and now with Groovalicious, Standring has leaped to the top of smooth-jazz pack with invigorating and interesting music. Unlike contemporaries who riff on the same idea each time out, Standring makes the kind of music you look forward to.

Standring, with generous help from partner, co-writer and programmer Rodney Lee, plants his roots in the blues and old R&B instrumentals from the ‘60s. His sound is toe-tapping and hip, with bright and airy electric guitar leads. “Miss Downtown Sugargirl” sets the tone with its party-like, Marvin Gaye atmosphere, with Dino Soldo’s refrain of “Oooh you’re so good, oooh you’re so good, my downtown sugargirl.” He brings back the party chatter elsewhere on the CD, inviting listeners to his shindig. How does Standring make you want to keep listening? Check out “All in Good Time,” with Katisse Buckingham’s breathy flute and Standring’s too-cool talkbox guitar, which he returns to with a vengeance on the title track. Peter Frampton lives! Or “Gentle Persuasion,” a lovely ballad with the CD’s prettiest hook. Or “Hypnotize,” with its tight wordless vocals riding over a syrupy melody and nonstop groove.

Elsewhere, Standring blends Earth, Wind & Fire ‘70s horns with his distinctive guitar licks on “Fat Tuesday,” while digging out the hooks again with “Snowfall,” which features Chris Botti’s trumpet. More than any song on the CD, “Snowfall” is the sound that Standring has defined over several albums: mid-tempo groove, Ritenour-like lead and killer hook. On “Snowfall,” Standring gets around to some serious soloing, with a locomotive rhythm section evoking “Hip Sway’s’ “Ultraviolet.” I’m glad Standring ends with “Do What You Do,” another gorgeous ballad that ends this great CD on a relaxed note. Highly recommended for hipsters everywhere. Smooth grade: A

Kevin Toney
Sweet Spot (Shanachie)

coverKevin Toney delivers what his fans want – lively, groove-centered R&B smooth jazz perfect for chillin’ or for the car. For the most part, pianist Toney seems to be reaching for a wider audience than he has on previous CDs, as much of the music is middle-of-the-road. His best CD remains 1999’s Extra Sensual Perception. But Toney’s got his sweet spot on, and he adds a few vocal tracks, of course. One of them, “Morning Rain,” smolders wonderfully and is given gospel sensibilities by vocalists Lamont Van Hook and Lisa Vaughn. (Do smooth jazz players still think popular radio will play smooth vocal songs? I don’t think so. At this point, I think most are simply trying to spice things up.)

There’s so great radio R&B going on these days, and Toney gives the scene a nod with “Dilemma,” the big hit for Nelly and Kelly Rowland. The Shanachie label must have a thing for this song – another of its recent CDs, by Streetwize, features the same song. The best songs here are tracks 9-12: “Nu ‘M’ Jaz” is a trippy ride with some Middle-Eastern-sounding organ licks; “Kiss” is a beautiful ballad in an acoustic setting featuring guitarist Paul Jackson Jr.; “See You Again” is a jazz song with a touch of samba; and “Prelude to Portrait” is a solo piano piece that shows off Toney’s chops. Smooth grade: B

Sizzlin’ (Shanachie)

coverBy now, San Diego’s Fattburger has become a smooth-jazz staple, having churned out radio-friendly grooves for so long it’s easy to ignore them. But behind the junk-food name and trite album titles lies a band that probably is more underrated than it should be. Guitarist Evan Marks is simply a great guitar player, and you can pretty much count on all of the band’s compositions (split among several band members) to be quality efforts. Take leader Carl Evan Jr.’s title track, for example: the jaunty little number is propelled by Marks’ laid-back, gliding electric guitar. Sweet.

Since band members take turn writing songs, the CD truly sounds like a band effort. They mix up tracks, like Marks’ sweet acoustic guitar-led “Irene,” bassist Mark Hunter’s jazz-rock “Bleu Cheese” and drummer Kevin Koch’s bluesy, nightclub-toe-tappin’ “Mr. C.” In between, there are simply outstanding examples of smooth jazz circa 2003 – I could listen to “Stay a Little Longer” and “You’re Finally Here” all day long.

If you haven’t already, give Fattburger a chance. They’ve got the beef. Smooth grade: A

Chieli Minucci
Night Grooves (Shanachie)

coverVeteran smoothster Chieli Minucci – half of the classic Special EFX and soap opera composer extraordinaire – can be counted on for producing sweet and memorable songs every time out (check out “New Day” on this CD). Although you may have had your share of sweets after the holidays, Minucci’s guitar instrumentals are sure to pack a jolt of energy.

Although he can put out funk like the best, Minucci’s best songs have always had a touch of the spiritual, especially when he was composing with the late George Jinda and Special EFX. He carries that torch here on “Without You,” his wordless vocals carrying the melancholy beginning and his wailing guitar carrying the rest, building up to a rock anthem crescendo. Special EFX CDs were heavily influenced by Jinda’s percussion – on “Nasir di Nuevo” live and sampled percussion by Philip Hamilton and David Charles dominates the moody piece, spiced by Mincucci’s high-note ramblings and Hamilton’s otherworldly vocals. Minucci’s best work is always on the electric guitar, but he also shines on acoustic, especially on “You’re My Reason,” a beautiful ballad with Latin influences. Smooth grade: B

Posted by Brian Soergel at 3:17 AM