This latest reflective look back on some of the hidden gems of contemporary jazz focuses on keyboard player Alex Bugnon and his excellent 2005 CD ‘Free’. By the time the album was released Bugnon already had a string of hit recordings to his name and with two Soul Train Award nominations to his credit was widely recognized for his R & B sensibilities. In fact, before going it alone, he spent four years in New York City where he backed such performers as Najee, Freddie Jackson, Keith Sweat, Patti Austin and James Ingram.
His solo debut came in 1989 with ‘Love Season’. It reached the pop charts and made it into the top 40 of the R&B listing while his 1990 follow up, ‘Head Over Heels’ did just as well. Subsequent releases, ‘107 Degrees in the Shade’ (1991), ‘This Time Around’ (1993), and ‘Tales From the Bright Side’ (1995) all figured on the R&B charts yet it was five more years (and a move from RCA to Narada Records) before his next project, ‘As Promised’ hit the streets.
The new millennium also brought ‘Soul Purpose’ and ‘Southern Living’ but it was with the superb ‘Free’ that Bugnon cemented his position as a true tastemaker of contemporary jazz.
It’s a collection where the rhythm drenched title track sets the standard for much that follows and also underlines the impact that producer and keyboard player Phil Davis has throughout. The captivatingly melodic ‘Don’t Go’ again has Bugnon at the top of his game and although the tenderness of the ‘Grusin-sque’ ‘In Your Eyes’ is a joy to behold its with ‘Downtime’ that Bugnon increases both the tempo and the funk driven intensity.
Equally funky, but in a turned down, claustrophobic kind of way, is the totally compelling ‘Out There’ and, in complete contrast, the sexy ‘Pillow Talk’ is every bit as mellow and seductive as the title suggests it should be.
Bugnon also includes a tastily melodic cover of the Brothers Johnson 1976 hit ‘Tomorrow (Better You Than Me)’ and in similar vein is the Phil Davis composition, ‘Fingertips’ that proves to be all about the melody. It enables Bugnon to deliver a slice of textbook smooth jazz that is kept wonderfully tight by the powerhouse pairing of Lil John Roberts on drums and Darryll Freeman on bass yet in terms of personal favorites there is much from which to choose.
I have written elsewhere how ‘Missing You Like Crazy’ (from his 2003 project ‘Southern Living’) is arguable the finest song Bugnon has ever recorded but right up there with it, and here on ‘Free’, is the deliciously easy grooving ‘Carrera’. A considerable hit when first serviced to radio it finds Bugnon at his melodic best and, like all the greatest examples of smooth jazz, is feel good music of the highest order. However, all things considered my enduring top track is, and always has been, the edgily mid tempo ‘Sierra Leone’. It’s a tune that really flows and where outstanding contributions from Roberts and Davis are added to by nice work on guitar from Rick Watford.