Seasonal greetings from Smooth Jazz Therapy and thanks a million to the publicists, the record companies and of course the artists, both established and up and coming, who over the last twelve months have made their music so generously available. It’s been another good year and because the love of music is all about preference mixed with individual taste here are my own personal highlights of the year. In other words and in no particular order, my Smooth Jazz Therapy Top Twenty Tracks of 2016.
‘Surface Level’ by U-Nam from the CD of the same name. With choice projects such as ‘C’est Le Funk’, ‘Weekend in L.A (A Tribute To George Benson)’ and ‘First Class’ (from his side project Groove Ltd) Smooth Jazz Therapy favorite U-Nam has been restoring much needed energy into the music we call smooth jazz. Earlier in the year he sent shockwaves through the genre with ‘Going for Miles’ that was the advance single from the CD ‘Surface Level’ and when the complete album was released it was the joyously intense title cut that provided a slice of ‘driving with the top down’ music and then some.
‘Don’t Stop’ by Paolo Rustichelli from the CD ‘Soul Italiano’. Italian keyboard player and composer Paolo Rustichelli seems to have been building his ‘Soul Italiano’ CD one track at a time. With top-notch singles such as ‘Walking In Rome’, ‘Med Groove’ and the equally good ‘Playa Blanca’ already out there Paolo went one better with the totally stunning ‘Don’t Stop’. A relentless groove that is entirely addictive made it a certainty to be among my top tracks of the year.
‘We Dance’ by James Day from his brand new album ‘James Day Songs’. In a cool collaboration with guitar supremo U-Nam and his Skytown Records label, chart topping R&B songwriter and producer James Day made his mark with this stunning collection. Styled as a classic 80's collection of soul, dance, quiet storm and smooth jazz it was a mixture of all new tunes plus fresh remixes of some of his most memorable songs to date. In fact it was U-Nam’s production that added its own rhythmic magic to ‘We Dance’. Further embellished by U-Nam’s distinctive guitar work, unmistakable vocals from Maysa and additional production by Cool Million (aka Frank Ryle and Rob Hardt) it was a track that put down a marker for the entire CD.
‘Hazy’, by Jef Kearns from his latest release ‘The Flute’. Since 2011, and the release of the album ‘On The Level’, flautist Jef Kearns has been cornering the market in superbly produced and sensationally performed urban jazz. The follow up, ‘Soulfisticated’ (that arrived in 2013) served to confirm that here was no flash in the pan so it was particularly pleasing that 2016 heralded in the equally good ‘The Flute’. The wonderfully easy grooving ‘Hazy’ is a wonderful showcase for Jef’s art with vocals from Karen Jewels being the icing on a particularly tasty urban cake.
Read on for the remainder of this years top twenty and if you have your own list of favorites from 2016 why not e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy New Year!!
‘Morning Call’, by Nick Colionne, from the CD ‘The Journey’. One of the most engaging live performers around and without doubt the best dressed man in smooth jazz, Nick Colionne scored a total winner this year with the release of ‘The Journey’. It was a collection absolutely replete with standouts with the pick of the bunch arguably being the insanely catchy ‘Morning Call’ that was just about as good an example of smooth jazz as was be found anywhere in 2016.
‘Piece Of Cake’ by Chris Standring from the album ‘Ten’. The trademark groove that guitarist Chris Standring cultivated with recordings such as ‘Soul Express’ and Love & Paragraphs’ served to define him as a serious contributor to the evolution of contemporary jazz. Not only that, his innovative use of a string quartet for the albums ‘Blue Bolero’, ‘Electric Wonderland’ and ‘Don’t Talk, Dance!’ further enabled him to stand out from the crowd and in 2016 he continued to do just that with the release of his tenth studio project, the appropriately titled ‘Ten’. My selection, ‘Piece Of Cake’, is the sort of number that sneaks up to captivate the listener in the most subtle of ways and in the familiar company of Andre Berry, Rodney Lee and drummer Dave Karasony, Standring really hit it out of the park.
‘Mr. Morris’ by Roman Street from the CD ‘Bohemia’. Noah and Joshua Thompson, who record under the name of Roman Street made their mark back in 2012 with the CD ‘Caravan’ from which the title track registered a highly commendable number 24 on Billboard's countdown of smooth jazz songs for that year. The band’s stock in trade is guitar driven Latin infused contemporary jazz yet the track ‘Mr. Morris’ from the album ‘Bohemia’ proved to be a slice of no frills smooth jazz of the highest order. With a dazzling contribution from Smooth Jazz Therapy favorite Vincent Ingala it quickly established itself as one of the best tracks of the year.
‘Wild Tales’ by the Rippingtons from the recording ‘True Stories’. Some sounds are etched into the fabric of contemporary jazz and one such example is the vibe that the wonderful Rippingtons has been routinely providing over the past thirty years.
Despite being true pioneers of the genre, their latest album, ‘True Stories’ (that was released June 24) found them sounding as fresh as ever and a case in point was the scintillating ‘Wild Tales’. It was a real gem.
‘On The Level’ by the Philippe Saisse Trio from the album ‘And So But Then’. The multi talented Philippe Saisse has become a ‘go to’ producer and performer with work for artists such as Peter White, Paul Brown and Rick Braun yet in 2016 he still found time to release ‘And So But Then’. It boasted the single ‘On The Level’, that was a wonderful example of contemporary jazz piano with featured performances from percussionist Gumbi Ortiz and guitarist Marc Antoine.
‘One And Only’ by Brian Simpson from the CD ‘Persuasion’. With ten brand new contemporary jazz numbers (four of them co-written by Steve Oliver) ‘Persuasion’ was an unadulterated delight. Stacked with contemporary gold it included the wonderfully mid tempo ‘One And Only’ for which Simpson was at his superb best and Steve Alaniz on tenor sax added an urgency that was sublime.
‘Together We Stand’ by Bennett B from the album ‘Midnight Passion’. Nothing short of a revelation, ‘Groove Time’ by super smooth guitarist Bennett B came out of no-where to be rightly regarded as one the best of 2014. The eagerly awaited follow up, ‘Midnight Passion’ delivered more of the sumptuous same including ‘Together We Stand’ ‘Together We Stand’ that might just have been the best smooth jazz number you heard this year.
‘For Your Love’ by Mark Etheredge from the album ‘Connected’. With an A-List of collaborators and ten self penned songs, the excursion by keyboard player Mark Etheredge from his new age roots to leading edge smooth jazz has been nothing short of remarkable. Indeed Etheredge made his recording debut in 1990 with ‘As Dawn’ and although his 2012 project ‘Change Coming’ was slanted toward adult contemporary vocals his 2016 offering, ‘Connected’ made one wonder what took him so long to find his smooth jazz instrumental groove. Smooth Jazz Therapy favorite track was ‘For Your Love’ which Etheredge co-wrote with the ubiquitous Chuck Loeb who also featured on guitar.
‘Riverside Drive’, by Donald Hayes from his first solo project, ‘Front Ground’. As well as being an arranger and composer of music for film and television, sax-man Donald Hayes is also an integral member of Robin Thicke’s touring band. Born in Memphis, TN, but now living in Los Angeles, Donald’s first album was a great blend of instrumental R&B and soul.
‘Affinity’, by Chuck Loeb from the album ‘Unspoken’. Undoubtedly at the very pinnacle of his career and at the vanguard of what might be described as smooth jazz for grown ups guitarist Chuck Loeb made a late splash with the excellent ‘Unspoken’. This superb eleven-song collection featured a dazzling array of guest artists including Everette Harp on the groove laden ‘Affinity’.
‘Crush’ by John Novello from the album ‘Ivory Soul’. Former keyboard player with Taste of Honey, John Novello has toured and recorded with the likes of Donna Summer, Manhattan Transfer and Ramsey Lewis. His CD ‘B3 Soul’ (which he recorded with songwriter and producer Andy Goldmark) garnered critical acclaim and in 2016 he reunited with Goldmark for the album ‘Ivory Soul’ which included the edgy, high-octane ‘Crush’ that featured Gerald Albright on sax.
‘Boom Boom’ by Gerald Albright from his CD, ‘G’. This, Albright’s his very first independent release includes gems such as ‘Frankie B’, which is his tribute to Frankie Beverly, a cool remake of the classic ‘Lovely Day’, with the one and only Michael McDonald on vocals, and this track, the wonderful ‘Boom Boom’.
‘What You Love’ by Paul Taylor from the album ‘Countdown’. Paul Taylor at the very top of his game. Insert the CD, dim the lights and be transported.
‘Echoes Rising’ by Paul Hardcastle from retrospective collection ‘The History Of Paul Hardcastle’. Out on Trippin N Rhythm this celebration of the groove that has garnered an entire sub-genre of contemporary jazz is really top notch. Hardcastle has the ability to take a single vibe then wring every once from it. ‘19’ is a case in point and another is ‘Bird Island’, traces of which can be found on the enormously compelling ‘Echoes Rising’ that launched the album in the USA.
‘She’s The One’ by Steve Cole from the CD ‘Turn It Up’. No frills, no bullshit smooth jazz from the consistently excellent Steve Cole. This really is as good as it gets.
‘Summers Over’, by Bob Baldwin from his ‘Brazilian American Soundtrack’. If, in 2016, you thought you lived in a musical world characterized by brevity, where singles take precedence over albums and where downloads are preferred to CD or vinyl, then smooth jazz superstar Bob Baldwin was around to make you think again. His ‘Brazilian American Soundtrack’ was that most precious of gems, the double album. Baldwin’s own composition ‘Summers Over’, which featured Michelle Morehead on vocals, was his excursion into the world of chill where he seemed very much at home.