When three friends get together to have fun the consequence is quite often a party so it should be no surprise that ‘BWB’ from Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum and Rick Braun could well be the soundtrack for the coolest party you might ever have. Although it is the threesomes follow up to ‘Human Nature’ (that paid tribute to the Michael Jackson songbook) and ‘Groovin’ (a covers album that hit the streets in 2002) this is their first gathering together of all original music. Much in the way that Dave Koz’s ‘Summer Horns’ project did, it sets a firm platform for the inevitable round of summer festival dates that are sure to follow.
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. In addition, in terms of the eagerly awaited follow up, it set the bar at a height that for many would not be easy to attain. However for Bennett B there need be no such worries as he has come roaring back with the newly released ‘Midnight Passion’, a collection of mostly original music that, in common with ‘Groove Time’, has been produced by the multi Grammy winning Paul Brown.
In a cool collaboration with guitar supremo U-Nam and his Skytown Records label, chart topping R&B songwriter and producer James Day is all set to release his stunning new CD ‘Repertoire’. Styled as a classic 80's collection of soul, dance, quiet storm, and smooth jazz it is a mixture of all new tunes plus fresh remixes of some of his most memorable songs to date. Not only that, it builds on Day’s well established technique of pairing his own compositions with an array of A-List performers that this time around includes Maysa, Lin Rowntree, Cool Million, Walter Beasley and, of course, the incomparable U-Nam.
When in 2011, with the release of the highly acclaimed ‘Feel The Heat’, Nick Colionne announced his switch to Trippin N Rhythm I commented that despite the trials and tribulations being encountered at the time by the world of contemporary jazz, the superb Colionne seemed to be marching from strength to strength. Of course Colionne was then, and still remains, one of the most engaging live performers around and without doubt the best dressed man in smooth jazz. Yet Nick’s own trials and tribulations were set to go on a while longer. Dealing with the death of his longtime manager Carol Ray was hard to bear yet with his 2014 project ‘Influences’ and his latest CD ‘The Journey’ (which will be released on Trippin N Rhythm in April of this year) Colionne is proving that life goes on.
Now for something that will resonate with serious music lovers everywhere; On April 22 Concord Records will release ‘The Vinyl LP Collection’ from Lee Ritenour, an individually numbered box set featuring a vinyl, re-mastered audio disc and a 46-page booklet featuring never-before-seen photos and new liner notes.
It celebrates a key period in Ritenour’s prolific solo career with five classic LPs, Earth Run (1986), Portrait (1987), Festival (1988), Color Rit (1989) and, on vinyl for the first time, the GRAMMY® Award-nominated Wes Bound (1993).
Musical educator and keyboard player John Novello has a track record the like of which most could only dream of. Having played with everyone from Taste Of Honey to Manhattan Transfer and on to Hubert Laws, Novello has versatility to burn and has recently brought this all together with his latest solo project ‘Ivory Soul’. The recording marks his reunion with songwriter and producer Andy Goldmark (with whom he collaborated for his 2009 CD, ‘B3 Soul’) and right from the first note of the opening track (the radio friendly ‘Crush’ featuring Gerald Albright on sax and killer bass from Melvin Davis) makes a statement that here is a player who has brought his ‘A-game’ and then some.
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 and now, brand new for 2016, comes the equally good ‘The Flute’.
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. Now, in the familiar company of Andre Berry, Rodney Lee and drummer Dave Karasony, he is back with his tenth studio project, the appropriately titled ‘Ten’.
Released as an EP ahead of the full length CD that is expected later this year, ‘One Of A Kind’ by composer, producer, arranger and instrumentalist Cedric Givens is his first solo project and very much a walk on the smooth side for this DC based artist who is known for his work with the bands Nemesis Bleu and N-Groove. It’s a sumptuously tight four-track collection embellished by featured performances from notables such as Ragan Whiteside, Drew Davidsen and John Tropea plus input from the up and coming Maria Dumas.
If you like your west coast contemporary jazz grooves tantalizingly fused with a (blue eyed) old school vibe then you will absolutely love ‘Only You’ by Swedish collective Soweco. Keyboard player Mattias Roos and drummer Peter Gustavsson formed the band in 2011 and their 2012 project ‘Don’t Hide Your Love’ put down an early marker as to what their music was all about. This has been confirmed and then some by ‘Only You’ which, as a shimmering showcase for the best in soulful jazz fusion, is all the more remarkable for the fact its decidedly LA feel was devised and delivered by a group of European musicians at the very top of their combined game.
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 is 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 latest offering, ‘Connected’, (that is due for release on February 26) makes one wonder what took him so long to find his smooth jazz instrumental groove.
The 2010 CD from Chicago guitar man Bernard Alcorn was titled ‘A New Day’ and with a combination of original songs and several well-crafted covers, it showed off his ‘Benson-esque’ talents to perfection. He followed that up in 2014 with ‘Stay Tuned’, a recording which conformed to a similar format and found him mixing nine of his own compositions with three re-imagined classics. Now, it being that very special time of the year, Bernard has released the totally pleasing EP, ‘Holiday Grooves’.
Rapidly emerging saxophonist Carl Stanley has become hot property on the British smooth jazz scene, partly because of his recurring gig as an integral member of Peter White’s UK touring band but also due to his growing discography that has just been added to by the release of the excellent ‘EP’’ ‘Dreamers’. This tight, rhythmic, eight track collection is a mixture of Stanley originals combined with three carefully chosen covers and is a worthy successor to Carl’s 2012 debut project ‘A Beautiful Thing’ that at the time I described as being “right up there with the best releases of the year”.
Stanley gets ‘Dreamers’ up and running with the lavish one-minute title intro that leaves the listener wanting more while elsewhere his handling of the Michael McDonald classic ‘Sweet Freedom’ is top notch. Much the same can be said of Carl’s version of the 1985 Kool & The Gang hit ‘Cherish’ which shimmers with production touches that are all his own and when he is joined by the superb Brian Simpson on piano the result is the delightfully turned down ‘Funky Mellow’.
Another of Carl’s own compositions is ‘Indigo Sky’ that benefits from an understated moody swagger and although ‘Precious Memories’ is a tune that has ‘smooth jazz ballad’ written all over it a real personal favorite is ‘Romance’ that at 60 seconds in duration provides a tantalizing flirtation with the art of seduction.
Yet all things considered the number that steals the show and then some is Carl’s breathtaking interpretation of the George Duke classic ‘No Rhyme No Reason’. With guitar from Dwight Sills (who contributes throughout) and keys from Brian Simpson, it was originally made available on download in 2014 to mark Duke’s untimely death and here serves as a wonderful tribute to the great man.
‘Dreamers’ comes highly recommended.
Fans of Paul Hardcastle will be more than aware of British vocalist and songwriter Helen Rogers who, between 1991 and 2006, provided her textbook soulful vocals to his iconic Jazzmaster recordings. However, it was back in 1982 when, as lead singer with the band Direct Drive, Helen first experienced chart success. This funk driven collective posted hits, both on the Black Echoes and the UK singles charts where the single ‘A.B.C. (Falling in Love's Not Easy)’ made number 75 in 1985. Now Helen is back with her (long overdue) debut solo CD, the intriguingly titled ‘Smooth Jazz Meets Reggae’ and just in case you are wondering where the reggae came from it is worth noting that one of her first professional gigs was in 1978 with One Stop Music, an independent South London label, that specialized in this Caribbean inspired genre. ‘Smooth Jazz Meets Reggae’ is out now on Skinny Bwoy Records, an independent US label with a leaning toward reggae, and is worth a closer look.
In these times of troubled genre identity, the intricate, sophisticated but always-accessible artistry of Japanese keyboard player Keiko Matsui remains a constant delight. Indeed since the 1989 release of her first US recording, ‘A Drop Of Water’, Matsui has been carving out her own special place in the annals of contemporary jazz. In 2014, with well over twenty CD’s already to her name, Keiko put it all on the line with a stunning live performance in Tokyo, a stop off on her ‘Soul Quest World Tour’, that has been captured for posterity with ‘Keiko Live In Tokyo’.
2015 has been an interesting year for genre challenging duets. First there was ‘The New Cool’ from Bob James and Nathan East that, despite being different from the output we have come to expect from these icons of contemporary jazz, totally epitomized what sophisticated jazz is all about. Now the Fourplay band-mate of James and East, Chuck Loeb, has teamed with Eric Marienthal for the equally inventive ‘Bridges’. Stripped of restrictive labels or definitions, the project is built around the intent to bring audiences together irrespective of if they class themselves as smooth jazz fans or jazz purists. As Chuck Loeb describes it, "Those groups are not mutually exclusive!"
A case in point is the warmly intoxicating ‘Westward’ that provides an early indication of the musical treat awaiting the listener. It dispels any lingering apprehension regarding the CD’s smooth credentials and in fact nothing could be smoother except, perhaps, for ‘Daily Bread’ which is characterized by Marienthal’s soaring sax and Loeb’s trademark graceful guitar.
Bass player John Patitucci makes significant contributions throughout and none more than with his own composition, the decidedly moody ‘Sun Rays’ and although the breezy, tender and hugely accessible ‘Crossing’ provides another highpoint of this classy collection it is the heartfelt and impeccably played ‘Salamanca’ that offers a safe passage between the contemporary and more ‘straight ahead’ components of jazz.
Loeb and Marienthal first toured together years ago in Spain and the influences of this passionate country are on show with the Latin tinged ‘Puentes’ (meaning ‘Bridges’ in Spanish) and again with the spirited samba rhythms of ‘Lucky Southern’. Later, the reflective ‘Duality’ is taken to a new level by the velvety horns that underpin it and talking of horns, when not pursuing his solo career or collaborating with some of jazz’s most influential performers Eric Marienthal can often be found in the line-up of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. The zesty jazzy ‘Last Minute Blues’ is the sort of number that would play out beautifully as part of that band’s repertoire and as the album closes with the aptly titled ‘Noir’ one finds it impossible not to agree with Loeb’s assertion that smooth jazz fans and their purist counterparts really can exist side by side, united by music.
Friends since school days, James Lloyd and Curtis Harmon have been the heartbeat of Pieces Of A Dream from the get-go and the time they began to create a unique sound that stemmed from the duo’s innate ability to blend their jazz upbringing with R&B, soul and funk. In fact the band hit the ground running with the quick-fire release of three projects, ‘Pieces Of A Dream’ (1981), ‘We Are One’ (1982) and ‘Imagine This’ (1983). These recordings garnered some of their biggest early hits, including ‘Warm Weather’, ‘Mount Airy Groove’ and the stunning ‘Fo Fi Fo’. Not only that, the band’s association with Shanachie (which began in 2013 with ‘In The Moment’) has served to remind contemporary jazz fans just how enormous a presence Pieces Of A Dream still is. They have just released their 21st CD, ‘All In’ which has immediately established itself as one the best albums of this year.