In the compartmentalized world of jazz CDs, you rarely hear an album that fully embraces both smooth jazz and the purest straightahead swing. But some players have their hearts in both camps. For instance, pianist Bob James plays smooth grooves in Fourplay but switches to the jazz tradition for his self-named trio.
In this same vein is an artist named Bobby Lyle, who dares to play both straight and smooth on his CD titled-you guessed it-Straight and Smooth (Three Keys). Lyle is a veteran jazz pianist who, Memphis-born and raised in Minneapolis, has kept his sound mostly on the smooth side of the spectrum. "But my roots are with straightahead playing," says Lyle, who toured after college with Redd Holt and Eldee Young, ex-Ramsey Lewis band members known as Young-Holt Unlimited.
He considers Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum early influences, but in the '70s and '80s Lyle played with Sly and the Family Stone, Ronnie Laws, George Benson, Bette Midler, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker and Gerald Albright. "I learned early that record companies are reluctant to venture into straightahead jazz, as it's all about the marketplace," Lyle says. "Playing smooth jazz is an extension of my writing style, and smooth jazz actually has a format. And when you have a format, people can hear you play."
But Lyle has never lost his love for the straightahead style, and he's driven to expose it to fans of his other sound. At the same time, Lyle says, he wants to expose his smooth playing to straightahead types who turn their noses up at anything outside the jazz tradition.
Which one is a harder sell?
"It's evenly divided," Lyle says. "I want to show fans of both straightahead and smooth that there are similarities among the two styles. Smooth is driven by pop and funk beats; with straightahead it's about an upright bass, drums and improvisation. But all of the musical changes are started in the internal rhythm section-it dictates where the music's going. If the music swings, it doesn't matter what format it's in."
Lyle says he knew he wanted to compose a CD of smooth and straightahead music when he signed with his current label, Three Keys, after years with Atlantic. In 2002, he released Joyful on the label, a smooth effort to reestablish himself with his fans. But Three Keys founder and CEO Marcus Johnson enthusiastically agreed to Lyle's double-CD concept and urged him to follow his creative impulses.
The smooth disc 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 of the songs feature Lyle's Joe Sample-like acoustic piano playing, which always seems to have a foot in the cool-jazz door, unlike that of his harder-edged contemporaries such as Brian Culbertson and Jeff Lorber. He closes the smooth side with a solo called "Easy Living" because, he says, he wanted to segue into the straightahead CD.
The material on disc two 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 "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." "That song represents a side of my musical vocabulary people have never heard before," he says.
As an extension of Straight and Smooth, Lyle wants to help bring jazz to schools in his current hometown of Houston. "I've actually been able to get that ball rolling here with kids ranging from grade school to college level," he says. "One of the grade schools in Houston, Walker Elementary, has actually set up a Bobby Lyle Music Scholarship fund. The music instructor has the children write essays about why they want to study music. The two best ones chosen, based on genuine passion for music as well as financial need, are awarded enough money to purchase an instrument and receive private instruction. The funds come from the sale of my CDs, which are donated by Marcus Johnson at Three Keys Music."
Lyle says Straight and Smooth is mostly about getting younger people who listen to radio-friendly smooth jazz to hear what real jazz is all about. "Jazz can be easy to listen to, but jazz is also about disharmony, where you go to the edge but step too far over the line," he says. "It's harder for people to listen to. But it's like when you go to the movies. What moves you the most? Isn't it the movies with the drama, tension and release?"