Autumn Chill: 41 of the Season's Best Albums, Part I

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Soulive
By Adriano Fagundes
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Gerald Veasley
By Robert Hoffman
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Euge Groove
By Mando Gonzales
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Lisa Shaw
By Jay Denes
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David Pack
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Bona Fide
By David Wilson
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Earl Klugh
By Jay Fletcher
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Brian Culbertson
By Lisa Peardon
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Gregg Karukas
By Ken Weil
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Kevin Toney
By Timothy Fielding
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Praful
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Fonce and Larry Mizell of the Mizell Brothers
By Dan Rolling

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Herbie Hancock
Possibilities
(Hear/Vector/Hancock)

Possibilities is Herbie Hancock's high-quality foray into the world of pop-but not the sort of electric funk you might think. "If you look at my career, especially the latter part of it, everything has been different," Hancock says. "But certainly, I've never done a record quite like this in the past. I was looking to show examples of what can happen through collaborative efforts between [different] artists and myself."

Most wouldn't even think of putting performers such as John Mayer, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone and Trey Anastasio in the same sentence with Hancock, let alone on a CD. Add in colleagues Carlos Santana (whom Hancock worked with decades ago), Sting and Angelique Kidjo and you have some megawattage illuminating Possibilities (which will be sold only in Starbucks stores and online).

Due to Hancock's affable personality and musical adeptness, he skillfully blends the disparate amalgamation of artists into a high-caliber and appealing package. Sadly, none of his compositions are on Possibilities. Instead, a hodgepodge of pop, rock and R&B covers permeate the CD. Included are Leon Russell's "A Song for You" with Aguilera, Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" with Raul Midon and U2's "When Love Comes to Town" done as a duet by Jonny Lang and Stone. Nonetheless, the spirit and essence of jazz remains firmly intact, with the majority of tracks styled as ballads and beautifully laden with Hancock's stellar solos.

Hancock reflects on the yearlong process to make Possibilities: "Paul Simon's delivery was amazing, and he actually came in the day before and made suggestions about the key signature and chord structure. Christina's intonation was perfect. I said we nailed it, but she insisted on doing five more. Then she took them home, studied them, redid them and came back with a masterpiece. With Annie, I found out we had a lot in common, and we called Paula Cole, who wrote 'Hush, Hush, Hush,' to find out what the song was about-it's really deep and quite tragic.

"I was looking for a way of working with these artists in a way that they would feel free enough to go beyond preconceived barriers imposed by the record industry. Also, I wanted an international flavor [with Kidjo, Santana and Lennox], and overall it has the spirit of Miles-but still could be Top 40." Only the visionary Hancock would think that was in the realm of Possibilities.

-Chris J. Walker

Milton Nascimento
Pieta
(Savoy)

One of Brazil's most popular singers returns to U.S. CD shops for the first time in six years with a musical tribute to his adoptive mother, Lilia. The album is named after Michelangelo's famous Pieta sculpture, where Jesus lies in the arms of his mother Mary. "When in Rome, I often visit the sculpture and connect with its protective aura," Milton Nascimento says from his home in Rio de Janeiro. "That reminds me of my stepmother rescuing me when I was very young."

Like Pieta, the sculpture, this CD is a beautiful treasure. From romantic, sweet-sounding bossa nova and jazzy, contemporary samba to forceful, tribal jams, Nascimento is on the top of his game on Pieta.

Sharing the microphone for various songs are Maria Rita Mariano (the daughter of Elis Regina, Nascimento's mentor), Simone Guimaraes and Marina Machado. They all work well with the leader, their voices often supported by the lush arrangements of Eumir Deodato. But the most outstanding collaboration is the rendering of "Cantaloupe Island" with Herbie Hancock on piano and Pat Metheny on guitar. The track is pure bliss. When asked about the trio doing more work together, the singer slyly says, "There are no plans, but I've learned to never say never."

-Chris J. Walker

Soulive
Break Out
(Concord)

Soulive's penchant for succinct melodies and snappy rhythms is intact on Break Out, but the CD differs from the loose, organ-trio template that distinguished earlier efforts like Turn it Out (Orchard, 2000) and Doin' Something (Blue Note, 2001).

The warm analog ambiance is perhaps the first thing you notice. Alan Evans' good-foot drumming boasts a thicker sound, Neal Evans complements his organ with clavinet and Fender Rhodes and Eric Krasno's bluesy guitar licks are deliciously fuzzy in some spots. Then there's the heavyweight team of singers such as Chaka Khan, Reggie Watts, Ivan Neville and Corey Glover, along with various horn players. What once sounded like an organ-jazz trio now resembles a neosoul entourage. "These cats are all like family," Evans says. "That's why Break Out sounds like a cohesive record."

This isn't the first time Soulive switched up its game. The trio's 2002 disc, Next, saw the group swapping '60s soul-jazz for Soulaquarian hip-hop, even recruiting illustrious guests such as rappers Talib Kweli and the Roots' Black Thought. But Break Out delves deep in swamp funk on "Got Soul" (featuring Neville), evokes the asphalt jazz-funk of the Mizell Brothers with "Break Out" and thumps ass-spanking R&B on "Back Again" (featuring Khan) and "She's Hooked" (featuring Watts). The CD plays out like a musical love-letter to '70s soul.

Evans agrees: "Basically, that's what we are about, which is taking all of our influences from past to present and incorporating them into our sound. The cool thing is when you play the disc it gives you the feeling that you already know the music."

Brimming with enough funky joints to make it on urban radio, Break Out has the potential to shake off Soulive's "jam band" label and align it more correctly with underground hip-hop and neosoul. "It's definitely taken black folks longer to catch on to what we are doing, because we we're labeled as a 'jam band,'" Evans says. "It's a drag that a label like that would turn people off immediately. In some cases, the label has given us a bad rap, and in others it's been cool. When we inked our deal with Concord, that was one of the things that we stressed: There is no need to promote to the jam-band crowd. We need more promotion on the R&B scene."

-John Murph

Najee
My Point of View
(Heads Up)

Making his debut on Heads Up, veteran woodwinds player and frequent Prince sideman Najee continues in the jazzy, urban-contemporary vein he's established through eight previous solo albums. The move to the new label is beneficial because Najee's game is stepped up through new collaborations with a pool of veteran smooth jazz writer-producers-Forever, For Always, For Love's Rex Rideout, Pieces of a Dream pianist and composer James Lloyd and keyboardist Chris "Big Dog" Dave-and the three have tailored an easy breezy R&B palette for Najee's cool yet elegant soprano-sax lines.

"There's a certain line of consistency that I have throughout all my work, so the identity is there," Najee says. "But at the same time, I did more delegating this time rather than sitting in the studio and writing everything and recording everything and being the engineer and the producer. I decided to work with some different people, get a different flavor."

The album's rhythmic opener "Sidewayz" features some sprightly flute work, and Najee also includes vocal tunes in the mix, sharing the spotlight with longtime pal Will Downing on the highlight track "3 a.m.," with newcomer Lomon on the anthemic "Falling in Love With You" and Sissaundra on "Emotional." But it's Najee's own inventive soprano-sax play-frequently reminiscent of genre pioneer Grover Washington Jr.-that engages on this collection of easygoing warm grooves. He gentles listeners with the gorgeous melody of the title track, "My Point of View," doubles the saxes for a summer breeze effect on the spare groove "Back in the Day" and creates a moody languor for "How Lovely You Are." He even gets some hip-hop edge on the album's funky closer, "Miyuki," written and produced with Najee's son Superb and Mike Melvin. A fine point of view, indeed.

-Janine Coveney

Gerald Veasley
At the Jazz Base!
(Heads Up)

Gerald Veasley only rarely gets to launch a full-scale concert tour covering the entire country, so the bassist decided to present the fire, funk and impromptu fun of his live show on this lively concert album, recorded in November 2004 at Gerald Veasley's Jazz Base, his namesake club at the Sheraton in Reading, Penn.

Veasley's catchy, fusion-fueled compositions are culled from his six previous solo albums. It also showcases a capable band, with players like saxophonist Chris Farr and organist Peter Kuzma blasting off on some pretty inspired soloing of their own. Philly-based players Kuzma, trombonist Jeff Bradshaw and young drummer Eric Greene also play on the area's thriving neosoul circuit, and the earthiness of that style comes through on each track.

Things jump off with the percolating "Shango," from Veasley's 1992 debut Look Ahead. From there he forges ahead, showing off both the rumbling bottom and fluid guitarlike solo riffs that made him the go-to bassist for Grover Washington Jr., Joe Zawinul Syndicate, Pieces of a Dream and Chieli Minucci, among others. Highlights include his solo work on Donny Hathaway's "Valdez in the Country," the dirty funk of "Deeper" and the gentle "Forever," in which his bass literally sings. He also gives his all on the standout "Bread Puddin'" from 2003's Velvet, as well as on the speedy "On the Fast Track." Included is a new tune dedicated to the late South African bassist Sipho Gumede.

Veasley had some technical concerns about recording. "My engineers did a walk-through and figured out how to make adjustments to the sound. We had to baffle the drums with Plexiglas. Of course, you're dealing with a live PA system so the audience can hear, and that presents other kinds of bleeding issues. But I think they did a good job in getting a great recording in a small space." At the Jazz Base! does exactly what it sets out to do: create a you-are-there immediacy.

-Janine Coveney

Maceo Parker
School's In!
(BHM)

Everyone knows that Maceo Parker was the go-to alto sax soloist for funk giant James Brown and the spin-off band the J.B.'s. Parker's got an advanced degree in vintage soul, and School's In! is his thesis. The degree in this case was conferred by pop star Prince, with whom Parker performed on the sold-out 2004 Musicology tour. "Prince has been referring to me as 'The Teacher' for some time now," Parker says, "and during his tour we would come out dressed in graduation robes-or in my case a Doctor of Music-and there was spot in his show when he would call us out in the robes with the phrase 'School's In.' I thought this would be a nice idea to develop for my album and to give it a slightly scholastic theme-albeit a little tongue in cheek."

School's In features classic retro-funk grooves and commanding alto-sax workouts that cover ground the Teacher has long mastered. Parker offers basic tutoring in midtempo Funk 101 with the horn-pumped "To Be or Not to Be" and give the class extra-credit studies on the go-go inspired "What You Know About Funk?" Best are a trio of tunes: "Song for My Teacher" is a thoughtful slow groove that Parker blows with a gentle sense of thankfulness and reflection; "Speed Reading" is a speedy funk groove where the altoist's mighty sax attack shows why he's an icon; and "Arts & Crafts" is a jazz samba with a great horn-section chart that gives pianist Morris Hayes, guitarist Bruno Speight, bassist Rodney "Skeet" Curtis, drummer Jamal Thomas and trombonist Greg Boyer a chance to shine.

Fans of the James Brown classic "Soul Power" will love the beginning of "Advanced Funk," which then morphs into a true jazz exploration, while the closing "I'm Gonna Teach You" sounds like a great chart for Tower of Power or Average White Band. Parker's school-room tour includes two covers: a version of the Jackson 5's 1970 hit "ABC" and Sam Cooke's 1960 gem "What a Wonderful World," which also features Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer. Class dismissed.

-Janine Coveney

Euge Groove
Just Feels Right
(Narada)

In the era of downloadable singles, it might seem risky to craft an album of interlocking tunes, but saxophonist Euge Groove determinedly set out to do just that. "Downloading singles off iTunes can be detrimental," he says. "I'm a huge fan of iTunes; don't get me wrong. But I always go for whole album. My feeling is you can't understand artists and their albums unless you listen to the whole thing."

The fourth CD from the saxophonist with the brassy, growly sound tells the tale of smooth jazz-straight outta 1976. To get a true feel for the musical era that influenced him most, Groove and producer Paul Brown mostly used older instruments and analog recording equipment. In addition, instead of e-mailing today's most popular smooth-jazz players to help him with the CD, Groove recruited old-school musicians Clarence McDonald (keyboards), Freddie Washington (bass), Ray Parker Jr. (guitar) and David T. Walker (guitar), Lenny Castro (percussion) and James Gadson (drums).

The raucous "Get Em Goin'" features a keyboard solo by McDonald that definitely recalls the groovy '70s. And although the next track, "Chillaxin," is Groove in a modern mood, the rest of the tunes are decidedly old-school. The one cover, "Just My Imagination," offers finger snaps and a sunny feel that will put a smile on your face. A blues bass line drives "Straight Up," the funkiest tune, while "This Must Be for Real" and "Just Feels Right" are bookends, catchy singles with happy dispositions; 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 by producer Brown. In fact, it's all hugely groovy.

-Brian Soergel

Lisa Shaw
Cherry
(Naked)

When Toronto-born, Brooklyn-residing vocalist Lisa Shaw speaks about the music she's listening to, she rarely references what's on the radio, opting instead for the various strains of music that fill up dance clubs. Her father and cousin are DJs; so too was her first husband and her current boyfriend. "For me, jazzy house is normal," she says.

Shaw grew up regularly attending shows by Kool and the Gang, Sister Sledge and Chic, and the melodic dance music of these groups formed a cornerstone of her taste. "I didn't see why house music couldn't be like that," she says, which is why Shaw's new recording, Cherry, is an attempt at balancing the house-music scene with jazzy soul. The disc is a collection of 14 melodic, tightly syncopated tracks featuring Shaw's understated vocals. "I'm not about wailing or riffing on one note until you're blue in the face."

Shaw grew up singing along to Diana Ross and idolizing other greats like Billie Holiday, Chaka Khan, Kate Bush and Gladys Knight. Eventually she moved to New York and fell in with the acid-jazz scene, frequently working with DJ Smash, the Groove Collective and Jay Dennis, a producer with whom she still works. After returning to Canada, Smash would send her instrumental tracks and she'd write lyrics. Shaw returned to the states for good after her "Makin' Love Makin' Music," a track written with Smash, became a club hit. She had several popular dance singles before hunkering down with Dennis and other producers to work on a full-length four years ago. When that effort bogged down in a series of delays and disagreements with the label on producers, she started almost from scratch to create Cherry. Shaw feels the record paints a complete picture of her: "I don't do pop, kitschy kind of songs," she says. "This recording had to represent all sides of my personality.

-Martin Johnson

Sandro Albert
The Color of Things
(215)

If the classic game show What's My Line? were converted to What's My Note? then guitarist Sandro Albert could easily can have people thinking he's Pat Metheny. But Albert, who originally hails from Porto Alegre, Brazil, states from his Los Angeles home, "I've never heard him in my life. What I heard was Milton Nascimento, who I have worked with and is my real inspiration." Regardless of whom the guitarist has heard or been influenced by-including George Benson and Wes Montgomery, perhaps-there's no denying his talents. Much as with any great instrumentalist, notes, riffs and chords flow out of him effortlessly and with remarkable clarity.

On The Color of Things the guitarist plays with quality and refinement. The title track is gentle and thematic, while also splashing the palette with refreshing guitar, bass and saxophone forays. Cool Brazilian expressions come to the forefront on "They Walk Among Us," "Minas to Rio" and "We Are Alive," highlighting the leader's sophisticated ax. But on "Aguas," which includes a flowing rapping segment, and "Rafaela's Dream" Albert is decidedly more upbeat.

Although contemporary-jazz based, Albert's music is far from being backdrop material, and it seductively encourages attuned listening. "I know the [music] industry likes to label things as more contemporary, smooth, straightahead or avant-garde," he says, "but I just see what I do as world jazz."

-Chris J. Walker

David Pack
The Secret of Movin' On
(Peak)

David Pack has been extremely busy since serving as the leader of '80s pop hit makers Ambrosia. Encouraged by Quincy Jones himself, he produced albums for artists like Michael McDonald, Phil Collins, Selena, Natalie Cole and Patti LaBelle. But recent personal changes, including a divorce, inspired Pack to return to performing as a soloist. The result is an adult AC album that flirts with jazz and folk and seeks to heal both the listener and the album's creator. "What is The Secret of Movin' On? Well, the subtitle is Travelin' Light, which is really a metaphor for getting rid of the baggage in your life," Pack says. "You do really need to forgive somebody and forgive the people in your life who are hurting you or making you angry. Otherwise you really can't move on."

The title track is one of several exquisitely worded new tunes in which Pack explores the intricacies of love and life, utilizing a cool tenor that's capable of imparting great emotional intensity. He gets vocal assistance from Heart's Ann Wilson on the chorus. Other rock-vocal icons turn up on other tunes, with former Journey frontman Steve Perry cocomposing and singing "A Brand New Start," the Eagles Timothy B. Schmidt showing up on "Where We Started From" and America's Dewey Bunnell assisting on "Tell Her Goodbye." (A painting by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin appears on the cover.)

Pack reminds fans of his earliest fame with rearrangements of Ambrosia's hits "You're the Only Woman" and "Biggest Part of Me," but in trying to make them better Pack actually saps them of their original soulful punch. The jazzier elements come in the form of stellar sidemen: On "Vertical Disbelief (That's Not Me)" the quirky melody is punctuated by sax wails from jazz chameleon Eric Marienthal. Smooth-jazz stars David Benoit and Russ Freeman also make appearances, along with session stalwarts Alex Al (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Luis Conte (percussion).

Pack, who handles guitar and keyboards on the set, says he hopes the album will become as much of an emotional touchstone as Kenny Loggins' 1991 effort Leap of Faith. "A lot of people who were going through breakups or divorces or major relationship changes found comfort in that record," Pack says. "My dream for this record is that people will discover this as being also therapeutic for anyone going through those kind of changes in their life. It really is a record about recovery."

-Janine Coveney

Bona Fide
Soul Lounge
(Heads Up)

The aptly titled Soul Lounge helps expand the genre of smooth-jazz-meets-chill-out music with an inspired collection of all-original songs. Though the group may share elements with its chill-music brethren, what takes Bona Fide to the next level is the simple fact that the band plays live instruments, which brings warmth and personality to songs while still offering the all-important groove. The result is the first truly spectacular CD that combines the two musical genres.

"I've spent a lot of time in Europe, and lounge/downtempo/chill music is very popular," says Tim Camponeschi, the band's leader who also records jazz-vocal CDs under the name Slim Man. "Smooth jazz tends to be pop songs done instrumentally, but chill is more ambient with a strong groove to it. It doesn't surprise me that it's finally becoming more popular in the U.S."

Soul Lounge may be cosmopolitan, but it seems you can't take the boys out of Baltimore: The CD has numerous references to the band members' hometown. On "Girard's" they pay homage to a popular nightclub that eventually burned down. "Funk Box" is also named after a local club, featuring dancing sax by Kevin Levi and some retro Wurlitzer organ by George Hazelrigg. Original Bona Fide keyboardist Joe Ercole wrote and played keyboards on "B. More Knights," which the band envisions as an aural soundscape of Baltimore. "Rosebank Gang" gets its name from the street on which Camponeschi grew up and reflects the bond he feels with his band as well as with his neighborhood buddies. And "Bromo Tower" is the popular name for the high-profile landmark that can be seen from just about every seat at Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles. Yet the most impressive track on Soul Lounge has nothing to do with Baltimore: The involving "Deep Chill" throws out bubbling-water sounds and some great sax playing in a 13-minute song-audience surveys be damned.

-Brian Soergel

Earl Klugh
Naked Guitar
(Koch)

Guitarist Earl Klugh's first CD of new material since 1999's smooth-jazz classic Peculiar Situation will not please his fussy fans. As you probably guessed from the title, Naked Guitar is simply Klugh and a guitar. "I was just trying to do a very spontaneous album instead of doing anything that was preplanned," the Atlanta resident says. "It was my attempt to play songs that I knew the melodies from listening to-just trying to come up with different approaches to the songs and playing them as freely as I could without any preconception."

As he did on his first solo-guitar CD, 1989's-you guessed it-Solo Guitar, Klugh creates music perfect for background listening, maintaining his pretty touch on the strings. The music offers mostly recognizable jazz and pop songs such as "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," "The Summer Knows," "Moon River" and the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand." My favorite: Klugh's stroll down the yellow-brick road on "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz.

The one song Klugh fans will recognize is one of the guitarist's best and most famous: "Angelina." A song dedicated to a former flame, perhaps? Well, no. "I probably have 20 songs named after girls," he says. "After my first five or so albums, people kept asking me, 'Who is that?'" For a while he says, "I just stopped naming any songs after women. I just flipped through magazines to pick out names. I wasn't worried about titles; I was worried about songs."

-Brian Soergel

Bob James
The Essential Collection: 24 Smooth Jazz Classics
(Koch)

Thirty years ago the term "smooth jazz" didn't exist. Instead, "contemporary" and its upstart brother, "fusion," were prevalent. So despite its subtitle, popular Fourplay keyboardist/arranger Bob James' new solo anthology doesn't neatly fit into today's smooth-jazz category. Instead, listeners will find the selections, recorded from 1974 to 1983 (with 1995's "Ensenada Madness" as a bonus track), varied, dynamic and bolstered by dramatic themes, not just radio-ready grooves and melodies.

Though he released two albums in the '60s, James was better known as an arranger than as a player. Even after cutting three popular records for Creed Taylor's CTI label in the mid-1970s, James says, "I wasn't convinced that I would have a solo-type pianist career. Most of my work I was getting then was for arranging, and I told people at the time I was looking at my first [CTI] record as a demo to get arranging jobs. Consequently, I tried to put as many different types of colors and orchestral sounds on it as I could."

Producer Taylor based the whole personality of his company on heavily produced records, permeated with high-caliber musicians and significant arranger/producers such as Don Sebesky, Dave Matthews (not the rocker) and Eumir Deodato. James soaked up as much brilliance and technical knowledge as he could, and the results are enduring hits "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Westchester Lady," "Angela (Theme From Taxi)" and many others.

Summing up the collection, James says, "I don't know whether to feel proud or outdated. But it's a great feeling to have made so many records with so many good musicians."

-Chris J. Walker

Sahnas
Odyssey
(Native Language)

Turning Point
Matador
(Native Language)

Brothers Thano and Demitri Sahnas are the core members of contemporary-fusion band Turning Point. Though they were born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz., they learned the traditional music of their Greek homeland and as well as flamenco music from their uncles in Mexico (their mother's side of the family settled there). Unquestionably, the duo lives and breathes Mediterranean music, and on Odyssey the brothers strike out on their own with a tribute to the region.

"We play [somewhat] traditional Greek folk music," Thano says, "but in a lot of ways, you take the same scales and phrases and play them on a guitar with nylon strings and all of sudden they produce a flamenco/Arabic sound." That essentially sums up the music by the duo, who are only a year apart in age and have been playing together for more than 25 years.

Odyssey mostly consists of mellow originals that effortlessly breeze along. Prime amongst them are the title track and the jam-band-like "Sonoran Melody" and "Bailando Con la Luna." Thano says those energetic cuts "get a really big audience response. We really have a lot of fun playing them and can't wait to get to them during a set."

To mix things up the CD features three well-chosen covers: the bossa nova classic "Mais que Nada," the Rolling Stones anthem "Paint It Black" and the Carlos Santana-popularized "Black Magic Woman." "We perform quite a bit just as a duo and as well as with our full band; with an audience, a familiar melody here and there refreshes their ears," Thano says. "It's definitely an interesting thing watching the dynamics shift."

Meanwhile, Matador is Turning Point's sixth CD overall and first for Native Language. The album finds them in rockin' jazz mood but also offering many catchy smooth-jazz moments that could move the band beyond its Southwestern following. Produced by the band and Native Language cofounder Joe Sherbanee, Matador's 11 songs offer a well-rounded mix of tempos.

The CD includes a cover of Chick Corea's "Spain," where a mellow Greek/flamenco intro trails off into Steve Culp's bouncing organ solo riding over John Herrera's hard-driving drumming. Smooth jazz is best represented on "Suburban Safari," the sax-driven "Gospel Brunch" and the flamenco-groovy "Quisiera Ser." "Soldier's Lullaby," inspired by the war in Iraq, offers soul-stirring wordless vocals accompanied by the appropriately mournful fretless bass, and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," which references the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, spotlights smooth electric guitar and sax solos. But both songs break down in their second half in extended and frantic jam sessions, perhaps suggesting the violent nature of their inspirations.

-Chris J. Walker and Brian Soergel

Brian Culbertson
It's On Tonight
(GRP)

Chicago-bred pianist Brian Culbertson wants you to "get down." Not on the dance floor, either, but in the bedroom. With past albums like Come On Up and Nice & Slow, Culbertson delighted fans with hooky melodies, hot grooves and funked-up workouts on the 88s; he can also blow a mean trombone. On this release Culbertson downshifts, delivering a tightly produced baby-making soundtrack.

While It's On Tonight is all about romance, few of the tunes can be called ballads, with their intricate rhythms and bumping bass. "There's so many 'love' CDs, and it has some of that," Culbertson says, "but there's definitely a-I don't want to say a raunchier side, but maybe."

The baby-faced writer-producer also nixed cover tunes. "Everyone was like, 'Oh, man, you've gotta do this song, because that was the classic song everyone made out to.' I came to the decision not to do that, because every cover song, you have a memory of that song already implanted in your head. I wanted to create brand-new memories in everyone."

The album's 12 tracks tell the story of one night out on the town, where a couple meets and mingles. "Let's Get Started" is a danceable piano melody, followed by "Hookin' Up," a pop-laced ditty of flirtation. The sexy swerve of the title track features signature anthemic tinkling from Culbertson and the warm vocals of label-mate Will Downing, while Patti Austin and saxophonist Kirk Whalum guest on another urban AC pleaser, "Love Will Never Let You Down."

Sax star Boney James warms the winding "The Way You Feel," but the steam really rises on the midnight groove "Wear It Out," featuring a suggestive vocal chorus by singer-songwriter Marc Nelson and a spare piano solo from Culbertson. The mood continues on the standout "Secret Affair," with Chris Botti adding his atmospheric trumpet, and wife Michelle Culbertson plays violin on the gentle "Dreaming of You." The album wraps with "Reflections," a gorgeous solo exploration that demands that Culbertson ditch all the techno-funk wizardry and simply record an all-acoustic piano set.

-Janine Coveney

Gregg Karukas
Looking Up
(Tripin'n'Rhythm)

Just one week before the July terrorist attacks in London's subways, Gregg Karukas released "London Underground," the first single from his Looking Up CD. Unfortunate timing may have had something to do with the single never really taking off, but programmers have plenty to draw upon from the veteran keyboardist's latest. Karukas is old-school smooth jazz, his soothing piano melodies a balm in hectic times. Even "London Underground," written to celebrate his association with his new London-based label, is a jaunty jam circa early 1990s. No chill asides, no vocals. Just old-time instrumental music, kids.

"The title of the CD started out as an expression I used with my two kids," he says. "It's just about having goals and a way to persevere. For years people have told me that my music sounds so happy, and it's true. I tend to think positively when I compose music, and that's why it all seems to fit with all the stuff that's been going on in the world, from Iraq to what happened in England to everywhere else."

Karukas' 10th CD has several compositions in tune with the Joe Sample/David Benoit school of mellow, loping acoustic-piano jazz, such as "Girl in the Red Dress" and the charming title track. Variety comes into play with the shuffle groove of "Relentless," the reggae of "Lost in Negril" and Andy Suzuki's hooky sax chorus on "Show Me the Way" that's sure to stick in your craw for a good long while.

A standout is the musica Brasileira of "Corner Club/Clube da Esquina," which is dedicated to the iconic Brazilian CD by vocalist Milton Nascimento. Solid and pro all the way, Karukas also gets support from trumpeter Rick Braun and more guitarists than you can shake a pick at: Peter White, Richard Smith, Michael O'Neill, Ricardo Silveira and Thom Rotella.

-Brian Soergel

Kevin Toney
110 Degrees and Rising
(Shanachie)

Keyboardist Kevin Toney, a former member of the 1970s jazz-funk group the Blackbyrds, is now firmly planted in the 21st century. The jazz-funk is still there, but so is chill, world, gospel, smooth jazz and R&B. Toney has a special term for his music: "My approach and style on piano is what I call 'cosmopolitan jazz,'" he says.

It's not just succinct radio hits that Toney's after either. On his latest, 110 Degrees and Rising, Toney sneaks in a 12-minute solo piano piece at the end of the CD that gives the keyboardist a chance to show his stuff. And "Touched by You" is a 10-minute easy-listening journey that is one of the classiest songs he's ever done.

The rest of the album is more in line with Toney's previous works. He's got a thumping electronica bass line going on "Day Trippin'," a funky wah-wah thing on "Ground Level Up" and in-the-pocket grooviness on "In a State of Bliss." Toney even pulls out his melodica on "Quiet Conversation," a Quiet Storm gem that throws in some strings, too. Toney does favor the acoustic keys, of course, and lays down a mellow groove on one of the CD's showcase tracks, "Just Like the First Time." His piano does sound a bit Muzak-y on the oft-covered "Going Out of My Head," but only in a kitsch-is-kinda-cool way. Very cosmopolitan.

Joe McBride
Texas Hold 'Em
(Heads Up)

Who says you can't record a smooth-jazz version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"? Pianist Joe McBride does just that on a song he's cleverly calling "In a Garden of Eden." Unlike Iron Butterfly's 1968 original, which clocks in at more than 17 minutes, McBride's take is just a little more than three-and-a-half minutes. Producer Martin Walters pitched the idea. "I thought he was half crazy," McBride says. "I said, 'OK, if you think so.' When we started laying it down, it seemed to work really well. It's got that blues vibe and surfer-beatnik type of beat. It incorporates a lot of different styles."

The song isn't the only gimmick. In case the title of the CD and the cover picture of McBride with a trio of cowgirls-they're all holding playing cards-didn't give it away, here's the spoiler: there's a poker theme going on here, folks. That's why there are tunes such as "One Eyed Jack," "No Limit," "All In" and "Big Slick."

So how's the music? It turns out that Dallas resident McBride and his crack Texas Rhythm Club aren't bluffing-sorry! In addition to a jackpot of light and airy piano-jazz tunes, McBride ups the ante (this is too easy) with two vocal tracks. He owns a bluesy and smoky delivery that's easy on the ears, especially on the smoldering "I'm Here for You."

McBride's basically been making the same album for years, but for some reason they never grow tiresome. He stays away from fads, and there's plenty of fans who rely on him for a healthy dose of piano grooves every other year or so.

-Brian Soergel

Praful
Pyramid in Your Backyard
(Rendezvous)

With One Day Deep, the German-born, Netherlands-based saxophonist Praful helped usher in exotic chill/downtempo sounds to smooth-jazz audiences with a No. 1 single called "Sigh." European dance grooves of all varieties are slowly mixing in with songs by the genre's stalwarts such as Dave Koz and Chris Botti. One Day Deep was originally released in 2001 but hit U.S. airwaves in 2003 thanks to a U.S. distribution deal with the label that Koz cofounded, Rendezvous.

With Praful's highly anticipated follow-up, he's clearly signaling his intention not to duplicate One Day Deep. "This CD still has a strong chill influence to it," he says, "with chill and jazz mixing in with dance and some electronica. But the overall feeling is that it's a bit more organic than One Day Deep. The foundation is made out of percussion instruments that give a certain warmth and depth to the grooves. It's still a mixture of up- and downtempo tracks, some danceable, some more for just hanging out. It feels like a step further, definitely, to me."

For the most part Praful's new CD shares little in common with his debut. But collaborating with close friends and Rendezvous labelmates Adani and 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 Hindi, such as India's Sandhya Sanjana, Brazil's Katia Moraes and even Praful himself on the '60s-trippy "Naked." 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 beat-heavy.

Instrumental tracks include the spare and jazzy "We Live On," where Praful's sax skills are on full display. "Hand-Cart Puller" offers a guitar loop, bountiful percussion and a rapid pace, while "Drop to the Ocean" is a chill/electronica classic with jazzy sax interludes-a perfect summation of Praful's music.

-Brian Soergel

The Mizell Brothers
Mizell
(Blue Note)

Composer/producer Larry Mizell sounds relaxed on this August afternoon, as well he should be. He and his wife just returned from a month of traveling in Europe. It's easy to feel envious as he starts to recount the highlights of the jazz festivals in North Sea and Montreux, but it was a well-earned holiday. After many years spent mostly tending to his publishing company, which has licensed more than a hundred of samples from songs written by Mizell and his brother Fonce during the '70s and early '80s, the duo built a studio with the latest technology. Their first effort in the new facility is Mizell, a remastered collection of their favorite tracks from their heyday at Blue Note and Capitol in the early '70s.

The music on Mizell represents the beginnings of jazz-funk and the roots of several strains of dance music, most notably acid jazz and downtempo. But historical import was the furthest thing from Larry Mizell's mind as he worked on the studio. "Most of the time it seemed like I had to read five more instruction booklets just to record a vocal," he says with a guffaw. Once the brothers finished the studio and began remastering their classics, the magic began: "It was like being there when the music was being made again," Larry says.

The Mizell brothers' music was controversial in its day. The brothers helped trumpeter Donald Byrd to launch the Blackbyrds, a group that enjoyed enormous crossover success. Jazz fans railed against the encroaching commercialization of their music, and the Mizells sympathized. "It wasn't in any way a jazz record," Larry says. "It just happened to be on a jazz label with a musician known for jazz in the past." The record, Black Byrd, went Top 10 on the R&B charts, and the Mizells went on to work with flutist Bobbi Humphrey, saxophonist Gary Bartz and vocalist Rance Allen, each of whom is represented on Mizell.

Now that the studio is in operation the Mizells are considering coming off the sidelines. "I'd like to have a group that I just produced and wrote for," Larry says in a voice that sounds like a planner at work.

-Martin Johnson

Originally published in November 2005

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