David Benoit has long been a pianist whose harmonic and rhythmic flourishes were more in the tradition of classicists like Vince Guaraldi, whose mantle he inherited, as well as Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans, to whom Benoit dedicated an album. His best contemporary-jazz pieces demonstrate a gorgeous tone and symphonic scope on the piano, and that talent is spotlighted on a larger scale on Orchestral Stories, which is not a jazz album by any definition.
In recent years, Benoit has branched out as a composer and conductor, leading the Asia America Orchestra and its younger Youth Orchestra, performing some of his original pieces and conducting other orchestras. Here Benoit finally gets to offer up his original symphonic compositions on a full album. Inspired by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, Benoit writes about individual subjects, like the opening “9-11,” which was first performed at a Los Angeles benefit for the victims of the disaster, the local airport in “LAXperience” and the last days of Marilyn Monroe with the ballad “Something’s Gotta Give.” Included are his long-form pieces: the wonderfully evocative Japanese World War II survival tribute “Kobe” and his Romeo and Juliet fantasy “The Centaur and the Sphinx.”
Benoit hopes that fans of his previous albums, including the popular Charlie Brown works and his last GRP set Right Here, Right Now, will come along on this classical crossover journey, which was partially recorded in Prague with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra as well as in Southern California with members of the Asia America Orchestra.
“It’s not like this is avant-garde, strange, weird music. This is music that’s very accessible and it’s coming from the heart,” Benoit says. “The first two pieces, ‘9-11’ and ‘Something’s Gotta Give’-they were just going to be on a regular David Benoit record. So the way the record opens is very comfortable. Then, as it develops, it gets a little more serious into the classical world, but I think it will take the listeners on a nice journey. Especially the listeners who like that side of me that they haven’t heard on a recording in a long time, that side that has the lush strings and the very beautiful, romantic melodies. They’ll like this.”
For Modern Times, guitarist and Gypsy free spirit Marc Antoine wanted a change. So while he strummed and plucked, Spanish producer and DJ David Ferrero played the grooves. “He allowed me to concentrate on just the songs without thinking about rhythms,” Antoine says. To further make his seventh CD stand out, for the first time Antoine doesn’t rely solely on his nylon-string guitar. You’ll also hear steel-string acoustic and electric guitar, and the results have twinges of Wes Montgomery and Eric Clapton.
The CD title references Antoine’s current musical perspective: “There’s a little bit of dance, a little bit of lounge, a little bit of chill out, a little bit of ethnic,” says the French native living in Madrid by way of London and Los Angeles. “All the stuff I like to listen to when I refer to modern music.”
The dance and chill-out vibe Ferrero brings to Modern Times meshes with vocal and musical samples-blips and scratches-that lend a worldly flavor to “Cantar al Amor.” With “Umbele,” Ferrero’s programming and Antoine’s Jonathan Butler-like playing gives it a spicy South African flavor. And, although Antoine has called on numerous smooth-jazz players on previous CDs, for Modern Times he plays keyboards and bass and utilizes Cuban session players who live in Spain.
But it’s the vocals-real and sampled-that give Modern Times its cool vibe. Antoine’s wife Rebeca Vega adds vocalese to “Can You Feel It,” while Noemi Carrion does the same on the chill “Camden Town,” which derives its inspiration from the ultratrendy open-air market in London. Antoine himself has some fun messing with vocals on Sting’s “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” even though for the most part he sounds like the scary masher who called you up before someone smart invented caller ID.
Big fun comes with “If You Believe,” where a spoken-word exchange has a male voice saying “Man, turn that [beep] off.” How can you not love a smooth jazz CD that comes this close to a parental advisory? “With the beep, you know something happened,” Antoine says with a laugh. “So you play it back and say, what, what? It was just to save a sticker, man.”
Performs the Babyface Songbook
The second Kirk Whalum’s deep and sexy sax comes in on the opening number, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” you know he’s picked the right artist’s songbook to interpret. “There’s so much about him that reaches people,” Whalum says of Babyface, though he could easily be describing himself. “He has a way of relating to people in such a way where you feel like he knows something that he shouldn’t know. He’s able to go in and really mine the depths of his own emotions and experiences and find that commonality between him and the listener.” Whalum knows his Babyface. He toured with the singer-songwriter/producer and recorded one of his songs, “Love Saw It,” in 1993.
Although Songbook features some of the most well-known buds in the biz-trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarists Chuck Loeb and Norman Brown, keyboardist Ricky Peterson, bassist Christian McBride and vocalist Gabriela Anders, among others-there’s no doubt who the star is on this project. Whalum’s sax is front and center throughout 12 tracks, and it has never sounded as jazzy, polished and mature as it does on this CD. There’s none of that sappy smooth-jazz sax you hear on the radio-this is personal, in your face, the kind you’d hear in a club.
Meanwhile, Babyface aficionados will enjoy the songs like they’ve never heard them before. But songs like “I’ll Make Love to You,” “Breathe Again,” “Betcha Never,” “Not Goin’ Cry,” “Whip Appeal” and “Wey U” aren’t just Babyface songs here: Kirk Whalum claims them as his own.
All in a Day’s Work
On Brazil Chill (A44), pianist Bob Baldwin’s love affair with Brazilian music was captured on an all-original CD that was one of 2004’s best smooth-jazz offerings. “I had enough material for two CDs, but the record company didn’t want that,” says Baldwin. “Even with this new CD, I’ve got several songs that I still haven’t recorded.” So although not technically the second part of Brazil Chill, since he’s on a new label, you’ll definitely continue to hear Baldwin’s Brazilian- and Latin-influenced sounds on All in a Day’s Work.
Baldwin doesn’t get much airplay, but he is no doubt one of smooth jazz’s most interesting keyboardists. He’s got much in common with the Joe Sample and Pieces of a Dream school of smooth jazz that emphasizes easy-listening jazz while not attempting to be something it isn’t, such as rap, electronica, chillout or any other musical flavor of the month. A perfect example is the title track and “Day-O,” bossa-nova ditties with Baldwin’s soothing vocalese and expert piano solos, where he offers more notes than normally heard on your basic smooth-jazz CD. Other tracks, like “Third Time’s the Charm,” “Quirky” and “Steamy,” are simply the type of smooth jazz where the swing and groove are key, but with the expert playing and solo turns by Baldwin and his musicians they avoid the one-note samba that plagues so many contempo-Latin jazz CDs.
Got You Covered!
Recorded in a little more than two days, Eric Marienthal says his new CD realizes a lifelong dream: to make an acoustic jazz record live in the studio with a minimum of overdubbing. The support is first rate, with the core quartet of keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Dave Carpenter, drummer Peter Erskine and percussionist Luis Conte. Also along for the ride is Russ Freeman of the Rippingtons, who produces and adds guitar to six tracks.
“I wanted to make a throwback record the old-fashioned way,” says the saxophonist. “It leans in a jazzy direction, which is something more dear to my own heart. But it doesn’t veer too far away from the contemporary jazz I’ve always done.”
Some of the material doesn’t veer too far, either, with Marienthal interpreting some of his favorite songs, from the Beatles’ “I Will” and the Bee Gees’ “Emotion” to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” But the best songs are the ones that you haven’t heard every day since junior high. The Gipsy Kings’ “Love and Liberte” benefits from Freeman’s classical guitar and Conte’s inspirational percussion, and on Bach’s Two Part Invention No. 4 in D Minor Marienthal gets a chance to show off his soprano skills. On “My One and Only Love,” Marienthal keeps it simple on a duet with pianist Chick Corea, who discovered the sax player and now keeps him close at hand when touring with the Chick Corea Elektric Band. It’s emotionally rewarding, as is “Moody’s Mood for Love,” where Marienthal feels right at home with the jazz classic.
The Revelation Is Now Televised
The title and cover photo of V’s new disc, The Revelation Is Now Televised, which features the soul singer reclining in a leather chair with his arms crossed behind his head, gazing pensively into the distance, should ring a bell for fans of old-school soul. While his record deliberately recalls Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 classic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, V neither aims to repeat nor update its trenchant social commentary. Instead, as V (nee Valvin Roane II) tells it, “We wanted to play off the Gil Scott title and bring it into more of a New Age situation. We have songs that are inspirational about life.”
Indeed, The Revelation deals with spiritual issues, but it is far from a simple proselytizing Christian record. V’s songs aim to show secular metaphors for religious terminology. For instance, he says, “Born Again” is about “any change in your life that takes you from something that isn’t productive to something that is more productive.”
And the music on The Revelation does recall the ’70s soul sound. A brother-in-law was involved with the great Philadelphia soul writing-and-producing team Gamble and Huff, which enabled the adolescent V to spend hours in the studio during recording sessions. The South Jersey native graduated from Drexel, where he met James Poyser, who helped him get in with Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz crew. They completed a recording for Elektra in the old-school style, with live drums and layered harmonies a la Stevie Wonder’s early ’70s classics, but the project bogged down due to creative differences. “I think we were about three years ahead of our time,” he says.
Following the success of Jill Scott, Musiq, Bilal and others from the new Philadelphia soul scene, V, who has collaborated with all of the above, decided to give it another go. It resulted in The Revelation, one of the season’s most anticipated debut recordings.
Smooth-jazz hero Rick Braun, once neck-and-neck with fellow musician Chris Botti in terms of trumpet appeal, has now slipped far behind as the latter has officially crossed over into mainstream success. But where Botti zoomed to the top by putting a contemporary sheen on jazz classics, on Yours Truly Braun has decided to look back at his pop influences. “These are songs that have been a part of my life from the eighth grade on,” he says. “Songs that have had a special meaning to me throughout my life, starting from very early on up until, like, last Thursday.”
The result is a little bit of a mixed bag that sometimes teeters between elevator music and easy-listening smooth jazz. “Holding Back the Years,” for example, is a note-by-note reading that would have benefited from a more exploration, as do “Love’s Theme,” “Shining Star” and “Kiss of Life.” But elsewhere Braun is able to make a well-trodden song his own, as he does on two interesting choices: Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World” and Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart.” Ditto with Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” where Braun mutes his instrument for a change of pace and the brushed-drum sounds burnish the tune with just the right moody effect.
He does his best work here on the CD’s last track, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” With this gem, accompanied by strings, Braun shows he can offer classics on par with Botti. Perhaps Braun should go back a bit further if he decides to offer Yours Truly, Part Two.
All for Love
Smooth saxophonist Kim Waters pretty much writes his own review for All for Love: “I think it’s the traditional Kim Waters-style CD,” he says. “We have a variety of different songs, some nice ballads. Then of course we have the traditional funk tunes. The whole album just came together conceptually really well.” His 15th solo CD is the third in a row with “love” in the title, for those keeping score. Song titles also give a lot away: There’s a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming,” which features lead vocals by Incognito singer Maysa, and odes to the good life such as “She’s My Baby,” “Hot Tub,” “Happy Feeling” and “Good to Go.” With all that said, Waters is the perfect smooth-jazz solution for those looking to snuggle with loved ones or just get out and shake some backside. If you’ve ever seen Waters perform, you know he can play some burning traditional jazz, and he’s said that he hopes to one day make a straightahead jazz album. Waters’ dilemma is that he’s so successful as a chart-topping loverman that his fans (not to mention his label) count on him to release a hit smooth-jazz record each year. If you listen closely to his new CD, though, you realize that whatever mood he’s in, Waters is simply one of the planet’s best saxophonists. You can hear it in “Nature Walk” and “Good to Go,” especially.
Unlike his younger smooth-jazz contemporaries, who focus on the hook only, Waters has killer instincts on the melodies but also isn’t afraid to toot his horn and do some serious improvising.
Will Downing is a sophisticated purveyor of romantic elegance in the Luther Vandross mode. Whereas earlier albums showed off more of a jazz sensibility, Downing truly hit his lover-man stride on 2002’s Sensual Journey and 2003’s stellar Emotions. Soul Symphony continues the crooner’s focus on urban-contemporary balladry. “It’s a continuation of the things I’ve been doing over the last few years,” Downing says. “I’ve learned if you learned how to do something and people gravitate toward what you do, don’t change it up!”
He begins with “Put Me On,” a sexy come-on that puts the usually self-possessed Downing in the awkward position of begging. But he soon begins to sound like his regal self once more on the sexy “Make Time for Love,” perhaps because it’s the first of only four tracks that Downing cowrote, three of which are the best things on the album. His compelling input is heard on “Soul Steppin’,” a spiritual follow-up to Emotions’ much happier dance anthem “Rhythm of U and Me,” and on the beautiful ballad “Heart of Mine,” which offers some specificity to why love blooms eternal. Less successful is his concession to hip-hop-style production and situations, “Will Still Loves You,” a well-intentioned but clunky valentine to single working moms.
Well-known for including stellar reinterpretations of pop and R&B gems on his earlier albums, Downing performs Luther Vandross’ arrangement of “Superstar.” Though he hews a little too closely to the late singer’s indelible blueprint, the heartfelt tribute is still a lovely showcase for Downing’s rich baritone and intimate phrasing.
(Pop Jazz/Native Language)
After years of living the ups and downs of the music industry, veteran smooth-jazz saxophonist Warren Hill created his own label, Pop Jazz, and secured distribution through Native Language. The first CD on Hill’s new venture is his own, of course, and his first in three years. “The entire CD really represents what the label is all about. This is an instrumental CD, but it travels over a lot of different musical genres. I think when people listen to this record and they see it’s called Pop Jazz, it’ll all sort of make sense.”
Produced by Hill and Andre Berry, the CD features Hill’s touring band (Berry, Ronnie Gutierrez, Dave Hooper, Randy Jacobs and Ron Reinhardt) as well as guest appearances by pianist Brian Culbertson and guitarists Jeff Golub and Norman Brown.
The first thing Hill did with his new-found independence was to include several cover songs that are crowd-pleasing audience favorites at live shows: Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” Brian McKnight’s “Back at One,” War’s “Low Rider” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” Hill’s originals include “Still in Love,” a ballad written for his wife; a groove ode to his hometown, “Toronto”; and a chill-music-inspired track called “Virgin Gorda,” featuring Brown’s magical guitar work. All showcase Hill’s deft way with power ballads and hooks.
The CD closes with “Bridgin’ the Gap,” which is unlike anything Hill has ever put on a record. “It bridges the gap between jazz and pop,” Hill says. “There’s a section in the song where I go into chord changes from John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps,’ I have Ron Reinhardt on the organ, and the rest of the time there’s an acid-jazz vibe.” It’s pop-jazz with a definite emphasis on “jazz.”
the LEGENDARY Impulse label HAS BEEN ressurected at various times by Verve, and it has done so again for Impulsive!, a compilation featuring DJ-remixed tracks from the classic catalog. (There’s also a companion volume of the original tunes.)
Coproducer Jonathan Rudnick says club DJs have long had “a huge appreciation, understanding and awareness of the jazz artists on a label like Impulse, including the quirky stuff.” Rudnick should know: He’s the head of Giant Steps, a 15-year-old purveyor of jazz-inflected electronica music and culture, and the man behind the remix-comp Red Hot on Impulse!.
For Impulsive! , major electronica and hip-hop artists such as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Boozoo Bajou, DJ Dolores, Chief Xcel (of Blackalicious) take on the likes of Oliver Nelson’s jazz classic “Stolen Moments,” Pharoah Sanders’ extra-terrestrial “Astral Traveling,” Archie Shepp’s militant “Attica Blues” and Chico O’Farrill and Clark Terry’s hilarious, Latin-tinged “Spanish Rice.”
Rudnick and Dahlia Ambach Caplin, coproducer of the three Verve Remixed projects, searched through hundreds of Impulse albums for the right tracks and picked the remixers as well. Caplin says Impulsive! is different from other remix albums “due to some of the approaches, such as Telefon Tel Aviv doing a complete arrangement on strings for ‘Stolen Moments.’ Ravi Coltrane created a brand new piece of work under his father’s poem [‘At Night,’ recited by Julie Patton]. These are just some of the things you won’t find on other records-and the Impulse catalog inspired that.”
-Chris J. Walker
Blue Note Trip
On the two-CD Blue Note Trip the six DJs in the Jazzanova collective take a romp through the label’s classic catalog-not through remixing but rather tightly segued sequencing. Think of it as Blue Note’s answer to Thievery Corporation’s Songs From the Verve Hi-Fi-or as the hippest jazz podcast around.
Jazzanova’s Trip wends its way through classics like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” and Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” as well as more obscure numbers like Charlie Rouse’s “Merci Bon Dieu,” Tina Brooks’ “Theme for Doris” and Duke Pearson’s “Xibaba.” Since Blue Note is one of the group’s all-time favorite labels it was difficult to narrow down the choices for just two discs. “We mainly focused on song-based and song-structured compositions with interesting arrangements and unexpected changes,” says Jazzanova’s Jurgen Von Knoblauch from the group’s Berlin base. Other criteria included how well the material reflected Jazzanova’s influences and how well it worked into a program that would have the same flow as one of their performances. “We wanted to create the mix like one of our DJ sets, with ups and downs and variations in style but with logical transitions,” he says.
Jazzanova’s own sound owes much to early-’70s jazz-funk and bossa nova, but this compilation and the group’s DJ sets show great interest in obscure ’60s soul and the many variants of house music. When asked what other labels they’d like to “trip,” Von Knoblauch goes machine gun, rattling off “Atlantic, Verve Forecast, Fania, Discovery, Philips Brazil, Continental Brazil, Warp, Melodia Russia, Especial Japan, Talking Loud, Stones Throw, People, Archive and Capitol,” before pausing, and allowing “and many more.” Get to work.
When the producer behind Thug Jazz and the Unwrapped series is let loose in the Def Jam archives, and he brings along some of the top players in smooth jazz, there are bound to be interesting results. On Def Jazz, producer Tony Joseph celebrates one of hip-hop’s most legendary labels by stripping down its early hits to their bare musical essentials and rebuilding them with live instrumentation. Tunes originally fueled by such acts as L.L. Cool J, Slick Rick, Method Man, Public Enemy and others get jazz crossover updates with varied results.
Many hip-hop hits are themselves configured on older R&B and pop classics; Foxy Brown’s “All I Need” is actually Motown’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” spiced up with Roy Hargrove’s fiery trumpet; L.L.’s “Doin’ It” is actually Grace Jones’ 1988 “”My Jamaican Guy,” filled out by Dwight Sill’s guitar; and “Get U Home” isn’t much distinguished from Eugene Wilde’s “Gotta Get You Home Tonight” except for Gerald Albright’s sax workout. Nonetheless, Joseph’s arrangements highlight the improvisational possibilities in a music more known for its vocal-rhyme fire.
“You have to pick songs you don’t have to change too much to take it out of the hip-hop element, that you can lay a melody on top of,” says Joseph, a former radio and club DJ from New York. “Some tracks from the Def Jam catalog were just drum tracks and a bass line and if you built too much on it, it would definitely take away from the original composition.”
Also along for the ride are Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun, Joey DeFrancesco, Hubert Laws and Kevin Toney. Vocalists Oran “Juice” Jones and Ledisi revisit Jones’ original 1986 hit “The Rain” with a new twist and amusing results. Highlights are Braun and Sill’s hep grooves on “Ghetto Jam,” Jeff Lorber’s funky electric piano on “Can I Get A…” DeFrancesco’s happy organ rushes on “Give It Up” and Albright’s Caribbean party vibe on the radio-ready “Hey Young World.”
Style and Pattern
John Arnold and fellow Detroit-based broken-beat maverick Jeremy Ellis toured Europe together last year, seeing how their studio-created tunes translated into a concert performance. “We call it ‘freestyle,’ in which we construct all our beats and grooves live,” Arnold says.
Helping convey that on-the-spot spontaneity are the duo’s finely tuned musical chops. Both Ellis and Arnold are accomplished musicians: the former is a gifted keyboardist and captivating singer, the latter a talented guitarist who studied jazz at Wayne State University and has played with some of Detroit’s finest, including saxophonist/clarinetist Wendell Harrison, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and trombonist Phil Ranelin. “Going to school really taught me how to write for different instruments and how to become a good arranger,” Arnold says. “Just having that palette of different harmonies and improvisational skills gives me a lot to work with.”
He then mentions “Rise Up,” the intoxicating lead-single from his sophomore disc, Style and Pattern (Ubiquity). Propelled by a stuttering, syncopated groove and sparse chords, the song dazzles with fiercely optimistic lyrics sang by Paul Randolph (another Detroiter) and a punchy horn arrangement that recalls the Tower of Power. “I have a real understanding of how back-up horns work in that setting,” Arnolds says. “The horn arrangements coming out of the ’70s is the Bible of how you should you arrange horns for funk music. I look at ‘Rise Up’ as electro-funk with an Afro-beat feel.”
Without canceling out any of electro that made his 2001 debut Neighborhood Science such a quirky delight, Arnold ups the jazz ante a bit on Style and Pattern by bringing his ax more to the foreground. In fact, a lot of the keyboard parts on the new disc are actually him filtering his guitar through a MIDI. “The whole record is basically guitar,” he says. The new CD also boasts a more organic sound, with some cuts taking on more of a song-based feel rather than electronica experiments. That’s certainly the case on “Rise Up,” the flamenco-stomping “Spread Your Love” and the Afro-beat meets American gospel joint “1234.”
“Since the last record, I’ve been all over the world and really gotten a chance to connect with the music scene that I’m involved with,” Arnold says. “I’ve seen what works on the dance floor, so I’ve developed ideas from my live sets. These songs were tested on the road before they were actually written. I’m making broken-beat from a jazz perspective.”
British smooth jazzer Paul Hardcastle releases his work under the alternating names Jazzmasters and Hardcastle. So what’s the difference? “The Hardcastle stuff is a bit more experimental,” he says. “I suppose a Jazzmasters album is a bit more controlled, whereas a Hardcastle one has different people on it, and we don’t only just stick to the same sort of vein.”
Yet whatever Hardcastle produces inevitably has three elements: drum machines, some smooth grooves and sexy female vocalists. His usual vocalist is Helen Rogers, but for his latest CD the keyboardist hands over the vocals to his daughter, 19-year-old Maxine, which was also the name of a fan-favorite tune dedicated to her. Now she’s all grown up and adds her breathy chops to three songs on the new CD, which she also cowrote. Her voice sounds much like Rogers’, and she does justice to “Was It Love,” “Where Are You Now?” and especially the sublime “Smooth Jazz Is Bumpin’.” (The CD closes with an untitled track of a six-year-old Maxine singing like a rock star as only kids can. Very cute.)
The remaining nine instrumentals are among the best Hardcastle’s ever done, beginning with the CD’s first single, “Serene.” As its title suggests, the tune is simple and melodic and features electric guitar from Adam Drake, who also returns with some rock stylings in “Straight Ahead.” Hardcastle CDs always feature semimystical tracks, and the selections here are “Eastern Winds” and “Journey of the Lost Tribes” with their sampled flutes, strings, vocals and assorted jungle noises. Whether the songs are mystical, mellow or driving, they are all the epitome of smooth and polished music, easy to listen to over and over again.
Love is the Answer
(Passin’ the Vibe)
If legendary Impulse producer Bob Thiele produced electronica and hip-hop instead of jazz, the music would probably result in something like Love Is the Answer (Ninja Tune), one of two captivating new discs by veteran Los Angeles-based jazz vocalist Dwight Trible. The other CD, Living Water, released on Trible’s own Passin’ the Vibe label, is a continuation of the widescreen, cosmic jazz that has made him a legend among electronica and progressive-music fans.
On Love Is the Answer, Trible plunges his passionate singing about universal love into Afro-futuristic realms where cutting-edge technology and the ’60s New Thing overlap. By recruiting such forward-thinking electronica and hip-hop producers as Dexter Story, Carlos Nino, J Dilla, Madlib and the Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Trible has come up with aural love child of Pharoah Sanders and the Neptunes.
Trible’s is an earthy baritone that immediately recalls Leon Thomas-and both crooners have sung with Sanders as well as with pianist Horace Tapscott and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Similar pipes and lyrics aside, Trible claims that Thomas didn’t influence him. “I didn’t discover Leon Thomas until 1971,” he says. “The people who had the most influence on me were mostly women like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan. I think women singers have the ability to be more vulnerable than male singers. In order to be a good artist, you have to be in tune with both the masculine and feminine sides of yourself.”
For almost 30 years, Trible has been a force on the Los Angeles jazz scene, specifically for his work with Tapscott. He also became a cult hero to Nino, who invited Trible to perform on his show Spaceways Radio on KPFK-FM. That marked the beginning of his fruitful partnership with Nino and Trible’s immersion in DJ culture.
“I see DJ culture as the next innovation within jazz,” Trible says. “I really don’t think that there has been much that has happened in jazz in terms of innovation. Most of the innovation that comes from jazz has come by way of the streets. When you go back as far as Jelly Roll Morton through the stuff made by John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman-those innovations didn’t come from conservatories.”
Nino adds: “I think DJs have been so involved with preserving jazz music by way of collecting, sampling and resurrecting the careers of some of these jazz artists. Dwight, as a creative person, he’s able to relate to the music of my generation. As a jazz singer, he sees that creativity is never-ending.
The Eyes of Mars
San Diego guitarist Patrick Yandall is an affable sort who is one of many falling through the cracks of radio airplay. He’s composed some of the best smooth jazz you’ve never heard, and he’s even managed to throw in some rock tunes at the back end of his CDs. On his latest, his second for New York-based Apria, he’s discarded the rock tunes all together. But rather than a desperate ploy for airplay, Yandall’s focus on melody and groove over 12 songs make it his best by far. And he’s still able to sneak in some pretty racy guitar playing.
The original tunes are a satisfying mix of R&B, jazz, funk and Latin sounds over a consistently melodious smooth-jazz foundation that never strays from its head-bopping groove. But covers are de rigueur on smooth stuff, of course, and Yandall throws in a few that he’s played in concert for years. “Saturday Love” is his unique interpretation of the 1986 Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis R&B hit for Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal. On “Naima,” the jazz classic by saxophonist John Coltrane, Yandall trades guitar riffs with Steve Ebner’s spirited flugelhorn. “I’ve always loved how a lot of traditional jazz players approached a ballad,” Yandall says. “They would hold back a little on the instrumentation and give the song some musical space. That’s what I wanted to do on this song.”
The last cover is a classic: Carlos Santana’s “Europa,” one of smooth-jazz radio’s biggest hits when it was interpreted by legendary saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Yandall adds a new, sensual twist to the song with a gorgeous flamenco guitar lead. “I play this song a lot live,” he says. “It always has a rock feel to it, but I wanted to play it in a fresh way and in keeping with the overall smooth-jazz vibe of the CD.”
Paul Brown, the Babyface of smooth jazz, has had a hand in more than 40 No. 1 hits, so it was no surprise when he unveiled his solo debut in 2004. It produced a No. 2 single, “24/7,” but Brown found himself in a quandary when performing live: His audience grew restless with all the mellow stuff. With The City, he’s attempted to fix that. “This music is a little more uptempo,” he says. “The first record was more about creating a vibe, and this one was more of a funkier vibe and more about the guitar playing. So now the live show’s got some funk in it, you know?”
None better than “Real Mutha for Ya” by legendary blues musician Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Brown used a talkbox to give the song a special effect, like Peter Frampton on his classic “Do You Feel Like We Do?” Vocals aren’t Brown’s strong point, which is why the talkbox’d song sounds so great. But he does a passable job with vocals on the title track, the iconic 1970s classic by Mark-Almond. Better is an instrumental version of the same tune.
There are other soon-to-be live favorites, but Brown may be forced to admit that what he does best in the midtempo slow burn, shown by the reggae-ish “Cosmic Monkey,” the light groove of “Side Steppin'” with Wendy Moten’s summery vocalese and the Wes Montgomery-inspired moments like the Chuck Loeb cowritten “Las Vegas.” Throw in a few memorable ballads and a peppy guitar version of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Winelight” and it’s clear that Brown has found his niche as a solo player. Add his first-call production duties and it’s also apparent that he’s become one of the most powerful figures in smooth jazz.
The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records, 1966-1970
The music on David Axelrod’s sophomore LP, 1969’s Songs of Experience, carries the weight of serious intention. Inspired, in part, by Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” concept, which combined European classical with American jazz, Axelrod underpinned his Baroque orchestrations with rhythms and melodies that leaned toward rock, pop and R&B. To add more artistic heft, songs like “The Human Abstract,” “London” and “The Divine Image” found Axelrod interpreting the writings of William Blake, just as he did on his equally intrepid debut album, 1968’s Song of Innocence. “I’m a Blake freak. He was very bad at making new friends. I could identify with him, I guess,” Axelrod laughs. “I never went [out] with the guys who could have helped me. I never tried to get involved with presidents of [record] labels.”
An artistic pariah? Hardly. Axelrod’s a heavy influence on hip-hop and electronica producers like 4Hero, DJ Shadow, Madlib and J Dilla. It has less to with his melancholy compositions than with his production aesthetic, which is distinguished by cavernous soundscapes and a heavy emphasis on the drums, bass and soloing instruments. Axelrod says he’s surprised to be so venerated by hip-hoppers. “Everything surprises me today, but I’m often glad of the accolades,” laughs the 69-year-old. “I’ll be a fool not to be. Staying cool with the youth is the name of the game.”
For a concentrated listening of Axelrod’s innovative sound, check out The Edge, a succinct survey of his music that, in addition to selected cuts from his solo albums, includes groundbreaking work he did with Letta Mbulu, Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley, Don Randi and David McCallum.
Besides, helping artists like Rawls and Adderley achieve chart-topping hits like “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” respectively, in 1966 Axelrod launched Capitol Records’ first black-music division. “Starting that division was the only way that I was going to live,” he recalls. “Otherwise, I was going to be dead and gone, because I was making rhythm ‘n’ blues records and there had to be a way to sell them.”
Before arriving to Capitol Records, Axelrod produced bebop albums by saxophonist Harold Land and trombonist Frank Rosolino. Although his solo albums were decidedly more art pop than jazz, Axelrod insists that jazz played an essential role in his music. “For years, all I did was jazz,” he says. “When I first got in the record business, I was so into jazz that I had never heard Elvis Presley. I still probably listen to jazz more than anything else.”