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Smooth Sailing With No Crew

Are smooth-jazz bands dead?

With apologies to the Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra, it’s apparent that real bands such as these still-roaming dinosaurs are more dated than Kenny G’s late-’80s curls.

If you have a significant number of smooth-jazz CDs on your shelf, they’re probably dominated by strong veteran solo artists such as Richard Elliot, Dave Koz, Rick Braun, Marc Antoine and Jeff Golub.

None of these artists have what you’d traditionally consider a band. Their liner notes are all dominated by players such as Luis Conte, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion; Michael White, Steve Ferrone and Lil’ John Roberts on drums; Alex Al and Nathan East on bass; Ricky Peterson and Mitchel Forman on piano and organ; and Paul Jackson Jr., Dwight Sills and Tony Maiden on guitar.

There are plenty of others, but these particular players stand out like drum-machines in intimate jazz clubs.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran. Fresh-faced saxophonist Mindi Abair enlisted Peterson, Ferrone, Castro and Sills for her well-received It Just Happens That Way (GRP). Golub, Antoine and Peterson also stopped by. Pianist David Benoit, not so fresh-faced anymore, rounded up Maiden, Da Costa, Conte, Ferrone and East for Right Here, Right Now (GRP). Braun, Euge Groove and Brian Culbertson also popped in for a sec.

Could it be that the powerful “smooth-jazz mafia” has subtly persuaded would-be bands that they’d have no chance in today’s market? (The “smooth-jazz mafia” is what some in the industry call the core of smooth-jazz musicians living in California’s San Fernando Valley.) Could there be skeletal remains of promising bands submerged under the Los Angeles River?

Probably not. But there are some valid reasons why smooth jazz is primarily a studio-driven force now.

“Smooth jazz is like the jazz tradition this way,” says Carol Handley, program director for Seattle smooth jazz station KWJZ. “It’s most common to have a leader pulling in the best folks for each track. A lot of them have studio résumés that are a who’s who of jazz, pop and smooth jazz.”

Andi Howard, who founded Peak Records in 1994 with Russ Freeman of the Rippingtons, agrees. “Radio and the smooth-jazz audience are more receptive to CDs with guest artists, whether they’re vocalists or instrumentalists. But you find this in all music genres. We do get a lot of demos from bands, but they’re not original. It’s also very difficult in today’s music climate to break new bands.”

Agrees guitarist Marc Antoine, “It’s less problematic for a record company to deal with one entity. When I tour I have my band, and some of my old band members are on my new CD, but it obviously helps to have stars on your CDs.”

Smooth-jazz stars such as Antoine usually have a “road band” for their tours. But it’s unlikely that these musicians will get much time in the studio.

“The ‘guesting’ thing is the same phenomenon you see in R&B and hip-hop, where the focus is also on solo artists rather than groups,” says Rob DeBoer, who along with Tony Grace brings a mix of studio musicians into the studio to record as the band Four80East. “This is largely an effort by the labels to capitalize on the fan bases of other artists. I’m not saying that none of these pairings are born out of a genuine desire to play with one another, but you wouldn’t see so much of it if someone didn’t think that it would move units. The fact that these are solo artists makes the process that much more natural and easy to understand for the consumer, which is why you don’t see it as much in more band-oriented genres like rock.”

Guitarist Steve Briody, an independent artist, knows the importance of established players to newcomers like himself. Briody’s prominent on the cover of his debut CD, but he’s smart enough to put the names of guests Eric Marienthal, Joel Rosenblatt (Spyro Gyra) and producer Bill Heller (Rippingtons) out front. After all, there you are in the record store: Are you going to buy a CD by a guy named Steve Briody?

“Bill and I have gigged with each other in different situations in the New York area for years, and we’re all comfortable playing with each other,” Briody says. “With Eric, it was simply a matter of Bill asking Eric if he was interested in playing on a few tracks, and both Eric and Bill play with the Rippingtons, so it was fairly easy to arrange. Eric was nice enough to lay down some tracks for an unknown guitarist whom he had never met. Having Eric on the CD was important to me not only because he’s an amazing player, but also because a musician of his stature can really help the credibility of a newcomer like myself. It really meant a lot, and as a result, that credibility factor has, to some degree, opened some doors as far as reviews, airplay and getting booked at jazz festivals.”

One smooth-jazz artist who does have a band is guitarist Brian Hughes-but his CDs are released under his own name. “My musical concept is a ‘band’ thing,” he says. “The players who make up Along The Way [A440] are my touring band, and my previous CDs before my move to L.A. from Toronto were all recorded with members of my touring band.” Hughes does have two prominent guests on the CD. “I just call the players I think will be right for the tune, and that’s what I did with Chris Botti and Eric Marienthal. I was delighted to have such great players for the sessions.”

As in any musical genre, bands take a lot of commitment. A workable amicability helps. The road to fame is littered with the remains of promising bands that broke up.

“Can you form a smooth-jazz band and make money today? Probably not,” says Jason Miles, who has produced such concept CDs as Celebrating the Music of Weather Report and A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins (both on Telarc). His next solo project, Maximum Grooves (Telarc), will feature established solo players Gerald Albright, Jeff Kashiwa, Michael Brecker and others. “It used to be different. Guys would hang around together; they had a concept. Crazy as it sounds, jazz used to be a progression, guys learning and getting better together. Why do you need a band today? Anyone can get a software program like ACID and just create your own band on a computer.”

Miles thinks there are too many new musicians in smooth jazz today. “Everyone wants a record contract instantly-no one wants to play in bands and work their way up. The herd needs to be thinned out a bit.”

Still, there’s no getting around a big reason why everybody guests on everybody’s records, which negates the reason for bands: They like each other and they are often neighbors-mostly in Southern California but also in New York.

“It’s a small community of musicians,” says leader and super-guest artist Eric Marienthal. “Living in L.A. I have all these musicians to choose from. It breaks up the records when I used different guys on different songs.” Marienthal’s latest CD, Sweet Talk (Peak), is produced by Miles and features the two Ls: Jeff Lorber and Chuck Loeb.

Guitarist Richard Smith enlisted Kenny G on sax and Dan Siegel on keyboards for his first CD, which he says helped his career. “On one side is the more shallow value-added reason to have special guests on your CDs,” he says. “The other side is that an established artist often has a wonderful voice on the instrument, and a composer can’t help but to think of bringing that voice in as an ingredient in their creation. Why ask a studio trumpet player to do a ‘Chris Botti thing’ on a track when Botti might do it himself. Many smooth-jazz musicians are studio aces themselves. And, having worked with Eric Marienthal, I know for sure that he’s the best Eric Marienthal imitator I have ever heard.”