The best musical collaborations typically reflect some sort of connection between the principal artists, as well as a melding of disparate perspectives. That’s certainly the case with keyboardist Brian Simpson and guitarist Steve Oliver. Veteran hitmakers on the contemporary-jazz and smooth-jazz scenes (Simpson is also saxophonist Dave Koz’s longtime musical director), the two musicians possess distinct voices and points of view, and on Unified, they skillfully blend their different sounds to create a collection of charming, stylistically varied contemporary jazz tracks.
Simpson and Oliver have an easy and palpable camaraderie, which produces some interesting musical dialogues. They alternate melodies on the grooving, infectiously hooky title track and finish one another’s musical sentences on the plaintive “The Road Never Ends” and the shimmering, haunting “Last Summer.”
Bubbling electronica rhythms meet Latin melodies on the atmospheric “What the Wind Knows,” while the tropical “The Way Home” evokes the feeling of a day on the beach. Conga rhythms and funk grooves underpin the blues-tinged “Fired Up,” which finds trumpeter and labelmate Rick Braun joining the fun, and a dark groove prowls beneath the cinematic “Café du Monde.”
Simpson and Oliver also exhibit a flair for the romantic. “A Distant Love” finds Oliver’s delicate guitar and Simpson’s plaintive piano melody bathed in vocal-accented atmosphere. On the ballad “And Then You Loved Me,” they strip away the lush arrangements and glossy production featured on the rest of the album. A piano/guitar/bass trio piece that also includes bassist Alex Al, the tune closes Unified on a graceful, quietly lovely note.