The best selling jazz records these days are those that are included in the category smooth jazz. Any survey of the current scene has to take into account this despised category. The fact is that this saccharine child of our times bears no more relation to modern jazz than Glenn Miller’s sound did to Count Basie’s or George Shearing’s to Bud Powell’s. Jazz historians will undoubtedly assign to the genre the same inferior status that now is accorded to the pop-jazz of earlier eras. Nonetheless it has its champions and, very reluctantly, I think I am on my way to becoming one.
So, is it possible to enjoy smooth jazz and retain any credibility? Probably not. Is it even possible to enjoy smooth jazz? Yes, if you remember certain basic rules and principles.
1) It is pointless comparing any smooth release with John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus or any “proper” jazz. It will fail miserably by comparison. This is unsurprising because smooth jazz is not really jazz but a blend of ‘80s Penthouse soul, jazz fusion and AOR. Just because a tune is played on a saxophone it is not therefore jazz. If you want to make comparisons with an earlier generation then, at the most, Ike Quebec and Ahmed Jamal are more fitting reference points than Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp or Keith Jarrett.
2) Smooth nearly but not always means bland. However, smooth itself need not be an insult. Marvin Gaye was smooth. Some smooth jazz manages to be smooth in that non-pejorative sense.
3) If you see nothing redeeming in the Crusaders, Grover Washington, Patrice Rushen and the whole Quiet Storm/safe soul genres of a decade or so ago then there is nothing in smooth jazz for you. Those are the major influences on most current SJ product.
4) SJ is easy listening music. Don’t expect abstract, boundary-pushing material combined with innovative or controversial lyrics. Do try to think of it as chill-out music for thirty-somethings. It will not make you like it any the more but will help you understand its appeal.
5) SJ has a more soulful and a more AOR wing. If you like soul go to the former if you are fonder of Phil Collins, Sting, Steely Dan, etc. head towards the latter. In the middle comes the cool/anodyne jazz-muzak of people like Joyce Cooling and Larry Carlton, which forms the bulk of SJ radio playlists. This is supposed to appeal to all but is actually the tendency “real” jazz fans should leave completely alone as it will upset them greatly.
6) Avoid Kenny G.
The three albums up for present consideration belong on that soulful side. None is perfect, even with the above considerations taken into account. A soul fan reared on mid-‘80s soul and fusion could make one very good album out of selected tracks from each. What is surprising is how different they are from each other, given their common aesthetic goals and musical inspiration.
The weakest (and most dated) is former Yellowjacket and premier league session drummer Ricky Lawson’s debut effort. Even so, this largely vocal album has two or three excellent mellow performances amid a plethora of MOR dross. The list of guests is illuminating—a who’s who in smooth circles—Gerald Albright, Phil Collins, George Duke, Sheila E, Donald Fagen, Boney James ,Al Jarreau, Kirk Whalum and Vesta Williams for example. Some of those names will have you running for the hills and when the album gets too Albright or Collins influenced (Lawson has a long working relationship with both) quite rightly.
Oddly the album’s stars, all vocalists, do not feature on the cover (the others do). Bridgette Bryant and The Emotions and Sean Holt feature on some classy eighties two-step material that had certain soul fans salivating when the album first appeared four years ago as a Japanese-only release. Bryant and The Emotions are totally convincing on the opening and best cut, “Real Love”, while Holt scores heavily with the just-this-side-of-forced “Sweet Love” plus the Stevie Wonderish “So Special”. These would grace any Quiet Storm compilation and have that grown-up, well-articulated quality that fans of Luther Vandross, Freddy Jackson or The Emotions themselves will appreciate. The jazz content is nil. This is a pop record with soul elements—some of them very good, most not. The other tracks are too syrupy or too hackneyed even for pre-Jackswing soul heads and will be poisonous to anyone else.
If Lawson has stayed obstinately in the decade that laid the groundwork for much of SJ’s musical palette, sax player Boney James has become very conscious of new trends—too much so for some SJ commentators. In short, Mr.James has discovered R&B. Jaheim and Dave Hollister replace the likes of Shai and Phil Perry as vocalists. English listeners particularly will notice a sort of watered down nu-jazz beats element. The stateside success of Down to the Bone has not been ignored by the commercially astute Paul Brown who again produces what will probably be the best selling SJ jazz for some months.
If you consider Wilton Felder and Grover Washington as jazz musicians, and there are good grounds for doing so, thenRide is closer to the real thing. However James, who has a fine tone, stays on the safe side of those two even at their most fusionist—so it’s still a reasonable distance from the genuine article. He plays melodically and restrainedly over some subdued beats—it is modern fusion. Grover 2001 without the power. It is good background/cafe bar music—not too sickly, but rather dull for the most part.
It does however feature Trina Broussard, whose “Inside My Love” was one of the best soul songs of the 1990s. “Heaven” isn’t quite in that category but is Smooth in all the right ways and yet again raises the question as to why this sublime vocalist has yet to release a full length set. Some breathy sax does the track no harm at all and the arrangement is pure and clean. Nothing to do with jazz of course but a Modern Soul ballad-stepper that will be played for years to come.
Jaheim and Dave Hollister are OK but really did need tougher rhythms. As for the instrumentals it really is Washington/Crusaders country—poised, pleasant but a little too undemanding. You also do get weary of the same uninventive sax lead. Less James and more of the other players as soloists would have helped, as is often the case with this genre. Still it does all have a genteel funkiness and a swing to it that makes sense—it doesn’t build up too much steam but has sufficient bounce to avoid elevator status. The odd Latin touch doesn’t go amiss and although there is something very calculated about the project, as a late-fusion set it is both an adept and an inoffensive example.
If its fusion with a pedigree you are after, try the Lesette Wilson. Disgracefully, Livin in the Zone is only her third album in 20 years, although she was at the heart of the fusion explosion, not least through her playing on Tom Browne’s seminal “Funkin for Jamaica”. This is a more robust affair than James’ or Lawson’s discs—harking back to jazz-funk and Dave Grusin/Quincy Jones but also containing some nu-soul and R&B elements. It is more uneven than the James set but livelier by far. Shelene Thomas as guest vocalist is a star and if you can cope with the heavy-handed plunkiness of Wilson’s piano playing there is much pleasure to be had from this set.
The plink-plonk style is a problem. It’s the sort of sound you used to get on Gene Dunlap and Patrice Rushen albums (there’s a Patrice tribute here) and it will stop a lot of listeners at first hearing. It kind of grows on you though. Two brave covers (Stevie’s “Too High” and Maze’s “Before I Let Go”) are the test. They sound awful at first but the groove wins out over the groan-factor after a while. It needs some volume this one—which for an SJ effort is a compliment in itself.
Again it’s the vocal cuts that make the record worth tracking down. Thomas delivers “One More Time” and “Live Your Dreams” with a soulfulness and a sassiness that Angie Stone would recognise as kin. J.Phoenix also impresses with his offbeat, post-D’Angelo crooning on “One”. Away from the singers, there are a couple of good, Dave Grusin-sounding, downtempo tracks, “Home Invaders” and “Wine Down”. On the up numbers a cheery, slightly cheesy low-budget air prevails but, more positively, a sense throughout that this is a style of music played for pleasure rather than profit.
The overall conclusion is inescapable. Although everyone involved in making these records has some relationship with jazz, these are no more jazz albums than were Tamla Motown’s ‘60s singles although Earl Van Dyke and the studio band were all jazz musicians. Drop the idea that this is washed-out, diluted jazz and you will get somewhere. Remove the J word altogether, soul-fusion would be better than jazz-fusion as a term. Junior Walker and Lonnie Youngblood never laboured under the burden of being jazz players. They made some pretty good records though (alongside some blundering pop monstrosities). Modern black pop music for those old enough to remember jazz-funk—that’s what these records represent. Throwaway stuff in the main, but more than competently assembled and with a few gems buried here and there. Let go of the insidious comparisons, tread carefully and you might surprise yourself.