What can you say about someone who is known as the “the Babyface of Smooth Jazz”? According to his record label—and who am I to doubt the wisdom of GRP Records?—Paul Brown, the “oft-imitated but never equaled” producer, has won two Grammies and scored 40 “number one airplay hits” for other Smoooooove artists. What can you say about a guitarist whose first disc, Up Front contained a “hit single” titled “24/7” but who wanted to craft an album of music that would be more appropriate to an upcoming Las Vegas gig?
I know what to say. You can say that the whole thing sounds horrible. You can say that Smooooove Jazz has reached a low point when it finally hands over all the reins to a producer who is making music that is supposed to be “groovin’” for a gig in Fun City. You can say—and I will—that producing credits for the likes of Boney James and Rick Braun are not really “credits” but debits.
Look, the first track on The City is called “Cosmic Monkey”.
Do not play with me. I know you’re not a big Smoove Jazz fan, so you’re probably making that up. I mean, the phrase “cosmic monkey” is meaningless and—quite possibly—the worse song title in the history of western civilization.
Sorry. It’s true. It has Jeffrey Osborne singing wordlessly on the chorus, synthesized drums, odd whooshes in the gaps to give it all a kind of, uh, cosmic sound. By the way, all the words in the song titles that contain “i-n-g” have been shortened to “i-n-apostrophe” to make clear that they are supposed to sound cool. “Side Steppin’” and “Jumpin’ Uptown”.
Look, fine. There are more important things to dislike about this record than the spellin’. For example, are there any cheesy or derivative vocal tracks?
Absolutely! The title track, “The City” has it all. It’s a faux Michael Franks tune. You remember Mr. Franks—“Popsicle Toes”? Had this thin but pleasing voice, a knack for sambas, and a wicked wit to his songwriting? Well, this bossa tune is by Jon Mark, and the publicity material calls the singing “cognac-smooth”. But actually it’s just a rip-off of someone else. Not to mention the canned background vocals, which either were created on a synth or, well, could have been.
A-and you know what else? That phrase “cognac-smooth” gives you a perfect sense of what the marketing of this music is all about. Smoooooooove Jazz was created as the contemporary version of what used to be called “Easy Listening” music. Man, my parents used to listen to that stuff—Montovani, the 101 Strings, the Percy Faith Singers, real elevator music—but rock just knocked it out of the park. The Smoove Stuff is sold to today’s middle-agers with phrases like “cognac-smooth” because it’s supposed to a “cooler” signifier of adulthood. This is the stuff you can put on during your dinner party in the condo and—hey!—it has a backbeat too.
I agree. The publicity material also makes a big deal out of Paul Brown being a “French wine connoisseur, with thousands of bottles in his collection (favoring French Burgundy)” and “a major tournament poker enthusiast who plays regularly throughout his hometown of Los Angeles for big stakes”.
Wow! What an incomparably cool guy Paul Brown is! I want to be him! I want to have him over to my L.A. condo for dinner! I want to hang with him and his cool Smoove Friends!
But this is a Smoove Jazz disc with a sense of history. Mr. Brown covers the Grover Washington, Jr. track “Winelight” here. GRP publicity sez this track “channels” Grover through “tasty club beats”.
Well, let’s not disrespect Grover. Cat could play, even if is the symbolic Pater de la Smoove. Can this guy Brown play?
Sure. He sounds like George Benson on downers. Bell-like tone on his Gibson L5, which GRP claims he calls “my soul-mate”. There’s another tune on here, by the way, that Brown says “reminds me of an old jazz melody from Thelonious Monk”, though it sounds (a) indistinguishable from all the other tunes on the record, and (b) like just another set of blues licks with the occasional Wes Montgomery octave lick thrown in. He also covers Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “A Reel Mutha for Ya”, which brings us back to the spelling issue, I guess.
The wah-wah guitar is in effect. Okay, but is there anything on this disc to genuinely enjoy?
Sure. Mr. Brown has a nice touch with sambas. The second track, “Hello Again”, is a nice bossa with a melody that moves in a lovely way from the A to B section. The guitar solo (entirely over an out chorus) isn’t a whole lot more than noodling, but who said it was supposed to be Coltrane? It’s a soft ice cream cone of pleasure. Not bad. “Old Friends” has a kind of slinky funk feel, with the Bone-stein making breathy on his tenor.
That’s it. I mean, you should hear the flute part at the beginning of “Side Steppin’”—it’s sort of like that song “The Hustle” from the ‘70s.
Do the hustle!
That’s the one. Just a reminder: this kind of music is very popular. Our critical barbs will have no effect on sales. We are powerless in the face of its bland power. Final word?
There is nothing more to say. I am speechless. Cover your children’s ears. The Cosmic Monkey is on the loose.
// Notes from the Road
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