The group that Miles Davis convened for his landmark Kind of Blue sessions, was arguably his best, though the later formation with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, the Tony Williams and Ron Carter was more daring. After the Kind of Blue sessions, pianist Bill Evans and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane went on to become giants in their own right. Alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley also had a career of some distinction until his untimely death in 1975. As Amiri Baraka suggest in his work, Coltrane and Adderley really represented the aesthetic tension in jazz that would explode in the 1960s. While both of their sounds were deeply indebted to the blues (folks forget that ‘Trane got his start in one of those Hammond B-3 combos that could be found in any black urban community in the 1950s), Coltrane used the blues as a foundation for his esoteric sensibilities, while Adderley never really ventured far from the blues form. Given the high-brow critical sensibilities that have dominated jazz criticism of the last 40 years, Coltrane has legitimately been elevated at one of a handful of truly innovative figures in jazz, while Adderley’s legacy has been given short shrift. Adderley’s signature tune “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” written by the Austrian born keyboardist Joe Zawinal was the best example of an artist who tried to keep jazz relevant to a black community and others, who were at the time more in tune with the sounds emitting from Stax, Motown and Chicago labels like Brunswick, Vee Jay (which distributed the initial state-side releases of The Beatles) and Chess. Despite the powerful embrace of Coltrane’s music by black nationalists during the 1960s, Adderley, like fellow “honker” Lou Donaldson, David “Fathead” Newman, and Hank Crawford tried to “keep it real” by keeping it soulful and accessible. It was this sound that was embraced by first generation “smooth jazz” artists like the late Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn. Following on the heels of their Smooth Grooves: Jazzy Soul series, Rhino has released the three-CD compilation series Smooth Grooves: Smooth Jazz.
Disc one begins with Ronnie Laws’ “Friends and Strangers,” the title track from his 1977 album. The brother of flutist Herbert Laws (check his CTI recordings from the ‘70s) and Debra Law’s, who had her only success in 1981 with the classic “Very Special” featuring Ronnie on vocals, never quite received the recognition that fellow saxophonists Sanborn and Washington received. “Friends and Strangers,” represents Laws at his best. The enigmatic guitarist Stanley Jordan is represented with his stunning 1985 instrumental of the Rod Temperton composition “Lady in My Life,” which of course was a top-pop recording for Michael Jackson. Jordan’s “Lady in My Life,” may be the best jazz cover of a pop recording of the last 20 years with the possible exception of Miles Davis’ reading of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Though Bob James is arguably the most important “smooth jazz” keyboardist of his generation, it’s still amazing to consider how widely his music is appreciated. His recordings “Nautilus” (see the Nuyorican Soul version of the tune) and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” were cherished grooves when east-coast hip-hop was still live in the park (See Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” from Raising Hell for confirmation). He checks in on this Smooth Groove volume with his most well known recording “Angela’s Theme (The Theme from Taxi)” Drummer Harvey Mason contributes “Funk in a Mason Jar,” which not surprisingly is the only track that can be described as any thing close to funky. One of the major criticisms of “smooth jazz” has been it emphasis of this smoothness at the expense of the blues melodies and complex rhythms that ground most “classic” jazz recordings. Mason is one fourth of the group Fourplay (James, bassist Nathan East, and guitarist Lee Ritenour, who has bowed out in favor of Larry Carlton, complete the quartet) which is represented with “Bali Run” from their self-titled debut (1991) which also featured vocalist El Debarge on a signature remake of Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance.”
Volume two begins with Grover Washington’s “Come Morning” the title track of his 1981 release. The late Washington, who died unexpectedly last December, is arguably the real “genius” behind the contemporary “smooth jazz” sound. His classic “Mister Magic” (which should have been included) is one of the few jazz instrumentals that have legitimately crossed-over during the past three decades (George Benson’s “Cruising” and “Songbird” from the woefully OVER-RATED Kenny G would be the others). A year after Come Morning, Washington released his most well known recording Winelight, which featured his Grammy-winning collaboration with Bill Withers (who never gets enough props), “Just the Two of Us.” Volume two also includes the title track to David Sanborn’s own 1982 Grammy winning recording As We Speak. Written with bassist Michael Sembello (yes the one who recorded “Maniac,” but who also appeared a decade earlier with Sanborn on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book), it is one of three Sanborn recordings in the collection (As We Speak’s “Let’s Just Say Goodbye,” and the Marcus Miller penned “Straight from the Heart” from Voyeur and later featured on the Sanborn/James collaboration Double Vision are the others). The late George Howard, who also died unexpectedly last year, is also featured with his remake of the Lionel Ritchie/Greg “Mouse” Phillinganes (musical director of the now defunct Vibe talk show). The late keyboardist Richard Tee and follow studio musicians guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale, and drummer Steve Gadd among others, comprised the group Stuff, who conclude volume two, with “Sometime Bubba Gets Down.”
The well regarded fusion band Spyro Gyra opens the collection’s final volume with the title track to their 1981 recording Freetime. Also included is one of two recording by keyboardist Dexter Wansel (finally Wansel gets some luv). “Theme from the Planets” is taken from his best recording Life on Mars (1976). Hiroshima, who are more popular than most folks want to admit, contribute “One Wish” from their 1985 recording Another Place. Jeff Lorber and Najee also make expected appearances with their tracks “Wizard Island” (title track from 1981) and “Tokyo Blue” from Najee’s 1990 recording of the same title. In some regards “smooth jazz” is an acquired taste. The purists deride it because much of it is legitimately “elevator” music that bears little resemblance to “real” jazz, meanwhile its popularity means way too many people are introduced to “jazz” (repeat after me, Kenny G is NOT a jazz artist) on “lite-jazz” stations like NYC’s CD-101 (the only place where you are likely find Luther Vandross, John Tesh, Basia, Anita Baker and Yanni all on the same playlist and I’m not sure that’s a good thing) which rarely if ever play recordings by Ellington, Brubeck, Miles or Weather Report for that matter. Nevertheless, Rhino has again put together a solid collection that, no matter what your taste, will prove very useful at that next dinner party.