What's So Smooth About the New Smooth Jazz?
Recent work from a group of young musicians, beautifully represented by the new Supreme Sonacy from Revive Music, makes it cool again to put out jazz that wants to be popular.
As jazz categories continue to melt away — between “inside" and outside/avant-garde playing, between electric and acoustic bands, between straight swing and every other kind of rhythmic propulsion — it may have been inevitable that a previously gnawing distinction would finally melt, as well.
That distinction is between the kind of commercial instrumental funk radio programmers called “smooth jazz” and the real thing.
For “real” jazz fans and critics, this was a distinction that could hardly disappear. The difference, it seemed, was between substance and fluff. If it was any good, well, it wasn’t “smooth”. I’d have been the first to agree with that notion.
But now I’m not so sure.
New, Fine, Powerful Jazz Borrows from ... the Smooth Stuff?
A recent spate of wonderful recordings by top young musicians — records with sharp improvising, interesting composing, hip arrangement — has also been drawing textures and feeling from the old radio format, even as the format itself has largely died all around the country. (See "R.I.P. Smooth Jazz, 1985-2008?", PopMatters, 16 April 2008) Is this new work suffused with the pop appeal of recent R&B? Does it use shimmering keyboard textures? Does the rhythm section supply supple backbeat more than 4/4 swing? Are there even sunny, melodic saxophone lines? Yup, yup, yup, and yup.
This jazz critic likes it. Omigod, I like smooth jazz? Or is this somehow different?
The first bars of “Half Steppin’” from Coming of Age, the new recording by bassist Ben Williams, ring with a Rhodes keyboard sheen, and Marcus Strickland’s tenor sax comes in light and sweet. “Black Villain Music”, which opens the disc, puts Strickland on soprano sax, which might be a bit “smooth”er still. Like so many of the classic smooth records, Coming of Age has one track that features a soul singer in a performance that is decorated with funky electric bass, synth squiggles, and a real easy groove.
The synthesizers that wash over your ears in the first seconds of Donny McCaslin’s “This Side of Sunrise” (on his new Fast Future) are reasonably ‘80s-ish. McCaslin’s tenor sound is bright and pungent, so is this also something smooth-ish? The title track is full of dramatic melodic movement bathed in synth as well. “Love and Living” moves in the same cinematic way, reminiscent of a mid-career Pat Metheny album if not Kenny G. When “Love What Is Mortal” contains a flower-like female voiced intoning, “I love you more than you know”, you’ve got to wonder, is this a trend?
Two years ago, bassist Derrick Hodge (Terence Blanchard, Robert Glasper) put out a Blue Note release that dipped into hip-hop and jazz, adding traces of funk, soul, and even folk music. Some of the tracks tended toward a kind of pleasing sonic wallpaper that was just a bit too sweet for my taste? Then, last year drummer Otis Brown III released the terrific The Thought of You, which was produced by Hodge and mixed tense up-to-the-moment playing with some hip-hop and some gospel and some appealing melodic groove/smoove. Brand new this fall, drummer Kendrick Scott will release another Blue Note disc produced by Hodge that — guess what? A tune that features vocalist Lizz Wright (“This Song in Me”) is gorgeous and radio-radio, with a sensitive arrangement that goes down mighty smooth. The ballad “Lotus” has a meditative quality, almost New Age, that mystical predecessor to Smoothness.
Brand new, there's a compilation album from the amazing folks at Revive Music that's intended to be a thesis statement for this relatively new wave of jazz.
Not Smooth, No, But Something Comfortably Catchy That’s Still Rooted in a Wide Swath of the Past: Supreme Sonacy from Revive Music and Blue Note Records
So, what’s going on here?
It’s not a resurgence of actual smooth jazz, though those artists are still out there. These new, young musicians are different and, yes, making better music — exciting music. They're unafraid to appropriate some of the textures from smooth jazz and, more importantly, that old format's impulse to make a connection to a wider audience and to use the pleasures of pop music in doing so.
Most of this work is being done by a younger jazz generation that seems increasingly unafraid of some association with pop textures and tropes and places this history directly alongside knowledge of and respect for “classic jazz". This group is splendidly represented on Supreme Sonacy, Vol. 1, a recording that compiles work by a team of artists associated with Revive Music, working in partnership with Blue Note. Revive, guided by producer Meghan Stabile and a team of musicians who work as a kind of casual collective, is shaking up jazz any way you see it.
The first tune on on Supreme Sonacy is a perfect summary of the intent and techniques of this new wave. “Trane Thang” is a tune by trumpeter Igmar Thomas, a crackling young player from San Diego who's equally at home writing for a hard bop quintet or playing in Lauryn Hill’s touring band. Working with Marc Cary on Fender Rhodes and Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, he has crafted a tune that begins with a crashing rhythm section that evokes Coltrane’s classic quartet but then uses the pounding fourths in Cary’s left hand to set up a hurly-jerky theme that alludes to hip-hop as much as bop.
Thomas’ improvised statements are squeezed through some wha-electronics, reminding us of '70s Miles Davis, which makes sense because Thomas’ theme then cleverly morphs into “Pinocchio”, the standard that Wayne Shorter debuted as a key part of Miles’ band. This old tune, however, is played in a utterly up-to-date way, with Cary jabbing Rhodes chords and drummer Justin Brown syncopating the groove in a manner that could only be played in the last ten years, a stuttering funk that owes as much to Public Enemy as it does to James Brown.
It’s thrilling to hear, but you might argue that even its “pop” elements are more Steve Coleman M-Base than they are Kenny G. Fair enough.
Go one track further into Supreme Sonacy and you have something decidedly “smooth”er. “Let’s Wait Awhile” is, yup, that sweet pro-abstinence track from Janet Jackson’s Control (1987). Here, it’s still a melodically strong feature for the vocal of Christie Dashiell, but it gets a daring and different arrangement from Strickland, whose tenor sax and bass clarinet parts create a jabbering counterpoint to a texture that might as well be called what it is: smoooooooth.
The “Celebration of Life Suite” by pianist Ray Angry and singer Nadia Washington also features a sweet soul vocal wedded to sprawling McCoy Tyner-esque piano, galloping improvisation from tenor sax titan Chris Potter and electronic drums manned by Daru Jones. Is this purist-approved jazz? No. That’s exactly why it's Revive’s thesis statement, a mash-up of Pharaoh Sanders and Sade, a collision of Wonder and Trane, a place where there’s no shame — or lack of substance — in appealing to a smooth groove.
Here’s a different Supreme Sonacy take on that collision: Brandee Younger is a hip young harpist who has played with Ravi Coltrane and Jack DeJohnette. Her track, “Dorothy Jeanne” is a light and funky groove that features herself and a pretty flute solo by Anne Drummond. The groove (with the superb Dezron Douglas getting down on bass) is terrific, but I can’t say it’s all that different from a track by Earl Klugh or The Yellowjackets. I dig it in it’s smoothness.
Supreme Sonacy comes at listeners from at least four angles. More traditional jazz fans should hear trumpeters Keyon Harrold and Maurice Brown and alto sax player Jaleel Shaw dig into Lee Morgan’s classic “The Procrastinator” but in a new triple meter arrangement by bassist Ben Williams that swings as hard (harder?) as the original’s 4/4. Afraid of “jazz”? This album has the above-mentioned entry points through Janet Jackson and soul. Do you want a taste of the classic(al)? Check out Terry Slingbaum’s “Water Games”, based on Ravel’s “Jeux D’eau” and featuring a seven-piece string section as well as Casey Benjamin (of Robert Glasper’s band) and Troy Roberts (a sterling Australian up-and-comer) on saxophones.
The fourth angle is hip-hop, and not just in the way that the funk poly-rhthyms of so many tunes (including the one based on Ravel) derive from hip-hop’s distinctive patterns. The whole of Supreme Sonacy is set up like a classic ‘80s or ‘90s album, with remix artist Raydar Ellis introducing the tunes with a vocal “skit” and then following most tunes with a shorter remix version that abstracts the original into a fresh piece of sonic art. We even get a “good night” ending track in which one of the proprietor’s from Wally’s Cafe, a jazz club in Boston where many of these musicians (who studied at Berklee) cut their teeth, I assume.
From Many Directions, a New Path Forward?
There is, jazz fans know, a bevy of worry about the future of the music. Clubs close, record sales are a whisper, even Europe no longer pays like it once did. Older musicians fear the death of a grand tradition.
But if you spend an afternoon with the likes of Igmar Thomas, Marcus Strickland, Ben Williams, and Meghan Stabile, your spirits lift. I had the chance to watch them all record at the Converse Rubber Tracks recording studio in Brooklyn last fall, creating a library of deep jazz grooves for a free sample library being made available to musicians. Stabile was busy at her laptop promoting the new Otis Brown record, and the musicians were improvising together as if Freddie Hubbard had spent time in P-Funk, lighting the Mothership with bop. It’s a coalition of talents that impresses: multicultural, crackling with humor and intelligence, not even slightly lazy. Ambitious to do great things.
Though I’ve focused on Supreme Sonacy, the recent work from Kendrick Scott, Donny McCaslin, Ben Williams, and many others is working the same territory. It's not smooth jazz, no not really, but it affirms the notion that jazz has a future beyond museums. Like all the “post-modern” arts, this new music discovers the new layers and depth by combining histories, by layering and collaging elements of tradition and innovation, “high” and “low” forms. It’s no coincidence that these musicians grew up on the ingenious sampling of hip-hop even as they trained to play like Armstrong, Parker, Trane, and Hancock.
This is a generation of musicians that is working hard without any boundaries or despair. Jazz isn’t popular? They know that, and they just might change it.