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Mark Douthit: Groove

Mark Douthit

This represents a new venture from fledgling label Hillsboro, a move from traditional to smooth jazz. It will probably pay off. Douthit is a respected and capable session musician and the record has daytime radio playlist written all over it. Yet Groove is a fairly mundane example of what, by and large, is a mundane genre. Converts will be few and even the already converted are unlikely to put this workaday effort right at the top of their wants list.

There are positive features to the Nashville sax-man’s new solo project. He is, as all smooth jazz types are, a proficient and tidy player. Then there is the lack of pretension that the genre encourages. I know that most jazz critics find smooth jazz exploitative and cynical; I actually think it’s disarmingly honest. This has, of course, to be offset by the concomitant conservatism and bland-out factor. Formulaic, instrumental pop-soul appears to be the essence of smooth jazz, and Douthit does nothing to disturb that impression. Nonetheless, he has a good feel for a ballad and his other strengths are those traditionally associated with the best session musicians, economy and precision.

Douthit, who switches easily between tenor, alto, and soprano, has performed with more big stars than it is possible to list. Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Billy Joel, Don Henley, Donna Summer, Elton John, and Vanessa Williams are just some who have used his talents. You can see from that sample the territory we have entered here — well-crafted mainstream pop with an adult and discreetly soulful slant. Both the tunes and the arrangements on Groove reside safely within those borders, so don’t expect anything discordant, eccentric, or groundbreaking (you didn’t anyway, did you?).

Roughly two-thirds covers and one-third originals,Groove is nearly all sax plus small group backing — Douthit taking the “vocal” and melodic line, as is the generic norm. The artists covered are Steely Dan, EW&F, Stevie Wonder, Gino Vanelli, Bill Withers, and Bobby Caldwell. No surprises there, either, although I wonder how long-term Steely Dan fans are reacting to their erstwhile avant-rockists becoming a mainstay of the smooth scene. Not well, I suspect. “What a Shame About Me” is the Dan tune that gets the Douthit treatment. Nice guitar lick, horrible ’80s synth, and direct R&B-ish blowing from Douthit. I don’t know the original, but if this is an accurate reading, then the tune’s a rip-off of “Dancing in the Street”. It’s OK but forgettable, as are “Use Me” and “Can’t Hide Love”, both of which could do with a rest from being endlessly and pointlessly recycled.

By the time we reach a competent but dull take on Caldwell’s sublime “What You Won’t Do for Love”, it is tempting to dismiss the album as a complete failure. Encouragingly, Douthit’s own compositions go some way to rescuing the set. Not, however, through the leadoff single, “Voice of the Heart”.

This insipid ballad was inspired, apparently, by Douthit’s reaction to the TV reportage of the Gulf War. Now, why that sickening media-fest should make one want to produce a slushy Kenny G tribute is beyond me, but that’s what you get. “Voice of Balding Sales Executive Driving Home to the Suburbs” would have been a better title.

On the other hand “Sunset Beach”, “Linda”, and “What Was” are very good indeed. “Sunset Beach” is updated cool jazz, with a fine melodic line and a sensual slightly reggae-fied lilt to it. “Linda” is a superior pop-ballad, like the Crusaders in their most Californian laid-back mode. Douthit takes his lead vocal line into something close to genuine soloing here and is very convincing. “What Was” has the air of a film signature tune and boasts the most sophisticated arrangement on the album. It is still very middle-of-the-road fare but meticulously played and not lacking in charm.

A couple more covers (rather better than the earlier ones) and the album is over. It washes over you well enough, jars in one or two places, and leaves neither lasting damage nor any great sense of wanting more. It is simply another smooth set and there are more than enough of those in circulation. For devotees only, I think, but you do sense Douthit is capable of something better and he certainly ought to chance his arm with his own material on his next outing. Mind you, with risk-taking so low on the smooth jazz agenda the next outing will probably be exactly like this one, which is a shame and, dare I suggest, a bit of waste of a potentially distinctive musician.