The Lowdown - CD reviews, part II: jazz-fusion / smooth jazz

Last updated: October 21, 2000

All CD's reviewed by Glenn Hoskins & Barry Towler exclusively for RECORD CORNER, which is one of the leading soul shops in the world. These reviews are not featured in our printed issue.
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CLUB 1600 - Club 1600 (N-Coded Music)
Argentina – Give Love A Chance – Where You Want To Be – More Precious Than Gold – Whispers Goodnight – Stay – Spend The Night – 1600 Broadway – So Not So

Rex Rideout is better known as a soul music producer – his work with artists such as as Will Downing, Angela Bofill and Peabo Bryson are brilliant examples of quality modern soul. Rex turns his attention to this eclectic collection of soul / jazz songs which is more than another string in his bow. The CD cover proudly highlights who is guesting on this impressive CD: Roy Ayers, Randy Brecker, Will Downing, Rohn Lawrence, Maysa, Vinx and Alyson Williams. Amongst many others, that is. Musically, if you loved the recent CDs by Vesta Williams, Will Downing, Brian Culbertson and Dunn Pearson then this is a natural CD to add to the collection. For my money (and there isn’t much of that, I can tell you!) the best tracks can be found clustered on the first half of the CD. The instrumentals sit nicely with the vocals, as they should do on a well balanced album. "Argentina" is simply gorgeous as far as instrumentals are concerned, with Britain’s very own Maysa topping the vocals on the dreamy "Give Love A Chance" – a song that will appeal to many of her fans and more besides, I dare say. Fans of Roy Ayers will find his "Where You Want To Be" will easily be on par with both his recent sets for AFI Records. Brian McKnight’s "More Precious Than Gold" gets an expert workout by a new name to the Lowdown, Vinx, who is a dead ringer for Will Downing! Don’t be fooled – the real Will Downing appears with Roy on the aforementioned "Where You Wanna Be". Finally, for me at least, "Whispers Goodnight" tops off the real goodies in this bag; an excellent crisp instrumental in the vein of Bob James with the acoustic piano. The cover versions of The Temptations’ "Stay" and Rahsaan Patterson’s "Spend The Night" are OK but don’t and can’t meet the standards of the originals. That said, this is one album I’m sure will be extremely popular, and for very good reason.

GEORGE BENSON – Absolute Benson
The Ghetto – El Barrio – Jazzenco – Deeper Than You Think – One On One – Hipping The Hop – Lately – Come Back Baby – Medicine Man – El Barrio (MAW Mix)
"Standing Together" is a very tough act to follw; that album was the best that I believe the great man has probably ever recorded, and so it is obvious for me that a new album would have a very hard time trying to equal it, and receive the same praise as I had lavished on the last set. This new album is a completely different bag – where "Standing Together" was more vocal and extremely soulful, "Absolute Benson" is very much a jazz album with an odd tip of the hat to classic soul standards such as Donny Hathaway’s "The Ghetto" and Stevie Wonder ‘s "Lately". Comparing the two sets then, would not stand up and for that I am quite thankful and most relieved of such an onerous chore! This really is Benson at his jazziest and his best. It certainly towers over the lame "That’s Right" album by a very long chalk. "The Ghetto" is a MONSTER rendition of the song and is probably one of the better cover versions that I have ever heard. If you loved "Poquito Spanish, Poqito Funk" from the last album, then the Masters At Work collaborations will equally impress. The Latin flavour is strong and is a perfect vessel for Benson’s trademark scat and guitar vocalisations. Kenny Gonzalez and Louie Vega not only create some HOT garage tunes – they can jazz it up with the best of them. No proof of their qualifications is needed than their work on this album. Joe Sample collaborates on the superb outings "Deeper Than You Think", "One On One", "Hipping The Hop" and "Medicine Man" – the latter being my preferred choice. "Jazzenco" is seriously more-ish too and Marc Antoine can take credit for that. Producer Tommy LiPuma has really overseen this project well – it certainly is getting the recognition it deserves. A must.

BONEY JAMES & RICK BRAUN – Shake It Up (Warner Brothers)
R.S.V.P. – Grazin’ In The Grass – More Than You Know – Shake It Up – Central Ave. – Love’s Like That (feat FOURPLAY) – Song For My Father – Chain Reaction – The Stars Above – Grazin’ In The Grass (Vocal)

An interesting collaboration, this. I very much respect both gentleman and as such eagerly awaited the result of their duetting, as it were, on this album. The result is excellent, believe me, and in the main favourites I have selected, their musicianship really works well together – Boney’s tasty sax and Rick’s gorgeous horn work very well together indeed. What transpires is a more interesting and varied album than the usual smooth jazz offering. Sax and horn together really give it a new dimension of listening altogether. "R.S.V.P." and "Grazin’ In The Grass" kick backside as far as groove is concerned. The addition of Rick’s musicianship has elevated the album from a standard but well sculptured smooth jazz album into a more tangible jazz-fusion album with real bite. "More Than You Know" is ultra smooth and sensuously quiet storm material, both Rhone Lawrence and Pauline Ad Costa contributing to great effect. If jazz-fusion is more preferential than smooth jazz then "Central Ave." should satisfy. Paul Jackson Jr does his thing rather well and the atmosphere is much more organic than programmed and is, as a result, fresher on the ear. So can be said for the Fourplay inclusion – you know that the instruments are real and that is a real bonus these days. My personal favourite is the beautiful "The Stars Above". Both Gentleman play their instruments with such finesse and grace that the song alone does them much credit.. I really must say that I enjoyed this CD, as I have had some faith put back into the increasingly dull world of smooth jazz. Both artists can be very proud of their work on this. More like it, that’s what I say. Good stuff indeed.

EUGE GROOVE – Euge Groove (Warner Brothers)
Romeo & Juliet – Sneak A Peak – Vinyl – Give In To Me – Another Sad Love Song – Tenderhearted Lover – Truly Emotional – Truly Emotional – Lay It Down – Summer Stroll – The Last Song

Euge Groove
is the latest young sax player to burst onto an already teeming stage of smooth jazz performers. Some smooth jazz albums fall fowl when they are samey, choc-a-bloc with pedestrian grooves and simply mimic what other artists are doing. Others simply take the genre and really do something with it. I must admit that I am having the stirrings of discontent with a lot of these sets now. Although individually they are great, when you hear four of five different sets which all sound the same…well, I look for something different, perhaps a jagged edge here or there or a creative nook and cranny which appeals to me. That is what I like to highlight on these pages, and especially with this sort of CD. As a CD of the genre it is perfect, if Boney James, Steve Cole or George Howard is your bag then you know what to expect with Euge Groove. That is a solid, comfortable CD, packed with charming tunes and jazzy melodies but with…a little something extra that makes it a shade more different than your average album. Producer Paul Brown has the ability to add that little funky touch to most things he touches – "Romeo & Juliet" has a smooth arrangement with the hint of funkiness underpinning it – the scratchy guitar does it great service. Similarly, "Sneak A Peak" has great wah-wah effects and a funky underpinning groove topped with seamless sax blowing. My personal choice is the sole vocal exercise, "Give In To Me" which is EXCELLENT fodder for the soul lovers – J C Chasez provides an impassioned vocal that sorely needs to be exploited more than it does. "Vinyl" adds contrast with some firmer grooves and "Summer Stroll" offers a warmer melody. All in all, a very good set. More vocals needed, though.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Going Home...A Tribute To Duke Ellington (Platinum)
Going Home - I Ai't Got Nothing But The Blues - Ellington Medly - The Duke - Come Sunday - Swinging At The Cotton Club - Don't Get Around Much Anymore - Smokin' - Bring That Duke - It Don't Mean A Thing
Soul meets zoot suit! An odd, different collection of songs that pay homage to the late, great Jazz Swinger, Duke Ellington. Not knowing what to expect, a quick scan of the artists involved in this project is enough to make you take a second look: for example Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, Take 6 and Gregory Hines all appear on the stompin' big band number "Going Home" - giving it more than a good shot; musically in the tradition of big band and vocally these men are superb; Take 6 especially. Those of you who bought the riotous "Zoot Suit Riot" by The Cherry Poppin' Daddies a year or so ago should especially dig this album. Otis Clay lets rip with great panache on the big number "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues" featuring the pruction of ex-One Way trumpeter Burgess Gardner. Jonathan Butler, Dianne Reeves and Jeffrey Osborne add a lot of sparkle to their Ellington Medly comprising "Daydream", "I Didn't Know About You" and "Prelude To A Kiss". A real monster cut is "Swinging At The Cotton Club" featuring the one and only Jerry Butler and the mighty, mighty Dells - Marvin Junior and the boys really opening a can of whoopass on the arrangement. Talk about Soul Power!!! As far as I am concerned, the best song by a long chalk is the exquisite duet between, surprisingly, Nancy Wilson and Kenny Lattimore. This is one of the best duets I have heard in years - a classy ballad that Ms. Wilson carries off with homnours - the young Soul Man earns much respect too for this. Before the CD ends a real treat is actually a smack-up-to-date street version of "It Don't Mean A Thing" featuring rap from Guru from Gang Starr and a female vocailst called Tashina Daniels. Produced by Dwayne Wiggins this version is great! With production also by George Duke and Kashif also make this CD essential. Essential!!!

TOM GRANT - In Tune (Windham Hill Jazz)
Tune It In - Invisible Man - Generous Heart - Save The Best For Last - Walking On The Wild Side - Black Orpheus - Mysterious Smile - Calling The Spirits - Overnight Sensation - Sing - Firefly
"Lip Service" had a more radical sound from Tom Grant than that of which we are familiar. In fact, it was a good set - although it lacked that 'feel' that his usual albums have provided us. For those who found it too modern or pre-programmed, "Tune It In" is truly a return home to his musical roots; fresh, jazzy and crammed with real instruments. Choppy, sprightly, fresh and, furthermore, consistant is the order of the day. There are no fully vocal songs - the order of the smooth jazz movement seems to be the sweet semi-sung backing vocals. Whatever - this is a smart set and this effect is best heard on the summery "Invisible Man" featuring The Braxton Brothers on sax with vocals by Larry Batiste and none other than "Lowdown" fave, Claytoven! (Simply Soul Flavas III on the way, folks!!!) Perhaps the sheer heat of the music is due to production from Ray Obeido who is a dab hand at the old 'windows down' jazz. Slap bass and cool tincling of the old ivories is the main stay of the funky "Walking On The Wild Side"; a tune that is more programmed than the others, but is nonetheless essential. You are well aware of my liking for the eerie and the spine tingling - "Mysterious Smile" certainly brought that feeling to me. This is a choice tune from Mr. Grant and no mistake. Atmospheric, sensuous and with a programmed backbeat very similar to Kleeer's "Ooooh With You". This song is one to die for! Sublime it sure is, as is "Calling The Spirits" which is serious late night chilled music. Tom Grant has produced a SERIOUSLY strong and essential set for the jazz-fusion lovers among us. I suggest that you do not skip this album - it is one that will still sound strong in years to come. Recommended.

AL JARREAU Tomorrow Today (GRP)
Just To Be Loved - Let Me Love You - In My Music - Through It All - Tomorrow Today - Flame - Something That You Said - Last Night - God's Gift To The World - It's How You Say It - Puddit (Put It Where You Want It)
If Al Jarreau is out seeking nought but the highest praise for his new long awaited album then he has most definitely succeded. His best, most solid and classy albums since the early 1980s, Tomorrow Today serves up 11 SOLID soulful jazz vocal offerings overlooked by the mighty Paul Brown and Barry J Eastmond. This album will receive accolades from all quarters of the wide musical press and it really deserves it. The CD sticker proudly casts the album as a set of "unforgettable new songs for tomorrow, today...the kind that will last forever". One really cannot put it in a better nutshell, and I agree with every word of it. Without failure, every song is an instant winner.
My personal 'cream of the crop' include the luxurious Just To Be Loved with its bright summery harmonica and strings arranged by Jerry Hey; Flame with its early '80s warm Fender Rhodes, and the gorgeous gospel duet, God's Gift To The World with the talented, yet underrrated, Vanessa Williams. Soulful, jazzy, sexy, groovy and topped off by an enormous sense of pleaseure and fun, this CD will really do the business with those of us who know what good music is.
Al Jarreau's classic signature and style is felt instantly and is stamped throughout the CD like a name in a stick of rock. A guest on the CD, and sounding very much like the late, great Grover Washington is Boney James, as one would expect on a Paul Brown production. Tomorrow Today really cheered me up no end - we rarely have a set that shines from beginning to end. 2000 is looking to be a very good year, if all new releases in 2000 are as good as these reviewed this month then what a year we will have! UNMISSABLE and 100% ESSENTIAL.

PAUL TAYLOR Undercover (Peak Records / N-Coded Music)
Aerial - Velvet Rope - Movin' On - Avenue - My Love ( feat. PORTRAIT ) - Alone With You - Code Blue - Indigo - Undercover - Looking Glass
Before you think "Yawn, yet another jaz-fusion sax album" think again. You may be right in your immediate reaction but many a thought such as this has allowed some classic albums to slip by unnoticed, and usually these are the most sought after in years to come. Sporting a vivacious main of rasta hair and looking very moody I was not expecting the sheer soulfulness of this album's songs, and the big surprise was the production credits, which include Maurice White, Bill Meyers, Oji Pearce and the very soulful Portrait. If you're looking for similarities then I would say that Najee was a good one, perhaps even George Howard. With that in mind then, imagine a set of mainly instrumentals awash with fresh sounding summery backdrops and punchy arrangements that are tighter than the top of a Scotsman's purse!
Apart from the Janet Jackson cover song, Velvet Rope , I was very impressed with this album, especially the KILLER ballad featuring the very soulful vocal quartet, Portrait. My Love is one for the quiet storm and is an absolute necessary inclusion for the soul buyers amongst you - much better than the Shai appearance with Boney James on his Body Language album last year. Sexy sax, soulful vocals and a horny arrangement all adds up to a "Lowdown" kneetrembler. It also appears that the group are between labels, shall we say, as Capitol EMI have done a marvellous job of ejecting every black music artist with an ounce of talent that they ever had. I'm glad the fellas are still together and until a good deal comes along for them (which I sincerely hope it does ) then this is the best that we can hope for in the meantime. Excellent stuff, though!!!
Alone With You, Code Blue, Indigo and Undecover are excellent deserts after a vocal main course as that, without a doubt. Please do not overlook this CD.

As Promised (Narada Jazz)
Onward, Upward / Sciroccco /All That I Can Say / A Simple / Song / As Promised / Won't Be A Fool / Chasing Spirals / Buhania / His Coolness / Naima
The Swiss-born Pianist, Alex Bugnon, turns his hand to the Fender Rhodes and therefore opens up a broader and more smoother jazz set than he has produced for a number of years. He is joined by no less than 18 exemplary guests for this CD , musicians of the highest calibre including Gerald Albright, Hubert Eaves IV, Ray Fuller, Vincent Henry, Bashiri Johnson and Branford Marsalis. What strikes me about this album in particular is that is is more consistent than his previous offerings, although where the vocals are concerned there is nothing here that can touch 1991's So In Love or 1993's The Heart Song. However, soulsters Christopher Williams, Lalah Hathaway and Angie B. Stone put in their respective four penn'arth which is very good, but not enough to satisfy a lover af full blown soul / jazz vocals. Mr. Williams' extremely talented and his gutsy cavernous voice is wasted on what is no more than backing vocals, as is Lalah Hathaway who adds much glamour to A Simple Song. More upfront vocals are found on the funky jam Won't Be A Fool, although I get the impression that Ms. Stone has been watching too may Lauren Hill videos as her vocal phrasing is getting more 'street' every time she opens her mouth. Bad move, that. Talking of Ms. Hill, the cover of her tune All That I Can Say is very well covered here, as we would expect from the gentleman, and it goes without saying that it beats the original into the dust.
As far as these ears can be concerned the very best moments are therefore instrumental. The king of these compositions is his marvellous working of Coltrane's timeless Naima which has been transformed into a slow, dirty groove; a far distant cousin to Norman Connors' hectic 1993 Brazillian version! An excellent set for the instrumentals, and one of his better sets. Shame about the lack of full vocals, though.

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