It’s hard to believe that Kenny G is 51 years old but, after releasing 26 albums for Arista, he is starting a new relationship with Concord Records. Concord, by the way, is about the only record company supporting jazz in a big way these days (thank God for an independent label!). I haven’t really listened to Kenny G since his Kenny G Live album from 1989, and if it wasn’t for my emusic subscription, I probably wouldn’t have picked this release up. But Concord has been on a pretty good roll with their releases, so I decided to give the smooth one a shot. This is actually a good album, and this is coming from someone who felt Kenny’s best years were when he was still using his last name and playing along side a guy named Lorber. The album starts off with a “Sax-o-loco” that sounds a lot like “Tequila,” a real upbeat Latin number, but it’s on the next tune, “Ritmo y Romance” that I really sat back and listened hard. Kenny’s as good as anyone in contemporary jazz on this one – maybe even better; no repetitive, simple smooth (boring) jazz here. There’s a little Samba, some Salsa, Spanish and Latin flavorings all tossed together to create a very seductive sounding album, where the energy is bubbling just beneath the surface ready to breakout. There was a time, 40 or so years ago, when the jazz labels, routinely put their stars in a Latin or Bossa setting, even Concord did it 20 and 30 years ago. Listen to Kenny tackle the standard “Besame Mucho” and you’ll understand why it was such a popular idea. If you haven’t listened to Kenny G in awhile, or got tired of all the holiday songs and standards he was putting out, or just gave upon him as I did, give Rhythm & Romance a listen. You just might be as pleasantly surprised as I am.
In the liner notes to Play, the latest Jeff Kashiwa release, writer Brian Soergel writes “a new creative direction in contemporary jazz – a shaking free of abundantly creative talent in a genre sagging under the weight of yesterday’s rules – is forcefully redefining a style desperately in need of fine tuning.” With a little altering, that could be the motto of this site! In this case, he’s referring to the saxman’s desire to simply have a good time recording Play. Mission accomplished. Kashiwa lets it rip with a 14-track template for what a smooth jazz recording maybe should be. Kicking off with a one-minute improvised prologue, he immediately follows with two uptempo compositions – the joyous “The Lucky One” and jamming “Movin’ Up.” The album’s fun vibe only slows for the melancholy “Fall,” the lazy weekend flavor of “Blue Jeans,” and the ballad “Once Again” (the latter two feature guest Russell Ferrante). Kashiwa says “I think I’m conveying that I’m beyond playing it safe and keeping the spectrum limited to one color. I wanted more of a group vibe.” True – there is little programming. Almost all of the tracks are played by his Coastal Access band. Of special note, Play does not have one single vocal track or cover song.
I haven’t paid close attention to smooth jazz in the last few years but when I did tune in (to XM’s Watercolors station), the catchiest tracks were usually Jeff Kashiwa’s. He has emerged as one of the top pop-jazz composers. His use and arrangements of horns makes a good track great. I recall his assistance with the memorable horn arrangements on the Live In L.A. release by his former band, the Rippingtons. I’m happy to hear him employ that talent in his solo recordings.
Play is a fitting title. As Kashiwa says, “The word was like a mantra throughout the process of making this album. The red light went on and all of the musicians gave incredible performances straight from the heart.” It is out now on the Native Language label.
If you ever wanted to know how the term “smooth jazz” came about, Marcus Miller has posted the answer to that on his forum. He also writes about its evolution and current state. It’s the best information I’ve seen about that genre and it comes from a guy who knows (having produced and played with Miles, Sanborn, Joe Sample, Grover, and countless others).