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It's easy to dis smooth jazz, especially now that much of it just sounds like instrumental urban contemporary R&B (which is the most redundant label in the world). It wasn't always like this though.

Jazz has gone through a great many progressions and derivations. This is its nature. Jazz is SUPPOSED to reflect its times and the people who create it. That's how you end up with albums like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters or Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. A lot of the jazz we think of as "classic" now was, upon its original release, considered by many practitioners at the time much the same way a lot of people see smooth jazz now: catering, odd or un-rooted. Some of that may have been true, but some of that experimentation got us The Shape of Things To Come.

While it is a big leap from “reflecting one’s time and influences” to yet another instrumental version of a Janet Jackson song, smooth jazz is not without merit. For instance, a lot of the people playing smooth jazz can actually play. Don’t be fooled by the dulcet tones of Kenny G as we know him now; when he wants to, the guy can play (see Jeff Lorber’s Wizard Island). Not all of the music is elevator muzak. Some of it is genuinely ear-catching and features some good playing.

So here is a list of ten smooth jazz records that you might actually like, even if you don’t like smooth jazz as a whole. If you do like smooth jazz and you don’t have these albums, you should get all of them now.

A note: this list will lean toward older work, the 80s and 90s specifically, when smooth jazz was finding its way out of the fusion mold and firmly onto the radio, but before the musicians had started to chase the money as a prerequisite to entering the studio at all. The list is in no order, and I’ll also feature the video for one killing song off of the record. What more could you ask for?

1. Grover Washington Jr. - Mister Magic
The man that got the ball rolling. At only four tracks – and one of them the aggressively complex “Earth Tones” - it’s not as smooth as jazz was going to get, nor was it the goal. Grover was still laying his chops pretty thick on this record even while the grooves remained downright danceable. But make no mistake: you could put this record on right now, dim the lights, and a 70s house party will spontaneously combust in your basement.

(I wanted to post "Earth Tones" but couldn't find a video for it so you get "Black Frost" instead.)

2. George Duke – Night After Night
Twenty smooth jazz records came out last week and 19 of them were trying to be a George Duke record. The difference between them and Night is that Duke wasn’t copying anyone but himself. After years of straight jazz, fusion, funk and R&B excursions, Night nailed the formula...and everyone’s been drinking the potion ever since.

3. Norman Brown – After the Storm
Even at his best Brown will always be compared to the least of George Benson, which is unfair because when he wants to, the guy can write a really good song…certainly to the equal of anything Benson’s written in the last twenty years. This album is full of strong playing and smart renditions, tempered just right for lovers and haters of smooth jazz.

4. Najee – Share My World
A lot of smooth jazz artists start out kind of groovy then get all lactose intolerant, smoothing out anything resembling an actual riff in later records. Najee’s debut album, Najee’s Theme, was a big hit and compared to much of his catalog, remains engaging. But Share My World is his best full record to date. Smooth, but enticing. It’s like drinking a Long Island Iced Tea while watching everyone else drink milk.

5. Chick Corea’s Elektric Band – Eye of the Beholder
This one was tough. Corea doesn’t really do smooth jazz, and this record has a lot of bite for the genre. That said, it has a lot less bite than a typical Corea record, and songs like “Passage” and “Trance Dance” would slide comfortably into any smooth jazz playlist.

6. Joe Sample – Spellbound
This album was inescapable for a few years after its 1989 release. It had a ton of divergent guest artists and somehow Sample made it all work while still managing to hang on to the piano chops that make him so great. It also has the most lush production of any album on this list, velvety almost.

7. Fourplay – Fourplay
A smooth jazz supergroup that probably had to try real hard not to groove too much to create this wholly satisfying record. They couldn’t stay in the pocket of righteousness after this record (too much success, methinks), but it was a nice try.

8. Yellowjackets – Four Corners
While more progressive than the stuff before and after it, Four Corners has the sheen and hooks you need to fit the bill…while sneaking in a TON of chops, groove and fist-to-mouth “woo” moments.

9. Spyrogyra - Rites of Summer
By the time this album came out in 1988 Syrogyra had fully exorcised the funky grit that made their earlier albums kind of cool. And while this isn’t a 100% great album (sorry, “Daddy’s got a New Girl Now” and “Shanghai Gumbo”) there is enough here in this vein of note to recommend. I enjoy listening to “Captain Karma”, “Claire’s Dream” and “No Man’s Land”…a lot. This is probably the highest ratio of good to bad songs on any album of theirs in 23 years.
(Video not perfect - this drum cover's got it wrong - but as close as I could get.)

10. Grover Washington Jr. – Winelight
This album is almost single-handedly responsible for giving the industry the actual musical DNA it would need to tap to create a bona fide smooth jazz format: a pinch of singing, a dash of synthesizer, nothing too fast, ice it with effects and boom! Smooth jazz to go. Credit where credit is due: this album still grooves.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 26th, 2016 05:19 am (UTC)
Great choice of smooth jazz. I have some of these musicians and their music on my YouTube playlist. Thanks for sharing!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )