Paul Hardcastle: The Snoozejazzmaster

You’d slide out of your chair too. From boredom.

Jazz: noun, often attributive \’jaz\ a type of American music with lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play

Jazz. Say the word. J-A-Z-Z. Paul Hardcastle calls his side project “The Jazzmasters.” If he means he plays instrumentals, it is. If he means truly understanding the idiom, it’s not.

A lot of jazz albums end up in my mailbox.  A few are good.   Some are terrible.  There are some rare gems, but most are competently mediocre.

The Jazzmasters VII is total shit.   It is dull beyond belief.   It is tedium, tiresome and the embodiment of the worst of snooze jazz.   It didn’t even hold my interest long enough to get me to hate it.

The not-so Secret Sauce of Hardcastle’s success is his music is designed, calculated, formulated and manufactured so as not to deviate from the template. There is no discernible difference between a Jazzmasters release and a Hardcastle solo joint. They are interchangeable and the sound faithfully follows Hardcastle’s freeze-dried jazz/chill formula. This sort of Tinker Toy, generic pap is popular in the same way McDonald’s french fries are popular: all the consumer must do is consume. Whether it provides any nutritional value is purely secondary.

The titles are generic. “Unlimited Love,” “Soft Rain” and “Starlight Express” sound like names for bottles of perfume. Songs start, stop tinkle quietly and fade away. There isn’t a single hook or a spontaneous moment. There are no twists, no turns, no diversion, no digression, and no deviation, only cold efficiency.

To be a jazz master shouldn’t you actually play jazz?

If you’re a fan of this sort of thing and dig Hardcastle’s chilled out drizzle and you’ve consumed his past product here’s some more of the same old same old. At this point in his career, Hardcastle can be described as one football coach described the other team: He is who we thought he was. Only in the most liberal sense of the word can the sound recordings of Hardcastle be even remotely considered to be any sort of “jazz.”

It is false advertising to proclaim there are any masters of jazz on The Jazzmasters. Hardcastle certainly isn’t interested in lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play. This is background music. It’s too mechanical, too bloodless  and too flat-out lazy to be anything more than empty sound.

Duke was a jazz master. Miles was a jazz master. Thelonious was a jazz master. Paul Hardcastle is about as much a jazz master as a Kardashian sister.    Before he dubs himself a “jazzmaster” he should learn how to play some first.

Track Listing: Unlimited Love; Rhythm of Life; Free to Fly; Starlight Express; Soft Rain; Domino Effect; Pulse of the Universe; Unlimited Love (the Strings), Come On; Breathe; Echoes of Eternity; Rhythm of Life (Chill Reprise)

Personnel: Paul Hardcastle: unspecified instruments; Rock Hendricks: saxophone; Paul Hardcastle,Jr. : saxophone idea (1); Maxine Hardcastle: backing vocals (2); Cindy Bradley: trumpet (1); Margo Ledue: backing vocals (3)

Record Label: Trippin n Rhythm Records

A different version of this review originally published at All About Jazz.

 

Jazz Needs Fewer Critics and More Fans

“Gimme a good review, Jeff!” You got it, George.

It’s been a little quiet around here.  I wasn’t planning on taking a Christmas break, but the demands of work and home call and would not be denied.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Either you’re going to do something or you’re not. If you really want to drop 25 pounds or find another job or scale the Himalayas then you will. Or you won’t.

A new year doesn’t just mark new beginnings, it can mean the end of old ways and old relationships. That’s why 2013 will be the year I stop reviewing jazz.   I’m  not having a crisis of confidence and I haven’t given up jazz in favor of death metal or country  music.   It is time to put a fork in it.   After a decade of writing and listening to jazz, I’ve used up all the words I have.  I don’t have an original thought left in me.

For months now there has been a half-dozen albums sitting on my desk waiting for me to review…and waiting..and waiting.   Some of the CDs are quite good actually.  A few are okay and one or two are totally lame.   My problem is I can’t work up any enthusiasm for even the ones I like.  It’s not exactly writer’s block.   I’m numb to it and in some ways that’s worse than not being unable to come up with 500 words for a review.

You! Go out and listen to some jazz!

I’ve contributed to All About Jazz since 2006 and written 102 reviews and several interviews. The career-spanning conversation I had with the .great George Duke was one of the best I’ve ever conducted and after it was published I knew I’d never write another for AAJ. It was epic in length, exhaustive in the research and limited in impact.  The Duke interview generated over 17,000 page hits. That’s a nice number.  For a blog post.  In relation to the time and effort I put into it the result was a big disappointment.

That’s was the point where I began to wonder, “Does this really make any difference to anyone?”

After close to a decade of writing reviews for AAJ and Jazz Review.com, I’m gratified for all the music I’ve been allowed to hear and the artists I’ve been allowed to interview. Speaking with Patti Austin, Keiko Matsui, Harvey Mason, George Benson, Rachel Z., Everette Harp, Gerri Allen, Cheryl Bentyne, Jane Monheit, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jessy J., Nestor Torres, Chris Standring, Al Jarreau and Cindy Bradley among others was big fun. Musicians are my most favorite persons to interview.

Yet I’m frustrated that the following of jazz is so small. I’m frustrated when an artist asks me what the best venue for live jazz in town is and my answer is “There isn’t one.” I’m frustrated even when I give a jazz release a four-star rating, it will be nearly impossible to walk into what’s left of the music section of a Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Barnes & Noble and buy it.

Check out Billboard’s 2012 Year-End Charts for Jazz Albums and you know what sold the best?  A Michael Buble Christmas album!   Michael Buble?  Are you yanking me?

Can the savior of jazz get a chair?

It gets worse.  The top Five is rounded out by Duets II by Tony Bennett, Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney, Dead Sinatra’s Best of the Rest, and That’s Life from Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., whom I’ve never heard of, but I guess he was on “American Idol” so that makes him a big deal.   The first album I’ve even heard of is Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society at No. 6 ( and I thought it was lousy).

My favorite jazz recording of 2012 was Najee’s  The Smooth Side of Soul which came in at #26.   It’s been that kind of year.

Jazz is not dead. It’s not even sick. As long as there are young artists still playing pianos, strumming guitars, pounding drums and blowing horns, the tradition carries on. What I fear is jazz being ignored. You don’t hear it on the radio. You never see it on television. Jazz is not the music of the young. It’s a tough time to be a fan if you don’t live in a city with a jazz scene or radio stations that still program it.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to Hiromi’s  “Move” upcoming in March.    The Japanese piano virtuoso has been a consistently interesting talent whose rise I’ve followed since 2003.    When Hiromi released her third album Brain in 2006,  I positively bubbled with excitement.   THIS is why we love jazz. It’s exciting to see an artist develop. It’s thrilling to hear how self-assured and confident a group of musicians can become when they learn, grow and develop their talents together. It’s a joyous and satisfying experience when it all comes together in a burst of aesthetic brilliance. “

I meant every hyperbolic word, but I don’t get that feeling as often from as many jazz artists any longer.

I may not give up critiquing jazz entirely, but I will ring down the curtain on my AAJ contributions. My taste in jazz  always were more mainstream than the majority of their writers.   I know a lot about jazz artists, but many times AAJ’s annual  “Best of” lists  didn’t have a single name on it I recognized.   There isn’t much use for someone who prefers  Fourplay,  Jeff Lorber or Norman Brown to some Yugoslavian thumb piano player.

My love for jazz  still runs strong, but I’ve run out of words to express that love.  I began covering this music because I wanted to spread what Kirk Whalum calls “the gospel according to jazz.”   I’m still  excited by its endless energy and uncanny creativity, but I have doubts I’ve been as effective advocate for jazz as I hoped I would.  Looking at  what is currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts and it’s more like “snooze jazz” to me.

Maybe what jazz needs are fewer critics getting the music for free and more paying fans to keep it alive.

Jazz doesn’t need saviors. It needs supporters.

Ladies Night at the Jazz Club

"Keep playin' that rock n' roll..."

Here’s a pair of CD reviews that appeared on All About Jazz and since they usually pop up in strange places on the web, I might as well run them on my own site before finding them stuck up somewhere else.

I’m starting to find quotes from my reviews showing up in the promotional materials for jazz artists.  I guess I should feel flattered but it just seems a bit weird.   On the other hand,  it’s nice to be taken seriously.   Every now and then it even gets me into concerts so there is that.

HIROMI – VOICE (Telarac)

f there’s no guitar are you playing rock n’ roll? If there’s no vocals does it make any sense to call an album Voice? Sure it does because after all, this is a Hiromi record and, while there is no guitar within earshot, there is plenty of rocking and rolling going on.

Voice is not—repeat—not a rock album or a jazz-rock album—or fusion or any other such hybrid. It’s a jazz record and the seventh Hiromi album is much like the six preceding it: High on energy and higher even still on innovation, improvisation and originality. The concept behind Voice is Hiromi’s belief that the voice that never speaks can be the most powerful of all.

Rock isn’t just turned up guitars and grown out hair. It’s every bit as much about attitude. Or just call it swagger. Hiromi’s approach to playing piano is to play with passion and vitality with a little swagger thrown in and what comes out is an album that, when it’s not in your ears, is in your face, demanding rapt attention.

It rocks, because Simon Phillips plays drums not like he’s part of a jazz trio, but still gigging with The Who, Judas Priest and Toto. This is not just Hiromi’s album, but Phillips’ as well, as he makes his presence felt on every track. In the absence of a screaming guitar, Phillips pounds and thunders away on what is best described as “lead drums.”

The overall effect is pretty amazing. “Flashback” kicks off with Hiromi on the low end of her piano and, as Phillips and Jackson come in, it’s off to the races, with the pianist and drummer sharing the leads while Jackson holds down the bottom. On “Desire,” Hiromi and Phillips duke it out in a piano vs. drums battle that is pure fun. Phillips gets multiple opportunities to run through his repertoire, and he doesn’t seem to mind one little bit. With Phillips in the drum chair, Voice features some of the toughest and most vigorous drumming on a jazz record since the prime of Billy Cobham‘s solo career.

Phillips was recommended to Hiromi by bassist Stanley Clarke, which figures, since Phillips played with guitarist Jeff Beck on There and Back (Epic, 1980), and Hiromi covered Beck’s jazz-rock classic, “Led Boots” on Beyond Standard (Telarc, 2008). Bassist Anthony Jackson has a more traditional role, but gets his licks in as he steps in for Clarke on “Labyrinth,” a composition Hiromi penned for The Stanley Clarke Band. Jackson previously appeared as a guest musician on Hiromi’s Another Mind (Telarc, 2003) and Brain (Telarc, 2004), and while he doesn’t dominate the proceedings as much as his band mates he doesn’t blend into the wallpaper either.

Even on the solo piano piece, “Haze,” Hiromi busily explores just how many preconceptions she can blow with her weapon of choice. Beethoven didn’t know anything about the blues or jazz, but Hiromi does, and her finger work proves it on “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathetique,” along with some subtle embellishments from Jackson and Phillips.

No vocals, no lyrics, no guitars. No problem. It’s not rock n’ roll but Voice still rocks.

CINDY BRADLEY: UNSCRIPTED (Trippin’ N’ Rhythm)

Every now and then a musician gets bold and breaks the mold. Cindy Bradley’s Unscripted is the sound of an artist just going for it. The nearly eight-minute “Prelude/Massive Transit/Interlude” suite that kicks off the album is like a rush of cool air to the face on a hot summer day. It’s fast, furious and funky, with Bradley blowing the hell out of her trumpet as she dukes it out with producer Michael Broening’s keyboards and Tim Veder’s sax solos.

Don’t be confused, though. “Massive Transit” is smooth jazz, but it’s still a bit more ambitious than an ordinary bit of funk. It builds upon itself and keeps going with one hard groove after another, goosed along by Broening’s horn arrangement and a bass line by Ernie Donadelle that is irresistibly compelling.

Next up is an impressive take on Wayne Shorter‘s “Footprints” and a gorgeously lush version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Bradley interjects some moody blues soloing over Broening’s arrangements, as they do not try so much to interpret the originals slavishly note for note as to pay homage to two familiar tunes.

The first half of Unscripted is so strong that the middle sags a little, as “Lifted” sounds pretty, but breaks no new ground. If “Deja Blue,” and “Pink Slip” are a bit more familiar, they also give Bradley a chance to show off her trombone chops. The final three selections—”Inevitable,” “Interlude” and the resplendent “One Moment More”—bring a satisfying close to Bradley’s sophomore effort and will continue to make her one of the most respected artists in contemporary jazz genre.

Bradley’s confidence as a player is apparent on every track of Unscripted. On the previous Bloom (Trippin’ n’ Rhythm, 2009), she hung back and deferred to Broening and the other musicians as though she was following their lead. That’s over now, as she delivers fully accomplished, award-winning music. Bradley was named the Best New Artist at the 2010 American Contemporary Jazz Awards, and followed that up with two Oasis Awards, for Best Brass Player and Best New Artist.

The title is slightly misleading. There may not have been a script for Unscripted, but there is definitely a plan and Bradley is executing it to perfection. This is a highly rewarding sophomore effort from Bradley and establishes her as someone on the short list of jazz artists well worth following to see what comes next.