Dave Koz’s Bummer of the Summer

“Strange. The longer I play the smaller this saxophone gets.”

The idea of a quartet of top smooth jazz saxophonists gathering for a super-session must have seemed like a great idea to Dave Koz. Why not invite Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair and Richard Elliot to join him for a sax summit? Hang out, play some together, have some laughs. It’ll be fun. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit actually. The biggest problem with Summer Horns is it suffers from the mistaken assumption that if some is good, then more must be better. But more isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more than what is necessary and that is why Summer Horns doesn’t work.

There will be a some folks mad at Koz about this album. Namely, every smooth jazz saxophonist who wasn’t invited to play.
Yet even swapping out Koz, Albright, Abair and Elliot for Euge Groove, Eric Darius, Walter Beasley and Jessy J., probably doesn’t change much. The songs would probably stay pretty much the same as the horn arrangements by Greg Adams, Tom Scott, Gordon Goodwin, Marco Basci and Albright achieve competency without ever being impressive.

Discerning fans will notice the songs chosen for the album are crossover jazz (Ronnie Laws’ “Always There” and “Rise” by Herb Alpert), rock and soul bands that featured horns, (Chicago, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder) and a few standards for good measure.

The all-covers concept may have been driven by the desire to dress up familiar favorites in new technology or maybe it was a matter of the various artists not having the time to compose and learn all-new, original material. Since there is a follow-up tour scheduled what’s more likely to please a crowd: a bunch of new and unfamiliar tunes or moldy oldies they know by heart?

There is a vague whiff of calculation to this approach because even though Koz, Abair, Albright and Elliot’s interpretations pale in comparison to the originals the chance to see all four sharing the one stage will be an irresistible hook for both promoters and concertgoers.

As a Doobie Brother and as a solo act Michael McDonald was the epitome of blue-eyed soul, but that was a long time ago. Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard to Go” sinks as McDonald strains for the soul that used to come easily. Jeffrey Osbourne is a veteran crooner who does a little better with “God Bless the Child” but not much better. He doesn’t have much of an affinity for Billie Holiday’s definitive classic and Koz and company fare little better.

More successful and Jonathan Butler and Osbourne’s backing vocals for “Hot Fun In the Summertime” and if there weren’t enough horns already Brian Culbertson drops in to add a trombone solo. The horns-and-bass version of “Take Five” is sincere in its wish to pay respects to Dave Brubeck, but hasn’t Paul Desmond’s classic been overdone by now? A persistent criticism leveled at smooth jazz artists is they take the path of least resistance and here the charge sticks.

The lone original moment comes at the end with “Summer Horns” but by then it’s only a teaser of what this grand collaboration might have been if Koz and company hadn’t chosen to play things both straight and safe.

The urgency to please instead of intrigue the listener is what makes Summer Horns a frustrating affair. It’s akin to a summer blockbuster movie with a star-studded cast, eye-popping special effects that kills an hour or two and leaves no lasting, long-term impression. The talent of the stars is undisputed, but nobody seems on the verge of breaking a sweat.

This is an album that will sell big, but aims small.

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.

This part didn’t.

There was more I wanted to say about Dave Koz and Friends and the Summer Horns album that I could not say in the All About Jazz review.   Here on my personal blog I say what I want.

And what I want to say is how much I could not stand this record.

I like smooth jazz, but boy, does it wear me out trying to defend it from those who call it unlistenable pabulum.   It’s not, but albums like Summer Horns are impossible to defend.   Everything  you hate about smooth jazz is here in big heaping helping of different ways to SUCK.

How much sax is too much sax?

I find what a lot musicians are doing  to be completely uninteresting to my ears and jazz is certainly no exception.  Nothing bugs me more than guys like  Koz  whom seem capable of more, but settle on uninspired and unachieving crap like his  Summer Horns project which relies on a gimmick of pulling together four smooth jazz sax players, going through the motions on some lame cover version of someone else’s hit songs and then just noodle until it sells like crazy (or what passes for crazy in an age where nobody buys albums anymore).

It’s a sin and a shame to make music this dull.   It’s not a crime, but it should be.   This is not the worst album I’ve heard from a major act in ten years of reviewing recordings, but it could be the most lethargic.   Playing loud and piling on some lame solos doesn’t mean you’re kicking ass.   Simply calling Summer Horns a “bad” album doesn’t get close to summing up my feelings.  Bad is the wrong word.  Dreary is the word.  This is the kind of record that people who love jazz hate with a passion because it isn’t jazz.   It’s instrumental music.    Which ain’t necessarily jazz.

Too many musicians learn a trick and then they repeat that trick if it proves to be successful.   “They liked that one so I’ll give them another one just like it.”   This is a trap and artists big and small have walked into it.  I know this to be true.  Jazz is too much of a limited niche market for anybody to deliberately make lousy music and I truly believe  nobody makes a bad album on purpose.

But lazy, half-ass, going through the motions albums that nothing but product like a bad of McDonald’s fries?   Yes.  That absolutely happens all the time.

My father always said bad music will drive out good.   He wasn’t  entirely right about that.  Boring music  drives out both.

Albright and Brown Are Bringing It “24/7”

Two great taste sensations together.

No instruments dominate smooth jazz more than the guitar and saxophone, which is why Gerald Albright and Norman Brown, two of the genre’s most dominant players, make such an inspired pairing. Both musicians are on the top of their game and while 24/7 breaks no new ground, it does provide perfect listening for warm summer nights when a cool groove is required.

Multi-instrumentalist Albright’s array of saxophones and robust tone tends to slightly overshadow Brown’s deft guitar playing at times, but never overwhelms it. Brown recedes a bit from a soloist to sideman, but seems comfortable allowing Albright to do the heavy lifting while he follows his lead.

There’s a definite “back in the day” vibe to 24/7 with ample amounts of funk, soul and a taste of quiet storm to “In the Moment,” “Champagne Life” and the title track which features the striking vocals of the saxophonist’s daughter, Selina Albright.

Above all, Albright and Brown are experts at entertaining the audience. There’s no pretense of anything historical or monumental in 24/7. The duo have secured their place in contemporary jazz and even if they aren’t breaking new ground, they clearly have a synergy that makes this stylish collaboration work so well.

So cool you can turn your air conditioning off.

On a personal note, a few years ago I caught  Norman Brown doing it live at the Columbus Jazz & Rib Fest and Albright last year at the gone and now forgotten Vonn Jazz and Blues Club and he torn the roof off the sucka.     They are doing some gigs together to promote their collaboration, and it’s just too bad they are playing at Jazz and Rib Festival this year.    The weak line-up of acts isn’t giving me much reason to grab some lawn chairs and a cooler and venture out into the summer heat.

Guess I’ll just stay home and turn up 24/7 in the comfort of my home.  Spare myself of paying for parking, fighting for a good spot to hear the show or not having enough wet-napkins to wipe the barbecue sauce off my fingers.

Track Listing: In the Moment; Keep It Moving; Perfect Love; Buenos Amigos; Tomorrow; Yes I Can; 24/7; Champagne Life; The Best Is Yet to Come; Power of Your Smile

Personnel: Gerald Albright: alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, flutes, bass guitar, percussion, programming; electronic wind instrument; background vocals; Norman Brown: lead guitar, rhythm gutiar; Tracy Carter: keyboards (1, 7, 8, 10); Rick Watford: rhythm guitar (1, 4, 8); Jay Williams: drums (1, 4, 7, 8); Herman Jackson: keyboards (2, 3, 5. 6, 9): Byron Miller: bass (2, 3, 5, 6, 9); Charles Steeter: drums (2, 3, 5, 6, 9) ; Ramon Ysalas: percussion (2, 5, 6, 9); Rochella Brown: vocals (3); Demille Cole-Heard: vocals (3); Phil Davis: keyboards (4); Selina Albright: vocals (7, 8) ; Ricky Lawson: drums (10); Mark Cagill: strings, harp and bell programming (10)

Originally published at All About Jazz.


Bob Baldwin: Betcha By Golly Wow – The Music of Thom Bell

New urban jazz keyboardist Bob Baldwin disdains the “smooth jazz” moniker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t familiar with the conventions of the genre. He’s got ideas that don’t have a thing to do with cranking out infinite versions of the same old sound with a few new riffs. Baldwin is a bit more ambitious than that and with Betcha By Golly Wow: The Songs of Thom Bell he honors one of the most successful songwriters of 1970s soul music.

Though not intended as the successor to Baldwin’s last tribute recording, Never Can Say Goodbye: A Tribute to Michael Jackson (Trippin n’ Rhythm, 2010), the new album is tighter and more focused than last year’s Re-Vibe (Trippin n’ Rhythm, 2011) which meandered at over 70 minutes in length. Here Baldwin is working with superior material from Bell (and his collaborator, the late Linda Creed) and the results are reproductions that pay respectful homage to the originals even if they don’t quite match them.

Most of Bell’s biggest hits are included. “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “People Make the World Go Round” became staples of soul music when The Delfonics and The Stylistics performed them and Baldwin’s interpretation augments his keyboards with contributions from guitarists Russ Freeman and saxophonists Gerald Albright, Marion Meadows and Paul Taylor, among other guest musicians and vocalists.

There are some curious choices in material as Baldwin bypasses Spinners smashes “I’ll Be Around” and “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?” in favor of the corny “The Rubberband Man,” which is salvaged by Ragan Whiteside‘s flute and Paul Brown on guitar. Bell himself penned a new song, “Gonna Be Sweeter.”

“Break Up To Make Up” is the album’s centerpiece with Will Downing‘s vocals gliding over the scorching beauty of Albright’s alto sax and augmented by six background singers as Baldwin and the rock-solid rhythm section of drummer Buddy Williams and bassist Anthony Jackson keep everything in the pocket. Downing has lost a bit as he falters toward the end, but he’s still one of premier crooners working today. Vivian Green interpretation of “La La Means I Love You” is pretty impressive and she’s a vocalist deserving of wider recognition.

The creator of “New Urban Soul” chillin’.

If the album has a problem, it is that there is a certain coldness due the reliance upon electronic “bass and drums” instead of live musicians. It may be more efficient to employ synthesizers, but for anyone familiar with Thom Bell’s lush arrangements in his heyday, the change in instrumentation is noticeable and jarring.

Baldwin may have seized upon a blueprint to build his future recordings around. He can alternate between his original works, and tributes to other unsung songwriters whose success in crafting hits for others denied them some of the recognition they deserved. Potential possibilities could include the music of Gamble and Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Maurice White, Prince or Stevie Wonder.

If he follows that career path and make albums as pleasingly solid as Betcha By Golly Wow: The Songs Of Thom Bell , Baldwin will be a very busy man for the next decade or so.

Tracks: Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time); The Rubberband Man; La La Means I Love You); Gonna Be Sweeter; Break Up To Make Up; You’re As Right As Rain; I’ll Be Around; Bell & Creed; Betcha By Golly Wow; People Make the World Go Round.

Personnel: Bob Baldwin: piano, bass, drums, percussion; keyboards, vocals, background vocals, horn arrangement; Russ Freeman: guitars (1); Ragan Whiteside: flute, vocals (1, 2, 6); Preston Glass: keyboards, loops, horns, clavinet, drums, vocals, additional keyboards (1-4, 6, 7); Dennis Johnson: drums (2), drum loop (4); Paul Brown: guitars (2); Vivian Green: lead vocals (3); Gemma Burns: background vocals (3); Will Downing: lead vocals (5); Gerald Albright: alto saxophone (5); Buddy Williams: drums (5); Anthony Jackson: bass (5); B.J. Nelson, Paulette McWilliams, Audrey Wheeler, Craig Derry, Curtis King, Vanesse Thomas: background vocals (5); Paul Taylor: soprano saxophone (6); Marion Meadows: soprano saxophone (7, 10); Tony Lewis: drums (8); Toni Redd: vocals (9); Bob Francheschini: saxophone (9); Onaje Allen Gumbs: arrangement (9); Chembo Cornell: percussion (10).

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz