Crawford, Sample and Vaughn: Collaborations and Breakthroughs

Randy and Joe have forged a musical marriage that works.

Randy Crawford &  Joe Sample: Live

It’s a slight exaggeration to say keyboardist Joe Sample rescued Randy Crawford from pop music limbo, but it’s not too far from the truth. Crawford is among the most distinct vocalists working, but her discography is riddled with over-arranged and over-produced disappointments. One of her finest moments remains when The Crusaders dropped all 11 minutes of “Street Life” on radio airwaves in 1979, featuring Crawford belting it out.

Some 27 years would pass Sample and Crawford before they reunited to record Feelin’ Good (PRA, 2006), where the pianist wisely chucked the synthesizers, strings and overproduced pop tunes that Crawford’s sensual vocals had to fight through over a decade’s worth of middling albums and stripped the sound down to a bare (but not sparse) combination of piano, bass, drums and Crawford’s  sweetly sensual vocals.

The back-to-basics/less-is-more approach served Crawford well on Feelin’ Good, and a second album, No Regrets (PRA, 2008) continued the collaboration. It was wise for Crawford to give up her pop/R&B stylings to pursue a more distinctive direction as a seriously soulful jazz singer, and Live pulls together some of the finest moments from a 2008 European tour. Steve Gadd handled the drumming duties on the two studio albums and returns here, as Nicklas Sample replaces Christian McBride on acoustic bass.

Live albums of a concert you didn’t attend are a bit like looking at a friend’s vacation photos of somewhere you haven’t been, but everything that sounded good in the studio loses nothing on stage. From the opener “Every Day I Have the Blues” to the closer “Last Night at Danceland,” Crawford and company deliver the goods over an economical 49 minutes. There isn’t a dull moment on Live, but Crawford does herself proud on the Billie Holiday-written “Tell Me More and More and Then Some,” with Sample killing ’em softly as he solos. “This Bitter Earth,” “Me, Myself and I” and “No Regrets” are presented skilfully, playfully and brilliantly, with Gadd and Nicklas Sample providing solid support throughout.

Sample and Crawford have recently finished a tour in South Africa, but whether they plan to record again remains to be seen. If they don’t, then Live serves as an outstanding document of a glorious alliance.

Track Listing: Every Day I Have the Blues; Feeling Good; Tell Me More and More and Then Some; Rainy Night in Georgia; This Bitter Earth; Me, Myself and I; No Regrets; One Day I’ll Fly Away: Almaz; Street Life; Last Night at Danceland

Personnel: Randy Crawford; vocals; Joe Sample: piano; Steve Gadd: drums; Nicklas Sample: bass

Mr. Vaughn is a sharp dressed man.

Julian Vaughn: Breakthrough

Within the first 30 seconds of the stomping “On Your Feet,” the lead-off track on Breakthrough, it’s hard not to think, “Darned if this guy doesn’t sound just like Wayman Tisdale.” Hopefully Julian Vaughn will take the comparison as a compliment because his “lead bass” playing style is eerily reminiscent of Tisdale, who passed away in 2009.

The publicity notes for Vaughn’s third album say he “doesn’t try to be any other bassist than who he is.” That’s nice to say but as one of the producers is Darren Rahn, who collaborated with Tisdale, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Vaughn, a Kansas City native, wasn’t ever so slightly influenced by Tisdale. Additionally, at a towering 6′ 7″ Vaughn is only an inch shorter than the former NBA power forward.

Breakthrough is calculated to make a splash on the charts and airwaves, not break any new ground. There is a cover of the R&B hit, “Rock Steady,” a few vocal tracks that are okay, nothing memorable though, and a lot party tunes that given Vaughn plenty of space to jam and riff for the sake of jamming and riffing. Most of it sounds pretty good even if it’s not terribly memorable.

The breakthrough here is Vaughn’s confidence as a player and how much he dominates the proceedings as the star of the show. The ranks of premier electric bassists in his field has thinned, since Stanley Clarke says he’s retired from the genre, Marcus Miller has one foot in the funk jazz genre, but is hardly wedded to it and Victor Wooten follows a uniquely eclectic muse which leaves the field wide open for Vaughn.

“Potential” is the heaviest word in the world because it means you haven’t done it yet. Vaughn is playing it cautiously and conservatively as he’s trying to leave a positive impression with the audience he’s aiming for and the current position of Breakthrough on the contemporary jazz charts indicates it was a savvy strategy.

Vaughn has demonstrated he has talent. Now he has to take on the next challenge of making himself stand out from the crowd by stepping off the path established by others and blaze his own trail.

Track Listing: On Your Feet; J’s Jammin; Ju Ju’s Groove; The Thought of You; Breakthrough; I’ll Do It; Be My Girl; Rock Steady; No Matter; Right On Time; Always Be Together.

Personnel: Julian Vaughn: lead bass, bass, keyboard bass; Ken Friend: bass; Darren Rahn: tenor sax, Wurlitzer, synthesizers, drum programming, additional guitar; Frank Selman: guitar; Anthony Jones: drums; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Nicholas Cole: piano; Jeremy Nixon; keyboards; Tobbi White-Darks: vocals; Marcus Anderson: saxophone; Anthony Saunders: vocals; Joey Woolfork: guitar; Josh Mayfield: drums; Jimmy Ellison: guitar; Matt Godina: guitar; Kinyon Price: Rhodes & strings; Paula Saunders: vocals

These reviews were originally published at All About Jazz.

George Benson Plays and Sings (and quite well, thank you)

Still a hell of a guitar player when he plays guitar

At some point George Benson morphed from a guitarist who occasionally sang into a singer who occasionally played guitar. Benson’s Breezin’ (Warner Bros, 1976) launched his career trajectory to new heights based upon “This Masquerade,” his only vocal turn on the album.

But oh, what a vocal “This Masquerade” was. It propelled Breezin’ to Number One on the pop charts and the album won multiple Grammys, including Record of the Year, and his recording formula was set for the next 20 years. The follow-up, In Flight (Warner Bros, 1977) featured Benson’s soulful tenor vocals on four of the six tracks and, while In Flight didn’t boast a song as memorable as “This Masquerade,” his guitar was still the musical centerpiece of the music.

Jazz aficionados rightly scratched their heads as Benson dove headlong into pop music and, by the time of 1984’s 20/20 (Warner Bros, 1984), the guitar had virtually disappeared in a pea soup of limp arrangements, synthesizers and syndrums, the quintessential instrument that dates ’80s records. The nadir of Benson’s career might be Irreplaceable (GRP, 2004) which made a bid for hip-hop radio through sincere, but contrived tunes such as “Cell Phone,” where Benson tried to place a call to heaven on the title device (no joke).

As a vocalist, Benson has proven to be at his best when the material is as strong as his 63 year old voice, and Guitar Man is a splendid showcase for it. The Beatles and Benson get along very well together (reference The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969) for further evidence), as his skilled fingers strum the six strings on a lush interpretation of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The mood of this recording is lights down low, slow dance and romance music. This is a record made by a grown-up for grown-ups. Benson has no need to make albums with one eye on the pop charts anymore. Recognizing his reign there is over, he can put his emphasis simply on playing and singing whatever he feels like.

Despite its title, Guitar Man doesn’t feature a lot of frenzied jamming and high-flying solos, but Benson doesn’t have to hammer with pyrotechnics. When he’s on his game, as he is whether he’s crooning Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour” or gently coaxing the notes out of his guitar on John Coltrane‘s “Naima,” it’s a demonstration of an artist confidently allowing the music to speak for itself.

Whether he’s swinging on “Tequila,” with keyboardist Joe Sample, drummer Harvey Mason, and bassist Ben Williams, loping through “Don’t Know Why,” or straight-up crooning on “My One and Only Love,” Benson’s sense of taste, phrasing and ability to swing remain undiminished by time. Ably assisted by an accomplished assemblage of musicians, this is one of the best albums of the year. Just don’t call it a comeback. George Benson is still The Guitar Man and even when it seemed he had forgotten for awhile, he always was.

Track Listing:Tenderly; I Want To Hold Your Hand; My Cherie Amour; Naima; Tequila; Don’t Know Why; The Lady In My Life; My One and Only Love; Paper Moon; Danny Boy; Since I Fell For You; Fingerlero.

Personnel: George Benson: guitar, vocals; David Garfield: piano, keyboards, rhythm arrangement (2-8, 11, 12); Paul Jackson, Jr.: rhythm guitar (2); Ray Fuller: rhythm guitar (2); Freddie Washington: bass (2); Oscar Seaton, Jr. (2): drums; Charlie Bishart: violin, viola (2, 7); Dan Higgins: flute, alto flute, clarinet (2); Oscar Castro-Neves: orchestral arrangement (2); Ben Williams: bass (3-5, 7-9, 12); Harvey Mason: drums (3-5, 7-9, 12); Lenny Castro: percussion (3, 5, 6, 12); Joe Sample: piano (5, 8, 9, 12); Chris Walden: keyboards, string arrangement (7).

This review originally appeared in All About Jazz

Jessy J Serves Up Some “Hot Sauce”

Do ya think I'm saxy?

The third major album by saxophonist Jessica Spinella (a.k.a. Jessy J) reflects both a reliance on a proven formula and the stirrings of venturing into unexplored territory.

Jessy’s got a problem. She can attribute much of her success to veteran producer Paul Brown, whose other clients include Euge Groove, Rick Braun and Boney James. Brown is a master of the catchy hook, which makes him more commercial than cutting edge. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t always make for boldly inventive music. Brown’s production always sounds good, even if it’s often a slightly different twist of the same old song.

Of Hot Sauce‘s ten songs, six are produced by Brown, but it’s the other four which are the most interesting. There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Remember the Night” and “Rio Grande,” other than the odd sequencing of two tracks which sound remarkably similar except one is more up-tempo than the other, but there’s just nothing original about them, either. Brown’s skills are in revisiting what he’s done on previous Jessy J albums like Tequila Moon (Peacon, 2008) and True Love (Peak, 2009).

Here, however, Brown holds the reins on the young saxophonist a bit too tightly. Any song entitled “Hot Sauce” ought to flat-out groove, not just bubble away for 3:17; “Mild sauce” would be a better descriptor for the underwhelming, paint-by-numbers title tune. There are faint traces of Jessy J’s Latin heart beating faintly in the background, but it’s overwhelmed by the slickness and sheen of Brown’s production. A little less control and little more risk-taking were needed here.

More successful and much more fun are “Rainbow Gold” and ‘Last Night,” two funky workouts, with “Last Night” offering a rare performance by Joe Sample, workin’ it out on the Hammond B3 organ with studio pros Harvey Mason (drums), Ray (Ghostbuster) Parker Jr. (guitar) and Nick Sample–son of the former Crusaders keyboardist–joining in on bass. Both feature Jessy J’s vocalizations, so if you enjoy them, you’re in luck.

The moment of revelation comes with Saunders Sermons and his vocal turn on “In A Sentimental Mood,” with Jessy J playing a supporting role. Sermons simmers and sways, playing it straight, with Jessy J’s tenor sax warmly warbling in the background. Sermons co-produced and arranged the Duke Ellington classic with pianist Jon Notar, and it’s a winner, with some nice stick work from drummer Josh Guinta. Nothing else on Hot Sauce sounds remotely like this and it’s a style for which Jessy J is well-suited.

There is a balance a musician must strike between art and commerce, and not every soloist thrives in the spotlight. The finest moments of Hot Sauce come when Jessy J is part of the band instead of the center of attraction. Going forward she will likely thrive in either role, but for now she seems most comfortable in the former than the latter.

Track Listing: Remember The Night; Rio Grande; Hot Sauce; Rainbow Gold: ‘Til You Make Up Your Mind; Meant To Be; We Kissed; Leave Right Now; In A Sentimental Mood: Last Nigh

Personnel: Jessy J: tenor sax, soprano sax, flute, vocals; Paul Brown: guitar, drums, percussion, nylon string guitar, programmed drums (1-3, 5-7); Marco Basci: keyboards, strings, bass, drum programming (2, 5); Roberto Vally: bass (2, 5-7), Lawrence Young: keyboards (3); Michel Ripoli: guitars, bass (3); Deyon Dobson: keyboards, drum programming (3); Joe Sample: piano, Rhodes, Triton keyboard and Hammond B3 organ (4, 10); Ray Parker Jr.: guitars and background vocals (4, 10); Nick Sample: bass (4, 10); Harvey Mason: drums (4, 10); Gregg Karukas: keyboards, strings (6, 7); Jeff Caruthers: keyboards, guitar, bass and drum programming (8); Saunders Sermons: vocals (9); Jon Notar: piano (9); Jordan Scannella: electric bass (9); Josh Guinta: drums (9); Janis Liebhart: background vocals (10); Toni Scruggs: background vocals (10).

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz