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  Smooth Jazz  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

December 2004:

Tonight I just caught an awesome live performance from Eric Darius, a new up-and- coming smooth jazz lion.  This kid is only 19 and goes to school at the University of South Florida in Tampa.  Darius already has a recording contract and the title track to his album Night on the Town gets serious airplay on smooth jazz stations all over the country.  Here in Gainesville, he had the entire bandshell crowd on their feet, clapping and dancing to his band’s 10 minute rendition of Carlos Santana’s Europa.  Darius walked through the Gainesville audience blowing his horn hard.  Be on the look out for this newcomer.

There just aren’t too many smooth jazz artists who have the musicality and devotion that Grover Washington, Jr. had. He had real jazz chops. On his best selling 1980’s album Winelight, the Philadelphia native took remarkable extended solos on both Let It Flow for Dr. J and Just the Two of Us.  The latter gave him pop fame, with listeners dancing to it on such mainstream programs as Soul train and American Bandstand with Dick Clark (it was also recently featured in a Burger King commercial and in the soundtrack to the Austin Powers sequel).  You can really tell in Grover’s playing that he loved and admired Coltrane (plus he has admitted it in an interview with CNN).  Matthew Shipp even said in an interview that when he was younger, he had hoped to become a well known musician by playing in Grover’s band. When I was in Chico Freeman’s student ensemble at the New School Jazz Program, our band had a long talk about smooth jazz and the players who really knew what they were doing.  Grover’s name came up, and Chico told us that this elder statesman (at the time) could really play- he could cover ground only dealt with by the most serious traditionalists.  One should check out Washington’s album Last Exit, since Paul Desmond’s Take Five (made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet) is covered.  Yet if you want to hear some true jazz standards, go out and buy his album All My Tomorrows.  This project has Grover playing West Germany’s rolled tone holled, black lacquer  soprano, alto and tenor saxophones with an all acoustic band.  The opening track features him on soprano playing a song made popular by the ‘BET on Jazz’ network.   On alto he plays a version of Flamingo that features a mind-blowing bebop solo. Grover finishes by playing a burning tenor sax improvisation over a big band on Please Send Me Someone To Love. This album is stellar; Washington’s solo on Nature Boy should be required listening for every serious jazz fan.  I hope each jazz listener will find the joy and happiness I have found in listening to Grover over the years. 

            David Sanborn is another smooth jazz artist you should keep an eye out for.  He worked with Miles Davis in the 1980’s and now makes multi-platinum albums for major record labels.    Sanborn likes to play smooth arrangements of famous jazz standards. He is the ‘keeper of the flame’ in the cool jazz tradition that Miles first started in 1949 when he recorded Birth of the Cool with a nontet in Los Angeles (this band featured Gerry Mulligan among others).  Cool jazz got a facelift in the 1980’s when the shift was made from acoustic to electric.  With his metal mouthpiece, Sanborn has a smooth, sassy and sanguine sound that is all his own.  This distinct sound is a sacrosanct commodity in today’s music industry.  I hope to catch his upcoming performance at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, FL.   If you like Sanborn’s sound, check out Richard Elliot. Sypro Gyra is a great smooth jazz band too: they are scheduled to play at the Jazziz Bistro at the end of the month.  Jay Beckenstein really knows the tradition he is part of- Charles Gayle was his jazz history at SUNY Buffalo.

            There are many artists other than Kenny G that are carving a niche in the present day smooth jazz world.  Kenny is more a soft-rock artists more than anything else.  He tried doing the traditional thing a few years ago by releasing an album with him playing tenor sax in an all acoustic band.  The release didn’t sell that well so he went back to making hackneyed Christmas albums.    One must admit Mr. G is extremely popular (he is the first name I came across when getting turned on to jazz is the early 1990’s, and his music accounted for the first contemporary songs I played as a youngster). Yet rather than listen to Kenny G, go out and find Darius, Sanborn or Grover. I for one will continue to look to these three smooth jazz artists as inspiration.