Watching smooth jazz artists embark on new ventures, new arenas and new paths is actually one of the more exciting things to happen to music in 2011. With the death of smooth jazz radio we've witnessed George Benson return to the kind of music he played on his CTI and early Warner Brothers recordings, watched Richard Elliot move to soul-jazz, and Candy Dulfer gravitate more fully towards dance music.
Saxophonist and flute artist Najee has, while not totally leaving the smooth jazz world, spiced up his music on The Smooth Side Of Soul. With rocking hot funk on the opening track, "Dis n' Dat," and ultra-hip R&B on the following track, "Just To Fall In Love," Najee is obviously pointing towards a new direction.
He doesn't, however, leave his legendary fans behind. With cuts like "Perfect Nites," "You Tube," and "One Night In Soho," Najee proves he can still turn out a nice instrumental melody. Either of these tunes would surely get lots of air play if there were any radio stations still devoted to smooth jazz instead of playing George Benson's "Breezin'" every other hour.
The surprise on the recording is the overtly jazz oriented cuts. For example, Najee's take on the neglected jazz tenor saxophone titan Jimmy Heath's "Sound For Sore Ears" is fantastic. That Najee has prodigious straight-ahead jazz chops is undeniable; his work with Billy Cobham, Larry Carlton and Stanley Clarke on the Live At The Greek recording appropriately shocked many jazz fans when Najee proved himself to have a deep well of resources from which to draw in crafting some of the best no-holds-barred jazz of 1993. On the Heath cut, here again Najee takes no prisoners. One can only hope this track will get picked up by the few remaining NPR stations playing jazz in order to help spread this great musician's work.
In a jazz context there is also the lightly swinging "In The Clouds," which sounds like something John Klemmer might have recorded in the 1970s, and the lovely jazz flute work on "Mari." On this recording Najee shows just how diverse an artist he can be. One wonders if this new multi-genre-oriented Najee is here to stay or, if like Kenny G before him who after releasing the incredible Rhythm And Romance went back to the The Moment formula with Heart And Soul. That would be a shame.