Reviewing smooth jazz related activities is not a very easy endeavor to embark upon; in fact and in all actuality, providing an unbiased perspective on these opportunities often generates a myriad of emotions. On one end of the spectrum I am torn between my ambivalence for smooth jazz radio and my loyalty to jazz as an indigenous American art form. At various times I must admit to being overly critical of certain aspects pertaining to smooth jazz. But I have come to believe that when radio is taken out of the equation of what is acceptable as jazz, a different mindset is formed. That is exactly what transpired for me on September 15th when Brian Culbertson and his Smooth Jazz All Stars came to Houston for a concert steeped in entertainment. Billed as an All Star Smooth Jazz Jam, there were guest appearances by Nick Colionne, Eric Darius, Alan Hewitt, Bobby Lyle and Marion Meadows, with each providing an even bigger surprise in more ways than one. Bobby was not scheduled to appear during the concert, but he was in the room enjoying the event as a guest of Eric Darius. Towards the end of the show, he was invited to come to the stage to help closeout the evening. Lyle’s latest CD entitled Hands On (Heads Up Records) is doing quite well on the charts. His participation added even more relevance to an all star line up of stars. The event was sponsored by All Star Smooth Jazz Cruises under the auspices of KHJZ 95.7 "The Wave," which will ultimately culminate into a seven-day smooth jazz cruise in January 2007.
When examining the overall impact of this performance musically at the Cullen Performance Hall on the campus of the University of Houston, a talented group of artists came together to do what most smooth jazz practitioners are seldom allowed to do on radio. The typical format does not allow for anything more than airplay over a precise 3-5 minute programmed time frame. Recorded jazz played on smooth jazz stations does not expand upon the intuitive creative spirit and talent that comes from within; in most instances, a smooth unassuming style is most prevalent. In recent years, the smooth jazz formula has not worked in many cities. Although some of these stations have done a better job of programming, to include Houston’s own 95.7 The Wave, across the United States a great number of stations have flipped to a more viable format such as adult contemporary, rock, urban contemporary or more popular styles of music. But one aspect of smooth jazz is quite apparent, live concert performances generated by musicians such as Brian Culbertson and others of his generation exhibit something more than what radio has to offer, a departure that is dynamic, effervescent, entertaining, and most importantly, extremely exciting. On the smooth jazz radio side, the two are barely comprehensible as one in the same. This too can be very irritating and disappointing from an entertainment perspective, especially when radio dulls down the creative flow of artists such as Nick Colionne.
Although Brian Culbertson is the upcoming host of the 2007 All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise, the inclusion of guitarist Nick Colionne provides the flamboyance jazz has been most noted for and needs. Nick has a charisma about himself that is immediately magnetic; from his manner of dress to his overall stage presence. He is one of the most impeccably dressed musicians in jazz; in fact, whenever he steps onto or off the stage, Nick makes a most profound type of "GQ" fashion statement. But as a so-called smooth jazz artist, Nick has a mixed bag of tricks to go along with his attire that includes blues, R&B and jazz. This time out, he exhibited his versatility as a vocalist by breaking out with a Brook Benton standard entitled Rainy Night in Georgia. The audience was taken completely by surprise with Nick’s ability to sing, especially on such a timeless classic as that. The additional attributes of Colionne’s performance included a multi-faceted interaction between him and Culbertson. Nick Colionne’s guitar licks were off the hook and the chemistry contained with he and Brian were definite showstoppers. The selection of Brian as the anchor behind the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise Jam, the catalytic musical interaction with him and all the stars was deemed noteworthy, just as it was with Nick Colionne. It does help that Brian is the ultimate showman and all the musicians combined seemed to bring the very best out of one another, but that is a typical postscript for any artist having talent and entertainment value.
From that point on, the defined ideology of funk-oriented jazz proved to be beyond the definition of smooth jazz. Eric Darius was the third installment of the smooth jazz jam. As a 23-year old up and coming saxophonist, Eric has taken the jazz scene by storm in only two short years. Whenever he performs he looks like someone just having fun doing what they do best. His style proved to be an energized matrix of talent that evolved into a specialized display of copacetic funk. Eric Darius is a musician that bleeds entertainment and once again, the chemistry between he and Brian Culbertson was a look towards the future of jazz. Darius is definitely one of the new stars on the horizon and he has proven himself to be an excellent showman. In my mind, Eric Darius does not fit the mold of any other saxophonist of his generation; plus, he does not have very far to go to get to reach his peak. What Darius basically accomplished during his stint was introduce himself to a whole new flock of fans, some of whom had not experienced his remarkable display of funkafied saxuality. By the time the door was opened for saxophonist Marion Meadows, smooth jazz was an afterthought to say the least. Eric had up the ante to a point whereby the level of expectation would remain consistent throughout the evening, anything less would be totally unacceptable.
Of all the saxophonists in smooth jazz, Marion Meadows fits the mold of what this style of jazz is said to represent; however, there is an exception that sets him apart from the norm. Although his music is laid back and smooth, Marion’s melodic flow is titillatingly sensuous and sexy. During his performance at the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise Jam, Meadows went from one extreme to the other. Even during his interaction with Culbertson and the other musicians, Meadows proved why he is the elder statesman of smooth jazz. He may be smooth, but he too can play a funkadelic style of jazz that is in a category he alone has established. Even in his most eclectic moments, Meadows’ R&B tinged jazz remained stable with an ever so subtle high-powered approach. Marion Meadows is one of the most unique voices in jazz because the path he has chosen to embark upon is one that fits him superbly. Throughout his career, he has been a definite force behind the so-called smooth jazz movement. His ability to provide an under layment of melodic grooves, coupled with a contemporary style, which has seemingly been abandoned by some, as well as his signature sound has allowed him to push the envelope of smooth jazz beyond the confines of radio.
As a keyboardist, Alan Hewitt is one of the most underrated musicians in jazz today; in fact, he is also one of the genre’s most versatile. Alan is as prolific on vibes as he is on keyboards. His style of play was infectious and magnetic in a magnetic way and in my mind he was the most unassuming of all the musicians on the bill. Hewitt’s mesmerizing presence was enthralling and deceptive due to his captivating talent on keys and vibes coupled with the look of a C&W star. Alan’s style of dress had all the earmarks of a cowboy; however, do not be misinformed. Alan Hewitt’s appearance was all about jazz and much more as an artist with a message to deliver. The dynamics he exhibited with Culbertson, Darius, Colionne and Meadows should be viewed as a prelude to what can be expected in January 2007. Alan Hewitt will be a great addition to the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise and as time goes on, he will be recognized even more so for being one of the 21st century’s finest contemporary musicians. The exposure he is receiving as a member of this musical extravaganza will open the eyes of many jazz aficionados to his skills as a keyboardist and vibraphonist.
The All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise is a formula that works. Having seen the 2005 pre-cruise concert with saxophonist Boney James as the host, as well as Al Jarreau, Mindi Abair, Peter White, Rick Braun and the same basic core artists that will appear in 2007, the promoters of these events have hit upon something that should elevate the consciousness of jazz to a different level. Jazz aficionados now have something to look forward to because the music has never been meant to be mundane and repetitive. Although smooth jazz is a formula invented by radio to reduce airplay and increase ad dollars, the genre is not totally generic. In settings such as the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruises, Jams, concerts and festivals, artists falling under that umbrella have an opportunity to move beyond the expected and into the intense light of exciting entertainment. 2007 marks the second planned edition of the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise and with the pre-concerts that have been scheduled prior to departure; the stage is set for one of the best events in jazz. For seven wonderful days, passengers aboard the Carnival Cruise Line Conquest will not only experience the artists seen at the Jam, they will also see Maysa, Craig Chiquico, Down To The Bone, Gerald Veasley, Paul Taylor, Norman Brown and many more enthusiastic musicians. In fact, the entire line-up can be considered as the crème de la crème of jazz activated talent. The best anyone can hope for is that radio will move beyond the generic and into the same arena as the live settings, where jazz is more entertaining, improvisational and contemporary in style.