Saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa is best known to most as the saxophonist in Russ Freeman’s The Rippingtons band when the group hit it big in the 1990s. Originally from Seattle and educated at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, today Kashiwa works as a leader in addition to selected side-musician gigs with Joyce Cooling, Acoustic Alchemy and a recent reunion tour with The Rippingtons. Play is Kashiwa’s sixth release as a leader and his fourth on Native Language records.
One of the best things to happen to smooth jazz in the past 12 months is a return to the roots of the music. Originally an outgrowth of what was known as "contemporary jazz" in the 1980s and early 1990s, smooth jazz eventually reduced itself, through record company executive decisions, into the lowest and slowest common denominator. The eventual end product of this dimming down of content was the development of "chill." On Play, Kashiwa ratchets it up a step from recent work. With a little bit of a stronger emphasis on uptempo and more energetic music, Kashiwa follows the current trend. Overall, however, he’s a little too comfortable and safe, never really sounding like he steps out of the box he’s been associated with in the past. Yes, he takes longer solos that are more adventurous than on previous discs, and the melodies are a bit more rocking, but still, it’s only a small advance from previous work. On "Movin’ Up," for example, he takes a long extended solo that is nothing short of great. This hip-trippy song is a perfect vehicle for Kashiwa’s trademark extended solo lines, something we haven’t heard from him since his Rips days. "The Lucky One," as well, features some great high energy rocking with tight backing horns and powerful playing.
This type of music, however, is not evidenced throughout the entire disc. "Blue Jeans," for example, could have come from any of Steve Cole’s albums where emphasis is on a subdued R&B melody that stays safe within a narrow box. This mid-tempo stroll saves itself only near the end where Kashiwa adds some light improvisation. "New View," which has a nice acoustic piano solo from The Yellowjackets’ Russell Ferrante, reflects an almost straight-ahead jazz vibe, and not just in the trading of four-bar solos with guitarist Greg Carmichael at end. Contemporary jazz used to be full of this type of music: sweet melody enhanced by some risk taking in the solos. When you got done listening to those cuts you always wanted to play them again. Playing chorus after chorus is not going to be stylish, but breaking out of the corporate box is the only way anyone is going to get noticed in the new smooth jazz radio market that more and more relies on oldies.
Kashiwa has the chops and melodic sense to make recordings every bit as exciting and blistering as those great contemporary jazz CDs from the old GRP and Atlantic label discs of the 1980s and early 1990s; does anyone still remember how great Gerald Albright’s Givin’ Myself To You was? The question is whether Kashiwa’s label will allow him to continue this progression and just let him play.