Smooth jazz is often knocked for its lack of depth and high degree of repetition. It's soft and innocuous, nice soothing background music for the mall or the minivan. But, it's not your father's John Coltrane, or even his Dave Brubeck. Some players within the movement, notably saxophonist Najee, don't even call their smooth playing jazz, preferring to label it instrumental R&B instead.
Call it what you want, smooth jazz is a radio phenomenon that delivers coveted high-income demographics to advertisers. It's also a moneymaker for record companies, consistently outselling straight-ahead jazz by a wide margin.
Consider this: Smooth jazz icon Boney James began his solo career in the early 1990s. The saxophonist already has three gold albums to his credit. Only two albums by straight-ahead jazz legend John Coltrane have gone gold and neither disc hit that mark until 2001 some 33 years after his death.
But where did the smooth genre begin? Was it always more smooth than jazz? Before Najee, Boney James, and Dave Koz graced the charts, the soul/groove jazz movement of the '60s and '70s and the light-contemporary jazz movement of the '70s and '80s laid the groundwork for today's smooth jazz. Some of that period's canon amounts to little more than banal attempts to cash in on pop sounds. But there were success stories -- those moments when imaginative musicians artfully blended jazz and pop with creativity and integrity. Here are a dozen of those efforts.
1) Ramsey Lewis Trio -- The "In" Crowd (1965). One of the most popular jazz albums of all time, The "In" Crowd is a well-programmed 45-minute set of bebop, blues and instrumental pop. Though totally acoustic, it's a precursor to smooth jazz in that there's a definite nod to the public. At the same time, the album's musical depth proved jazz could sell without selling out.
2) Stanley Turrentine -- Common Touch (1968). A soul-jazz pioneer, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine is in top form on this date which features then-wife, organist Shirley Scott. The sax/organ combo has an earthy feel and Turrentine's use of rhythm and blues is catchy and fun. Jazz fans also dig this because there's hot soloing, meaty jazz licks, and a creative fire that rarely flickers.
3) Les McCann & Eddie Harris -- Swiss Movement (1969). As solo artists and with each other, Les McCann and Eddie Harris put hard bop into their soul, soul into their blues, and blues into their jazz. Each player has several albums worth acquiring, ranging from straight-ahead bop to funk escapades. But, as this recording from Montreaux, Switzerland, shows, McCann and Harris brought out the best in each other. Swiss Movement is essentially a hard bop set, but the soul-pop song "Compared to What?" and high-energy blues number "Cold Duck Time" drip more soul and energy than most electric dates from the same era.
4) Grant Green -- Carryin' On (1969). A somewhat unheralded hard-bop guitarist, Grant Green infused funk into his blues-styled playing towards the end of his career with enough drama to set the soul-jazz guitar standard. With solid R&B-influenced material at his disposal and creative arrangements supporting him, an inspired Green fires out hot single-note lines on this retro sounding date that's popular with acid-jazz fans.
5) George Benson -- Beyond the Blue Horizon (1973). Before Breezin' (1976) made him a pop star, George Benson was cutting hot R&B/pop-influenced jazz records that featured some of the baddest post-Wes Montgomery guitar playing around. The ever-versatile Benson plays straight-ahead jazz, blues and ballads with equal brilliance. No vocals here, and frankly, none are needed. Benson's guitar smokes from start to finish.
6) Herbie Hancock -- Headhunters (1974). After doing avant-garde music for more than three years, Hancock went into the studio and said, "Funk It!" The result was Headhunters, a top-selling album filled with funk backbeats, smokin' bass riffs, New Orleanian Bill Summers' percussion, and blistering extended solos. A must for any record/CD collection.
7) John Klemmer -- Touch (1975). Take a rock-influenced saxophonist who wants to explore the gentler side of his personality, mix it with a healthy dose of Fender Rhodes and Echoplex, and you have a spacey, sensual disc that transports you to another dimension. As for substance, Klemmer's lyricism is a graduate-level textbook.
8) The Crusaders -- Scratch (1975). Captured live after these Houstonians dropped the word "Jazz" from their name, but before they became a formula pop act, this recording is one of their best. Early '70s rock and R&B influences are brilliantly merged into jazz arrangements and when these cats stretch out, it's solid jazz with a sense of showmanship.
9) Al Jarreau -- Look to the Rainbow: Live in Europe (1977). What separates Al Jarreau from light-R&B vocalists who dominate the smooth jazz format is Jarreau can sing pure jazz. On this double LP, he expertly blends pop, R&B and straight-ahead jazz influences into a tasty mix that reaches out to pop and jazz fans. His unique scatting is a total trip and his eight-minute version of "We Got By" will make you quiver in awe of his interpretive power.
10) Grover Washington Jr. -- Reed Seed (1978). Yes, Washington's Winelight (1980) is the album that influenced every smooth jazz saxophonist in the world, but any respectable record collection already has Winelight in it. While Winelight was about finding the funk groove and staying there, Reed Seed is about exploring different sonic textures and adventurous soloing. This album's fiber is somewhat gritty, and the muddy sound creates a dark aura. But it also oozes sensuality in a subtle way. A very underrated effort by a stellar musician.
11) David Sanborn -- Heart to Heart (1978). It's hard to pick one album from the Sanborn catalog, but Heart to Heart gets the nod because he plays "Theme From Love Is Not Enough" with the type of melodic brilliance none of his legions of imitators have ever approached.
12) Bob James -- All Around Town (1981). A live date from the guy who did the theme music to Taxi. On the surface, James' music seems like pop-jazz ear candy, but closer inspection reveals an incredible amount of nuance. James and an all-star cast lay out solos with the type of fire missing on his studio albums.
- Smooth jazz saxophonist Boney James already has three gold albums to his credit