I always feel a little torn when I do a review of a smooth jazz album, but in spite of the disregard in which it’s held by many jazz fans, it is a very popular musical format. Personally I have a kind of love-hate relationship with it, although that might be a little strong — a more accurate characterization would be like-dislike. If I’m driving and find a smooth jazz radio station, I enjoy the soothing sound for a while but then inevitably it begins to sound repetitive to me, and if I keep it on too long it makes me drowsy.
On the other hand, there’s little doubt that smooth jazz is the ultimate mood music for a large segment of listeners, and even critics would have to admit that there are some very talented artists performing in the genre. Which brings us to the album we’re reviewing, Paul Brown & Friends – White Sand, a brand-new release from Peak Records, and his first with them but third overall.
Brown is a respected Grammy-winning producer who has generated albums for many of the biggest names in music, causing him to be known by insiders as “the Babyface of smooth jazz”. But he’s also a talented jazz guitarist, and his popularity as a performer in the smooth jazz milieu has grown to the point where he’s reached star status. Last year, “Winelight”, from his album The City, was ranked by Mediabase as the genre’s most spun track of the year.
On this album, he’s bringing in some guest stars (the “friends” mentioned in the title) and not surprisingly he’s leaning pretty heavily on smooth jazz mainstays like long-time friend Boney James, who does his thing on “Ol’ Skoolin'”, and trumpeter Rick Braun, smoother yet on “Mr. Cool”. Continuing the theme is pianist David Benoit, who duels with Brown’s guitar to good effect on “R ‘n’ B Bump”, a tune I enjoyed although it didn’t strike me as particularly “R&B” in spite of the name.
The album can’t be described as strictly smooth jazz however, since Brown is also including some good turns by less easily labeled artists. A good example is the always enjoyable Al Jarreau, who takes us along on his distinctive vocalization of the ballad “Makes Me Feel So Good”. There’s another good listen to be had with Bobby Caldwell doing a vocal turn on “Mercy Mercy Mercy”, a song popularized by Cannonball Adderley and normally heard in jazz only as an instrumental. (Although the Buckinghams had a big hit with it in the pop music world.) And finally – my favorite – talented (but relatively unknown) singer Lina does a enjoyable take on the Bacharach classic, “I Say A Little Prayer” — complete with a soft Latin beat backing up her lush voice. Very nice.
In his determination to touch a lot of bases on the album, Brown even includes a curious version of the Vietnam-era Buffalo Springfield hit, “For What It’s Worth”, with himself as vocalist. It’s a kind of bluesy, smooth-jazzish oddity, and certainly not to everybody’s taste, but it is strangely fascinating.
A mixed verdict on this album. It’s well done and I enjoyed most of it, as will smooth jazz fans and a lot of casual listeners, but it’s probably not of much interest to the serious jazz aficionado.
1. White Sand (w/ Jessy J)
2. The Rhythm Method
3. Makes Me Feel So Good (w/ Al Jarreau)
4. Ol’ Skoolin’ (w/ Boney James)
5. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (w/ Bobby Caldwell)
6. R ‘N’ B Bump (w/ David Benoit)
7. I Say A Little Prayer (w/ Lina)
8. More Or Les Paul (w/ Euge Groove)
9. For What It’s Worth
10. Mr. Cool (w/ Rick Braun)