Smooth CD Reviews

TSJR does not engage in negative reviews. All CDs presented here are releases that we accept as being quite worthy--even outstanding, in many cases.  If a release does not warrant such an assessment in our view, we will simply decline to review it.
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For your listening pleasure, you will also find MP3 clips on some of the pages here, including this one. Enjoy!


Oct. 9, 2009

Matt Marshak -- Family Funktion

Blue, smooth, and funky with a vibe that just tears it up.  Jeff Golub?  Well, in the same ballpark, but it’s Matt Marshak--back again with another smoker called Family Funktion.  This one gets started right away in a most unpretentious, let-it-fly manner, nonetheless still coated in class.

Let me get right to it. There are tunes here that are so rich with substance and character that you just know that Marshak came to this project with the intent of pumping out the best he could and only after having envisioned such a meticulous production long before studio time.  Cases in point would be the funked-up mid-tempo vibe called “Uptown.”  That’s followed quickly by yet another funkster of the same quality and general blueprint, the title track.  Then, there is the smartly arranged and nicely phrased “Great Soul” and “Seduction,” the latter sporting one marvelous hook.  Read full review

Oct. 3, 2009

Tom Braxton -- Endless Highway

No stranger to robust, energized smooth jazz, Tom Braxton bolts out of the studio with another quality item with major potential. Like Imagine This and Bounce before it, the new release, Endless Highway, due in stores on Oct. 6, is packed with superior sax work that epitomizes the very essence and spirit of smooth jazz.

Endless Highway dedicates itself to putting its listeners in “chill” mode.  Its melodies and hooks are rich and crisp.  There are select tunes here that especially appeal to me. The tribute to our fallen brother, Wayman Tisdale, “That Wayman Smile!”-- who was not only a dear friend to Braxton but a mentor, as well-- is simply endearing, with Braylon Lacy doing a magnificent job of capturing that Wayman personality on lead bass.  Then, there are tunes like “The Journey,” a mid-tempo track that deliberately takes its time walking and grooving with you as it soaks into you with a sense of soothing.  The cover of soft rock group America’s “Ventura Highway” has a unique Tom Braxton touch with vocals by Arthur Dyer.   A very interesting and rather smart choice of a tune to cover.  I’ve always like that piece, anyway, and with the twist placed on it by Braxton, it breathes anew.  The cut “Open Road, which appears here twice—first as the original track, then as a radio edit—has a really smooth and catchy hook in both versions.  Two others appear here as radio edits, as well:  “That Wayman Smile!” and “The Journey.”  All have that “pop” associated with a good radio edit or remix.  Read full review

Sept. 30, 2009

The Sax Pack -- The Pack Is Back

You know, I happened to look over the latest tracks for the latest offering from the Sax Pack (Kim Waters, Steve Cole, and Jeff Kashiwa), entitled The Pack Is Back, and I realized that my review could almost be summed up by a few of the track titles. Let’s try that out:  Say these titles in your head: "Are You Ready," "The Pack Is Back," "Smooth As Silk," and "Here To Stay."  Works like a charm, especially once you’ve heard the CD!

The Pack Is Back sets out to continue the fine work of the debut self-titled release by these master saxes, who are truly committed to theirs being a working band and not just a project or two. Since the band’s inception via the vision of former Rippington Jeff Kashiwa, it has consistently worked to impress, inspire, and invigorate its fan base and all who appreciate good smooth jazz.  Its record in doing so is, so far, impeccable.  The guys have been on a hot 5-year tour as a band, delighting fans everywhere with memorable live sets.  Read full review

Vann Burchfield -- Blue Eyed Soul

Blue Eyed Soul
is the debut release (well, sort of) from saxophonist Vann Burchfield. This is one of the most well-rounded, soulful, suave, and confident albums I’ve heard in a while, and it comes from one who claims this as his debut smooth jazz release.  While he did release an album entitled Par for the Course in 2007, he was told that it wasn’t really smooth jazz. Well, I beg to differ.  A milder, more subdued version than this current effort, perhaps, but smooth jazz nonetheless. Be that as it may, this current album is not just smooth in its delivery; it’s smart, and it’s comfortable.  Like an old plush recliner, it fits

Despite being new on the smooth jazz scene, you’ve heard of this artist, right? He’s the guy who beat Kenny G’s world record for holding the longest note on a wind instrument (47 minutes, 6 seconds!) in 2000.  Can you say “Whew?”  Read full review

Sept. 25, 2009

The Dangling Success -- City Life

O.k., I’m going out on a limb here and boldly state to all smooth jazzers: Oh yeah, you like this!  This is the one that satisfies that pang for the kind of smooth jazz that makes one salivate and appreciate what true artists do in a studio with really good material and outstanding musical skills.  The Dangling Success, with one other release under its belt, Chilled Champagne, is back again with its second endeavor, City Life, which actually tries its best to best the first (and makes one helluva gallant effort to do so! You be the judge as to whether or not it was successful in doing that).  In the end, it really doesn’t matter because you’re getting quality smooth in both releases.

City Life is filled to the brim with exciting new material and a couple of strong covers, and it exhibits proficiency in developing great hooks, bridges, and melodies.  Mark (Dr. Sax) Niekrewicz has a prescription for mediocrity that is spelled out clearly in the display of his sax work. He is firmly supported by a superb rhythm section that includes guitar work and substance that work, bass that gives the solid foundation upon which any really good product must stand, and drums that add to that support with serious presence and drive. Oh, and for effect, we get treated to some really cool scatting, too!  Read full review

Sept. 24, 2009

Karen Devroop -- Reminiscing

This should have been one of the trivia questions on our Trivia page for you true smooth jazzers: Who is Karen Devroop?  If you don’t know him, allow me to make this introduction to a saxophonist that you will remember for quite some time once you’ve lent your ears to him.  Karen Devroop hails from South Africa, also (as most know) the home of illustrious smooth jazz guitarist Jonathan Butler.  Devroop sank his teeth into smooth jazz so solidly and completely with this debut album, Reminiscing, that he sounds as if he’s been with us in the limelight since the beginning of smooth jazz. 

The album is incredibly balanced and tasteful.  The sax is crisp with smooth, defining runs and hooks. The rhythms are addictive and beckoning.  This production is worth sitting up late on any evening to check out.  Full of drive and vigor, Devroop may have arrived unannounced but will surely be welcomed to stay awhile in our smooth jazz living rooms.  Read full review

Jesse Cook -- The Rumba Foundation

Always intriguing, always with the exotic, tender stroke of the string, the music of World/Flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook is as intoxicating as the aromas and zest of the lands he presents in song.  His ability to intertwine jazz and flamenco influences is as alluring as his imagination.  So, it comes as no surprise that his latest effort, The Rumba Foundation, scheduled for release on Sept. 29, is an alluring, enticing project with nowhere to go but to your heartstrings.
For this latest recording, Cook wanted to trace rumba flamenco back to its roots in Cuba, but his instincts got the better of him, and he wound up spending time in Bogota, Colombia, where this whole album swirls and takes shape, as will probably be evident to all upon listening.  Read full review

Sept. 20, 2009

Aaron Bing -- Secret Place

Some artists can only exist as opening acts and sidemen for so long before rising to the surface in a glorious sheen that dares one to ignore them. Working the soprano and alto saxes like he is part of those instruments--and playing all other instruments on this project, by the way--Aaron Bing comes to us with Secret Place, this time via Century Records, in a blaze of personality and charm. Having cranked out two other tight albums (Christmas Dream–a compilation of some of the season’s favorites--and Always), this cat is no newcomer to smooth jazz, as is clearly evidenced in this production.

Bing may actually be known to many as the artist who appeared on the The Late Show with David Letterman to be recognized for his part in a Guinness World Record challenge. His feat? Holding a note for 39 minutes and 40 seconds!  Although that didn’t beat the Kenny G 1997 record of 45 minutes, 47 seconds, it certainly should be sufficient for notoriety. Bing also claims proficiency on 20 instruments, excluding the alto and soprano saxes, and is self-taught on 16 of them.  I should think this qualifies him as being quite dedicated to his craft.  Read full review

Sept. 19, 2009

Avenue H – Off the Floor

Want a groove with a solid persona? Enter Avenue H…and step aside as they motor through with quite a head of steam. Their debut release, Off the Floor, has a mighty and confident strut to it, and the group is here to put it front and center.  Crisp, searing sax work by Dan Leonardo, accompanied by Sam Hobbs and Conor Miller, who share keys and guitar work, put a huge “Q” in quality here. By the way, Sam Hobbs on bass is simply extraordinary.

In my opinion, Off the Floor offers so much of what smooth jazzers seek that you have to be very thankful that these guys decided to cut this debut and share it now on the national level, especially at a time when there are murmurings (in some corners, shouts) that smooth jazz is dead or dying. However, I do understand that the gravity of this spectacular group has not been lost on some choice media, like radio station KTWV, the WAVE, in Los Angeles. Great sense of smell and taste, guys!  Nothing about this album spells “ho-hum” in any language. The smokin’ hot opening firecracker, “Straight Up the Middle” has bass chops to die for, and I understand that one of the group’s driving influences is bassist Marcus Miller and the heat he brings. They do him proud here!  Then, there’s the captivatingly soulful “Silk to Sand” and the splendid cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”  Talk about charismaRead full review

Sept. 1, 2009

Jeff Golub -- Blues For You

Here’s Jeff Golub as I’ve wanted to hear him for so long… tearing up the blues as only a blues man can. If you’re a big blues buff, as I am, this one’s for you! If not, you’ll still find something appealing about this colorful artist who can shed the trappings and appeal of what’s shoved him into the spotlight—smooth jazz—to pursue a huge love of his-- even if only for this project, Blues For You. He takes the risk here of raising the eyebrows of smooth jazzers who see him otherwise, and I find that immensely satisfying. Of course, as I’ve stated, it’s a transformation that I can easily embrace, being a big 12-bar blues fan. 

Blues For You is a strong combination of covers and originals, including a really nice take on “Everybody Wants You,” the rock jam originally performed by his buddy and former rock bandmate, Billy Squier (who provides the vocals here, as well). There are sizzling and mellow pieces alike here, and they all beg the tuned ear to pay attention. There’s an up-tempo Golub original ditty, with Kirk Whalum chiming in with his smooth sax, called “Goin’ On,” “Lost My Mind” with rocker/vocalist John Waite, and the smokin’ title cut (check out Golub’s trademark steamy riffs here!) with vocals by Marc Cohn.  Read full review

Aug. 28, 2009

George Benson -- Songs and Stories

You know, writers often enjoy chronicling an artist’s career from its very beginning to illustrate his or her staying power, progress or maturity over the years, etc. In the case of guitar virtuoso George Benson, clearly one of the most respected and admired guitar legends around,years just don’t seem to matter and, in fact, just melt into one huge mist of excellence that seems to simply disregard a beginning yet has no end. I can probably say nothing here that hasn’t already been said about this musical giant who sings, plays, and has indulged in practically every major musical genre almost effortlessly. Add that to the ever-growing company of artists who have come to know, experience, and respect the genius of Benson, and you’ve got an indelible chapter in the history of music that bears exploring time and time again. Here on his latest project, Songs and Stories, he again dazzles with his creativity, soul, strength, and balance.  Read full review

Aug. 21, 2009

Najee -- Mind Over Matter

This latest from veteran saxophonist Najee is pure Najee with new motivation and vision. Mind Over Matter, the CD’s title (a title inspired by the late Miles Davis’ improvisational approach to songwriting toward the end of his career) and focuses on the feel  and groove of the music as opposed to the usual mechanics of it all (phrasings, harmony and melody balancing, etc.). This is an at-its-core production that simply goes with the flow, and what a flow it is. Najee’s inherently polished skills in both musicianship and songsmithing remain clearly intact and devoid of the ho-hum of some jazz that’s rushed through just to keep the bills paid.  Read full review

Peter White -- Good Day
So, there I am, rolling along the highway, coming up on my exit while listening Peter White's latest CD, Good Day, and I completely missed the exit—so into what was emanating from my car speakers: One of the best “returns” I’ve heard in years-- Peter White back from several years of covers to the splendor of original material as only he can render. This is truly a beckoning to all smooth jazzers to return to the Peter White of the 90s and early 2000s, to recall the images and good feeling his originals always conjured up. It is all here in abundance.  Read full review

Soul Ballet -- 2019

No sitting down allowed here. The Soul Ballet party is always alive and pulsating. Since launching the pseudonym’s debut release in 1996, producer/multi-instrumentalist/ composer/programmer (and just the consummate one-man music machine) Rick Kelly has managed to keep Soul Ballet in the forefront of the collective mind and conscience of smooth jazz audiences everywhere with his signature mix of jazz and electronica. His marked journeys into the dark recesses of space and the future are so heavy, it often boggles the mind how he’s able to create such a masterful and funky groove from themes that others have tried but have hardly been as consistently successful. Heavy, fat, and loud are sometimes terms one uses to describe someone or something in a negative manner, but it also works in a most creative and positive manner when describing Soul Ballet’s latest project, 2019, to which “tastefully done” must be added to that description.  Read full review

Aug. 18, 2009


Well, there are “best of” collections and then there are testaments to legacies. Veteran jazz fusion group, Hiroshima, couldn’t have tagged their latest project in a better manner. Having more years under their recording/performing belt than some artists have had birthdays, this group dropped in on us with its unique brand of fusion some 30 years ago and has been welcomed back with robust enthusiasm ever since. Legacy captures some sensational moments in the group’s career, and I understand that founders Dan and June Kuramoto hope to build a series from this pilot. Personally, from what they’ve presented here, they could do that successfully and easily. By the way, they’ve not only chosen the tunes well, but they’ve made certain that more than a few lengthy ones are tossed in. Such generosity is not lost on this writer. Read full review

Aug. 4, 2009

Jessy J -- True Love

Here’s an interesting and romantic project, True Love, from the gorgeous Latina sax sensation, Jessy J. With the stylish contributions from producer/guitarist Paul Brown (who actually produced this effort, as well as Tequila Moon) and keyboardist Gregg Karukas, among others, the artist has managed to lock into her rich Latin heritage for a light, airy, laid-back journey through the tropics and beyond. There are distinct differences between True Love and Tequila Moon, and I’m still deciding if I like this latest venture better—or even as much--as that debut wonder, but this project is replete with comfortable and pretty melodic passages and hooks, as well as sexy Latin vocals, that soothe and beckon and certainly take nothing away from this young lady with a host of gifts. Read full review

July 30, 2009

Rick Braun – All It Takes

It comes as no surprise that trumpeter/producer extraordinaire Rick Braun’s latest release, All It Takes, is a treat, since that's usually the case with this master of the smooth.

Having already produced label mate Richard Elliot’s hot new release, Rock Steady, Braun collaborates with noted keyboardist/producer Philippe Saisse to set forth some of the funkiest and most melodic material I’ve heard from him to date. Loaded with lots of rhythm, drive, and sassiness, the tone of this one is at a distinctively different level from much of his previous material, although Braun has never been one to slouch in the studio.  Read full review

July 28, 2009

Joe McBride -- Lookin' For a Change

Huh? was a word that popped into my head when I first learned of this latest effort, Lookin’ For A Change, by veteran pianist/vocalist Joe McBride. Wow! quickly replaced that one word when I heard this cool and innovative approach to pop tunes masquerading as strictly acoustic straight-ahead jazz. How magnificently clever... and, simply put, it works.

While McBride has always felt comfortable in the contemporary jazz arena, he shows here that he is equally as comfortable everywhere else, as he makes it clear that the difference between the genres is oftentimes just about interpretation and feel. How else could he have dug this deeply into a tune, extracted its essence and definition, and translated it so effortlessly to fit into this mosaic metamorphosis?  Sometimes—oftentimes--music is more than just music.  Read full review

July 25, 2009

Leela James – Let’s Do It Again

O.k., let’s get one thing out of the way right now. I have always thought that R&B vocalist Leela James’ debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come, which often integrated a blues/jazz touch, was a meteoric smash out of nowhere. Seeing her perform that album was yet another phenomenal experience for me. This sophomore release, Let’s Do It Again, while not yet clearly surpassing that debut in my mind, is still another example of the power and remarkable drive of this young lady’s vocal style. Handling covers in such a way as not to offend the originators is one thing, but to repaint those covers with such passion and to present them with a vocal personality that clearly distinguishes them from the original is another. As obvious as that sounds, it’s not always the case.  Read full review

Jay Soto -- Mesmerized

One thing that can definitely be said about the style of guitarist Jay Soto: There is always enough bounce and ambience to go around, and his latest release, Mesmerized, is no exception to this observation. His constantly smooth, tangle-free delivery seems to aim high and hit its target with each release since he landed on the scene back in 2005 with his debut album, Long Time Coming.

Not one to shy away from crafty, catchy hooks and melodies, the guitarist demonstrates his adeptness on the fretboard again with satisfying results. Backed up here by guitar ace Freddie Fox and noted bassist Mel Brown, Soto’s easily likable phrasings and rhythms are matched with tight riffs, as is evidenced on tracks like “A Love Like Mine,” the snappy and  funky “Groovalicious,” “Diggin’ It,” “Sunday Smile,”  and the title track, which features sunny backing vocals by Jodi Light. To add variety to this spice, Soto switches gears in between all this with the sweet and soulful “Together At Last” and the (obviously) bluesy “Bayou Blues” before finishing with “Cacophony,” the driving finale.  Read full review

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