A Slight Smooth Jazz Detour

Our reviews of CDs not necessarily regarded as smooth jazz. A Slight Smooth Jazz Detour makes unexpected stops or turns on the route through smooth jazz. Every now and again, a style or genre (new age, fusion, Latin, world, etc.) will catch the ears of our staff, and we’ll feel the need to share that vibe with you. Enjoy!

Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A. — Area 52

Mar. 8, 2012

Now, here are nine tracks of different. Granted, most of us are familiar with the fiery and exotic energy of Latin music, not to mention its adorable melodies. However, what Rodrigo y Gabriela have done with their latest project, Area 52, goes far beyond that usual comfort zone. Here, we find the duo dabbling in the unknown, the uncharted, the land of—as they put it—“Mulder and Scully” (“The X-Files”).

Fresh from scoring Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with Hans Zimmer, the duo headed to Cuba and, after securing a full 13-piece Cuban orchestra, began work on this album that includes a tribute to Pink Floyd (“11:11”), treads comfortably and confidently into Santana-land (“Hanuman”), plays in some hybrid world/Latin playground (“Ixtapa”), and, of course, the spice of Nuevo Flamenco (“Tamacun”). This is some complex-in-practice yet simple-in-concept stuff that demands attention.  Read full review

Zana Messia and The Balkan Soul Orchestra — Balkan Soul

Mar. 5, 2012

If liking a CD that defies pigeonholing is your idea of a successful musical effort, you will absolutely adore Balkan Soul from Zana Messia and The Balkan Soul Orchestra. Here’s a project full of world flavor and charm boasting of Balkan influence and the ingenious injection of good jazz.

While all of the musicians now reside in good ol’ L.A., the lovely Yugoslavian vocalist Zana Messia manages to pull together this effort that combines her love of traditional jazz with the magic of Balkan Roma music that swept her off her feet as a child. With Fourplay drummer extraordinaire Harvey Mason serving as executive producer (and also demonstrating his skills on percussion, marimba, and vibes), this album is cool, hot, sensuous, modest, and soothing all in one breath. Read full review

Kennard Ramsey — Somos

Dec. 2, 2011

Here is a diverse, eclectic, worldly fusion, free jazz, new age, Latin project containing casually delivered treats with guitarist Kennard Ramsey at the helm on guitar. In places, the album, Somos, smacks of producer/composer/master bassist Stanley Clarke—and it should, considering that he is its executive producer .

I have to honestly say that, in previewing this release, I was focused on the Latin element. When I finally delved into the album, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many other alive elements. Read full review


Kyle Pederson — 12.25

Nov. 1, 2011

As that most wonderful time of the year rapidly approaches, I am often inundated with requests to review Christmas albums, a practice I employ very, very judiciously. In fact, unless the project bears a certain element of unique interpretation, I tend to pass on such reviews. That being said, there are some albums that warrant your attention.  Pianist Kyle Pederson has released one such album called 12.25, a solo piano effort that captures the spirit of the season simply yet in a very refreshingly unique manner, with improvisation and well-conceived runs and passages in a classical vein.

You get more here than just a Christmas carol.  I found his versions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Infant Holy,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” and “Gabriel’s Message,” especially appealing. Soothing, sweet, serene, reflective, and so befitting the season that will shortly be upon us; a season that always seems to bring out the best in us all, even if it’s just a warm smile from a passerby. Read full review

Joseph Sullinger — Earth Voyage

Oct. 28, 2011

Guitarist Joseph Sullinger’s Earth Voyage is an album of many directions. When I first sampled the project, I found some marvelously exotic and sweet Latin melodies contained in the first three tracks. From there, it was off to adding new age and world journeys to the repertoire, and that all seems to work well in this dance of diversity and culture.

This, for the most part, is an album with which to settle down after that terribly frustrating and perhaps hectic day. For example, track 5, “Sailing,” features the backdrop of ocean waves and gulls and the soothing violin of Adrienne Galfi and has a somewhat magical and orchestral appeal. It doesn’t hurt that Galfi is a member of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. Did I mention that Sullinger and several members of his family reside in Mexico? That may explain much of this album’s Latin influence—that is, where Latin music is the theme on this album. Read full review

Rick Braun — Sings With Strings

Aug. 13, 2011


Rick Braun Sings With Strings.  Wow. Talk about new roads. This acoustic, straight-ahead, vocal-focused journey of jazz/pop tunes from the smooth jazz trumpet master, who teamed with producer/arranger/keyboardist Philippe Saisse for this project, will surely catch many of his followers by surprise, but most may find it a pleasant surprise.

We often ask for new twists, diversity, that something that makes us take more notice. Well, Braun couldn’t have done a better job of combining the elements of newness in his style to present all of that. This collection of covers of mellow, expressive, and all-around curiously intriguing tunes, both familiar and not-so-familiar-shows Braun in a new light, with strings, soothing, bluesy, traditional jazz trumpet, and with an emphasis on clear jazz vocals reminiscent—at least in terms of style—of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and even Harry Connick, Jr.  Rick Braun?? Yeah, that’s different, and it’s the reason we chose to place this one in our Slight Detour section, though, for Braun, it’s more than a slight detour. Read full review


Russ Hewitt — Alma Vieja

July 26, 2011


If you’re a Latin jazz or Nuevo Flamenco guitar enthusiast, Russ Hewitt is a name you don’t want to ignore or forget.  Having been fortunate enough to review his debut release, Bajo el Sol, in 2008, I anxiously awaited this sophomore release, Alma Vieja, to see if he could match the imagination, the fluidity, and the smooth caress of that first release. Not only has he done so,  he has utilized his skills to employ diversity even more, mixing in solid smooth jazz (he collaborates with saxman Michael Lington here, as well) and the exoticism of  World music (to which he is no stranger).

Originality seems to be a very definite and integral part of Hewitt’s overall appeal and style. There is the mystique and joy of music from lands far away (try “Dhanyavad”), the electricity of the sweet and romantic Latin melody (“Gabriela Mi Corazon”), and the more rousing and seductively rhythmic among the Latin numbers (“Pelourinho,” “Miss Mimi,” and “Moonlake Drive” come to mind). There’s also the familiar and irresistible draw of good ol’ contemporary jazz (“Pacific Sunrise”). Read full review

Nocy — Simplicity

June 25, 2011


Spanish flamenco jazz always gets a real lift when veteran guitarist Nocy sets out to produce a new project. His last release, Rise, was truly a testament to his marvelous and sensuous kill at crafting authentic and exotic melodies reminiscent of other lands and islands. His latest, Simplicity, is another stop along this enjoyable journey around the world as he explores not only the attraction of flamenco but the romanticism of Brazilian and salsa music and the beautiful mystique of Japan, In addition to tossing in his own version of reggae, new age, and even country.

This album is dedicated to a big influence and inspiration in the guitarist’s life, his dad, who departed this life last year. The tracks reflect the closeness as you can sense the emotion in each piece which played with definite purpose.

Another one who’s great with a melody, and some will argue that it’s hard not to make good of a Spanish-influenced melody (to which I would beg to strongly differ), Nocy turns simple pieces into great exotic moments.  There is one track on which I might differ with him with respect to how he classifies it. His beautiful “Forever Dad,” an obvious tribute to the man he cherished, is indeed soulful but hardly “hip hop,” as he tends to see it. At any rate, whatever you may want to call it, it affects and impacts. Read full review


Corea, Clarke & White — Forever

May 14, 2011


Of course, it happened. It was simply inevitable because legends don’t die.  The return of Return to Forever. Didn’t you just feel that would happen? How do you keep such stellar talent from again rising to meteoric heights? Here we are in 2011, pleasantly treated to the sophisticated, sometimes complex, always riveting, production of a group that held us captive with its every note back in the ‘70s with the likes of Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy and much later (with the help of Al DiMeola), Romantic Warrior. The illustrious keyboardist/pianist Chick Corea, iconic bassist Stanley Clarke, and masterfully expressive drummer Lenny White (and special guest alumni silky guitarist Bill Connors and the effervescent Jean Luc Ponty – what kind of reunion would it be without these forces?)…together again on a spectacular 2-CD set simply called (what else?) Forever, due for release on June 7.

Including electric and acoustic selections, jazz standards and the formula that ignited the redefinition of jazz/rock fusion, this is a compilation surely worth the wait.

Disc one is a live best-of sampler of the 2009 “RTF – Unplugged” world tour, packed with such standards as “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Waltz for Debby,” and “Hackensack,” Corea classics “Bud Powell,” and “windows,” Clarke’s new “La Cancion de Sofia,” and RTF pieces “Senor Mouse” and “No Mystery.”  Read full review

Dave Grusin — An Evening With Dave Grusin

April 6, 2011


O.k., so we are not noted here for traditional, swing, or big band jazz reviews. Still, there are just some personalities and talents too big and too bright to pass up.  This magical project, An Evening with Dave Grusin (scheduled for release on April 26), performed in an orchestral setting with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, makes for a marvelous exception. This is simply rich in every jazzy way. Even contemporary jazz fans just have to appreciate this splendid exhibition of quality.

As if the legendary film scorer, jazz pianist,  and co-founder of GRP Records, with his 40+ years of records, isn’t enough to attract major attention, Grusin brings along on this fantastic journey the wonderfully gifted Patti Austin (and her humor),  Jon Secada, flutist Nestor Torres , Arturo Sandoval, Monica Mancini, Gary Burton, and Sammy Figueroa, among others.  This great group tackles not only Grusin’s material but that of Leonard Bernstein (“Cool,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” and “I Feel Pretty”), George Gershwin (“Porgy and Bess Medley,” and Henry Mancini-who was a mentor and personal friend of Grusin—(“Moon River” and “Peter Gunn”). Read full review

Leila — Soul Ascension

 March 8, 2011


Today, with the imagination, energy, and insight of artists-new and veteran- we are the fortunate recipients of some of the finest combinations of the different genres imaginable. The latest to which I’ve been introduced happens to belong to Leila, a beautiful young Spaniard born in Argentina and quickly raised on the passions and calling of the richest of R&B, Latin, World, and jazz.  With a healthy dose of sultriness and soul, this comely songstress brings us a double CD, Soul Ascension.

There are pretty clear indications that R&B is probably the dominant force on this album, but it really doesn’t dominate in that you aren’t so cognizant of that pigeonhole as you are of the content of the overall material, the lyrics, the melodies, etc. It all works well together as one lovely fabric.  Read full review

Vahe —

Nov. 20, 2010


With a sweetness and defining elegance as tantalizing as the beautiful culture itself,  flamenco guitarist Vahe offers a blend of rich traditional and modern styles on his latest release, entitled Passion, with nice touches of jazz and world music adding color to the project.  A production full of bright melodies, cozy hooks, and fitting horns and strings, the album has a smooth and very effective magnetic attraction.

There is much to enjoy here.  The title and opening track gives us a marvelously seductive trumpet accompaniment (I’ve always so admired the way that instrument is used in the world of Latin music; such a majestic presence).  Track two’s “Aranjuez,” with its ethereal string arrangement and world music undertones, is tender and unassuming while being quite melodic and containing a world music undertone. Another smooth tune,  track 4’s “Quiet Tears,” incorporates a little touch of France in the mix.  “Memories” is a lively “let’s dance” meringue-like piece with lots of melody, strings, and a really nice hook.  Read full review

Doug Towle — Desire, Heat & Spirit

Nov. 20, 2010


I have never made a secret of my affinity for good Latin music, especially Latin jazz. Of course, as with any genre, not just any Latin music will do. It should be music that inspires, moves, touches, ignites, embraces, and lures with hot, seductive, romantic melodies, alive with the culture and spirit.  Such is the case with the music of guitarist Doug Towle. I recently got wind of his 2009 release, Desire, Heat & Spirit. 2009?? Yep. I know. I seldom feature older material here, and I haven’t yet created a section for such material (though I do plan to do so in the very near future).  Nonetheless, some productions beg exception.  This is one. Why? It’s alive and breathes fire, lustiiness, and melodies that simply can’t be ignored.

A generous 15-track album, the catchy rhythms and riveting, memorable melodies and hooks take hold from track one’s “Ritmo de la Vida” all the way through track 15’s “Road to Mahajua.” Read full review

Nu Shooz Orchestra — Pandora’s Box

Oct.  15, 2010

The talented duo of Valerie Day and John Smith have been dazzling those who truly appreciate innovative music since the ‘80s with their atypical brand of hybrid music which combines pop, jazz, funk and everything in between. As Nu Shooz then, they did what they felt expressed “nu-ness.” Today, they are back as the Nu Shooz Orchestra, bringing a 10-piece orchestra into the experience, as well, with a project called, interestingly, Pandora’s Box. Open it, and hang on for this one, as you will go to different places and experience some pretty crazy and exciting things.

Revisiting three of their classics, “Point of No Return,” “Driftin’,” and “I Can’t Wait,” the group tosses in nine newbies that are meant to motivate, inspire, invoke, and interest. They do. You have to be there, though. So, be prepared. This is no easy-to-grasp, easy-to-discard group or project. For anyone who’s familiar with Nu Shooz, that’s stating the obvious.  This is as free as jazz can get. No pigeonholes work here.  Day’s vocals punctuate every crevice in every song, and Smith throws every type of chord and phrasing our way that he can muster. Read full review

Herbie Hancock — The Imagine Project

July 22, 2010

Imagine. Imagine a production defying genres and pulling together some of the most impressive musical “dignitaries” from around the world to embark upon an adventure that results in a chapter in the book of music saluting not only such honorable themes as peace and global responsibility but also coinciding with the 70th birthday of one of the biggest influences in modern music, the iconic Herbie Hancock, the brilliant creator of this collage of beauty appropriately called The Imagine Project.  If you can imagine such a feat, you have conjured up the huge “smile” that was created in each collaborator’s home territory.  You can hardly expect less from one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World, and I seriously doubt that you’ll find less here. Read full review

Ottmar Liebert — Petals On the Path

July 6, 2010

One of the true masters of flamenco guitar and culture, especially Nuevo Flamenco, renowned German-born Ottmar Liebert casts his seductive spell on fans once again with a truly sweet, embracing, and oh-so-melodic production, Petals On the Path.

Here with his usual accompaniment, Luna Negra (whose personnel has changed too many times to count but never ever seems to lose the flow), Liebert tries something a bit different and pares down to a trio (Ottmar on guitar, bassist Jon Gagan-the only original member of Luna Negra-on bass and keys, and Michael Chavez on drumkit) and provides a simple yet extraordinarily rich collection of ideas in the form of some of the most romantic and filling music you can imagine from one so versed in the art of caressing and feeling. As he states, “For this project, I was writing and playing without considering anything external. There isn’t even an occasional look to tradition here. It’s Post-Category music defined by the chemistry of the trio. There is great feeling of independence, of liberation.” Read full review

Lisa Downing — A Delicate Balance

June 30, 2010

If a quieter, more serene moment alone or with the object of your affection is what you desire on any given day or evening, I believe solo pianist Lisa Downing has what you need here in her latest offering, A Delicate Balance, a truly mesmerizing collage of beauty and melody dancing together so exquisitely.

As the pianist says, “It’s a fragile existence that we lead. It is a challenge to balance your job with your personal life, your outer-persona with your inner feelings, working versus having fun, helping your children or doing too much for them, day-dreams versus accomplishments. The list is endless and it touches every aspect of our lives.” So, what does the accomplished artist do? She channels those feelings and observations about life and uses them for inspiration in writing tunes that especially reflect the years she personally spent as a single parent struggling to raise her son on her own. Such a personal connection to the music allows for such a magnificent flow and depth of understanding, and it is all so evident in this quality production. Read full review

Francis Mbappe — Peace Is Freedom

June 18, 2010

Here is another refreshing turn on the road that takes us to the rich land of Africa and the alluring sounds of bassist/guitarist/vocalist/producer Francis Mbappe as he dances forward with his latest release, Peace Is Freedom, a truly alive piece of work.

The opening and title track easily captures the texture of Mbappe’s spirit as it boldly enters on a horn-laden rhythmic wave of joyous sound. “Freedom” is quite the representative title for the song. He follows that with a very melodic slow-to-mid-tempo track, “Wonderful Love,” that just cascades over one in warmth and flavor. Read full review

Lisa McClowry — Time Signatures

June 13, 2010

Here’s a young lady with a pretty impressive array of credits in several genres, including country, pop, and rock. Here now with producer Jim Peterik (Oscar winner for “Eye of the Tiger” and writer of other notables), Lisa McClowry presents her feel for diversity in music—with a twist of pop, rock, country, and soul all gathered together in one cool place. The CD is entitled Time Signatures and is due out in stores on June 22.

At first listen, you certainly hear the call of her multiple-range sultry voice, and you can hear how easily that all would fit in a rock, country, or pop environment, but here it fits equally as well as a soulful hybrid of melody and charm. Not an exclusively smooth jazz undertaking, it nonetheless croons smooth, as well as being fiery in spots. Read full review

Tyson Emanuel — December’s Sun

Apr. 18, 2010

In a guitarist’s world, esoteric nuances might not be lost on peers, but average listeners might not quite get some—or a lot—of it. This debut CD, December’s Sun, from world/flamenco guitarist Tyson Emanuel has moments like that, but the artist does a great job of eventually giving everyone a little something onto which to cling.

December’s Sun is a mix of gentle world influences and the richness and bravado of Latin music in the form of finely crafted flamenco guitar. After an “interesting” opening track, Emanuel settles down with track two’s sweet and very melodic hybrid of world and flamenco—a tune called “Desire.” It clearly displays Emanuel’s proficiency and dexterity on acoustic guitar. Read full review

Lawson Rollins — Espirito

Feb. 10, 2010

When I reviewed the debut release, Infinita, by world/jazz guitarist Lawson Rollins in 2008, I strongly suspected that we would hear more of the diverse cultural mix from the exotic melodies that he coaxed from the strings of his guitar. I’d like to take a moment here to gloat about my being quite correct. Here, with Espirito, the guitarist, along with some mighty help again from Shahin Shahida, the well-respected world/jazz guitarist and one-half of the world/jazz duo, Shahin & Sepehr, sets the World stage afire again with hot licks and sexy Latin/world melodies tailor-made for the romantic and the culturally curious, as well.

Many of the notable contributors here also offered their respective skills to Infinita, including renowned vocalist Flora Purim, who now offers her charm to “Moonlight Samba,” “Return to Rio,” and the title track (all three tracks favor the Brazilian/Latin influence, and it all fits and works so well here). There’s also keyboardist/pianist/producer Dominic Carmardella, who’s worked with the iconic guitarist Ottmar Liebert and the acid jazz group 3rd Force. These contributors and others make their presence very much felt throughout this fine production. Read full review

Klay D-C — Ritmo

Jan. 28, 2010

Now, there is music for those who just want to feel the groove and react. Then, there is music that beckons you to listen with all you’ve got while you groove because there are things going on here. If it were a road sign, it might read: Creativity in the Making or Artist at Work. That would be the music you need to follow, and it’s music that won’t lead you astray, as proven here by the very talented pianist, Klay D-C, and his latest release, Ritmo (Spanish and Italian for ‘rhythm,” and you’ll soon find out why that title).

Fans of vibist Roy Ayers’ Ubiquity may remember Klay’s membership in that group from 1999 - 2004. Also, in 1998, his band, The Jazz Steppers, won the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Best Jazz Act award. Read full review

Gary Carpenter — Tierra Madre

Jan. 4, 2010

It’s not always easy to find a really good balance between world music and the serious Latin charm of, say, rumba. Gary Carpenter indirectly boasts that he has struck that balance, and he certainly sounds here like he has a point. On Tierra Madre, his sophomore release, he and his band, Tribal Heat, draw on everything they have to present a complete package of cool and sexy blends of some interesting world music undertakings and the all-so-consuming drive of Latin rhythms and melodies.

I have to admit to a certain bias for Latin music. Oh, when it’s badly played, it forces me to turn a deaf ear to it, but when it’s on, I mean really “on,” I can lose myself in its mystique, its passion, its fire, and its sensuality with the first stroke of that romantic guitar. Only a really decent artist can summon that in me. Carpenter seems to fit the bill. Read full review

Johannes Linstead — Mistico

Nov. 6, 2009

As if Johannes Linstead fans didn’t already know it would happen again, the Canadian guitarist is once more igniting passion, desire, and dreams through his exotic and fiery handling of the Spanish guitar. His latest release, Mistico, explores the many nuances of that fine, seductive instrument from the traditional to the contemporary, from the sultry to the furious - a culmination of all his years as a quality guitarist. Known equally for his beautiful melodies and for his lightning-fast guitar work, this multi-award winning composer joins with musicians from around the world, including Spain, Cuba, Greece, Iran, and Venezuela, to make this album a rare gem among the Latin guitar genre. Since its release in September, Mistico has already reached the #1 position on eMusic.com’s World Music and Jazz/Blues charts. Again, as if Lindstead fans could expect any less. Read full review

Kyle Eastwood — Metropolitain

Nov. 5, 2009

Here’s a slice of hot and cool fusion jazz you’ve gotta thoroughly enjoy, even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool smooth jazzer. Kyle Eastwood, actor Clint Eastwood’s bass-wielding son, should have you fully engaged and acknowledging the quality, poise, and eloquence of his compositions here on Metropolitain by record’s end. Maybe it was the melodies; maybe it was the sheer power. Whatever it was, this album caught and held me fast. Clearly an artist with magnificent and laudable skills on bass, complete with stylish chords and harmonics, Eastwood’s writing is as superb. Ordinarily, I focus my reviews on the world of smooth jazz, but this one drove me to such a state of sheer appreciation that I felt I would be totally remiss—not to mention grossly unfair- to ignore the tightness, the clarity, and the boldness of the splendid piece of fusion going on here. Read full review


Jesse Cook — The Rumba Foundation

Sept. 25, 2009

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

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