Beyond Smooth

This breakdown is not all encompassing or perfectly historically correct. It’s a means to an end so bear with me. Before there was smooth there was contemporary, which evolved parallel to fusion and occasionally intersected. Before that there was straightahead, traditional jazz which got pushed at the borders as time passed, from swing to bebop to hard bop and post bop and cool jazz to fusion and funk and acid and M-base and the new traditionalists and more. Whew. Then there was smooth. Smooth evolved from the softer, more R&B oriented side of contemporary, which actually evolved from the pop side of fusion. You are probably very confused right now, and justifiably so. Categorization and sub-categorization do a great disservice to the experience of listening to music because the labels we use don’t carry the same associations across the board. They also spawn narrow mindedness, snobbery, and fear of music.

For now let’s just look at smooth because that’s the first part of the name of this website and the label most fans still use to describe our musical focus. There have always been instrumental songs that broke the barriers of the vocal heavy pop charts. Go back to the Ventures and the Telstar song, or “Green Onions.” Jump forward and Chuck Mangione and George Benson are cracking the top 40 charts. That is where contemporary jazz flew out from under the radar and a segment of the genre detached itself from hard rock based fusion. By the early 80’s there was a popular strain of instrumental music developing. Spyro Gyra was hitting the pop charts, Sanborn and Benson and Grover Washington Jr. were too. “Jazz Brunch” shows popped up on radio stations and the music started to build momentum, probably reaching critical mass when Kenny G’s “Songbird” (in the words of radio people back then) exploded.

Think of contemporary jazz at the time as a rainbow. There were lots of colors. Rock flavors, world rhythms, meditative acoustic “New Age,” straightahead jazz, R&B. If you went to the record store or spun the dial on your radio you could find all of these in one rack or on one station. Then the narrowing began. In the mid 90’s right after media consolidation took radio ownership out of the hands of passionate professionals and passed it into the hands of Wall Street investors the game plan changed from excitement to safety and all formats narrowed their focus by shortening their playlists. Contemporary jazz took the hardest hit from this wave of conservatism. These new owners were told that the best way to build ratings was to approach it as an updated version of the old Beautiful Music format (incorrectly but appropriately referred to as Muzak). The focus shifted from an exciting new brand of adult alternative music to an unobtrusive moodscape designed for relaxation. No more sizzling guitar solos, “blaring horns,” piano lines that covered the whole keyboard, or uptempo songs. “Too exciting” became a bad thing. In short, the rainbow was reduced to a narrow range of muted shades of blue and grey.

Fast forward to the present. Artists don’t have to focus on “smooth and relaxing” anymore because the radio format has faded so they start painting the colors of the rainbow back in. But now listeners have been conditioned to only seek out the high profile segment of the genre – the glossy, heavily synthesized and precisely produced smooth grooves. Hearing things that are out of that zone can be a little bit uncomfortable at first but think how much more beautiful a multicolored rainbow is than a cloudy gray day.

Two albums arrived in the mail over the last month that excited me so much that I had to review them and share them with you. Both of them paint colors back into the rainbow and both harken back to the time when contemporary jazz encompassed a lot of territory. Tom Schuman’s Designated Planets leans toward fusion and there is a lot of studio wizardry and technology in the underpinnings. Mike MacArthur’s Feels Like Home is in the jazz/blues pocket and has the sound of a live gig. They are almost on opposite sides of the spectrum sonically but both feature virtuoso musicianship and perfect selection of songs and while both push the boundaries they are melodic, accessible, and you will enjoy listening to them. In the center lies Boney’s new release, which is also reviewed this month. It is more in line with the production values of smooth but has the same high standards of musicianship and inventive writing and playing. Artists follow their vision and listeners start to explore again and become open to a more diverse array of sounds. We have Spotify, Pandora, and the like now. Exploration doesn’t involve the expense of buying whole albums that you haven’t heard. Listen to Schuman’s CD then try out his others, or some other fusion tracks. Listen to MacArthur then go deeper into some of the artists he covered. Listen to Boney then seek out some of the late 80’s and early 90’s releases on the GRP label. You won’t love everything and some things may have to grow on you but the experience will be gratifying. You’ll find more music that makes you feel good and when you support it it helps widen the spectrum of what is considered commercially successful. That’s how we fill out the colors of the rainbow.