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Smooth Operators at Times Overlooked

July 28, 2002|DON HECKMAN

The genres that are generally grouped under the smooth jazz label actually consist of a collection of far-ranging musical styles--in some cases only distantly related to each other. New age artists, for example, now sometimes find themselves, to their surprise, listed on the smooth jazz charts. In the always difficult to define vocal arena, singers similarly cross over unpredictably from smooth jazz to urban pop to R&B.

The net result of these random definitions is that some fine playing, regardless of the label, can sometimes be overlooked.

The Yellowjackets, "Mint Jam" (***, Yellowjackets Enterprises). It's never really been quite clear why a group more accurately described as a mainstream-fusion hybrid should occasionally be spotted in the smooth jazz crowd. More than two decades after the band was founded, the Yellowjackets--original members Russell Ferrante on keyboards and bassist Jimmy Haslip, with newer players Bob Mintzer on saxophone and electronic wind instrument, and drummer Marcus Baylor--are still hard to define.

This latest effort, a two-CD set recorded live at the Mint in Los Angeles, is the product of the group's decision to produce and market their own albums through their Web site, Longtime fans will be pleased at the inclusion of a few tunes from the group's past, including "Tortoise and the Hare" and "Evening News." More recent discoverers of the band will be impressed by the work of Mintzer, whose inventive imagination is energized by a high-voltage rhythmic drive.

More problematic is the tendency of drummer Baylor to underscore virtually every tune with a perpetual, sometimes maddeningly repetitive backbeat. (It is a tendency, in fact, that diminishes otherwise compelling work, not just with the Yellowjackets, but with many smooth jazz ensembles.) On the exceptions, when the grooves are more subtle and less predictable--especially on Mintzer numbers such as "Mofongo" and "Runferyerlife"--the Yellowjackets present convincing credentials as a first-rate, beyond-category jazz ensemble.

Fourplay, "Heartfelt" (***, BMG/RCA Victor). Like the Yellowjackets, Fourplay is an all-star collective that has been producing top charting, musically intriguing albums, in this case for more than a decade. Three of the original group members remain--pianist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason--with guitarist Larry Carlton joining the group when Lee Ritenour left in 1998. Also like the Yellowjackets, they have made a label change, moving from Warner Bros. to RCA.

Fourplay's primary asset is its extraordinary versatility, combined with the capacity to slip easily in and out of pop-jazz groove rhythms. Mason's stylistic dexterity adds lift and vigor, even in the most rudimentary backbeat patterns, while James--despite all his pop instrumental outings--has never lost his capacity to improvise at a world-class level. All those qualities are amply present in "Heartfelt," Fourplay's best album of the past few years, with the diverse high points ranging from East's soulful vocal on "Let's Make Love" and James' arching, spontaneous melodizing in the title track to Carlton's simmering blues lines in his own "Goin' Back Home."

Russ Freeman, "Drive" (** 1/2, Peak Records). Guitarist Freeman has led the pop-jazz group the Rippingtons since the late '80s. Often urged to step out on his own, he has done so rarely. It's unfortunate that this solo endeavor doesn't do more to portray his skills beyond those displayed in his leadership role. But most of the tracks here could easily have been produced by the Rippingtons.

The exceptions are a pair of numbers--"Villa by the Sea" and "Bellagio"--in which Freeman dips into the nuevo flamenco style with considerable success (something he also has done occasionally on Rippingtons albums). On a few other tracks, the misty presence of Chris Botti's Miles Davis-like muted trumpet adds some much needed color to the proceedings. But, more often, the repetitious backbeat rhythms (there they are again) tend to dull the music to the point of distraction.

Keiko Matsui, "Deep Blue" (**, Narada Jazz). Keyboardist Matsui has never had particularly strong jazz credentials, but there were passages in her early recordings and live performances in which she played with admirable lift and enthusiasm. Lately, although her albums are frequently charted in the smooth jazz category, she has drifted into atmospheric piano stylings similar to the efforts of John Tesh (who also, amazingly, charts as a smooth jazz artist).

To her credit, she has succeeded in what she has chosen to do--create an album filled with floating melodies and warm, enveloping sounds. For some, that will be a formula for musical wallpaper; for others, Matsui's music will serve nicely as an accompaniment for relaxation or meditation.

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