REVIEW: Jawanza Kobie’s “Feels Better Than It Sounds”

Jawanza Kobie photo Jawanza_cover_zpsc12cec8b.jpg Locally, there used to be a smooth jazz radio station that I listened to from time to time. I’m not particularly a fan of smooth jazz, but some of it reminds me of the soul I grew up listening to, just without vocals. Then the radio station was taken over by a new station and format, and while I could listen to whatever radio show NPR has on the weekend, I figure “eh, I’ve had enough smooth jazz in my life, perhaps it was best”. Then comes the music of pianist/keyboardist Jawanza Kobie, whose sound I was not aware of until I put the CD in, so he could have played anything. But Feels Better Than It Sounds (JKobie Music) is an appropriate title, for while this is very much smooth jazz, it is smooth jazz at its best because this one slams.

What I liked about the songs here is that it sounds like some of Earth, Wind & Fire’s instrumentals, as if Larry Dunn decided to split himself and make more music than he does. The track listing goes back and forth between slow jams and mid-tempo dance tracks, many of which touch on the jazz/funk of the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s, so if it feels like something you’d expect to hear on a Hiroshima, Pat Metheny, or Eric Gale, that’s good, and part of that comes from the guitar work of Buddy Fambro or Bruce Middle. The only downside is when some tracks pull in a real horn section while others have Kobie substituting them with his keyboards. He can play, no doubt, but I would have preferred to hear real horns during these moments.

It’s mellow when it wants to be, smooth when it needs to, and incredibly funky and passionate at the right moments. Kobie understands because he probably knows the true power of music. If it feels good, do it, and he does it with style on here.

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REVIEW: Joey Stuckey’s “Mixture”

Joey Stuckey For a bit of luxurious jazz in your late nights or early morning, you may want to check out the latest album from guitarist Joey Stuckey. Mixture (Senate) is a 10-track collection of laid back jazz, smooth if you will but not a cheesy smooth. He does take time to get into a bebop vibe with the appropriately titled “Too Pooped To Bop”, but he makes a great effort in showing off his skills on the guitar. “Sunday Brunch” will definitely take you to the shores of Rio and make you wish you had a coffee, tea, or some kind of liquid refreshment (or maybe its intent is that you have a human means of refreshment) while “Crooked” seems to be Stuckey getting comfortable in the style of music he loves the most, and thus ends the album in a fine fashion.

Overall, a nice recording from start to finish.

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REVIEW: Gabriele Poso’s “Roots Of Soul”

Photobucket Roots Of Soul (INFRA!Com) is an album that doesn’t define what soul is, but then again, maybe it does. By exploring its roots in sound, it shows that soul music as we know it comes from jazz, gospel, and various styles of music from South America and Africa. The migration and navigation of people and cultures lead to a need to find a common language, and many times that lead to the creation of collaboration of music. Perhaps this is what Gabriele Poso is trying explain with his new album.

Within this album you’ll hear community, people, companionship, survival, necessities, love, passion, and strength, and where you’ll hear it now, it continues to blossom. Some of these tracks, like “Dona Flor”, would sound fine on an NPR jazz show as it would on a smooth jazz show, and hearing the congas and cymbals may move you to dance or seek the hand of someone attractive and make you do the dance that’ll make you demand much more. The playing throughout this is superb, and when it’s all over, you’ll want to play it again. All roots have an origin, but these roots continue to grow. The ear and mind is the nourishment. Feed it well.

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REVIEW: Alekos Galas’ “Mediterranean Breeze”

Photobucket The sounds of the Mediterranean are explored on this new album by Alekos Galas, whose chosen instrument is the bouzouki. On Mediterranean Breeze (Ehos) he mixes up a bit of sounds from his Greek heritage and mixes it up with pop and smooth jazz.

I found the pop sounds and those that steered more to the Greek side of things were very good, and I can easily imaging this to be used for a wide range of things. For smooth jazz fans, the material here is sure to gain him a bit of airplay. While I may not give the smooth jazz repeat airplays, his musicianship within the boundaries of the music help give the mood a nice touch generally not heard, or at least because the bouzouki is not an instrument commonly explored in the genre. While Galas may have have preferred styles on this album, I’d like to be able to hear him in other genres and projects. Job well done.

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REVIEW: Michael C. Lewis’ “Reflection”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic This is one of those massage albums that you’ll want to be sure to remain moist for throughout its duration, for anything less would mean chapped hands. Reflection (self-released) is a brilliant album from trumpeter Michael C. Lewis, who at times plays with the unfiltered smoothness of Miles Davis, but he is at his best when he puts the Miles hat on the side and just plays in the key of Lewis. The album is a nice mixture of smooth jazz with some of that quiet storm you know and love, mixing up soulful tones with a solo and walls of synth madness that immediately brings up that vibe you’re looking for in a romantic situation.

Arguably, one can just let this album go in the background but I think his playing is worthy of your attention, for while he is more than capable of putting himself on automatic, he doesn’t do that. There are a few mid-tempo songs but in this setting they’re not as good as the slow jams, yet I would love to hear how he plays in an uptempo setting with capable musicians. The mid-tempo songs only bring forward the fact that the drums and percussion are programmed. I have nothing against them, but with Lewis’ style of playing he needs genuine drums to work off of. A necessity, of course not, but this is what I would like to hear, perhaps in future projects.

If it’s romance you want, Reflection is the perfect album to suit your needs. If it’s fine musicianship from a trumpeter who knows what he’s doing, Lewis is your man of the hour.

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REVIEW: Fingerprints’ “Dream Life”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic As much as I claim that I don’t like smooth jazz, there is something oddly appealing about hearing people not quite giving it their all, but making to make an effort to say that they are dedicated musicians. How can it not be music for profit? Then I begin to think: am I wrong in putting this music down?

I don’t know about “wrong”, but there is an honest appeal to the simplicity of the music that at times is far better than anything I hear on Top 40 radio these days, and I hear this “better” in Dream Life (That Other Label/Pacific Coast Jazz). “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”, with his luxurious flute solos, sounds straight out of the late 70’s, mixing it up Kalapana, Seawind, or Hiroshima style, and for me it brings me back home to Hawai’i for a few minutes. The title track is slathered with a dated Soul II Soul beat but the guitar work drives the song into another direction, the synthesized/sequenced percussion does a number to you, and it becomes something else that I did not expect once the saxophone moves in for its solo. Then you have the sugary-sweet R&B ballad groove of “For You I Will”, a cover of the song made famous by Atlanta R&B vocalist Monica, and with enough of a push it could actually become a hit on its own merits.

If this music is meant to describe and/or define life in a dream state, it’s mellowness at its best. Smooth jazz is my guilty pleasure, for while I enjoy the experimental, avant-garde, and abrasive jazz, I’ve always enjoyed the cool vibe by countless jazz artists, and while some might expect for me to hate this, I do not. It’s smooth jazz, take it or leave it, but for fans of jazz who may dabble in the delicate side of their music, Fingerprints will definitely leave a trace on you.

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REVIEW: Audio Cultures’ “Breaking The Sound Barrier”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic With a name like Audio Cultures, I guess I expected their music to be subtle-yet-radical, because here’s a name that’s very basic, describing a part of what they are as musicians. Yet with that subtlety, I’m expecting something banging. Eh, not quite.

Breaking The Sound Barrier (Sonic Pilot) is a very bold title for something that’s pretty much smooth jazz. I admire their musicianship, but what I also hear is a group of musicians who know how to play with their eyes closed, but don’t bother breaking anything. Some of the music is layered over electronic beats, which is great, but the beats go nowhere. Put this music in the right hands, and this could be a bit more powerful than it is. However, if it’s a smooth jazz audience they’re trying to each, it’s a smooth jazz audience that will be entertained by music that will get snaps, claps, and smug approval.

I tend to be a Beatles snob, so while recording not one, but two Beatles songs on here (“Michelle” and “Come Together”) will no doubt get a second look and listen, I thought their arrangement of “Come Together” was not good. They added a little bit to it that’s not in the original song, an extra vamp and measure, and I found my edited version to be better. If you know how to edit songs from extracted WAV files, do it.

If Audio Culture wanted to be true sound troopers, they would give their music to a diverse range of hip-hop and electronica-based producers so that everyone can truly be “breaking the sound barrier”. The group are an easy listen, but as I listen, I’m hearing the potential of what could have been.

(NOTE: This is not to be confused with an album called Breaking The Sound Barrier, when they were called just Audio Culture. They share a few of the same songs, but aren’t the same albums.)

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REVIEW: Tom Braxton’s “Endless Highway”

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Endless Highway (Pacific Coast Jazz) begins with a nice chicken scratch guitar played through a wah-wah before a very boppy beat comes in and almost ruins the song. But what I want to hear is the saxophone work of Tom Braxton, and he sets himself apart from what’s going on around him in this song. The guy can play, and despite his mundane backdrop, I was entertained enough to want to hear more.

Fortunately the musicianship gets better as the album goes along. The majority of the songs are originals, whether it’s by Braxton or his bandmates. They keep to the jazz structure but they mix up pop and smooth jazz elements to create a very accessible sound that would be perfect at wineries or picnics. That’s not a slam to him or his music, but that’s what I hear. His version of America‘s “Venture Highway” is smoothed out with a soprano sax and acoustic guitar, and almost sounds like something that would be covered by Hawaiian groups with much success.

I like Braxton’s playing, so if you are a fan of smooth or pop jazz, this is a perfect addition to your collective. I would love to hear for him to get into some serious jams,something that goes beyond 4-6 minute song lengths.