[JPL] Boston Globe article on "sm**th jazz"
arturo893 at qwest.net
Thu Jul 20 17:09:09 EDT 2006
Love it or hate it, smooth jazz is here to stay
By Sarah Rodman, BOSTON GLOBE
Inside Bay Area
CALL HIM POP. Call him jazz. Call him, if you must, a smooth
operator. But whatever you do, don't call the music that trumpeter
Chris Botti makes smooth jazz.
"We're not smooth jazz," Botti says, curtly.
Try telling that to the radio programmers who routinely put his cool
compositions and covers into rotation, and the listeners who have
scooped up more than a million copies of his discs, including his
most recent effort, "To Love Again: The Duets."
Botti tries to be understanding. "To about 98 percent of the general
public, if you put an instrument on the top and they can sort of
figure out 'Well, you're playing in a little tiny club and it sounds
like a math test' or 'You're playing bigger venues and it's
pleasing,' then the second one is always going to be smooth jazz,"
he says. "It doesn't matter what's going on underneath."
Indeed, a glance at smooth jazz radio playlists reveals a much wider
collection of artists than you might guess. Of course,
instrumentalists such as Botti, saxophonist Dave Koz, and
keyboardist Brian Culbertson are staples. But so are plenty of
vocalists and singer-songwriters: Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae,
India.Arie, Michael McDonald, Anita Baker, Alicia Keys, Luther
Vandross, and Botti's former employer Sting. And the fact is, some
of those artists especially those who'd never be mistaken for jazz
musicians have no problem being adopted by the smooth jazz
community, so long as it gets people listening to their music. Radio
play is radio play, after all.
And yet, regardless of the music's popularity, or how many big-
selling acts now fall under the genre's umbrella, many artists and
fans, especially those who fancy themselves jazz purists, bristle at
the very mention of smooth jazz. Others are simply resigned. George
Benson the virtuoso guitarist with unimpeachable straight-ahead
jazz bona fides has, over the years, achieved a certain equanimity
about the label. "It's here," the 63-year-old says with a
laugh, "and you can't do nothing about it."
Smooth jazz's background
Music fitting the description of smooth jazz existed long before the
term ever did. Serious jazz musicians such as Benson, Bob James,
David Sanborn, Herb Alpert, and Chuck Mangione played what would now
be labeled smooth jazz as far back as the'70s. And, yes, fans ate it
"The music just got more and more popular and so a whole radio
format formed around it and they had to call it something because
people like labels," Culbertson says. "You couldn't call it a
traditional jazz station because it's not. They couldn't call it pop
because there's not a lot of vocals. So it was like, 'Hmmm, the
music's kind of smooth sounding and there's jazz influence hey,
let's put those two words together.'"
That's exactly what happened, according to Frank Cody, a former
radio consultant who deserves the credit or the blame, depending
on your viewpoint for the term "smooth jazz."
"It was actually a listener," Cody concedes. In the early '90s, as a
member of consulting firm Broadcast Architecture, Cody conducted
focus groups. One Chicago woman strung together the infamous words
when grappling for a description of a song snippet. "At that
moment," Cody says, "light bulbs went off over everybody's heads." A
format was born.
Around the same time, Billboard instituted its "Contemporary Jazz"
chart to separate popular smooth-jazz artists and harder-edged
fusion groups from straight-ahead, or traditional, jazz artists. The
reason? Smooth jazz sales were beginning to dwarf the traditional
stuff. "The concern was that it would be easy for a smooth jazz
artist such as Chuck Mangione or a Spyro Gyra to outsell traditional
artist Dexter Gordon," says Billboard's director of charts and
senior analyst Geoff Mayfield.
But what is smooth jazz? Ask 10 different people, you'll get 10
"It's almost like the Supreme Court justice's definition of
pornography: I know it when I hear it," says Mayfield with a laugh.
The fundamental difference between smooth jazz and traditional jazz
lies in the chief instrumentalist's approach to improvisation.
Typically, at least on record, smooth jazz musicians just don't
improvise. They often prefer to serve as a surrogate
voice, "singing" the melody line over a simple pop or R&B groove.
Play Kenny G's "Songbird" followed by John Coltrane's jazz
classic "My Favorite Things" back to back and you'll get the
picture. When it comes to vocalists, it's the difference between the
mellow phrasing and textures of a Sade or a Norah Jones versus the
energetic scatting of, say, Ella Fitzgerald. As the artists found on
smooth jazz playlists make clear, the "smooth" is usually more
important than the "jazz."
"There's a quality to the vocals, a soulfulness to the vocals and an
equal soulfulness to the instrumentals," Koz says. "Whether it's a
vocal song or an instrumental song, it's melody driven and generally
has some sort of rhythmic pulse on the bottom."
However it's described, almost all of the artists now loosely
included in the category would tell you that they didn't set out to
make smooth jazz. They created music from the heart, and the format
Which is exactly what smooth jazz programmers have been doing since
the format's inception: gradually adopting artists and songs that
dash the conventional image of smooth jazz as that blissed-out
instrumental tootling you hear during massages or root canals.
So while Kenny G's lyrical yet much maligned "Songbird" may be one
of the most well-known smooth jazz songs ever recorded, appropriated
smooth jazz hits now include pop and R&B songs with vocals such as
Benson's "On Broadway," Sade's "Smooth Operator," and Steely
Dan's "Hey Nineteen."
Convincing listeners that if they like these songs then, by default,
they like smooth jazz is an uphill battle, however. And musicians
usually take one of three approaches: resist, tolerate, or embrace.
"I could say to someone my last two CDs are all done basically live
with an orchestra and it's way more coming from Miles Davis and Chet
Baker than smooth jazz," says Botti, a resister. "But all people
know is that it's smooth, so it translates into 'makes them feel
relaxed.' " Because of that, listeners don't associate it with the
more complex forms of bebop or fusion. "Most people think Sade is a
badass jazz musician, and I love Sade. But is she a jazz musician?
Heck no. So what do you do?"
Embracing the genre
Koz, meanwhile, embraces the genre. Known as the "ambassador of
smooth jazz," he started a cottage industry to promote it. In
addition to recording a half-dozen successful albums, Koz headlines
popular summer and holiday tours with simpatico artists, co-founded
the Rendezvous Entertainment record label with Cody home to smooth
jazz stars such as Wayman Tisdale and Kirk Whalum and hosts a
morning radio show and weekly syndicated program devoted to the
music. He's mounting his second smooth jazz cruise to the Mexican
Riviera on which Botti has played in the past this November.
"Maybe about 10 years ago I stopped letting that bother me," Koz
says of dismissals of the genre as "elevator music." "For a lot of
jazz critics, anything that is outside of that traditional box is
not good or not worthy of attention. I recognize where that lives,
but the most important critic to me is the listener."
These days, it seems that the less jazzy an artist is, the more
likely he is to accept his inclusion in the smooth jazz pantheon.
Pop singer Michael McDonald says he was thrilled when smooth jazz
stations starting playing cuts from his two recent collections of
"It's a wonderful thing," says the former Doobie Brother, who has
toured with Koz and Culbertson. "I mean, anytime that somebody's
playing your music for an audience that's out there it can only be
I mean, thank God for smooth jazz radio for artists like myself."
British newcomer Corinne Bailey Rae is also grateful that her new
single "Put Your Records On" acoustic soul in the vein of Erykah
Badu or India.Arie has already made a splash stateside on the
smooth jazz charts. In her home country, she gets spun on the rock
and soul outposts of the BBC.
"Wherever you go, people seem to hear things differently according
to what culture or place it is," says the 27-year-old
chanteuse. "I'm happy just to get played."
Of course, getting played can mean the difference between selling
records or not. Smooth jazz artists typically outsell traditional
artists, usually because they get more airplay on more stations.
Traditional jazz outlets have shrunk over the years while smooth
jazz outlets have expanded.
"I will say we definitely sell a lot more than straight-ahead jazz,
that is true," says Culbertson with just a touch of gloating. "We're
selling 100,000 or more, they're not even coming close. They're
lucky if they're selling 15,000."
And the fans don't just buy albums, they come out to hear the music
"Straight-ahead jazz is a harder sell," says Fred Taylor,
entertainment director of Sculler's Jazz Club in Cambridge,
Mass. "All of the artists that we presented in the early years of
smooth jazz I keep rebooking, and they are all big sellers," he says
of acts such as Foreplay, Richard Eliot and Koz.
Taylor, known as a hard-core jazz purist himself, says that he tries
to instruct the jazz police to be less elitist about the format
since it helps subsidize the traditional acts that he brings in.
Tinkering with style
Benson, who's at work on an album with fellow smooth jazz star Al
Jarreau, certainly is. In fact, he admits that he tinkered with his
style over the years to make himself more commercially viable.
"There was a time when in the jazz world I didn't have a solid
identity for the jazz masses," he says. "I couldn't fill up the
clubs. So I had to do something that would. ... And when I started
getting hit records, they were records that were oriented on the pop
thing and the R&B thing and I used my jazz experience to enhance
those, to give them some pizazz."
But even when the music has pizazz, as much of it does especially
live when the instrumentalists engage in more inventive
improvisation the smooth jazz label itself is still a turn-off to
"If we could change the name from smooth jazz to something that had
a little bit more of a hip quality to it that would get the critics
off our back, I think all the artists that have been around for a
while would say let's do it!" Koz says with a laugh. "The problem is
that radio stations have spent millions upon millions of dollars
over 18 to 20 years branding themselves as smooth jazz stations, so
you can't walk away from that."
Even Botti grudgingly admits that "ultimately smooth jazz is a radio
format that began with a lot of narrowness and in the last few years
has opened substantially to other kinds of music that embraces
"Even Slash has a smooth jazz hit called 'Obsession Confession' so
there," Koz says of the Guns N' Roses guitarist's surprise 1996
hit. "We are an equal opportunity employer in the smooth jazz
community. If you're Slash and you're wearing that big top hat and
you've got a good song, we'll take you."
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