Bob Baldwin, |
Bob Baldwin's latest album, Standing Tall, is a smooth, feel-good blend of jazz and jazz-funk that the man himself terms "neo-jazz." Incorporating his signature harmonies on keyboard and with an impressive guest line-up, this is set to become a classic of its time. He eases in gently with the opener, "Stand Tall," building pace with "The Way She Looked at Me," which has some really lovely sax playing, and naturally confident drumming by Little John Roberts.
"Too Late" features vocalist Phil Perry, and imparts a mellow pop-jazz feel; it also closes the album, claiming to be instrumental, but if so, someone forgot to tell Perry to pipe down! Roberts again joins Baldwin, this time with Marion Meadows on "It's a New Day," creating a rich and complex interplay that swirls and slides around your senses. "See You in Miami," unsurprisingly, has a Latino rhythm to it and is followed by "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" with the inimitable voice of Will Downing.
The self-styled neo-jazz displays a modern, mildly funky feel over faint echoes of the slick tones of jazz of yesteryear. I think it is the presence of vibes, supplied by Roy Ayers, that add to the contradictory retro atmosphere of this "new jazz" CD, in conjunction with the truly classy and ever sexy sax -- I love the mellifluous tones and come-hither vocals, but I keep being reminded of the popular hits of the '80s of the likes of Luther Vandross, the Average White Band and Spyro Gyra. Given Baldwin's musical history -- he joined up with guitarist Al Orlo to head the Bob Baldwin/Al Orlo Project in 1986, from which several members then splintered away to become incorporated into the aforementioned groups and others of the time -- this apparent reverse influence is not surprising.
Although contradictory to Baldwin's description of neo-jazz, it does not strike a sour chord. The entire album is a delight for jazz lovers; the intricate harmonizing on keyboard, the competent percussion and vocal molasses blending to provide a relaxing and intensely pleasurable listening experience.
I really don't like smooth jazz, so those of you who do can ignore me. I will defend its right to exist. I will acknowledge there are talented musicians who play it, and I'm truly glad they have a way to make money. I will even applaud its ability to attract new listeners to jazz in a period of declining interest. What I won't do very often is listen to it. The tunes and arrangements sound as though they were written by Mary Tyler Moore on Valium. Self-respecting elevators have been known to go on strike when they hear it.
Bob Baldwin is a pianist with a good command of his instrument. He can throw off a liquid and even run of notes with the best of them. He improvises with authority and has a good ear for the use of harmony. He may not care for the term "smooth jazz" because he's calling what he does "neo jazz." Neo jazz incorporates hip-hop rhythms and colors, and all the arrangements on his latest album do include bits of hip-hop -- strong repetitious electric-base lines, regular and continuous snare drum or hi-hat accents, mellow electronic keyboard or synthesizer sounds and an occasional vocal that wouldn't be out of place in an India-Arie arrangement. If you like the idea of combining smooth with pieces of hip-hop, it's here. Go for it.
Since hip-hop can include more spontaneity, wit and soul than I'm used to finding in smooth jazz, neo could turn out to be an improvement. If so, I don't hear it on this album. But then I probably wouldn't because my main problem with smooth jazz is that it's so, well, smooth, and what Baldwin adds from hip-hop doesn't have any edges, either. From one track to the next there are minimal changes in tempo, dynamics, color and emotion. Even Brazilian spice goes into the blender and comes out maple syrup.
I won't be surprised if Standing Tall gets a lot of airplay. Baldwin has talent and the list of guest perfomers includes Roy Ayres on vibes, Kim Waters on sax and soul singer Phil Perry. Lots of horsepower. To my ears it's hitched to the wrong wagon.