Wilton Felder, |
Let's Spend Some Time
Tenor-sax man Wilton Felder deserves a fair amount of credit, or blame, for soft jazz. His was the most prominent voice in the Jazz Crusaders, one of the earliest and most successful-ever jazz crossover-groups. The Crusaders, as they were later known, created a minor controversy by combining jazz with R&B. That crossover gave them a broader audience in the 1960s and '70s, as "purer" jazz began to lose its popularity. When you earn a broader audience in any of the arts you begin to hear critics complain about pandering and diluting traditional strengths, and that's what happened to Felder and company. But purists never anticipated how much worse, from their point of view, it could get. Some of today's more popular jazz artists make the Crusaders sound ferociously creative.
So I was curious to hear what Felder would do in a contemporary setting. Would his gutsier roots add some substance to soft jazz or would he disappear in bland, syrupy clouds of soporific fluff? Well, Wilton is still Wilton. The man can swing and has an authentic bluesy sound that raises Let's Spend Some Time above most efforts of the softer persuasion. He and trumpeter George Shaw wrote most of the music and Wilton is the main soloist, with Shaw a close second. For added variety, Felder sometimes wields an appropriately Kenny G-like soprano sax, sans the cloying vibrato.
The bouncy, bass-heavy "Smoke House" kicks things off. Felder's strong tenor-sound introduces the melody. Shaw takes over at the bridge with a glowing trumpet. The following title track maintains the same groove. Throughout the album Shaw's phrasing is often reminiscent of Chuck Mangione. This is probably no coincidence since Shaw and Felder wrote Mangione's hit "In the Moment," and they play a gentle, lilting version for this album. The mood changes when they let soul-singer A.J. Luke take the lead. He is especially effective on "As Long as I'm with You," a fine love song -- good enough to be welcomed back in a later instrumental version. He also makes the right moves on "Information," a semi-hiphop take on the digital age, and on "No One," a medium tempo ballad.
Back to the bouncier sound on "Ooh Whop, Doo Whop." But funky horns fail as a laughably unhip chorus "ooh whop, doo whops" in the background. "I Remember Chet Baker" is another mistake, since it unfortunately doesn't. Even Mr. G would be a lively addition.
Bottom line -- this is an entertaining album despite a few misses. Strongly recommended for soft-jazz lovers. Fans of harder jazz might want a listen if they're wondering why soft is taking over radio stations and (pun intended) selling out stadiums.
by Ron Bierman