Maximum Grooves,
Coast to Coast
(Telarc, 2004)

Coast to Coast is a tight, punchy studio confection. But while I can hear passion in the performances, particularly some of the sax work, the overall impression I'm left with is too calculated, too sugary-sweet. I haven't yet managed to listen to the entire album straight through, mostly due to the fact that I can only take so much ear-candy at one sitting.

Maximum Grooves is the brainchild of keyboardist/producer/arranger Jason Miles. Inspired by a 1974 New York City performance by a jazz ensemble that included Don Grolnick and David Sanborn, Miles wanted to "take it one step further [by mixing] loops and other groove enhancers to live musicians." It's an interesting concept, but one that simply doesn't click for me on this disc.

There are pop bands, notably Depeche Mode, who marry the cold sterility of loops and synths to the power and passion of their vocals and guitars. The result is a musical style that thrives on contrast. But on Coast to Coast the contrast is underplayed.

Among the guest musicians Miles has joining him on Coast to Coast are Herb Alpert, Michael Brecker, Grammy Award-winner Gerald Albright and Walter Beasley. An impressive collection, and it's the contributions of these talented sax and horn players that are the real highlight of this disc. This is where the passion lives. Unfortunately, the rest of the smooth, cool instrumentation doesn't measure up to the heat provided by the guest players. Nor is it sufficiently cool to provide the contrast that works so well for Dave Gahan and company.

Coast to Coast is almost exclusively an instrumental album with vocals included on only three of the dozen tracks. Of these songs, the best use of vocals to my mind is in the track "Krazy Eyez," where Amanda Homi's world music approach plays very well against Michael Brecker's Indian flute. And when Homi employs a scat call and response with the keyboard, it adds another intriguing texture to one of the most satisfying tracks on the album. Interestingly, "Krazy Eyez" is immediately followed by "Hypnotize," my least favorite vocal track. "Hypnotize" has a mellow '70s California recording studio feel, a style utterly devoid of excitement. "Coming Home," "When I Get There" and "Fabulicious" each suffer from the same bland production/arrangement choices.

Thankfully, there are a few highlights to match "Krazy Eyez," including "Cactus," a cover of the Don Grolnick track that originally caught Jason Miles' attention back in '74. Right from the opening notes Buzz Feiten wrings from his guitar it's obvious that "Cactus" is a more potent track than most of those on Coast to Coast. But one can still imagine that this same composition live would be a more impressive beast, that the studio has tamed it somewhat. The interplay between the fuzzed-out guitar and Andy Snitzer's tenor and soprano saxophones could have been wilder and the song would have been a real terror.

There are some nice moments in "Chasing Shadows," the track featuring Herb Alpert, particularly in the way the piano line interweaves with the trumpet. But as with most of this disc there's too much sweetening going on around this combination and the song's strength gets buried.

Coast to Coast would have benefited tremendously from a producer who could provide some objectivity and distance. Miles may have been too close to this project to make it soar in the manner that "Cactus" must have soared in a smoky club in New York City in 1974. That's a shame because there's more than enough talent on this disc to have made it something great. Maybe next time.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
24 February 2007

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