Haynes, Haque
& Randolph,
Urban Knights Presents
The Chicago Project

(Narada, 2002)

Over the course of four well-regarded recordings, Ramsey Lewis has established the Urban Knights, not only as a smooth jazz supergroup, but also as an ensemble in which less well-known Chicago-based musicians can participate. This aspect of the Urban Knights is taken to the next level on Urban Knights Presents The Chicago Project, in which three of the Knights' backing musicians step forward to become the lead players. Ramsey does not appear, except as executive producer on this project, which was produced and arranged by Ramsey's son, Frayne T. Lewis.

The primary purpose of this disc is to showcase the playing talents of Ron Haynes on trumpet, Fareed Haque on guitar and Kevin Randolph on piano and keyboards. The instrumentation may seem traditional, but the sound is totally modern throughout, with in-your-face bass and drums backing every track.

The disc begins with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "That Girl" with Haynes carrying the melody on trumpet. Although this song has instant familiarity, it is also the disc's weakest track. The slightly dirty trumpet sound serves only to make one wish that Haynes would take out the mute, if only for a bar or two. The mute stays in for the entire track, however, leaving the listener only one way to really enjoy the song -- dig up the original Stevie Wonder version, which doesn't speak well for this, the only cover on the disc. The rest of the tracks are original compositions, which for the most part serve as vehicles for the musicians to solo. All three are excellent players, and the playing is enjoyable throughout.

"Always" seems the intended single, and it comes in two versions that are identical except for a rap vocal intro beginning the non-instrumental version. The song features a nice acoustic piano lead by Randolph, who doesn't exactly sound like, but quite clearly follows in the footsteps of, Ramsey Lewis. The song also has a cookin' rhythm track and some nice background vocals, even on the "instrumental" version. "All the Way" has a radio-friendly sound dominated by Randolph's electric piano, layered with a nice synthesizer riff. Think acid jazz meets Jeff Lorber, resulting in some very cool sounding mood music that should be spinning in heavy rotation on your town's smooth jazz station. At times you might think the electric piano and synthesizer are playing two songs simultaneously, but Randolph pulls it off with the help of some nice fat beats. "Tight Rope" is another good keyboard workout, with some nice solos on both synthesizer and electric piano.

Kevin Randolph is a native Chicagoan with extensive credits that include not only three of the Urban Knights records, but also appearances on solo records by Ramsey Lewis and sessions with Earl Klugh, Dave Koz and Yolanda Adams, to name a few.

Having lived in numerous diverse parts of the world, Fareed Haque brings a distinct world music sensibility to the project by way of his guitar work. "Bombay Streets," "Myths and Legends" and "A Place in Time" all feature Haque's acoustic guitar solos. On the latter track, Haque carries the song on lead acoustic, with some nice synthesizer seasonings; on one solo Haque uses a very unusual effect that makes his acoustic guitar sound like either a muted trumpet or a sitar. In his career, Haque has distinguished himself both as a jazz and classical player, with five solo albums released to date.

"Three's Company" includes solos by all three players (hence the name), including one in which Haynes takes out the mute and blows some nice clear horn. The up-tempo rhythm section sounds a little mechanical; the disc includes both live and programmed drums, and this track seems likely the latter. "On the Block," by contrast, also features Haynes on lead trumpet, but this time the bass and drum rhythm section is nice and tight. "Keep it Real" is another trumpet vehicle with a rhythm track that sounds straight from the previous track.

Haynes is also a Chicago native, who in addition to contributing to Urban Knights IV has played with his own horn section, the Chicago Storm Horns, backing the Ohio Players and other artists. He has been a member of Liquid Soul and has played with a host of well-known soul and jazz artists, and also has a solo album to his credit.

This disc may not contain jazz compositions in the traditional sense, but it's all about the showcase, the players, the solos and the groove, and as such it succeeds very well. One of the main criticisms leveled at smooth jazz as a radio format is that it often has too much smooth and not enough jazz. If the essence of jazz is improvisation and solo virtuosity, then Urban Knights Presents The Chicago Project certainly puts the jazz back in smooth jazz.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 14 December 2002

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