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Classic albums: Smooth Jazz

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Few things have created as much controversy within the Jazz world in the last twenty years or so than Smooth Jazz.  Many contend that Smooth Jazz is not Jazz at all and is really instrumental RnB.  The absence of improvisation and the fairly strict adherence to the melody are undoubtedly characteristics of the music.  The musicianship is however of a high quality and many of its protagionists are amongst contemporary Jazz’s finest.  Then there is the song writing which in the cases of the likes of Peter White and Brian Culbertson is exemplary.

What cannot be denied is its popularity and its star names.  Artists like Boney James, Richard Elliot and Peter White command audiences wherever they go.

Smooth Jazz originated as a radio format in the eighties, though I am unsure who coined the phrase initially.  The radio format became huge, especially in the sunshine states of California and Florida, where the good time grooves suit the climate and the feel good vibe that sun, sea and sand engender.  It is the perfect soundtrack to summer.

The first Smooth Jazz record ?  Well, that’s a mute point but Grover Washington Jr’s ‘Winelight’ is often cited not just by record buyers, but also as an inspiration by many of Smooth Jazz’s giants.  George Benson’s ‘Breezin’ certainly fits the bill, but being from 1976 it is too early and Bob James’ late CTI and Tappan Zee sets also appeal to Smooth Jazz fans.

Smooth Jazz evolved out of Fusion or Jazz Funk.  To suit the requirements of radio play the music became less funky and more melodic appealing to a wider audience beyond the confines of the Jazz and Fusion world.  It gradually assumed greater popularity throughout the late eighties and into the nineties and groups like Fourplay and Acoustic Alchemy sold thousands of CDs.  One of the features of Smooth Jazz was also the inclusion of Soul tracks that crossover to the Soul and RnB crowd.  Boney James was (and still is) a master of the ability to appeal to several different audiences with the same album.

In my opinion, Smooth Jazz’s zenith was during the very late nineties and perhaps the very early noughties.  Many of the best albums the genre has to offer date from this era – here is just a few suggestions –Boney James Body Language, Richard Elliot Chill Factor, Peter White Perfect Moment,  Dave Koz  The Dance.  Please see my personal Smooth Jazz recommendations below and check the sound bites too.

Here in the UK, Jazz FM blazed a trail, fronted by legendary Soul DJ Robbie Vincent and propelled by the love, unrivalled knowledge and tireless enthusiasm of Mr Smooth himself – the one and only Steve Quirk.  What Mr Quirk does not know about Smooth Jazz could fit on the back of the proverbial postage stamp.

Steve still hosts his show on Jazz Fm – Fusion Flavours Monday to Friday 13.00 to 15.00 (, which is a must listen show for lovers of Smooth Jazz.

Soul Brother Records were also heavily involved in promoting and selling the artists’ CDs and continue to support the music to the very best of our ability.

Smooth Jazz remains a popular (sub) genre and artists like Richard Elliot, Jeff Lorber and Jessy J are still recording strong albums.  Its followers remain as passionate as ever, and I am sure there is more great music to come in the years to come.

Malcolm Prangell