It's been a while - since 2004 to be exact - when Craig Chaquico took another step away from the land of smooth and continued to forge his distinctive rock instrumental style on the Midnight Noon CD. The smooth jazz hits he had have generally been rule-breakers - songs like "Cafe Carnival" and "Luminosa" that somehow sneak in the back door and climb the chart with energy, guitar solos and horn sections intact. From the beginning he has stayed far away from the cookie cutter. He started his solo career and his shift into the NAC/Smooth Jazz market by playing rock flavored instrumentals on acoustic rather than electric guitar, a transition that was motivated by the need for some quiet around the house after the birth of his son. Although he made some concessions to radio along the way by adding saxes and hooking up with Paul Brown to add some R&B textures and beats on the Four Corners CD he has pretty much stood in the corner with Jeff Golub as a rock based guitarist in a Benson/Brown-ish world.
Hearing Follow The Sun for the first time is almost a sonic shock, especially if you listen to a lot of more traditional smooth jazz CDs and have gotten used to a studio oriented producer driven sound. This one sounds like a live band jamming in a club on a very hot night and has very little in the way of technological bells and whistles. The most noticeable thing here is that he has continued to add more types of guitar sounds, keyboard textures and horn arrangements to the music. There is a strong Latin influence, especially on the first two songs, and the whole album has this loose, open, almost jam-band type vibe. The songs stretch out around a lot of rhythmic and textural shifts with melody lines weaving in and out of stretches of improvisation. These songs don't work on the 10-second intro test either. A lot of them start out with deceptively simple straight melody lines then go off in fascinating directions. "Fantasy In Paradise" opens with a gentle lead line, then a sax solo, then moves into an energized jam. "Circus Beach" does too, with Chaquico shifting from a sitar-like guitar sounds into a semi-distorted lead that follows a horn section, then he goes into this low wah-wah thing behind driving percussion and wraps it up with blasts from a spirited horn section and a run of steel string harmonics like a tease from the early acoustic albums. The opener, “Lua Da Mae,” totally flipped me out. He's doing rock guitar solos over a bachata rhythm, you can actually even do the dance to it. Chaquico's guitar lead on "Azores Lisboa" will remind you of Santana, complete with the Latin-infused background and percussion breaks. "Island Breeze" and "Solar Wind" have the sound he popularized on his early CDs - the more gentle acoustic steel string leads and breezy melodies.
There are a lot of showcase moments on this project but his reinvention of Kenny G's "Songbird" is a standout. He has done with this one what fellow rocker Russ Kunkel did with Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" - taken the basic framework of the song and turned it into something entirely different and totally his own that adds a new twist to the song that is infinitely superior to the original. More foreground than background, compelling instead of merely pleasant, with some scary fast guitar runs sneaking in under this arrangement's chilled out groove. .
I wish I had a chance to interview him or see a press release before writing this because he has come to a really special place with Follow The Sun. Like most artists over the last few years he has been through another chapter of the record company shuffle, moving from the defunct Narada label to Shanachie. Maybe he saw the radio format shifting toward A/C vocals and felt that he might as well give his fans something they could hold onto and if a radio hit came about that would just be icing on the cake. Whatever the reason, he and long time collabarator Ozzie Ahlers have expanded on the themes that showed up on Shadow and Light and Midnight Noon and pretty much created a genre unto itself with this one. It's not fusion, it's not jam band, it's not smooth jazz. I'd call it Adult Alternative instrumental and shout out that we need a lot more of it because there is a huge segment of the audience that grew up with rock and still considers that their home turf. Over 15 years ago his debut, Acoustic Highway, took off largely due to word of mouth buzz and launched a high profile career that led to Grammy nominations for similarly themed follow-up. Follow The Sun brings a similar vibe to a different era - but an era when we are going back to that same kind of buzz when it comes to finding music. The market is glutted right now and it's hard to dig in and find the standouts, but all this one needs is a few nudges into the light of day and it be on it's way into the hands of a lot of people, hopefully launching a trend toward more adult rock instrumental albums. There is a big audience out there looking for fresh new music that goes beyond the boundaries of smooth and that's what this one is all about!