For a lot of artists, the way to get out of the smooth jazz box has been to abandon it altogether, but when you get a group of seasoned players who were making influential music during the formative years - when the only box was a big, wildly creative one that they could open as wide as they wanted it to - the best way to go is to just play. If the result falls in the framework of the smooth jazz genre that's just fine because this group of artists prove you can deliver it with a lot of excitement and show some formidable soloing skills in the framework of tight, infectious songs. Richard Smith, bassist-producer Brian Bromberg, and the group of superstar session players that join them to create the LA Chillharmonic
prove that you don't always have to kick down the walls. Putting vivid splashes of color over the beige works just as well.
Smith started working on this project over two years ago, gathering musicians that he calls the best and brightest of his geographic area. That area being Los Angeles, which has been the epicenter of smooth jazz activity since the WAVE went on the air and sparked it to a national profile over 20 years ago. This is a lineup of names that you see on any given CD you've grabbed and enjoyed over that period of time, and even before that. Jeff Lorber, Gregg Karukas, Vinnie Coliuta, Alex Acuna, Greg Adams, Eric Marienthal, Michael Paulo, and Patrice Rushen are joined by some musicians who may not have names that are as recognizable but their credentials will leave you in awe. Lee Thornberg and Nick Lane have multi-page discographies that cover decades of influential albums in multiple genres. Tollak Olstead is the go-to guy for inventive harmonica work. Hans Zermuhlen, Larry Antonino, Gary Meek, and Sean Holt have been onstage with pretty much everyone who passes through LA or takes a stellar backup band on the road. Up and coming guitarist Travis Vega get songwriting credits on three of the tracks. Smith, Bromberg, and Coliuta seem to make up the core group with Adams contributing the horn charts. The others come in and out of these wide open jams that have up to 10 people playing on a given song.
I have never heard another guitarist playing this type of music the way Richard Smith does. As a performer and professor he teaches and plays all types of music so he brings this huge bag of tricks to any song he takes on. He bends and stretches notes, throws down rapid-fire riffs, hits power chords in the most unlikely places, does electric things on acoustic and acoustic things on electric, and can swerve from traditional to smooth inside the briefest solo. It's effortless and uncontrived, what he brings in brings out the best of every song he takes on. Bromberg is the same way on bass. You could say the same thing about everyone involved on their respective instruments.
is a cool play on words but in a sense it's a misnomer. They may be chillin' sometimes but there is lots more fire than Chill. Only one song, the lushly romantic "Agrigento," has a chill influence with its electronic layers and whispered words, but Smith's emotive acoustic guitar line pulls it out of the realm of technological detachment. What defines this project is the forward momentum that even the slower songs have; the way Adams' horn arrangements punctuate the songs, and the catchy, exhilarating melody lines. Head-bobbing, toe-tapping, booty-shakin' may be overused concepts but they describe this music perfectly. The first two songs define it with "LA Chillharmonic" sounding like a looser version of some of Smith's hits from First Kiss
. "Checkin' You Out," one of Vega's contributions, wraps around the horn section's riff while Smith plays it cool, bending some speedy notes, giving it back to the horns then making way for Meek's sax. "Ultimate X" showcases Smith as he pulls out some sounds you rarely hear these days, even proving there is such a thing as subdued power chords. "Boogie On Reggae Woman" is an all out party jam that has harmonica virtuoso Tollak Olstead spicing up Marienthal and Paulo's dual saxes and Adams muted trumpet. "Back In The Day" follows, equally funky with some rock guitar on the side. Patrice Rushen's piano work brings some moments of stunning beauty to "Being With You," and a fresh vocal vibe that keeps "The Gift" from sounding like a typical shadow vocal song. The acoustic, small combo setting gives it a sense of retro-spaciousness that is completely original. "Alvinator" is my favorite, slotted at the end of the CD and churning up a storm with big horns, a driving beat, and some funk on the bottom. It's a throwback to the pop-rock tinged side of pre-smooth contemporary jazz with Marienthal really blowing both Alto and Baritone upfront. Every song on this CD has its moments - lots of them.
OK, I gotta confess. According to the sticker on front of the CD when I popped the shrink wrap I agreed not to reproduce,, transmit, distribute, sell, or otherwise make this CD available to a third party but hey, I never unpacked my CD player when I moved so I had to rip it onto my computer so I could put it on my iPod. And yes, I did let a few of my co-workers listen because I wrote some of this review in the break room, and they liked what they were hearing so I played them some more. Oh and, I blasted it in hearing range of some people that were tailgating next to us before the FSU game because this music goes great with BBQ! Besides, they won't hear it anywhere else because the best songs on it aren't going to make it onto the few stations that are left. This should be what gets played but it isn't. It's a shame because this is one fine, fun, batch of songs. I'd love to play it for you because writing about music never nails the experience of hearing music. I'd love to share it with my Internet radio buddies who do not get promos so they could share it with all the people who are migrating to Internet radio to get the good stuff because this is
the good stuff. However, I can't afford the legal fees that would come with being the poster child for indie music people trying to turn the rest of the world onto the music we love. So go to the Chillharmonic MySpace page, www.myspace.com/lachillharmonic
, where they have complete versions of four of the hottest tracks, or go to iTunes or Amazon and get the 30 second clips. Even those brief interludes will sell you. Grab it and enjoy!