Putting out a strong smooth jazz album is a tough thing to do. You can't default to the safety zone, there are a myriad of worn out cliches to dodge, there has to be a sense of originality, and it has to be listener friendly. That means not getting excessively progressive on one side or dumbing down on the other. It also as to push the envelope enough to make it stand out in a market that is glutted with new releases. There are two guys from a little town in California called Banning that have this down to an art form. Steve Oliver has already climbed to #1 with a song from his Global Kiss CD and Will Donato is headed in the same direction. What It Takes is his fourth album, the other three were excellent but this one will be the breakthrough because a lot of the barriers that held indie artists back in the past don't exist anymore.
Although the album is just now being released, "Funkability" - the irresistible Darren-Rahn produced single, has been making headway since last spring and is a fixture on the playlists of even some of the most conservative radio stations. It's a deep funky track with loads of energy, a driving background groove and a hook that gets under your skin. There is some powerful playing here too, especially the soloing towards the end of the song. "Sax Drive" takes a smooth jazz shuffle groove right over the top. Donato's alto sax is clear and strong and the song breaks wide open as it builds toward the end with a dream team rhythm section - Andre Berry, Michael Whittaker, Blake Aaron and Jeff Gonzalez - firing it up in the background. Jump to the end for two of the strongest and most interesting tunes. "So Cool" is my favorite track. It's built around a percussion driven chill groove with a hauntingly repetitive riff buried in the back and Steve Oliver gets a rare rock-star electric guitar solo in the middle. "Miracle Man" is one of the catchiest instrumental melodies you're likely to hear. Oliver is on acoustic for this one and Donato is playing alto almost in the soprano range. There are tangible emotional undercurrents here too because the inspiration for this head bobbing melody is the surgeon who pulled him through his battle with cancer and you can feel it in the way he plays. There is only one cover here and he has morphed it into his own sound so well you won't know it's a cover until the background singers go "Skin Tight" on this danceable revision of the Ohio Players song. There's a little bit of everything here, a beautiful ballad called "Italia," Oliver's salsa flavored songwriting contribution "What It Takes", chill, funk, R&B, party music and jazz both smooth and not so smooth.
The back story here is that the entire project was recorded while Donato was undergoing treatment for the cancer he was diagnosed with on the day he delivered the sax tracks for "Funkability" to Darren Rahn. Maybe facing down your own mortality does push you to cut to the chase because this music is uncompromised, the musicians are playing their hearts out, George Landress mixed it with a lotta love and it all comes together as a celebration of music, friendship, collaboration, and not letting an obstacle keep you from doing what you do. Will Donato's star should have ascended when Will Power was released in 2005 but it was a little "too exciting" to fit into the format straitjacket and major labels with big promotion budgets were taking up the few new music slots that were available. The implosion of the corporate format has opened the door for gifted indie artists like Will Donato. Will Power shoulda, Will Call woulda, Laws of Attraction coulda but What it Takes is gonna!
When the corporate radio format imploded it opened the door for passionate, knowledgeable radio and internet programmers to attain some legitimacy. They suddenly had input into charts that used to be controlled by a small group of people and record companies, artists, and managers suddenly started watching them and caring about what they were doing. These programmers have used their newly attained legitimacy to
bring attention to a group of ultra talented and underexposed musicians. Will Donato should have been a star 10 years ago but now will do just fine.