Release Date:
August 25, 2009

Reviewed by:
Woodie Wilkins

The phrase “mind over matter” has had many uses, perhaps the most common being the mind’s will can overpower the body’s reluctance to do a thing, such as walk on a tightrope or swim with sharks.  It also reflects Miles Davis’ approach to songwriting, particularly toward the end of his career.

Saxophonist and flautist Najee, describing his approach to Mind Over Matter, his 2009 release on Heads Up International, says Davis took a loose and improvisational approach.  “He would start with nothing more than a groove that Marcus Miller or some other member of his band would lay down.  And from there, he would just develop these melodies that were very simple, but at the same time very compelling and very memorable.”

It remains to be seen whether the 10 original songs – penned by Najee, members of his band or guest artists – are memorable.  For now, they’re definitely simple, and for the most part, compelling.  He is backed by a variable lineup of sidemen with guest appearances by vocalist Eric Benet and keyboardist Jeff Lorber.

“Mind Over Matter” captures the freely expressive groove that is the theme of the album.  C.J. Mercer’s bass line and Alvin White’s funky rhythm guitar help set the tone.  The percussive tracks by Victor Williams and drummer Kentric Morris serve up the assist.  Najee leads on alto sax.  Co-writer Will Brock contributes a lively piano solo, scoring some cool staccato licks at one point.  Najee’s play is like a caffeine-free version of Maceo Parker – sharp, funky but not quite as tinny.

Darryl Woodson plays solo piano to begin “The Journey,” which he co-wrote with Najee.  The bass subtly underscores before the drums come in.  Najee’s alto is soft but strong.  Williams’ percussion and udu drum give it an African feel.  As the piece warms up, one gets the image of a trek across the savanna.  This is one of those songs where everybody shines.  Najee leads, but there’s not a moment when the sidemen aren’t noticed.

“Stolen Glances” features Najee with a smaller ensemble of Dwight Sills on guitar, Tony Moore on drums and Lorber on keyboards, synth, and electric bass.  Alto sax and guitar blend on the melody, with Najee taking point after the opening.  After his solo, the song shifts back to the melody briefly before Najee and Lorber engage in a lively call and response.

After 10 albums and more than 20 years as a front man, Najee has established himself as an artist who successfully straddles the line between smooth jazz and contemporary R&B.  His 1986 hit “Najee’s Theme” earned a Grammy nomination, and he earned Soul Train Music Awards for Best Jazz Artist in 1991 and 1993.  Mind Over Matter further solidifies his position.