One of the first CDs out of the gate in the new year will hopefully become one of the most influential. On The Meeting Place, Ken Navarro has picked up the elements of rock and pop that have been phased out of the smooth jazz soundscape over the last decade and woven them around genre-friendly melodies and textures, reconnecting the best of both worlds in the process. On a website diary he wrote to document the recording sessions he describes it as his “most ambitious and mature work.” It is. Taking it a step further it’s one of the boldest and most impressive sets to come from an artist who is playing on the smooth jazz field since the early nineties when the music took a turn toward more restrained territory. There are others who pull it off onstage but when they step into the studio they leave it at the door. The Meeting Place is a place where six incredible musicians come to play and don’t hold anything back.
Discussing the project, Navarro refers to Carlos Santana, Buzz Feiten, Pat Metheny, and the sound of the classic seventies CTI albums. He even uses the scary F-word - Fusion. Stylistically it’s an expansion, not a departure, there have been sneak previews all over his previous projects, and the lyrical melodies that kept him on the smooth jazz charts all these years are still present in abundance on this one. In these less subdued settings they really stand out. “I Wish I Knew” is hypnotically beautiful, the kind of song that goes to the top of the charts when given the chance to get heard, “My Beautiful Girls” is a breezy uptempo piece built on a Larry Carlton-ish riff, “Lucky” starts out easy, kicks in gently then just keeps building while he plays fast-fingered licks all over the fretboard. “The Language of Peace” brings world music rhythms to an instantly hummable tune.
There is a group of songs here that will thrill long-time fans of contemporary jazz and show the more recent ones what they’ve been missing. It took me a week to get past playing “The Challenge” over and over and over again. It builds, it burns, it has an absolutely stunning rock solo over this driving rhythm section that just doesn’t stop. An elegant intro leads into an acoustic lead, a scorching sax solo and one of keyboard player Jay Rowe’s many brilliant solos then Navarro tears into it with electric and acoustic solos that will leave you breathless! Go to the website and click on the preview of “Did You Hear That.” When was the last time you heard a guitar line like that in front of a song? There’s some searing guitar work in here. Tonally, it recalls Santana. The melody is instantly familiar even though it isn’t a cover or even a reference to another song. It’s the perfect framework for making the adventurous arrangement and intensified energy accessible. Shimmering keyboard textures give “No Other Way” a dreamy, ethereal feel. It’s got the moody vibe of a chill track but with warmth and a memorable melody. Jay Rowe’s synth part sounds like an update of those groundbreaking albums Neil Larsen recorded for A&M/Horizon almost 30 years ago. The only cover on the album is gutsy selection. Navarro brings his own sensibility to a Pat Metheny rarity, “Lakes,” which is also from the late seventies. It’s an extremely complex piece to take on and he and the band pull it off beautifully, with guitar, keyboard and sax sharing leads.
The Meeting Place is not an assemblage of superstar names and multiple producers working on a patchwork of songs. It’s six seasoned and totally individualistic musicians who came in and played their hearts out and for the most part did it in the studio face-to-face. Jay Rowe (keyboards), Gary Grainger (bass), Andre “Blues” Webb (drums), Kevin Prince (percussion), and Rob Holmes (sax) play together so seamlessly it just flows with tangible energy. If too much processed music has left you desensitized, it’s like that first breath of fresh air after too much time in a stuffy room. There was a point in time when the music that was to become smooth jazz split into two separate streams, one thrived while the other almost dried up. Creating a Meeting Place where these streams intersect again was a brave and spirited thing to do. Taking it off the backburner and serving it up is a gift to the people who will hear it. A gift that will make it a little bit harder to settle for less.
Preview the music and purchase a download of the CD complete with cover art before it is released to retail on January 23, 2007. www.kennavarro.com/CDs/meetingplace.htm
To find out more about the making of the album check out the podcasts and video clips on Ken’s website:
- Shannon West