Spirited and fearless; those are the words that came to mind when I first heard Darren Rahn's Speechless
the way I usually do my first listens – in the car stuck in traffic or trying to keep my lead foot from driving the speedometer up. This collection of songs goes beyond the toe tapping and genteel head bobbing that has been the traditional reaction to an allegedly up-tempo “smooth jazz” song. These are put the top down, pedal to the metal, and shake what ya mama gave you songs, especially the ones in the second half of the album when Rahn and company really bust loose.
Rahn first caught most people’s attention as the producer and co-writer of Dave Koz's “Life In The Fast Lane,” probably the most energized song to crack the smooth jazz radio format's “approved song” lists during the waning years. This was not his first hit production – he had worked with Wayman Tisdale, Najee, Eric Darius, Tim Bowman and other luminaries – but it is one of his most definitive, and a revelation of what this music can sound like and how it can make you feel when the restraints are lifted. It was also a sneaky preview of the vibe that permeates this new release.
In a previous SmoothViews interview Rahn spoke of creating songs that give the listener what they expect and enjoy but pushing further and deeper than the comfort zone of the repetitively familiar. Whether it was intentional or not, the first group of songs in this set is closer to the conventional smooth jazz sound than track six and beyond. It's a good tactic for luring the more sedate side of the fan base into the up-tempo/party vibe side of the music. The songwriting is strong, especially on the opener, “Wave of the Future,” co-written by Dave Koz – the master of the irresistible hook. “Into the Light,” joyous and anthemic, has an instantly familiar melody and a sizzling electric guitar solo from Matt Godina. “Magnetic” has the down-tempo groove and shadow vocal chant that made it an obvious choice for the radio single and the collaboration with Paul Brown, Give'N'Take is riffy and mellow and radio ready– the only song with a soprano sax lead. Then the funky guitar/bass riff that opens “Revelation,” kicks the door open on a series of songs that could and should define the evolution of the genre. Mel Brown's bass is mixed up front, the horn section is fired up and Rahn has some solos that go beautifully over the top. Najee and Nate Harasim (2 generations of cool) join him on “Studio 54,” a danceable burner embellished with disco era string synth flourishes that has Najee and Rahn trading licks on flute and sax. “Euro Trippin” delivers the kind of melodic energy you would expect from a Rahn/Harasim collaboration spiced up with what the liner notes refer to as Harasim's “electronic wizardry” and Brown's bass lines. On “Flashback,” co-written by Koz, Rahn plays tenor, Koz is on alto and they treat you to the kind of interaction and intensity that is usually reserved for live settings – the stuff that gets fans on their feet and screaming for more.
I cannot say enough about the musicians that play on this set, both well-known and (at this point in time) behind the scenes. You know Harasim from last year's groundbreaking solo project. Bassist Mel Brown sounds so fine when he gets to go off, which happens often here. Frank Selman's electric guitar work is thrilling, as is Matt Godina's. Jason Rahn, Darren's brother, plays trumpet and does the horn arrangements, drummer Anthony Jones delivers on most of the tracks and Marvin Hemmings plays old school Rhodes on “Flashback.” Fans of R&B vocals will enjoy Joshua's bouncy “Magical,” and Maxine Hardcastle's sensual purr on the title track.
Unlike most of the albums I have fallen in love with and reviewed over the last year or so this is not a case of an artist jumping back to their own skin, rediscovering who they were artistically before they were given a set of rules to follow. After all, you can't go back unless you've been there before. For artists like Rahn, his collaborator and partner in crime Nate Harasim, Cindy Bradley, and the other up and coming musicians the name of the game is finding a place on the contemporary/smooth spectrum where they can create their own sonic identity and play for the audience instead of the industry - reinvigorating the genre from that perspective. Rhan and Harasim, often musical partners in crime, are carving a real niche for themselves as artists, writers, and producers by doing just that. Speechless won't leave you speechless, it will leave you shouting for more.