Najee: The Smooth Side of Soul (2012)
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
It's hard to remember, but there was a time when jazz used to be played in clubs where the audience didn't simply sit in their seats listening attentively and applauding politely; they even got up and danced to the music. Jazz you can dance to? That seems almost as foreign as listening to large round black discs on a device formerly known as a "record player."
Well, you can dance to The Smooth Side of Soul if you want to. You can sing along, nod your head up and down, tap your toes or simply hum along. This is happy, pleasant and yes, danceable jazz and that's because when Najee puts his saxophone to his lips he doesn't want you to just sit there like a bump on a log. He wants you to move something.
With that thought in mind, Najee offers a little something for many musical tastes: chill out ("You Tube"); funky dance ("Dis n' Dat," "Just To Fall In Love," "Fu Fu She She"); smooth grooves ("Perfect Nites," "One Night In Soho," "First Kiss"); quiet storm ("Mari"); and contemporary ("In the Clouds," "Sound For Sore Ears").
At this point in his career Najee isn't going to astonish anyone by becoming a dynamic innovator on the sax. He is alternating more between saxophone and flute, and his playing is a reminder just how terrific is he on either instrument. Najee has carved out a niche as such a consistently gracious and engaging talent that it is easy to overlook that he's never going to be the most exacting or demanding musician on the scene.
It's a surprise how The Smooth Side of Soul demonstrates Najee is willing to go beyond expectations of being strictly a smooth jazzer to playing it (mostly) straight-ahead on the energetic "In the Clouds, " an unexpected gem produced by keyboardist Jeff Lorber and featuring his strong Fender Rhodes playing, and Bobby Colomby putting in work on the drums.
The cover of Jimmy Heath's "Sound For Sore Ears" is hot stuff and a tantalizing tease of what Najee is capable of. Najee is no Heath, but he doesn't embarrass himself either. It raises the intriguing question of what would an entire album of Najee covering classic jazz in a trio or quartet setting might be like. Here's hoping that someday, soon, Najee answers that question.
The Smooth Side of Soul has the sweet sound of success and once more Najee demonstrates he knows how to provide music programmed for maximum pleasure across a wide cross-section of genres, and he delivers.
Track Listing: Dis N' Dat; Just To Fall In Love; Perfect Nites; You Tube; In the Clouds; One Night In Soho: Mari; Fu Fu She Shee; First Kiss; Sound for Sore Ears
Personnel: Najee: tenor, alto & soprano saxophone, flute; Chris "Big Dog" Davis: keyboards, piano unspecified instruments; Keith Robinson: guitar (1, 7, 8); Phil Perry: lead and background vocals (2); Will Downing: background vocals (2); Jeff Lorber: piano and other keyboards, synth bass (5, 9); Bobby Colomby: drums (5); Seth Lee: bass (5, 10); Darren Rahn: Fender Rhodes, organ, keyboards, hi-hats, cymbals, drum programming, background saxophones (6); Frank Selman: guitars (6); Mel Brown: bass (6); John Roberts: drums (9); Michael Thompson: guitars (9); James Lloyd: piano (10); Mike Warren: drums (10)
Record Label: Shanachie Records