The sound is simple but it is DEEP. You know the smooth jazz clichés: limp-noodle tone, solos going nowhere – you won’t find them here. Norm Douglas has a pretty sound, with an edge – light fuzz in his notes, a push to his phrasing. These elements hint the old-time horns, on songs full of contemporary spirit. His band is light but effective, and no drippy sentimentality – his emotion is real, and so’s your enjoyment. If you’ve never heard Douglas before, this is a good place to begin. After all, they say the "First Time" is always the best.
The tunes (most are by pianist Ron Kobayashi) come at you stronger than your typical smooth fare. Likewise Norm: he charges on "Since Then", running as the others float. His tenor is weighty, standing bold on Kobayashi’s chords. And now a transformation: a soft groan, like the old balladeers. It all fits so well (listen to Bob Hawkins, heard just a moment.) "Peace" (not the Silver tune, but a gospel-tinged ballad) gets a pipe organ and Norm a soprano. Staying in its middle register he sounds reflective, with the sound of an oboe. The backing has that easy touch of Memphis soul (think of Al green) and Norm sits atop like a jewel. Yes – it does sparkle.
"Fast Lane" is a downtown samba: bright percussion, a piano of twinkling light. Douglas, on alto this time, has the firm-but-gentle touch I loved on "Since Then"; how it blends with the tune’s airy breeze. Kobayashi’s turn is exotic; that goes double for the cuicas in the background. Hawkins weaves a tapestry on "First Time": tightly woven strings to which Kobayashi adds color. The soprano comes in, higher this time, minus the shrillness you often get. Ron has a New Age feel in his tiny solo; it’s his finest moment. Norm takes to soaring, and near the end Hawkins makes like a harp. This is fitting, as emotions are high.
"Yosemite" crackles with life: Norm’s muscular theme, and keys rolling like a stream. The tune is calm, but isn’t played that way: when Douglas hits those broad notes, he’s triumphant on a mountain top. "Vast Blue Sky", with a different band, tries the mood of "Peace" with a slightly simpler tune. Brad Cole whispers smoky and the alto. Quiet at first, comes forward in a stately ascension – nothing fancy but everything beautiful. Definitely "smooth", and definitely atypical – call it music and be done with it.
"It’s Just a Valentine" is a nice mix by Mick Barton: countryfied vocal, elegant verse. "Take every poem, every sonnet, every love song ever heard/ There isn’t a chance I could put what I’m feeling into words." Stronger than it seems, this grows on you, and the sax is a ribbon on top. For further decoration, look to "Tara’s Song": dubbed saxophones waltzing with ease, and bells twinkling with magic. This belongs in a music box, as does the album: solidly built, it’s a study in strong gentility. If you’ve a taste for smooth, give Norm a try: you’ll "First Time", now and the next time you hear it.
Songs:Since Then; Peace; I Can Do It; Fast lane; First Time; Yosemite; Vast Blue Sky; It’s Just a Valentine; Left Turn Only; Tara’s Song.
Musicians:Norm Douglas (soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones); Ron Kobayashi (keyboards); Bob Hawkins (guitar); Baba Elefante (bass); Steve Dixon (drums); Kurt Rasmussen (percussion), plus on various tracks:
Matt Hocking (electric guitar); Steve Wood (keyboards); Frank Cotinola (drums on "It’s Just a Valentine"); Mick Barton (vocals); Tom MacFarlane (synthesizer); Phil Carillo (drums on "Tara’s Song"); Abraham Laboriel (bass); Gregg Bissonette (drums); Alex Acuna (percussion); Brad Cole (organ).
Carpet Cat Records: P.O. Box 3601, Tustin, CA 92871.
Distributed by Chartmaker Jazz: www.chartmakermusic.com