While smooth jazz has evolved into a kind of horrifying "S word for a lot of jazz fans, it grew out of a kind of contemporary post-fusion sensibility that, at least in its earliest days, still valued strong playing and enough diversity to keep things interesting. MatadorPhoenix-based Turning Point's sixth release and first for the Native Language imprintharkens back to a time when it was more than programmed grooves and saccharine solos, when groups like the Crusaders and guitarists like Larry Carlton and Robben Ford were putting out records that, despite their easygoing veneer, still had some substance underneath the cover.
Not that Turning Point doesn't veer perilously close to the kind of generic material that would be better termed "pop instrumental than jazzsmooth or otherwisebut what separates the group from so many of the artists looking for a way into a growth market is its clear intention to deliver more than simple sonic wallpaper. Sure, tracks like the soul ballad "Turn Down the Night and the pasteurized Caribbean island rhythms of "Despues De Mañana go down a little too easily, perhaps. But equally, tracks like the opening "Lickety-Split, with turntables and a dirtier funk groove that's a little like Brecker Brothers Lite, gain added credibility with guitarist Thano Sahnas' Ford-informed blues-centricity and keyboardist Steve Culp's skirting on the edge of "out.
Equally the album's closer, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, might start out on the fence, but by the time Sahnas fires into his solo halfway through the tune, it's more Warren Haynes than Brian Hughes; and brother Demitri on bass and John Herrera on drums pack enough punch and to dispel any impression that this is nothing more than a chill band.
The two Sahnas brothers also make sure that their own Mediterranean heritage is represented, with an intriguing take on Chick Corea's classic "Spain where the familiar a capella theme is broken up by Thano's surprising banjo-influenced classical guitar figurethink Paco De Lucia meets Béla Fleck. Guest Charlie Bisharat's violin solo and Culp's Rhodes keep the heat up, even as Demitri and Herrera prove that they're as comfortable with an upbeat samba as a backbeat.
There's no doubt that Turning Point is aiming for the smooth jazz marketthe group's first single off Matador (how many jazz records have a single, anyway?) is an easy-on-the-ears and lightly funky take on the Latin Grammy-winning song by Alejandro Sanz, "Quisiera Ser. But even when geared for the "S audience, the group keeps things real enough, with solid playing and collective engagement lifting it above the more nameless material heard on most contemporary jazz stations these days.
Turning Point may not win over any jazz puristsor even those whose tastes, while not traditional, lean more to the edgy and experimentalwith Matador. But it does prove that it's possible to function within the contemporary jazz space without sacrificing your soul.
Lickety-Split; Spain; Gospel Brunch; Turn Down the Night; Quisiera Ser; Matador; Despues
De Manuana; Rhapsody for Priapus; Suburban Safari; Soldier's Lullaby; Here Today, Gone
Thano Sahnas: guitar; Demitri Sahnas: acoustic and fretless bass; Steve Culp: keyboards;
John Herrera: drums, percussion. Guests: Charlie Bisharat: violin on
Ambient / New Age Beyond Jazz Big Band Blues Brazilian Classical Electronica Free Improv / Avant-Garde Fringes of Jazz Funk / Groove Fusion / Progressive Rock Jam Band Modern Jazz R&B / Soul Reggae / Ska Straight-ahead (Bop, Hard bop, Cool)