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Returning to the soul jazz of his classic CTI recordings, flautist Hubert Laws delivers Moondance , an album of contemporary grooves and smooth sounds that, while a step above most smooth jazz recordings, is for the most part a little too safe, a little too conservative for a capable artist who has always seemed to represent more about potential and less about realization.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with Laws’ tone; there are few flautists on the scene today who have as luscious a sound. And Laws can still pull out the stops and deliver something more substantive, as he does on “Clarita,” one of the final four tracks on the album that, by eschewing synth washes, drum programming and kitchen-sink production values, harkens most successfully back to his glory days with CTI. Featuring the only stable ensemble on the album—pianist Davis Budway, bassist John Leftwich, drummer Ralph Penland and percussionist Munyungo Jackson—these tracks are more about developing a group sound and less about delivering the sound-de-jour. Ranging from samba to romantic ballad, Laws, Budway, Leftwich, Penland and Jackson create more authentic passion than all the synthesizers and loops in the world ever could.
Without wanting to sound like a Luddite, there is nothing wrong with creating romantic, accessible music that is lighter in weight yet still appealing to the ear. It’s just that the approach these days seems to be about layering as many lush sounds as possible and neglecting the essence of the material. Moondance is the perfect example because, in its first half, it exemplifies all that is wrong with contemporary jazz production, but redeems itself somewhat on the latter half; at the end of the day it still has to be about playing.
Take Laws’ reading of Van Morrison’s Moondance. By layering it over a shuffle rhythm it makes for an interesting groove, but all the swing of the original is gone; replaced, instead, by female vocalists fading in and out superfluously and Laws delivering the melody with just enough interpretation to say, “Hey! This is jazz here,” the song loses all intention. And it’s too bad, because Law’ solo shows that he still has chops to burn, and the ability to take even such a safe tune just that slightest bit out to create some tension.
Laws will never go down in jazz history as an innovator; still, he has clear talent. But it’s a shame that Moondance is so schizophrenic, with the first half falling safely in the smooth jazz camp and the second in a more distinctive contemporary vein. Hopefully Laws will continue pursuing the direction of the latter, which manages to reference his more revered work without losing its modernity.
Track Listing: Moondance; Bloodshot; Stay With Me; Summer of '75; Stinky; Nighttime Daydream; Malibu; Love You Tonight; Clarita; Kiss
Personnel: Hubert Laws (flute, keyboards, synth bass, piccolo flute, alto flute), Chris Botti (trumpet), Guy Eckstine (bass guitar, ambient keyboards, drum programming, percussion, clavinet, keyboards, synth bass, Wurlitzer electric piano), Evan Marks (guitar, bass guitar, Wurlitzer electric piano, keyboards, strings), Duncan Moore (drums), Amber Whitlock (vocals), Hilary Van Lier (vocals), Rob Mullins (keyboards/synth strings, special additions), David Budway (piano), John Leftwich (bass), Ralph Penland (drums), Munyungo Jackson (percussion), Alex Al (bass guitar), Felix
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.