Smooth Jazz

Outside of personal razors, barrel-aged whiskey, and light beer (and of course, menthols), “smooth” as a descriptor is pejorative. It’s even less desirable when deployed to describe music.  It gets cast as the diametric opposite of authenticity, hardness, urgency, truth; it becomes synonymous with wallpaper, docility, selling out, the status quo, corporate. Call jazz “smooth” and the connotations are anathema to the form: bland, phony, toothless, mindless, lifeless. For generations, smooth jazz belonged in the dustbin of history alongside new age, easy listening, and Muzak, genres unworthy of reconsideration, much less a consideration in the first place. 

But new age and its ilk have undergone a reappraisal in the 21st century, while smooth jazz remains unreformed. As late as the reform-minded 2007’s A New History of Jazz still brushed off smooth, labeling it as “the antithesis of improvisation, collective interaction, swing, soul, or heart.”  Even with the well-received doc Listening to Kenny G, it still felt like we were laughing at the poodle-haired multi-millionaire, not with him. Blame it on chiropractic waiting rooms, dental x-rays, malls, being put on hold, or waiting for your pedicure to dry, but “smooth” still suggests purgatory. (Or as this Far Side panel suggests about jazz players, hell.) 

If fiery spiritual jazz roars, rages, and emotes at one of the musical spectrum, with “swing, soul, or heart” right in the middle, then smooth breezes and toots along on the other side as its extreme opposite. But is it the opposite? To only hear the energy and bustle of jazz is to miss its inherently more mellow aspects. It’s there when the band cools one in a set, or when a horn player proves his or her mettle across a gentle ballad, when a certain lightness is required to convey the mood. Maybe spiritual jazz and smooth jazz might not be so different after all? 

As writer Francis Gooding argued in “I Dream of the Sea: Smooth Jazz and the Radical Tradition,” an eye-opening essay for the Finnish We Jazz Magazine last year: “Smooth is in fact the musical successor of the spiritualized and experimental jazz avant-gardes of the late 1960s and 1970s. Far from being formally retrograde, it was formally innovative, signaling among other things a new interest in the value of changes, a reconsideration of the nature and purpose of the solo, and the forging of new connections for jazz between soul, boogie, early rap and house. It also linked into wider musical developments in the Caribbean and the wider Black Atlantic diaspora.” In his estimation, “smooth” cast off the critical burden and intellectual aspirations that had shadowed jazz since the 1940s: “Smooth finally managed to shut the white hepcat out.” 

“Smooth” didn’t come as a descriptor until the late ‘80s, coming out of market research conducted by the industry, when the Smooth Jazz Network appeared alongside Jones Radio Network satellite station creations like Good Time Oldies. Prior to that, it had fallen under tags like “lite-jazz” or “jazz-pop.” Neither name stuck except in the craw of critics, collectors, and jazz cognoscenti alike. While they had long fetishized high-minded jazz, extolling the virtues of serious album works of the late 1950s and ‘60s, they gave short shrift to the more popular jazz fare of the day. While soul-jazz and albums by Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Smith, and Wes Montgomery sold by the truckload, they were derided as light-gauge, not nearly as profound as Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come

The hipster-built ghettoized mainstream continued on into the 1970s. Fusion might have begrudgingly become acceptable in some quarters (especially Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report), while its slickest practitioners (think Spyro Gyra, Bob James, Earl Klugh, releases on the extra-slick Kudu label) were still perceived as dreadful dreck. (I also hear the roots of smooth in the productions and arrangements of the Mizell brothers, who favored hummable hooks, R&B choruses, and arrangements that folded the individual soloist into a streamlined, holistic groove.) 

At the same time, smaller independent labels like ESP-Disk, Strata East, Black Jazz, and Tribe became increasingly fetishized and revered. These were albums that didn’t sell well, or garner much airplay, or help sustain these artists so that they could build a career. So where could they turn? Look closer at some players who cut smooth albums and you’ll notice many crucial figures of 1970s independent jazz there. 

Azar Lawrence, who served as sideman for the likes of Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones, cut a slick bit of smooth jazz-boogie with Shadow Dancing.  Philly flamethrower Byard Lancaster roared with the likes of Sun Ra and Sonny Sharrock, but he also blew smooth and groovy on My Pure Joy and on Napoleon Cherry’s Rosetta Stone of smooth, Cool Waters. The rare, Latin-tinged Caribbean Breeze is an album made by the duo of Omar Hill and Art Webb, gents whose resumes include Pharoah Sanders, Cecil McBee, and the Sounds of Liberation. Black Jazz alum Calvin Keys self-released two beautiful albums in Maria’s First and Full Court Press. Tribe prime mover Marcus Belgrave cut the smooth single “Two Ships Passing in the Night” by 1985. And then of course, there’s Miles himself, pivoting to the slicker sound of Black radio in the 1980s, ensconced in misty synths and Marcus Miller’s silky bass, covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper in the process.

Gooding detects a connection between the rise of sophisti-pop stylings of Sade and Luther Vandross in the decade and how smooth mirrored that trend. “Not since the days of the great vocalists and instrumental balladeers of the swing era had jazz dwelt at length on romantic love in the here and now – sex, companionship, and the long evening hours of happiness with the one you love,” he writes. “This is what smooth chose to speak on.”

Smooth has many characteristics beyond flickering candlelight, rose petals strewn across silk bedding, and an oaky Chardonnay. The sax or trumpet (or better yet, soprano sax and flugelhorn) takes on the role of vocalist, swaying closely with the melody rather than ranging far from its contours. Rather than spontaneous group interplay, smooth favors pre-recorded instrumental beds, with the soloist set atop it, an aspect certain to rankle most jazz fans. 

More often than not, there is more than one cover of instantly-recognized hits. But venture beyond those hits, beyond that sense of the music as mere “wallpaper” or hold music, and smooth gets odd and quirky fast. You can hear how a canned handclap, a synth bass ostinato, or maybe a sensuous vocal hook gets purred and, track by track, some strange new song comes into focus. It’s not quite R&B or quiet storm, not jazz in the traditional sense, not quite disco or club music; it’s smooth.

Nascent home recording technology is crucial to the rise of smooth, including synthesizers, drum machines, MIDI, samplers, and digital recording techniques. This new tech made it possible for certain players to create everything all by themselves, a late 20th century update of the one-man band. Smooth benefited from home recording studios and as a result, a cottage industry of self-released music flourished. 

Just like early house, electro, and hip-hop producers of that same era, smooth players no longer needed to book out expensive studios to put their ideas down to tape. Perhaps because the presets and canned handclaps and snares hit similarly across genres, there’s also a willingness in smooth to intermingle with these other forms: quiet storm, downtempo house, new jack swing, even hip-hop. Listen closely and productions made by Chicago house music legend Larry Heard, the lithe albums made by Sade and Luther Vandross, and select smooth cuts sound more like first cousins than total strangers.

In Natalie Wiener’s interview with smooth innovator George Shaw, a trumpeter/ flugelhorn player who “integrated synths and drum machines in a way that anticipated plenty of 21st century music,” it reveals how smooth was really slick. Shaw may have been making what he calls “musical wallpaper,” but he was in on the joke, until you realize he got the last laugh. His music graced elevators, grocery stores, hotel lobbies, doctor offices, and even made it to an Apple ad. Unlike generations of jazz players who relied on club owners and promoters and record labels for cash, smooth players wound up getting paid. Radical indeed.

Encounters cover

Dr. George Shaw’s website defines music as: “The manipulation of sound and silence in the context of formal elements for the purpose of expressing emotional content.” In the early 1980s, the trumpeter/ flugelhorn player began dipping into early synthesizers, computers, and MIDI, setting it all up in his living room. Encounters, his 1986 solo album, pits his horn against a rubbery backdrop of synthesizers and drum machines, with dashes of what he calls “computer-controlled synthesis.” He’s downright maudlin on the well-worn tunes “That’s What Friends Are For” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” but smooth and spry on numbers like “Phone Home” and “6295 Sw Fisher.”

Winelight cover

If smooth were to be defined by just one record sleeve, this would be it: a very full wine glass and saxophone bell gleaming in soft, buttery light. After making bedroom eyes with Top 40 soul across his recording career at Kudu in the 1970s, Grover paired with Bill Withers and rose all the way to Number 2 on the charts with “Just the Two Of Us,” attaining Adult Contemporary ubiquity in the process. But the other tunes here are just as smooth, from the slippery satin of the title track to “Let It Flow (For “Dr. J”)” a jazz-funk ode to the smooth of basketball himself, with Washington, Jr. switching between alto, tenor, and soprano sax with ease.

Among the Stars cover

Even smooth has its mysterious holy grails and Norman Evans’ Among the Stars is one of them. Sparkling, quirky, with plenty of star-gazing melodies, but also kind of murky and lo-fi, like smooth jazz for chillwave fans. Little is known about Norman Evans, as he only has two albums to his name. There’s little info about this album –much less cover art or a release year– self-released on Evans’ own Dis Who? imprint (not to be confused with his 1991 CD on the Who Dis? label). It sounds like a one-man show, with Evans writing, playing, producing, and programming a wide array of synths (Yamaha SY. 77, Roland JD-800, EPS 16 Plus Rack, Ensoniq SQ-1, Korg M-1, Kawai KI & K4 and Ensonig ESQ-1) and playing soprano and tenor sax atop it all.

G Force cover

Let the photo negative photo album cover fool you, as Clive Davis definitely tried to mask Kenny Gorelick’s skin color and poodle hairdo, pitching his 1983 album to the urban R&B markets. It didn’t hurt that fusion keyboardist Jeff Lorber is all over the album and it’s executive produced by R&B kingmaker Kashif. Kashif was riding a hot hand in the early 1980s, making hits for Evelyn “Champagne” King, George Benson, Howard Johnson, and himself (and he was just two years away from doing it for a young singer named Whitney Houston) and it’s his silky, synthesized strain of R&B all over the album, with judicious use of that horn. If the very thought of putting on a Kenny G album for enjoyment makes you break out in hives, it’s easy to hear this as the smooth album Kashif himself never got around to making.

Tropical Chill cover

Perhaps the evolution from Afrocentric free jazz towards “smooth” – and its clearest connection – is best exemplified by reedman Plunky Nkabinde.  His first album from 1971 is the Afrocentric blasts of Ndikho Xaba And The Natives. That group then evolved into the funky and free blowing of Oneness of Juju. As that decade slid into the 1980s, Plunky kept at the fore, moving towards dancefloors with Every Way But Loose and smoother repertoire on 1988’s Tropical Chill. The past few years have seen a renaissance in his career arc, with his many albums seeing reissue, but this smooth side remains under-appreciated.

Designated Hitter cover

In Gooding’s essay, he posits this query: “[If you] would rather bury your head in overpriced replica ‘spiritual jazz’ artifacts than check out $5 TBA Damon Rentie titles, then smooth has successfully achieved its radical task: for the first time in the history of jazz music, you are not there.” Rentie’s music doesn’t feel exclusionary though. He served as saxophonist/ flautist on early Atlantic Starr and El Debarge albums before striking out on his own. There’s some “maybe don’t sing” R&B balladry as well as twitchy, tweaky funk like “Doheny Drive” and “The Nomad,” driven by George Shaw’s sneaky “computer-controlled synthesis.” From Rentie’s tomato red puffy shoulder sports jacket to his pitchy yet enthusiastic singing, Designated Hitter embodies California smooth, warts and all.

From the Closet cover

Californian Daryle Chinn does a little bit of everything on his debut album: keyboards, trumpet, acoustic guitar, synth bass, and drum programming. The missing link between Stever Arrington and Dam-Funk, Chinn easily moves from smooth (“Magic Touch”) to Larry Heard-esque downtempo (“Baja Pacifica”) to New Jack swing (“Be My Love”) and back. A very tasty gem in the smooth canon.

Maria’s First cover

What makes a man go smooth? Calvin Keys cut jazz-funk titles for the legendary Black Jazz imprint back in the 1970s, but pivoted towards more relaxed fare in the ‘80s. As the title of his 1987 album attests, named for his “girl child” as seen on the back cover, maybe it’s just a mellowing that comes with fatherhood and age. Keys’ electric guitar tucks in nicely with raindrop percussion programming and twinkling keys, including some chicken-scratch moves amid the spidery funk of “Back Door Keys.” Earl Klugh and Lee Ritenour might have gotten most of the recognition (and sales) in this world, but Keys’ dextrous one-string runs suggest a happy medium between Grant Green and smooth.

Shadow Dancing cover

Reed player Azar Lawrence has a wide-ranging discography, from his stints as sideman for McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis to helming his own spiritual jazz sides, like 1974’s Bridge Into The New Age. But by the time of 1976’s People Moving, Azar was roving further, getting hip to funk and disco. It would be almost another ten years before he cut another solo album, but Shadow Dancing finds him knee deep in boogie rhythms with velvety blowing atop it. As its title suggests, most of the album is aimed towards the dancefloor, but “One More Time” and “Singapore Nights” are slow burners.

Walk Alone cover

Cool Waters’ 1993 self-titled album is a beguiling mix of smooth with gospel and synth soul, emanating from Philadelphia. The man behind it, Napoleon Cherry, began to get some notice in the years ahead, his nuanced, deeply in-the-pocket drum programming catching the ears of discerning DJs. It led to this 2015 compilation of music for the Music From Memory label, showcasing the man’s many talents, including the uncanny knack to craft strip club beats smooth enough for the supper club.

Low Ride cover

Blue Note had a number of iconic jazz guitarists during its heyday (think Grant Green and Kenny Burrell), but Earl Klugh signaled a very different style of jazz guitar in the 1970s, experiencing big mainstream success in the process. By the early ‘80s, he jumped to a major label to even greater success. Low Ride sets his nimble acoustic picking against a supple backdrop of synths, popping bass, fusion keyboard hero Ronnie Foster, and Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa. Flashes of flamenco, Spanish guitar, and the flat-picking style of Klugh’s idol Chet Atkins pop up amid the arrangements, which range from orchestral to Balearic-adjacent to lean and twitchy.

Put Sunshine In It cover

Altoist Arthur Blythe’s free jazz bona fides are undeniable: he roars like a strafing comet across Horace Tapscott’s 1969 debut album The Giant Is Awakened, Julius Hemphill’s ‘Coon Bid’ness, and his own albums on India Navigation. Even jumping to Columbia in the early ‘80s did little to tamp down his loft jazz stylings. But 1984’s Put Sunshine In It is one smooth curveball, throwing fans and critics alike. Weirder still, his producer and accompanist is none other than Todd Cochran, whose thorny compositions were featured Bobby Hutcherson’s Head On and whose own albums as Bayeté remain avant-funk touchstones. Together, they make for some prickly smooth, from a tune taken from stylish French ‘80s film Diva to the prancing gait of “Uptown Strut.”