76 Degrees West - 76 Degrees West (2009)

76 Degrees West
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I've listened to a lot of the much loved, much maligned and much misunderstood jazz, rock, funk hybrid known as smooth jazz over the years. I've listened long enough that to realize that differences that make one song a nice but pedestrian effort and those that will really take a tune to the level are subtle. And it's not always easy to explain why one song is nothing but a lame promotion of the latest saxophone god, while another tune is a compelling fusion of seemingly contrasting genres.

That's because the artists who are skillful at the game are subtle artists who have a healthy respect and understanding of jazz, R&B, funk and the other genres that get mixed into the smooth jazz stew. What the pretenders do wrong can slip past the listener who is about to nod off to sleep. What those masters get right can slip past your ears while you're busy nodding your head to the beat and humming or singing along.

I've listened to a lot of the much loved, much maligned and much misunderstood jazz, rock, funk hybrid known as smooth jazz over the years. I've listened long enough that to realize that differences that make one song a nice but pedestrian effort and those that will really take a tune to the level are subtle. And it's not always easy to explain why one song is nothing but a lame promotion of the latest saxophone god, while another tune is a compelling fusion of seemingly contrasting genres.

That's because the artists who are skillful at the game are subtle artists who have a healthy respect and understanding of jazz, R&B, funk and the other genres that get mixed into the smooth jazz stew. What the pretenders do wrong can slip past the listener who is about to nod off to sleep. What those masters get right can slip past your ears while you're busy nodding your head to the beat and humming or singing along.

The 76 Degrees West Band showcases such skill on their latest self-titled effort. Of course, they've also got a couple of nice but less compelling joints on the album but that's far from the norm.

Simple does not necessarily mean easy. A band has to know when and where to add those flourishes. The 76 Degrees West Band possesses that knowledge. Take for example songs such as "Your Love Is Real," and "Baby Come On." On both of these funky bedroom ballads, the inclusion of short vocals that serve as both a chorus and a bridge add to the sense of adventure in both joints. That is especially true of latter tune, "Baby Come On." The song starts innocently enough. The opening saxophone riff could fool the listener into thinking that is yet another vehicle for the next saxophone god to attract those listeners who want to dip their toes in the jazz/funk pool but aren't adventurous enough to jump in. That quickly changes, however, when the rhythm section lays down a seductively funky beat and the vocalists adds the chorus. That chorus is wrapped around solos by trumpets, trombones and electric guitars.

The 76 Degrees West Band uses other devices to get and keep the listener's attention. And I feel the word "listener" is key. At its best, 76 Degrees West is a record for folks who listen to instrumentalists and don't fall into the trap of believing that a five-minute solo is the only way a player can display his or her skill. Take the band's remake of The Average White Band's "Schoolboy Crush." It's an instrumental that is largely faithful to the original musically. However, freed from the vocals, the listener hears how each musician can assert individuality within the confines of what is basically a straight funk song.

"Be There," the last track, is basically and instrumental funk jam session that serves as a platform for the horns to solo.  However, listen close enough and you'll hear allusions some of the great funk masters such as James Brown. At one point during the song, there is a homage to the Go-Go legend Chuck Brown in the form of the opening organ riff from the 1979 classic "Bustin' Loose." That's definitely bound to be a conversation starter for the funkateers and Go-Go fans. However, it's also a tribute to the heyday of jazz when bandleaders such as Count Basie regularly included allusions in their songs. The best example of that is Basie's classic version of "April In Paris" that features a riff from "Pop Goes the Weasel."

76 Degrees West also includes songs featuring vocalists Gordon Chambers and Angela Johnson. Chambers, as always, is solid on the mid-tempo jam "Can't Keep Runnin." Johnson adds the needed sass to the funk-rock jam "Be Careful," one of the record's high points.

The 76 Degrees Band takes it up a notch on 76 Degrees West.  And in doing so, they issue a rebuke to contemporary jazz performers who content to give listeners elevator music version of R&B tunes and to critics of the genre who think it's nothing more than elevator music. Recommended.

Howard Dukes
 
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