Any other year the latest double-disc effort from trombonist Jeff Bradshaw could be the crossover jazz album of the year to beat. But 2012 hasn’t been an ordinary year for commercial jazz, quite the opposite. On the heels of truly creative and sometimes challenging material from emerging jazz stars like Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Vijay Iyer, and shadowing the forthcoming latest, greatest from Jose James and hard bop’s Timo Lassy, parts of Bradshaw’s amiable project seems…well, quaint in comparison. Following the proven two decade-long formula of smooth jazz, Bradshaw does boast a parade of highly credible underground and neo-soul darlings, from PJ Morton and Raheem DeVaughn to Maysa and Marsha Ambrosius. He’s also priority number one at his label home of Hidden Beach, which clearly sees the very obvious commercial appeal of a polished album that has no shortage of tracks assembly-line ready for smooth jazz and urban adult contemporary radio.
Still, plenty of this clean-cut material cannot help but have the feel of a project that should have come out soon after Jeff Bradshaw’s compelling 2003 debut, Bone Deep, not nine years later.
When North Philly’s Jeff Bradshaw first hit the public’s consciousness, it was at the height of the introductory fame of guest artists Jill Scott, Glenn Lewis, Bilal, Floetry and Carol Riddick. While folks griped at the time about the neo-soul label (mostly the artists themselves), to be a part of that milieu during those years was helping to cash the bills and earning instant credibility in some “backpack ‘n’ granola” circles as a “serious musician.” The Philly pedigree certainly helped at a time when Philly Soul seemed to be the only mature game on the airwaves. The video for “Slide,” with its swinging juke joint jazz meets modern-day soul, all presided over by a voluptuous Ms. Scott, announced a new contemporary jazz artist to be reckoned with, one interested in being relevant for today’s audience while nodding knowingly to the past. The debut project itself was uneven, but strong enough to cause a deserved stir, reaching #18 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart and breaking into the Billboard R&B Hot 100. Then there was nothing - no follow-up for the new fans he’d painstakingly cultivated - and soon thereafter, Jeff Bradshaw seemed to disappear from the public’s consciousness. This all places an awful lot of pressure on the near decade-in-waiting Bone Appetit to come out swinging. The double-disc offering does suggest some recognition on Bradshaw’s part to long-time fans that he’d better come bearing gifts abundantly following such a long absence.
To his credit, Bradshaw does offer some juicy fruits in his big, capable brown palms. Cornroll free and re-styled as a big boy hipster sex symbol, a suited Bradshaw seductively croons with the warm, sandy tones of an Anthony David on “Girl, I Love You,” revealing delightfully hidden talents and a suitable baritone. Picking up the pace, Bradshaw definitely wields his trombone with plenty of Philly swag on a go-go meets rock meets jazz jam like “Steppin’ Out” featuring Brass Heaven. Starting strong with D.C. rhythms and brazen electric guitar riffs, the song promises a fashion forward project with plenty of funky edges. Brass Heaven and Bradshaw repeat the feat again on the D’Angelo flavored “N.O. Groove,” with just enough thump to remind listeners of Bradshaw’s neo-soul roots. It takes a while, but that musical fullness returns with a horn chart that’s as much reminiscent of Earth Wind & Fire in their prime as Maze on the Frankie Beverly cover of “Happy Feelin’s.” Courtesy of Bradshaw and some killin’ guitar chords, Raheem DeVaughn and Ms. Jade gets a funky backdrop for their pitch perfect stylings on the streetwise “Til Tomorrow,” bearing no relation to the Marvin Gaye cut, but missing little by standing on its own. The gliding “He Is,” a rare electrosoul composition, seems to positively glow with cucumber cool vibes and smile-generating, feel good energy.
Two standout vocal moments come on opposite ends of the music spectrum, though both are motivated by faith. Rollicking in the hay with grits and gravy, the country-fried gospel blues of “I Don’t Know How” boasts the most original and lively composition on the whole of Bone Appetit. Forcing Bradshaw to up his vocal game, Coko’s megawatt presence on “So Thankful” is so strong and inspired she almost overpowers the whole reverential gospel jazz track, giving Bradshaw another clear cut winner.
Rounding out Bradshaw’s fruit basket, Kindred The Family Soul keeps it festive and loving, on the tropical “All Day Kind of Lovin.” It’s a shame Marsha Ambrosius and Christian rapper, TWyse, couldn’t keep up their lead-in’s momentum in the ratings. Their pedestrian cover of Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone” needs it. Inexplicably, it is the project’s second single after the Raheem DeVaughn duet did the heavy-lifting of creating the project’s pre-requisite buzz. Like the Janet cover, the inspirational messaged “Wait Around Love” does nothing to slow the decline into the musically mundane, joining “I See The Sunshine (feat. Natalie The Floacist)” and “Looking For Love” in the deficit column with compositions that feel unfinished with clichéd hooks beneath this jazz bear’s talents. On “Umi Says,” Fatin tries to energize the vaguely Afrobeat cut, but the tune gets the ax just as its finding its momentum. A debt is owed to the original composers of Tony Toni Tone’s sultry “(Lay Your Head On My) Pillow” for delivering Bradshaw a melody and built-in romance that he’d have to try really hard to get wrong. A tidy Bradshaw accordingly colors in the lines and follows the melody line to its predictable, if lovely conclusion. Pizzazz just isn’t his strong suit, at least not on Bone Appetit.
Which brings us to what makes Bradshaw’s generally solid project a pastel tulip in a year of luminous wild orchids: there isn’t enough really cutting edge, surprisingly arranged, or forward-thinking material in this pale project’s take on jazz or soul. Certainly, the sound PJ Morton and Maysa cuts do little to lessen the impression of Bradshaw as a man whose music can disappear into the backdrop of his own album; any of those artists’ guest spots could have been just another nice, but unmemorable song on their respective albums with none the wiser. After two discs worth of well-performed, but too often staid material, listeners would be hard pressed to identify the signature of Bradshaw’s style, the distinctiveness of his music’s voice or his definite point of view. This is a problem for a young contemporary jazz musician facing today’s much more competitive landscape, and jazz and soul audiences are better for the risks so many of these visionary artists are taking. You’ll find no risks in the familiar culinary delights of Bone Appetit, with Bradshaw serving filling dishes you know and satisfy, but don’t inspire you to leave an extra tip on the table. It is no longer enough to be a fine musician with polish and smooth jazz radio cuts. It would have been in 2005 or ‘06 when this sophomore album should have come out and met with much fanfare. Then, there would have been little doubt as to who’d won that year’s contemporary jazz race. For now, that question remains a very open one. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson