Norman Brown - Stay With Me (2007)

Norman Brown
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Smooth jazz is about twenty years old as a radio format. TAnd the sound that defines smooth jazz guitar goes back almost a decade more, to 1980. The album, Give Me The Night by George Benson (produced by Quincy Jones), introduced a soundscape that guitarists would emulate for more than a quarter century. Radio loved it. Stations changed identities just to accommodate it. For a certain segment of Smooth Jazz's worldwide audience, this music functions as the their ‘lifestyle groove'.  Guitarist Norman Brown is very much in touch with that sensibility but he also has the talent to push the ‘groove' to next level.

Smooth jazz is about twenty years old as a radio format. TAnd the sound that defines smooth jazz guitar goes back almost a decade more, to 1980. The album, Give Me The Night by George Benson (produced by Quincy Jones), introduced a soundscape that guitarists would emulate for more than a quarter century. Radio loved it. Stations changed identities just to accommodate it. For a certain segment of Smooth Jazz's worldwide audience, this music functions as the their ‘lifestyle groove'.  Guitarist Norman Brown is very much in touch with that sensibility but he also has the talent to push the ‘groove' to next level.

In Brown's newest release, Stay with Me (his label debut with Peak Records), the high level musicianship is definitely there. Brown's a Grammy Award winner who may not be capable of putting out a ‘bad' album at this point in his career. However, considering what he's already accomplished -- and his musical skill -- this is merely a good project, not a great one. It's seems crafted to have a mellow likeability to get smooth jazz radio on board quickly. While there's nothing really wrong with that, there's also nothing really buzzworthy here. It doesn't seem to have that "who is that?!" tune that you hear when scanning around the radio dial. There are moments this album sizzles--it just doesn't pop. While listening to this CD on my living room system, my 16 year old son (admittedly not a fan of this music) said to me that it sounds like a lot of music he's heard before. The immortal jazz composer Horace Silver once said: "We (musicians) all have to open our minds, stretch forth, take chances and venture out musically to try and arrive at something new and different." That point gets to the heart of my subtle disappointment with the CD. Brown just doesn't reach for anything particularly new and different. It's in stark contrast to his last album, West Coast Coolin', where Brown unveiled his bouncy and formidable singing voice for the first time. You feel he has less of a commitment this time around to making a musical statement.

That said, there will be many in the smooth jazz audience that will find enough to their liking on Stay with Me. Brown's trancendent guitar runs on "So in Love" and, his blazing lines on "It Ain't Over BWB" (with his sometime bandmates, Kirk Whalum and Rich Braun from the group BWB), are amazing. He also proves on the title cut, "Stay With Me," that he can definitely ‘hang' as a singer (and that IS Brian McKnight doing the background vocals).

Just as his idol George Benson did over a quarter century ago, Brown has the ability to influence the next young generation of guitarists. He could help determine what jazz guitar sounds like, for at least the next decade. The business reality is that Benson has sold millions more than Brown. When your albums sell, record labels give you greater creative latitude. I don't know if a tighter creative leash is what may be holding Brown back from a more roaring effort this time. I do hope Brown takes the risk of challenging himself and his audience more next time out. His brilliant talent demands it...if not, his real fans should.

By Les Clarke

 

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