Why does smooth jazz get such a rough time? No other form of music, except maybe Muzak itself, gets so little respect. Yet the popularity of smooth jazz, especially among baby boomers, is nothing short of phenomenal.
The 98.9 Smooth Jazz Festival
Snoqualmie Valley Amphitheater
Sat-Sun, August 1-2
In Seattle, the smooth jazz radio station, KWJZ-FM 98.9 , has been steadily climbing in the Arbitron ratings over the last year and a half. It's now the third-most-popular station among adults aged 35 to 54, surpassing KMTT ("The Mountain"), classic rock KZOK, and Clinton rock KLSY (Fleetwood Mac, etc.). Only KBSG (oldies) and KIRO-AM (gab) top it. This weekend, KWJZ will sponsor its first-ever Smooth Jazz Festival out in Snoqualmie, featuring a dozen top smooth jazz stars.
The "smooth" side of the music refers to its easy melodies, watered-down funk, and slick, pop-worthy production values. The "jazz" part refers to the fact that it's primarily instrumental music and sometimes uses shades of jazz harmony. At a time when R&B has been taken over by cold, machinelike rhythms and rapping has replaced singing, smooth jazz offers a warm refuge, reaching out to listeners, black and white, who fondly recall the era of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan. On their latest CDs, for instance, the smooth jazz supergroup—and festival headliner—Fourplay revives Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," and saxophonist Boney James covers the old Rufus hit "Sweet Thing."
But these retreads contain little trace of the originals' raw passion; it's all been smoothed out into a synthetic, soulless, untroubled sound. The lack of any musical daring or inspiration, the safe predictability of the melodies—this accounts for both the relaxing quality of the music and the contempt it inspires, especially among jazz aficionados.
The smooth jazz world is a fraternal sort of place. Most of the big names at this weekend's festival regularly tour together. Sunday's top act at Snoqualmie will be a "Guitars & Saxes" show featuring old-school tenor players Kirk Whalum and Richard Elliot, "gypsy" guitarist Marc Antoine, and South African guitarist and singer Jonathan Butler. Fourplay, the group that closes out Saturday night, consists of some veterans of the early smooth jazz days—before the music even had a name—including keyboardist Bob James (best known for his theme for TV's Taxi) and the sometimes exciting guitarist Larry Carlton. Getting these guys together live should spark a little more electricity than is present on their often deadening CDs.
Also on hand Saturday night will be trumpet star Rick Braun, guitarist Peter White, and buttery singer Michael Franks, who has had several enduring smooth hits in the last 20 years. The festival's second night brings pianist David Benoit, who has more of a decorative Windham Hill style; Dianne Reeves, a talented diva who has never quite made her mark; and Boney James, a somewhat "edgier" Kenny G (if you can imagine that).
Kenny himself—the chief smoothie and the only one to break into the ranks of pop stardom—will not be on hand. He plays arenas these days, and the Snoqualmie Valley Amphitheater seats only 5,000.