Rough Ride for Smooth Jazz

There is hardly a genre of music I can't say something good about. Every style of music has its resident genius. Maybe all the imitators, the ones cashing in, are terrible. But somewhere, either at the root of a style, or off on an eccentric branch, I think a music fan can find performances and compositions that can change your ears, and the stuff between them.

That said, I can barely tolerate the style now known as "smooth jazz." The term itself strikes me as obscene. Jazz is a provocative art form. You listen to Louis Armstrong even now, you hear someone chasing the limits of freedom, unfettered and unruly. Everyone who followed from Armstrong — Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, dozens of others — sure, they could be cool, but they were never smooth.

Jazz is meant to be noticed. "Smooth jazz" is meant not to be. It has more in common with the Wyndham Hill style — soundscapes for relaxation and meditation, with no edges to snag your coat.

You don't often run into well-written essays in defense of "smooth jazz," so when I ran across this link on ArtsJournal, I figured I should give the writer, respected music critic J.D. Considine, a chance to enlighten me:

Nearly everyone knows the cliché version of the smooth sound. There's a soprano sax playing a melody line, a synthesized electric piano filling in the harmony, and a gently funky groove laid down by six-string bass guitar and drums. It's a formula familiar to anyone who has ever been put on hold, ridden in an elevator or tuned into the Weather Network for the local forecast.

Saxophonist Kenny G — who doesn't, by the way, consider his music jazz –is generally credited with having established that template, but radio stations and record companies generally get the blame for its having come to define the genre.

"Even if one is thinking about elevator music, or Weather Channel music, there isn't any necessity for that music to be bad music," says Bob James. "I remind people all the time that Mozart would probably sound great in an elevator. A lot of Mozart is very smooth to our ears, but that doesn't mean there isn't an amazing amount of subtlety there for the listener who digs deeper."

The problem, as he sees it, is that marketers and business people have tried to reduce the creative process to a commercial formula, which gets imposed on music and musicians. "The best example in our genre is when the guidelines given for what would be a commercially viable smooth-jazz recording — one they could guarantee would get played on smooth-jazz radio –would be a recording that doesn't have any solos in it," he says. "They've either been edited out or cut back so far that it's what the formula has demanded, a melody that repeats over and over again, with a funky rhythm in the background.

Hmm. Mozart would sound good in an elevator. But that doesn't mean all elevator music merits comparison to Mozart. And it sounds like Bob James is aware that his chosen genre has been contaminated by the crassest of commercial considerations. I'd like to see what would've happened if a music consultant tried to give "guidelines" to Miles Davis. A broken nose would have been the likely outcome.

As much as Considine's piece is worth reading, I do object to some of the artists he associates with "smooth jazz." There's a lot more going on in Norah Jones' music than would fit any specific genre, least of all "smooth jazz." Pat Matheny developed a weirdly narcotized tone for his guitar, but he's a thrilling soloist, and was a pioneer.

Considine avoids one obvious word: Sex. Let's face it, for most fans, "smooth jazz" is optimal music for trysts. But then…so is Mozart.

15 thoughts on “Rough Ride for Smooth Jazz

  1. I have quite a bit of Windham Hill and Narada music, most of which is considered “New Age” rather than “Smooth Jazz.” And yes, it is good for trysts…

  2. This Considine essays seems all over the map. By definition, “smooth jazz” is not an amorphous thing: it is a very carefully defined genre, defined I suppose by marketing people or those music consultants you mentioned. So, he’s definitely reaching to call folks like Norah Jones smooth jazz. I’m a fan of hers so maybe I’m biased, but I can’t think of a single song by her that I’d define that way. Sure, her stuff may not be Ornette Coleman (or these days, some extreme alt country person) but I sure don’t hear Kenny G in her music.
    Smooth jazz seems to be background music in the same way that Muzak is. Who hasn’t been in a supermarket and found themselves grooving out to some Muzak version of a tune? Sometimes, the musicians on those cuts are clearly good and even the arrangements aren’t always gross. Or, even if they are gross, they are fascinating in terms of what they do with a familiar song.
    Everybody’s got to make a buck. Mozart had to make a buck.
    The only place I ever hear smooth jazz for a continuous stretch is in the dentist’s office and I don’t want to have a tryst there.

  3. I’ve never really liked the term “New Age” when applied to this kind of music, as it has a religious, “cult” connation to it. Another term that is used less frequently is “Contemporary instrumental,” which is kinda sterile.

  4. In Los Angeles, we have a station called The Wave. It plays smooth jazz, new-age, but also some veteran contemporary R&B performers like Mariah Carey. Natalie Cole and Anita Baker. It all kind of goes together.

    Another music-industry term for this combination of music: “Quiet Storm.” Some Wyndam Hill records actually have weather sound effects on them.

  5. You just need to listen to more smooth jazz. I’m a second-generation jazz pianist who has absolutely dabbled in smooth jazz, and to only consider the Kenny G faction of smooth jazz is like associating all rap with Will Smith.

    Smooth Jazz is much heavier on the jazz than you’d ever imagine. Alex Bugnon. Herbie Hancock. George Benson. Norman Brown. All significantly heavier on the jazz than JUST the smooth.

    The notion that jazz was meant to be provocative is yours. It’s not the absolute truth though. Some jazz was meant to be provocative, but some jazz was meant to be beautiful. The well-placed dissonance some pianists can achieve, for example, is both provocative and beautiful.

    However, jazz is also about chops. And, that’s where smooth jazz really can reach a mass audience without compromise. Dave Koz, Kirk Whalum, Wayman Tisdale, Bob James, David Benoit, etc. are all incredible musicians, who also work in the straightest of jazz forms.

    It’s a matter of taste, but the notion that smooth jazz is any less artful than straight-ahead work is purely subjective, and I think you’d find that most MUSICIANS would agree with me. There is value in the smooth jazz, musically, even if we’d all agree that the straight-ahead stuff is simple magical.

  6. Ryan,

    It’s all a matter of definitions. I would include nothing I’ve ever heard from Herbie Hancock in the “smooth jazz” category. George Benson is a great guitarist who did some enjoyable pop hits that did nothing to compromise his basic artistry. And I do agree that the musicians you listed in your next-to-last paragraph are talented.

    The problem, which Bob James noted himself in the article, is that the marketers of smooth jazz have a rigid definition of it, and force their will upon the music that is issued — either by commanding certain kinds of performances, or by editing — as James said, editing out all the solos. The musicians who go along with it are rewarded with higher visibility and more sales, but ultimately lose credibility. It’s a conundrum, and far be it from to judge a musician in that position. But the smooth jazz the marketers think I want to hear — I don’t.

  7. “as James said, editing out all the solos. The musicians who go along with it are rewarded with higher visibility and more sales, but ultimately lose credibility. It’s a conundrum,”

    Bravo!

    As an advid ‘Smooth Jazz’ LOVER, Musician, and supporter of the craft I agree 100% with Johns comment here.

    (after a ‘LIVE’ show at the smooth jazz fest)
    Even in the ‘in-crowd’ you hear these words..”I had NO IDEA he/she could play like THAT!! All I’ve ever heard were the CD’s they put out but to ‘CHOP and RIFF’ like THIS!! wow I have more ‘RESPECT’ for them now…” end qoute/s

    Smooth Jazz is here to stay, no doubt, but to sum up what the ‘Market’ is doing to the ‘mainstream’ artist in this genre is well said in the foremost qoute!

    Thanks for this blog John it was great reading!

  8. I suggest everyone who loves somooth Jazz and specifically the Sax to go and visit wemgmt.com click on artist and listen to Phillip Martin. This musician is a dentist to be. He is in his last semester of dental school.

  9. As a smooth jazz artist myself, I hope, like Mark Twain that the rumours of the death of smooth jazz have been greatly exaggerated. Whether it’s smooth jazz or pop jazz, I think the reasons for it’s existence is the fact that it is accessible to a majority of listeners.

    Referring back to T-Nine, we do have those chops and riffs, but my audience would find straight ahead or progressive jazz incomprehensible. Ultimately, I want to speak a language they understand.

  10. It is very sad to see KennyG cited as the reference point by which smooth jazz is measured.
    I remember hearing his nonsensical doodlings on the soprano back in 1989 and wondering what the world was coming to. It was at that point, I think, that the “consultants” began to determine what to give high-rotation and what was to be suppressed, hence the death of the solo.
    Being older, I had already been made immune to KennyG by the elder greats that he copied: Grover Washington Jr., Kirk Whalum, Lee Ritenour, Earl Klugh, and many more. Some have fully paid their mainstrem jazz dues and should not be faulted for sometimes wanting to express a melody or state a commonly understood phrase.

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