Pushing the Envelope is an ironic title for a Gerald Albright album because quite frankly, pushing the envelope is something that the saxophonist hasn't done very much of during his long recording career. Nonetheless, some optimists will see that title and hope that Albright has given listeners another hardcore jazz treasure like 1991's Live at Birdland West, which remains the most essential album in his catalog (at least as of early 2010). But no, Pushing the Envelope isn't another Live at Birdland West. This is primarily a smooth jazz album, not the type of hell-bent-for-improvisation disc that he is still quite capable of delivering. The good news, however, is that as much as this 2010 release caters to smooth jazz radio at times, it is seldom embarrassing the way that some of his early releases on Atlantic were embarrassing (1987's Just Between Us, 1989's Bermuda Nights, and 1990's Dream Come True were among the worst offenders). There are definitely some likable tracks here. The lively "Capetown Strut," for example, combines pop-jazz and South African pop with infectious results, and equally catchy are the jazz-funk grooves that Albright provides on "Highway 70," "What Would James Do?" (an obvious shout-out to the late Godfather of Soul James Brown), and the Afro-Cuban-tinged "Bobo's Groove" (which Albright dedicates to percussionist Willie Bobo). Unfortunately, Pushing the Envelope does venture into elevator music territory on occasion; Albright's saccharine performance of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Close to You" is a prime example of why smooth jazz has such a bad reputation -- even among the non-purist jazz commentators who have been strong proponents of, say, David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws, or Grover Washington, Jr. And equally forgettable is Albright's cover of Michael Jackson's "Get on the Floor," which he reduces to innocuous background music (although Jackson's original 1979 version from Off the Wall was certainly a gem). But despite the presence of a few weak tracks, Pushing the Envelope on the whole isn't a bad album. Anyone who owns a copy of Live at Birdland West knows that Albright is capable of a lot more, but even so, this disc has more going for it than a lot of the smooth jazz-oriented releases of 2010.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson