The reality of the smooth jazz business in the 2000s has been that great genre veterans and solid emerging artists alike can bounce from label to label as indies open up and are shuttered no matter the number of radio hits. After a number of years as a monster sideman, inventive Chicago bassist Michael Manson struck gold in 2002 with his hit "Outer Drive"; despite solid output since then, he was on his third indie label (Nu Groove) by the time he released the solid Up Front collection in 2008. For fans who have never bought a Manson CD, it serves as a great primer for his strikingly melodic, hard-grooving, and brass-drenched funk style that allows for a lot of virtuoso playing. The opening track and first single -- helmed by genre hitmaker and saxman Darren Rahn -- is loaded with vibrant horns, a plucky, infectious, and singable bass melody, and crisp guest shots by George Duke, Lenny Castro, and Paul Jackson, Jr. How could it not be the ultimate in percussive funk? Likewise, the easy-grooving, laid-back, retro-soul vibin' "Steppin' Out" and the sensuous tribute to Manson's wife, Lana ("She's Always There"), featuring Najee, are picture-perfect urban jazz. A fine-print sticker adorning the jewel box explains away the odd mix of the other 12 tracks and addresses the unfortunate realities of the business: because 215 Records folded and his 2006 gem Just Feelin' It hadn't been available for over a year, Manson remastered five tracks from that album just so they wouldn't be forgotten. You can't beat the playful light funk spirit of "Coming Right at Ya" and easy breeze of "It's the Way That She Moves" -- but still, if you are a fan waiting for a full-scale project, this isn't quite it. Manson follows the lead of many other genre artists in the 2000s by covering a well-known pop-soul song (a nicely rendered "End of the Road") and then reminds his fans where his solo journey began with a laid-back "Chicago-style" take on his biggest hit, "Outer Drive," featuring another Chicago-based smooth jazz great, guitarist Nick Colionne. So, in essence, this label debut is something of a cool "greatest-hits" package with a bunch of kickin' new songs. With any luck -- and Manson surely deserves a few breaks with his new label -- Nu Groove might stick around long enough for him to follow this with a completely new collection the next time out.
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AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran