Richard Elliot's In the Zone picks up where 2009's Rock Steady left off. Where that album paid tribute to the saxophonist's R&B heroes, In the Zone, which marks Elliot's 25th anniversary as a recording artist, offers a thank-you to the influences of his predecessors in the smooth jazz genre: namely Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, and Bob James. Co-produced with Jeff Lorber, with horn charts -- and horns -- by David Mann, Elliot composed eight of the ten tracks on the set, co-wrote one with Lorber (who appears on keyboards and guitar), and offers a fine cover of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" as a nod to Washington's stellar version in the early '70s. Things kick off breezily enough with "Island Style"; its Caribbean groove recalls Creed Taylor's production of Washington's Kudu Records output. That said, the phrasing is pure Elliot. "Boom Town," the single, is funkier, and features fine guitar work by Dwight Sills and Lorber. Elliot's sense of time when soloing is deadly. The melody is as infectious and celebratory as it is sexy. "Metropolis" almost cops a "Mister Magic" vibe when it commences, but it's more songlike than vamp-oriented. It's possessed of a delightful lyricism. "The Lower Road" is almost a country melody played contemporary jazz style. It too is comprised of a gorgeous melody played on and around by Elliot with fine guitar work by Michael Thompson and Lorber -- this is a clear nod to James and his gift for elegant melodies. "Bring It!" is deeply funky and inspired by R&B, and its emotive blowing recalls Sanborn. While "Just a Taste" is simply pleasant and lithe, it contrasts sharply with the title track, a hard, funky strutter with excellent guitar interplay and additional layers of horns by Mann. "Panamera" is slick dancefloor glide but the rhythmic palette shifts in interesting ways. The set closes with the graceful lyricism of "Golden Triangle," another songlike piece that reflects Elliot's love of compact harmonies. Lil' John Roberts is exceptional on the drum kit, using brushes to provide unexpected breaks as Thompson and Tony Maiden exchange open, nearly jangly guitar interplay. In the Zone is a fine companion to Rock Steady, but perhaps even more to Metro Blue. Ultimately, it proves beyond doubt that there is plenty of life and possibility in the contemporary jazz genre.
In the Zone Review
by Thom Jurek