Steve Cole

Spin

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With his trademark robust, in-your-face horn textures, the Chicago-based funky smooth jazz saxman has the rare genre gift of instant recognizability. That same energy sets the vibe on his spiffy, in the pocket Narada Jazz debut , but with a unique twist. Rather than sticking with the heavy urban flavors of the discs that made him an instrumental star, he takes a more singer/songwriter-oriented approach here, drawing from modern rock inspirations like John Mayer, Maroon 5 and Five for Fighting. For this endeavor, which truly is a Spin on the way he has done business in the past, Steve Cole bought his first acoustic guitar and wrote all the songs on it. This instrument and some hypnotic piano at the beginning of the opening track "Thursday" serve the role of organic enhancement to -- rather than replacement for -- his powerful sax thrust, which is dead-on perfect on instant hits like "The Real Me." From there, he takes some cool risks, going the gentle, back porch country-rock route on "Simple Things" (with Ricky Peterson on organ), bluesy on the feisty "Spin" (which may remind listeners of some of Mindi Abair's best guitar-flavored sax cuts), and sweetly melancholic on the heartfelt "A Letter to Laura." The simmering, anthemic southern rocker "I Was Alright" blends the classic Cole horn textures with an aggressive, guitar-driven harmony line. Some say that chillout is the hybrid future of smooth jazz, and the trippy soprano ballad "Serenity" -- which draws its inspiration from Zero 7 -- shows that Cole can also relax and seduce us gently when he likes. The final track "Confounded" was inspired by Beck and breaks up from its straightforward pop/blues vibe for an all-too-short blowing section where Cole breaks loose. A little more of that improvisational fun would have made Spin, already one of the best genre releases of 2005, worth even a few hundred more.

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