L.A. Chillharmonic

The L.A. Chillharmonic

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Over the past two decades, few artists have better defined the distinctly urban flow of the smooth jazz genre -- or better understood its connections to older soul-jazz greats like George Benson and Wes Montgomery -- than guitarist Richard Smith. Yet for all of his nine solid solo releases and work with genre greats like Dan Siegel, Richard Elliot, Rick Braun, and Kirk Whalum, he's never quite emerged as an A-lister for all-star tours and cruises. What to do? Remember the powerhouse success of Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, one of his adopted hometown's most influential jazz/pop/funk/R&B bands ever, and figure out a way to update that wild vibe and tradition with his favorite big-name locals. His connections help bring an impressive bunch of cats to the gig: bassist Brian Bromberg (who produced many of the tracks), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, percussionist Alex Acuña, keyboardist Jeff Lorber, trumpeter Greg Adams, saxmen Gary Meek and Eric Marienthal, and pianist/vocalist Patrice Rushen. Who says the West Coast can't blow? While Smith's Montgomery/Benson/Larry Carlton-influenced electric playing dominates, and the L.A. Chillharmonic is clearly his vision, this project is a true throwback to the days when blowing and jamming was at least as important as getting a radio-friendly song on the air. This explosive collection does both, mixing catchy-cool hooks (as on the brass enhanced midtempo title track) with more energetic and slightly more improvisation-filled explorations as "Ultimate X," "Boogie on Reggae Woman," the crunching rock blues-influenced "Back in the Day," and the Siegel co-penned final burst of energy "Alvinator." Those who think that this group might have so much fun riding the rollercoaster that they might forget the "chill" part of their name can rest assured. "Gift" breezes along Smith's swirling, graceful acoustic and Lorber's piano, with Rushen chiming in dreamy wordless vocals.; the Brian McKnight composed "What We Do Here" is a pure update of the quiet storm aesthetic; and "Agrigento" has a spacy atmospheric sensuality that balances the feisty tone of much of the collection. Since this was one of 2008's best progressive smooth jazz dates, it begged the question: one time all-star joint or the start of something big? Anyone who knows that there's more to smooth jazz than what we hear on the radio should hope for the latter.

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