It was record company executives who ruined smooth jazz. By controlling the type of music their artists were allowed to be released, the industry moved over a period of time to less and less complex music. That was what the executives thought audiences wanted. It’s too bad they didn’t listen to their artists, who were out playing concerts and had direct knowledge of what fans appreciated. The stripped, "down-to-the-bone" style, noted for its slower tempos and sparse instrumental backgrounds, finally got to the point where listeners weren’t hearing anything interesting and bolted from the format. This meant less revenues for not only the artist’s themselves, but more importantly for the radio stations caring the genre and the wholesale reduction of smooth jazz stations nationwide. Now it’s hard to find smooth jazz surviving outside of smooth jazz cruises or packaged tours combining four big name artists.
Into this new musical landscape enters perennially hot selling guitarist Craig Chaquico’s ninth release and debut on Shanachie Follow The Sun. The former guitarist with Starship turns up the tempo and the heat on this, his best release to date. Utilizing the electric guitar in a stronger fashion than in the past, the result is a stronger and hipper sound more true to his rock roots. By bringing in Rippingtons keyboardist Bill Heller, Chaquico has aligned himself with a music computer whiz who not only knows the hows and whys of creating superior drum programming, so vital on studio releases in the genre, but he also knows how to thicken and broaden sound where needed. This also accounts for why the sound on Follow is, at times, reminiscent of Russ Freeman’s group.Highlights include almost every single track. "Azores Lisboa," for example, is a lively, uptempo romp with lots of sustained and piercing notes from Chaquico’s axe. Placed out front of a deceptively simple rhythmic backdrop, the guitarist knows how to expertly meld electric guitar cries into heartfelt melodic patterns. "Circus Beach" brings together the best in Chaquico’s acoustic guitar sensibilities with a heavy electronically synthed and drum programmed background. This trippy technoish song is hot. "Lights Out San Francisco" is so perfectly melodically oriented, it would have been a hit on pop radio in the early 1980s in the same way as Lee Ritenour’s "Is It You." The two-beat feel of "Barefoot In The Sand" is so cool you’ll want to play this cut over and over and over.
Maybe one of the reasons this disc is so good lies in the fact Chaquico roams further afield from previous releases with regard to the length of his solos. No longer is the emphasis only on the written melody and gone are the pre-programmed eight-bar solos. By upping the energy, Chaquico also opens up his playing and it’s always been that aspect of his music that has drawn listeners in. To have more of it and more of it coming directly from the artist himself is a win-win for everybody.
Missteps include "Fantasy In Paradise." This tune, a Rippingtons styled "Stranger In Paradise" homage, is so perfectly suited to co-composer Slais’ saxophone playing that to give him so little room playing lead and solos on the tune may keep focus on the leader, but it detracts from what could have been achieved. Kenny G’s "Songbird" is an interesting choice as the only cover. It’s usually hard to best Gorelick’s work and other than a quick section where Chaquico shows off his ample technical chops, this version doesn’t really add anything new. These slight distractions aside, if you purchase only one Chaquico disc, this is the one to own.