These are truly the best days for fans of great up-tempo, hip, soul-inflected jazz. With the demise of the smooth jazz market, the artists who were making their living on the back of a radio created genre that continually watered itself down are now having to stand forward on their own feet. For some artists like Gerald Albright, who was around long before smooth jazz hit the airwaves, they’re returning to their R&B roots. For saxophonist Eric Darius, who came up during the peak of smooth jazz’ reign, his move to a much heavier and funkier sound is greatly welcomed. If On A Mission is any indication, the Tampa, Florida raised artist has his best years ahead.
Opening up with the hottest track he’s laid down on any of his four major jazz label releases, "Gettin’ It Off" is as poppin’ as anything Tom Scott has ever released. Deeply rooted in R&B backbeats, along with the use of a heavily overdubbed sax section to accompany the melody, Darius kicks harder than his contemporaries. It’s such a shame the radio market for cutting edge instrumental music has dried up because this cut is a flag winner from start to finish.
From there the disc keeps getting better. On "Let’s Go!," featuring Luke James and Ku, Darius combines rock and hip-hop in a manner not heard in a long time. Playing to this era’s new emphasis on hip-hop’s dance oriented and focused beats, as well as its raps new melodic sensibilities, Darius, in working with producer and song writers Micah Otano and Mike Barkulis, has found a scorching hot trippy rhythmic foundation upon which to place his full-bodied and deeply toned saxophone. The mid-point rap breakdown is perfectly placed and Darius’ funky ending solo shows he’s not going to hide behind the magnificent aural layers.
"Soulful Stride" is so slightly down-tempo-ed you’ll never know it. With a more relaxed setting, and a jazz hip-hop feel coming straight from smooth jazz’s early recordings, Darius’ saxophone is placed on top of a popping bass track and coolly splashy retro Fender Rhodes chordal augmented backing. "Uptown Swagger" has a clever ending to its hook and James Lloyd’s gospel drenched keyboard solo has southern soulful Cakewalk running through every note, not to mention tons of minor thirds.
There’s even a nod to more conventional jazz with a take on Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters era "Butterfly." Bringing in trumpeter Rick Braun and locking the rhythm more deeply in the pocket than the original, if that’s possible, Darius shows some real class, neither selling the chart out to make a buck with insincere rock emphasis or funneling the chart into "waste-track" territory. Braun’s solo, he’s always had an incredibly beautiful harmon-muted sound and jazz harmony background, fits not only the song’s material but also in the entire disc’s feel. Darius’ following solo has more of an emotional emphasis, but following Braun’s expertly crafted ride Darius still holds forth superbly.
Let’s hope Darius keeps making discs like this, because it’s easily one of the top ten instrumental releases of any genre this year.