The concept of marrying hip hop to jazz-R&B is an immensely popular one, rapidly growing, expanding, and capturing almost every listener in its path. The Soul Providers is a most competent group of musicians, prominently featuring one of my favorite keyboardists-composers, Bob Baldwin, with offerings from masterful saxmen Marion Meadows, Nelson Rangel, and Dave Mann. They have come onto the scene with their distinct brand of this handsome hybrid style. What do we call this hybrid baby, anyway?
The Soul Providers simply dub their debut release Smooth Urban Grooves. Nice, but they and artists like Jeff Lorber and Mike Phillips (of the Unwrapped series) and Kim Waters (creator of numerous urban jazz projects, including the Streetwize series) do such justice to this new genre that we really need to acknowledge its emergence in the jazz world with something more telling. I’ll think of something one day soon, if someone doesn’t beat me to it.
At any rate, this CD is all you’d expect from such a talented array of musicians. "Encore" by Jay-Z has that snappy, let’s-get-this-party-started funky "nastiness" accentuated by the superbly fluid keyboards of Baldwin and the talkative sax of Tower of Power alumnus Dave Mann, along with some really tight chops from guitarist Larry Devore. "Through the Wire," Kanye West’s own clever reordering of Chaka Khan’s "Through the Fire," features splashy horn work coupled with Baldwin’s artful interpretations on keys.
Enter the fill-the-room presence of saxman Rangell on "Ordinary People" by John Legend. This is a liquidy, silky stroll down Smooth Jazz Boulevard, a stretch of winding, imaginary highway that goes on forever in the souls of smooth jazzers (I travel on it frequently and, apparently, so do Baldwin, Rangell, and company). Then, there’s the easily identifiable smoothest-of-smooth sax work from Marion Meadows on Mario’s "Let Me Love You." Meadows is one of the few artists who can make a finger-snappin’, head-boppin’ piece like this such an infectious and warm example of soul-speak. It’s a really rich, deep-reaching arrangement with a deliberate and crafty hook.
Go ahead. Turn down the lights, snuggle up to that love bunny of yours as the group takes on Mariah Carey’s "We Belong Together." Ummm, definitely "midnight." Didn’t get enough of that last cut? Try on "Lovers and Friends" for size by Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris, and see if it fits. It’s as though the soft, enticing groove of the preceding track just flows right into this lusty, naughty arrangement. You just might find yourself remarking: Man, isn’t this what smooth jazz is really all about? It’s got feel, depth, and profound instrumental mastery. "Hate It or Leave It" (originally by The Game) offers another take on the popular cut that’s been offered by others before, but not quite like this. A showcase for Baldwin and Mann, the tune never leaves the listener even for a moment as it saunters through like (picture this) the Rippingtons’ "Jazz Cat" snapping his fingers enroute to his Cadillac.
"Charlene" by Anthony Hamilton rewinds the romance clock back to midnight and caresses us to that intoxicating and aesthetic state of being again, reminding us why we so love this music! You can easily get lost in Baldwin’s sultry keys and the slow, steady backbeat. This is actually reminiscent of one of George Duke's kissy-feely mellow cuts. Syrupy good! Oh, you like syrupy-good? Then, you'll also want to experience the group’s handling of Alicia Keys’ "Diary."
The entire album is one of great achievement. Bob Baldwin and the Soul Providers have created yet another magnificent urban hybrid unique unto itself, yet distinctively part of this new family of jazz, R&B, and hip hop. With this album, the Soul Providers usher in the notion that we’ve only just begun to experience what this mighty merger will become. As Baldwin states, "stay tuned!"