Smooth jazz is in trouble. Clear Channel Communications, which just about single-handedly makes and breaks artists in this genre by dictating the directional style of the music in the manner with which they select the tunes to play on their radio stations across the country, has recently shifted from playing 66 percent smooth jazzy R&B influenced instrumental tracks to now only playing 50 percent of these types of tunes (from two out of every three to now only one out of every two songs they air). In order to not lose listeners they’ve begun to prominently insert early Mariah Carey and similar types of artists in their rotation. The response by smooth jazz instrumental artists, now looking at an even smaller piece of the pie to divide, has been to play down the music.
For example, all the music now being produced seems to emphasize small single-line acoustic sounds with few harmony overdubs, everything in the mid- to slow tempo range, a heavy predominance of soprano saxophone, almost total elimination of improvised solos and a serious preponderance of instrumentalists covering hit songs from the pop/rock arena. This formula, with two exceptions, is what one finds on Steve Cole’s new album, Spin.
Influenced by the young singer/songwriters of today, such as John Mayer and Jason Mraz, Cole bought an acoustic guitar and wrote all of the songs on this new release on that instrument. With all of the material originally conceptualized on guitar this album does have a totally paired down sound incredibly similar to the two artists mentioned above. The result is simple lines with even simpler hooks repeated endlessly (such as in Now That You’re Here), even during the breaks when Cole’s sax lays out (Thursday).
In the end the influence of the guitar as the conceptual vehicle limits Cole’s chordal structures to a number of two-chord grooves establishing repetition very close to what is usually expected in new-age music.
Good things about this recording, and there are many, include Cole keeping his trademark saxophone-in-your-face mix, keeping the tenor sax as the main voice (soprano rears its head as the lead voice on only two cuts, one being the hidden track at the end of the disc) and not doing a single cover. You have to give Cole credit for following his muse with this release. If he felt he had to do a singer/songwriter type of album without vocals it probably couldn’t have been done any better than here, and on that level it totally succeeds.
One wonders, however, with the great success of his previous two releases, Between Us and NY LA, and the musical capitol earned from those successes if a harder edge, taking more chances with more involved solos, the use of a few upper chordal structures, a fuller sound palette, and some hip and carefully placed electronics - thus giving smooth jazz the edge it really could use to bring back listeners to the instrumental side of the field - might not have been the better way to go.