Since 2000, veteran jazz keyboardist Bob Baldwin has been busy developing the New Urban Jazz Radio format, which fuses Urban Music with contemporary jazz in a way that is unique to his sensibilities. Driven by his vision of this hybrid form as the future of contemporary jazz, he debuted this vibe in Jacksonville, Florida in 2004 before moving over to KJAZ in Bermuda, where he helped shape the sound of that station. He’s also made the same impact and inroads at WCLK in Atlanta. After hosting a four hour show called “The New Urban Jazz Lounge” on Virginia’s WJZW, he launched his NUJ format on WJZZ in Atlanta, a Radio One Station.
The well-traveled Baldwin has been on way too many major and indie labels since his stirringly funky, gospel influenced 1990 Atlantic debut Rejoice, a harsh indication that great talent and brilliant output in the smooth jazz world is no protection from corporate realities. Always thinking ahead, he boldly asserted the power of internet marketing when he called his 2000 release BobBaldwin.com—and he gets back to that concept (while ostensibly creating this new subgenre of smooth jazz by calling his spirited, melodic, slightly old school, coolly funky latest disc Newurbanjazz.com. It’s somewhat amusing reading his liner notes that proclaim that title as something new, when it’s been clear that smooth jazz has been heavily urbanized (incorporating vast contemporary and retro R&B sensibilities) since at least the mid-90s. So it’s a simple difference in semantics, really. He just wants to perpetuate the groove.
The good news is that Baldwin puts his money where his mouth is, keeping that old-meets-new vibe going on easy groovers like “Jeep Jazz” (a very poppy cut featuring singer Zoiea), “Third Wind” (with Baldwin capturing the Norman Brown vocal scat vibe over segments of his happy sunlit piano chordings) and the seductive, laid back “Take My Hand.” Baldwin never forgets that the word “jazz” is in the title, too, infusing catchy, melodic uptempo gems like the brass-tinged “Too Late” with bursts of bright improvisations. No less than Quincy Jones gave a thumbs up to one of the disc’s most unique tracks, a smokin’ heavy groovin’ old school jam tribute to “Joe Zawinal” (though the constant repetition of the legend’s name is slightly unnecessary—the vibe is enough!). Another striking feature of Baldwin’s “new” sound is his collective approach that includes key contributions by familiar and new names on the urban music landscape. So while we have names that every smooth jazz fan knows—Najee, Marion Meadows, Phil Perry—and a few famous soul singers (Freddie Jackson, Jocelyn Brown), the keyboardist also introduces us to versatile newcomers like Frank McComb and rapper Delta Croche. Baldwin’s front and back end spoken word bumpers explaining the concept of New Urban Jazz is unnecessary in light of the soulful energy that happens throughout.
With many stations across America giving up on the smooth jazz format—a reality that contrasts with the incredible success of genre artists at festivals, in concert series and on cruises—it will take major innovations to keep this corner of the industry going strong. Let’s hope that Baldwin’s sharp, funk-filled ideas take off on a big level and that New Urban Jazz becomes more than just a cool album title but a whole movement that redefines the landscape in the years to come!