In the smooth jazz world, there’s always a major risk involved when well known sidemen give up their lucrative studio and touring gigs to focus on their solo careers. When Euge Groove (real name: Steven Eugene Grove) jumped into the fray with his self-titled 2000 debut, he left behind over a decade of successful pop associations—first with Tower of Power (a great breeding ground for future sax stars), then with Richard Marx, Joe Cocker and Tina Turner. Other superstars on his resume are Eurythmics, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville and even Luther Vandross. Euge’s gamble paid off handsomely from the get-go, however, as he’s scored eight Top 5 Radio & Records singles (reflecting tons of airplay), four of which hit #1. Titles sometimes say it all; his 2004 Narada Jazz debut Livin’ Large captured his sense of seductive funk and optimism, and his last #1 hit, 2005’s “Get ‘Em Goin’,” perfectly reflects the magical rapport Euge shares with his fans when he hits the stage.
Beyond a completely distinctive sound (with his lead sax voice enhanced with simmering horn textures) and an incredible ability to truly “Get ‘Em Goin’” with some of the genre’s best melodies of the past seven years, Euge stands out in another way as well. While most smooth jazz stars will tell you that their albums are simply collections of a batch of their best songs, the saxman is really into creating unique vibes based on unique concepts. On his 2005 disc Just Feels Right, Euge created a true musical blast from the past, stirring up an old school vibe with an all-analog recording exclusively featuring equipment that predated 1976. The concept was to try to re-create the vibe of an album that might have been on the shelf during America’s Bicentennial year. In his colorful liner notes, he even mentioned everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure from that year, “Afternoon Delight!”
On Born 2 Groove, Euge’s idea was to take his music to church. It’s not a jazz gospel album per se, but the sound is funky, transcendent and spiritual. And instead of working like everyone else with the usual smoothie sidemen, he invested a great deal of time and effort to find musicians who could convey the uplifting spiritual vibe he was after. With the help of his live musical director and bass player Cornelius Mims, Euge—who wrote, arranged and programmed nearly every track--purposely chose an ensemble steeped in church music that would bring a 180-degree shift to the new songs. After recording in analog last time, Born 2 Groove is the artist’s first done in HD Digital.
Euge’s core band on the new album are all schooled pop, jazz, soul and gospel musicians who perfectly represent both the sacred and secular: Mims (Kenny Loggins, 2Pac), who is always having the band on 6 a.m. flights back to LA so he can catch his church gigs; keyboardist Tracy Carter, the Musical Director at Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, California; guitarist Jubu Smith (Tony! Toni! Tone!); and drummer Trevor Lawrence, Jr. (India.Arie). The saxophonist co-produced Born 2 Groove with none other than mega-producer Paul Brown (Boney James, Kirk Whalum, George Benson, Al Jarreau), who helmed various tracks on Euge’s first two albums, produced Livin’ Large and also co-produced Just Feels Right.
Born 2 Groove begins with the laid back, gently playful “A Summer Night’s Dream,” a track reminiscent of Euge’s first big instrumental hit “Romeo & Juliet” featuring touches of his trademark texturing behind his gentle soprano lead voice. The saxman then hooks into a more deeply soulful approach on the bright and vibrant, coolly funky “Mr. Groove.” The vibrant image of an Italian piazza is foremost on his mind on the wistful and haunting, gently mystical “Café del Soul” and the simmering sensual fire of “Slow Jam,” which features some of the collection’s most expressive playing and improvisations. The title track keeps that searing, just about to blow energy going with a true ensemble jam featuring clever touches of retro-soul ambience via Smith’s wah-wah guitar clicks and Carter’s Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer piano. The title of the soaring, feel good mid-tempo tenor-driven “Religify”—which literally means to “make religious”--draws from the song’s brimming churchy soul sound.
“Geez Spot” takes that spirit even deeper and moodier with a feel good flow reminiscent of his hit “Chillaxin’.” The slow burning, neo-soul flavored vocal track “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know--a hit for legendary soul singer Donny Hathaway in 1973--is a powerful showcase for renowned soul singer Ali Ollie Woodson, who was lead singer for The Temptations during their 80’s and 90’s comeback. After the sweet and soaring soprano ballad “Movin’ On”—a track that truly defines the churchy vibe of the disc--Euge closes the set playing harmony lines behind R&B legend Jeffrey Osborne’s penetrating lead vocals on “Baby What I Wouldn’t Do.” It’s great to see Osborne become so much of the smooth jazz scene these days!
While both are stellar releases, while Just Feels Right grabbed your groove thing the minute you put it on, Born 2 Groove—true to the transcendent spirit that inspired it--may take a few listens to completely capture your heart and soul. But once you’re groovin’, you won’t want to stop.