Casual listeners of smooth urban jazz might think that the in the pocket, generally easygoing “hits” they hear over and over on the radio capture everything they need to know about the artists—but most of those who make this kind of music are just scratching the surface with these popular tunes. Najee is definitely one of these artists. Over the course of the past 25 years, he has been one of those who has defined the cool in the genre, with multiple hit recordings and tons of airplay. Seeing the title of his Shanachie debut The Smooth Side of Soul might inspire skeptics to think it’s another typical, likeable, silky instrumental R&B disc—but this time, the multi-talented saxman and flutist is, blissfully, all about surprises.
A key part to understanding the most unique track on this disc, a richly textured, furious cover of legendary saxman Jimmy Heath’s straight ahead tune “Sound For Sore Ears,” is the fact that Najee is an alum of the New England Conservatory of Music and was mentored by jazz giants like Heath and Frank Foster as well as classical maven and flutist Harold Jones of the New York Philharmonic. The song’s title perfectly represents what Najee and Pieces of a Dream keyboardist James Lloyd (who is as wild, creative and improvisational on the piano as Najee is on the tenor) aim to give longtime fans who think they know everything about Najee: something off the beaten path yet intrinsic to Najee’s soul as an artist. His choice to record this great tune emerged from a 2011 concert he did for the James Moody Foundation at NYC’s Blue Note. Heath was among the other notables on the gig, and Najee had not seen him in many years. He told Heath he had always loved “Song For Sore Ears” and would like to record it. Heath told him he would be honrored—and the result is a setpiece that adds extraordinary power to The Smooth Side of Soul. Hearing these kinds of chops inspires hope that Najee might do a full-on trad jazz album somewhere down the line.
Elsewhere, of course, he is about as colorful and artistic as a multiple reed player can be with songs best described as easy funk. In Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Phil Perry, Will Downing, Darren Rahn and Jeff Lorber, he’s collaborating a solid batch of high profile funky jazz makers—all to great effect. Najee balances his expressive sax playing throughout with a handful of tasteful flute features. The Davis co-writes include the richly grooving “Dis N’ Dat” (featuring Najee’s expressive tenor and some playful jazz licks by Davis on keys), the sensual and moody flute-driven “Mari” and the horn spiced shuffle-funk tune “Fu Fu She She” (about people a little too impressed with their designer attire and trendy lifestyles), which includes exciting moments of improvisation in the midst of the in the pocket cool. On two other Davis compositions, Najee enjoys easing from the type of tunes we might expect (like the amiable and easy rolling romance of “Perfect Nights) to sounds that take him to dreamy far off places (the atmospheric flute tune “You Tube”).
This sort of balance occurs throughout The Smooth Side of Soul. “Just To Fall In Love,” featuring Perry’s inimitable lead vocals, is a discofied delight (with a balance of flute and sax), while the Lorber collaboration “In The Clouds” (featuring the keyboard great on piano and behind the boards) is a contemplative, easy swinging piece that straddles the fence between smooth and straight ahead jazz. Lorber also helps Najee keep the laid back flow going on “First Kiss,” the one track featuring the saxman’s magic on the soprano. Balancing out all the unique eclecticism of the collection is a track that radio won’t be able to resist – the simmering, totally in the pocket “One Night In Soho,” which marks what will hopefully be the start of some great collaborations between Najee and fellow saxman/producer Darren Rahn.
The title may be The Smooth Side of Soul, but Najee is telling jazzy stories like never before and will engage those who want something more than the same old thing.