Considering the intense geographical, musical and spiritual journey that Brian Hughes has been on since becoming one of contemporary jazz’s most popular personalities in the early 90s, it was beautifully appropriate that he titled his last studio album Along The Way. To the detriment of the smooth jazz format, the Canadian born guitarist has been quiet on the studio release front for the past few years —which makes the release of this live album something that his fans and contemporary jazz enthusiasts will cherish. Produced by Daniel Vachon, Brian Hughes Live was recorded by Espace Musique, Radio Canada’s music radio network, on October 21, 2005 at La Maison de le culture Fronternac in Montreal.
Before jumping into a discussion about this exciting new presentation of some of his best loved album cuts, it seems appropriate to take a look back for those who may not remember the magic Hughes brought to the genre in the previous decade. His cherished 1971 Gibson ES175 electric guitar firmly in his grip, Hughes on Top Ten recordings like Straight To You (1995), One 2 One (1998) and Shakin’ Not Stirred (1999) perfectly blended his Wes Montgomery influenced jazz/blues roots into an eclectic mix of Latin, Brazilian and world music. He also toured the world with Celtic star Loreena McKennitt regularly from 1987 through 1998, adding a date with the singer playing for the Queen of England at a Winnipeg concert earlier in the 2000s before touring with her at length again. Hughes has also traveled extensively with The Chieftains, went to Greece to produce the popular singer Yannis Katsiras, and performed a PBS special concert for a crowd of 75,000 in the town square of Bucharest with Romanian pan flutist Damian.
The only drawback to Hughes’ very successful career as a sideman is the back-burnering of his solo career. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with this brilliant 72-minute date. On Brian Hughes Live, the guitarist’s expansive arrangements and ensemble work with longtime keyboardist/partner Les Portelli, bassist Tim Landers, drummer Tal Bergman and percussionist Ron Powell show that even catchy songs that catch on with smooth jazz audiences have the potential for improvisational greatness. Not surprisingly based on the timeline, four of the eight songs come from Along The Way, beginning with the cool laid back Latin strut “Son Y Lola”, dreaming through the soulful “Omaha Unbound” and looking ahead to the passionate and moody “Endless Road.” The Eastern tinged, slightly tribal soundscape heavy “Nasca Lines” takes Hughes back to his early 90s gem Under One Sky, while the brisk and breezy “The Beat” and moody, old school soul jazz number “For You” come from Shakin’ Not Stirred.
A wonderful reminder of just how creative and innovative pop influenced contemporary jazz can be, Brian Hughes Live gives us the multi-faceted performer in perfect form and primes him to—when he has time—get back in the studio and keep the juices flowing.