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Arts Desk

Jazz Album of the Week: Mike Boone’s ‘Smoother Jazz’ Valiantly Defends Honor of Jazz’s Softer Side

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Courtesy of the artist
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Mike Boone

Whether it’s hosting a jam session at Chris’ Jazz Café or winging up to the Village to play at Smalls until 2 AM before driving the 90 miles back down to Philly to teach the next day at Temple University, bassist Mike Boone doesn’t stop; he’s always playing, always teaching, and like every great bass player, always listening.

On Smoother Jazz, the new recording Boone plans to release online in the next month, that old habit of keeping his ears open pays off.

From April 2020 to early 2021, Boone led 29 livestream concerts from a recording studio in West Philly. One of the last of these livestream shows streamed on Dec. 23, 2020. Vocalist Ella Gahnt was in the house, as were Aaron Graves on keys, Gusten Rudolph on drums, and Leon Jordan, Jr. on trumpet and flugelhorn.

The core quintet simply played tunes they all knew and felt like grooving to on that particular night. It was only after the fact, when Boone listened to the recording—the venue being a recording studio, every session was recorded—that he thought they might have the beginnings of a good album on their hands.

“I’m listening to the show the next day, listening to ‘What’s Going on?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Ya know, this tune feels pretty good,’ Boone recalled. “It was raw, but there was an energy.”

He and engineer/co-producer Scoot Roc decided there was enough there to proceed. But first they’d need to enlist an ensemble of sidemen to fill-in the raw spots.

“I was thinking,” Boone said, “Who can I get that’s kinda famous?”

Enter drummer and percussionist Aaron Draper, who, in addition to touring with Adele Rihanna, John Mayer, and Eminem, made the splashiest of professional debuts with the Roots and Jay-Z on their iconic 2001 MTV Unplugged session. Combine Draper’s percussion fills with synth bass from multi-instrumentalist James Poyser, the piano player for the Roots’ Tonight Show band who’s produced for Erykah Badu, Common, and John Legend, and you’ve got the perfect framing for Gahnt’s vocals on Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin.”

Gussying up this Stevie tune was the least Boone could do to honor a musician he considers right up there with Ellington, Gershwin and any other revered American composer.

“They didn’t call him a genius for nothing,” Boone said of Wonder. “That’s an understatement when it comes to him.”

Add Jordan’s trumpet and Kevin Hanson’s electric guitar and you’ve got jazz that’s comfortable in its smoothness, almost defiantly so. Compare this stuff to Kenny G at your own peril; it’ll punch you in the mouth if it has to, but it’d prefer to set the lights down low and serve as the soundtrack for more sensual pursuits.

That leads to what is, perhaps, Prof. Boone’s most important lesson here: Not all smoother jazz is Smooth Jazz.

“The thing people have to realize,” Boone said, “is that we’ve always had smoother jazz. Go back to Ahmad Jamal. ‘Poinciana’ is probably the first smooth jazz hit. For lack of a better word for it, even ‘Take Five’ [is smooth jazz]. Paul Desmond. Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things.’ A big part of jazz was to take stuff that wasn’t jazz and make it jazz. That’s what we’re getting back to here.”

What Smoother Jazz is not is “Easy Listening,” the music that became synonymous with California chardonnay, department stores, and premium cable pornography.

Smoother Jazz is, however, soulful takes on tunes from Stevie, Marvin Gaye, Ramsey Lewis, and Freddie Hubbard. It’s a record that invites us to travel back in time to Boone’s formative years, when the afros were higher, the bass was bouncier, and the records were produced with maximalist grandeur by George Duke, Quincy Jones, and the like.

Those records featured legions of sidemen and studio personnel, robust horn and string sections, and layers of percussion as thick as shag carpeting. Boone didn’t quite have major label resources at his disposal here—he financed this “labor of love” himself—but that didn’t stop him from achieving “that orchestrated sound” he’d envisioned.

See the take on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” for illustration. Velvety keys and a panoply of percussion lay the foundation for Jordan step out front, state the familiar theme and digress with purpose. Exploring the tributaries off the main channel, he even sneaks in a reference to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As incongruous as that may strike you, it works perfectly.

Yet, as fun as those playful pieces of irony are, Smoother Jazz’s best moments are its most earnest ones. The rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a high-water mark musically and emotionally. Hearing Boone get this funky on electric bass after so many years of listening to him unplugged is a treat, and Gahnt’s vocals coalesce nicely with those of co-lead Adrien Greenfield and supporting vocalists Topeka and Zuri. What pushes it over the top for me, though, is Hanson’s superb guitar playing—a standout performance.

Boone and co. close things out on the spiritual tip, with an improvised epilogue titled “What’s Going on (RePraise).”

“For that particular tune,” Boone said, “we were ending the gig, I was saying goodbye, and Aaron [Graves] goes to this minor chord that made it sound real churchy. So I put the mic down, started playing, and we just kinda vamped out.”

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: When Mike Boone hears something that sounds promising, good things usually follow.

Watch the Mike Boone Quartet performing at Chris' Jazz Cafe in October 2020.