Smooth “spazz” is how jazz purist deride the mid-90’s format that birthed Chicago’s WNUA radio station.  Seen at its worst as enervated, and lazily composed rip-offs of  jazz instrumentation,  “smooth jazz” represented an insulting attempt to streamline jazz to an adult audience that, while appreciative of classical jazz, found it inaccessible.  A young Jewish kid from Seattle, Washington blueprinted the format with the release of his third album, G Force.  Kenneth Gorelick teamed with R&B singer, composer and producer Michael Jones, known to most listeners by the singular moniker Kashif and delivered G Force to a predominantly African-American audience.  Kashif’s influence put Kenny G’s 1983 release on R&B radio rotation with “Help Yourself to My Love” and “G Force”. Three years later, with amble assistance from super producer and songwriter Narada Michael Walden, and a greater lead on songwriting and composition, Kenny G delivered Duotones. While Gravity enjoyed mid-range success with R&B audiences that recognized Kashif’s vocals, Duotones  greatest success  was the Kenny G composed instrumental “Songbird” that struck a chord with predominantly White 30 year olds’ dabbling in mid-80’s New Ageism.  However, with a sense of awareness about his confirmed success on Black radio, warmed up R&B audiences found themselves ardently included with cuts that included classic crooner Lenny Williams delivering the vocals  on “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love”, and toe-tapping to the Junior Walker remake “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”.

For R&B radio, Duotones continued the successful collaboration between jazz and R&B that Stanley Clarke, George Duke, and George Howard had successfully mined on their 70’s and 80’s releases.  Yet “Songbird” provided a marketing guidepost for a new genre of music: smooth jazz. The critics were quick and fierce, detailing the impossibility of diluting jazz to increase its’ accessibility while still referring to it as jazz.  As its’ critics detailed the increasingly diminished financial returns for up and coming classically trained jazz musicians, the smooth jazz curriculum passed from city to city, spawning Smooth Jazz fests, compilations CD’s and ultimately, its’ own Grammy category.

Although its’ critics would concede nothing that would confer respectability to the genre, smooth jazz employed enough artists to make a few shine.  While fashionably White during its primacy, the mid 90’s saw Black artists  such as Roy Hargrove and the Urban Knights infuse the bloodline. Both R&B and White artists continued Kenny G’s blueprint of sharing the platform with either new or established vocal R&B artists. These collaboration allowed artists gave artist airplay traction in both Smooth Jazz and R&B Quiet Storm formats.  The release of Fourplay’s 1991 eponymous album bought back R&B sensibilities with a supremely dedicated El DeBarge providing the smoothest vocals ever Fourplay’s remake of Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance”.  Luther Vandross’ “sha la la” refrain on Dave Koz’s “Can’t Let You Go” caused many to refer to it as “The Sha La Song”.  Bob James and David Sanborn’s Grammy-winning album, “Double Vision” bought in Al Jarreau for a powerful rendition of “Since I Fell For You” and Roy Hargrove, kept the beats street with vocals by Erykah Badu, Common and  Q Tip on his rH Factor “Hard Groove” album.

Although many of the smooth jazz stations that helped create a distributive platform for the genre no longer exists, its’ former primacy can no better be exemplified than by Kenneth Gorelicks’s self-parody in Audi’s 2011 Superbowl commercial.  According to website, Kenny G is the “best-selling instrumental musician of all time with global sales of over 75 million records!” Spazz indeed. So after you’re done arguing with your music fan buddies, tune it to this smooth jazz episode of the Sunday Slowdown. It’s not heavy, it’s smooth.…..

Track List:

Better w/Time(Boney James f/Bilal)/The One (Urban Knights)/So In Love (Alex Bugnon)/Day by Day (Najee)/Walk Through the Fire (Eric Marienthal & Carl Anderson)/Easy Living (Norman Connors)/Just 2 Be w/You (Gerald Albright)/If You Were Mine (George Howard)/Oohh Baby (George Duke)/Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning (Fourplay- Phil Collins Vocals)/Storm Warning (Hilary James)/Tender Is the Night (Dave Koz-Phil Perry Vocals)/You Make Me Believe-Kenny G (Clayton Richardson Vocals)