One Track Mind: Stephen Richard – "Ambience" (2010)

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by S. Victor Aaron

It could be argued that Houston, Texas is one of the major gestation points for smooth jazz sax stars. Ronnie Laws and Kirk Whalum came from what Laws calls the Bayou City of the Future. Also, let’s not forget that Wilton Felder, Joe Sample and the rest of the Crusaders gang hail from that town, too. So, which Houstonian is next in line to make their mark in the velvety, r&b side of jazz?

Stephen Richard just might be that guy.

Last April, Richard released just his second album, Bread ‘N Water-Vol. 1, and on this record, the soprano and alto sax player sometimes makes you swear that Grover Washington, Jr. has come back from the dead. He really does have Grover’s sweet, funky dialect down, and even more so than on his debut album from a couple of years ago Because Of You. However, there’s more to Richard’s sound on this record that sets him apart from his contemporaries.

Richard made this record, in his own words, “without all the extra sides and additives,” in trying to capture in the studio the feel of his relaxed, Sunday evening shows with just his keyboardist and percussion accompanying him. Sure, the keyboards are electric piano with synth washes, but here, they are pushed way back in the mix. The drums are mostly non-existent, with the congas being the percussion of choice more often than not. Although not credited, it sure sounds like there’s an acoustic bass in there—a well-disguised synth bass, perhaps? The improvisations undertaken by Richard and sometimes trumpeter Andre Hutchins go on for as long as they are feeling it. In some ways, that comes off more like straight jazz to me than smooth jazz.

The songs, aside from a couple of covers, are really extended groove vamps, with some slight variations tossed in here and there. These seven-eight minute songs ride these warm grooves until just before they’re exhausted, but not any longer.

“Ambience,” the first cut from Bread ‘N Water-Vol. 1, is a fine feature of this formula. Using a five chord riff with some subtle change-ups on the theme, keyboard player Mark Copeland and percussionist Robert Smalls set a soft, slow vibe while Richard (on soprano) and Hutchins (muted trumpet) make soulful ruminations all the way to the coda ending at 7:55. The song doesn’t even feel that long, because it unfolds naturally, like one would expect it would in a live setting.

Stephen Richard was merely breaking smooth jazz down to the basics and stretching it out, but in doing so, he came up with a straight jazz/smooth jazz hybrid that jazz lovers who don’t care much for smooth jazz can not only live with but can even dig without any of the guilt. Hey, Richard may have stumbled upon something worth pursuing further. If an upcoming Vol. 2 gives us more of these organic grooves, that would suit me just fine.

Visit Stephen Richard’s website here.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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