Houston has been a major center for urban jazz ever since native Houstonians the Jazz Crusaders started going electric in the late ’60s. From there, the torch was carried by the Laws (Hubert and Ronnie) and later, Kirk Whalum. The latest to continue the tradition of contemporary RnB jazz specialists from the Bayou City is saxophonist Stephen Richard.
I’ve said this before, however, when a couple of years ago I stumbled upon Richard’s Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 1 album, a record that’s nominally called “smooth jazz” but Richard made it sound so genuine and organic. By stripping the production and arrangement down to the core and stretching out on these songs, Richard put the “jazz” back into smooth jazz. By also retaining the contemporary groove, he left in the thing which smooth jazz, when done right, delivers.
The “Vol. 1″ at the end of that title brought hope of a “Vol. 2″ and that hope is now being realized. Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 2 maintains the same principles as Vol. 1, about keeping things unfussy and authentic. It’s also not a carbon copy of the earlier disc. Gone is the trumpet player Andre Hutchins, and in comes a drummer, Jerre Jackson, to join carryovers Mark Copeland (keyboards) and Robert Smalls (percussion) (there’s a different lineup for “Naima,” more on this later). This isn’t crossover jazz for, as Richard says, “the small wine restaurant.” It grooves a little harder than that.
Like, most conspicuously, “Back At It” (video of live performance above) That track is in so many ways a 21st century version of Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mr. Magic,” starting with a short, funky keyboard riff, complemented by a hard, direct (and, it should be noted, hand delivered) toe-tapping drum beat, a little synth bass, percussion and nothing else. The climatic bridge is bolstered by a non-intrusive synth wash, taking the place of a string accompaniment of that earlier classic, and then it breaks clean, going back to the lean, mean groove of earlier. Here, Richard’s tenor captures Washington’s Philly soul and a touch of Wilton Felder’s rugged Texas drawl. All that’s missing is some Eric Gale guitar licks.
“Bread ‘n Water” doesn’t just connote a clean and mean production, however; Richard is going back to some of the basics. For example, there are two original blues. The first, “Drenched In Blues, features a cool, Groove Holmes-inspired Hammond B-3 performance from Copeland, and Richard, in his typical fashion, digs deep into the melody with a reserved passion, never going over the top but getting close at the right spots. “Blues Outtake” is a shorter excursion into the form, with a smooth walking bass line, Copeland’s burning B3, and Richard quoting Lionel Hampton’s “Red Top” at one point.
As is customary with Richard records, at least one jazz classic gets updated, and here it’s John Coltrane’s winsome “Naima,” performed by Richard with Eddie Moore on piano, Eric Elder on bass and John Fontenot on drums. Elder and Fontenot devise a funky little start-stop rhythmic pattern that turns this ballad on its head. But Richard and Moore keep playing it with sensitive treatment deserving of a tone poem, until Fontenot’s increasingly volatile drums briefly entice the saxophonist to pour on more fervor.
The companion release An Evening of Happenstance, Live In New Orleans is a real companion in that with its emphasis on fundamental jazz, it can be alternately titled Bread ‘n Water, Live. Taken from a gig at the Crescent City’s Sung Harbor early last year, Richard goes all-acoustic, accompanied by Fred Sanders on piano, Jasen Weaver on standup bass and Simon Lott on drums . Continuing with the strategy used for “Naima” and other covers Richard has tackled in the past, he selects a standard or near-standard from the traditional jazz canon that has a strong melody and usually updates the arrangement in such a way to make it more appealing to younger audiences without sacrificing the essence of the song.
These extended performances stretched out over two discs are, in fact, all taken from that canon, save for Richard’s straight blues, “Blues Outro,” and this is a record that is best assessed by how Richard and his band handles them. Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” is a great song to tackle, because as long as the famous bass line is retained, you can do just about anything you want with it, and Richard does so in many ways, starting with a slow, nodding hip-hop beat, and show stopper sax solo followed by Sanders’ relaxed improvising on piano.
That said, Happenstance is generally a straight-jazz affair, and Richard’s readings on several of these songs stay true to the jazz tradition. Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice,” a song Joe Henderson made his own on 1985′s The State Of The Tenor, is in turn a good exhibition for Richard’s own abilities on tenor, a nice blend of soul and swing. Antonio Carlos Jobim is represented twice with “Meditation” and “Wave,” the second getting the nod for being a tad spunkier.
A pair of cuts from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue are presented as well. They retrofitted “All Blues” with a baseline that recalls L.T.D.’s “Back In Love Again,” but kept the harmony intact. The original bass line stays on “So What,” but Lott slides a slow, funky strut underneath it, that Lott uses as a springboard for a short but explosive solo. Trombonist David Harris supplies an extra voice to both of these classics. The evergreen Gershwin number “Summertime” becomes a showcase for Richard’s nimble soprano sax
The set ends a Richard favorite, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” and this sped-up, sometimes boisterous account is a far cry from the easy-going vibe performed on “Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 1.
All told, there is little about An Evening of Happenstance that’s truly smooth jazz, but those grooves should attract many from its fans all the same.
And that, I think, is what Stephen Richard brings to the table that too few of contemporaries do. While the great majority of smooth jazz make no attempt to get listeners interested into “real” jazz, Richard goes the extra mile to make his music that gateway drug, by keeping out trendy, unnecessary distracting sounds from his songs, emphasize melody and performance, and make it groove so it grabs you from the start. It’s the common theme the runs through two albums with two different vibes, and why both are worthy of purchase.
Both Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 2 and An Evening of Happenstance, Live In New Orleans are currently available for sale. Visit Stephen Richard’s website for more info.