Duke Finds His Groove--and a Bit of Gershwin’s Too

Smooth jazz, contemporary jazz, instrumental pop, wave music--the titles are varied, but the thrust of the music is similar. Unlike traditional jazz, in which the essential encounter is between the music and the musician, these hybrid forms focus primarily upon the pop goal of entertainment, of offering a pleasant mood or an easy groove.

Which is not to say that--beyond the flat-out, crowd-pleasing commercialism of entertainers such as Kenny G and John Tesh--there isn’t some intriguing work being done within the genre.

George Duke (“After Hours,” ***, Warner Bros.), for example, despite his long-term reputation as a fine producer and funk-track rhythm specialist, has always been an appealing improviser. This latest release, his first completely instrumental jazz album in two decades, is filled with his fine piano soloing, its creative thrust undiminished by the too-predictable underlying rhythm section work. (But was Duke unaware that the first two phrases of the original tune he calls “Together as One” duplicate the opening of the George Gershwin standard “Soon”?)

When he elects to do so, saxophonist Kirk Whalum can play well enough to compete in the jazz mainstream. With “For You” (** 1/2, Warner Bros.), however, he elects to remain within the funk-rooted rhythms that have characterized his more successful outings. And, even here, he makes much out of the relatively basic lineup of material, especially on the tracks--"My All” and the title number--in which the passion of his playing bursts through the structured surroundings.


Guitarist Peter White’s “Perfect Moment” (**, Columbia), hit the Top 5 of Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart almost as soon as it was released two weeks ago. And it’s no surprise. White’s easygoing, laid-back style virtually defines the listen-by-the-fireplace wing of contemporary jazz, but the CD also receives some much-needed vitality from the occasional presence of saxophonist Gerald Albright.

The name Wayman Tisdale is a lot more familiar to sports fans than music listeners. Yet the former NBA star has made a major commitment to a career as a jazz bassist. “Decisions” (**, Atlantic Records), his third album, reveals a confident, articulate musician who had a hand in the composition of all but one of the tracks. Surrounded by such experienced figures as guitarist Marc Antoine, saxophonist Albright and percussionists Steve Reid and Lenny Castro, Tisdale acquits himself well. Not exactly a musical slam dunk, but pretty good teamwork.

Despite the instrumental orientation of the smooth jazz/contemporary jazz genre, some fine vocals are emerging, as well. Gabriela Anders is an Argentine singer with solid skills. Her debut recording, “Waiting” (** 1/2, Warner Bros.), includes a few too many production styles for its own good--a common problem with maiden outings--but the sometimes cluttered accompaniment cannot diminish Anders’ attractive performances, notably in an offbeat rendering of “The Girl From Ipanema” and her own “Brasileira.”

Few singers have worked in more genres than Patti Austin. On “In & Out of Love” (** 1/2, Concord Records), she sings a set of mostly original tunes displaying her capacity to bring passion, tenderness, musicality and swing to almost everything she touches. If the accompaniments sometimes drift into too-familiar blends of smooth jazz and rhythm & blues, there’s no faulting the way in which Austin seizes every tune with definitive interpretations. *

* Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

Don Heckman is the Times’ jazz writer.