Skinny Hightower – Retrospect

While we fans of smooth jazz love the music our favorite artists create for our enjoyment, we sometimes don’t stop to think about the pressure they must feel to keep generating those good vibes in ways that don’t simply copycat what they or others have done. This is especially true of artists like composer, producer, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Skinny Hightower, who scored a smash hit right out of the box with his #1 radio smash “Taboo” from his Trippin ‘N’ Rhythm debut Emotions. A musical risk taker by nature with an intense, military service enhanced work ethic, Hightower knew he had to create a follow-up that would not simply match, but surpass the magic of that album.

Hightower’s process of creating the amazingly diverse, dynamically melodic and richly textured 15 tracks of his new album Retrospect shows a fascinating progression from his initial instincts to the soulfully developed urban jazz masterpiece it became. He originally wanted to go way outside his comfort zone and produce a hip-hop/traditional jazz hybrid. Soon realizing that developing his solo career depended on his ability to resonate with listeners, he delved deeply into the work of his heroes (among them Joe Sample, Bill Evans and Quincy Jones). The keyboardist cites the diverse modal qualities Sample trademarked as the chief inspiration driving the vibe on Retrospect – most obviously on the opening track “Sample That,” which features deeply funky Crusadersesque chords and colorful riffs flowing freely throughout the soulful and buoyant tune.

The Sample influence is simply the foundation for an album that has all the pocket urban jazz sensibilities we love – lush, infectious melodies, sprinkles of cheerful improvisation, lighthearted grooves galore – but takes all those out into explorations that defy easy categorization. Driven by his mastery of his Yamaha MX and P115 keyboards, Hightower artfully and playfully builds on his piano and synth foundation with organ, Fender Rhodes and flute textures, explosive horn and string arrangements, bass and deep percussion textures.

The virtual one man ensemble knows the value of brilliant musical friends, however, and invites funkified, Ukranian-born saxophonist Konstantin Klashtorni to the party early on. On “From The Heart,” Hightower swirls his playful riffs and soaring synth textures around an infectious melodic motif, then invites “K” to bounce off him in a spirited call and response pattern. “K” also chimes in with a killer solo that brings emotional texture to the mix. “K” later appears on the sensually romantic, chill flavored “Hold On,” doubling his horn and shooting off Hightower’s key melody to create a fascinating intertwining conversation.

The other prominent featured performer on Retrospect is electric guitarist Almon Johnson, who adds a rock intensity that brings Hightower’s productions to the level of classic jazz fusion, He jams on the high octane, piano pounding romp “California Dreams,” the old school soul-jazz propelled “One Way Street” (which starts out wistfully cool, then becomes increasingly edgy) and “Time Marches On,” which is one of the tunes that finds Hightower taking us back to church, with his bright organ swirls in a tight urban jazz pocket. Drummer Nate Smith holds down the groove on “Sample That,” “California Dreams,” the fiery and furious, blues flavored title track “Retrospect” (featuring more of Hightower’s stellar organ excitement), the trippy and exotic, soundscape colored “Stand Alone” and the alternately elegant and edgy, old school horn fired party tune “Bongo’s Groove.” The only other track featuring a guest is “Next To You,” an easy flowing retro-soul ballad with a tight bass groove (generated by Hightower) and the lush, ethereal lead vocals of Bebe Merrills.

The handful of other tracks are perfect, self-contained representations of the multi-textured, hard grooving magic that Hightower and his keyboards are capable of. Retrospect wraps with three of these, alternating moods between the bold and unbridled (“Optimistic”), ambient elegance and introspection (“Joyful Memories”) and cheerfully jubilant on the pop, rock and jazz hybrid throwback “Poppa J.” Two of Hightower’s most fascinating and unexpected moments along the way are the brief classically influenced “Retrospect Sonata Interlude” and a trippy, hypnotic re-imagining of Thom Bell’s “People Make The World Go Round” featuring the keyboardist carrying the shimmering melody on vibraphone (which he played in his high school band) and a bit of flute sweetening.

In line with its title theme of looking back while looking forward, Retrospect is a timeless work of art that can be appreciated on a multitude of levels. If smooth jazz needs inspiration for a unique and meaningful future, its artists need look no further than Skinny Hightower – an extraordinary artist who defies the norm by following his own muse and drawing on his limitless creative potential rather than simply following the hit making patterns of the past.

Jonathan Widran

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