Nils – Up Close And Personal

German born guitarist and composer Nils resides since the mid-80’s in southern California. After visiting the musician institute in Hollywood Nils started in the 80’s as an engineer in a recording studio. There he found the possibility to learn all technical tricks of recording, which was very helpful to record his first album Blue Planet, which was released in 1998 and received high acclaims. After composing for movie and TV Nils had the chance to work with Gabriele Anders, Rick Braun and others with the support of producer Paul Brown.

Nils avoids to listen to much too smooth jazz radio stations to keep his musical influences fresh. Nils plays Valley Arts guitars, like other Los Angeles studio musicians and jazz guitarists such as Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather, Tommy Tedesco and Larry Carlton. On the quiet Nils is an avid lover of contemporary jazz although he realizes the needs of a secure income nowadays. But when he returned to his solo career it was as a smooth jazz guitarist with Pacific Coast Highway (2005) followed by Ready To Play (2007). After the tremendous success of both albums Nils is back with Up Close And Personal (2009).

Supporting musicians of this album are Clydene Jackson (keyboards, vocals), Oliver Brown (percussion), Ricky Lawson (drums), Reggie Mc Bride and Alex Al (basses). There are also some additional guest musicians like Shilts (sax), Larry Dunn (piano, mini moog), Eddie Brown (vocals), Dan Farrow (clavinet) and more. Nils composed all songs with the exception of Europa, which is an old Santana song from the time of Woodstock.

In this time of misery and recession there is still a remedy for relaxation and switching off, Nils’ music. Soul Mates has an immense uplifting potential. Let’s hum “We Are Soul Mates!” Up Close & Personal is Nils’ serious expression of his knowledge and impetus. Quick and precise riffs define a captivating melody. Nils reveals that professional craftsmanship and sultry melodies are no opposite.

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Kim Pensyl – When Katie Smiles

When Katie SmilesKim Pensyl is a multi-instrumentalist. He played piano with nine years, trumpet at twelve and later in a school band also bass. His favorite instrument is still the piano. No wonder, he is proud owner of a nine-foot Steinway piano, earlier resided in the home of the great Vladimir Horowitz. Kim started his solo career with the critical acclaimed Pensyl Sketches 1 (1988), 2 (1989), & 3 (1990) and A Kim Pensyl Christmas in 1989, all released by Optimism. On his next label GRP he delivered 3 Day Weekend (1991), Eyes Of Wonder (1993) and the re-release of his Christmas album (1992). When You Were Mine (1994) and Under The Influence (1996) followed on Shanachie, Quiet Cafe (1998) and Places I’ve Been (1999) on Fahrenheit and At The Moment (2001) on Lightyear.

While most of his earlier albums are in the smooth jazz genre, Kim decided to change his lead instrument from piano to trumpet and to concentrate on jazz, what was his original intention and musical education. Places I’ve Been is settled in contemporary jazz, while At The Moment was the final step to jazz. When Katie Smiles (2008) is Kim’s return to contemporary jazz and to the piano.

Pensyl’s piano and keyboards are supported by the bass (Andy Woodson), drums (Reggie Jackson), electric and acoustic guitars (Kevin Turner) and percussion (Jim Ed Cobbs). The title song When Katie Smiles showcases Kim Pensyl in full swing. The accentuated piano melody is answered by Kevin’s guitar.

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Jim Peterick – Lifeforce

LifeforceJim Peterik is best known for his work as songwriter, guitarist and singer of the groups the Ides of March and Survivor, Chi-Town Hustlers, and 38 Special, for which he wrote and performed hits like Vehicle, The Search Is Over, The Eye Of The Tiger or Burning Heart. The Soundtracks of the movies Rocky 3 and 4, went gold respectively platinum. Jim also wrote songs for the movie Karate Kid. Furthermore Jim worked with the Doobie Brothers, Brian Wilson, REO Speedwagon, Al Denson and a lot more.

What is the reason that such a rock legend now starts his first smooth jazz project. Jim Peterik explains: “My wife of 35 years, Karen, and I have been huge fans since day one of Pat Metheny, David Grusin, Spyro Gyra, Keiku Matsui, Acoustic Alchemy, Basia and so many more. Writing and performing this style myself is just a natural progression from fan to artist.”

His debut as smooth jazz artist is called Lifeforce and will be released by Jim’s label World Stage International Records on February 3, 2009. Guitarist and keyboardist Jim Peterik is supported by world’s finest musicians: Ed Breckenfeld on drums, Mike Aquino on guitar, Klem Hayes on bass, Christian Cullen, Scott May, Jeff Lantz on keyboards, Steve Eisen on sax and flute and Lisa McClowry on vocals.

It’s a scientific principle that music causes Joy. So let’s jump into this fantastic album with the uplifting melody which was created during Jim’s fitness training. Jim asked his trainer Kathleen for a title and without hesitation she suggested this title.

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Pieces of a Dream – Soul Intent

God bless America, God bless Pieces of a Dream. Really, did they already release 17 albums? Time flies and seldom is a group so productive like POAD. I remember, when I bought their first album Pieces Of A Dream in 1981. Followed by We Are One (1982), Imagine This (1983), Joyride (1986), Makes You Wanna (1988), their Disco-styled album Bout Dat Time (1989), In Flight (1993), Goodbye Manhattan (1995), The Best Of Pieces of a Dream (1996), Pieces (1997), Ahead to the Past (1999), Acquainted With The Night (2001), Sensual Embrace (2001), Love’s Silhouette (2002), No Assembly Required (2004), Pillow Talk (2006) and now Soul Intent (2009) – a huge collection.

Time for keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon, the founding duo and driving force behind the enduring contemporary jazz collective, to remember the past and a look back. “One of my main goals was to go back to the original approach to making a Pieces record,” says Lloyd. “The idea was to bring everyone into the studio at the same time so we could all work together in real time. A lot of people really get into that vintage sound from our first three albums, that period from ’81 to ’83. I figured if we went back to those old-style methods of recording and writing, then that element of vintage Pieces might show up in the music itself. It was an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other in a way that we could never have done had we recorded it separately. Five heads are definitely better than one.”

Beside James and Curtis was the studio filled with Tony Watson, Jr. (saxophone), Martin Walters (programming), Randy Bowland (guitar), Bennie Sims (keyboards, programming, bass), Eddie Baccus, Jr. (saxophone), Rohn Lawrence (guitar), David Dyson (bass), Joe Cunningham (saxophone). I assume the musicians had several sessions to avoid an overcrowded studio.

The first tune Sway sounds familiar. On a relaxed sax background James Lloyd develops his elegant piano style. The combination of sax and piano is obviously the Pieces\’ trademark, shown in Vision Accomplished. While Tony Watson delivers the sweet melody James deliciously improvised on his keys.

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Shakatak – Afterglow

There is no contemporary jazz group which can look back on such a long-lasting career than the UK-based formation Shakatak. One cannot pigeonhole their music to a special genre, they have their own unique style, some call it britfunk, which is undoubtedly a trademark. Since their first record (Bill Sharpe’s Steppin‘) in 1980 they have released a huge amount of albums which can be hardly surveyed. They have released more than 50 (!) albums and even their website doesn’t list all copies. A rather complete but unfortunately discontinued discography is to find on Ralf Henke’s website music lovers.

We are writing the year 2009. The music world has changed. Earlier success doesn’t count anymore. Sales rates in the music business are constantly declining. Supporting radio stations are changing their format. But there are still small islands of devoted fans of this cult group worldwide. This review is dedicated to these music aficionados. I have a message for you. Shakatak will continue their recording and Shaks’ new album Afterglow (2009) is available now.

Shakatak are Bill Sharpe (keyboards), Jill Saward (vocals), Roger Odell (drums) and George Anderson (bass). The group is joined by guest musicians Alan Wormold (guitar), Jacqui Hicks, Debbie Bracknell (backing vocals), who are also partners of Shakatak’s live shows, and Mornington Lockett (sax). Afterglow is an exquisite and balanced collection of instrumental and vocal songs with contributions of all band members.

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Ronny Smith – Just Groovin

We need another hero. After Wes Montgomery and George Benson Ronny Smith epitomizes the culture of jazz guitar music. After his albums Long Time Comin (2001), Laid Back (2002), Got Groove (2006) and Simply Stated (2007) he honored us with his new album Just Groovin (2009),  released on May 19, 2009.

“As a guitarist. I’ve learned that bands can do with you or without you regardless of your abilities.” Ronny describes his solo career, “Your job is a filler, so I started thinking more independently outside the band box. Thus, this project was developed. I wanted to know first if I was capable of doing this. That is not only the guitar parts, but if I could put my hearing to test to see if I could bring out what I have learned and heard over the years into a composition. I have to say Long Time Comin’ was an effort, but I knew I’ve got a harder road ahead than I thought.”

On his new project Ronny is joined by Vernell Mincey (drums), Tony Whitfield (bass), Alan Alexander (keys), Scott Martin (sax), Stan Martin (trumpet), Andy Martin (trombone), and Karl McNeil (bass). With the exception of two covers Rony has composed all tracks on his new album.

Ronny shows sign of life with Here We Go Again. The essence of smooth jazz is smelling to my nose. Ronny’s signature guitar sound and his terrific keyboards skills brighten our mood. Appealing guitar chords are Ronny’s trademark. The next title Smooth suggested something mellow to me. Multi-instrumentalist Ronny Smith arranges keyboards, guitars, bass, flutes and string to a brilliant package supporting his captivating guitar line.

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Spyro Gyra – Down The Wire

Some groups become famous with one huge hit. For Spyro Gyra was the initiation their song Morning Dance, released in 1979. Since that time they constantly extended their position as one of the premium contemporary jazz group worldwide. Their new album Down The Wire is according to their website the 31st. Signed in 2001 with Heads Up International the group released in the following period In Modern Times (2001), Original Cinema (2003), The Deep End (2004), Wrapped In A Dream (2006), Good To Go-Go (2007) and A Night Before Christmas (2008).

Today’s Spyro Gyra are alto saxophonist, songwriter & founding bandleader Jay Beckenstein, keyboardist Tom Schuman, guitarist Julio Fernandez, bassist Scott Ambush, and since 2007 drummer and percussionist Bonny B. Jay Beckenstein considers his work as something special: “When I’m making music with the band and things are going well, I leave the anxiety behind. I escape that part of me that’s just trying to survive in the world and I’m able to get in touch with that part of me that has nothing to do with practicality. It’s something that’s kind of divine, and I don’t normally think in those terms, but it’s as close as I can get to that ideal. I really do get swept away in it and it’s a marvelous, spiritual, therapeutic thing.”

Down The Wire is not only available on prescription. I would never say no to this musical remedy. So the album starts with Scott’s precise bass intro leading to Jay’s spiritual sax sequence. Here we are again right in contemporary jazz. Jay: “When you’re improvising in front of a crowd, you’re really walking down that wire.”

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