Top Ten from the Smooth Jazz Underground


By James Moss

Smooth Jazz, with a capital ‘S’, was born in 1988 (1) out of a market research focus group session for WNUA radio in Chicago. Its roots however reach back much further into the 1970s and the ideas and sonic signatures which characterise the genre had been bubbling up long before it was codified as a popular radio format. Whilst the public perception of Smooth Jazz is now almost entirely negative, it being largely considered a debased form of ‘Muzak’ somehow inferior to ‘real’ Jazz the truth is far more complex. Like Soul Jazz before it (2), Smooth Jazz is a hybrid genre freely borrowing from concurrent trends in popular music, in particular Soul and R&B but also Gospel, Funk and New Age. To that end we will talk here simply about ‘Smooth’, the ‘Jazz’ being implied but never wholly absent.

The outer boundaries of what constitutes Smooth are widely dispersed and fuzzily defined but at heart it is a Utopian form of music. Images of the sea and islands recur frequently and chord progressions spin out endlessly towards the horizon; actual recordings of waves crashing on the shore, the cries of seagulls and other such direct quotes from nature are often included. Behind the well-known public faces of the genre there is a hidden history of musicians taking on board and developing the ideas that were gaining traction in the mainstream by producing their own oblique take on the sound as they heard it (3) . Placing the initial golden decade of Smooth between 1985 and 1995 frustratingly coincides with the rise of the CD and the first, non-terminal, fall of vinyl meaning that many of the key recordings fell between the cracks and disappeared from view. This list is a partial attempt to bring those documents back into the light but there is much more work yet to be done. Smooth is still unsorted and deep, so get to it.

(1) Cool Waters – s/t (NCM – 1993)

This is the record which started it all, for me at least. Cool Waters is mainly one Mr Napoleon Cherry from Philadelphia (4) assisted by some likeminded conspirators most of whom being as obscure as him save for Byard Lancaster on Sax. Having featured on a previous not entirely dissimilar list Lancaster is the link between the free Jazz underground of the 70s and Smooth in the 90s. Out of context the music is difficult to categorise or even date, the drum machine and synth backing sounding like primitive pitched down electro but with strong elements of Soul in the mix and on Byard’s tracks his jazz lines soaring over the top. Note that whilst much of Mr Cherry’s back catalogue has been recently reissued the sax led tracks from this record remain excluded. Maybe they don’t fit the narrative; maybe we need a new narrative.

(2) Norman Evans – Amongst the Stars (Dis who? 198?)

Mr Evans has been ploughing a solitary and hermetic furrow since probably the late 80s although detailed information is thin on the ground. Most of his later music is easily found online (5) but this, his first record and the only one to make it onto vinyl as a plain sleeved promo is a tough one to track down. Enquiries with Evans directly produced the response “it was a poor recording, but showed promise” (6) so don’t expect a reissue any time soon. In common with his later works this is a self-contained and personal sound world whose blending of organic and artificial sounds is aptly illustrated by the combination of spiralling geometric forms and introductory rain storm sound effects he uses in many of his YouTube videos. With respect I disagree with the artists own assessment; this is the real deal and his sound is fully formed from the outset.

(3) Omar Hill & Art Webb – Caribbean Breeze (Gaslight 525 – 1986)

Slightly more overground in that many of its players, not least Khan Jamal and Monette Sudler are well known and well respected players within the mainstream of the jazz continuum. This superficially light hearted record however has hidden depths and sonic oddities that set it apart from the rest of their respective discographies. The ultra-tight drumming sounds synthetic although there is no credit for a drum machine and the bass is heavy in the mix giving the music a propulsive force at odds with the ostensibly laid back tropical vibe. The synth stabs on Quanta leap borrow more from early House than any jazz record and the record culminates in the echo-chambered and aptly titled ‘Synthetic Dreams – B.Israel’. Those looking for a similar fix should track down the CD only sequel on Jamal’s own Jambrio label, Tribes of the Future credited to Omar Hill which goes further out towards the horizon in the same peculiar direction. Also check the Manny D – Quest for Justice 12″ where Hill and Webb provide backing for an old school hip hop track using pretty much the same building blocks as on Caribbean Breeze proving that genres boundaries were being routinely disregarded by this point.

(4) Ambiance II Fusion – Colours in Spaces (Da-Mon 1986)

What began as a jazz funk project in the late 70s had, by this point left both that designation and the planet far behind judging by the cover shot of the earth seen from above the atmosphere. Whilst some of the tracks here are more recognisable as jazz fusion, albeit of a fairly left field variety, others such as the on message 500 Miles High (a considerable advance on the Byrds’ previous attempt at leaving the atmosphere) combines syrupy string synth pads with space age lounge piano to disorientating effect, like the Star Wars cantina band doing Sun Ra lite whilst The Boxhead opens with Klaus Schulze style synths before morphing into a Balearic groove that rolls on smoothly into the sunset. Balearic, an ex post facto musical category which repurposes disparate elements for its own ends, is a useful comparison here as no doubt at the time of its creation those involved in making this record would not have considered themselves part of any ‘movement’ taking in the artists on this list. Nonetheless this is a prime example of the increasingly smoothed out trajectory of funky fusion as it was pushed aside from the mainstream by other more popular musics.

(5) Michael Hershman – “V”eronica (Bote Pepo 12″)

Best guess is that this is the same Michael Hershman who is still releasing smooth jazz CDs via CDBaby (of which more later) to the present day but this is an early and obscure fragment that somehow made it onto wax back in the 80s or 90s. We get only one track, duplicated on each side but what a track; clearly designed specifically to flip over again and again. This is the essence of privately pressed smooth jazz distilled down into one epic jam. Mellow electric piano, splashy drums, funky bass groove, sustained synth tones and that endlessly spiralling, climbing sax line reaching out into the ether. Ostensibly simple but perfectly executed, this is the apex of Smooth. Current intelligence reports two known copies but the other 498 must be out there somewhere…

(6) Henry Gibson Jr. – Galactic Love (Gibsonian Records – 1990)

Whilst many of the records on this list have a strong sax component this illustrates perfectly the piano based sound which is an equally important part of the Smooth continuum. It also shows the strong gospel influence that is never too far from view either directly or via the Modern Soul angle. As noted above Smooth is fundamentally a hybrid music where elements of Jazz, Soul and Gospel intermingle to produce previously unheard combinations. This seems to be the only record Mr Gibson ever made although it does appear to have made it onto CD at some point after the initial private LP pressing, possibly as a result of his winning the 1991 Hennessey Cognac grand prize for new Jazz. Grainy footage on YouTube of a live gig with Mr Gibson sporting an impressive keytar and a rack of keyboards provides apparent confirmation. Rayse Biggs on brass links into the heavy underground Detroit Jazz scene having previously played with his brother Travis Biggs, Geri Allen and Was not Was before guesting on this session, not forgetting Ralphe Armstrong on Bass whose previous credits include Bennie Maupin, Michael Henderson and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. If anybody knows the current whereabouts of Mr Gibson could you please ask him to kindly come back out of the shadows and make some more music like this.

(7) Ralph Gordon – Inside your love (CDBaby self-released CDR/DL 2009)

This is Smooth at is most personal and dis-orientating, sounding like waking from a deep dream of lying in the tropical sun not quite remembering where you are or how you got there. As Gordon puts it himself “Lover Music, On B[l]each Look at the Moon Music, Long Trip Drive, Sleep or Over A Glass Of Wine” (7) (sic). The backing is narcotised and muffled but immersive, like swimming underwater and at times sounds likes two completely different tracks playing at once. But why so recent and on such an impermanent and fleeting format? Because CDBaby is the epicentre of private press music of our own times. Back in the golden decade of Smooth the first choice was still, just about, vinyl to make your sonic dream world a physical reality. Nowadays it is print on demand CDR and digital download. The rarities of tomorrow may only exist on the hard drives of those who care enough to download them today. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(8) Craig T Cooper – Craig T Cooper Project (Valley Vue Records – 1989)

This is the perfect Smooth cover shot; tempestuous sea, infinite blue horizon, lonely skeletal tree standing fast against the elements on a remote rocky shore, super 80s font, looks like a stock cover but isn’t. The music doesn’t disappoint either, illustrating another significant trope of the genre, namely one person doing nearly everything themselves (viz. Producer, Written-By, Arranged By, Drums, Percussion, Keyboards, Bass, Piano – Craig T. Cooper) although it is David Patterson’s sax solos on tracks like 25 hours a day which takes this to the next level. Similar in sound world to Prince’s Madhouse project but with more of a genuinely private feel. Mr Cooper is still going strong judging by his website (8) , no idea where Mr Patterson is now but my guess is that he has a regularly weekly gig at a seafood restaurant on the California coast and is serenading the very seas depicted on the cover.

(9) Plunky – Tropical Chill (N.A.M.E. Brand – 1988)

Having started out with impeccable Spiritual Jazz credentials playing with Ndikho Xaba before founding Oneness of Juju and recording for Strata-East Plunky Nkabinde aka James “Plunky” Branch moved increasingly towards the ambit of Smooth as the 70s shaded into the 80s. Before the inevitable move over to CD (9) he dropped this definitive slice of Smooth Jazz/funk/boogie onto what was presumably a largely indifferent public given the raft of cheap unplayed copies that still circulate to this day. Whilst this may at the time have disappointed his fans from the previous decades this is where the music was heading, like it or not, and within the present context stands tall amongst the best of the genre. If you don’t immediately appreciate from his outfit on the front cover alone what is happening here you haven’t been paying attention.

(10) Several way tie for last

In time honoured fashion there are too many selections to cut down to just ten so here are some more heavy joints from the Smooth underground for you to explore at your pleasure;

• Marcus Belgrave – Maria / Two Ships Passing In The Night – Michigan Satellite 1985. Tribe records founder takes us to the seashore at night on the B side of this single. Wave and seagull sounds included.

• Hot News – Softly – 1986. Private issue fusion from Philadelphia with a young Uri Caine guesting on DX7 although you wouldn’t know it from any of his discographies. Sublime and slightly unhinged.

• Leon Mitchison – Sax Appeal – Mitchitone. 198?. Better known, if at all, for his funkier earlier work with the Eastex Freeway Band here he branches out into a mix of smooth jazz, soul and incongruous hyper speed breakbeats.

• Aubrey Dunham – For Lovers Only. AD Records 1988. – Originally on vinyl but now reissued on CdBaby side A is ultra-smooth sax grooves, side B takes a sharp left turn into sax led electro funk topped with some off beat scratching. Genuinely singular.

• Grant Watson Jr – The Story Teller – Saxe 1988. Heavy on the Grown ‘n’ Sexy vibes this is a perfect late night listen. The CD only sequel ‘Don’t sell your soul to the Junkman’ is smoother still.

• Ben Tankard – All Keyed Up – Atlanta International 1989. Ostensibly a gospel record this is in fact instrumental keyboard Smooth of the most mellow and confounding kind. Becoming a badly kept secret.

• Dan Haerle & Pete Brewer – Kaleidoscope. Arc 1986. With Peter Brewer on sax and Lyricon this smooth, sunny and deeply synthetic LP with utterly period appropriate cover art is a gem.


(1) Simon Barber – Smooth jazz: a case study in the relationships between commercial radio formats, audience research and music production … h-jazz.pdf

(2) Aaron J. West, B.M., B.S., M.M. – CAUGHT BETWEEN JAZZ AND POP: THE CONTESTED ORIGINS, CRITICISM, PERFORMANCE PRACTICE, AND RECEPTION OF SMOOTH JAZZ – Chapter 1; The Origins of Smooth Jazz: Misconceptions in Mainstream Jazz Scholarship. I am indebted to Mr West and his thorough and persuasive analysis of the roots of Smooth Jazz. His entire dissertation merits close reading and can be found online here … tation.pdf

(3) Not to say that there aren’t some excellent albums on major labels. Asphalt Gardens by George Howard including the knowingly titled ‘Is This Commercial Enough for You?’, Arthur Blythe’s Put Sunshine in It’ is a synth heavy and oblique take on the sound (arranged and backed by under sung genius Todd Cochran aka Bayete on keyboards) or Bob James’ Obsession from ’86 which sounds like an FM synth vaporwave dream avant la lettre.

(4) Given the number of records cited here which originate in Philadelphia there does appear to be something in the water there which is particularly fruitful for Smooth to flourish.


(6) Facebook messenger conversation with the author


(8) “‘The Reds’ is the only suitable phrase for the smooth, sensuous style of guitar playing that Craig T. Cooper has mastered. Not all blues, not all jazz, Craig T. is the ‘The Uncola of Jazz’ and just plain ‘Funky-Sexy'”

(9) Check out this monster 5 CD 84 track retrospective for the fullest of pictures