Thursday, May 03, 2007

En Route

En Route
By Four80East
Native Language Music

Internal debates have historically been a double-edged sword for jazz. Too often, we have argued about classification issues rather than growing the music in general. However, those debates have the benefit of sharpening our thinking on the music and fueling our passion for it. Here’s another such opportunity for debate: Four80East. Although some reviews give them the dreaded “smooth jazz” tag, they are much more in the trip tradition of St. Germain, which comparison would only intensify the reservations of some jazz purists. So be it, but for those receptive to their club-friendly grooves, En Route will go down well.

Four80East is the augmented duo of keyboardist/bassist Rob DeBoer and drummer Tony Grace. As both take programming credits on the CD, clearly a great deal of studio work went into En Route, but there is some legit instrumental work in the mix as well. It starts out with an almost ominous intro to “Five By Five,” that echoes “Come Together” before sliding into the kind groove that is the group’s specialty, with Jon Stewart’s tenor lending some flavor.

Some of the tracks, like “The Drop,” have an action soundtrack vibe, giving the album a darker, driving quality not typically associated with smooth sounds. “Double Down” follows, continuing the moody ambience, lightened by more tenor work from Stewart.

For a group like Four80East, over-production is going to be a temptation, as on “Closer,” which features some background vocals that were a mistake. “Noodle Soup,” the designated single, also sounds a bit too synth-pop. Overall though, there is a good vibe to En Route, like the late-night blues feel of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” with some nicely appropriate keyboard work from DeBoer.

There are certainly mellow tracks as well, like the dreamy soundscape of “Don’t Look Back” that takes advantage of Bryden Baird’s muted trumpet. “Waterline” is the happy closer that flirts with being saccharine (maybe crossing the border), but has undeniably strong melodic hooks.

As a groove-heavy album, En Route works more often than not. Send me nasty e-mail if you feel I’ve debased jazz in recommending it. Yes, sometimes the drumbeats are too mechanical. However, jazz needs more strong sellers in category, not just to get people into our section in the superstores, but to keep those very sections, such as they are. Four80East has real commercial potential, without dumbing things down. Can they play for our team?