in performance: najee

The reason so many smooth jazz recordings sound like aural backdrops for forecast spots on The Weather Channel is not far removed from the conciliatory attitude surrounding much of what passes for country music today. The obvious stylistic differences not withstanding, both genres seem far more infatuated with the crossover appeal generated by the obvious pop inferences in their playing than any sort of rootsy vibe that made their music jazz – or country – to begin with.

Luckily for saxophonist Najee, even the broad pop accents exhibited during his concert last night at the Opera House didn’t begin to explain the stylistic reach of his music. Onstage, Najee – a multi reed/wind player who stuck to alto and soprano sax as well as flute – dispensed with the canned vocal and percussive effects of his recordings and placed the meatier, lyrical depth of his playing front and center.

There were pop references by the barrelful in his compositions, nearly all of which bloomed into bright summery melodies that, freed of the glossy but stiff electronic feel of his albums, produced a more organic sense of cheer. And, yes, there was an unquestionable nod to instrumentally inclined R&B, although not as big of one as you might expect.

The steady support of electric keyboards and synthesizers by Will Brock seemed like a nod to the mid ‘80s fusion era that Najee’s music emerged out of. As result, the clavinet/synth strut that percolated through Come What May bore a suggestion of P-Funk while the mix of keyboards and Victor Williams’ percussion during covers of two Stevie Wonder tunes (I Wish and the far funkier Contusion) sounded more like the heavily electric music Miles Davis cooked up in the late ‘80s than R&B.

Then there were moments that circumnavigated the smooth jazz map altogether, like a brief flute and percussion exchange that sounded for all the world like vintage Herbie Mann, and a rockish take on The Beatles’ Come Together that was neither smooth or jazzy.

Guitarist Chuck Johnson, a flashy and, at times, theatrically inclined player initially threatened to shatter the appealing cool of the performance But he wound up expanding its stylistic scope even more by handling the headstrong soul vocals of All I Ever Ask (created on record over 16 years ago by Freddie Jackson) and the more playful sass of Moody’s Mood for Love (a trademark tune of pioneering jazz saxophonist James Moody).

It was all grand entertainment. But in the end, the definitions of what was and what wasn’t jazz didn’t matter much. When Najee took a seat on a centerstage stool and played the subtle but soulful soprano lead to Noah’s Ark, a tune composed for his son but offered last night as a prayer for peace, the mood was infectious. Smiles lit up the audience and, in befitting a performance that fell in the middle of Memorial Day weekend, a touch of summer slipped into the room.

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