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Pop Jazz Masters

Before there was Najee's Theme, there was the soul/groove jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the light-contemporary jazz era of the 1970s and 1980s. Check out these albums by artists who influenced and in some cases defined smooth jazz. More jazz than smooth, these records are all notable for their solid mixture of pop and jazz influences and lack of compromise.

1) Ramsey Lewis Trio: The "In" Crowd (1965). One of the most popular jazz albums of all time, The "In" Crowd is a well programmed 45-minute set of bebop, blues and instrumental pop. Though totally acoustic, it's a precursor to smooth jazz in that there's a definite nod to the public. At the same time the record showed jazz could sell without selling out.

2) Stanley Turrentine: Common Touch (1968). A soul-jazz pioneer, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine is in top form on this date, which features his then-wife, organist Shirley Scott. The sax/organ combo has an earthy feel, and Turrentine's use of rhythm and blues is catchy and fun. Jazz fans also dig this because there's hot soloing and solid riffing.

3) Grant Green: Carryin' On (1969). A sometimes unheralded hard-bop guitarist, Grant Green infused funk into his blues-styled playing toward the end of his career with such drama it set the soul-jazz guitar standard. With solid R&B-influenced material at his disposal and creative arrangements to support him, an inspired Green fires out hot single-note lines on this retro-sounding date that's popular with acid-jazz fans.

4) George Benson: Beyond the Blue Horizon (1973). Before Breezin' (1976) made him a pop star, George Benson was cutting hot R&B/pop-influenced jazz records that featured some of the baddest post-Wes Montgomery guitar playing around. The ever-versatile Benson plays straight-ahead jazz, blues and ballads with equal brilliance. No vocals here, and frankly none are needed. Benson's guitar smokes from start to finish.

5) Herbie Hancock: Headhunters (1974). After doing avant-garde music for more than three years, Hancock went into the studio and said, "Funk it!" The result was this, a top-selling album filled with funk backbeats, smokin' bass riffs and blistering extended solos. A must in any record collection.

6) The Crusaders: Scratch (1975). Captured after these Houstonians dropped "Jazz" from their name but before they became a formula pop act, this live recording is one of their best. Early 1970s rock and R&B influences are brilliantly merged into jazz arrangements, and when these cats stretch out, it's solid jazz with a sense of showmanship.

7) Al Jarreau: Look to the Rainbow: Live in Europe (1977). What separates Al Jarreau from light-R&B vocalists who dominate the smooth-jazz format is Jarreau can sing pure jazz. On this double LP, Jarreau expertly blends pop, R&B and straight-ahead jazz influences into a palatable mix that reaches out to pop and jazz fans. His unique scatting is a total trip, and his eight-minute version of "We Got By" makes you quiver in awe at his interpretive power.

8) Grover Washington Jr.: Reed Seed (1978). Yes, Winelight (1980) is the album that influenced every smooth-jazz saxophonist in the world, but any respectable record collection already has Winelight in it. While that record is about finding the funk groove and staying there, Reed Seed is more about exploring different sonic textures and adventurous soloing. A typical song's delivery is somewhat gritty yet sensual in a subtle way. A very underrated effort by a stellar musician.

9) David Sanborn: Heart to Heart (1978). It's hard to pick one album from the David Sanborn catalog for this list, but this one has to get the nod because Sanborn plays "Theme from Love Is Not Enough" with the type of melodic flare none of his legions of imitators have ever approached.

10) Bob James: All Around Town (1981). A live date from the guy who did the theme music to Taxi. On the surface, James's music seems like pop-jazz ear candy, but closer inspection reveals an incredible amount of nuance. James and an all-star cast lay out solos with the type of fire missing on his studio albums. Paul J. MacArthur

 
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