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Super Smooth

[whitespace] Heads Up Super Band
Heads of Their Time: Keith Carlock (left), Joe McBride,
Gerald Veasley and Kenny Blake.

The Heads Up Super Band gives contempo jazz a good name

By Nicky Baxter

SMOOTH JAZZ has often been criticized for its blandness and lack of creative drive by purists--and rightly so. All too often, purveyors of the style fall back on musty musical clichés that do little to stir the imagination. Once in a while, however, smooth jazz does show signs of life. The Heads Up Super Band's Live at Berks Fest (Heads Up) offers an example of so-called contemporary jazz with at least some pizzazz. Dubbing this group a "Super Band" may be a bit of a stretch. Still, each member does possess a fairly impressive pedigree. Saxophonist Kenny Blake has a couple of hit albums under his belt; pianist/vocalist Joe McBride has recorded with Grover Washington; and drummer Keith Carlock is currently working on a project with Steely Dan. Bassist Gerald Veasley is perhaps the best known of the bunch, having performed with fusion pioneer Joe Zawinul and neobop pianist McCoy Tyner.

With the exception of Carlock, each member contributes material to this in-concert performance. McBride's songwriting is the most pop-oriented. His "Sweet Street" is fairly ordinary, although it does offer some nice George Benson-esque scatting. "One for Albert" is more substantial. A midtempo number, it has a relaxed feel that skirts tedium, thanks to a well-conceived arrangement that allows each member's instrumental voice room to breathe.

Veasley pitches in with "Night Games" and "Late Night at Camelot." The first is an eminently forgettable number that drags on way too long. Undermined by a limp arrangement and uninspired playing, "Camelot" doesn't fare much better. Kenny Blake's two tunes, "All's Well" and "Mississippi Mudslide," close the album. The former commences with some overly familiar contempo jazz conceits: wannabe stately chords plunked out on synth and lackluster rhythm-making don't add up to much. Things don't perk up much when Blake's horn assumes command. That changes, though, when a finger-snapping tick-tocky staccato riff is introduced. Blake's playing suddenly assumes more muscularity, and Veasley and Carlock zero in on groove with a subtle tenacity.

"Mudslide" is, without question, the funkiest track here. Everyone gets to strut his stuff on this one. There's Blake doing his best to bring R&B sax saint King Curtis back to life, Veasley romping on the bass and Carlock delivering slap-happy stickwork. Veasley and Blake double their lines for a few measures, connecting like old friends. Shortly thereafter, the two go toe-to-toe in a withering exchange that more than makes up for the group's less-than-inspired playing elsewhere. One can only wonder what the crowd's reaction to the performance was; any evidence has been erased, leaving the impression that this was just another studio date. In any event, while the grooves worked by Heads Up Super Band may not be deep enough for diehard fans of funk or jazz, this performance does at times suggest that smooth jazz doesn't necessarily mean snooze jazz.

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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