Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Alex Bugnon adds some edge to smooth jazz

Jazz pianist Alex Bugnon performs Aug. 10 at the Lexus Smooth Jazz Festival.
Jazz pianist Alex Bugnon performs Aug. 10 at the Lexus Smooth Jazz Festival.

Sixth annual Lexus Smooth Jazz Festival

Featuring Alex Bugnon, Cindy Bradley and Nelson Rangell. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 10 at Transylvania University's Old Morrison Lawn, Third and Mill Sts. (859) 255-2653. $30-$75. AAFinc.com.

The label that Alex Bugnon has carried for much of his career has been smooth jazz — the melodic hybrid of jazz and pop with strong accents of R&B that has become one of the most popular subgenres of contemporary instrumental music.

Listen to any of the early albums cut by the Switzerland-born pianist — in particular his 1989 debut, Love Season, and 1993's This Time Around — and you can hear how lyrically accessible Bugnon's music has always been.

Of course, the entire notion of smooth jazz has long been unsettling to fans of more traditional jazz who dismiss the music as nothing more than a pure pop exercise. Dig into Bugnon's newest recording, though, as you will hear an artist deftly navigating terrain that links smooth jazz to jazz with a more rugged undercurrent.

Bugnon's 2010 album, Going Home, is structured essentially as a traditional jazz record with a repertoire to match. It begins not with a new smooth-jazz original, but with an update of Herbie Hancock's Oliloqui Valley, a tune composed in 1964 at the height of the keyboardist's legendary recording tenure with the Blue Note label. But Bugnon's treatment brings the piece into the here and now with a soft-focus flow that illuminates the soul-friendly melody and an arrangement that punctuates the piano work with peppery brass.

Given that Bugnon's performance Saturday at the African-American Forum's sixth annual Lexus Smooth Jazz Festival will also feature Colorado-born saxophonist Nelson Rangell (whose credits run from the Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra to the GRP All-Star Big Band) and Cindy Bradley, the New York-bred pioneer of the "flumpet," a combined creation of flugelhorn and trumpet, one can't help but picture all three players jamming away on the song.

There is zero question of the inspiration for the following tune, Silverfinger. Even without absorbing the title, you can detect the bright Afro-Cuban bounce of titan jazz pianist Horace Silver. Curiously, the same sunny strut also dresses a keenly syncopated remake of War's 1972 soul-pop classic The World Is a Ghetto, again making generous but tasteful use of horns. The piano rolls are mostly saved for the solo sections. The resulting music sounds less like War — or even Bugnon, for that matter — and more like the post-fusion music of Ramsey Lewis.

Going Home echoes, rather than directly interprets, two other noted keyboardists as well. There is a touch of the vintage gospel-soul of Billy Preston in the grooves of Jersey Jump, and Ahmad's Apple is a respectful nod to the rich piano tone of Ahmad Jamal.

But the point where Going Home truly steers homeward comes when Bugnon plays Bugnon: a lean remake of the summery Love Season, now fittingly titled Another Love Season.

By the time Going Home winds down with its slightly more autumnal title tune, you can appreciate what the album isn't throwing at you in its music as much as what it is incorporating. There are no synthesizers, no drum loops and no layers of background vocals. What you hear is the regal sound of acoustic piano referencing myriad jazz inspirations in a collection that sounds, thanks in no small part to its efficient horn arrangements, remarkably cohesive.

Is it smooth jazz? You bet. But it's not so overproduced or slick that you can't appreciate the very real jazz influences that are at work in Bugnon's playing. Add a Saturday night under the stars, and you have the makings of a prime late-summer celebration.


THE WEEK THAT WAS

Stick Men at 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati: "I think it's time for some Stravinsky," Tony Levin said as this prog-rock tour de force wound down.

Well, sure. The trio had already plowed through two thirds of its recent album Deep. The six tunes it performed from the recording placed Levin (a veteran prog bassist with extensive ties to pop and jazz) on Chapman stick (a still-novel instrument that combines bass and guitar strings, but emits sounds by taps rather than plucks) alongside acoustic/electric drummer Pat Mastelotto (Levin's bandmate in the warhorse prog troupe King Crimson) and touch guitarist Markus Reuter (an Austria-born instrumentalist who played a guitar-like variation of the stick). Interspersed were works from various incarnations of King Crimson that bore strong melodic and textural similarities to the Deep music. So why not toss Stravinsky in with the lot?

During a pared-down arrangement of the Firebird Suite, Levin found ways to transform some the piece's most powerful and familiar melodic themes into rubbery bass riffs, while Reuter's playing shaded the music with guitar colors that shifted from metallic to meditative. Under that, Mastellotto, a player of tireless strength and precision, hammered out grooves that made the whole hybrid sound very much the product of pure rock 'n' roll ingenuity.

The Deep tunes were exactly that. The compositions usually placed Levin in the bass role and Reuter in the guitar seat, although Cusp reversed that strategy. Regardless, the music was long on sinewy, deep pocket rhythms instigated by Levin's rumblings on stick. From there, songs including Nude Ascending a Staircase and especially the suite-like Whale Watch navigated all manner of tricky shifts in tempo and temperament. That latter also possessed a sort of nautical ambience between sections that gave the music an often orchestral air.

The evening's biggest surprise was Breathless, a forgotten piece from Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp's 1979 solo album, Exposure, (one of the first recorded collaborations between Fripp and Levin). Here, Reuter mixed lush, elongated guitar lines with chiming, synth-like backdrops. From there, Levin and Mastellotto pumped up the power chords for a show of prog strength that was crafty, intuitive and profoundly playful.

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