Smooth jazz is a genre of music that grew out of jazz and is influenced by rhythm and blues, funk, rock and roll, and pop music styles (separately, or, in any combination). Musicians such as Kenny G, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Koz, and Spyro Gyra have had hits with instrumental recordings, while singers such as Anita Baker, Sade, Sting, and Norah Jones have found success with vocal releases. George Benson remains a popular smooth jazz artist as both a singer and guitar player.
In general a smooth jazz track is downtempo (the most widely played tracks are in the 90–105 BPM range), layering a melody played on instruments such as soprano and tenor saxophone or guitar over a backdrop that typically consists of programmed rhythms and various synth pads or samples.
Smooth jazz groups or recording artists tend to play their instruments in a melodic fashion such that they are recognizable within just a few measures. This category includes names such as saxophonists Kenny G, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, George Howard, Najee, Boney James, and Art Porter, Jr.; guitarists George Benson, Earl Klugh, Marc Antoine, Peter White, Jonathan Butler, Ray Parker Jr., Norman Brown, Ronny Jordan, Roberto Tola and Yves Vincent; pianists David Benoit, Bradley Joseph, and Joe Sample. Some performers, such as Dave Koz, Bob James, and Nathan East are notable for their numerous collaborations with many of the genre's big names. Groups include Fourplay, Pieces of a Dream, Acoustic Alchemy, 3rd Force, Airborne and The Rippingtons. Female performers include Keiko Matsui, Joyce Cooling, Mindi Abair, Candy Dulfer, Sade, Brenda Russell, Pamela Williams, Regina Belle, and Anita Baker.
Smooth jazz can be traced back to at least the late 1960s. Producer Creed Taylor worked with guitarist Wes Montgomery on three popular records (1967's A Day in the Life and Down Here on the Ground and 1968's Road Song) consisting of instrumental versions of familiar pop songs such as "Eleanor Rigby", "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Scarborough Fair". While jazz musicians had performed pop hits since the early 1900s, Montgomery's commercially successful albums were somewhat of a departure from this tradition, containing little of the complex improvisation of his earlier recordings and being aimed squarely at pop music audiences. Reviewing A Day In the Life, critic Scott Yannow writes, "although the jazz content is almost nil, the results are pleasing as background music."
From these commercially successful records with Montgomery, Taylor founded CTI Records. Many established jazz performers recorded for CTI (including Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, George Benson, and Stanley Turrentine). The records recorded under Taylor's guidance were typically aimed as much at pop audiences as at jazz fans, with ornate string section arrangements, and a much stronger emphasis on melody than was typical in jazz. Some critics and jazz fans expressed a distaste for CTI releases, but much of the label's output is now generally well-regarded: Yanow writes, "Taylor had great success in balancing the artistic with the commercial." Hubbard's funk/fusion album Red Clay, issued by CTI and containing a lengthy cover of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey", has been described as arguably "Hubbard's finest moment as a leader."
A recent development is urban jazz, which incorporates aspects of hip-hop. This style is aimed at audiences who would normally listen to radio stations that play a mix of hip-hop and R&B. Among the musicians who frequently perform urban jazz are Dave Koz, Boney James, Paul Jackson Jr., Vincent Ingala, and Bobby Perry. Urban jazz includes artists such as Bob Baldwin, Michael Lington, Brian Bromberg, David Lanz, Jonathan Fritzen, Bobby Ricketts, Ken Navarro, Walter Beasley and Peter White.
Critical and public reception
The Allmusic guide article on "fusion" states that "unfortunately, as it became a money-maker and as rock declined artistically from the mid-'70s on, much of what was labeled fusion was actually a combination of jazz with easy-listening pop music and lightweight R&B."
Kenny G in particular is often criticized by both fusion and jazz fans, and some musicians, while having become a huge commercial success. Music reviewer George Graham argues that the "so-called ‘smooth jazz’ sound of people like Kenny G has none of the fire and creativity that marked the best of the fusion scene during its heyday in the 1970s".
Digby Fairweather, before the launch of UK jazz station theJazz, denounced the change to a smooth jazz format on defunct radio station 102.2 Jazz FM, stating that the owners GMG Radio were responsible for the "attempted rape and (fortunately abortive) re-definition of the music — is one that no true jazz lover within the boundaries of the M25 will ever find it possible to forget or forgive."
- Record labels