Soul Providers,
Smooth Urban Grooves
(Fast Life, 2006)

Smooth Urban Grooves is a New York-centric compilation of jazz arrangements/interpretations of R&B and hip-hop hits by Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Usher, Alicia Keys, 50 Cent, Nelly and many others. Each track was picked not only for its musical qualities, but also the original artists' connection to New York City. You'll be surprised how good some of those songs are when taken away from the context of the original artist/performer. For instance, check out the very enjoyable rendition of Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together." Actually, the absence of Mariah's oft-overpowering vocals reveals how soulful and subtle that song really is.

The only real problem with this album is the way it starts off. The initial track, "Encore," hits you with an energetic trumpet fanfare with an upbeat percussion rhythm. For an album with "smooth" in the title, one would expect a slower, smoother build-up. It's too abrupt for a beginning. (Also, in a thematic sense, starting the album with a track called "Encore" is just odd.) The last part of that track has a great percussion fade. If that song could have been flipped around (last part first, first part last), it would have been a great set-up for the track as well as the rest of the album.

The cohesive element for this album, the real glue that holds it all together, is Bob Baldwin on keyboards. His performance is consistent and understated, but in a pleasing manner. Rather than grabbing the spotlight, he allows other instruments to take center stage. For instance, one of the strongest elements of the album is Dave Mann on saxophone. When Mann's horn shows up, you take notice, such as "Hate It or Love It" and "My Place," or even to a minimal degree when he appears sparingly and effectively in "Diary." Despite being the driving force behind this album (producing, arrangements, bass, percussion), Baldwin understands the importance of supporting elements.

Other than the odd start, Smooth Urban Grooves is a steady, consistent album. It's not quite spectacular, but does a fine job as relaxing, background music. If you're looking for something mellow with an easy groove, the Soul Providers can and do provide.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

4 August 2007

what's new