Smooth Jazz radio is a vast wasteland of vapid melodies, generic instrumental work and synthetic backbeats, its well-earned reputation as '90s "easy listening" tied to a playlist even more strictly defined than top-40. So fans of the format are often perplexed when they check out concerts by Down to the Bone, the British exponents of hip-hop, soul and jazz who have made rather unlikely inroads on Smooth Jazz/NAC formatted radio.
"From Manhattan to Staten," the act's debut disc, notched the No. 5 spot on Billboard's list of last year's biggest contemporary jazz discs and remains on the charts after nearly 75 weeks. "The Urban Grooves: Album II," released earlier this year, already has gained airplay with first single "Long Way From Brooklyn," a dose of old-school electric piano, pumping rhythms and inviting horn work.
In concert the touring band -- behind music created by young U.K producers Chris Morgans and Stuart Wade -- is known to lay down ferociously funky grooves and edgy solo work. Listeners' surprise often turns into delight, says tenor saxophonist and bandleader Paul "Shilts" Weimar.
"I think they're in for a shock when they see the band live, because it's got so much energy," Weimar says from a tour stop in Detroit. "They hear it on the smooth jazz stations along with the Kenny Gs, and they expect one thing. And we come along and basically say, ‘Look, have some of this.' Everybody will recognize the grooves from the albums, but the energy is overwhelming. Everybody's off their feet and dancing. It's not a normal smooth-jazz sort of thing. They get a really sort of heavy dance jazz thing."
Down to the Bone, although now a full-fledged band, began life as a production project conceived by Morgans, whose tastes ran to Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, and Wade, who loved soul, jazz and the crossover work of pianist Ramsey Lewis and vibraphonist Roy Ayers. The pair initially hired A-list jazz players from across England and released a series of popular singles. They dubbed their sound "jazz groove" or "urban grooves."
"They basically couldn't find the music they wanted, so they thought, ‘What the hell, let's make it ourselves,' " says Weimar, who came on board with the sophomore album. "It is a crossover from all those sort of influences -- the New York hip-hop scene and '70s acts like Lonnie Liston Smith and George Duke, and all the soul and jazz coming out of that. That's the sound of Down to the Bone. It works really well."
Morgans and Wade put together their own label, Internal Bass, and watched a licensing deal for U.S. distribution go south. The two then took the do-it-yourself approach, and American smooth-jazz outlets, one by one, began adding tracks from the debut album. Weimar and other musicians were hired for "The Urban Grooves: Album II," and then the saxophonist was asked to round up the players who would bring the music to life on the road. Weimar, who has worked with the Brand New Heavies and David Bowie, as well as mainstream jazz artists like George Shearing and the late Mel Torme, has assembled a group of accomplished players for the project: alto saxophonist/flutist Adrian Revell (Jamiroquai), drummer Tony Mason (Al Green), guitarist Tony Remy, bassist Paul Turner, keyboardist Neil Angilley and percussionist Satin Singh.
"It was one of these strange concepts where you had the album before you had the band, but it's worked out very well," he says. "Everyone in the band has a good pedigree. We could probably back anyone on this tour. We're seasoned players. We can all read music and turn our hands to anything."
Even if Marilyn Manson called? "Sure, if they write the parts out."