“The restaurant mood of ‘jazzy restaurant vibes’ was in consideration, for sure,” says Matthew McQueen, who runs the Leaving Records label and dined a few times to catch the two at play. “It was an experiment for them to play within that realm of ‘jazz ambiance at restaurants.’ ” A few months on, McQueen released some of that dinner music as “Music For Saxofone & Bass Guitar” on a small run of cassettes. Yet its appeal went beyond diners and by 2021, it had gone through a few more pressings, racked up more than 2 million plays on Spotify and appeared on the “Malcolm & Marie” soundtrack. Like all good things, such popularity begot a sequel this past summer, “Music For Saxofone & Bass Guitar More Songs.”
Gendel had a low-key yet bustling 2021. That’s him choppin’ and screwin’ Laurie Anderson, adding to the new age ambiance of Carlos Niño’s blissful “More Energy Fields, Current”; sounding the ghosts on Sam Amidon’s ethereal folk album; and adding poignant saxophone to one of the year’s heaviest rap albums, Mach-Hommy’s “Balens Cho.” My favorite Gendel project might have been “Mouthfeel/ Serene,” a woozy duo with Josiah Steinbrick that sent his horn through so many electronics until it became a will-o’-wisp hovering in the music. There was also “Fresh Bread,” more than 3½ hours of loopy, catchy, surrealistic tracks from over the past few years suited for the shuffle function.
Gendel’s work joined other albums for a notable year in which a certain strain of jazz mingled with electronics and drew increasingly closer to a wider audience. A Pitchfork think piece meditated on albums like “Promises,” the critically acclaimed collaboration between electronic producer Floating Points and legendary spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and harpist Nala Sinephro’s debut album, “Space 1.8,” deeming such “soothing moods and healing frequencies” to be a new genre: “ambient jazz.” Meanwhile, a New Yorker profile on Gendel and Wilkes grappled with the idea of whether they were “not primarily a jazz duo but an electronic-production team, providing listeners with not many notes but a great deal of ambiance.” But rather than hand-wringing over labels, there’s already a handy genre tag familiar to radio programmers, shopping malls and chiropractic waiting rooms nationwide to describe this sound: smooth jazz.
Maligned as soulless, insipid, ignorable, tasteful as paste, few sounds are as instantly reviled as the genre of “smooth jazz.” Just take a look at HBO’s recent documentary “Listening to Kenny G,” wherein director Penny Lane grapples with the legacy of poodle-haired punching bag Kenny Gorelick, the circular breathing saxophonist who balances the descriptor of “the best-selling instrumental artist ever” and “the worst musician of all time” with equal aplomb and obliviousness. The film and its talking heads likened G’s music to furniture, wallpaper, masturbation, and in the words of former New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff, “a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves.”
But well before Kenny G’s “Songbird” gently drilled into our subconscious via a million dentist offices and “Going Home” became China’s unofficial anthem to leave factories or stop shopping at the mall, smooth jazz shadowed more impassioned, inspired jazz, overtaking it on the charts and in the popular imagination. Early smooth blueprints from the late 1970s, like Chuck Mangione’s “Feel So Good” and Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance,” all but blocked out the light on legends like Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and up-and-comers on New York’s loft scene of the same era. By the ’80s, as Chris Washburne, professor of jazz performance at Columbia University, notes in the film: “Traditional jazz had been quite marginalized economically and the opportunities for jazz musicians was dwindling.”
Purists scoffed as plenty of players embraced fusion or delved into jazz-funk. It was heresy to the critics, and for some jazz musicians, when pivoting to “smooth jazz” became the move to avoid obsolescence (or going back to working at a restaurant).
Meanwhile, Kenny G wormed deeply into American consciousness and into your social network, unavoidable by this point in the 21st century, whether he’s tooting along with Warren G, Katy Perry, the Weeknd or Kanye West. The film points out one of the most glaring issues with Kenny G as a jazz artist, his ahistoric approach to a century-old tradition, shrugging at John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, saying that their “music was never heartfelt for me.”
Time has a funny way of flattening out the peaks and valleys of taste, though. Ratliff laments the loss of jazz history amid Gorelick’s platinum sheen, but he’s also amused by the thought that there are “things about it that are so alien to us now that they’re kind of cool.”
Such alien cool resonates now. It’s a weird time and such music reflects that reality, hoping to find a way to take the edge off. Gendel and Wilkes make music that has all the wooziness and knock of a J Dilla beat, but listen to their version of the Beach Boys’ ballad “Caroline, No.” Gendel’s playing is nowhere near as unobtrusive as say, Boney James or David Sanborn, but he and Wilkes are unafraid to embrace such smoothness. The Beach Boys song remains familiar and hummable, but not overly so; it’s warm and inviting, even as it picks up in cadence and transports you to a smooth new environ.
The genius of these albums lies in its mingling of “smooth jazz” with other forms. And in that, Gendel & Wilkes were not alone. Danish duo Bremer/ McCoy’s contemplative “Natten” and Fuubutsushi’s 4-CD box set, “Shiki,” harked back to the days of ECM’s icy smoothness.
Vibraphonist Patricia Brennan pushed her instrument from its placid, chiming bell timbre into a head-swirling foreground on “Maquishti.” For “Switched On Ra,” Chicago’s Bitchin’ Bajas filtered the Sun Ra songbook through a battery of modular synths, moving it from outer space to the terra firma of bachelor pad listening. All of them offer up wrinkles amid their smoothness.
At the start of the pandemic, there was solace to be found in the fortitude and passion of spiritual jazz, something that could sustain and embolden its listeners through the upheaval of the times, whose worries which included — but were not limited to — the coronavirus and its attendant public health crises, the George Floyd protests and the 2020 election. A letdown has followed in 2021, due to few of the above worries being ameliorated. A sense of exhaustion, resignation, disappointment, the promise of normal pushed back ever further on the horizon, has taken hold.
So why turn to smooth jazz? Is it a symptom of age, resignation, a non-covid loss of taste? Or might it just be something as simple as Kenny G’s shrug in the film: “I don’t see anything wrong with something that’s easy to listen to.” Maybe we need something cool and easy right about now, music that can just dissolve into the wallpaper and houseplants without much worry. There’s a nostalgia that such music conjures, not to the good times so much as to a time when it didn’t feel fraught to sit in a waiting room, perusing a magazine that didn’t need to be sanitized. At a time when indoor dining can seem like a bygone time, it felt like a pleasant luxury to put on “Music For Saxofone & Bass Guitar More Songs” or any of the above artists and imagine you’ve just finished that last forkful of the famous cedar plank salmon at Pace (or any other indoor dining experience) and pushed away from the table. You take in the ambiance of the room, the chatter of people all around you and for a fleeting instant, all feels well.