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Najee – Center Of the Heart (Advance Review)

The playing field of contemporary jazz has never been as fickle as that of R&B or top-40/pop. Hence, a considerably larger number of uniquely talented players have had the opportunity over several decades to grow musically with their audiences at a creatively satisfying pace, while steadily accruing new listeners along the way. Some artists stick to tried and true styles, and others strive to keep their brand fresh and surprising. Saxophonist/flautist Najee is in the latter category. He continually steadies the course with albums that remind fans of the flowing vibes that he introduced in 1986 on Najee’s Theme, while regularly incorporating new (and old-school) artistic influences that distinguish him from an often crowded marketplace.

Like its predecessor, Poetry in Motion, Najee’s new set, Center of the Heart, is consistent in flow and simultaneously varied in approach. With a sophisticated balance of modern rhythms and traditional melodic elements, the album’s parameters run the gamut of smooth jazz—factoring in funky synth grooves, R&B-melded arrangements, traces of late-night seduction, fusion imprints, and even a time-honored pop classic. First single “The Way She Moves,” featuring Greg Manning, is a midtempo slice of quiet passion interwoven by Najee’s softly punctuated sax playing in breezy harmony with Manning’s romantic piano stylings. The number is one of Center’s more familiar-sounding entries, contrasted nicely by the colorful uptempo bounce of “Speak Love” and the lighthearted yet melodically and kinetically stimulating title track, featuring added flair from bassist Blair Bryant on an electric solo and gently pulsating harmony lines.

The album’s opening selection, “Bella Vista,” provides a reflective disposition, with Najee’s buoyant flute work setting a daydreamy tone that ideally captures the meaning of the Italian phrase (or, perhaps, one of several similarly named geographic destinations in the Earth’s sphere). Here and on a further three selections, producer Demonte Posey (Eric Benet, Ruben Studdard) crafts a distinct blend of groove and mood that helps set the songs apart from those of fellow smooth jazz acts’ current repertoire. On “Better,” graced by the tenor vocal prowess of Kenny Lattimore, the feel is decidedly mellow atop a steppers’ oriented rhythmic base that makes ample room for Najee’s soprano sax embellishments. Meanwhile, a meditative take on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned “Alfie” (popularized in vocal form in 1966 by Dionne Warwick) highlights the subtler side of Najee’s flute playing over a simple arrangement free of distractions from the melody.

Najee also covers a relatively more recent composition of note, injecting a sprightly finesse into Maxwell’s “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” complemented by the laid back vocal layers of Ken Turner and a tight drum groove from Darrell Crooks. In an equally groovy context, he shares the spotlight with saxophonist Darren Rahn on “Face to Face,” which the pair co-wrote and Rahn produced. Najee’s flute flourishes are in nourishing harmony here with Rahn, who also contributes Rhodes and synth bass to the track.

Center of the Heart is a welcome addition to the Najee catalog, aptly displaying his consistency as a purveyor of well-rounded contemporary jazz proficient in pleasing melodies, stimulating rhythms, and solidly founded arrangements. Recommended.

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