Najee – Poetry in Motion (2017)

Najee - Poetry In Motion

Over the three decades since the release of his trailblazing debut album, Najee’s Theme (see our anniversary feature on the classic set), saxophone and flute guru Najee Rasheed has continually enveloped listeners with masterfully stirred concoctions of contemporary jazz, smooth R&B, and funky grooves. His seventeenth full-length studio CD, Poetry in Motion, finds him thriving with a melodic confidence that embodies his signature tones, as well as a keen ear for moving forward.

Buoyed by a glistening array of featured vocalists and instrumentalists—Eric Roberson, Will Downing, Maysa, Incognito, and Bobby Lyle, Poetry in Motion surveys a scenic landscape of hearty compositions, soulful rhythms, and relaxing arrangements. Between the vocal and instrumental pieces, there’s a knowing consistency that is easily inviting whether listened to in whole or in segments. That said, each selection conjures distinct emotions and undertones; but there are several that rise to the forefront immediately. “Is It the Way,” showcasing the spine-tingling tenor delicacies of Eric Roberson, sways along at a midtempo pace with Jermaine Parrish’s tight drum work, while Najee paints warm soprano strokes alongside Roberson’s poetic homage to the lady in his life.

Equally contemplative, but in a different corner of the spiritual arc, the gentle bossa nova pulse of “We’ll Be Missing You” opens with an instrumental verse before giving way to Will Downing’s delicately phrased, intensely tender vocals. Najee trades off with Downing further in a tranquil arrangement colored by unfeigned passages honoring the lives of Al Jarreau and Prince. Meanwhile, Maysa imbues the melodically mellow “Don’t Make Me Wait” with rich, supplely passionate alto phrases that harmonize ideally with Najee’s sax riffs.

Each of the aforementioned tracks gleams with the cohesive production hand of Barry Eastmond (whom Najee first worked with on 1988’s Day by Day), as do the Latin-nuanced “Noche Romantica” and the serene stepper, “Song for the Ladies.” Najee alternates between saxes and flute on both “Noche” and “Song,” adding a structural depth sometimes missing in current smooth jazz. Shifting his sole focus to the flute for the album’s finale, he embeds plush phrasing and magnetizing nuances into “Duology,” a softly jammin’ number built around producer Rod Bonner’s sly keyboard work and in-the-pocket drum tracks.

Although not the most distinctive track on Poetry in Motion, the leadoff single, “Let’s Take It Back,” is a pleasant dancer with considerable commercial appeal. Featuring Incognito, the song was composed by Najee with five members of the group and finds a radio-friendly retro-disco vibe fronted by an energetic tenor sax performance laced with sultry flute layerings. More artistically striking, though, is the opening “Stratosphere,” a breezy uptempo that shows Najee at his relaxed best on soprano sax, complemented by the solid guitar work of Blake Aaron and the fluid percussion touches of Victor Williams.

During an era in which delivering creative yet commercially viable contemporary jazz is a bona fide challenge, Najee’s wide-ranging experience as a recording artist and live performer truly pays off. On Poetry in Motion, he displays a virtually effortless balance of distinction and relevance. Highly Recommended.

by Justin Kantor
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