If there exists somewhere in the world of jazz a region where smooth jazz and conventional jazz live side by side, a sort of middle kingdom (if you’ll pardon the term), then Eric Marienthal might feel right at home there. On his new album from Peak Records, Just Around The Corner, the talented sax-man mostly shows his smooth jazz side but also reminds us that he’s capable of much more.
For the last two decades, Marienthal has been building a résumé that includes time as a sideman for Chick Corea (performing as part of his Elektric Band) and has also spent a lot of time backing up some big stars, including Elton John, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Mathis, among others. He’s also turned out several well-received albums of his own, including some that have made the Billboard charts.
One of the best, Walk Tall, a homage to alto sax great Cannonball Adderley, would seem to point to that instrument as his favorite, and it does seem to be the predominant instrument on this new album. However, he’s equally at home with tenor or soprano sax, and both make regular appearances here too.
It’s obvious that Marienthal is the star, with the sidemen mostly just that — sidemen. But even though they varied from session to session they’re all solid pros and include among them some recognizable names, such as guitarists Paul Brown and Michael O’Neill.
One of my favorite tracks is the title tune, which features mostly alto solos. Marienthal is in full smooth and soulful mode, a style that will be familiar to smooth jazz lovers, but his talent lifts him above the ordinary.
He occasionally mixes in some tenor play – mostly high register – and it’s best heard on “Open Road” and “Times Square,” the latter an especially good listen and one that allows the sidemen to shine a little more.
Not to be overlooked is Marienthal’s soprano sax style, most memorably on display with “Lost Without You,” and again on “Flower Child.” His playing is high and lyrical, tuneful without being squawky.
Marienthal is also a talented composer and has co-written all of the tunes here, either partnering up with long-time cohort Jeff Lorber or Stephen Lu, who doubles on keyboards on many of the pieces.
There are spots in several tunes where Marienthal shows his chops beyond the smooth jazz mold, and it’s obvious he’s talented enough to stretch even further, but mostly he seems to stick to the plan. This is above average smooth jazz with a touch of improvisation, and should be an appealing mix for a lot of music lovers. Others might want to wait for Marienthal to more fully embrace his wild side.
1 Blue Water 4:11
2 Times Square 4:27
3 Flower Child 4:52
4 Open Road 4:13
5 21 Ocean Front 4:18
6 Just Around the Corner 4:24
7 I Believe in You 4:13
8 Dance with Me 3:38
9 Your Move 4:36
10 Lost Without You 5:16
(Follow Amazon link for sample clips)