by Skip Spratt
Smooth Jazz saxophonist Andrew Neu has just released his fourth cd as a leader on CGN Records. The newest recording Everything Happens For A Reason features Neu on saxophones and woodwinds as well as Jeff Lorber, Brian Bromberg, Rick Braun and a host of other jazz talents.
Andrew Neu, a native and resident of Philadelphia has been bi-coastal for several years. He has toured and recorded with Bobby Caldwell as well as Diane Schuur and other notables but has opted to maintain his east coast roots. I’m fortunate to have known and played with Andrew Neu since our college days and have seen him grow and mature into the broad talent he is today. My admiration for Andrew’s abilities is reaffirmed two times a month when we both play in the sax section of the Brian Pastor Big Band in Philadelphia.
The title track to Everything Happens For A Reason features Andrew Neu on alto and is everything you would expect from the opening cut of a smooth jazz recording. It is funky with horns and a catchy melody. Mr. Neu, you immediately have the targeted listener right where you want them. The ensemble playing is clean, balanced and perfectly in tune.
“Poolside” features Steve Oliver on guitar but Andrew Neu lays down the alto and opts for the tenor saxophone here. The title may conjure up images of a day by the pool however this tune seems perfectly suited for driving down the highway, wind blowing in your hair. At times there is just hint of the well-known Crusaders sound, heavy with the baritone voice of the trombone and tenor – but only a hint. Again, the ensemble playing is tight, highly polished and balanced.
Following the attention-getting first two selections, the more subdued “Hit Me Up” settles in. There are no flashy and indiscriminant altissimo notes or virtuosic demonstrations of technique. Just pleasing music to enjoy on “Hit Me Up”. The only surprise here are the bridge changes and unison figure leading back to the hook and Neu’s tasteful solo. He appears to resist the temptation to show all his cards – only for a moment choosing to break into a double time figure.
“The Orchestral Prelude to What Would I Do” is beautifully orchestrated by Corey Allen and performed flawlessly by The Los Angeles Studio String Orchestra. Added to the orchestra is Stephanie O’Keefe on horn, Andrew Neu on woodwinds, Kim Kelter Neu on oboe and Pete Neu on trumpet. The gorgeous intro leads into Neu/Caldwell’s what would I do. The seemingly uncharacteristic intro is a separate track completely and presumably the intent is to let the programmers decide if it belongs attached or not. Personally, I would love to hear an entire album of such music featuring Andrew on soprano saxophone. (Hint, hint.)
Bobby Caldwell sells the lyric and melody wonderfully and Neu’s tenor plays a secondary role to the crooner on “What Would I Do.” The vibe of this song is classic Jobim – to the extent that I almost expected Caldwell to sing in Portuguese.
The funky “A Night at the Mohito” is reminiscent of Eddie Harris’ classic “Cold Duck Time” that was more recently covered by Jeff Golub. Neu plays a punctuated, stylistic tenor solo that is ratcheted it up a notch by a ferocious piano lead by guest Jeff Lorber. Rick Braun also joins in with some spirited trading by tenor and trumpet. Even drummer Frank “Third” Richardson begins to stretch a bit on the closing vamp. Speaking of Richardson, here and elsewhere the drum fills alone are worth the price of the recording.
Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take 5” (in 4/4 here) features a wonderful gritty guitar solo by Gannin Arnold. The guitar sound is offset by a decidedly smoother and mellower Desmond-esque alto solo by Neu. Only during the modulations does Neu stray from the previously benign cover of the Brubeck and Desmond staple.
“How shook a way shook a…” I’ll have to listen again to truly understand the chant that begins “Dreaming of Lions”. The introduction bears and interesting twist and I am curious to know the story to how that was incorporated. Truly, I also had to listen twice to Andrew Neu’s opening lines on alto saxophone. There seemed to be a desirable soprano sax quality in the upper register of the alto. The liner notes do not indicate any soprano sax on this recording. Although missing here on Everything Happens For A Reason, I have previously written that I am a fan of Neu’s soprano playing.
“Bring It On” begins with an acoustic bass intro is another curveball but takes shape as others enter followed by Rick Braun on trumpet and Neu on tenor. The trumpet and sax solos are followed by a unison and soli featuring the pair on horns. It is difficult not to make comparisons to the popular and successful pairing of Richard Elliot and Rick Braun.
A Lovely duet introduction played Mr. and Mrs. Neu on oboe and alto sax leads into the Latin tinged “Vespa”. The alto sound and melody harkens back to the sounds of Jay Beckenstein and Spryo Gyra – then takes on another character entirely during the flamenco style guitar solo by Ramon Stagnaro. The replacement of electric with Brian Bromberg’s acoustic bass offers yet another refreshing nuance on “Vespa”. Neu plays confidently all the way to the end and final unison vamp. His solo here is my hands down favorite within Everything Happens for a Reason.
Andrew Neu takes to the tenor saxophone on the predictable yet well-executed “Date Night”. I say predictable in the sense that it is typical of what I would expect from a smooth jazz song – albeit with hints of Both Chicago and Steely Dan in the horn voicings.
Buried at the end of this wonderful recording comes one of the most endearing moments on Everything Happens For A Reason. The guitar and tenor duet shimmers over a lush bed of Jobim-esque rhythm section and strings. Beautiful. But wait. That’s not a guitar. This is Brian Bromberg’s nylon string piccolo bass!
Everything Happens for a Reason quite obviously boasts some of Andrew Neu’s finest writing and playing to date however it does seem conflicted at times. The most glaring examples where he deviates from “the smooth jazz formula” are also some of my favorite moments contained on this cd recording.
Saxophonists, smooth jazz fans and anyone who appreciates high musical standards will most definitely enjoy picking up a copy of Andrew Neu’s latest, Everything Happens for a Reason.