Jazz saxophonist Steve Cole is scheduled to release his latest album this week. Smoke + Mirrors is scheduled for release Friday through Artistry Music and Mack Avenue Music Group. His 10th album, the 10-song collection will appeal to Cole’s established audiences. That is due in no small part to the record’s featured arrangements. They will be discussed shortly. While the arrangements do plenty to engage and entertain the noted audiences, the lack of any background on the songs in the record’s packaging detracts notably from that appeal. It will be discussed a little later. The record’s sequencing rounds out its most important elements and will be discussed later, too. Each item noted here is important in its own way to the whole of the album. All things considered, they make Smoke + Mirrors a still mostly solid new album from Steve Cole.
Steve Cole’s latest album, Smoke + Mirrors is a mostly successful new offering from the veteran saxophonist. The 41-minute record will appeal to its audiences largely because of its featured musical arrangements. From beginning to end, Cole offers audiences more of his familiar late 80s/early 90s style, saxophone driven jazz. Right off the bat, the celebratory ‘Living Out Loud’ gets things moving with that familiar, upbeat style. Cole’s performance on the sax alongside bassist Mel Brown, drummer Brian Dunne and the rest of the other musicians (three others in whole) creates a positive sense of happiness and joy. According to information provided about the song, the late great NBA star-turned-bassist Waman Tisdale played a role in the song’s arrangement years ago before his passing. Little else is offered in the way of background, nor is that background offered in the packaging in any liner notes. This will be addressed later. Keeping that all in mind, only assumptions can be made as to the overall role that Tisdale played in the song’s creation. Regardless, the positive vibes that the arrangement evokes are certain to have audiences on their feet and smiling.
Of course, for all of the familiarity that Cole offers audiences in this record (as shown in the album’s opener), he also makes sure to switch things up along the way. Case in point is one of the album’s later entries, ‘It’s a House Party.’ This song stands separate from the rest of the album’s works because it blends Cole’s more familiar approach (and its resultant sound) with an infectious, funky song that will appeal to fans of Parliament Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, and even Stevie Wonder. That is made clear through the balance of the guitar, keyboards, drums, horns, the bass, and saxophone. Again, no liner notes are available to offer any background on the arrangement, but considering the song’s title, one can assume at least somewhat safely that this celebratory song is meant to echo the joy of…well…a house party back in the day. Ironically, the arrangement would fit just as well for any house party today. The way in which Cole’s familiar style and sound is balanced with the more funky elements makes the song a great break point for the record and more proof of the importance of the album’s arrangements.
On a completely opposite note, ‘Justice,’ the record’s closer, does its own part to show the importance of the album’s featured arrangements. This subtle, subdued arrangement is so rich in its simplicity. Cole’s own work on the saxophone pairs perfectly with the performance of keyboardist David Mann and bassist Mark Egan to make the whole so rich. The layering and balancing of this instrumentation and the rest of the song’s instrumentation makes the whole such a powerful work. It lends itself so easily to comparison to works from the likes of Yellowjackets. Not ironically, Yellowjackets is a label mate to Cole on Mack Avenue Music Group and Artistry Music. Information provided in a press release about this arrangement is that it was meant as a reflection of the killing of George Floyd only miles from Cole’s home last year in Minneapolis, MN. Considering all of the outrage and fury that followed Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement, the subdued, contemplative nature of this arrangement makes for so much engagement. It really serves to show another side of the reaction to Floyd’s death, making for even more interest. When this arrangement and the others examined here are considered along with the rest of the album’s songs, the variety that they collectively show makes clear, the importance of the album’s musical content to its presentation. It forms a strong foundation for the record.
While the musical content that makes up the main body of Smoke + Mirrors does much to make the record appealing, the lack of background information on the songs anywhere in the album’s packaging does just as much to detract from the record’s presentation. It has already been noted in the discussion about the songs that the only background provided was in a press release for the media. That background information, even brief, would have helped enhance the listening experience even more for audiences. Again, media personnel can vouch for that, considering everything noted in the addressed press release. The notes in the press release about ‘Covent Garden’ are even more support for that argument. While very brief – they explain that Cole wrote the song in response to the lockdowns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic – the notes would have helped audiences understand and better appreciate such song. The album’s midpoint, ‘Coven Garden’ is an old school laced song that also incorporates Cole’s familiar stylistic approach. AS difficult as life under lockdown was, understanding that the song was meant to convey a sense of hope and optimism throughout it all would help listeners (again) better appreciate the arrangement. Much the same can be said of the brief notes on ‘Trust,’ another of the album’s late entries. According to the notes in the provided press release, the R&B-infused work is meant to present a sense of gratitude for those closest to Cole throughout everything in life. Without that information available, audiences would be so easily led to think this song is just some slow jam for lovers. That is because the arrangement is that style composition. To that end, it is more proof of the importance of the liner notes. It is just too bad that all of this information was not provided in the packaging. Now the lack thereof is not enough to make the album a failure, but it certainly would have helped add to the listening experience.
Considering the overall impact of its arrangements and lack of background information, Smoke + Mirrors still proves to be worth hearing at least once. The sequencing of the record’s featured songs adds to the album’s appeal when it is considered along with the songs. That is because the sequencing takes into account, the energies in each of the album’s songs to keep the album moving fluidly from one song to the next. From start to end, audiences’ engagement and entertainment is ensured because of that fluid progression. This is especially important to address because of the placement of the album’s slower and more upbeat works. All things considered here, the album’s sequencing brings everything full circle and completes the record’s presentation. When the sequencing is considered along with the songs, the two elements join to give audiences plenty of reason to hear Smoke + Mirrors.
Steve Cole’s latest album, Smoke + Mirrors, is a positive addition to this year’s field of new jazz albums. Additionally, it is a welcome addition to Cole’s own already extensive catalog. That is proven in part through its featured songs. The songs give audiences plenty of familiarity in their sounds and stylistic approaches. At the same time, they also offer audiences a little something new. That balance of old and new ensures audiences’ engagement and entertainment in its own way. While the songs featured in this record make a strong foundation for the album, the lack of any background information on the songs noticeably detracts from the album’s appeal. That is because it can so easily lead to misinterpretation of the messages that the songs are working to translate. Luckily this shortcoming is not enough to make the record a failure, but it certainly would have been nice to have had that element for audiences. The sequencing of the songs featured in the record works with those songs to complete the album’s presentation. It ensures the songs’ moods and energies are stable from beginning to end. The result is that the album leaves listeners fulfilled. It ends before audiences realize, but in the best way possible. Each item noted here is important in its own way to the whole of the album. All things considered, they make the album a positive addition to this year’s field of new jazz albums.
Smoke + Mirrors is scheduled for release Friday through Mack Avenue Music Group and Artistry Music. More information on the album is available along with all of Steve Cole’s latest news at:
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