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Crystal City

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Album Review

The way smooth jazz was evolving by the mid-2000s, it became increasingly hard for indie saxophonists to break into the kind of regular festival, package tour, and cruise dates that would catapult them to stardom. But with two albums on Billboard's Top Ten Contemporary Jazz chart and the same label that launched Najee and Alex Bugnon to stardom behind him, versatile Chicago native André Ward was still aiming high. With a soprano tone that flows easy like Kim Waters and Najee, he gets off to a promising start on Crystal City's sensual funk opener, "They Keep Calling Me"; as he takes the melody higher and begins improvising on soprano, Ward also imbues the lead instrument with sizzling alto and tenor textures. The emotional strength of that track would have made it an obvious first single, but the one actually chosen was the likable urban vocal tune that follows, "Wishful Thinking," which relegates Ward to a supporting role behind the Anita Baker-like vocals of Barbara Fowler. Just as Najee once did with "Najee's Theme," Ward makes a similar statement about his identity on the cool and simmering retro-soul tune "André's Theme," which features Yasha's cool Rhodes harmonies. Before getting back to the core of the disc — his heartfelt, urgent, and melodic playing on any of his three saxes — Ward makes the mistake of thinking that the EWI was still a hip instrument in 2007. His thumping shout-out to his hometown, "Chicago (Here We Go)," is a fun and whimsical piece that would be much more effective with a real horn taking the lead melody. This misstep is nicely balanced by asserting his right as an indie artist to actually lead with the flute on the sensual "Abstract," but — yikes! — why swirl it with the EWI? Although it's not the most unique tune in the set from an arrangement standpoint, Ward's alto passion on "New Orleans Lights" is a beautifully spiritual highlight. Indicative of Ward's renown among the elite of the smooth jazz genre are the appearances of keyboardist and songwriter Brian Culbertson, albeit in a background role, and bassist Nathan East on the dreamy "I Don't Want to Be in Love." One would think that Ward would have proofread before allowing the misspellings of Culbertson and co-writer/backing vocalist Marc Nelson to reach print. Despite a handful of flaws, Ward proves worthy of the big leagues on this collection, which perfectly fuses his Berklee College of Music jazz sensibilities with a love for cool hip-hop and retro-soul.


Born: 1970 in Chicago, IL

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Smooth jazz saxophonist André Ward was born and raised in Chicago. His first instrument, which he took up at age eight, was the snare drum. He later moved to trumpet and tenor saxophone before settling on alto saxophone and becoming sufficiently proficient to earn a music-performing scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Based in Boston, he played internationally and did session work for such artists as Freddie Jackson. He was signed to Orpheus Music and released his debut solo...
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