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Mind Over Matter

Najee

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Album Review

Along with Kenny G, Richard Elliot, and the late George Howard, Najee was one of the smooth jazz saxophonists who jazz critics loved to hate back in the late '80s and early '90s. Najee received one scathing review after another in those days; some were from jazz purists and bop snobs, while others were from more broad-minded reviewers who appreciated Grover Washington, Jr. (Najee's main influence), Ronnie Laws, and David Sanborn but felt that Najee's work was too contrived, too formulaic, and too rigid for its own good. But in 1995, Najee pleasantly surprised listeners with his engaging Stevie Wonder tribute Songs from the Key of Life; instead of simply playing Wonder's gems note-for-note, Najee seriously interpreted them and demonstrated that he could, in fact, be a legitimate soul-jazz improviser of the Washington/Sanborn/Laws/Stanley Turrentine/Eddie Harris variety when he put his mind to it. Songs from the Key of Life was Najee's crowning achievement, and it demonstrated that instead of automatically dismissing everything he does as mindless fluff, it's best to judge him on an album-by-album basis. That brings us to 2009's Mind Over Matter, a smooth jazz disc that often plays it much too safe but does have its moments. The automatic-pilot approach doesn't serve Najee well on forgettable radio-oriented tracks such as "Love You a Lifetime," "Sweet Summer Nights," and "Love Forever and a Day," but Najee (who is heard on soprano sax, tenor sax, alto sax, and flute) fares much better on "One More Thing" and "Stolen Glances" (both of which unite him with keyboardist/producer/composer Jeff Lorber). As a rule, smooth jazz recordings that Lorber is a part of manage to balance commercial and artistic considerations and avoid sounding like elevator music; so not surprisingly, "One More Thing" and "Stolen Glances" have commercial appeal but are edgier, meatier, and more substantial than a lot of smooth jazz. Other decent tracks on this mostly instrumental CD include the dreamy "Needless to Say" (which sounds a bit like something Lonnie Liston Smith would do) and the funky but laid-back "We Gone Ride" (an urban/neo-soul number featuring singer Eric Benet). Mind Over Matter is very much a mixed bag, but overall, it's superior to early Najee releases like 1988's Day by Day and 1990s Tokyo Blue — although Songs from the Key of Life is still the best CD to acquire if one is making his/her first Najee purchase.

Biography

Born: New York, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

One of the best-selling instrumentalists of the late '80s to mid-'90s, Najee has been a consistent favorite in the quiet storm and so-called "smooth jazz" markets. Often compared to Kenny G, George Howard, and Dave Koz, the New Yorker has been greatly influenced by Grover Washington Jr. — although he hasn't been nearly as adventurous. Heavily produced and quite formulaic, Najee's albums have tended to avoid improvisation and strive for commercial radio airplay above all else. Debuting in 1987...
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Mind Over Matter, Najee
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