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Album Review

Smooth jazz has long been the whipping boy of straight-ahead jazz musicians, and in many cases, the criticism is totally warranted. Let's face it: much of the formulaic, unimaginative, bloodless drivel that has plagued NAC radio play lists in the '80s, '90s, and 2000s is amazingly bad. That said, smooth jazz is not inherently evil; there is nothing wrong with providing pop-flavored jazz or jazzy instrumental pop if it is done with integrity — and if one considers David Sanborn, Michael Franks, or the late Grover Washington, Jr. part of smooth jazz, it could easily be argued that some smooth jazz does, in fact, have integrity. One 2005 release that falls into the "smooth jazz with integrity" category is pianist Lesley Spencer's Postcards from Spain. This 48-minute CD favors a soft and gently melodic blend of jazz, pop, and Latin music — usually Latin as in flamenco (Spencer is half Spanish herself), although traces of Afro-Cuban salsa and South American music show up from time to time. Postcards from Spain is easy listening, but it isn't elevator Muzak — and Spencer's material, for all its softness, has a brain (which is something that is missing from so many of the 2000s recordings that are considered smooth jazz). One of the guests on this album is Fareed Haque, a lyrical and appealing (if underrated) guitarist from Chicago (which is also Spencer's home). Haque, whose parents were from Pakistan and Chile, clearly understands the connection between Middle Eastern, North African, and Spanish music — he is well aware of the Moorish influence that you're likely to hear if you're walking along la Gran Via in Madrid or la Ramblas in Barcelona. Postcards from Spain doesn't pretend to be 2005's answer to Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, but it's a noteworthy and generally decent (if slightly uneven) demonstration of the fact that smooth jazz doesn't have to be schlock.

Postcards from Spain, Lesley Spencer and the Latin Chamber Pop Ensemble
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