By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Anybody who caught Prince's tour last fall witnessed two small miracles of nature. One was a 42-year-old man cram his petite, wiry frame into suits, capes and ankle-length coats that looked like leftovers from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert's wardrobe while dancing around in stilt-like high heels, inciting every future adult entertainer to take mental notes. The other was saxophonist Najee get funky.
That's not to say that Najee isn't capable of bump-and-grind blowing. He certainly showed he knows what the sound is all about when he edged as close as he ever has to jazz proper with his tribute cum instrumental interpretation of Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life in 1995. Still, hearing Najee dig into tenor runs designed to get bottoms out of seats rather than keep them firmly planted in them is odd for an artist who is so enthusiastically associated with the easy listening radio format called smooth jazz.
Along with Milquetoast artists such as Kenny G, the Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra, Najee has found gold in turning the instrumental approach of late 1970s jazz fusion into polished pop. That Najee initially made a name for himself prancing around a soprano sax's high register only cements his early, modest aspirations further, opting for the instrument most associated with the format since the early '80s. But over the course of his seven albums during which he's occasionally displayed some adroit talents on the tenor, alto and flute, Najee every once in a while reveals his roots, and it makes you think that he's not such a vapid chump. He's trying to craft sly, moving funk-soul hybrids that recall the rather compelling work of soul and R&B pop of the 1970s, but by the time the production's finished, all that's left is the skeleton of a groove, a lifeless body that just can't move.
Those seeds of influence go a long way to explaining his commercial success, however. He's mining a sound that has completely disappeared from pop music today, music that provided the soundtrack to a certain generation of Americans who grew up listening to the Commodores, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Rufus, Teddy Pendergrass, Grover Washington Jr. and Smokey Robinson. These artists and their lesser-known contemporaries represent an entire genre that's been left behind by the rise of hop-hop and synth pop. Admittedly, genre benders such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def and Outkast certainly acknowledge their debt to this generation's lasting influence. But for adults old enough to remember Luther Vandross' good and bad hairstyle decisions, Najee and his smooth-jazz kin come closest to reinvigorating the mellow, romantic moods of their time. Sure, it makes you wish that Najee would dare to be as inventive as Earth, Wind, and Fire or Washington. But the real crime is that true jazz cats like the recently departed Joe Henderson couldn't sell half--hell, a quarter--as many records as Najee during his lifetime.