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The Zone – Topaz

Velour Recordings 68748-00106-2

The same conversation has happened many times over the years with strangers who find out my career of choice. (The short version)

"You write about music? Wow, that's must be a great job! You get all
those free CDs!"

"Yes but I have to listen to them!" has become my stock reply.

In other words, a free CD isn't worth all that much if it's your job to wade through the wasteland of sound in search of a little nugget of gold.

What brought this up? I'm listening to a sparkling box of riches at this
moment. And it's one of those times where my work does offer
some of the best rewards. I wasn't familiar with Topaz as a musical unit,
only as a gemstone. That was, until I was sent a copy to review for this
of Some may feel I'm behind the times. Others may be in
with what I'm saying. Either way, it's a fact and I can do little about it
other than get on to why, at this moment, I'm pleased to be a music writer.

Led by the tenor saxophone player whose unit bears his name, Topaz
travels amidst a jazz format that's less funk and more soul than some of its

In the past months, I've dealt with new releases by Robert Walter and
Action Figure Party. Like those artists – and even to some degree the latest
by Karl Denson – Topaz selectively uses groove as a method to capture your
mind and body. In this case, it's a matter of intertwining sax, trombone,
organ, guitar, bass and drums in a manner that flows by as quickly as the
Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite half of the numbers clocking in
over six minutes long, the music sweeps by until the album is finished and
you're obligated to push 'play' on the CD player to experience it another

The slow-burning intensity of "Naked" acts as a counterpoint to the rest of the tracks. Initially, I disliked it for that reason but, eventually, came to enjoy it for showing another side of the band.

Much praise should be given to Topaz as bandleader, writer and producer.
He seems to understand the strengths of the musicians and allows the
spotlight to shine on them without interference. I bring this up for the
opportunity to mention trombonist Squantch. I'm so used to sax solos that
idea of a trombone becoming the focal point in a number (i.e. the title
track) makes it that much more exciting. Still, the contributions by the
rest of the band are just as invaluable – a locked rhythmic groove, effective keyboard and guitar flourishes.

There's a retro feel to the proceedings (a mid-to late '70s feel?), particularly because modern touches such as hip-hop elements are absent and Wurlitzer organ is there. That's fine by me. What works for one artist doesn't for another. In the end, it's a question of whether the pieces of the musical jigsaw puzzle fit nicely together. Here, they do. My only gripe about The Zone is that the production is unnecessarily smooth. The clarity is nearly undermined by the hermetically sealed sound. It's a dangerous step from being able to offer something to those who love jazz and those who love jam to those who love something merely melodically appealing, safe and comforting (ala the pop jazz artists) material. Something just a tad rougher would just as effectively grab listeners. Ultimately, the performances of Topaz keep the songs from falling into the latter category.

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