Album Review of Robert Lee Balderrama: The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz (Bullfrog Records)
Robert Lee “Bobby” Balderrama is a genuine rock ‘n roll legend. He was an original member of Saginaw/Bay City, Michigan band Question Mark and The Mysterians. They recorded one of the most pivotal and essential songs in the pop music lexicon, with the proto-punk classic “96 Tears.” Even to this day, tune into Sirius XM’s ‘60s channel or watch key vintage TV shows or movies and you could very well hear keyboardist Frankie Rodriguez’s signature organ figure that kicks off that tune.
Well, all that hoopla took place back in the mid-‘60s when Bobby and company were just teenagers. Fast forward to the present where Balderrama has spent the last 30 years or more reinventing himself as a blues and jazz player. In particular, the guitar styles of George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Carlos Santana, and others have informed his sweet and smooth musical approach. His new release The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz is the culmination of decades dedicated to his contemporary take on the improvisational art form.
The album opens with the breezy and samba-fueled sounds of “Santa Cruz.” Balderrama’s stinging guitar coupled with Rodriguez’s bright and billowy keyboards fill things out rather nicely. Structurally, the tune volleys between two distinct sections, with Tom Barsheff’s mellow tenor sax bringing it all together.
“Para Los Dos (For the Two of Us)” is a lovely ballad that sits comfortably as a romantic or meditative piece. Its drifting and languid feel inspires some beautiful and evocative solos from the leader.
“El Camino Rio” features dense percussion by wife Amy Lynn Balderrama and a moderate-to-uptempo groove. The cha-cha rhythms take a swinging detour as Jack Nash’s walking bass sparks things into overdrive.
“Sintiendo Tu Hechizo (Feeling Your Spell)” is a Latin track written by Liliana Rokita. Balderrama brings a flamenco flair to the instrumental tune, blending acoustic and electric guitars for dramatic effect.
“On Beat Street” finds Rodriguez’s ethereal sound design and textures being the star. His work provides a nice bed that gives Balderrama’s Wes Montgomery-meets-Pat Martino fluidity a place to flourish.
“Happy & Go Lucky” made a bit of a splash on national smooth jazz charts. Its buoyant, jubilant melody takes on an Asian persona. It’s also got a crisp and snappy feel.
“Jaz Dude” is another Balderrama composition that features a cool, west coast-type vibe. It is free and open, with some nice turnarounds and changes. It’s also very funky, the way certain textures and melodic elements float in and out.
“Estrella” has a solid pocket via Rudy Levario’s uplifting drums. This is also another example of Balderrama putting the emphasis on melody and atmosphere over gratuitous chops.
Conversely, “Ronnie’s Vibe” is a chops fest! This one swings ebulliently, with plenty of room for all to blow, guided by guest Pete Woodman’s stellar drumming.
“Out of This World” is kind of a digital about-face from some of the jazzier stuff here. It offers value in its heavy danceability and groove.
The 11th track on the album is a bonus tune by the group Le Sonic called “Any Moment.” Balderrama and Rodriguez are the principal co-writers, and it recently hit #1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Charts. The spacey and seductive two-chord vamp of keyboards and rhythms provides the backbeat for Balderrama’s signature guitar, along with moody vocals and trumpet. It’s a nice piece and a soothing way to conclude this stellar collection.