Since the 1980s, Richard Elliot has been among the top saxophonists in what has come to be called smooth jazz-an accessible, groove-oriented style that combines elements of jazz, pop and, quite often, R&B. When the leading smooth jazz saxophonists are listed, Elliot's name appears alongside chart-topping players like Kenny G, Dave Koz, Najee, and Boney James. But if Elliot had to categorize his music, he wouldn't necessarily call it jazz-at least not in the traditional sense. The Los Angeles-based tenor saxman tends to think of himself as essentially an R&B instrumentalist with jazz influences. Soul and funk are his foundation-Elliot, after all, spent five years with Tower of Power-and he celebrates his soul/funk heritage on his latest GRP release Ricochet.
"In some respects, this record is a return to my roots," Elliot says of Ricochet. "I consider myself more of an R&B artist than a jazz artist, and I felt I was really exploring my R&B roots on this album. In my younger days, I tended to make eclectic records. But on my last few records, I tried to have more of a commonality-and on Ricochet, there is always an R&B thread."
That isn't to say that Ricochet is devoid of jazz or pop elements-like his previous releases, this instrumental album is very much a part of the contemporary jazz idiom. Nor is Elliot saying that he forgot about his R&B heritage on any of his previous CDs; Elliot has usually favored the more R&B-influenced side of jazz. But if all of Elliot's albums underscore his soul/funk roots to some degree, Ricochet finds him being even more R&B-minded than usual. From tough, sweaty funk-jazz smokers like "Sly" (which was named after the legendary Sly Stone) and "Slam" to the dusky "Corner Pocket" and a sentimental remake of The Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New," Ricochet is the type of album that puts the soul in smooth jazz.
While "ricochet" is often heard in relation to firearms, Elliot is using the word in a metaphorical way. He explains: "The cover of Ricochet shows people in a pool hall. People are playing pool, interacting and really bouncing off of each other. The concept was people ricocheting off of each other-people touching each other. I treated the Ricochet concept like a metaphor for the game of life."
Ricochet finds Elliot joining forces with a variety of accomplished musicians and producers. This album called for participants with strong R&B credentials, and Elliot has exactly that in guitarist Tony Maiden (who backed Chaka Khan when he was part of Rufus in the 1970s), veteran percussionist Lenny Castro (a ubiquitous session player) and guitarist Robbie Nevil (who is best known for his 1986 smash "C'est La Vie"). One of the album's keyboardists is the multi-faceted Jeff Lorber, who has recorded everything from intellectual jazz-fusion to groove-oriented urban contemporary. Ricochet's executive producer is Bud Harner, VP of A&R for The Verve Music Group and one of the top A&R men in the contemporary jazz field.
Lorber and Elliot both do their share of producing on Ricochet, and the album's other producers include Steven Dubin, bassist Ronnie Garret, and keyboardist Rex Rideout. There was a time when Elliot preferred to do all of his own producing, but these days, he enjoys the input that he gets from others.
"I used to produce all of my records by myself," Elliot recalls. "But along the way, I decided that I wanted people to help me with the production so that I could put all of my energy into playing the saxophone and writing-and I found that to be a very liberating experience. When the time came to do this record, I picked the producers I wanted to collaborate with-and everyone had their own ideas. At the same time, I wanted all of the material to have a common thread."
When Ricochet was in the planning stages, Elliot realized that different types of songs would call for different producers. He notes: "I got different feedback from Jeff than I got from Ronnie Garrett and Rex Rideout. Jeff tends to be a little more edgy and aggressive than the other producers I worked with on this record-he tends to push the limit more, and he was perfect for songs like 'Ricochet' and 'Slam.' Those songs are very funky and off the wall."
Together, Lorber and Elliot wrote "Slam" (which was inspired by the late Roger Troutman, founder of the 1980s funk band Zapp), the infectious "Sake for Two" and Ricochet's title track. Meanwhile, Elliot and Lorber wrote the moody "Rendezvous" with Steven Dubin.
Elliot goes on to say: "The more sentimental songs are the ones I co-wrote with Rex and Ronnie." Those include "Sweet Memories" as well as "Seven Sacred Pools," which has a slight Latin influence but without straying from Ricochet's R&B orientation.
The only song on Ricochet that Elliot didn't co-write is an instrumental version of The Stylistics' 1974 smash "You Make Me Feel Brand New," which was among the many soul ballads that came out of Philadelphia (Lorber's home town) in the 1970s. Although Elliot is faithful to the song's romantic nature, he makes it more rhythmic. "I've had a reputation for doing anthem-like ballads," Elliot explains, "but I didn't want to play 'You Make Me Feel Brand New' as an anthem. Instead, I wanted to throw a rhythmic pulse underneath the saxophone."
One of the things that Elliot doesn't do on Ricochet is feature a guest vocalist. Except for the use of background vocals on the gospel-tinged "So Good," Ricochet is totally instrumental. "In the past, having guest vocalists on my records was a conscious thing," Elliot points out. "This time, I felt that if the right vocalist came along, great-and if not, I wasn't going to force it. I wasn't going to feature a vocalist just for the sake of featuring a vocalist. Sometimes, a vocal tune can help to break things up on a mostly instrumental album-especially if you're playing the same instrument on every song. But as it turned out, a guest vocalist wasn't necessary on this album. The record was standing on its own without the help of a vocal tune."
For someone who is so R&B-minded, Elliot was born in a country that is best known for bagpipes and Celtic music. Elliot was born in Scotland-the country that gave us the Average White Band-but he grew up in Los Angeles. And it was in L.A. that he started to make a name for himself as a session player in the 1970s, when he had a lucrative relationship with Motown Records and backed soul heavyweights like Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. After backing pop singer Melissa Manchester on tour, Elliot joined Tower of Power's horn section in 1982 and remained with that famous funk band until 1987. Elliot was still with Tower of Power when he signed with Manhattan Records and started recording instrumental solo albums. By the end of the 1980s, he was a major name in smooth jazz. He stayed with Manhattan/Blue Note until the late 1990s before moving to GRP with 2001's Crush; Ricochet is his second album for GRP. In addition to his career as a musician, Elliot was the founder of PacificNet, an Internet multimedia company and is also a pilot who often flies to his own performances.
Asked how he has evolved over the years-and how Ricochet reflects that evolution-Elliot responds: "I feel like I've evolved in many ways, but if I had to single out one thing, I would say that I've learned to pace myself. When you're younger, you feel like you have to prove everything all at once-you feel like you have to get all your licks out and show people everything you can do right away. But one of the things that comes with maturity is realizing that you don't have to pull every trick out of your bag all at once. You realize that it's OK to pace yourself when you play, and I think that Ricochet reflects that realization. I think this album acknowledges my roots and at the same time, reflects my growth and maturity as an artist."