The title of Steve Cole's third recording, NY LA, may trip on the East Coast-meets-West Coast hipness factor of his fresh and crackling brand of smooth sax jazz, but the soul in his music definitely has more than a few touches of the R&B/blues influence of his hometown, Chicago. The saxman's trademark sound is a sizzling mix of modern funk textures and neo-soul sensibilities mixed with quick, catchy hooks and feisty horn textures on the choruses. He's primarily a tenor player, but keeps the listener interested with tracks that cater to his skills on alto and soprano as well. His rise to genre stardom perfectly paralleled smooth jazz's tendency in the latter '90s and beyond to embrace the old and new R&B grooves.
The son of a semi-pro clarinet and sax player, Cole trained classically, first on the clarinet before switching to the sax in high school. He continued his musical studies at Northwestern University and was among the winners of the annual Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Young Artists competition. Even while earning a degree in economics and later an M.B.A., he switched his musical focus to his truer loves, R&B and jazz, and became a staple on Chicago's club scene. He's kept great company over the years, starting with Junior Wells and pianist Bob Mamet. Cole's smooth jazz breakthrough was his several-year side gig with Brian Culbertson, which led to his working with the keyboardist (also a Windy City native) on tracks that evolved into Stay Awhile, one of smooth jazz's biggest sensations of 1998. The success of his debut and its three hit radio singles also ensured Cole's success at the 2000 Oasis Smooth Jazz Awards, where he won the Prism Award for Best New Artist.
In between Stay Awhile and 2002's Between Us (also produced by Culbertson), Cole kept busy playing with his own band and as a sideman with Dave Koz, Marc Antoine and Peter White (on a U.K. tour), Rick Braun, and Larry Carlton. Between Us featured the hit singles "Got It Going On" and "From the Start," as well as a snazzy cover of TLC's "Waterfalls." Cole's most enduring relationship is the one with Culbertson, and his sax graces three of the keyboardist's hit recordings. Culbertson helms some tracks on NY LA, but Cole expands beyond his usual sonic edges by also working with fellow saxman David Mann and the tandem Sonic Soul, who introduce vocals to the Cole mix for the first time. NY LA was recorded in both cities with top sidemen like bassist Will Lee, guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., percussionist Lenny Castro, and former Miles Davis keyboardist Darren Johnson. Rather than simply repeat the creative ideas of Cole's first two hits, the album effortlessly bridges the gap between instrumental virtuosity, seamless ensemble playing, and a high-caliber creative chemistry that runs the stylistic gamut. Cole subsequently released two albums during the 2000s: Spin in 2005 and True in 2006.
In 2011, Cole delivered the orchestral covers album Moonlight, featuring songs by James Taylor, Burt Bacharach, Sarah McLachlan, Paul McCartney, and others. The contemporary funk and smooth jazz-oriented Pulse followed two years later. In 2016, Cole released his eighth studio album, Turn It Up, featuring the single, "Mirage." ~ Jonathan Widran