Mellow Fellows

One day Nehls discovered that a company in Japan had used "Gold Coast" (he never bothered to find out for what), resulting in a royalties check for $2500.

"The thing that's so funny about that," Nehls says of the song, "is that all the musicians I worked with hated it. They'd say, 'That is the shittiest, simplest, dumbest piece of music I've ever heard.' And all of a sudden I started making money off it."

Nehls retitled the piece "Suenos de Oro" and put it on Palm Tree Way. He's found that it's the song to which people react best, regardless of how his colleagues feel about it. "This is something I'm continually trying to get away from," he notes. "I go, 'It may be shit to you guys, but it makes people happy.'"

Palm Tree Way was basically played and recorded in Nehls' living room on his own equipment. Because Nehls can't afford to pay many musicians for their time, most of the album was done with MIDI technology (a way of preprogramming various synthesizers to play pieces of music). "I would kill to get a four- or five-piece band together to play my music," he says. But at the moment, he's making ends meet as a drummer and singer for a local band that covers popular tunes, such as rap and Spice Girls songs.

For the classically trained Nehls, now age 42, getting a handle on the New Adult Contemporary format has been tough. "I'm just trying to write something that people can put on during their outdoor barbecue on Sundays," he says. "It's not jazz. It might be contemporary jazz, or what I call 'Kenny G clone music.'"

Nehls adds, "I had one piece I wanted to put on Palm Tree Way called 'Restful Thoughts,' but it was too New Age-y. And this was supposed to be sort of a yuppie-jazz album."

That seems a fair description of New Adult Contemporary in general, and one that few in the field would dispute. According to Gregg Steele, program director for Love 94, the station's audience is educated, predominantly male, and grew up listening to FM rock radio in the Seventies. That was an era, Steele points out, "when rock was more jazz-tinged. Bands like Traffic and Steely Dan had an improvisational nature to them. And that was the time when FM radio was becoming more popular, with bands like Genesis, sort of arty and experimental. And the males in the age range we're shooting at grew up listening to that."

During the Seventies the jazz-rock blend called "fusion" was a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn't all soft stuff back then: Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, and Chick Corea often used rock stylings to amplify the edgier aspects of jazz. During the Eighties, however, it seemed that fusion meant mixing jazz with pop -- not rock -- and groups such as Spyro Gyra and the Yellowjackets became the biggest names in the field.

At the same time, radio stations began focusing more intently on adult listeners with established tastes, as opposed to fickle teens whose loyalties changed with the ever-shifting Top 40. The result was narrower formatting and the rise of soft rock in the Seventies, followed by New Age in the Eighties. It was probably inevitable that the sounds would merge.

"Our primary fan is usually a more educated fan," notes Steele. "It's someone who grew up listening to rock music, and they've appreciated what rock music was at the time -- and now it's evolved into something else."

Its current manifestation is a predominantly instrumental form of mellow pop music in which traditional jazz instruments (saxophone or piano, for instance) are the predominant voices, although synthesizers and electric guitars are commonly used to round out the sound.

The difference between New Adult Contemporary and "real" jazz is hard to pin down; still, few would confuse the two. For Whit Sidener, chairman of the Studio Music and Jazz Department at the University of Miami, the litmus test is in the artist's ability to improvise.

"So much pop-jazz is real slick and calculated," says Sidener, "and it's created in small doses so that it will fit into radio programming. And in straight-ahead jazz, the musician does what his musical psyche tells him to do, not thinking so much about airplay."

Sidener cites the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, famous for his ability to venture miles away from a basic melody during a solo. Smooth jazz artists, Sidener notes, restrict their improvisational flights to "eight bars here and eight bars there."

"The pop genre is pentatonic," Sidener explains, "with a five-note scale, or blues scale, and a sax player just plays vanilla stuff up and down, over and over, running it real fast, with a squally kind of sound. And people like it."

The Fort Lauderdale saxophonist Sha Shaty, perhaps the most successful smooth-jazz artist in the area today, feels little need to defend himself against the criticism of jazz purists. "Smooth jazz is the music for the stressed-out, upper-middle-class, 30- to 40-year-old audience," he says frankly. "They don't want to be put to sleep, but they don't want music to add to the stress in their lives."

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