Mellow Fellows

In the radio business, it's known as the New Adult Contemporary format, or NAC, though more descriptive terms might be "smooth jazz," "New Age," "easy listening," or simply "background music." Or as one L.A. Times writer described it, "instrumental wallpaper."

Its most famous practitioners are the pianists Jim Brickman (who performs Friday at Bailey Concert Hall in Davie), John Tesh, and Yanni -- and, of course, the saxophonist Kenny G. They get about as much critical respect as commercial jingle writers -- Brickman was one before he embarked on his solo career -- but they're some of the best-selling artists in the music business. Last week Brickman, Yanni, and Kenny G each had a release in the top 50 of Billboard's album chart.

In the Fort Lauderdale area, the smooth-jazz station Love 94 (WLVE-FM) boasts the highest number of listeners age 35 and older. Its mellow, mostly instrumental music is the aural equivalent of Chianti: light, relaxing, and goes good with anything. But two local artists, Tommy Nehls and Sha Shaty, have found that breaking into the easy listening market is no easy task.

There are probably more labels, managers, and booking agents for smooth-jazz artists than for rock bands. But smooth jazz also tends to take fewer chances on unknown talent. Jim Brickman seemed instinctively to know this when, sometime in the early Nineties, he quit the jingle-writing business, produced a CD of his instrumental piano tunes, and began driving around the U.S. visiting radio stations and offering them copies.

"I think it was one of the first times these radio stations had had somebody visit them," recalls Brickman, speaking by phone from Toledo, Ohio, a stop on his national tour. "In Adult Contemporary radio, Whitney Houston doesn't stop by the radio station too often. Elton John, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins -- they're big artists. It wasn't the same as country music, where there's a ton of up-and-comers all the time."

Brickman's gambit worked. "I think the personal connection was the thing that helped me get my record deal," he says. "I went to the label and said, 'All these stations are playing my record -- why don't you give me a deal?'" The label, Windham Hill, agreed, and in 1994 Brickman's song "Rocket to the Moon" (from his debut, No Words) became the first solo instrumental recording to break into the top 40 of Billboard's singles chart.

Brickman is no stranger to the business side of music. Before becoming a solo artist he founded Brickman Arrangement, for which he wrote perhaps his best-known works: tunes for Purina Puppy Chow, AT&T, Flintstones Vitamins ("ten million strong... and growing"), and General Electric ("We bring good things to life"). In his new career, Brickman runs a tight ship, retaining control of his publicity, booking, and touring. He downplays his popularity to avoid overexposure and makes it a policy after concerts to chat with fans in the lobby.

At least one colleague has told him he obsesses over his career. "The motivation behind that is for people to hear my music," he explains. "Everything that drives me from a business standpoint is driven from an interest in my career. Record companies are bottom-line companies, whether they're selling widgets or CDs. Love 'em to death, but that's the way they are. What I'm getting at is, no matter how much I love my music, if it wasn't for the CDs and the radio, I wouldn't get to do what I do. It's a 24-hour-a-day focus. And the music part is the dessert, the benefit, the treat."

For Tommy Nehls, a Fort Lauderdale musician and composer, Brickman's career could serve as a model. Nehls recently pressed 1000 copies of his self-produced CD Palm Tree Way, which he's been hawking everywhere from Love 94 to the Nature Company to Publix supermarkets. A college station in Gainesville has agreed to air one of its tracks, and the Publix on Davie Boulevard near 35th Avenue agreed to sell copies of the ten-song CD on consignment. But several boxes full of Palm Tree Way are still sitting near the front door in Nehls' house.

"I don't want to write something that's musically acclaimed," Nehls says. "I want to write something that will make me some money. I also want to write something that will make people react, that will make people go, 'That makes me feel sad, or happy, or sticks in my mind.'"

Like Brickman, Nehls has written his share of commercial music. Basketball fans may recognize one of Nehls' upbeat compositions as the Miami Heat's theme music, which ran as part of the team's TV advertisements for a number of years. Nehls has also written tunes for Singer, Burdines, and Disney World.

Around 1993 Nehls had the idea to put out a solo CD called Tradewinds. He took a demo to an agent, who purchased it for use as background music for various TV productions -- what Nehls calls "functional needle-drop music." The Tradewinds CD cover sports the following description of its contents: "Luscious evocation of the exotic rhythms, sounds, landscapes, and atmospheres of the tropics for fashion, travel, panoramas, seascapes, and adventure." It features tracks such as "Spice Island," "Balmy Shores," and "Gold Coast."

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."

The slight, dark-haired 27-year-old, born Joe Shashaty, is a native Miamian but has been performing for six years on the Fort Lauderdale scene. He regularly appears at O'Hara's Pub and Jazz Cafe, where he plays with the virtuoso guitarist Marc Vee. (The duo will perform there on Monday night.)

Sha Shaty began playing saxophone when he was seventeen. "I saw this music flourishing," he recalls, "and it was intriguing, because as a young musician you want to see a place you can possibly fit into."

In 1993 Sha Shaty released an eponymously titled debut that met, for the most part, with positive reviews. The critic for the Miami Herald called it "Kenny G with guts." Sha Shaty later opened for such big-name acts as Al Jarreau, Melissa Manchester, and George Benson. He also recorded commercial music for Burdines and Pleasure Island (the Disney World nightclub where he has also performed).

Last year he released his second CD, Voices in My Head, featuring a smooth-jazz version of Santana's "Samba Pa Ti." Though added to the album as an afterthought, "Samba Pa Ti" has become the saxophonist's biggest breakthrough in the NAC market. Love 94, along with four other Florida stations, added the song to their playlists.

"Because of our large fan base, we were able to get the song on Love 94," Sha Shaty says. "The radio station just jumped on it. We've moved from being a South Florida band to being a regional act. It took some time."

The past year started out slowly, Sha Shaty admits, with much downtime and more than one rained-out concert. But with the encouragement of corporate sponsorship (from Absolut Vodka) and the support of Cellar Door Productions (the heavyweight concert promoter), Sha Shaty is preparing to push his music to radio stations across the nation.

His chances of succeeding look good. There are approximately 50 smooth-jazz stations in the U.S., and the number is likely to grow. Nationally, advertising revenues for smooth-jazz stations rose 75 percent over the last three years.

"I think it's really intriguing," Sha Shaty says of the format. "I've been bold enough to compare it to Motown, which was also a brand-new sound coming out of nowhere."

Jim Brickman performs at 8 p.m. on Friday at Bailey Concert Hall, 3501 SW Davie Rd., Davie. Tickets cost $26. Call 954-475-6884 for more information. Sha Shaty and Marc Vee perform at 9 p.m. on Monday at O'Hara's Pub and Jazz Cafe, 722 E Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-524-1764 for more information.

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