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 compelled 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.
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