Popjazz by Warren Hill – reviewed by Chris Mann


Saxman Warren Hill grew up in Toronto listening to Led Zeppelin, Rush, The Who, and the Rolling Stones. As a teenager he led his basement rock band as guitarist and vocalist, gigging in local clubs.  

Hill had also played the saxophone since age 11 and it became his principal instrument during a summer spent in New York studying jazz at the Eastman School of Music.  He was exposed to the music of David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. 

After a year of studying physics, Hill enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, quickly becoming their star player, and realised that music (and the sax) was his true calling.  His commitment to practising hard every day led to a graduation performance so good that he was approached by producer Russ Titelman to play on Chaka Khan's record “Baby Me”.

Following graduation, Hill moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and immediately his demo tape began to circulate. In 1991, signed to Atlantic Records, Hill's debut album “Kiss Under the Moon” rose quickly up the charts and caught the attention of Natalie Cole. This led to Hill's first big break when Cole invited him to be the opening act on her "Unforgettable" tour. 

This was just the start of a string of successful albums, songwriting awards and high-profile film and TV work.  One of his major projects for late 2005 is the production of yet another Smooth Jazz Cruise.  The most recent cruise provided the launch pad for this, his tenth solo release, his first for the Native Language label. 

The great brassy intro to the opener Toronto is very much a teaser as the intensity of the rhythm builds.  This is a really funky number and Hill’s alto blowing on here reminds me of some seriously funky moments from 1990’s albums by Sanborn and Candy Dulfer.  This is good-time music.  The chugging intro to Play that Funky Music doesn’t immediately tell you what’s coming up.  This is rhythmically heavy and you only momentarily miss the vocal.  Heck – everyone knows the song so well, you hear the lyric in your head anyway! 

I love the contrast between the ethereal, reverbed sax and the upfront, meaty bass on Under the Covers.  On this midtempo song, there are some nice changes of mood created by subtle rhythm guitar licks and a breakdown where the sax sounds almost like it’s under water.  This is very classy with some fine blowing.  The Interlude, a solo steel-strung classical guitar piece is exotic and haunting.  The acoustic guitar on the intro to Still in Love is also very pretty.  The song sounds instantly familiar and though the arrangement sounds formulaic, this won’t harm its radio play. 

The strangely-titled Virgin Gorda opens with a radio bleep/morse code sound effect over a chunky beat.  The synths on this song are very atmospheric and that soprano sax is as sweet as can be.  In fact only the sound effects and the occasional strange backbeat stand in the way of this being the perfect chillout jazz instrumental.  I’ve always loved War’s cruisin’ summer funk anthem Low Rider and here Hill grabs it by the scruff of the neck and it ends up somewhere between Santana, the Fania All-Stars and, well, Warren Hill.  Funky, sassy and with some great percussion from Ronnie Gutierrez.  Ain’t nothing but a party! 

I love “bass ninja” André Berry’s churning lines and the rock-solid drum track on Renewal.  It’s moody and there’s lots of space in that rhythm track during the verse sections for Hill to drop in some phat sax lines.  It’s head-nodding, finger-popping boogie.  Brian McKnight’s lovely Back at One receives an instrumental treatment, with the soprano sax taking the lead line.  This dramatic ballad really builds in intensity and Joey Diggs’ background vocals work well. 

Lennon and McCartney’s rousing Come Together is taken to another realm here.  The horns just blaze on this funky number.  There are no vocals – they’re not needed – and you find yourself singing the chorus anyhow.  Live, this must be completely awesome!  There’s more wild funk on Bridgin’ the Gap, which sounds like one of Candy Dulfer’s pumped-up jams.  The vinyl “scratch” noise on this track hints that “this is how it used to be”.  Well, Mr Hill, I wish this is how it could always be.  The horn licks are Maceo Parker tight and the rhythm cooks and cooks.  Is it a drummer or a drum machine?  I don’t know and after two bars I gave up caring.  My favourite song, this will be blasting my stereo for weeks to come!! 

I bought Warren Hill’s debut CD several years ago and really enjoyed it and I also saw him at Washington’s Capital JazzFest in 1999 where he sounded fantastic.  Even so, I didn’t have any expectations when I put “Popjazz” in my CD player, maybe it was the title.  However, Hill has put together a great band including luminaries such as Norman Brown, Jeff Golub and Brian Culbertson and their talents have been turned to some well-chosen covers and very strong original compositions.  If you read the notes on Warren’s website, it sounds like this project was recorded and mixed in a very unorthodox way while he was touring.  All I can say is that if he delivers the same energy on stage as he has captured on this disc, his audiences must be having a fine, funky time!!




Native Language Records/Popjazz – PJZ0951  Producers – Warren Hill, André Berry, Executive Producers - Warren Hill & Tamara Van Cleef-Hill