March 2000

Smooth jazz news

By Brian Soergel

Chris Standring goes Retro

Like any umbrella term, “smooth jazz” has its limitations. The genre offers true smooth players, such as Peter White and Tom Grant. It has composers who skirt along the edges of smooth jazz while keeping an eye on electronica and the dance floor: Philippe Saisse comes to mind. There are many more sub-categories, such as Latin-fusion (Ray Obiedo), flamenco (Ottmar Liebert), and—of course—the smooth-grooving R&B practiced by many, including Najee, Gerald Veasley and the Braxton Brothers.

Smooth jazz truly knows no time boundaries, as artists look to the future in creating 21st century soundscapes. Some musicians, however combine both past and present to create one of the genre’s hottest new sounds: retro ’60s. Three guitarists have recently time-traveled back to a groovy, bell-bottomed place: Grant Geissman tipped his hat to Ramsey Lewis’ funk-jazz with “In With the Out Crowd.” And Brian Hughes recently tripped back to the land of wah-wah guitars, go-go girls and James Bond with “Shakin’, Not Stirred.”

And now there is the smashing release of “Hip Sway,” Chris Standring’s follow-up to his debut CD on Instinct, “Velvet.”
“I’ve always had a fascination with the ’60s and ’70s,” says the 39- year-old musician, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Studio City. “To me, a ’90s influence would be the ’60s and ’70s. I actually don’t know what music of the ’90s is. It’s a dull sound, if anything; there was nothing specific about the ‘90s.”

“Velvet,” released in 1998, introduced Standring to the smooth jazz world after years of session work and touring, including the “Guitars, Saxes & More” gigs in 1996 with Rick Braun, Marc Antoine, Kirk Whalum and Peter White; he also raised his profile the last two years at the annual Catalina Island Jazz Festival. “Velvet” spent more than four months on the charts, reaching No. 10 on the Gavin Report and No. 9 on Radio & Records. It all helped Art Good’s JazzTrax select Standring as the debut artist of the year for 1998.

While “Hip Sway” continues the great sounds and memorable melodies of “Velvet,” Standring says he didn’t want to make “Velvet 2.” “Every record that I do I try to make it somehow cohesive in a slightly different direction. I’m not interested in just writing a bunch of new songs and making a record. There’s always an overall vibe in what I’m trying to do. On this one it was the whole ‘60s movement, which was not so apparent on ‘Velvet.’ It’s like taking the retro soul of the ‘60s and fusing in with the very contemporary drum-and-bass sound.”

Standring grabs many of his ideas when listening to Los Angeles radio station KCRW, which includes imported and DJ-led music in its eclectic lineup. “It’s usually club music I hear on imports coming out of Europe. A lot of it is drum-and-bass; I find it really inspiring. I like to figure out how to make it accessible as smooth jazz, to use the songs as a template—obviously not to rip off the songs, just the vibe and idea, and take it to a different place.” Standring’s modern influences happily co-exist with his love for bebop and the music of American icons such as Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker.

It was as a child in England that Standring’s first musical inklings came to the surface while growing up on a farm in remote Tetchwick, Buckinghamshire, which he says is a “tiny, tiny village about 12 miles from anywhere.” He remembers playing with toy guitars and having his first lessons at age six. His love of rock was put in the background when he enrolled at London College of Music, where he studied classical guitar. After a couple of years of inactivity (I was literally out of work for three years”), Standring assembled a band and got work recording commercial jingles and even playing in the orchestra pit during West End performances of Broadway standards like “Evita” and “42nd Street.”

Although he has traveled back and forth between London and Los Angeles, Standring made his move to LA for good in 1991, where he got gigs on the strength of a recording he made in London. With partner Rodney Lee, Standring in 1996 released an acid-jazz venture they called “Solarsystem.”

Lee, who also plays piano as a member of Los Angeles jazz band B Sharp Quartet, remains an integral part of Standring’s musical world. “Without Rodney I think I would be doing a different type of music,” Standring says. “He’s coming from an R&B place and he’s really into experimental music, with a strongly rooted background in bebop. That’s why we get along so well.”

After writing and performing on Rick Braun’s “Body and Soul” CD, Standring was ready for his solo career. The new CD leads off with the title track, “Hip Sway”, which is the first single and includes Richard Elliot on sax, who Standring toured with in 1999. The ’60s vibe continues with “Glamour Girls.” “I had this idea that these scantily clad women would be dancing; I also love Steely Dan and the changes they did in their music. There’s also a horn arrangement Tom Scott might have done in the ’80s.” Two covers enhance the retro feel, although they are from the ’70s: the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” and 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” The latter was recorded during production for “Velvet;” “How Deep Is Your Love” was a song Standring recorded for a “smooth jazz does disco”CD shepherded by Instinct president Gerald Helm. “I wanted to make the song real lounge-y,” Standring says with obvious affection for the scmaltzy tune from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack.

Standring sprinkles pop culture references throughout his work, such as on “Big Feet…Big Shoes,” taken from a line from Julia Roberts to Hugh Grant in the movie “Notting Hill.” “Big Pant People,” which has a retro hip-hop groove, was given its title after Standring had visions of young kids wearing massive pants. And “What Is Is,” which has Standring’s voice at the beginning of the song, is a riff inspired by President Bill Clinton’s infamous remark regarding his liaison with Monica Lewinsky. “That was a phrase he actually used in court,” Standring says. “I wonder how many people are going to spot that.”

"I’ve always had a fascination with the ’60s and ’70s"

On “Velvet,” the title song - with insistent drumming and noodling guitar lines - is the experimental track. On “Hip Sway” it’s “Ultraviolet,” which has a drum-and-bass sound and lyrical guitar that dance around an acoustic guitar lick that is the foundation of the song.

When not composing and touring— he will open for Boney James and Rick Braun in London in a show sponsored by London radio station Jazz FM.

Standring is a self-described “html code writing Internet geek in his spare time.” He owns and operates two Web sites, A&R on-line at, and The latter is where you can learn all about the artist, from tour status and “25 little-known facts about Chris Standring” to information about the types of guitars he uses. A&R On-line, taken from the music industry term “artist and repertoire,” is more ambitious, a project Standring began last year in an effort to promote unsigned artists. Musicians in all genres can send in music, and up to three are featured each month. “Record company executives can listen, and if they want to contact further they can.” Right now, Standring listens to all the music himself, but one day envisions hiring staff due to the site’s popularity. He also hopes to secure advertising. “I’ve always got a kick out of helping people who are not in such a fortunate position as somebody like me, who is signed. This is a very effective way to get to that next place without having to beat down the record company door. I’m acting as a tip sheet by recommending these people.’

Standring is “excitingly single, and I have a cat that keeps me company.” Even with his busy schedule, he says fans can expect new and exciting music in the future. I’m really interested in taking every record to a new place. The obvious way to go is the much more universally accepted route, like George Benson-type R&B. But I’m not sure where I fit into that, because I’m much more attracted to experimental music. I’m always going to come out with stuff that I hope radio will want to play, but I’m interested in experimental music and crossing over things, but in an accessible way. I’m certainly not into artsy-fartsy compositions for the sake of being deep. Fusing genres is very interesting to me.”