By George Halas
First, a couple of disclaimers/spoiler alerts:
If you are fully committed to being in and staying in a bad mood, do not listen to this album.
If you are looking for some music to help put you to sleep, this is probably not your disc either. If your toes work, they will almost assuredly be tapping.
Having seen this band perform live many times, I expected this to be a very good album. Upon further review, it is outstanding. Not every good live band can capture their sound in the studio, but Sly Joe and the Smooth Operators nailed this one.
There are songwriters out there who can’t write a word or note without some horrible break-up, job loss, death in the family or other agonizing pain to fuel the muse. Joe Slyzelia, the Sly Joe of whom we speak, apparently did not get the memo. All of his compositions on this record reflect a strongly positive message and seem to emanate from a place of joy and love. One could argue that Slyzelia would do well at a poetry reading with just his lyrics….
But the band…
In assembling The Smooth Operators to play his “earthy soul with a funky stroll,” Slyzelia has chosen musicians who are not only technically superb but also play with passion and a very accessible sense of fun and good times. The music relies heavily on the rhythm section, which includes WAMI Award-winning drummer Mike Underwood, percussionist Robin Cardell and bassist Dave Jerabek. Ross Catterton, one of Wisconsin’s finest young musicians, rounds out the core group by contributing top-flight saxophone playing and harmony vocals as well as, left to his own devices, some very sharp dance moves.
Many of Slyzelia’s compositions feature well-crafted vocal harmonies, so Farin Ludtke and Leah LaMalia get a vocals credit on virtually every tune.
Slyzelia handles the lead vocals himself with a silky smooth, soothing tenor that truly complements and enhances his writing. He also plays guitar, keyboards, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, bass and, occasionally, drums.
Listening to this record, the words “just right” kept popping into this reviewer’s head. Slyzelia seems to choose just the right beat to convey the emotion of his words, just the right instrumentation, just the right solos and just the right blend of voices to add to the songs without overpowering them, resulting in just the right musical blend.
Vocals dominate the opening track, “The Greatest Night In History”, co-written with Keith Scanlan, who also contributes guitar, bass, synthesizer and drum programming throughout the album. Slyzelia starts it out slowly and softly but ultimately finishing with all The Smooth Operators in full anthem mode.
One needs to know that the volume on most music amps goes up to 10, otherwise “turning your love up to 11” might confuse on “Amplify The Love,” but by the time that line rolls around, Slyzelia’s got you snapping your fingers to an intoxicating beat.
Just about any band can cover a tune by another, but making it one’s own is a different matter. As “A Beautiful Morning” unfolds, even a listener very familiar with The Young Rascals’ original (and yes, they were the young Rascals when that tune hit the charts) won’t see it coming as the Smooth Operators find a sweet spot somewhere on the road from reggae to smooth jazz; the results are fresh and listenable.
Slyzelia channels his inner George Harrison and Paul McCartney as he brings out his ukulele for an engaging “Freefall Into Love,” needing only Cardell’s congas, Jerabek’s upright bass and some smooth harmony vocals to make this one just right.
“Up All Night” is a straight-ahead rocker that rides a steady bass line and kick drum while Catterton adds just the right amount of sax seasoning. The rock continues to pump with “This Moment Amazing,” as Slyzelia and Scanlan demonstrate that they will make studio technology work for them. Scanlan’s bass lines stand out.
The Peabody Sideyard Choir rates a vocal credit on “Funk in Our DNA,” but it’s the Tower of Power-like horn section that just grabs and holds in a soul-funk groove. Catterton’s sax is complemented by Jerabek’s tuba, trombone and trumpet (presumably recorded one at a time). No exaggeration––you can’t help but hear Tower of Power covering this tune.
Everyone and their grandmother has heard the Etta James version and everybody, their grandmothers and everyone who has ever picked up a karaoke mike has covered “At Last,” but again, you don’t hear it coming, and Slyzelia makes it his own with some catchy tempo changes and vocal flavoring.
“Walk You Home” could have been a hit in the 50’s––the 1850’s––and that’s a good thing. Slyzelia uses an acoustic guitar and a banjo to get a traditional American roots tempo going with Irish, Celtic and bluegrass colors woven in through Adria Ramos’ violin. You can dance or march to this tune – it’s fun either way.
“Up Up and Away” is not a cover tune. It begins with just Slyzelia, and acoustic guitar; Ramos and Jerabek (on doublebass) join in but the song remains appetizingly simple with just a couple of subtle sonic flourishes added.
There are rock and funk aspects to “Late Bloomer,” but Slyzelia’s vocals, the harmonies and the beat all say “reggae.” Actually, “good reggae.” He mixes a variety of styles into “I’ve Been Found,” but the part you’ll be singing is the chorus that had this reviewer thinking of the pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers singing an uptempo gospel tune (again, a good thing).
This reviewer’s personal favorite on the album is “I Like You Better.” Co-written with Underwood, it is a an eminently listenable mid-tempo smooth jazz tune with some very cool chord changes accented by Catterton’s best work––they give him plenty of room to play here––and Underwood’s percussive nuances. Think George Benson or Michael Franks. But, in a move that surprises, engages and highly entertains, Underwood drops a most literate and creative hip- hop rap into the middle of the tune that––what can I say––works just right.
I kept finding reasons to keep rewinding “I Like You Better,” but the title track, Miles and Miles To Go, completes the album in fine fashion, with Slyzelia again mixing styles, Ramos’s violin and just the right vocal harmonies in another memorable tune.
Overall, the album is one that transcends any one particular category but is consistently listenable throughout. Like a lot of music with some complexity to it, it sounds better the second time you listen to it.
And you will listen to it a second time.