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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.” This month, we honor:

Philippe Saisse — Boundaries Beware

There are no boundaries in the burgeoning, eclectic career of Grammy-nominated keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer Philippe Saisse.

Saisse, who was a 2011 Grammy nominee for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for his stellar project At World’s Edge, has amassed an impressive discography that is staggering. He brings new meaning to the phrase “reinventing yourself.”

Before his reinvention process began, the Marseilles, France born and Paris-raised multi-hyphenate artist studied piano, music theory and composition at the Paris National Conservatory. Upon graduation from the conservatory in 1975, he earned the distinguished Paul Winter Scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. While at Berklee, he became a proficient vibraphonist under the gifted stewardship of the legendary Gary Burton.

He landed his initial jazz job with ace guitarist Al DiMeola of Return to Forever fame. Subsequent plum gigs included studio sessions with such icons as Chaka Khan and Peabo Bryson. His association with musical icons continued in his collaborations with Gato Barbieri; the Rolling Stones; David Bowie; Al Jarreau, David Sanborn; The B-52s; Rod Stewart; Narada Michael Walden; Nile Rodgers; and renowned producer Phil Ramone, among countless other notables.

By 1988, Saisse penned a solo deal with Windham Hill Records, which led to the release of his debut Valerian. During this time, he accomplished something that was relatively unheard of then—he served as co-musical director (the ubiquitous, electric bassist and multi-talented Marcus Miller; and the late greats George Duke and guitarist Hiram Bullock also served as music directors during the show’s two-year run) for the short-lived, but groundbreaking NBC music television series, Night Music (later called Michelob Presents Night Music).

The show was co-hosted by the inimitable Sanborn and Jools Holland of the British rock band Squeeze. In addition to Saisse, the house band consisted of music heavyweights Miller; Bullock; percussionist Don Alias; and drummer Omar Hakim. The television show was special because of its uncanny ability to join musicians of disparate backgrounds, such as Leonard Cohen; The Red Hot Chili Peppers; Lou Reed; James Taylor; Sonny Rollins; Ashford & Simpson; Abby Lincoln; and Sister Carol. It is no wonder that Saisse possesses such a well-rounded career that enables him to adapt to diverse musical collaborations and situations.

While Saisse, who lived in New York City for decades before moving to the Los Angeles area, where he now resides, is no stranger to collaborating with the big shots in the business, he is equally adept at helming solo projects. After Valerian, he returned to the studio to record the atmospheric Masques, released in 1995 for Verve Records.

Masques reunited Saisse with Miller, who played fretless bass on the brooding “Maurice and Igor” (Saisse’s obvious nod to a pair of his classical music composing heroes Ravel and Stravinsky, respectively). The title track, which remains a favorite among his countless fans, is an introspective, dreamy ballad that accentuates his acoustic piano and synthesizer magic. It seems to transport you virtually to another space and time.

More collaborations were highlighted on Masques with an all-star cast that included trumpeter Chris Botti; saxophonists Kenny Garrett; Kirk Whalum; and Andy Snitzer; drummer Poogie Bell; guitarist Jonathan Butler; and bassists Pino Palladino (with whom he would reunite later on the sonic front); Chris Minh Doky and Victor Bailey; and vocalist Yvette Cason.

The 11 tracks all exemplified the cinematic, exploratory sound that has permeated and defined Saisse’s work through the decades. To watch him perform in videos, he reminds you of the inimitable Herbie Hancock, as he is surrounded by a bank of keyboards that virtually engulf him. But once his hands hit those ivories, there is no mistake that he takes full command and control of all keyboards at his fingertips.

Other CDs at Saisse’s fingertips during the ‘90s were U.S. releases Dream Catcher, Next Voyage, and Halfway ‘Til  Dawn. All were critically acclaimed for his creative approach to the keyboards, and for his expansive imagination that connects with listeners in such an emotionally intimate, and sonically adventurous manner.

And that was just part one of Saisse’s ever expanding sonic adventure and display of his “no boundaries” approach to his expressive and impressive craft.

He wrote and co-produced “Que Paso” on the number one (Rick)Braun-(Richard)Elliot album “RnR;” co-wrote two tunes on trumpeter Braun’s CD Can You Feel It; co-produced and co-composed “Time Never Sleeps” on guitar fan-favorite Peter White’s Here We Go project; co-composed the score for actress Milla Jovovich’s film Faces in the Crowd; scored the music for actress Stana Katic’s (of “Castle” fame) community service documentary Alternative Travel Project; currently composes additional music for the CBS hit television series Madam Secretary; and in 2016, performed on the score for the History Channel’s highly-rated update of the ‘70s award winning Roots mini-series, based on the critically acclaimed, award-winning book by pre-eminent author Alex Haley.

Add to that uber-rich resume his incidental music composed for renowned director Stephen Hopkins’ riveting film Race (The Jesse Owens Story), which starred actor Stephan James. The indefatigable keyboardist was also a member of Dave Koz & The Cosmos, the house band of The Emeril Lagasse Show.

If Saisse’s performing and composing achievements weren’t jaw dropping enough, he was given the title of “Chevalier des Arts et Lettres,” which is one of France’s most illustrious honors, from the French Minister of Culture and Communications in 2005.

Reinvention had its way again as Saisse decided to form his own trio with his commercially successful and critically lauded The Body and Soul Sessions in 2006. This delightfully engaging album was a #1 Billboard album that was comprised of such pop cover songs as Earth Wind & Fire’s “September;” Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” and the Steely Dan smash classic “Do It Again.” “Do It Again” showcased Saisse’s soul-melting Fender Rhodes piano virtuosity.

Saisse’s trio (which is rounded out by highly respected members David Finck on bass and Skoota Warner on drums) relished seeing their version of the Steely Dan hit enjoy a lengthy stay on the Radio & Records airplay chart. It was #1 for five consecutive weeks at smoothjazz.com. According to R&R, it was the #6-most-played track in that particular format for 2006.

His most recent work from 2017 with the trio (which added well-respected percussionist Gumbi Ortiz to the group. It also accentuates the ever-popular guitarist Marc Antoine as a guest on the percolating mix) is the no-holds barred, groove-oriented On the Level. A cohesive, polished set, the CD features the laid-back title track and the finger popping funkiness of “Lucky Luke,” which is reminiscent of the rollicking feel of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” the Billy Page compositional masterpiece, made famous by piano titan Ramsey Lewis.

With an exciting career that definitely has been without boundaries, you can’t imagine what is yet in store for such an illuminating, gifted and humble artist. Somehow, I think that Saisse is already working on the next chapter. And the chapter after that. Let the boundaries beware! – Liz Goodwin