The Wichita Eagle


Smooth jazz sensation

Saxophonist Brian Gorrell left a gig with Lawrence Welk to explore his own style of contemporary jazz.

By Chris Shull

The Wichita Eagle

Many people look down on smooth jazz because much of the music is all melody and no jazz. It can be all sweet lyricism and little musical heart. What gives traditional jazz its substance and defines the character of its players is the development of a tune's melody through spur-of-the moment improvisation. But try writing a catchy smooth jazz melody that will hold a listener's interest and keep people absent-mindedly humming in the shower. It is a skill with challenges all its own, a gift on a par with impressive and satisfying jazz soloing. Saxophonist Brian Gorrell can appreciate both sides of this musical coin. He and the players in his Oklahoma City-based band, Jazz Company, are trying to find success in smooth jazz even as they pursue their love of jazz improvisation. Music lovers who attend the band's free concert Friday night outdoors at Bradley Fair Shopping Center will hear tunes featuring Gorrell's lyrical alto sax gliding over catchy melodic hooks, as well as edgy, funk-tinged riffs over which Gorrell and guitarist Shane Conaway can showcase their soloing skills. "Hopefully, the appeal of our group is it's not one-dimensional," Gorrell said Tuesday evening by phone from his home in Oklahoma. "What we offer is versatility. I feature myself on saxophone on a smooth jazz-sounding tune, the next tune may be a Pat Metheny-sounding guitar feature, and the next tune may be a totally straight-ahead, traditional standard." Gorrell and Jazz Company are not selling out, nor are they trying to have it both ways. The band's wide-ranging style and repertoire is rooted in jazz; it represents the passion of the players and also the necessity of a working musicians, who must know hundreds of songs, music appropriate for a bar band one night, a bar mitzvah the next. "I don't think it is just that we are trying to go for commercial appeal, it is that we also like the exploration of the different styles," Gorrell said. Gorrell, who teaches saxophone and jazz improvisation and conducts a jazz ensemble at Oklahoma City University, believes that mastery of a wide-range of styles is required of working musicians today. He is proficient on piano and on the alto and tenor saxophones, and was featured on those instruments with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra in Branson, Mo., in 1994. But Gorrell returned to his home in Oklahoma to write his own music and develop his own saxophone style. "As much as that was a neat gig, I really wanted to have my own group and do my own thing," Gorrell said. "Even though it was fun, when you do the same show twice a day six days a week, after nine or 10 months you are just going nuts to do something different." The latest album by Gorrell and Jazz Company, "Soulmates," features tunes written especially for airplay on smooth jazz stations such as KWSJ-FM 98.7, The Oasis, in Wichita, but also funk- and jazz-based tunes that allow the band to stretch out on long solos and gradually-developing grooves. "It is probably more difficult for us to construct a really good smooth jazz tune than it is for us to play a tune by John Coltrane," Gorrell said, "because there is so much jazz influence in our playing. "The contemporary stuff has the elements of smooth jazz but also has more of the harmonic sophistication of traditional jazz."

Chris Shull writes about music and fine arts. He can be reached by e-mail at