Above The Clouds

It's not uncommon in the annals of smooth jazz to find longtime studio and touring musicians stepping into the spotlight and emerging as solo artists. Above The Clouds multiplies that concept fivefold, with all members of the Southern California based instrumental ensemble having mile-long resumes playing with top artists of various genres. Their self-titled Fahrenheit debut is a collective coming out party, with each member contributing to a unique vision of instrumental music which is best described as pop-fusion for the new millenium.

One look at the individual musical experiences of each merriber and it's clear why the writing, production and musicianship on Above The Clouds are so exceptional. Bassist and producer Vernon Porter has played with Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler and Dave Mason, as well as the seminal 70's fusion outfit the Larsen-Feiten band. He also lived in Austin, Texas for many years, where he became one of the city's top independent producers. Saxophonist and flutist Vince Denham ' has toured and recorded with singer Michael McDonald for 15 years, and is also well known for his associations with Al Jarreau, Les McCann, KennyLoggins (though in a different band than Porter's) and John Tesh.

Todd Robinson's rock resume stretches back to John Lennon's mid-70s classic Rock & Roll album, and he's also done serious time with David Benoit, Etta James, and Vince Gill. Keyboardist Karen Hammack has a similarly cross-genre background, playing behind 70's divas like Melissa Manchester as well as smooth jazz saxman Eric Marienthal. Finally, drummer and percussionist Kendall Kay has played with everyone from Phil Upchurch and Bette Midler to Clint Eastwood's son Kyle. Though legendary percussionist Lenny Castro is not an official member of Above The Clouds, his rhythmic contributions to the project are unmistakable.

While various pairings of different ATC band members have occurred over the past twenty years as each made their sideperson and club gig rounds, the concept for the group officially began when Porter, Hammack and Robinson joined forces as the backing band for famed flutist (and fellow Fahrenheit artist) Tim Weisberg's tours in 1997 and 1998. The three had spent some off time writing new material with no clear cut goal in mind, but realized they might have something special when Weisberg's manager, Jonathan Little, pointed out that promoters and press around the country were highly praising their tight ensemble work. Little suggested that the three form their own band, and, Porter called longtime friends and colleagues Denham and Kay to round out the ensemble.''

"To everyone involved, the creation of Above The Clouds was simply taking the mutual respect and friendship we had to the next level," says Porter. "We were obviously conscious of the smooth jazz radio market, but decided to write and record music without any specific original parameters, using our great natural chemistry as a launching pad for new ideas to take shape. Our only goal was to write good material with integrity, and then hope that people would appreciate it."

Porter adds that he's most proud of the organic, live ensemble nature of the 12-track recording, which the band created live in the studio in only 4 days. "These days, its so easy for new artists to do everything electronically, but we all came of age in the jazz fusion era when live interaction was sacred," he says. "That meant that drum machines and the like were a definite no-no. On the other hand, our love for pop music helped us not create an all-out fusion record. While we obviously wanted to stretch out from our usual roles as supporting players, we also wanted to make music that was accessible to people. So there was a framework, but we wouldn't compromise. It makes for a delicate balance."

Above The Clouds begins with "in a Dream," a supermelodic, mid-tempo funk jam featuring Denham's robust sax rising above Porter's simmering bass grooves. "Philadelphia" has a bold, strutting attitude which captures the vibe of the city, its intense grooves laying a foundation for a sharp duality between sax and electric guitar. The title track is a wistful slice of pop-jazz heaven; cool and atmospheric, highlighting Denham's graceful soprano sax passion. "Groove This" and "Inside Out" reflect the kind of intensity Porter was talking about, aggressive and percussive sessions which, despite their wild abandon, never lose sight of a strong melody. After the lush spirituality of "Call Your Name" (which Porter wrote originally as a worship tune), the optimistic, uptempo perks of "Vista Corona" give Denham a chance to engage in the kind of flute playing that would do Weisberg proud. "Close To You" and "Can You Keep a
Secret" moodswing back into the groove realm, the first tune featuring the vocal repetition of the title tack as a romantic mantra, while the second features funky exclamation points by electric guitar and sax solos. After two more gentle, reflective ballads ("Easy Does It" and "Twilight"), Above The Clouds closes with another emphatic ensemble jump for joy, with each member trading off solos on "Ashton Strut."

The way in which Above The Clouds chose its optimistic, forward thinking group name is a perfect reflection on the positive spirit of the project and, the bandmembers. Porter is on the musical worship team at Calvary Chapel in Capistrano Beach and one of his bandmates in that ensemble, Mark Seal, made a Christian album with the title Above The Clouds. It was a simple title which made Porter think of a better place, and he realized that the music ATC was creating was intended to communicate that sort of optimistic energy. Seal was only happy to oblige.

"Spirituality definitely plays a part in what we are doing, although it's definitely secular music," says Porter. "Still, it's our hope to provide listeners with an uplifting musical experience. What makes this unit unique is that we were all good friends first, committed to the ongoing success of this band even as we balance that with our outside commitments. Chemistry is the key here, and that is definitely heaven sent because you could put another five great musicians in a room and it might not be there. As we step out to make our own statement, we are building upon a foundation of trust and, above all else, remaining true to our hearts and our calling."




Above the Clouds

Hover over the clouds. An expression, that mediates somewhat easy and lifted up. Something that stands over the things. Shakespeare wrotes 1592 in Romeo & Julia (IV. V. 74): "She is aduan'st Aboue the Cloudes, as high as Heauen it selfe."

If a music-group names itself Above the clouds, one expects a protruding music-quality. Above the clouds absolutely does justice to this claim.  It's not uncommon in the annals of smooth jazz to find longtime studio and touring musicians stepping into the spotlight and emerging as solo artists. Above The Clouds multiplies that concept fivefold, with all members of the Southern California based instrumental ensemble having mile-long resumes playing with top artists of various genres. 

On the midtempo starter of their selftitled album In A Dream brilliants Vince Denham on Saxophone funky jamming with Vernon Porter's bass, Karen Hammack's keyboards and Todd Robinson's guitar. The jamming is well-rounded with a perfect drumming section, Kenny Kay on drums and Lenny Castro on percussion.

Vince Denham dominates the following grooving piece Philadelphia  with more funky tempo.

Balladesque and romantic supplement itself Vince Denham on soprano sax and Karen Hammack on piano on the title song Above the Clouds

An uptempo and funky break is Groove This. Very much rhythm-emphasized as the next piece Inside Out too. A brass-section combined with organ sounds like Pick up the Pieces of the Average White Band.

Call your name is a slow and emotional piece with sustained guitar and sax notes. A declaration of love to the adored one.

The romantic mood continues on the midtempo Vista Corona with  Denham's touching flute-play.

A perfect cover version of Close to you will set you in a positive mood. You may be familiar with this song by Maxi Priest's version, who scored a number one pop hit in the U.S..

Can you keep a secret? No, this funky piece cannot remain a secret. Outstanding Vince Denham 's sax and Todd Robinson's guitar solos.

Easy does it is a relaxing slow jamming piece with percussion accents.

A contemplative and reflective ballade is Twilight, but this piece has its rhythmic edges too.

The final climax Ashton Strut is a worthy conclusion of this outstanding album. If you like Contemporary Jazz with funky elements, don't hesitate to add it to your collection.