Contemporary Jazz Plus
Randy Villars

Levels (Leviathan Records Jazz Series)

By Tim Roberts

The style of music pigeonholed into the broad subcategory of contemporary jazz is easy to identify. Slow rhythm, lush chords from electronic keyboards, and some instrument - almost always a saxophone - carries a light, simple melody. Casual listeners find it to be the most accessible type of jazz for them, while hard-core jazz fans think of it as a notch below elevator music. Besides Kenny G., some of contemporary jazz's performers include Dave Koz, David Sanborn, and Grover Washington, Jr. The latter two, though, often venture into different territory: Washington is also known as a great traditional jazz performer and Sanborn is never afraid to experiment with different styles, including classical, as he did with Michael Kamen's Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra.

In the tradition of Sanborn and Washington is Randy Villars. His debut recording, Levels, is the first release for the Jazz Series line of Leviathan Records, headquartered in Tyrone, Georgia. The Cincinnati-based Villars has contributed music for several soap operas and has composed scores for Time/Life and the A&E Cable Network. This classically-trained pianist and saxophonist has also performed with some high-powered jazz and pop talent, including John Scofield, Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt, Ben Vereen, and Dave Matthews.

Levels is a mixture of contemporary and traditional jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and some challenging material Villars brings off well.

Half the tunes on the recording - "Riverwalk," "Night Song," "Christmas Tune," and "Every Now and Then" - are basic contemporary jazz--light melodies with some stylistic saxophone work. These are the kinds of tunes contemporary jazz lovers enjoy: stuff for dinnertime background music.

But it is on the third track - "Trippin'" - when Villars opens up wide. This jazz-funk treat is driven by a slap bass from C. C. Thomas and a pulsating wah-wah rhythm guitar. Villars sails through three wild solo sets with a synthesized alto sax. Toward the end, the other instruments fade out slowly, leaving the rumbling, hip-hop rhythm to finish out the track.

"A Fallen Teddy Bear" may be the only truly disappointing selection. It begins with a mysterious, tinkling five note scale on a keyboard, then Villars comes in with a haunting, noir-like melody on an alto sax. But what is so disappointing? The track is only 1:37 long! Villars could, no doubt, further develop gorgeous material like this for future recordings.

"Kaizen" demonstrates the performer's considerable keyboard and arranging talents. The tight arrangement is similar to a tune from Pat Metheny - whose music Villars says he is a fan of - in that is contains a keyboard melody doubled by a synthesizer and a bass that, at some point, takes the melody.

Levels finishes with "I Remember Jimmy," Villars's tribute to tenor man Jimmy McGrath. It begins with a discordant piano solo that evolves into a beautiful melody line. Then Villars slides in with a sexy tenor solo. But like "A Fallen Teddy Bear," the tune is too short.

Overall, Levels is a good debut from a promising, thoroughly professional jazz talent. It's a given that Randy Villars has nailed down the formula and style for the contemporary jazz tunes. With his classical background and past gigs with a number of superb jazz performers, it will be interesting to hear how, in future releases, he expands and develops his taste for the more traditional and adventurous material.