No one can accuse Richard Boulger of not being smooth enough. The man isn’t some upstart playing old Davis hits–he has some real cred packed away. The upcoming trumpeter has trained under legend Freddie Hubbard, toured as a resident soloist with the Allman Brothers, and has two well-received albums under his belt. It goes without saying that he tackles his third album with the confidence of a seasoned professional.
Fans of Boulger’s work will notice a major tonal shift between his latest album Lookin Up and his elegiac 2007 effort Blues Twilight. Twilight was a much darker album, packed with songs like “Tears”, “The Eternal One”, “For Souls Past”. Lookin Up is the lighter hearted counterpart, an more optimistic outing, both musically, and in the album’s concept, and while that pluckier feel doesn’t lend the album the same kind of gravitas, it’s still a sparkling album filled with moments of genuine brilliance.
The first time Lookin Up shows that it wants to be more than “just” a smooth jazz album comes in its second track, “Autumn Blues”. Its spacey ambient section falls back and a soulful, purposeful piano takes over, working in tandem with Boulger’s long flugelhorn belts. It’s a good introduction to an ambitious, polished album that is marred by only a few missteps.
Strangely, those missteps come not in overreaching, but rather in underachieving. For an album that tries to reach some ambitious heights, a few of these tracks just don’t go the extra mile. On tracks like “Care” and the title track “Lookin Up”, Boulger’s arrangements and compositions don’t go far enough, and the album sinks into a forgettable smooth muzak groove that wouldn’t be out of place coming out the speakers of a restaurant. It’s Music To Keep In The Background (“Care”, in particular, slides right off the ear).
Much of these flaws stem from Boulger’s own professionalism and a willingness to lay down tracks that are merely accomplished. These tracks would sit perfectly at home at an upscale hair salon, or maybe scoring a travelogue.
“You Can Be”, for instance, is willing to coast for its full six and a half minutes purely on Boulger’s trumpet charisma, and it only wakes you up for a solo (a pretty excellent solo, but it’s a blip in a sea of malaise).
That’s not to disparage Boulger’s skill (the multitude of colours he manages on “Be One” alone is a testament to the guy’s power with his instrument), but that’s just the thing: With Boulger’s talents, and the skill of his band, tracks like these seem like wasted opportunities.
It’s to the album’s credit, then, that most of the tracks kick Lookin Up out of its trance and deliver some great jazz. The lovely interlude “A Prayer For Peace” is suitably gorgeous, and the Caribbean-tinged “Be One” sees Boulger’s trumpet grab hold of some soul, set against something toe-tapping.
We also have tracks like “Somebody’s Dream”, in which the magic happens and we have a real groove—the best work on Lookin Up features both killer stuff from Boulger and a chance for everyone to shine and get a solo in (the synth work here makes you sit up and listen).
And that’s also certainly the case with the album’s crown jewel, “Sunrise”, an eight minute opus that gives the listener a danceable beat, an interesting arrangement, one of the best solos from Boulger on the album, and some truly awesome piano work.
The album’s finale, “One People One World”, slams on the smooth jazz brakes and shifts into funk, bringing in a sax solo and keeping the bass moving things forward into lyrics that call for global peace. Everything on this track works except, ironically, for the horn section, which sometimes sounds too synthetic and too smooth for the tone of the song, like session musicians from the 80s had broken into the studio. Does that detract from the song? Not really—it’s still a jittery, rhythmic track, and a worthy one to go out on.