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  • Writer's pictureLuke Wolk

The Smooth Jazz Alley/ Review of "Here's The Thing"

Updated: May 26, 2023



Artist: The Smooth Jazz Alley

Album: Here's The Thing

Released 2023

Website: https://www.smoothjazzalley.com/

The Smooth Jazz Alley is a San Francisco Bay area trio consisting of keyboardist Marco Montoya, drummer Kevin Lewis and saxophonist Otoe Mori. The music is a wonderful blend of Jazz, R&B, Soul and Funk. This six song EP has some heavy hitter guests including Blake Aaron, Jessy J, Chris Camozzi, Jeff Ryan, WaKaNa and bassist extraordinaire Nathan East, who is one of the most recorded bassists of all time and has been in Eric Clapton's band for over 35 years. This latest release Here's The Thing clocks in at just under 29 minutes, leaving the listener wanting more from this world class ensemble of musicians. It is a six song set of very well recorded instrumental music with band members Marco Montoya and Kevin Lewis both being credited as producers. Clearly, this team has their ears dialed into the most minute details of their production. There aren't even 8 bars of filler on this record, let alone a full song that isn't quite up to par. The title track Here's The Thing comes in with a nice mid-tempo groove setting the table for what is to come throughout the entirety of this fine release. Singable melodies, lush production and big back beats are what makes this unit tick. This song is peppered with a nice nylon string guitar line played by featured guitarist Chris Camozzi that dances with the Otoe Mori's saxophone like they're soulmates. The very next track Deep Into You is a standout performance. This one features one of Contemporary Jazz's finest guitar pickers, Blake Aaron. His playing is as good as it gets within the genre. He has the chops and tone that suit the modern rhythm based jazz scene like he was poured into a mold to create the perfect smooth jazz guitarist. His name belongs amongst the elite with Chuck Loeb, and Lee Ritenour. The song itself is as big as a barn. The ebb and flow between the sax and guitar is simply perfect, while this fiercely competent band lays down a deeply pocketed groove. At first listen of the song Whatever You Like, the Nathan East presence is felt instantly. A ballad that is smoky and sexy with a very tasty piano line as the focus. The kick drum and bass are quite hot in the mix making for a very enjoyable listen of a fantastic rhythm section at work. A fine bass solo comes in about midway through the cut. Honestly, it would've been criminal not to give him eight bars. When a player of his caliber takes a solo it is clear why he is who he is. The whole song is an exercise in restraint and class. It is no wonder they were able to attract Nathan East to guesting on it. A truly great listen!

Here I Am is another exceptional cut. The Smooth Jazz Alley has the ability to write very simple melodies and find the absolute perfect tempos, tones and instrumentation to bring them to life. This song is no exception to their recipe. If anything, it bolsters it even more. The production is wonderfully layered and the performance is as good as it gets. The Smooth Jazz Alley reminds me a bit of the band Fourplay in the sense that it truly feels like an ensemble effort of exceptional musicians. They are able pass the spotlight back and forth effortlessly, all getting a chance to shine brightly. The team have the musical chops and wisdom to fade in and out of the supportive rolls into tactfully leading the charge up the hill. The production, songs and arrangements are all top flight. If you are a fan of smooth jazz or adult contemporary music you will undoubtedly enjoy this release. Often with instrumental music listeners long for a vocalist. However, when it is done on this level, there is nothing a vocalist could bring to this production that would improve it. It would only detract from the seasoned virtuosity of these fine musicians. Check out the interview with the band!


OTOE MORI QUESTIONS


Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

A person who greatly influenced me was my father, who was a saxophone and clarinet player. My family also influenced and cheered me on for my music journey.


What album has had the greatest impact on your life as a musician? 

Mo Roots by Maceo Parker had a great impact on my music life because the songs introduced and led me into funk. 


Is there a particular song that has resonated with you for a long time?

A song that touched my heart was Akita Obako, which is an old Japanese folk song. Whenever I listen to this song, it reminds me of my father when he was enjoying sake while singing to this song.


What’s your favorite accomplishment as a musician thus far?  

Working with my brothers, Kevin and Marco. 


Tell me about your favorite performance in your career.

My favorite performance was when I played at Blue Note Napa with The Smooth Jazz Alley. 


What's the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you?

When I was learning classical music on my clarinet, my teacher, Hiroshi Uchiyama (Tokyo NHK Symphony Orchestra), told me to blow air, imagining a ball that will keep rolling on a smooth surface. This advice eventually helped me develop my sound quality. 


What's new in the recording of your music?

I used to use a hard rubber mouthpiece but I recorded all of The Smooth Jazz Alley's new songs with a metal mouthpiece for the first time. 


How are you continuing to grow musically?

I would like to grow by writing more music.


Tell me what your first music teacher was like. What lessons did you learn from them that you still use today?

My father was the first saxophone teacher, it was the first and last session. I couldn't be a nice student and be patient. But after the first class, my father decided to take me to all of his concerts, which eventually became my lessons.


If you could play anywhere or with anyone in the world, where or with who would it be?

I wish I could perform with my father but the dream will not come true. Maybe in heaven. 

If I could play music with Maceo Parker and David Sanborn, that would be another dream come true. 


Describe your favorite and least favorite part about being a musician.

I love being a musician because I can fully express myself. 


If you had to choose one... live performance or studio work, which do you prefer and why? 

I would choose to perform live because the audience and musicians can both enjoy the live sound at the same time. The musicians can also get influenced by the audience in real time.


What do you think about online music sharing?

It's very convenient.


Other than being a musician, what was your dream job growing up? 

I wanted to become an animal rescuer.


Give us some advice for new musicians just starting out in the industry.

Don't give up on your dreams and follow your heart. Just keep doing what you like. 


What is your favorite piece of gear and why?

Selmer Mark VI, I Iove the sound.


What do you like most about your new album?

Each song has a strong and unique personality. 


What artists do you enjoy listening to nowadays?

Art Porter, Incognito


What is the best way to stay updated on current news; gigs, releases, etc.

The Smooth Jazz Alley website, Instagram, Facebook

Anything you would like to share, from new merch to upcoming shows/tours or songs/albums?

Yoshis on September 19th


What are your interests outside of music?

Spending time with my family, trips and vacations, painting, planting, 



KEVIN LEWIS QUESTIONS


Tell us the brief history of your band or musical career.

The smooth jazz alley was formed by Marco Montoya & Stan Evans. After Stan Evans departure I was given the opportunity to join. My musical background is drums and percussion


Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

My musical influences would be my mother, David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Bob James, and long time friend Dave Weckle who is also the reason I continue to perform drums.


What album has had the greatest impact on your life as a musician?

Dave Weckle

Album: Master Plan

Track: “Festival Remo”


Is there a particular song that has resonated with you for a long time?

Bob James

Album: Bob James Three

Track: West Chester Lady


2. Bob James

Album: Double Nickel

Track: One Loving Night


What’s your favorite accomplishment as a musician thus far?

Producing music for the world to hear and enjoy


Tell me about your favorite performance in your career.

My favorite performance would be appearing with jazz sax Greg Chambers in addition to being the supporting drummer for Chielli Minuuchi, Greg Manning, Steve Oliver, Jay Row, sax Warren Hill, etc..


What’s the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you?

George Benson during NAMM: Never give up! .... practice practice practice!


What’s new in the recording of your music?

We added an additional artist and now part of the Smooth Jazz Alley. She is very bright, talented, and beautiful, referring to her as “Sissy”, our smooth jazz alley sax.

The next biggest accomplishment is the ability to attract and record world class musicians as part of our DNA brand of music.


How has your music changed over the years?

I think our music has forged ahead with change in the way we produce music, how we go about working together strongly as a team, and the artist friends that we have been able to maintain over the years.


What inspires you to write the music you write?

Landscape and scenery inspire my thoughts and processes. Love and family relationships help round out my thoughts.



What made you want to play the instrument you play?

My family was super dirt poor and had nothing except music.

I loved the track "I Can't Get No - Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. I played what I thought was drums on anything that I could get my hands on, round oatmeal containers, used lunch boxes and/or lunch pails, etc.

I progressed to trash cans and tin buckets, wooden fences, which by the way made the neighbors offly mad.

During middle school I was given the chance to join Clifton Junior High Marching Band in Southern California. I played what was then called the tenor-drum.

It kept me out of trouble for the most part. My mother and father worked overtime to make ends-meat.

My father found an old beat-up drum set in an alleyway. The set turned out to be a Ludwig (Red Sparkle). My middle brother taped it up to hold things together. He also made me drum sticks from small pieces of bamboo.

My first real drum set came from my grandmother, left in her will, who passed away when I was 17/18 years old.

(ATAMA Star). The rest was history!


How does your latest album differ from any of your others in the past?

The music today has more ideal and technicality in terms of musicianship. If you listen to the track "Here's The Thing", although there is a featured guitarist the lead rolls are shared with blends in sharing the conversation


How are you continuing to grow musically?

I am growing from studying my peers before me.

I now understand and use certain musical applied formats and theories that help keep the listener engaged.


Are there any musicians who inspire you that are not famous? What qualities do you admire about them?

My Mother, who sang opera in addition to making her own arrangements. She also played trombone, which made for a unique combination. Never famous, never pretended to be. She encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. She was my biggest inspiration.


Describe your worst performance. What did you learn from this experience?

I practiced a solo that I could not take due to the artist that I was supporting who had ended the show abruptly and left the stage. I learned that it was time to concentrate my efforts on my own talents.



Tell me what your first music teacher was like. What lessons did you learn from them that you still use today?

I had a music teacher who was strict and would not let me improvise, however he taught me how to read music which i use in today's world of contemporary jazz


How would your previous band mates describe you and your work ethic? 

I never really had band mates except associates, but if I had to guess,  I guess they would describe me as someone who stuck to producing music on a professional level.


If you could play anywhere or with anyone in the world, where or with who would it be?

I love to play drums behind "Bob James" at Carnegie Hall.


If you could change anything about the music industry today, what would it be?

If I could change anything I would change the process of a music promoter. I would change the differences between an indi artist and an artist covenanted by a label.


What are your biggest obstacles as a musician?

Being a drummer with more imagination and interpretation than most artists who are leading. Being a drummer is a hard fought stigma. When you think or say the word drummer you think of drums behind everyone else; the guitarist, saxophonist, keyboardist, and even the bassist. You never think of the drummer as an artist out front unless your name is Steve Gadd, Dave Wekle, etc


What do you think the best aspects of the music business are?

Radio which is the voice of the artist. Without radio we are making music for our closest 200 friends only!


What strengths do you have that you believe make you the musician you are?

The ability to listen and/or hear really really well; the ability to interpret what a track needs in terms of cohesiveness; the ability to create on the fly or adjust while recording; the ability to perform live with showmanship; the ability to provide a strong supporting platform as a drummer until it's time to do my thing.


Do you have any weaknesses that you're actively working to improve on?

I wouldn't necessarily use the word weakness. i need to verbally connect more with our audiences


Describe your favorite and least favorite part about being a musician.

My favorite part about being a musician is creating music using Logic -&- Pro Tools in addition to all of the available resources of today's music world. My least favorite thing is finding the correct engineer for the project.


Do you have any anxiety about performing live?

No.


If you had to choose one... live performance or studio work, which do you prefer and why?

Hard to choose because our studio work is just as entertaining with a live performance atmosphere as our performances in front of audiences. However, I would choose live performances rather than studio work because I have a partial gain, in addition to the audiences connecting a personality to music that they are listening to.


What do you think about online music sharing?

I think online music sharing is great. Curated list, etc..helps artist popularities abroad.


Describe your creative process when you write new music.

If I can think and hum something for more than a day then it becomes a reality. I generally process music with landscapes, places I have been , people that I have seen , or anything that I have experienced, good or bad.

I like to transfer these processes onto a blank canvas. That canvas would be logic. Then i have the fun task of finding the right musician artist for what has become a project.


Other than being a musician, what was your dream job growing up?

To become a navy pilot or a race car driver.


Give us some advice for new musicians just starting out in the industry.

Please stay true to your craft. Pick and choose people whom you can trust. What you put into your craft is what you most likely will get out of your craft. Ask many questions and take notes from others who have already experienced it. Ask yourself how far you would like to go and then set your course accordingly. Have a plan, execute that plan to the best of your knowledge, and (never ever) assume. Know where you are going before you get there by asking questions.


What is your favorite piece of gear and why?

Yamaha Drums, they are the best quality drums in my opinion. All drums sound fantastic, however when you mic them up then drums stand out some more than others. For me Yamaha is the top of my preference in term of sound and precision


How do you prepare for your performances and recording work?

Simply hard and long practices in addition to good planning logistics


What does your practice routine consist of?

Practice routines consist of two to three hours, once or twice a week, 4 to 6 months prior to showtime.

Recording uses is the same routine until studio travel


What do you like most about your new album?

I like the creativeness that our team has put together. We think that our audiences will be engaged more than ever before, in addition to making it a primary in our production work.


What artists do you enjoy listening to nowadays?

These days i enjoy listening to The smooth Jazz Alley


How do you promote your band and shows?

We enjoy using most social media platforms and world wide internet radio, etc....


What is the best way to stay updated on current news; gigs, releases, etc.

www.smoothjazzalley.com. We are always up to something


Anything you would like to share, from new merch to upcoming shows/tours or songs/albums?

Our next project has begun and we cannot wait for the world to hear it, beginning with another all-star lineup!


What's next for your band?

More all-star musicians and musicianship


What are your interests outside of music?

Auto Racing


Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

I love-love auto racing and contemporary jazz together.


Are there any artists outside of your genre that have not had much influence on your music that you enjoy?

I am not at liberty to say, because i try to appreciate everyone's artistry in hope that they would appreciate what I do.



MARCO MONTOYA QUESTIONS


Tell us the brief history of your band or musical career.

Most of my music career has been in live performances with latin bands playing salsa and other types of tropical music. For many years I produced latin pop & tropical music in addition to R&B, pop & dance music.


TSJA was formed by myself & guitarist Stan Evans who I met min my first latin band. We wrote & produced the first album together. After Stan Evans left about a year & a half after the album came out, I met Kevin Lewis & asked him to join TSJA. Not only is Kevin a drummer, but he also has producer qualities unlike any other person I’ve met.



Who are your musical and non-musical influences?

My musical influences are Jeff Lorber, almost anything by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, and Antonio L.A. Reid & Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Non-musical influences are my father who plays guitar. I grew up listening to guitar and grew to love the sound of the guitar.



What album has had the greatest impact on your life as a musician?

Jeff Lorber

Albums: Worth Waiting For & West Side Stories

I still listen to these 2 albums. I love the fusion of Jazz, R&B and funk masterfully weaved together only the way Jeff Lorber (the original pioneer of Smooth Jazz) could do.



Is there a particular song that has resonated with you for a long time?

Jeff Lorber

Album: State of Grace

Track: Kathrerine


Jeff Lorber

Album: Worth Waiting For

Track: Punta Del Este


What’s your favorite accomplishment as a musician thus far?

To hear music we’ve produced be played on the radio, and to work with Smooth Jazz artists I grew up listening to, having them play our music has been the greatest thing ever.



Tell me about your favorite performance in your career.

Backing up Latoya London at Yoshi’s in Oakland and backing up Christopher Williams at the Stockton Jazz Festival.


What’s the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you?

Practice and perfect your craft on the set list before you go out to perform and never go back on your word when you accept a gig.



What’s new in the recording of your music?

The addition of Otoe Mori on sax. Adding her into the mix with writing and recording has been a great thing for TSJA. ALSO, continuing to work with artists who we’ve listened to for many years. As I said before, having them in our music has been a big blessing for us all in this musical journey we are on.



How has your music changed over the years?

Over time we have developed a formula and relational way of working together in writing, producing and recording music.



What inspires you to write the music you write?

Love, life & experiences. Also, imagining sceneries like driving along the coast on the perfect day.



What made you want to play the instrument you play?

My parents put me into piano lessons when I was 7. It wasn’t until after outgrowing 3 piano teachers and starting to play songs I heard on the radio that I found my desire to continue playing piano.



How does your latest album differ from any of your others in the past?

Our latest EP shows the progress in our music production and arrangements. The producing quality is continuing on an upward momentum. Also continuing to have different guest appearing artists is continuing to add to the roster of artists that are already part of the TSJA family.



Describe your worst performance. What did you learn from this experience?

I was on stage at a huge Latin festival and forgot to hit the transpose button to restore it to normal settings before starting to play the song which I ended up starting in the wrong key. When the rest of the band came in they all stared & gave me the look of death.



How would your previous band mates describe you and your work ethic?

They would say I’m funny and like to joke around. That I make performances fun.



If you could play anywhere or with anyone in the world, where or with who would it be?

I’d love to play keyboards for New Edition. Love their music and remember seeing them in concert back in 2018 wishing I could have shared the stage with them. I grew up on R&B and they were always one of my favorite groups.



If you could change anything about the music industry today, what would it be?

I’d make it just as easy for an Indie artist to have the same resources as an established artist and let the music speak for itself. Resources such as promotion, performance opportunities, etc.



Describe your favorite and least favorite part about being a musician.

Creating and producing music in my studio has always been my favorite part about music since I was 15 years old. Least favorite part is loading in for a show.



Do you have any anxiety about performing live?

Sometimes, when I’m performing with a band for the first time.



If you had to choose one... live performance or studio work, which do you prefer and why?

Studio work all the way. I’ve always loved creating music since I was a kid. It’s been my favorite part about music.



What do you think about online music sharing?

I think it’s great for getting your music out to the world, but not so great when it comes to what the artists get paid.



Describe your creative process when you write new music.

I usually start with a chord structure on a Rhodes sound. Once I find a structure I like, then I find a drum beat with a full, heavy sound. From there I lay down a scratch bass and then I have framework to work with when writing the melody. Once I have the melody, I sprinkle the song with synth sounds to bring it alive.



Other than being a musician, what was your dream job growing up?

I wanted to work in a hospital as a surgical technician.



Give us some advice for new musicians just starting out in the industry.

Creating music is only half the battle. Promoting it is the other half and deserves just as much effort financially and time wise.



What is your favorite piece of gear and why?

The computer, you need a nice strong computer to be able to run all the plugins necessary to create and produce music.



What do you like most about your new album?

I love the feel of the production in each song. Also working with the artists who specially appeared.



What artists do you enjoy listening to nowadays?

Aside from TSJA, Ryan La Valette, Phylicia Rae, Blair Bryant, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Lorber



How do you promote your band and shows?

Social Media, radio promotion and global marketing.



What is the best way to stay updated on current news; gigs, releases, etc.

www.smoothjazzalley.com and Facebook or Instagram



Anything you would like to share, from new merch to upcoming shows/tours or songs/albums?

We are working on our next album and can’t wait to get it out to the world. Also looking forward to our show at Yoshi’s in Oakland sometime in the fall, possibly November/December.



What's next for your band?

More music.



What are your interests outside of music?

Working out, my kids and serving in ministry at my church.



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