Review: AXS

Mark Etheredge connects through happy album

Mark Etheredge’s new, funky single, “Connected,” is already climbing the Billboard Smooth Jazz and Groove Jazz charts — weeks before the album by the same name comes out on Vipaka Records. 

Maybe it’s because Connected just feels good to listen to. The keyboardist and composer poured his heart out in 10 original songs crafted from the growing pains of growing up feeling different from other kids. 

The son of a minister and a music teacher said that he's never been so happy as when he recorded this upcoming album, scheduled for a Feb. 26, 2016 release. Paired up with Grammy-winning producer and guitarist Paul Brown, Connected is what happens to a child who survives bullying and realizes that he’s not so different after all. 

“I had a deep feeling of being disconnected from humanity,” Etheredge said in a press release by Great Scott Productions. “Later, I realized that these feelings were all in my head. We are all connected in this world, and what we do affects each other. Connected is a celebration of our human connection — across geography, race, language, class, gender, sexual orientation, and beliefs. I've wanted to make an album like this for a long time. Working with Paul Brown and the high caliber of musicians was a real treat for me, and I'm thrilled to share this album with listeners.” 

The musicians on this record included Brown and guest guitarist Chuck Loeb, who co-wrote two of the tracks with Etheredge. 

The tracks themselves flow out easily as if Etheredge has been holding onto and humming them to himself all this time, from the playgrounds of his youth through the gospel worship at his Methodist minister father’s church, and the jazz performance studies at De Anza College and San Jose State University. 

As easy as the music flows, Etheredge’s playing is far from simpering or simplistic. He knows how to play the deeper grooves. He does on “Rain,” one of the more edgy contemporary jazz/New Age pieces that reflect his inner peace and the complicated history of his survival. 

He’s not alone, either. “Rain’s” accompaniment is enhanced by the surreal, intuitive touches of percussionist Richie Garcia, bassist Roberto Vally, guitarist Paul Brown, and drummer Gorden Campbell. The music is delightful, but full of surprises, just like twilight in Central Park on a summer day when the fireflies come out to explore. Etheredge calls to mind his jazz, R&B, Afro-Cuban/Brazilian, classical, rock/pop, and gospel influences in each one of his songs. He achieves this confluence of influences on “Rain” especially well. 

“Groovin’ With My Baby” sounds like it’s a Top 40 song from the 1980s with vocals that were removed just for the sound effects. A distinctive melody keeps replaying, the mantra of the most hardcore long-distance runners chasing an elusive dawn and that high after the fifth milepost. 

“Lost In The Shuffle” doesn’t sound terribly dark on the surface. But it’s supposed to symbolize — at least when Brown comes angling in on electric guitar and the horns (Lee Thornburg, Greg Vail) replicate a Steely Dan moment — the bullying Etheredge suffered growing up. Regardless of Vail’s tenor trying to squeeze in that discord, the recording artist floats his piano above the fray, unruffled. 

Etheredge used Kickstarter to make Connected, following his internationally popular, 2012 vocal album, Change Coming, featuring “The One” with Jeanie Tracy, as well as his debut As Dawn, a New Age splash reissued in 2010. 

Connected is Etheredge’s first L.A. recording and a welcome return to instrumental music. He’d previously lived in the Bay Area, in the tech field. 

“I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful, make a more positive impact on the world and share my passion for music,” Etheredge added. 

He premieres his new album 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Spaghettini in Seal Beach, Calif. and 8:30 p.m. March 19 at Angelicas in Redwood City, Calif.

-  Carol Banks Weber, AXS