Review: James “Saxsmo” Gates - "Stepping Out"

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It takes a lot of optimism to launch an album into the teeth of the coronavirus gale. In web post after web post, locked down listeners are listing the old records that shaped them. In a suspended present, the solid past is more comforting than the amorphous future.

But a lack of positivity has never held back saxophonist James “Saxsmo” Gates. And the ebullient, soulful music of his new CD “Stepping Out,” is both deeply rooted in mid-20th century inspiration and contains enough familiar touch points to classify as comfort food for a self-captive audience.

Kicking off with Gates’ heart-on-the-sleeve 2017 single “We Can Make It,” the album slaloms through arrangements of covers of songs associated with artists such as the Isley Brothers, Martin Gaye, Sade, and Sting, interspersed with originals including “Airwaves” and “Local….Oh No.” The latter is both a celebration of RVA’s unique musical heritage and an admonishment to not treat it as anything less than a vital component of the vast sweep of musical history.

If there is a bit of education in the recording- understandable because Gates is the head of the Billy Taylor Jazz Program at Virginia State- it is buried in wave after wave of positivity.

“The mission for the record was to build a bridge,” he says. “People ask 'What are you going to do for me?' Can’t we just do it for love? That’s the mission of this record. We can all make it, across the board, if we all give just give a little more love.”

Recorded by Carlos Chafin at In Your Ear Studios with a cross-generational cadre of players, the album sets Gates’ post-bop solos within a polished contemporary R&B setting.

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