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Sep 9, 2011
04:58 PM

Always Saxy

Saxappeal breaks out with a new not-smooth-jazz album

Always Saxy

Efforts to promote Saxappeal's 2009 debut album "Stay Saxy" were often rebuffed by smooth jazz radio programmers who judged it "too urban" for their stations. That was good news.

That first album by Saxappeal, also known as LaDarrel Johnson, blends hip hop and new soul sensitivities with a sultry contemporary sax sound that is meatier and more adventurous than typical smooth jazz fare. The prominence of the horn, however, ensures that Saxappeal's music won't be played on most R&B, urban contemporary or hip hop stations, where all songs must feature singing or rapping.

He could have bowed to the pressure and churned out a second album that conformed to the dictates of the almighty programmers. Instead, he stayed true to his art, titled his new disc "Unmarketable" and set about creating an album of music that he describes as "delicious jambalaya."

"It's everything," Saxappeal beams. "There's classical music on it. There's spoken word. There's hip hop. There's jazz. There's R&B... It's just a mix of everything, but it's all in good taste. So once you put all these great ingredients together, it just tastes like good jambalaya to me."

Saxappeal's father, Demetrious Smith, was a noted guitar player and trombonist on the Detroit music scene in the '80s and early '90s, but it was his mother, Crystal Johnson, who started the youngster on his musical path by giving him an electronic keyboard when he was 5. He picked up the saxophone at age 7, and hasn't put it down since. A decade later, she came up with the Saxappeal moniker when the two were joking around.

After graduating from Detroit School of the Arts in 2003, Johnson entered Wayne State University's jazz studies program, but left in 2005 to tour with Detroit soul star Dwele. Since then he's become one of the city's go-to sax men. In addition to performances with his own group, Saxappeal can be found blowing on jazz or soul nights at clubs all over town or backing up local favorites and touring artists like Monica Blaire, K'Jon, Eric Roberson, Raheem DeVaughn, Leon Ware, N'Dambi, Julie Dexter and many others.

Saxappeal has experienced some adversity in his life, so short-sighted radio programmers are of little consequence. His new album is dedicated to his younger brother Reginald Johnson, a brain cancer survivor, and to his father, who died of a massive heart attack when Saxappeal was 9.

After his CD release party this month, Saxappeal will be preparing for another big event. He and wife LaKeisha Johnson—a talented singer who performs under the stage name Ideeyah—are expecting their first child in October.

In the two years between "Stay Saxy" and "Unmarketable," the smooth jazz format has collapsed. Radio stations across the nation changed their tune, abandoning a sound some called dull and lifeless. Is it possible that more of these stations would have survived by adding musical explorers like Saxappeal to their playlists?

Saxappeal will never know the answer to that question. But he can confidently answer this one: What advice will he give his child about following his or her dreams? "The same thing that my mom and dad always told me," he says. "Whatever God calls you for, do it wholeheartedly."

When you hear him play his horn, you know he's following his parents' advice.

J. NADIR OMOWALE IS A MUSICIAN AND FREELANCE WRITER BASED IN DETROIT.

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