Najee may hesitate to call his music “smooth jazz,” but there are few things smoother than when the saxophonist and his bass player trade licks in the opening minutes of his 1986 hit, “For the Love of You.” It’s probably the slow, heavily reverbed drum fills and electronic snare pop that sentence Najee to inevitable Kenny G comparisons, but that curly haired sax man can’t touch his peer when it comes to adding funk and soul into the mix.
Najee calls his music “urban contemporary jazz.” It’s the kind that causes subtle head-bobbing in elevators. If you came of age in the ’80s or ’90s, you probably struggled to keep your teeth perfectly still when his grooving hits like “Betcha Don’t Know” came on in your middle school-era orthodontist’s chair.
“I love Kenny G and what he does, but we’re nothing alike in terms of our concerts,” says Najee. “I’m a very fickle listener, and I’m ashamed to say, but smooth jazz is not always my favorite music.”
In tracks off of Najee’s latest release, 2009’s Mind Over Matter, the artist’s influences are apparent in both his flute and sax playing and in the funky backing arrangements. From 2000 to 2003, Najee toured and recorded with Prince, appearing prominently on his 2001 disc The Rainbow Children. “I was originally supposed to go out for two weeks, and I ended up being with him for three years,” says Najee. “It was an education for me, the whole time I was there.”
Even before he played with Prince, Najee was a star in his own right. He was a struggling student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in the early ’80s who had recently given up on his music career, dropped out of school, and sold his saxophone.
“I didn’t have the money to continue my education, so I decided, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me,’ and I quit, sold my instruments, and went and got a job at a bank,” he recalls. Soon thereafter, he ran into a fellow student who asked about his absence in class. Najee explained that he’d given up. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you would do that,’ and ended up giving me a saxophone that he had and started calling me for gigs,” Najee says. That fateful encounter kept him in the business. A year later, he moved home to Queens, N.Y., and was promptly hired by Chaka Khan in 1983, just as the diva became an international star.
“From there, I got signed to my first record deal in 1986. That first album (Najee’s Theme) did phenomenally well — it was gold in three or four months and ended up being Grammy nominated,” he says. “Before I knew it, I had a career.” Najee’s subsequent albums, including 1988’s Day By Day and 1990’s Tokyo Blues, garnered platinum and gold album sales and topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts. He’s continued recording regularly, releasing 14 albums total.
“People really love the old stuff. They know me from ‘Sweet Love’ and ‘Betcha Don’t Know,’ so we’ll be doing a lot of the classic stuff people know — what I call ‘the video songs’ that I did back in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says. “But I’m not limited by what people hear on the records. One album just represents one aspect of what I’m doing at that time.”
These days, Najee says he’s been drawing inspiration from Herbie Hancock and Cuban composer Paquito D’Rivera. In the past, he’s played with everyone from Quincy Jones to Patti LaBelle to Lionel Richie, all of whom left lasting impressions on his musical mind.
For his MOJA performance outdoors at the Porter-Gaud Stadium, Najee’s band includes guitar, drums, keys, and bass. Najee will be swapping between flute and sax. “It’ll be a very exciting show,” he says. “People love us wherever we go.”
If you want to be an in-the-know fan, shout out for “Moon Over Carolina,” the closing track on Mind Over Matter. “A guy named Gary Taylor, he was living in North Carolina, and he wrote that song for Anita Baker. He sent it to me and I fell in love with it,” he says. “But we can say it’s from South Carolina.”