With two simple and inspiring words, Steve Oliver perfectly captured the brilliantly sunny, joyfully optimistic vibe of his music and life with the title of his 2002 breakthrough release Positive Energy. Establishing the smooth, funky and ultra-soulful guitarist and vocalist (and, to his fans’ delight, a human drum machine and percussion choir) as a bona fide smooth jazz star, the album hit the Billboard Top 20 on the strength of the #3 radio single “High Noon” (one of the most played songs of the year), earned him Smooth Jazz Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Guitar Player, and kept him close to his pace of 200 live gigs a year. Look for the accolades, airplay and a spirited blend of deep musicality and fun to continue as Oliver enters an exciting new dimension on his appropriately titled third album, 3-D.
“As with Positive Energy and my debut album First View (1999), my titles always reflect the vibe of the music and where I am in my career and my life,” he says. “Calling it ‘3-D’ reminds listeners that it’s my third disc and it’s very three dimensional musically, rhythmically and harmonically. I’m always incorporating new sonic ideas and seeing how I can explore more exotic styles while keeping my core sound. There’s a real contemporary flavor here that touches upon my love for electronica music, and I’m venturing into more samba grooves and some lush orchestral flavoring on the closing vocal track ‘See You Soon.’ I may be doing some different things musically, but the overall energy is still uplifting and positive.”
Co-producing for the first time with keyboardist Tom Schuman, a founding member of superstar instrumental group Spyro Gyra who contributed to two songs on Positive Energy, Oliver—balancing nine instrumental tracks with three compelling and soulful lead vocal cuts--digs deep into a rich variety of influences for a multi-faceted romp through the worlds of pop, jazz, urban/hip-hop, world beat, Brazilian and Latin music. While focusing as always on his classic acoustic guitar and brilliant “vocalese” to convey the lead melodies on the instrumentals, he stretches into edgier blues territory with his lesser heard electric on “In The Shade of Cool.”
Joining all-star guests like Fourplay drummer Harvey Mason (who adds his gentle rhythmic touch to the lush romantic atmospheres of the title track) and saxophonist Eric Marienthal (soulful harmony on the lilting ballad “She’s Got the Way-O,” punchy riffs and call and response amidst the brass, retro-soul and party groove mania of “Funhouse”) are a handful of musicians familiar to longtime fans of the Oliver live experience, including Will Donato (sax) and Larry Antonino (bass).
Oliver credits a lot of the depth the listener will discover on 3-D to the incredible chemistry he had with Schuman, working in the keyboardist’s Las Vegas home studio.
“My projects always include a sense of lighthearted playfulness, but there’s a lot more maturity on 3-D than ever before,” he says. “Tom really made the tracks sparkle with his cool sense of chordal jazz voicings that come from his deep love for straight ahead jazz. I wanted that deeper element to shade my leanings towards pop this time, and musically, it was a great marriage of sensibilities. Tom’s really focused on what he’s doing and grounds my enthusiasm with a necessary perspective and honesty. We had a great time.”
In turn, Oliver opened up a new dimension for Schuman’s own artistry to flourish. “People can look at the world in a very negative way these days, but Steve’s music has an incredible sense of positive hope that reminds us that life can also be wonderful, too,” he says. “He’s so sincere about who he is and he puts his heart into everything he does. I had nothing but fun making this record and it was exciting being able to help Steve sonically realize his dream and vision for this album. He loved my palette of sounds and drum loops and the way I could bring an element of techno into the mix. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with him.”
Other key tracks driving the often exotic, always grooving and ever-compelling journey of 3-D are the jubilant and bouncy, brass splashed Latin fueled first single “Chips and Salsa”; the mystical and moody opening track “Magic World,” which features a gently percussive world beat sensibility; and a loping, cool strutting samba-lite borne on the cheerful “Wings of Spring.” Combining the best of two of the guitarist’s favorite worlds, “Oh Yeah” opens with an aggressive Latin flavored strumming and features a cool mix of techno sounds and hip-hop era electronic scratches. In the tradition of “I Know” (from First View) and the anthemic “Show You Love” (from Positive Energy), 3-D offers three lead vocal tracks destined to become Oliver classics—the graceful, orchestrally enhanced “See You Soon,” the gentle samba-tinged romance “You Rescued Me” and the infectious acoustic soul spiced “Let It Go.” Oliver reaches back over three decades for his first cover song ever, working a beautifully subtle arrangement of John Lennon’s inspirational anthem “Imagine.”
In a genre where radio is often more concerned with “music to fit your lifestyle,” many up and coming artists snag airplay by emulating their successful established heroes. But no one quite approaches Steve Oliver’s charismatic mix of colorful acoustic guitar melodies and wild vocal percussion and “vocalese.” This must-see-and-hear trademark has been part of the Walnut Creek, California native’s repertoire since the beloved solo spotlights he did on tour with (former Rippingtons percussionist) Steve Reid’s Bamboo Forest from 1996 until he began recording First View.
While he’s toured and performed with an exciting list of genre stars and legends--Rick Braun, Peter White, Marc Antoine, Everette Harp, Larry Carlton, Gato Barbieri--it was Oliver’s high profile role in Reid’s band that finally gave him the opportunity to emerge as a budding instrumental star. More than simply the lead guitarist, he became a true partner of Reid’s shortly after joining the band in 1996, writing nine songs on the Mysteries album and three on Passion In Paradise.
First View was nominated for an AFIM (Association for Independent Music) Award along with albums by Nelson Rangell and Chuck Loeb for best smooth jazz recording of 1999. The album scored three hit radio singles, hit the Top 20 on the Gavin and Radio & Records airplay charts and earned Oliver the distinction of “Debut Artist of the Year” from the national publication Smooth Jazz News.
Before committing any new song to disc, Oliver tests it with his fans in a live setting, making them an integral part of his musical growth process. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to see him these past few years at increasingly high visible venues such as
America’s Jazz Festival in Maryland, the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival, Seaport in New York City and the Hyatt Newporter Jazz Festival in Newport Beach, California. He’s also shared bills with Rick Braun, Michael Franks and, on a six city tour last year, sax superstar Boney James. Recent adds to this ever-expanding resume are appearances with Chris Botti (including the 2004 Berks Jazz Festival), The Rippingtons and at a set at the Barbados Jazz Festival.
“Music is therapy for me and makes me feel good, and I love exploring the possibilities in all the styles that I enjoy,” he says. “I’m always thinking about how many people I will soon be sharing all this new music with. It’s so much fun connecting with the audience and seeing them smile. They come to the show wanting to feel good, and I make sure they leave having been uplifted. It’s very much a spiritual connection for me. What you see onstage is genuinely how I am. The fans keep me motivated, and the key to my success is connecting with them and making them happy. They can see I’m sincere. I have a genuine love of music and people.”