Each month, we will profile a smooth jazz artist we feel has made a great contribution to the music universe we have come to know and love as smooth or contemporary jazz. This month, we throw our spotlight on…
U-Nam – Paris Struts Its Definition of Smooth and Funky
Parisian born Emmanuel “U-Nam” Abiteboul began playing guitar when he was 12 years old. From 1986 to 1989, he studied at the Paris-based CIM, the first European school for jazz. He turned professional at 19 and became an in-demand session player around the Parisian studios.
Well known throughout Europe and the U.S. as a musical trendsetter and innovative player in soul, R&B and smooth jazz, U-Nam has more than earned his reputation as a virtuoso guitarist and producer.
His first album, 2005’s The Past Builds the Futurereleased on the Trippin’N’ Rhythm label, was an album of instrumentals and a number of soulful vocal tunes. The deluxe edition features an excellent version of “Love’s Taken Over” featuring Rahsaan Paterson on vocals — and look out for a heartfelt Phil Perry on the track “Right Here, Right Now.” The album picked up a lot of play and was #2 on SolarRadio UK (the largest soul radio station in the UK). The album also had significant radio airplay in Europe and made it into the Top 47 on the U.S. charts.
In 2007, he moved to the U.S. where he has had the opportunity to perform, record, and produce several of the top artists in the smooth jazz, R&B and soul genres. The year 2007 was also the year that he released his second album, Back From the 80s, and began to establish himself as a prominent solo artist. This album mixed covers of classic soul and smooth jazz songs along with new U-Nam compositions that directly or indirectly harkened back to that era.
The single from the album, “Street Life,” went to #1 and stayed in the Top Three on the U.S. Billboard Charts for three months and in the Top Ten for an entire year. He also covered Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and Lionel Richie’s “Love Will Find a Way.” Both were similarly enjoyable. U-Nam especially paid homage to his hero, George Benson, playing an instrumental version of “Turn Your Love Around” while making nods to “Breezin’” and “Give Me The Night” elsewhere, as well as introducing the new tribute song “Mr. GB.” The album also included a hidden treat: A bonus CD entitled The After Show Party, which included a handful of cuts with guest vocalists, including Phil Perry and Leedia. Best of all was the previously mentioned excellent dance cut, “Love’s Taken Over,” which alone was worth the price of admission for the package. Back From the 80s was the number one album of the year on Jazz FM, Steve Quirk’s Fusion Flavours, as well as a #1 on the US Billboard Charts.
Speaking about the Back From the 80’s album on which U-Nam, in addition to his “Bensonic” guitar playing, also laid down some bass, keyboards, and percussion — in between producing, arranging and mixing duties, he says “I remember listening to George Benson, Al Jarreau, Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Maze, all that great music when I was a kid. My goal was to write songs that captured that mood in addition to the covers. Back From the 80’s better described what I set out to do: honour my influences and musical heroes and make music that is contemporary and hip to today’s scene.”
The album featured U-Nam’s musical partner Frank Sitbon who co-wrote some of the tunes, played keyboards, and sang background vocals. There was an amazing array of talent guesting on the project, including, among others, Jeff Lorber, Micheal White, Paulinho da Costa, and Maysa Leak of Incognito fame.
In 2009, U-Nam returned with Unanimity, an even stronger album that again highlighted his George Benson influence and which again featured a strong line-up of guests including Marva King, George Duke, and Najee. It received strong critical acclaim and kept the young artist’s star rising. That year also saw U-Nam nominated for Grammy consideration in three categories, including Best Improvised Solo and Best Pop instrumental Song.
Then, in 2012, U-Nam released Weekend in L.A., a tribute album to his aforementioned hero George Benson. The album included another array of all-star guest appearances by many talented performers who had appeared on some of Benson’s historic albums.
In an interview with Kat King on Seymour Duncan website, U-Nam explained how he came to have such an array of talent on the album. “When I released my second album Back From The 80’swith Trippin’n’ Rhythm/Sony in the U.S. in 2007, the single “Street Life” went to the top of the charts (it reached Top 3 on the US Billboard Charts in the Contemporary Jazz genre and remained in the Top 10 for a whole year). Because of that hit, I started to perform in a lot of Jazz festivals all throughout the country (and the world) as a solo artist. I met so many artists and musicians at those festivals and, once they saw me play live, I feel as though I gained respect right away from everyone. It was through these festivals that I had the opportunity to build relationships with people like George Duke, Stokley (lead singer of R&B band Mint Condition), Patrice Rushen, Paul Jackson Jr., Phil Perry, et al.” He went on to say, “My greatest influence is the great George Benson. George Benson has greatly influenced my guitar playing and career for many reasons; I have enjoyed learning his musical repertoire and adapting it to fit my style, listening to his music and the way he sings and plays, etc. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet him, and he is a really sincere guy – he was always willing to offer career advice.”
Within less than two weeks following its release, the Weekend in L.A. album had reached #1 on iTunes Japan for jazz, #1 on both the Amazon U.S. for neo-soul, and smooth jazz charts. It also received 10 entries in 6 categories for Grammy consideration and received rave reviews from critics worldwide.
Of the album, George Benson said “This monumental project includes some of my superstar friends who are among the world’s best known artists of our time. It is an honor to be the subject of this new guitar and musical star. This project sounds fantastic…”
Also in 2012, U-Nam joined the jazz-fusion All-Star band Graffiti with a line-up that included Dennis Chambers on drums, Gary Grainger on bass, and Haakon Graf on keyboards. During their successful “Reunion” tour in California, they released a live album called Live in California. The band also went on a successful tour of Europe and Russia, including sell-out shows at the famous Igot Butnam Jazz Club in Moscow.
The year 2014 found U-Nam in the company of saxophonist Shannon Kennedy. A year later, they recorded their debut album, First Class, as Groove Ltd. The album went straight to #1 on the smooth jazz best-selling albums in Amazon U.S. on its first day of release and stayed there for more than six weeks.
What’s so thrilling, and different, about the music that U-Nam creates is that it is an almost perfect blend of old school vibe, soul, and smooth jazz. He doesn’t hide from including recognisable riffs from past classics in his tunes. Take. for example. the remixed version of “Right Here, Right Now” from the Back From the 80s album where he uses the “What You Won’t Do For Love” motif to open and embellish the tune. It’s a trick he’s still doing today. You’ll hear it from the opening chords on “Surface Level.” You remember Change’s “Glow of Love?” It’s brilliantly blended into the opening track. U-Nam is steeped in the music and pays homage and respect to it while building something fresh and irresistible for today.
Then, there is his guitar playing. Like a modern blend of Wes Montgomery and George Benson adroitly mixed to sound strangely familiar yet totally fresh.
It’s not often that a musician manages to surprise and inspire you to go crate-digging when you listen to their latest release, but U-Nam does. It was a trick, or a technique, that all the great jazz masters used to do, quote tunes in their solos. It works because it gives the listener a moment of familiarity, a point of reference. It’s a technique that U-Nam excels at and has been the foundation for his work since that first album.
As Abiodun, yes, that Abiodun, founder member of the legendary Last Poets says “Let’s not forget about the past so that we can know who we are in the present. Let’s think about the future. Take the time to find out what it’s all about.”
I encourage all smooth jazz newbies to find out what U-Nam is all about. You’ll be pleasantly surprised…and thrilled. – Steve Giachardi