New album proves Amadee Castenell a ‘Force’ of nature

Amadee Castenell’s new album ‘Amadee and His Driving Force’ is a delightful mix of covers and originals imbued with pop hooks and a sweet jazz sensibility. (Inset, album cover courtesy of Black Rose Records.)

ALBUM REVIEW

In a recording sessions career that led Amadee Castenell to log so many credits that discography services lost track, he covered genres ranging from jazz, to soul, to rock, to gospel, blues and R&B. When it came time to record his fourth solo album, “Amadee and His Driving Force,” the New Orleans native knew he would draw on all of those, but had another priority in mind.
“I wanted to make it just a little more commercial,” he said of the sterling new release on Black Rose Records of Nashville. “Of course, I wanted it to be musically well done. But I’m always skeptical about slowing tempos down because — even though he made all the money in the world — I never want to be labeled as a Kenny G where everything is syrupy. I can play smooth like that, too, but I don’t want to get stuck in that realm. …
“But I wanted it to be catchy, so that when you get to the last song, you want to start over again.”
Consider it mission accomplished. Castenell covers pop artists such as Sade (“Sweetest Taboo”), Wham (“Careless Whispers”), and Billy Ocean (“Caribbean Queen”), R&B stalwarts Boyz 2 Men (“End of The Road”), and Grover Washington (“Just the Two of Us”), as well as soul-jazz canons popularized by Billie Holiday (“Willow Weep for Me”) and Bobby Hebb (“Sunny”). With his refined and spot-perfect stylings on sax and flute, Castenell’s classy interpretations lend the popular song covers a sweet jazz sensibility and a contagious vibe that beg to be heard again and again. His treatment of “Careless Whispers” alone is enough to give “easy listening” a good name. It is natural to envision it as a soundtrack to cinematic love scenes. And his three originals, meanwhile, have the sound of classics already.
Castenell said he chose many of the covers for a simple reason. “I liked the sax solos, and I heard in them something I wanted to do.”
Castenell said he approaches soloing as a vocalist does. As such, 11 of 12 songs are instrumentals. The lone exception is “Willow Weep for Me,” which is given a powerfully Holiday-like voice by Boston-based ace Toni Lynn Washington, part of Castenell’s “Driving Force.”
The Andover resident said he so dubbed the album because of the way people inspired him and rallied behind him to record this album at Bill Smith’s Club 39 studio in Sudbury.
He met Smith three years ago when he went to record some tracks for a Chris Stovall Brown album, and Smith was shocked to find out that the hired sax player was the master he had just seen the night before in a video with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint at Montréal Jazz Festival.
Smith was so impressed with Castenell in the studio that he started sending him notes. He dismissed it at first as Smith “trying to hustle me up for the money” — something in short supply for Castenell as medical bills and lost gigs piled up.
“Bill finally said to me, ‘Listen. Get your horn, come on down to the studio. I ain’t talking no money. I got free time; you got free time. Bring some of the fellas with you. We aren’t talking about money, we’re talking about fun,” Castenell said. “The rest is history.”
In addition to Washington and Smith, the rest of Castenell’s “Driving Force” came to the studio solely for that same fun and privilege of working with the New Orleans master. They include Parker Wheeler (harmonica); Steve Monahan (bass); Bob Enik, Kevin Belz and Bill Walsh (guitars); Maureen Medeiros, John Loud and Steve Bankuti (drums and percussion); and Ben Broder, Tom West and Larry Luddecke (keyboards).
The most important force on the team and the man to whom the album is dedicated, is his younger brother, Andre´ Castenell, who produced his previous solo albums, and had to help oversee this one from his hospice bed. Andre´ Castenell died of cancer at home in New Orleans in February, three months before the album’s release, but not before he heard, critiqued and ultimately approved the final mixes. Amadee Castenell said his guidance was critical. “Every night when I’d get back from the studio, I’d send Andre´ the tracks we had recorded, and he would get back to me with his notes and thoughts,” Castenell said. “It was important to me for him to remain involved in this.”
Castenell already has a handful of tracks recorded toward the next CD, but given the spirit behind this album and the fruits borne, it’s hard to believe — in his overflowing heart — anything will surpass “Amadee and His Driving Force.” In the liner notes dedicating the album to his little brother, Castenell writes, “This project was extra special because it is the last project we will ever do together. I’ll treasure this CD.”
Here’s betting you will, too.