Smooth Jazz: Tok Tok Tok - 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover


With that in mind, I'm at a loss to explain how Tok Tok Tok's album 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is so enjoyable. It's got all the classic earmarks of the smooth jazz movement - simple stripped-down arrangements built around upright bass and saxophone behind a soulful female vocalist with the occasional bit of percussion thrown in to round out the mix. And the track listing doesn't exactly inspire confidence that we're in for an exciting time. 

Amongst the artists whose back catalogues are mined for this all-covers album are Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, and Gilbert O'Sullivan. On paper, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover looks like little more than a trite album of elevator music that no self-respecting music lover would ever want to sit through from start to finish.

It doesn't take more than a moment or two of actually listening to the album, though, to realize how misleading those simple summaries are. Consider the title track, for one. Olaf Casimir's and Morten Klein handle acoustic bass and tenor sax duties masterfully sliding between slow-burning, soulful verses and the bouncy pop of the choruses to really bring the song to life.

Klien also doubles on percussion, creating all the drum sounds vocally with a beat-box precision that any college a capella group would kill for. Give a listen to the their take to The Beatles' Day Tripper, that translates that familiar guitar riff to a bouncy, playful bass line. 
Jump over to the band's take on Stevie Wonder's I Wish, which creates a neo-soul wall of sound with just that single bass with over-dubbed saxophones, backed by those vocal drums. They capture the somber melancholy of the traditional spiritual tune Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child the joyous energy of Ray Charle's Hallelujah, I Love Her So, adding in a Fender Rhodes piano to the arrangements of those sounds to round out the sound.

Tok Tok Tok definitely do some great work with songs that already have a jazzy element to them, but it's even more impressive to see how well they reach further afield for their songs. Take their interpretation of AC/DC's The Jack for example. 
Stripped down to a slow walking bass line and swingin' sax riff, it’s the kind of song you'd expect to hear at two in the morning in a smoky, dimly lit jazz club that Bon Scott and Angus Young would never set foot in. And the above mentioned Gilbert O'Sullivan? Tok Tok Tok take the weepy schlock-pop of his Along Again (Naturally), gussy it up with some syncopated tropical island jazz rhythms, and turn it into a sweet little melancholy escapist fantasy. 

They even manage to take cheeky vaudevillian pop the Beatles' songlet Her Majesty and work it into a sultry little jazz ditty.
The jazzy instrumentation on 50 Way to Leave Your Lover lends a great deal of appeal to the album (despite how easy it may be to incorrectly classify the sound as "smooth jazz"), but the lion's share of the album's charm comes from singer Tokunbo Akinro's voice. Her deep, breathy voice captures the same sultry sensuality that made singers like Nina Simone, Sade, Lena Horne, and Billy Holiday so memorable. 

And her pipes are just as good at putting a playful spin on the words as they are at bringing the inherent sensuality of the lyrics.

While the easy label for 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is "jazz," the album has an eclectic, quirky nature that makes it difficult to truly nail down. There are enough rock and pop songs to be found amongst the source material that listeners who aren't normally fans of jazz will find something to hook them in. 
It's far from the most energetic, bombastic album out there, opting most of the time for a low-key, subdued charm, but that just helps it to stand out from all the heavy handed, big name albums out there today. No matter what you may think of the original version of the songs presented here, Tok Tok Tok's interpretations are well worth a listen.

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