Saxophonist Steve Cole is one of the most celebrated players in contemporary jazz. The Chicago native exploded onto the scene in 1998 with the album “Stay Awhile” that was produced by fellow Chicagoan Brian Culbertson. The disc scored multiple #1 hits and earned Cole the Oasis Smooth Jazz Award for best new artist shortly before his sophomore set, “Between Us,” was released in 2000. His catchy singles made him an instant radio favorite and he cranked them out with regularity on subsequent albums “NY LA” (2003), “Spin” (2005), “True” (2006), “Moonlight” (2009), “True” (2013), "Turn It Up" (2016), “Gratitude” (2019) , and his newest release "Without A Doubt" (2023)
Cole grew up on a diet of bebop blended with pop radio hits, and honed his skills on the diverse 1990s Chicago music scene, where he was called on to play everything from jazz to funk to gospel to rock to R&B and soul. All of those experiences come into play on Cole’s exhilarating new album, Without a Doubt. His first outing with producer and songwriter partner Adam Hawley, the album finds Cole taking the opportunity of this fresh start to approach his music with the open mind of a beginner and the confidence of a veteran at the top of his game.
The album is chock full of memorable melodies that could be easily retooled as hits for the likes of the Commodores or Earth, Wind & Fire. In a sense, that brings Cole full circle to some of his earliest musical experiences.
“That's how I learned to play,” he recalls. “When I was just starting out as a kid, I would turn on pop radio and play along, adding sax solos to songs that didn't have them. I still connect with that music on a fundamental level, and I hope that comes through on every record that I make. Without a Doubt is no exception – it’s part of a continuing exploration into how I can continue the lineage of music that I’ve always connected with and create new and interesting variations based on my experience.”
That experience evolved with Cole’s love of pop music paralleled by his study of bebop greats like Cannonball Adderley and, later, the soul jazz of Stanley Turrentine.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons that Cole could teach up-and-coming musicians is to remain open to new influences and experiences. That perspective has certainly served him well on Without a Doubt through his first-time collaboration with Adam Hawley. A gifted guitarist discovered by Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, Hawley had crossed paths with Cole in a sideman role as his career was in its rapid ascendancy. He’s since gone on to top the Billboard charts 13 times as both an artist and producer, working with the likes of Kim Scott, Dave Koz and Brian Simpson.
Cole and Hawley co-wrote all ten tracks on Without a Doubt, most of them originating with Cole in what the saxophonist calls an unprecedented burst of creativity. “I went through a very prolific period where I came up with lots of really good ideas, but nothing was fully formed. I really liked the music that Adam was putting out, so I thought it would be fun to work with him. So I sent him my fragments and the ideas he sent back elevated them even more than I could have imagined. The whole process was a series of pleasant surprises.”
Hawley also assembled the core band for the album, including bassist Mel Brown, drummer Eric Valentine and additional synth player Carnell Harrell, with Hawley serving as jack of all trades on synths, guitar, strings, organ, Fender Rhodes, programming and more. Caleb Middleton guests on Rhodes, synths, keyboard bass and programming on several tracks, with Trevor Neumann’s trumpet gracing a pair of cuts. Cole’s longtime producer David Mann also returns, adding horn arrangements and reeds to “C’mon Y’all” and “One, Two!”
Invigorating and groove-filled, funky and fun, soulful and smooth, rollicking and sweet – Steve Cole’s latest goes down smooth but is jam-packed with indelible hooks and rhythms that will propel listeners from their seat. It’s clear that Cole felt free to let his passions run rampant with nothing to prove – Without a Doubt.
In addition to his work as solo artist, Steve has performed/recorded, with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Boz Scaggs, Larry Carlton, Jeff Lorber, Jim Peterik, Freddie Cole, Cyrus Chestnut, and KMFDM, and has been a featured soloist with the City of Prague Orchestra, and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Steve is also a founding member of The Sax Pack, a stellar sax trio completed by Kim Waters and Jeff Kashiwa.
When he's not on the road, Dr. Cole teaches music industry entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota where he is a Clinical Professor and Teaching Fellow.