Not that long ago, listening to music on the radio provided a carefree escape, sparked imagination, created excitement, adventure and discovery, and at times, was as comforting as an old friend. R&B-jazz saxophonist Mekiel Reuben came of age during that era and his new album, “Just Like The Radio,” preserves his memories of listening to the radio from childhood to adulthood, sharing his experiences via twelve new songs that he wrote with his coproducer David Vasquez. The saxman’s ninth album drops July 21 on MekMuse Records.
While growing up in Chicago, Reuben listened to a lot of funk, jazz and soul music on the radio, and the songs on “Just Like The Radio” recall and celebrate many of the artists who influence his sound – from his 1994 debut album, “Miles Away,” titled for Miles Davis, to his latest collection of rhythms, grooves and melodies that pays tribute to the artistry of Sly & The Family Stone, The Jazz Crusaders, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Grover Washington Jr., Archie Bell, and War. Reuben began writing the set during the Covid quarantine. Although he now lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he made frequent trips to Los Angeles in 2021 when he would play the tunes for Vasquez, who began crafting arrangements for the tracks. A year later, they had eighteen songs to choose from.
With Reuben playing tenor and alto sax as well as percussion and Vasquez adding keyboards, synth bass and percussion, they brought in drummer Phil Martin to anchor the beats. After the sessions, Reuben returned to St. Croix with the tracks, tweaking them to get the grooves dialed in. To add guitar, Reuben reached out to Mauricio Guerrero Jr., who had performed on two of the saxophonist’s previous projects.
“Mauricio has a flair with his style of playing the guitar. I admire how he uses his imagination to create riffs that take the music to its promise and gives it identity. He was able to deliver some incredible guitar tracks. As for Phil, who I first started working with for my sixth album (“If You Were Here Tonight”), his creative ability to add flavor to the music with his drum playing has always amazed me,” said Reuben.
Reuben selected ten new songs for the new album and decided to reinvent two – “Time Piece” and “Cool Livin’” – from his first album. “Just Like The Radio” opens with the Sly Stone funkster “Sly Jungle,” which swings from a foundation constructed of congas, heavy percussion and African drums. The warm and lushly melodic “FB Maze” tips its cap to Frankie Beverly and his iconic band. When he’s in the studio working on music, Reuben practices gratitude by frequently saying “What a life,” which became the title of the third cut.
“‘What A Life” is living and enjoying life as you live it, and cherishing your moments in time,” he explained.
The title track derived inspiration from Archie Bell & The Drell’s “Tighten Up.”
“It was a tune that opened up with a guitar riff that got people jumping on the dance floor back in the day. I wanted to create the same effect on ‘Just Like The Radio.’”
Introducing “Time Piece” to a new audience, Vasquez added a fresh twist to the hard-hitting funk groove: the sound of steel drums from Reuben’s adopted home. Vasquez’s role in Reuben’s recordings is acknowledged on “D Vaz.”
“David Vasquez has been the backbone to my recordings over the past twenty years. His reservoir of ideas when it comes to arranging tunes and adding different sounds to add flavor to our recordings is priceless. I have often said he has been the best thing to happen to me as far as music production. He’s a humble human being who loves turning mediocre songs into something marvelous,” said Reuben.
Among the other standout selections is the reggae and Caribbean influenced “Groovin in V.I. Twin City.” Reuben moved to the Virgin Islands as a teenager. He immersed himself in the native music, learning calypso, reggae and other Latin and Caribbean styles, elements that are prevalent on his records. After spending thirty years in Los Angeles, he returned to live in St. Croix seven years ago.
“There are two towns on the islands and St. Croix is known locally as V.I. Twin City. On the east is Christiansted and Frederiksted is on the west side of the island. So, I dedicated this tune to the island of St. Croix - the only U.S. Virgin Islands that has two towns, which has always been special to me,” Reuben said.
Dusting off another song from his debut record, “Cool Livin” offers a slice of vibrant pop melodies that Reuben says are reminiscent of Kool & The Gang.
“Mellow Tuesday” is a sultry and exotic Latin samba.
“My sax solo takes you on this free-flowing journey where you feel this soothing sensational warm breeze touching your heart from the expressive tones. The song has mystic flowing vibes that will touch your soul.”
Observing a young Caribbean girl jubilantly dancing inspired the album closer, “Girl Dancer.”
“‘Girl Dancer’ has this feeling of joy when you listen to the Caribbean rhythms that take you on this journey of excitement. The song came from watching this girl dancing to the joyous rhythms that flowed from her feet to her hands, expressing the love of life,” said Reuben, who soft-launched a different version of the album earlier this year.
“We went back into the studio to remix the entire album to make it sound like I always intended it to sound. We also made a subtle change to the album cover.”
Reuben spent decades touring and performing internationally at major jazz, blues and reggae festivals, having shared the stage with Lenny Williams, Barbara Morrison, Phil Perry, Vesta Williams, Ronnie Laws, The Jazz Crusaders, Les McCann, The Itals, Bunny Wailer, Ziggy Marley, Maxi Priest, Third World, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, UB40, Marcus Miller, Chaka Khan, Gino Vannelli, Dr. John, Etta James, George Clinton and P-Funk All Stars. For over twenty years, Reuben donated his time and talents to sharing the joys of music with disabled children at Los Angeles Unified School District’s Benjamin Banneker Special Education Center.
“Just Like The Radio” contains the following songs:
“What A Life”
“Just Like The Radio”
“Groovin in V.I. Twin City”