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Smooth jazz forced to ''chill'' out

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Smooth jazz and Kenny G. go together like…chardonnay and sunsets. So why has New York City’s most popular smooth-jazz radio station banished the curly-tressed titan of soporific saxophone from its playlist? ”The smooth-jazz format is aging. It’s gonna die out as its audience gets older,” says Blake Lawrence, program director of WQCD (101.9 FM). ”And Kenny G is a poster child for smooth jazz.” Which is why the station recently moved to a mix of 70 percent smooth jazz and 30 percent what has been christened ”chill” — electronic acts like DJ duo Thievery Corporation, ethnic lounge faves the Brazilian Girls, and U.K. trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. WQCD even renamed itself ”New York Chill” in honor of the new format.

”I haven’t seen enthusiasm for a genre from such a wide range of people in a long time,” says Frank Cody of L.A.’s The Wave (KTWV 94.7 FM). He should know — he created the smooth-jazz format in the ’80s. Several other stations have picked up on chill, though most aren’t blowing off Kenny G. entirely — not yet, anyway. ”We’re testing the waters,” says Mike Vasquez, program director at KIFM 98.1 FM in San Diego. ”Still, my gut tells me that chill is something I need to pay attention to.”

It’s too soon to tell whether chill will get the cold shoulder from listeners, but Lawrence says advertisers have reacted positively. In addition, a weekly show, Chill With Chris Botti, on which the trumpet-playing heartthrob spins such hipsters as Zero 7 and Moby, has been syndicated to 14 smooth-jazz stations. ”It’s the logical step for adults who want to broaden their horizons a bit from jazz,” says Botti. ”It acts as real sensual wallpaper: It doesn’t distract you too much, and it puts you in a great mood.”

But being likened to aural wallpaper troubles some being hotly pursued by chill radio. ”If there’s a new outlet for our music…that’s a positive thing,” says Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. ”But you have to be very wary of being classified.” Just ask Kenny G.