Najee is one of contemporary jazz’s true pioneers. Creating a fresh and pulsating “rhythm and jazz” dynamic in the early days of the smooth jazz format, the versatile saxophonist—whose first two recordings, 1986’s Grammy nominated Najee’s Theme and 1988’s Day By Day, went platinum—inspired the whole urban vibe that took over the instrumental world throughout the ’90s. Recording on Heads Up International since 2005, he continues to explore new creative avenues by mixing up his trademark soulful soprano with dynamic touches of flute and alto, and surrounding himself with some of the best session players and collaborators in the business.
A native of Jamaica, Queens, New York, Najee shared all of his musical dreams—and later, many professional gigs—with his brother Fareed, a guitarist who was a year younger. Their father passed away when they were very young, but their mother encouraged a deep exposure to jazz via recordings by artists as diverse as the Miles Davis Quintet, Junior Walker and Mongo Santamaria. Najee showed an early interest in the sax but a grammar school teacher steered him towards clarinet when there were no sax chairs available in the school band.
The debut album, Najee’s Theme – on which the saxman found his trademark voice on the soprano – was an instant phenomenon, selling gold immediately on the road to eventual platinum on the strength of the radio hits “Sweet Love” and “Betcha Don’t Know.” Najee toured as the opening act for popular R&B singer Freddie Jackson and, with the release of the equally successful Day By Day in 1988, became a bonafide celebrity. After touring as a support act for artists like Hiroshima and Bob James, Najee became a headliner in his own right. In addition to the U.S., over the years he has toured throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.
His subsequent releases, Tokyo Blue (1991) and Just an Illusion (1992), went gold and earned him Soul Train Music Awards for Best Jazz Artist in 1991 and 1993. Following Share My World in 1994, Najee paid brilliant homage to another one of his favorite R&B influences, Stevie Wonder, on 1995’s Najee Plays Songs From the Key of Life: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder. He also stretched his straight-ahead jazz muscles on a tour and follow-up live recording (Live at the Greek Theatre, 1994) with a superband featuring Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton and Billy Cobham. He later signed to Verve for one album, 1998’s Morning Tenderness, which went to #1 on the contemporary jazz charts.