You may consider saxophonist/flutist Najee an R&B performer, a smooth jazz saxophonist or a straight-ahead guy. That would be fine with him, because, he says, "I've always been that musician that's played it all."
He may very well "do it all" in Friday at the Sherwood Event Center, his first appearance in Pittsburgh in about 15 years, touring behind his latest release "The Smooth Side of Soul" for Shanachie Records.
Born and reared in New York as Jerome Najee Rasheed, he and younger brother Fareed, a guitarist who was involved in production of his early records, were exposed to music by their mother, "who was not committed to any particular style of music." He notes that her "weekend ritual" was to play some kind of music as they cleaned the house.
Najee gravitated toward the saxophone but also admired flutist Herbie Mann, began taking clarinet lessons and eventually took part in the late Billy Taylor's Jazzmobile education program. However, he originally aspired to be a pilot and attended August Martin High School, an aviation-focused school in Queens.
That changed during a school concert -- for a reason that many young men can appreciate.
"All it took was one tenor saxophone solo," he said. After that, "All the girls knew my name, so I had a quick career change."
He studied first at Bronx Community College and later at the New England Conservatory of Music, focusing on performance with the late Joe Allard, once a clarinetist for Arturo Toscanini. "[Fellow saxophonist/flutist] Nelson Rangell studied with him as well," Najee says, as did flutist Nestor Torres.
In 1983, Najee and Fareed went on the road with Chaka Khan. A couple of years later Meli'sa Morgan, a background singer, was signed to Hush Productions, which was headed by Charles Huggins, ex-husband of singer Melba Moore, and Ms. Morgan enlisted Najee to play an alto solo on one her songs. That caught the attention of Mr. Huggins and, in 1986, Najee ended up with a deal of his own.
That first record for EMI/Capitol, "Najee's Theme," went gold after just three months and eventually went platinum, and subsequent records such as "Day by Day" and "Tokyo Blue" also sold well. Although he received a Grammy nomination in the jazz category for "Najee's Theme," "I considered them R&B records with a saxophone," and he admits to marketing himself to primarily an R&B audience. As a result of his crossover success, "I took a lot of hits from the jazz guys."
No matter -- over the years he's had hits with such tunes as "Laid Back," not to be confused with a Doc Powell tune of the same name, and "Room to Breathe."
After leaving Capitol/EMI, Najee migrated to Heads Up, a smooth-jazz label which represented "a change of culture. It was good in one sense to be with a smaller label [because] they were great in educating the audience," he says. "The smooth jazz world doesn't know me as a smooth jazz artist, not like Dave Koz" -- who also started at Capitol.
He also spent about four years touring with Prince, where he got to engage in musical genre-bending. And not just on stage.
"I also loved playing his concerts, [but] the after-parties were the fun thing -- we would swing, we would rock," he says.
Najee released the new album, which spawned his current single "Perfect Nites," earlier this year. It has allowed him to return, if ever so briefly, to his roots in acoustic jazz.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 13, 2012) A story Thursday on saxophonist Najee referred to Charles Huggins as the husband of singer Melba Moore. They divorced in 1990.
Rick Nowlin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3871.