It's hard to keep up with Robin Thicke. During the past decade he's evolved from songwriter-to-the stars into a platinum-selling solo artist. After his fifth album, 2012's Love After War, hit the R&B Top Ten, he embarked on a completely different project: appearing as a judge on the ABC reality television show Duets, which also features fellow vocal superstars Jennifer Nettles, John Legend, and Kelly Clarkson, among others.

Phil X is one of those rare players that seem equally comfortable adding the perfect guitar hook to an American Idol track or rocking stadiums with monster riffs.

"Dude, I'm a chameleon!" says the Greek-born, Canadian-raised, Los Angeles-based axman. "The way I see it, my mission is to enhance the song. A song is supposed to take you on a journey during the verse and make that chorus climax. That's equally true whether I'm playing with Kelly Clarkson or Avril Lavigne. I'm very good at secondary parts that complement the vocals and each section of a song. I just have this instinct, and I keep getting called back."

It's not exactly news that the violin is a great jazz instrument - violinist Joe Venuti proved it back in the 1920s, and players such as St├ęphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Svend Asmussen, and Jean-Luc Ponty have all reinforced the point. Yet jazz violinists remain a relatively rare breed, and it can still be an act of rebellion for young players to choose Miles over Mendelssohn.

Singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins doesn't just hear music - she sees it. "I see all music in colors," she explains. "My last album, Mondo Amore, had lots of browns and golds, coppers and ambers in it. Some songs are blacks and greens. In fact, if I start writing a song and don't see any colors, I don't finish it."

As the middle sibling of teenaged trio Hanson, keyboardist Taylor Hanson rocketed to full-fledged stardom while most of his peers were still struggling with their algebra homework. Their 1997 debut on Mercury Records, Middle of Nowhere, became a massive hit for the brothers (then just 16, 14, and 11 years old), selling 10 million copies worldwide. But when Mercury merged with Island Def Jam Records the following year, the band became entangled in a paralyzing creative struggle with their new label before finally going independent in 2001.

From his origins as an independent songwriter to his current gig recording and touring with Maroon 5, keyboardist PJ Morton has moved steadily from one success to another. Now he's come full circle with the release of his own EP, Following My First Mind, on Lil Wayne's Young Money imprint. "People are really digging it," he says. "I think my audience mirrors the type of fan that I am: a person who listens to all types of music, with very eclectic taste, but always energetic."

Any student of jazz history can tell you how most big bands dried up soon after World War II, victims of changing taste and the economic challenges. They were dinosaurs in the era of bebop and rock and roll.

When he was nine, little Jimmy Nichols sat down at his father's piano and started playing - and he hasn't stopped since. Now one of Nashville's top session and touring keyboardists, Jimmy has recorded with such country greats as Carrie Underwood, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Mindy McCready. He's one of the few artists to play piano on an Elton John track. He's been a musical director for top-flight acts like Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. Yet he still finds time to play demo sessions for new and developing artists.

It's tough to find a groove-oriented bass player who wasn't influenced by vintage Motown tracks, especially the inspired fretwork of bassist James Jamerson. But Joe Karnes puts a new spin on that beloved old sound when he plays with Fitz & the Tantrums, the neo-soul combo that burst from the LA club scene with their 2010 album, Pickin' Up the Pieces, and its hit single, "MoneyGrabber."

"Music is people, playing together," says drummer Aaron Comess. "My favorite music has always resulted from different players with different styles coming together to create unique sounds and grooves."

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