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Upfront Soul 2/2007

Our editor's picks of the soul CDs released in 2007

The only soul music we seem to get from US labels these days is all-cover albums, and smooth-jazz label Shanachie still continues releasing CDs in this formula. Maybe the lighter side of this is that without this trend we would probably not get at all new releases by such talented artists as VESTA, DENIECE WILLIAMS, MAYSA or PHIL PERRY, all of whom have a new Shanachie CD of cover songs – the last two mentioned artists their second in the row.

  Vesta Williams can certainly sing gutsy and soulfully when given the right kind of material – we have nominated a track from her repertoire not only once but twice as our number one soul track of the year in our Soul Express Quality Time Top 50 picks of the year. The first one was a track titled In Your Mind, taken from her 1993 album Everything-N-More, and we described the song as “the ultimate combination of jazz and soul”. The second number one track of the year from Vesta was five years later, when we picked her song I Have To from her 1998 album Relationsips, and we enthused the way “Vesta gives her best improvisatory pyrotechnics, while the band fuels the flame with such an intensive groove that it nearly hurts.”

  Admittedly, her Shanachie set Distant Lover (US Shanachie 5764, 2007) does not include such jewels as the two aforementioned tracks, but I’m really happy that she has finally been able to release a new album, even if it’s only an albumful of cover songs. Actually this is really Vesta’s first album since that 1998 release, so it was a long time coming! The album is produced by Chris ”Big Dog” Davis, and it really continues in the same mould as the previous Shanchie sets by Glenn Jones and Miki Howard. It means that we have both tasty arrangements with real instruments and rather clumsy and simple programmed updates of familiar soul songs.

  The peak of the set is definitely Vesta’s very successful reading of Marvin’s Distant Lover. It features Kim Waters on saxophone, and the atmosphere is elegant and cool. I really feel Vesta is at her best interpreting this kind of slower and jazzier material, even though she surely knows how to sing funky, Chaka Khan-ish upbeat cuts, too.

  However, most of the cuts on her new album are mid-tempo songs, which are OK but not necessarily make you shout for joy. Surprisingly, the Sly Stone cover If You Want Me to Stay has the jazziest arrangement with fluid piano soloing and Vesta doing some nice scatting. Bill WithersUse Me also offers Vesta a chance to improvise a bit and stretch her vocals in a highly impressive way, although the backdrop is rather faceless.

  Rhon Lawrence is the featured guitarist on the Babyface ballad Whip Appeal, which is very acceptable as well, and on the other ballad cover With You I’m Born Again (a rather schmaltzy Carol Connors-David Shire song originally a minor hit for Syreeta and Billy Preston) Vesta duets with a promising new baritone singer Isaac Clemon who has already worked with Will Downing, Phil Perry and Maysa. Check his website at and especially note a track titled How Could You Do This – very willdowning-ish!

  The rest of the album includes two satisfactory Motown updates (Knocks Me off My Feet, Ooh Baby Baby), the Spinners’ cover Could It Be I’m Falling in Love with a dull programmed backing, a version of Sade’s No Ordinary Love and the Deniece Williams bravura Free, of which we have already heard better cover versions by Will Downing and Juanita Dailey.

  Anyway, Free gives us an excuse to move to another Shanchie set, Deniece Williams’ new CD Love, Niecy Style (US Shanachie 5765, 2007) her first since This Is My Song on the gospel label Harmony from 1998. As with Vesta, it is really shameful that artist like Deniece have been without a recording deal for almost a decade, and at the same time major labels are pushing new talentless R&B birds to the market…

  Deniece’s album luckily is very different from the usual Shanachie production, since it’s produced completely by Bobby Eli, who has been able to collect a whole bunch of luminaries like Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Freddie Washington, Gregg Adams and Everette Harp to provide a first-class musical backdrop to Deniece’s comeback album. Bobby himself plays guitars and bells, and naturally, he is responsible for the arrangements (together with Nathaniel Wilkie), too.

  Deniece herself is shining with her distinctive soprano as ever before, and the album contains several startlingly brilliant performances. First, anyone who adores the original version of the Love’s Holiday, sung by Philip Bailey on the Earth Wind & Fire album All’n All, will undoubtedly fall in love with Deniece’s reading of the unforgettable Skip Scarborough song, especially when Philip himself is singing the wonderful background vocals, and Deniece is really in her element while delivering the lead vocals over the excellent real instrumentation. What a timeless masterpiece!

  Gregg Adams blows the trumpet on the truly tasteful reading of Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free, and George Duke plays the refined acoustic piano solo on Lady Love Me, which outshines George Benson’s original version, no doubt about it. I was also delighted to see Luther Vandross’ breakthrough hit Never too Much as one of the cover songs, and you can hear real funky bass on this track, played by Kenneth Gray. This Time I’ll Be Sweeter is a beautiful ballad song co-written by Gwen Guthrie, and earlier recorded by Roberta Flack and Angela Bofill

  Another positive thing on Deniece’s CD is that it contains two Deniece Williams originals. Cause You Love Me Baby is a decent enough new reading of her 1977 single, but the other self-written song The Only Thing Missing is actually a brand new ballad song, featuring Everette Harp on saxophone over the first-rate real instrumentation. A quality tune, indeed.

  The whole album really belongs to the totally different league from the usual Shanachie production, and the only brand new song definitely proves that Deniece Williams would be able to record a superb album of new material, if just given the chance. Heikki Suosalo has written an article on Deniece with an interview with her, and you can also read Deniece’s own comments of this album.

  This Time I’ll Be Sweeter is a song that not only Deniece Williams but also Maysa has chosen to her latest CD, Feel the Fire (US Shanachie 5151, 2007). This is Maysa’s second all-cover album, the previous one Sweet Classic Soul was released last year. It seems that her taste in soul music is quite close to mine, since she has again chosen some of my favourite songs to cover! She mentions the tunes on her all-cover albums are the songs that inspired her during her childhood.

  I was especially excited to see You Are My Starship in the list of songs, and although Maysa’s version does not rival with Norman Connors’ original, it is a more than successful interpretation – it is sheer heaven! Dave Mann is the soprano saxophonist over the jazzy keyboards, and Maysa delivers the divine tune in a mature, deep and soulful way. Maysa describes her feelings while recording the album: she went through a stormy love affair, and “I can guarantee, the emotions you should feel from me on this record are the most authentic, of anything I have done before this moment in my life. Every note, every word, I felt with all of my soul”.

  Other favourite tunes on Maysa’s new set include the EmotionsI Don’t Want to Lose Your Love, Feel the Fire (originally by Peabo Bryson, also recorded by Stephanie Mills), Zoom (Commodores), Send for Me (a Sam Dees / Ron Kersey song recorded by Atlantic Starr, Gerald Alston and the Manhattans). Of these, the uptempo Emotions song would have required a stronger instrumentation to really shine, but the ballad tunes Feel the Fire, Zoom and Send for Me are very pleasing. Feel the Fire doesn’t quite have the burning fire of Stephanie Mills’ reading, but I also like Maysa’s more peaceful version. Zoom is a surprising song to cover, but I have always loved the original version from the Commodores’ 1976 album, and I’m happy to realize that it has been Maysa’s favourite, too. Her own version is very serene and stylish, and the same could be said about her interpretation of Send for Me.

   The only tune I found a little odd on the album is the Evelyn King smash I’m in Love, which was originally a Kashif song based on a synth bass groove, and updating the song with a rather amateurish synth arrangement sounds like a very bad idea. Luckily, it’s the only one of its ilk on the CD, and the rest of the album follows the same mature and mellow sound as the aforementioned tracks. The jazziest track on the album is, quite surprisingly, the Susaye Greene-Stevie Wonder song I Can’t Help It (originally recorded by Michael Jackson, but also covered by Will Downing, Jesse Powell and U-Nam), which Maysa turns into an enjoyable scat exercise. Excellent!

  Phil Perry has also released his second all-cover set on Shanachie, titled A Mighty Love (US Shanachie 5153, 2007). I didn’t much care about his previous set Classic Love Songs, which contained mainly of early 70s sweet soul tunes (like La La Means I Love You, People Make the World Go Round, I’ll Be Around, You Make Me Feel Brand New and Hey There Lonely Girl), sung in a soft style over some bland programmed backdrops. Maybe Phil thought that he didn’t want to turn the famous sweet soul tunes into something else, and just interpreted them in a peaceful, pop-oriented fashion.

  Thankfully, on his second all-cover album Phil demonstrates the vocal strength and passion we have accustomed to hear from him. Just take a brief listen to his version of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes classic If You Don’t Know Me by Now, and you know what I mean! The backdrops are again mainly programmed, but Dave Mann and Kim Waters blow some tasty saxophone on three cuts, and on a couple of ballads (Everything Must Change, Wildflower) we are offered a more subtle instrumentation. I especially admired Phil’s elegant reading of Dionne Warwick’s minor hit from 1979, Déjà Vu, featuring a refined, jazzy piano backing. Phil’s version of the War hit The World Is a Ghetto is not as classy as Will Downing’s reading of the same song, but I still like the cool atmosphere with jazzy keyboards.

  There’s also one new track on the album, written by producer Chris Davis, and it’s a gentle piece of inspirational soul titled Honor. The title track Mighty Love is a Spinners cover and Phil imitates Philippe Wynne’s style to good effect. All in all, a much better album than Phil’s previous one.

  THREE TENORS OF SOUL are Russell Thompkins, Jr, William Hart and Ted Mills (the photo on the right, courtesy of Bobby Eli), who were the falsetto-voiced lead singers of The Stylistics, Delfonics and Blue Magic, respectively. Their Bobby Eli produced Shanachie album All the Way from Philadelphia (US Shanachie 5768, 2007) is yet another all-cover CD, and it has received very contradictory reviews on the Net. While some of their old fans have been very excited of the release and praised the set, some other old-time soul devotees have regarded it as “comedy release”. My personal opinion is somewhere in the between of these two opposites – actually this was much better than I anticipated.

  Of the three singers, I rate Ted Mills the highest, but when he sings the old Blue Magic tune Grateful you can hear that he’s not at the same shape vocally than during the 70s. The Philip Bailey bravura Fantasy is simply much too difficult song for him to handle. The third song he sings lead vocals is the McFadden-Whitehead-Carstarphen song Where Are All My Friends, originally performed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. The new version is set in a quite successful mid-tempo groove featuring some vibe soloing and Kim Waters on sax, and this mellow mid-tempo soul track is one of the most enjoyable tracks on display. Bilal is also featured as a guest artists on this song.

  Russell Thompkins Jr takes the lead vocalist role on three tracks. I don’t much care about the Bee Gees’ song Too Much Heaven, but the old Average White Band tune A Love of Your Own has always been one of my favourites, and there’s nothing wrong with the new version either, especially when members of AWB are also featured in the background. The Yvonne Davis song How Could I Let You Get Away is best known as a Spinners song, and it suits well to Thompkins’ style. The same could be said about The Isley-Jasper-Isley smash Caravan of Love, which opens the album.  

  The most pop-oriented cuts on display are the Hall & Oates songs All the Way from Philadelphia and I Can’t Go for That, with the twosome themselves questing on the first mentioned. The closing song That’s What Friends Are For is also just as schmaltzy as you might expect. But apart from these songs, I really found the majority of the album quite pleasing. Worth checking for the old fans of Stylistics, Blue Magic and Delfonics.

  THELMA HOUSTON’s A Woman’s Touch is yet another all-cover set, even not on Shanachie but on Sony distributed Shout Factory (US Shout Factory CD, 2007). While it took 9 years for Vesta and Deniece Williams to release a new album, it is even a longer time since Thelma’s previous release, which was Throw You Down on 1990 – 17 years ago!

  However, 17 years without a new album does not show in her voice, which is very strong and rootsy. Even though her biggest hits have been uptempo dance/disco numbers, Thelma proves here that she can bring a very soulful, Southern-style approach to her singing as well – with all the monologues etc. Jimmy Webb produced Thelma’s debut album Sunshower in 1969, and thus Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix is an apt choice to cover on this album. Thelma manages to turn this popular country/pop tune into a rootsy, Gladys Knight –type of ballad – Gladys actually also recorded the same song in 1970 (for the album All in a Knight’s Work).

  Other songs that demonstrate Thelma’s mellow, ripe vocal approach as a soulful ballad interpreter include Marvin’s Distant Lover (not as shining as Vesta’s version but a very soulful reading nevertheless) and Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone to Love. Thelma’s version of Sting’s Brand New Day is a blues-tinged mid-plodder /(featuring the great John Pena on bass and Louis Conte on percussion), while Charles Stepney’s Earth, Wind & Fire smash That’s the Way of the World has been modernized to a relaxed mid-swayer.

  Many of the songs have been arranged in a very different style than the original (or most familiar) version, which I think is a very good idea, and listening to familiar songs like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ Wake up Everybody and Ain’t That Peculiar (George Benson, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Ramsey Lewis etc.) you hardly even realize what is the original tune. Also, Luther’s Never too Much is set in a totally different arrangement from Luther’s original, while the new version here features saxophone, trumpet and conga solo over the uptempo dance beat.  Thelma has no troubles singing the demanding tune – which Deniece described in her Soul Express interview especially hard to sing.

  The only track that refers to Thelma’s disco period is the Sylvester cover Dance (Disco Heat) / You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), which is a good choice in that respect that it manages to bring the gospel element over the dance beat. As a whole, I didn’t have high hopes for this album but it certainly was a pleasant surprise and it’s been one that I’ve been listening a lot in recent weeks. Welcome back, Thelma!

  CHAKA KHAN’s new album is titled Funk This (US Burgundy/SonyBMG, 2007), but it might as well be named Rock This, since on the album Chaka performs old songs written by Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Prince, amongst others. She also covers old Rufus material from the 70s on the medley called Pack’d My Bags / You Got the Love. I know that I belong to a small minority, but in my humble opinion, Chaka is at her best while singing more relaxed, jazzy and soulful material, whereas when she performs hectic rock or funk I find her singing too uptight and nuanceless.

  Of course, this is only my opinion and you’ll find a second opinion on any web shop site where the buyers typically give this CD rave reviews and describe how funky and glorious this album is. Personally, I only like the slower tracks on display here, such as the beautiful ballad song Angel, written by Chaka herself together with James “Big Jim” Wright, or the Carly Simon song You Belong to Me, although the combination of Michael McDonald and a talk box duetting with Chaka in the background is rather corny – and there’s also a Stevie Wonder –type of harmonica solo.

  Of the funkier tracks, Prince’s Sign “O” the Times is really the funkiest cut on display (still much weaker than I Feel for You from 1984), while the rest of the tracks follow the Rufus type of messy rock-funk material. Sorry, this is not my cup of tea!

  Instead, the new album by THE TEMPTATIONS is much better than their first release on the New Door label. Entitled Back to Front (US New Door, 2007) it is – yes, you guessed it right – an all-cover album like their previous set Reflections, but this time both the selected songs and the arrangements are more to my liking.

  Still I have to admit that there are again some tracks that leave me ice cold, like Let It Be Me or How Deep Is Your Love, and I also think their updated versions of Sam & Dave’s Hold on I’m Coming and The Staple Singers’ Respect Yourself are far from successful. These songs simply demand a tighter, Memphis-type of soul sound and simply don’t fit into modernized arrangements.

  However, I was positively surprised how Steve Harvey as a producer has managed to revise the luscious atmosphere of Barry White’s Never, Never Gonna Give You Up, and although Benjamin Wright’s arrangement of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes classic Wake up Everybody does not follow the original Philly soul mould, I found the new setting very likable.

  Otis Williams has again found a fantastic new lead singer for the group since G.C. Cameron left: the new lead singer Bruce Williamson is pure dynamite especially while tearing down the lyrics on the Bobby Womack / Wilson Pickett classic I’m in Love, or turning the Doobie Brothers’  Minute by Minute into a rousing gospel performance. Also, Terry Weeks does a great job vocally on the Jeffrey Osborne bravura Love Ballad, one of my all-time favourite tunes. It was written by Skip Scarborough, and there is also another song from Skip’s songbook, Don’t Ask My Neighbors, originally sung by The Emotions, here delivered by Ron Tyson in his inimitable falsetto style. Not to be missed by any long-time Temptations fan.

  JEAN CARN, SHIRLEY JONES and CHERRELLE are touring and presenting the “Ladies Night Out” show, and they are also performing at Luxury Soul Weekender next January in Blackpool – I will be there, for sure! They have also released a live CD from the show, titled Ladies Night Out (Live) (US Steppin Muzak Records, 2007), and it proves that these ladies are really in a superb shape.

  Having already seen Jean Carn live a couple of years ago at Jazz Café in London, her terrific performance certainly does not come as a surprise. Now that she’s backed by a first class Chicago band, featuring funky bass, real drums, saxophone, trumpet and trombone, the setting is really ideal for Jean to deliver a wonderful show. She has five cuts on the CD, all of which are sung in an extremely gritty, improvised way. The songs are What You Won’t Do for Love, Love Don’t Love Nobody, Don’t Let It Go to Your Head, Ain’t No Way and Closer Than Close. Jean’s vocal range is admirable, and the ease she slides up and down the scale is amazing. Her live vocalizing is much jazzier than on the studio recordings, and I really love her way to improvise the familiar tunes. All in all, I enjoy these performances more than the original recordings!

  Also, Shirley Jones is in great vocal form, and hasn’t lot any of her appeal. It is now over 20 years since she had a number 1 soul hit with Bunny Sigler’s Do You Get Enough Love, which is a self-evident choice here, and she also sings the most acclaimed Jones Girls gems like Nights Over Egypt, This Feeling’s Killing Me and Who Can I Run To, as well as their breakthrough smash You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else. My definite favourite is the trumpet and sax-laced version of Who Can I Run To, which Shirley also delivers in a truly profound manner. Jeannie Williams and Gloria Ridgeway replace her sisters’ role (Brenda was present at the show, Valorie passed away in 2001) in the harmonies more than well. Shirley introduces Gloria as a singer who is singing backgrounds (with her sisters – as The Ridgeway Sisters) for Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin and Keith Washington, and the co-writer of Anita’s most recent hit You’re My Everything.

  Cherrelle has three songs on the CD, and she also sings them quite powerfully. She sounds especially convincing while delivering her number one ballad hit Everything I Missed at Home. On the version of  Saturday Love her duet partner is the husky-voiced Kevin Ford, a new name to be wathced . As a whole, a very strong live album, and it seems we can look forward for a real treat at Luxury Soul Weekender!

Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

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