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Our editor's picks of the new release CDs:

Upfront Soul - New soul CD picks

South Florida –based songstress JOAN CLARKE mentions Phyllis Hyman, Rachelle Ferrell and Howard Hewett as her favourite artists, and she is currently recording a Phyllis Hyman tribute as her next album. Joan’s debut set Thirsty (US Green Recording Productions CD, 2007) is available at CD Baby distribution and she herself describes it as “R&B Jazzical Gospel”, referring that the music combines elements of soul, gospel and jazz. Actually the first half of the CD is titled “Jazzical Gospel” while the latter half is called “Smooth Jazz/R&B”. The first part reminds me of Kelly Price –type of gospel-drenched R&B, and there are even some rap inserts embedded in the songs.

  The second half is spiced by some jazzy solos by saxophone and trumpet, and this is the kind of material that is more to my personal taste. Edward Maina is the superb alto saxophonist who colours a soothing ballad titled Miracles Do Come True, whereas Edmilson Gomes’ muted trumpet and fluger horn work shines on I Plan to Be Married, another prime track on the album. Joan herself has a mature, smooth voice and she enjoys performing in jazz clubs. Looking forward for Joan’s Phyllis Hyman tribute!

  JULIA NIXON is the former Broadway (Dreamgirls) singer who released a couple of 12” singles in the mid-1980s as the lead singer of Julia & Co.Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) and I’m So Happy. Keepin on Track (US Double Dawg Records, 2007) is her debut solo album, and it’s a quite varied set, on which the music ranges from fast-paced disco tracks to jazzy soul ballads. Of the latter ones, Girlfriends is a truly classy, muted trumpet-coloured swayer with a strong self.-written melody and a confident, mellow interpretation. It is followed by the much-recorded jazz standard Guess Who I Saw Today (Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, recently also Chanté Moore), which Julia delivers over a light piano-based jazz backdrop. Bring Back Springtime is a new, MOR-ish song with an orchestrated backing, but Julia’s singing is very soulful.

  More to my personal taste is the stylish mid-tempo tune Flow, spiced by flute soloing and featuring Gary and Greg Gainger on bass and drums. On the other hand, I have to admit that I didn’t much enjoy of the funky and somewhat messy uptempo tunes like Old Fashioned Love, Sirens and Then, and the updated, Donna Summer-ish rendition of the Dreamgirls song One Night Only also sounds badly dated.

  On virtually every review I have read of GINA GREEN, she has been compared with Stephanie Mills, and I’m not going to make an exception. Gina really sounds a lot like Stephanie, having the same kind of colour in her voice and similar kind of phrasing style. This is good news at least for us who love Stephanie’s style, and I can easily recommend Gina’s latest CD My Journey (US Gico Music CD, 2008) to Stephanie’s fans.

  However, to record a classy soul album is not simple, since you would also need classy melodies and arrangements, and while there are a couple of excellent songs on Gina’s album, the production is still typical low-budget indie production with very few instruments over the programmed beats. There are only two musicians mentioned on the whole album. If the melodies are strong enough, this doesn’t bother as much, but on the more mediocre tunes the modest backgrounds start to annoy. There are some very refined, stylish melodies – like the closing track I’ll Never Forget You – which are virtually ruined by clumsy drum programming that spoils the atmosphere.

  Still, there are a couple of tracks that really shine, despite the non-remarkable backings. The title track My Journey is an attractive mid-tempo ballad with a beautiful new melody and some spine-tingling vocalising by Gina. Free Like a Bird is an even more fascinating new song that reminds me of Deniece Williams at her very best, and this is another great showcase for Gina to prove her enormous potential as a soul singer. She really sounds absolutely stunning while interpreting this tune, and this time even the backing with the simple piano-based background is really not bad at all. More tracks like this in the future, and Gina will record the album of the year!

    It is probably years now when I last heard a decent neo-soul album, but CYNTHIA JONES’ Gotta Soul (US Kingdom CD, 2008) is certainly a recommendable set if you’re into early Erykah Badu-Emerald Jade-Antoinique-type of snappy, swinging neo-soul that is both melodic and rhythmically effective. Check tracks like Love Jones, No Apology and the title track Gotta Soul to hear the freshest neo-soul tunes in last few years. There is also an irresistible “Two Step Remix” of the title track. Raleigh, North Carolina based singer’s vocal phrasing is very similar to Erykah’s, and Cynthia lists Erykah, Jill Scott, Lisa McClendon and Angie Stone as her influences. The lyrics on the album are religious, and thus Cynthia has been noted on every gospel site and listed on the gospel charts as well, but the music is really neo-soul, not gospel. If you’re into early 2000 type of neo-soul, get this CD in your collection.

  Husband and wife, KENNY LATTIMORE and CHANTÉ MOORE have released new albums this year, this time separately after their two duet albums Things That Lovers Do (2003) and Uncovered/Covered (2006).

  Kenny Lattimore released his promising (untitled) debut set in 1996, and an excellent sophomore album From the Soul of a Man in 1998, but his third CD Weekend from 2001 was a let-down. It tried to be trendy and up-to-date, using many chart-R&B producers, but the result was faceless and spiritless. Kenny’s fourth solo album Timeless (US Verve CD, 2008) obviously tries to prove that he is not just a trendy R&B artist but a more soulful one who is able to record enduring yet modern music.

  Admittedly, I listened to the album for a while before I realised that it’s an all-covers set, because the tunes picked for the CD are not all soul classics but contain several less familiar soul songs and compositions picked from rock/pop records – not all of which I recognised. Barry Eastmond has produced the whole album, and the arrangements vary from trendy R&B-type programmed beats (laced with keyboards and guitar) to fuller instrumentation with real drums, saxophone and brass, even real strings. You can already guess which one I prefer!

  The soul classics covered here include Aretha’s bravura Ain’t No Way, Michael Henderson’s You Are My Starship and Marvin’s Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong–written stomper That’s the Way Love Is. Jean Carne recorded a terrific version of Ain’t No Way in 1988, and Kenny’s reading is not bad, either, but cannot beat Aretha’s or Jean’s rootsier versions. Even better, though, is Kenny’s version of the much-covered Norman Connors/Michael Henderson classic You Are My Starship. The arrangement is actually quite basic (using real instruments), but the tune is ideal for Kenny’s dexterous tenor voice, and he interprets the song admirably. One of the highlights of 2008.

  Kenny’s versions of Al Green’s Something, Otis Redding’s I Love You More Than Words Can Say and Stevie Wonder’s It Ain’t No Use are less spectacular, and the rock/pop songs from the repertoire of the Beatles, Elton John and Jeff Buckley are not to my personal taste. Instead, I was positively surprised by Kenny’s version of the Terence Trent D’Arby song Undeniably, which has been turned into an amazing jazzy soul masterpiece! The arrangement is smooth and delicate with Omar Hakim on drums, Barry Eastmond himself on keyboards, Ira Siegel on guitar and Dustin Moore on bass, and Everett Harp blows a meaty alto sax solo. Also, the album closes with a truly soulful reading of the Van McCoy ballad Giving Up, which is inspired by Donny Hathaway’s (and not Gladys’) version of the song. Kenny does a splendid job bending and shaping the melody over a gorgeous musical backdrop with Everett Harp again blowing a sax solo.

  It was nice to note that whereas Kenny’s R&B album Weekend was a commercial failure, Timeless reached the top ten on Billboard’s R&B chart

No one doubts that Chanté Moore has the ability to record a classy soul album if given the right kind of material and production. Unfortunately, her recent albums have suffered from unsympathetic R&B production, and her fifth solo album Love the Woman (US Peak CD, 2008) also starts with quite dismal, messy R&B tracks (produced by Warryn “Baby Dubb” Campbell) which might have been ideal for Missy Elliott (whom Campbell has produced earlier) or some other hip-hop oriented R&B heroines, but sound like a waste of time and money for Chanté.

  Fortunately, some other producers have not treated Chanté like an R&B puppet but understood that she really shines in a more refined and melodious musical setting. Raphael Saadiq’s contribution Special is a step in the right direction, and producers like Shelea Frazier (a female vocalist who has worked with Take 6 and Roy Hargrove) and George Duke put Chanté in a sophisticated, slightly jazz-oriented setting that is ideal for her sensual phrasing. These four tracks are like a breath of fresh air between the R&B-oriented cuts and demonstrate that Chanté could easily follow in the footsteps of Minnie Riperton if given a chance. It is quite obvious that this is exactly what George Duke tries to prove here, choosing songs from Minnie Riperton (Give Me Time) and Nancy Wilson’s repertoire (Guess Who I Saw Today) to show everyone that here’s a lady who has much more potential than her recent R&B recordings have offered.

  The bossa nova–ish First Kiss is also very pleasant, and I have learned to like Jamey Jaz’s modern but subtle touch on the title track Love the Woman.

  There’s also delightful hidden bonus cut on (some versions of) this album, a 2:17 long interpretation of This Could Be the Start of Something Big, a song from Aretha Franklin’s early career (and earlier recorded by Ella Fitzgerald) when she was still recording jazz. Actually my US copy of the CD did not include the song, but you can listen to the track online: and hear Chanté singing uptempo jazz as if she had been doing that all her life!

  It is no wonder the CD has received highly contradictory reviews; I don’t think it makes any sense of including both Missy Elliott-type of R&B and sophisticated, jazzy ballad material on the same album. Personally, I skip the R&B cuts every time I play this CD, and only listen to the jazzier cuts, and probably members of the younger generation do exactly the opposite!

  LEIGH JONES may look more like a country than soul songstress, but legendary names like Berry Gordy and Al Bell have been assisting this L.A.-based neo-soul/jazz singer to become one of the most acclaimed newcomers in recent months. Berry’s son Kerry is actually the main producer on Leigh’s CD Music in My Soul (US Peak), and Berry himself has co-produced one of the prime tracks, the stylish mid-stepper Cold in L.A. The overall musical setting on ballads like Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Sick of Fools, The Words You Never Say and Same Game is excellent, when you can listen to jazzy trumpet, upright/fretless bass, saxophone etc. in the background. All This Love is a neat Wayman Tisdale -produced smooth jazz –type of version of the old DeBarge hit. The only track I didn’t personally like was the blues-y I’m Leavin’ You, which probably would demand a rootsier vocalist, but Leigh handles the jazzier soul ballads quite well. Worth checking!

  PHIL PERRY’s latest CD Ready for Love is his third on the smooth jazz label Shanachie, but unlike the previous two, this CD contains mainly new material and only two cover versions (James Taylor's Shower the People and the Dionne Warwick standard Walk On By), whereas his former Shanachie albums were all-covers albums. In the back cover, Phil is cited as being “one of the great R&B singers of our time”, which I fully agree, but I’m not quite sure whether Shanachie is the right label for him. After two all-covers sets, we can at least be grateful that the new album contains eight new songs, and that there are a couple of real musicians like Kim Waters and Rohn Lawrence colouring the programmed beats and keyboards played by producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. However, I have a feeling that the whole project is targeted at adult contemporary and smooth jazz listeners instead of Phil’s long-time soul fans.
  The overall feel of the album is smooth and peaceful, to the extent that I almost fell in sleep during the most serene tracks such as Another Place, Another Time and Melody of Love, which presumably try to fulfill the promise of the blurb on the back cover that the album is a romantic masterpiece. What is lacking here is the pure fire and passion Phil has demonstrated so many times during his 18-year-long solo career (after being a member of Montclairs and one half of Capitol recording duo Perry & Sanlin in 1980).
  Fortunately there are also a couple of worthwhile tracks among the ten tracks. The album opens with an acceptable sax-drenched mid-pacer titled Desire (which was the original title for the album), and is followed by the prime track of the CD, Ready for Love, which has an elegant jazz-inclined backdrop, over which Phil interprets the stylish and seducing melody co-written by himself. Other tracks worth a mention include a duet with a bright-voiced soprano Salena, Why Why Why, and a song written by Phil alone, the lingering ballad The Shelter of Your Heart, which has an extremely relaxing atmosphere.

  ALEXANDER O’NEAL’s latest effort Alex Loves… has been largely ignored in soul music press, which is no wonder since it seems that the record company EMI UK has aimed the CD for pop market. The CD is yet another all-cover set, including two songs from Alexander’s own repertoire, Saturday Love and If You Were Here Tonight, both versions being milder and more pop-oriented than the originals. Nat Augustin of the UK group Light of the World is the main producer.

  The lighter side of the album is that Alex is still vocally in great shape, and that Augustin has managed to bring some real musicians with him to colour the otherwise mild and faceless programmed backdrops. Of the string of cover tunes, Mica Paris duets with Alex on the acceptable reading of the Atlantic Starr hit Secret Lovers, and I think songs like What You Won’t Do for Love (Bobby Caldwell) and I’ll Make Love to You (Boyz II Men) suit Alex well. Instead, choosing When a Man Loves a Woman, Always and Forever, You’re the First, the Last, My Everything, Unbreak My Heart or Cherish for Alex sounds like a very bad idea, and the dull backdrops certainly do not help. What is even worse, the producers have also chosen pop hits like Dennis De Young’s Babe, Take That’s A Million Love Songs and Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting for Alex to cover, and with those tunes the whole project starts to sound like a karaoke session.

  The album closes with the only original tune, co-written by Alex together with Augustin, and although it is not a masterpiece, it is at least soulfully delivered and the tune is not bad, either.

Many soul fans have already expressed their disappointment with JAMES INGRAM’s latest set, which is an inspirational release Stand (In the Light) (US Intering, 2009). It contains ten tracks, including Yah-Mo Be There, James’ old hit from 1983, in its original version, obviously because its lyrical content fits the album’s religious theme. As often with the inspirational albums, the overall mood is quite serene and MOR-inclined, and James's readings of cover songs like For All We Know and Everything Must Change also sound rather boring. And for some reason we are also offered one blatant rock track, entitled No Place Like Home.

All is not lost, though. Mercy is a brilliantly sung ballad co-penned by James himself, and even the backing contains some nice details. Another quality ballad is a Leon Ware-James Ingram composition Everlast, which starts off peacefully but gradually gets more passionate towards the very soulful closing moments. Hubert Laws is featured on flute on this track. Of the more adult-oriented material, Don’t Let Go is probably the best melody, and James sings it emotionally. 

Ismo Tenkanen
Soul Express

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