September 23, 2004

Andre Ward - A Contemporary Classic

AndreWard_bw.jpgWelcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul.

Driving through New York City on a steamy Sunday afternoon with 107.5 pumping out some classic soul tunes, a surprising interloper that quickly caught the attention was a smooth jazz cover by the up and coming Andre Ward. It was a track that would normally not have the vintage to be a classed as a smooth soul survivor but which is sure to get there some time soon. It takes someone of the statue of R Kelly to record a track that can become a classic in its own lifetime and that is what he has done with ‘Step In The Name Of Love’ a cut that is already proving to be fertile ground in the field of smooth jazz covers. Here we have a story of Chicago, the highs and lows of the music industry and a whole dance style that, in the windy city, goes by the name of Steppin.

Smooth jazz saxophonist Andre Ward was born and raised in Chicago. His first instrument, which he took up at age eight, was the snare drum. He later moved to trumpet and tenor saxophone before settling on alto saxophone and becoming sufficiently proficient to earn a music-performing scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His session credentials includes work for Freddie Jackson. He was signed to Orpheus Music and released his debut solo album, Feelin You in October 2001. It reached number four on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. His second album, Steppin Up, released in March 2004, is proving to be just as successful.

It’s a fact of smooth jazz life that for a record to succeed it needs radio airplay and its clearly a challenge for any new and young smooth jazz saxman to stay true to his influences while blending the tracks with the sort of covers that can catch the listening ear of radio station musical directors. The question is, on this second release, has Andre Ward made a solid enough case for being different and inventive or has he given in to the allure of the cover version. Certainly, ‘Every Time I Open My Eyes’, the easy-grooving first single from the album, the cool hip-hop-oriented ‘Warm Passion’ and the harder-edged funk of ‘City Vibe’ are all checks marks in the right box for Ward. He balances this sort of pocket grooving with the sweet soprano ballad ‘Heaven in My Life’.

Now to the covers and it can be argued that three of them are way too many. We have the Simply Red classic ‘Holding Back the Years’ with Maurice Jacobs' on vocals. Its fine, but one of those tracks where the origin really cannot be surpassed. The cover of Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ is unmemorable and that leaves us with the one that Ward probably should have stuck with had he limited the CD to just one cover, his energetic take on R Kelly’s ‘Step in the Name of Love’. It could be said that 2004 is not the greatest of years to cover this particular track as it can be found on recent releases from both Kim Waters and Bobby Lyle but Andre Ward gives it a buzz and a drive that makes it worthy of inclusion.

‘Step in the Name of Love’ is a treasure, an R Kelly classic. It’s his take on a whole musical subset of the soul genre, the music that comes after the dance. Its what can be heard late in the evening when the mood becomes more languorous, more intimate. The DJ reaches for that special crate of old favorites, those mid tempo grooves that everyone loves. They are not the slowest of ballads; they are not the fastest of jams. These are the tunes that keep you moving in a mellow swing. Never alone, always with a partner. They have a variety of names depending upon where they are played. In Detroit they will be hailed as ballroom tunes. On the west coast they are Cha-Cha but in Chicago these mid tempo R & B hits are known as Steppers. Typically from the eighties notable examples are ‘Risin To The Top’ by Keni Burke and ‘Gotta Get You Home Tonight’ by Eugene Wild and with ‘Step In The Name Of Love’ R Kelly recreated the genre for a new fan base right there in 2003.

R_Kelly.jpgR Kelly, born in Chicago in 1969, and his supporting band Public Announcement began recording in 1992 leveraging off the tail end of the new jack swing era. His smooth, professional mixture of hip-hop beats, soul and funk has always been inters pursed with what critics have branded as ‘explicit carnality’. Hits like ‘Sex Me’, ‘Bump n' Grind’, ‘Your Body's Callin', and ‘Feelin' on Yo Booty’ had production that was seductive enough to sell such blatant come-ons. Kelly also developed a flair for pop ballads that cemented his status as one of the biggest-selling male artists of the '90s.

Seduction on the edge has been both a career move and a curse for Kelly and has attracted unwanted publicity regarding is private life, a facet that showed up as early as 1994.

Kelly and Public Announcement had an instant R & B smash with their debut album Born Into The 90’s. Both’ ‘Honey Love’ and ‘Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ)’ were number one R&B hits, while ‘Dedicated’ made it to number 31 in the pop charts. 12 Play, released in the fall of 1993, established Kelly as an R&B superstar. It eventually sold over five million copies. The second single from the album, ‘Bump n' Grind’, hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts in 1994. Also in 1994, he produced Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, the hit debut album for then 15-year-old Detroit R&B singer Aaliyah. Late in the year, it was revealed that Kelly and Aaliyah had wed in August only to get an annulment shortly thereafter. The news sparked a small storm of controversy in the media, yet it didn't hurt the careers of either singer.

Kelly next wrote and co-produced ‘You Are Not Alone’, the second single from Michael Jackson’s History album. It was released in the summer of 1995.

Kelly consolidated his crossover success with the 1996 single ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, recorded for the Michael Jordan movie Space Jam. Setting to one side Kelly's prior sexed-up image, the song reached number two on the pop charts and won Grammy Awards for Best Male R & B Vocal Performance, Best R & B Song, and Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television. Kelly remained in the public eye in 1997 with another Top Ten soundtrack tune, Batman & Robin's ‘Gotham City’. When he released his ambitious two-disc R in 1998, it went platinum seven times over and its first single, a duet with Celine Dion, ‘I'm Your Angel’, became Kelly's second number one pop hit with a six-week run on top. Even though subsequent singles ‘When a Woman's Fed Up’ and ‘If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time’ were more successful on the R&B charts, Kelly was well on his way to landing more Top 40 hits in the '90s than any other male solo artist.

The intrusions into his private life that had first surfaced back in 1994 re-emerged in February 2002, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that it had been given a videotape showing Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl. When the scandal broke, other reports surfaced that Kelly had settled a civil suit in 1998 involving a sexual relationship with a then-underage girl, and that he was in the process of settling another suit brought by an Epic Records intern making similar allegations. Copies of the tape in question were sold as bootlegs and on the Internet, and while there was some question as to whether the man was really Kelly, and whether the girl really was underage, Kelly's past history seemed to lend credence to the charge. Some radio stations dropped him from their play lists, and anti-Kelly protests were staged in Chicago.

Following the initial sex-tape scandal, numerous civil suits dogged Kelly, and in June, Chicago police officially charged Kelly with 21 counts of child pornography-related offenses, all related to the original tape. Kelly pleaded not guilty and released a new song, ‘Heaven, I Need a Hug’, which got extensive airplay for a brief period.

If all this were not enough Kelly was plagued by his music being copied or bootlegged and work on his next album, Loveland, came to a halt amid more pirating of the tracks. Kelly eventually scrapped some of the most abused tracks, recorded some new songs, and reassembled the album as Chocolate Factory It is on this great album that ‘Step In The Name Of Love’ appears and now Andre Ward among others is making his own contribution in making this track a genuine and enduring Smooth Soul Survivor.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favorite Smooth Soul Survivor that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at September 23, 2004 6:14 PM