Over the past year, a handful of veteran smooth jazz stars turned the concept of old school and contemporary soul cover songs into a small but hard to miss cottage industry. Leading the pack were Richard Elliot and Rick Braun, who launched their own ARTizen Music label with the monster radio hits “People Make The World Go Round” (Elliot) and “Shining Star” (Braun). Kirk Whalum paid homage to a more recent soul legend on his Rendezvous Music debut, Performs The Babyface Songbook, while Kim Waters (on All For Love) took a dreamy, ambient approach to Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming” with a great assist from the rich and smoky vocals of Maysa.
Inspired by this session, Maysa — a self-described “Underground Diva” best known to genre audiences for her decade of contributions to British neo soul/acid jazz ensemble Incognito - asked herself why these sensuous dips into retro-romance were always done by the boys. Given the green light by Waters’ label Shanachie to offer the feminine perspective, she began plowing through hundreds of songs that inspired her growing up. Her all-time fantasy top ten list translates effortlessly to her label debut, the mostly easy grooving, but sometimes surprisingly swinging and jazzy, Sweet Classic Soul.
Maysa’s mix of very familiar and obscure songs were popularized by artists who need only one name to inspire warm flashbacks — Stevie, Chaka, Teddy (“Come Go With Me”) and Barry (“Playing Your Game, Baby”), in addition to tracks originated by The Stylistics (“Betcha By Golly Wow,” “Love Comes Easy”), Major Harris (“Love Won’t Let Me Wait”) and Rose Royce (whose “Wishing On A Star” Maysa chooses to launch the listener friendly set). But the singer didn’t set out to just do a nice mix of favorite tunes. Feminists, listen up. Underneath that cool vibe, Maysa — whose four previous solo albums have all touched on issues of raising self-esteem — had a role-reversing agenda.
“I wanted this to be a lady’s mackin’ record, pure and simple,” she says unabashedly. “It’s time we stopped waiting around for the guys to ask us out and took the romantic initiative, which includes setting the mood with our favorite R&B songs. I want women everywhere to be inspired here, but I also admit I did it for myself because I’m out there looking for a husband, too. What’s wrong with girls seducing guys? The fun part was, even though I close the set with songs by Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack, two of the greatest female singers ever, overall I wanted to do men’s songs that nobody would expect a woman to even try.”
Khan and Rufus’ “Any Love” and Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” are by design buried beneath the boy-oriented stuff, but it’s telling that they are Maysa’s greatest artistic triumphs here. Growing up in Baltimore, she learned how to scat not from Ella Fitzgerald (the standard female response) but by listening to and analyzing instrumental solos by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. After wailing powerfully through the discofied thump of “Any Love” for a few minutes, Maysa engages in an inventive scat improvisation — a moment unlike any other on the disc that simply doesn’t last long enough.
She pays haunting homage to Flack on a version that begins with simple piano harmonies and orchestral flavoring. Boding well for Maysa’s potential to do more serious straight ahead jazz projects, the track evolves into a tender trio arrangement, with all instruments performed by project producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. It’s no surprise that this is Maysa’s self-admitted favorite track on the album; she’s long credited Flack for helping her develop her own sense of phrasing and tone. She also has a personal connection to Stevie Wonder that inspired the funky justice she does to his rollicking “All I Do.” Maysa met him when she was a senior at Morgan State University; upon graduating, she moved out to Los Angeles to be part of the legendary artist’s background vocal group Wonderlove throughout 1991 and 1992.
“I really wanted ‘All I Do’ to mean something, but also to get people on the dance floor,” she says. “He was so strong politically, and his lyrics had the power to induce change. Even though I don’t have the professional connection to the other artists, there are stories behind the reasons I chose them. I first heard The Isley Brothers (“Don’t Say Goodnight”) when I was teaching myself to sing, and they inspired me to want to sound sexy. I’m just trying to be honest here, paying full respect to the artists and writers by doing their songs in my own unique way, but without writing my own stuff on top of it or going on tangents just to be clever.”
Although Maysa has been touring extensively this year with Incognito, there’s no doubt that Sweet Classic Soul goes a long way to helping her further establish an identity apart from the vision of Incognito frontman Bluey Maunick. She’s also currently seeking grants for a proposed educational concert tour she calls “Revenge Of The Underground Divas,” which is designed to teach young singers about the realities of the music business; already signed up are Lalah Hathaway, Ledesi, Caron Wheeler and N’Dea Davenport.
“I think if singers like us had started our careers in the 70s, we’d be on a whole other level, because what we do now was the Top 40 music of the time,” Maysa says. “I just want to remind people of how they felt when they first heard these great songs. In those days, the vibe was, the more musicians in the band, the better. Musicians were allowed to create with each other in the days before everything became so producer driven. It was a time when souls were communicating through music, and it’s nice to revisit that place while giving a glimpse of this deeply personal side of myself.”
In a 2002 review of Steve Oliver’s second recording Positive Energy, I used this space to declare: “With apologies to Disneyland, wherever he is, wherever he’s playing transforms into the happiest place on earth.” Four years, two discs and hundreds of live shows (and smooth jazz cruises) later, it’s great to see that the guitarist and vocalist (sometimes he sings, sometimes he uses breezy “vocalese”) is still as chipper and lighthearted as ever. The title of his second Koch Records CD says it all: he’s downright Radiant. While he invited big guns like Eric Marienthal and Harvey Mason to the show on 2004’s 3-D, here he strips down to a pretty simple production approach — working for the most part with Michael Broening, who produced Marion Meadows’ last two projects - that gives more space to his immediately identifiable nylon strings and voice. It’s hard not to feel the essence of the album concept with perfectly titled tracks like “Feeling Good,” “Tradewinds,” and the Latin-spiced fusion gem “Good To Go.” And while he’s done covers in the past, his takes on “Midnight At The Oasis” and “Imagine” were not as memorable as his rich, soulful “Oliverization” of Stephen Stills’ Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth.” In the midst of all the jubilation and tender romance, the track comes across like stopping for a taste of social consciousness while standing in line for the next car at Space Mountain.
What I’m Listening To:
1) Donald Fagen, Morph The Cat (Reprise) - Amidst all the passing trends in pop music, it’s nice that every decade or so we can count on a brilliant solo project from the Steely Dan singer that features the same classic, brassy pop-soul-jazz the band was poppin’ in the 70s. The expansive musical frameworks allow for a lot of cool, jazzy jamming that makes this another brilliant effort.
2) David Garfield & Friends, A Tribute To Jeff (Revisited) (Creatchy)
3) Barry Manilow, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (Arista)
4) Erin Boheme, What Love Is (Concord Jazz)
5) Taylor Eigsti, Lucky To Be Me (Concord Jazz)
New and Noteworthy
1) Pamela Williams, Elixir (Shanachie)
2) Matt Marshak, Groovosphere (Nuance Music Group)
3) Steve Briody, Keep On Talkin’ (215 Records)
4) Marion Meadows, Dressed To Chill (Heads Up)
5) Nelson Rangell, Soul To Souls (Koch Records)