April 2, 2008

Michael Manson - Up Front

Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on the very best from the world of smooth jazz and classic soul. When, in 2006, I reviewed Just Feeling It by bass player Michael Manson I described his influence and reputation within the contemporary jazz genre as extending far beyond his home city of Chicago. On the album this was exemplified by the who’s who of smooth jazz superstardom that he enticed to collaborate with him and now, just under two years later, he is back with more of the wonderful same. Of course these are troubled times for smooth jazz and 215 Records, the label with which he recorded Just Feeling It is now defunct. Its demise led to a chronic underexposure of what was a really outstanding CD so it is totally appropriate that the new release, Up Front, provides a welcome opportunity to revisit four of the tracks originally found on this earlier effort. Not only that, Manson reaches all the way back to 2002 and his debut The Bottom Line project for the hit of the time ‘Outer Drive’. In doing so he creates a hybrid collection that is part ‘best of’, part brand new music but all superb contemporary jazz.

Amongst the reprises of what went before, the understated foot-tapping ‘Coming Right at Ya’ serves to create the Manson mood. It affords a stylish platform for his tight playing, a sensational horn section and guest spots from Paul Jackson Jr. and Kirk Whalum. With Jeff Lorber and fellow Chicago native Mike Logan both chipping in on piano, contemporary jazz doesn’t get any better than this. That said, the gentle ‘It’s the Way She Moves’ with Michael Ripoll on guitar, excellent sax from Tom Braxton and more of Mike Logan’s groovy piano also captures the very best of smooth jazz production techniques. Lorber returns for ‘Way Back When’ where he produces, plays both piano and keyboards and generates that trademark jazzy Jeff Lorber sound that here is helped in no small part by top notch trumpet from Rick Braun. Manson ripples nicely through the delightful melody of Bill Withers 1977 hit ‘Lovely Day’ and the track also includes the brother of Kirk Whalum, the under-rated Kevin Whalum. His voice fits the familiar vocal to perfection and the fact that he manages to engender something of a steppin’ beat provides just another reason for liking it.

The laid back and smoky intro of ‘Still Thinking About You’ unfolds into a terrific melody. Here, nice work from Manson is complemented by a guest appearance on guitar by Norman Brown and distinctive piano from Mike Logan. The cut, in common with much of Manson’s music, is built atop a luscious horn driven foundation and another great example of this brass construction comes courtesy of ‘Steppin Out’. With Najee playing flute and rising star Darren Rahn on sax this expansive, jazzy yet ‘in the pocket’ number is a joy while just as good is the equally horn fuelled title track. It allows Manson to turn funky in a controlled kind of a way before becoming remarkably melodic for the smooth jazz gem ‘She’s Always There’. Written for his wife Lana it features Tom Braxton on sax and when Manson needs a sax man for his sensitive rendition of the ‘Babyface’ Edmonds tune ‘End Of The Road’ he turns to none other than fellow Chicago cat Steve Cole. It’s a song where Manson proves he can play mellow bass with the best of them and, when the full sounding vocals of the soulful chorus kick ignite, it is obvious that this may well be one of the year’s best examples of smooth R & B.

Manson’s 2002 hit ‘Outer Drive’ has Logan on keys and a guitar solo from Nick Colionne. It is one of the albums standout tracks and, in every respect, is a slice of pure Chicago smooth jazz yet just as good is the Darren Rahn produced ‘Bring It On’. Rahn also plays sax and is joined by his brother Jason on trumpet for what is a feisty and uplifting chunk of smooth jazz enhanced even further by the contribution of Paul Jackson Jr on guitar and a stunning piano solo from the legendary George Duke.

For a funky bass player Michael Manson sure can ‘do smooth’ and now, under the nurturing wing of NuGroove Records, is set to deliver what, as a solo artist, he has promised for so long.

Do you have any comments on what you have found in this edition of the Secret Garden? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.

Posted by Denis Poole at April 2, 2008 6:46 PM