People often forget that before he was crowned a Grammy-winning superproducer, Narada Michael Walden was a damn good recording artist.
Starting out as a jazz drummer with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a variety of other jazz acts, Walden eventually inked a solo deal with Atlantic Records, releasing a series of rich, adventurous outings that blended soul, jazz, pop and funk. By 1982, Walden had landed two top 10 R&B singles with “I Don’t Want Nobody Else (To Dance With You)” and “I Shoulda Loved Ya,” and produced hits for Stacy Lattisaw (“Let Me Be Your Angel”), Sister Sledge (“All American Girls”) and Angela Bofill (“Too Tough”). That same year he released his fifth album, the highly enjoyable and vastly underrated “Confidence.” Out of print for more than two decades, the album was finally remastered and reissued by specialty label Wounded Bird Records in January.
All I can say is it’s about time.
A treasure trove of pristinely produced jazz-funk, the album is a snapshot of the awkward transitional period for black music that was the early ’80s. It looks backward as it moves forward, as sparkly synths sit alongside punchy horns, rock-solid bass-lines and lively guitar licks – a recipe that soured sweet notes for a slew black acts moving into the new decade. Walden, however, channeled the changing times with aplomb and made them work for his evolving musical vision. The best example of this is the bubbly “You Ought to Love Me,” a percussive, hand-clap laden stepper augmented by Walden’s urgent, pleading vocal. And while cuts like the top 40 R&B hit “Summer Lady” and the title track are funky as hell, they hardly tell the whole story.
The gloss of sparse mid-tempo groovers and airy slow jams compliment Walden’s quirky vocal approach best, as he excels on the breezy “I’m Ready” and the beautiful ballads “Safe in My Arms” and “Holiday.” The album’s closing number, the haunting fan-favorite “Blue Side of Midnight” is a melancholy meditation of the highest order, telling the timeless tale of someone longing for a love that’s long gone. Dedicated to folk priestess Joni Mitchell, the song is a fitting closer for the album and is worthy of a cover version. (I think Kem would really put his foot in this one – somebody needs put him on, for real.)
Aside from the music, “Confidence” is also noteworthy for its stellar cast of characters. Con Funk Shun member Felton Pilate, Randy Brecker of the Brecker Brothers, and “American Idol” judge Randy “yo dawg” Jackson all made contributions here, as well as a variety of other notable session players. (In fact, in the rare clip of Walden performing “I Shoulda Loved Ya” on “Soul Train,” a young, beaming Jackson is doing the damn thing on bass guitar.) When you consider the diverse help enlisted to create this record, it’s no surprise the results are so stunning. What is more surprising, however, is the fact that it stalled at No. 30 on the R&B chart. I guess consumer ignorance isn’t anything new after all.
Just a few years after this, Walden would move into the big leagues, helping craft smash hits for Whitney Houston (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody”), Aretha Franklin (“Freeway of Love”) and Mariah Carey (“Vision of Love”), amassing an impressive stash of awards in the process. I would find out years later that he was the mastermind behind one of my favorite slow jams from my middle school days, Lisa Fischer’s “How Can I Ease the Pain.” The brother is bad, and there’s no doubt about it.
The newly reissued edition of “Confidence” brightens the shine of not only a fantastic album, but a prolific, often forgotten period in the career of one of modern music’s leading lights. Long on solid material and short on filler, there’s no question you ought to love it.