Out now: Big Break Records’ expanded edition of Wah Wah Watson’s Elementary

Elementary, the lone solo album from legendary session guitarist Wah Wah Watson, is now available in a special expanded edition from Big Break Records.

Featuring production from Watson and David Rubinson and Friends, Inc., the album is a dazzling pastiche of jazz, soul and funk, replete with those famous riffs that made Watson a studio legend. Born Melvin Ragin, Watson helped lift classics like the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” the Pointer Sisters’ “How Long (Betcha’ Got A Chick On the Side) and the Herbie Hancock LP Man-Child to the upper reaches of the charts. Even if you don’t know the name, you know the music.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing famed producer David Rubinson for the liner notes; his thoughts on the album and Watson’s overall impact as an artist are truly enlightening. He openly discusses his long working relationship with Watson, the development of the album and why it didn’t quite catch on at the time of its release. Standout cuts include “Goo Goo Wah Wah,” “Bubbles” and “Good Friends.”

A lost treasure, Elementary is worth exploring.

To order your copy, click here.

Check out the powerful track “Good Friends” below.

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Vinyl examination: The rhythm of ‘Patti Austin’

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I will never understand why Patti Austin, diva of soul, pop and jazz, never became a major star.

Her voice is clear as crystal, the kind of instrument that you recognize as soon as you hear it. A gifted singer who honed her chops singing jingles and background vocals for everyone from Kenny Loggins to Angela Bofill, the Grammy winner has recorded songs in pretty much every style imaginable. From the light fusion of her early CTI LPs like “Havana Candy” to the standards that grace her most recent outing “Avant Gershwin,” Austin’s stylistic range is astonishing in its breadth and sheer technical mastery. Oddly, that may have been part of her problem: If there is one thing that baffles the record-buying public, it is a black chick they can’t easily categorize. Add to that the fact that Austin was building her repertoire in an era when the only thing major labels were building was a legion of image-driven artists, and it’s safe to say her remarkable recordings were destined to get lost in the shuffle.

The early eighties found Austin moving in a more pop-oriented direction, waxing sides for Quincy Jones’ fledgling Qwest Records. The singer is best remembered for the timeless 1981 gem “Baby, Come to Me,” a duet with crooner extraordinaire James Ingram that shot to the top of the pop charts thanks to the popularity of the ABC soap opera “General Hospital.” Jones, who is Austin’s godfather, handled the production chores for her Qwest debut “Every Home Should Have One” and she seemed destined for the big leagues, as the album was both a commercial and critical success. Employing the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, the label continued to push Austin into shiny pop-soul territory on her eponymous 1984 follow-up. A solid collection heavy on highly stylized dance tracks, the record deserves far more attention than it’s ever gotten.

Like many albums of the period, “Patti Austin” (which was reissued on CD in 2007) utilizes a series of producers and a stellar group of players in what was likely an effort to catch as many sides of both Austin’s personality and the current musical landscape as possible. Jones, Narada Michael Walden, David Pack, Ollie E. Brown, Clif Magness and Glen Ballard take turns twisting knobs on the LP’s 10 cuts, while the likes of Bofill, Sheree Brown, Phillip Ingram, Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett offer musical support. Los Angeles Times writer Connie Johnson praised the album’s consistency and noted that Austin embraced a kind of freedom that eluded her on previous efforts. “She affects a lowdown growl on funk numbers and even tears loose with some scatty jazz inflections,” Johnson wrote. The latter has always been Austin’s greatest asset, giving her synth-based material a bit more grace than that of a lot of her contemporaries. In less capable hands, the hit single “It’s Gonna Be Special” (No. 15 R&B), “Shoot the Moon” (No. 49 R&B) and the Walden productions “Rhythm of the Street” and “Hot! In the Flames of Love” would have been mere filler, but Austin’s inimitable verve and phrasing up the aural ante. She also excels on the pristine pop of “Starstruck” and the reggae-influenced “I’ve Got My Heart Set on You,” grooves that signal a real broadening of the Austin sound.

Never one to holler and shout, Austin knows how to grab you quietly, which is what makes her love songs so appealing. Unlike most of her other albums, however, the ballads here are a bit weaker than the dance material. Still, they are quite lovely and the singer gives them all she’s got. Of the pair of slow jams featured on the LP, “All Behind Us Now” is the strongest; it’s a straightforward, languid love song that gives her lead plenty of room to breathe and fits well into the album’s overall vibe. Dark and moody, the album’s closing number “Any Way You Can” is a fitting cool down after nearly an hour of get down – though not remarkable, it’s the closest to any of her pre-Qwest material she gets here. I’m sure fans of her early material found it to be a breath of fresh air.

Though it likely pleased her existing fan base and grabbed some new folks along the way, the record failed to make a significant mainstream impact and stalled at a paltry No. 87 on the pop albums chart. Undaunted, Austin soldiered on at Qwest, issuing the equally glossy and highly enjoyable “Gettin’ Away With Murder” in 1985. While it featured production from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the album didn’t become a major hit, a blow that likely caused Austin to return to her jazzy roots on the outstanding “The Real Me” in 1988. From that point forward, fans found Austin grooving on the chic, smooth jazz tip, a medium that has helped her remain a popular attraction in concert and on record to this day. Just this year, she snagged a Grammy for her critically acclaimed album “Avant Gershwin.”

The Qwest album from Austin’s canon that always seems to get overlooked, “Patti Austin” didn’t shatter any glass ceilings and at its root was probably never intended to. A product of the big eighties, it’s as solid as anything fellow divas like The Pointer Sisters or Patti LaBelle were having success with at the time and should have found a similar fate. It just seems that it wasn’t meant to happen. No matter, as it’s as tasty as the brightest moments from any of the singer’s other incarnations. And at the end of the day, it is the versatility that records like this bring to Austin’s catalog that make her one of the most treasured stylists of the last three decades.

“Patti Austin” is proof that no matter what she sings, the sister will leave you starstruck.

Dream a little dream of Jose James

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The melodic, smooth jazz of Jose James is a breath of fresh air.

Sans the hyper-sexual macho histrionics that most male singers latch onto these days, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has created a wonderfully artful debut in “The Dreamer,” one of the best albums to hit the streets this year.  Though a young performer, James has amassed a loyal following around the world that reaches from Asia to Europe – and it’s clear why after one listen to his work.

Recorded in New York, the album is a classy, refined foray into the minimalist, quartet-based jazz pioneered by the likes of the two legends the singer refers to as his musical parents – John Coltrane and Billy Holiday. Lean and meticulous without being self-indulgent, the Brooklyn-based crooner’s maiden voyage is a peaceful one, boasting smart arrangements and meditative lyrics. At times James evokes an “Art of Tea”-era Michael Franks, as his relaxed vocal approach effortlessly nestles itself into the album’s smokey soundscapes. Such restraint is what makes the album effective.

James wrote a good portion of the material showcased here and the intimacy of his readings shows it. The beautiful title track is a heartfelt paean to Martin Luther King Jr. in which James weaves his billowy baritone through a mournful, transcendent trumpet, while the bossa-nova tinged “Red” reflects on a love lost amid insistent bass and ivory tickling. And the odes to love “Winterwind” and “Blackeyedsusan” boast what in my view are the most beautiful piano solos on the album, creating definitive moments for the collection. Elsewhere, his take on Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” fuses some hip-hop edge and social commentary into the mix, a nice touch that serves as a reminder that jazz does not have to be void of youth.

And that is what makes this record work. It’s a jazz outing first and foremost, yet it is not so heady that a young lover of R&B or dare I say, hip-hop, can’t get into it. A contemporary incarnation of the dying art-form that is live music, “The Dreamer” is an album primed for acceptance by bohemians and buppies alike. The reach of an excursion this good is plain limitless.

My verdict: James is a funky poet on the fast track to becoming one of this generation’s breakout talents. “The Dreamer” is likely just the beginning.

Vinyl examination: Head to the sky with Caldera

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When I was about 19 or so and thought I was grown, I began to get a hankering for exploring jazz. I knew I wasn’t up to any Miles Davis type of energy right out of the gate, so I started my journey slowly. I picked up jazz compilations here and there, eventually stumbling upon one called “Slow Jams: On the Jazz Tip, Volume Two.” This and similar collections introduced me to the soulful jazz of brothers like saxophonist Gary Bartz and keyboardist Dexter Wansel, and the jazz-inflected vocals of Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin and Jean Carn. But there was one track on the album that struck a chord with me and piqued my interest. It was climactic and sensual … almost indescribable. Waxed by jazz fusion ensemble Caldera in 1976, the classic “Out of the Blue” is the song I’ve always credited with causing my interest in jazz and its variations to flourish.

From there, I began to search high and low for their LPs. I was never able to secure a copy of their self-titled debut (which featured “Out of the Blue”) but I did unearth “Sky Islands” and “Time and Chance,” their second and third albums for Capitol Records. While both are exotic, atmospheric cornucopias of sound, the former is the one that resonated with me and remains one of the most beloved records in my collection. There’s just something special and timeless about it.

Over the course of four albums, Caldera – Steve Tavaglione (flute, alto flute, soprano, alto and tenor saxophone), Jorge Strunz (electric and acoustic guitars), Mike “Baiano” Azevedo (congas and percussion), Carlos Vega (drums), Dean Cortez (electric bass), Hector Andrade (timbales, congas and percussion) and Eduardo del Barrio (acoustic and electric pianos, Moog, Roland and Oberheim Polyphonic synthesizers) – crafted a heady gumbo of jazz, soul and Latin rhythms that easily rivaled the work of contemporaries like Weather Report and Dave Valentin. Their sound typified the adventurous, open musical time that was the late ’70s.

It’s not surprising that they landed at Capitol, as the late ’70s and early ’80s were a fruitful period for the label from a creative standpoint: In addition to being the home of hit acts like Natalie Cole, Maze and Peabo Bryson, the label issued some stellar albums by Sheree Brown, Perry & Sanlin, Chuck Jackson and Rene & Angela – affectionately tagged “Capitol rare” releases by serious collectors – that never really sparked with the public. Regrettably Caldera fell into the latter category, never gaining the following of other jazz acts of the time. Still, they retain a cult following to this day, and 1977’s “Sky Islands” is a favorite among devotees.

Co-produced by del Barrio, Strunz and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn, the album draws from a wide array of influences, emerging as a masterpiece in the process. An exciting rush of Latin percussion, electric guitar and squiggly, echoing synths, the album’s best moments are enough to propel your brain and your backside into action. There’s not a loser here, as cuts like the soaring “Pegasus” and the Afro-Cuban inspired “Carnavalito” bounce between fusion delight and pop accessibility with dizzying precision. And the beautiful, Dunn-penned “Seraphim (Angel)” is a soul-jazz gem, replete with ascending strings, a fluttering flute and a bass-line that’s as smooth as Saturday nights that melt into Sunday Mornings.

The real stunner here, however, is the powerful “Ancient Source,” the only selection included on the album that contains lyrics. Featuring a young, unknown Dianne Reeves on lead vocals, it is a picturesque, spiritual incantation that in my mind elevates the album to classic status. Reeves’ reading is thoughtful and introspective, a vocal that’s downright chilling in its accuracy. The imagery she conveys is as colorful as the complex instrumentation: “Look beyond the clouds/Meet the sun riding high/Let your eyes search out/In a wondering flight/Look beyond the clouds/For the meaning of light” are just some of the words that flowed from the minds of del Barrio and Ernesto J. Herrera.  Complete with a Dunn synthesizer solo, the song is one of the most sought after in the Caldera canon.

Reeves also lent her vocals to the frenetic title track, this time in the form of wordless ad libs and octave-leaping acrobatics. Functioning almost like one of the instruments, Reeves’ vocals brought great color and dramatic flavor to the mix. She would go on to become best known for the R&B classic “Better Days,” also known as “The Grandma Song.”

Despite having such strong material and talent going for it, the album failed to make an impact. The band split up just two short years later, though each member found his own niche in session work. Their self-titled album was released on CD in 2004 but has since become extremely difficult to track down, despite being a part of a huge number of Capitol reissues released during that time. Unfortunately, “Sky Islands” remains out of print.

Regardless, it’s an album that’s worth rediscovering. Hopefully, as time moves forward and appreciation for the fusion movement continues to grow, the album will rightfully claim its island in the sky.

In the meantime, check out “Ancient Source”…

And “Seraphim (Angel)” …

You ought to love it: Narada Michael Walden’s ‘Confidence’ finds new life

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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.