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The Next Level

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Album Review

It's an amusing little slice of the pop culture times that veteran bassist Sekou Bunch is better known to the American public as the first eliminated contestant from Survivor: Cook Islands (2006, the thirteenth season of the show) than for his incredible all-star résumé featuring everyone from Quincy Jones and Luther Vandross to Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, the Winans, and Stevie Wonder. His experience on the show probably made him impervious to the odds of a new name (this was his first solo effort since the early '90s) breaking through the smooth jazz format when this was released. The success of Wayman Tisdale aside, another obstacle was the fact that he's an ace bassist, not the most radio-friendly instrument in the genre. All that said, The Next Level is a solid, coolly funky, and supermelodic date, on par with and even surpassing the catchy and grooving joy that Tisdale was famous for. And you can't beat the big shots he invited to the party: Stanley Clarke (who adds a chops happy tenor bass solo to Bunch's lead piccolo on the breezy, laid-back "Sun Goddess"); Angela Winbush and Boney James, who sway along with Bunch on the romantic-lite urban jazz of "Smooth Sailing"; George Duke, who adds his elegant piano touch to the dramatic, orchestrally enhanced grooving jazz of "The Return of Superman"; and Sheila E. and Everette Harp blazing along with Bunch's Fender jazz bass and Thomas Organ's blistering guitar on a wild "Purple Haze." The progressive fusion of these last two tracks and the high spirited tropical Latin jam "Ploom Ploom Ploom" add a nice complement of depth and jazzy soul to the handful of radio friendly potential singles. Likewise, the socially conscious "Haters" rocks steady into forward-thinking "Marcus Miller" territory. But even when Bunch is just playing it cool, his heart's completely in it, dedicating "Everything I Miss at Home" to his old friend, the late George Howard and the silky "Essence" to Vandross. He was the first guy to be voted off the island, but this diverse disc made it clear he was finally dedicated to his solo career for the long haul.

The Next Level, Sekou Bunch
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