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Gotta Play

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Album Review

Now this release came as a surprise — apparently even to Brian Jackson himself. He writes in the album's liner notes: "If anyone had told me when I was recording my first album, Pieces of a Man (with Gil Scott Heron) that it would be the 21st century before I recorded a solo album, I would have thought that individual certifiable...." But things take as long as they take. From the arranger in the Midnight Band with Gil Scott Heron and the composer of classics such as "The Bottle" and "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" comes a contemporary jazz record of elegance, verve, and funky, grooved-out soul. While it is tempting to relate Jackson's current work to his tenure with Heron, that would be selling him short. These 14 compositions are far down the road from his earlier material, although they retain their accessibility and strong links to R&B.

While Jackson's own playing and arranging have never been better than on this album (focusing his energy on subtlety rather than showy riffing), his musicians, though young, can blow with the best of them. David Mullen on tenor and soprano saxes comes equally from the David Sanborn and Gato Barbieri schools of phrasing and rhythmic pulse, and he has a melodic sensibility on a par with Stan Getz as a young man. Drummer Trevor Holden is a hot, in-demand New York session player who knows when to lay back as well as take the proceedings to the white-hot level. The same can be said about bassist Don Martin, who's comfortable either funking it up or painting the mix with nuance and color. Percussionist Num Her-ur Shutef Amun'tehu is the glue, adding a high level of groove that anchors this swinging, funky ensemble.

Gotta Play opens with a short intro that is signature Jackson, 39 seconds of shimmering keyboards and soft percussion that segue into the title track. Here, a group vocal and a guest appearance by vibist Roy Ayers offer shades of everything from Stevie Wonder to late-era War to early Crusaders to Steely Dan to vintage Midnight Band, all woven tightly into a mix that is as new as it is familiar. "Kama Sutra" begins as a Cuban-flavored jazz track (complete with an astonishing piano solo by Jackson) and mutates into a Middle Eastern fugue before Mullen blows himself into a frenzy on both tenor and soprano. Ahmun'tehu's rubbed drums "talk" to the soloists as they move through one harmonic invention to another before realizing the tune as a post-bop fusion of explorative modes.

The strange "Parallel Lean/Home is Where the Hatred Is" features gorgeous singing by Jackson and an almost incoherent rap by Heron, sounding like a shadow of his former self. (Is this payback for Jackson's inspired performance on Heron's Spirits? If so, then Heron still owes plenty.) The rap is added for texture and atmosphere, but it's Jackson's singing that takes the earlier tune and transforms it into a soulful, sophisticated paean of regret and resolve; it's full of soul and sophistication. Another standout is the Latin-tinged "Yada Yada." Here, Jackson's piano lays in fully as the rhythm section cuts him a wide swathe for improvisation and Amun'tehu centers the soaring ensemble. Mullen's saxophones slip around and through the keyboard lines, creating a new melody from modal changes and Brazilian rhythms.

Gotta Play is not a comeback record but a long overdue treatise on Jackson's great worth and abilities as a composer, instrumentalist, and arranger. This recording deserves to be widely heard and should be sought out by anyone interested in contemporary jazz and R&B, as well as those who sneer that music of this type is not innovative or sophisticated enough. It is proof positive that a "commercial" recording in the jazz genre can also be on the level of great art.


Born: 1952

Genre: R&B/Soul

Years Active: '70s

Producer, composer, and musician Brian Jackson collaborated with Gil Scott-Heron on several influential and popular '70s releases. The two met at Lincoln University, and later teamed on such songs as "The Bottle," "H20 Gate Blues," and "Johannesburg," which was their most successful commercial single. Jackson later did keyboard sessions with Earth, Wind...
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Gotta Play, Brian Jackson
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