Friends and readers are always asking me what I'm listening to, or what they should go out and get. I've never liked the idea of telling people what to buy because my personal taste is, well, my personal taste. From time to time, though, I feel compelled to tell folks about the music I can't stop playing around the house. Lately, I've come across four CDs that in the past two weeks or so have become mainstays in my changer: One is a startlingly solid new album by an artist whose previous work grated on my nerves a little, and the other three are sensational reissues by soul and funk veterans -- one of whom I bet you know nothing about.
Macy Gray, "Big" --I was never one of those critics who fawned over Macy Gray because she was so "different." As much as I adore artists who infuse pop with a unique sound, I wasn't blown away by Gray's Donald Duck-like rasp, which helped push sales of her 1999 debut, On How Life Is, to triple platinum. She stumbled on subsequent albums -- 2001's The Id and 2003's The Trouble With Being Myself, neither coming close to matching the sales of her debut.
But on Big, the Ohio native's first CD in four years, Gray returns in a grand way, moving her musical focus from spaced-out pop to slick R&B.; Sweeping strings and dynamic beats surround her odd, dog-eared voice, which is still an acquired taste. But the songs and arrangements are smart and tight throughout, making Gray's approach easier to take.
The album, whose production was overseen by Gray, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and Ron Fair, is decidedly old school but somehow manages to be forward-looking. The first single, "Finally Made Me Happy," is a stately ballad with a nice stop-start arrangement, brightened by full-throttle backing vocals by none other than Natalie Cole. Other standouts include the slightly cloying but warm "What I Gotta Do," which Gray dedicates to her three children, and "Strange Behavior," an amusingly twisted tale in which Gray shoots her lover to collect his insurance policy.
Although Big loses a little steam toward the end, it is still a fun trip and (with the right promotion and support from Geffen, her new label) should rocket Gray back into the pop stratosphere.
Johnnie Taylor, "Live at the Summit Club" --The music of this soul-blues great was such a huge part of my family's life for so long that when he died May 31, 2000, my mother wore black to work the next day. That week, she played his CDs in her bedroom.
Although he's not as well-known as his soul-shouting peers Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Taylor was just as potent, if less theatrical on stage. (By the way, he replaced Cooke in the Soul Stirrers and was a pallbearer at Redding's funeral.) Live at the Summit Club, recorded in Los Angeles in 1972, is one of the first CDs released on the newly reactivated Stax label, Taylor's old recording home. It's the first time that the concert has been made available in its entirety. The show was also filmed, and Taylor's electrifyingly funky performance of "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" was included in the excellent 1973 documentary Wattstax.
The best thing about Live at the Summit Club is its sloppiness. Taylor's Texas-based band, which was augmented by a few L.A. musicians on this date, misses cues here and there. But the singer, ever the professional, smoothly pushes the show along, his grits-and-butter voice oozing all over "Little Bluebird" and "Hello Sundown." Imperfections and all, Live at the Summit Club belongs in the pantheon of great in-concert soul recordings, up there with Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club (1963) and B.B. King's Live at the Regal (1965).
Jerry Butler, "The Ice Man Cometh/Ice on Ice" --This reissue compiles tracks from two classic albums the Chicago pop-soul great released in 1968 and 1969, respectively. Both were among the first productions by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the famed duo that ushered in the "the sound of Philadelphia" in the 1970s, setting the stage for the disco explosion. It is on these two albums where Gamble and Huff's grand-but-funky approach first coalesced.
The bluesy grooves of such classics as "Hey, Western Union Man" and "Never Gonna Give You Up" are emboldened with the strutting, sophisticated horns and strings that became a hallmark of the duo's style. But Butler, who wrote or co-wrote every song on each album, brings the music to life. There's a reason he's known as the Ice Man: The artist delivers vulnerable, heartbreaking ballads such as "(Strange) I Still Love You" and "Walking Around in Teardrops" with a cool intensity that no one has been able to match.
With the shallow, mannish-boy sounds of Lloyd and Omarion thickening urban airwaves these days, I hope this reissue inspires some of today's young black male singers to take a more mature, less sex-crazed approach to soul ballads. I seriously doubt this CD will have that kind of impact. But, hey, we got to keep hope alive, right?
Don Blackman, self-titled --I recently discovered this reissue at dustygroove.com, a Chicago-based music site I frequent. I was drawn to the cover -- a head shot of a handsome, serious-looking guy, his shoulder-length hair adorned with brown beads and cowrie shells. The look is so '80s but still fly.
Because of poor promotion and distribution, this dynamite debut by the New York-born singer-musician came and went in 1982. Recently reissued by the London-based Expansion label, Don Blackman has over the years attained a fervent underground reputation for its fluid, vibrant fusion of jazz and funk. (Think Tom Browne's classic 1980 jam "Funkin' For Jamaica" but with more nuance.) It's the ideal sunny-weather album, chock full of sparkling piano runs courtesy of Blackman, spirited choral scat vocals and grinding grooves.
The album opens with the insistent, Parliament-influenced "Yabba Dabba Doo," which melts into the mellow, urbane "Heart's Desire." The only quibble with this album is that it's too short: Eight songs breeze by in 33 minutes. But because there isn't a weak track in the bunch, you'll find yourself reaching for the repeat button again and again.
Today, Blackman is working mostly as a session musician. He finally got around to releasing a follow-up in 2002, another poorly distributed album called Listen. But his 1982 debut remains a sterling example of jazzy funk and deserves re-evaluation.
To hear clips from Gray's CD, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost