Soul legend Curtis Mayfield may not seem like the most obvious candidate for the jazz tribute album.
Though his music occasionally used swinging rhythms and horn sections, his ingenious, self-imposed harmonic strictures (he composed on an electric guitar tuned to an F# chord) didn’t readily embrace jazz and blues songforms, rather leaning on gospel, Latin and funk vamps.
But his message of social justice and integration rang as true to jazz musicians as it did to any other community and became as powerful an influence as the work of Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye.
Chicago-born Mayfield’s compositions ‘Gypsy Woman’, ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘People Get Ready’, ‘We’re a Winner’ and ‘Beautiful Brother’ were the soundtrack to the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements. The commercial and critical peak of his solo career was the Superfly album, which, along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, ushered in a new era of socially-aware, funky soul music.
Jazz tribute album Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield features an all-star line-up – handpicked by legendary guitarist Phil Upchurch – calling itself The Jazz Soul Seven. Grammy-nominated ex-Wayne Shorter/Stan Getz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington lines up alongside Yellowjackets pianist Russell Ferrante, percussionist Master Henry Gibson, Branford Marsalis/Tony Williams bassist Bob Hurst and a heavy-duty frontline of Upchurch, trumpeter Wallace Roney and saxophonist Ernie Watts.
Ferrante is the key player here – you could set your watch to his super-solid vamps and his voicings brilliantly mark out the subtle harmonies underpinning Mayfield’s most famous compositions. There’s a really engaging sense of spontaneity about the whole album and the players’ joy is easy to discern, with the occasional audible cue-in and whoop of excitement.
Carrington holds it all together with her characteristically empathetic playing and subtle gear-changing while Watts is the ‘preacher’ of the album, his bold, swaggering tone sermonising over the slick rhythm section.
‘Freddie’s Dead‘ flies out of the traps with some beautifully driving drums, powerful Watts tenor and rich Ferrante chords. Upchurch’s blues/R’n’B feeling shines through on ‘It’s All Right‘ alongside Ferrante’s intriguing major/minor ambiguities and Roney’s distinctly Milesian trumpet.
‘Move On Up‘ initially amplifies the latent Afro-Cuban feel of the original with Master Henry Gibson’s congas to the fore and some funky lead work from Upchurch. ‘We’re A Winner‘ could be the standout here, with the Watts/Roney frontline conjuring up a delightful lead line only partially based on the original melody and Carrington superbly mixing up the funk and jazz.
Drum legend Tony Williams once praised Wallace Roney because he ‘always seemed to be on the edge of a mistake’, and he’s definitely a trumpet player unafraid of pushing the envelope. His relentless search for the ‘out’ solo on this album occasionally drove this writer to distraction but you can’t help but admire his adventurous spirit.
‘Superfly‘ becomes a gripping soul-jazz workout for this band with a stirring Ferrante solo which finds endless tonal permutations over a one chord vamp. ‘Check Out Your Mind‘ kicks off with an electrifying Hurst bass solo, while Ferrante cleverly revoices the famous ‘People Get Ready‘ chords before Roney, Watts and Upchurch deliver uplifting solos.
Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield is a whole lot better than one would have predicted, even factoring in the all-star cast. The key is in retaining the blues/gospel elements of Mayfield’s music. Here’s hoping the Jazz Soul Seven can reconvene for another session in the not-too-distant future.