Maxwell's R&B moves beyond his '70s sound

CD Reviews

July 09, 1998|By J.D. Considine Jazz Fourplay

Maxwell

Embrya (Columbia 68968)

Rock and rollers may look back to the '60s as that music's greatest era, but when R&B artists meditate on their music's golden age, they think of the '70s.

Maxwell is a perfect example. His last full album, 1996's "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," built a monument to the ideals of grit and elegance by explicitly evoking the lush sophistication of '70s soul. There were echoes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Stevie Wonder throughout the album, harking back to the era's classic albums without seeming openly imitative.

Needless to say, that left many listeners eager for more of the same, an expectation partially sated with last year's "MTV Unplugged EP." But "more of the same" is not what we get with "Embrya" -- and frankly, that works to both his and our advantage.

That Maxwell has moved beyond the musical vocabulary of the '70s is obvious from the first moments of "Everwanting: To Want You To Want." Between the dark rumbling of the synth bass and the tart percolation of the rhythm guitar, the groove seems totally contemporary, even if the string sweetening and layered vocal harmonies fleshing out the arrangement seem more '70s than '90s.

More than the instrumental specifics, though, it's the shape of the song that keeps "Everwanting" from sounding like a period piece. Rather than work within a sharply defined structure, with verse, chorus and bridge clearly defined, "Everwanting" just drifts lazily along, offering more in the way of mood than melody. Its hooks, when they crop up, seem almost incidental to the song's overall feel.

Because "Embrya" doesn't try to sell itself on the strength of its melodies, the album is worlds away from the every-song-a-single approach singers like Stevie Wonder or Al Green took in the '70s.

Still, downplaying the music's melodic appeal is hardly the same thing as being without melody. There are some stunningly tuneful songs on this album, from the sinuous, slow-thumping "Luxury Cococure" to the dreamy, melancholy "Submerge: Til We Become the Sun." Listen closely, and you'll marvel at the elegance and ingenuity of his melodic imagination.

Trouble is, you really do have to listen closely to savor the album's strengths. Rather than take the in-your-face approach of most hit-song writers, Maxwell's writing builds from the groove up, establishing a mood before getting into the meat of the melody. Sometimes, as with the lean, brassy finale to "Matrimony: Maybe You," he forgoes the song altogether and just lets the groove flow.

As such, "Embrya" is not an album for listeners in a hurry. At its best, the album is like a long soak in a hot bath -- sensual, refreshing and luxurious. So why not turn off your mind, relax and float downstream? *** 4 (Warner Bros. 46921)

Smooth jazz doesn't get any smoother than the sound of Fourplay -- and that's the trouble. Apart from an ill-advised cover of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (El DeBarge does the singing), the music on "4" flows with such effortless ease that some listeners may miss the solos entirely. Blame the players for some of that, for keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and new guitarist Larry Carlton are so adept on their respective instruments that the improvisations seem as confident and well-rehearsed as the composed parts of each arrangements. But don't hate them because they play beautifully. Instead, crank the volume, and focus on the less-is-more playing style these four have perfected. **1/2

J.D. Considine

Buster Williams

Somewhere Along the Way (TCB 97602)

Since the early 1960s, bassist Buster Williams has lent his rich, round tones and melodic instincts to the Monk-inspired combo Sphere, along with bands led by Betty Carter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and a host of other front-line artists. Like many respected bassists, he has rarely had a chance to record under his own name -- and it's a shame. Here, he leads a capable quintet that includes saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Carlos McKinney, vibist Stefon Harris and drummer Lenny White. Williams mixes his own compositions with some reliable standards, including a playful version of Cole Porter's "All of You." On new and old, the band imbues the music with a serpentine tunefulness and a mischievous sense of fun -- note the cat-and-mouse interplay between Bartz and Williams -- that makes this the sort of recording that sneaks up slowly before grabbing hold. This is a mature date, nothing cheap or stodgy about it. ***

Jonathan Bor

Pop/rock

Pitchshifter

www.pitchshifter.com (DGC 52163)

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