It's always a pleasure to be left agog by exceptional talent before the rest of the CD-buying public discovers that artist. Imagine being inspired by Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder or George Benson before a major label signed them to a contract and spread their music to the rest of the world. (Admittedly, discovering "Little Stevie Wonder" before he signed to Motown would have been difficult, but bear with me. The mention of his name is relevant to Ty Stephens' music.)
Such may be the stage of Ty Stephens' career at the moment. He possesses such a wide range of talent, and he's so charismatic on stage or in front of a camera, that it seems only a matter of time before his CD's appear on Tower Records listening posts and his face appears in Entertainment Weekly. Or at least JazzTimes.
Stephens has honed his skills in so many roles over the past 20 years that his second CD, Deeper In Fantasy, presents just one aspect of his talent: R&B.
But Ty Stephens can do much more than R&B.
When I saw him perform, he took command of the entire stage through the sheer force of his irresistible likability and endless talent. Zipping from one end of it to the other, making direct eye contact with audience members, effortlessly high-kicking, comically directing the band with a jabbing and angling baton, crooning "In A Sentimental Mood" to everyone's rapt attention and clomping his shoes on the hardwood floor to dramatize "Your Feet's Too Big," Stephens enthralled. For the finale, Stephens assumed a dead-on imitation of Cab Calloway directing "Minnie The Moocher," calling hi-de-hi-de-ho to the audience's immediate response and frantically shaking his head, his Callowayian hair becoming increasingly disheveled.
Stephens has toned down his act quite a bit on Deeper In Fantasy. He delivers numbers that he wrote and arranged in various attitudes of adult R&B and throbbing funk.
Through it all, Stephens keeps his sense of humor and extroversion intact. When he sings "Ooh, Lordy, I got something in my eyes. Oh, it's you, a delicious slice of earthly paradise," he provokes not just smiles, but outright laughter at his good-natured creative humor. The opening track, "Love Planet," adapts the theme of inter-planetary travel, as a fictitious stewardess welcomes the listener to the ideal universe, where "all can live together."
In spite of the visual description of wonder in outer space, Stephens' theme is more serious and more humanitarian than it appears at first blush. His belief is that "as long as you have peace, there's hope for all mankind." If that wish sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Stephens is a direct descendant of some of Stevie Wonder's ground-breaking "Inner Visions" work in the 1970's. The last track, "All Kinds Of Love," removes all doubt about this influence: "There are all kinds of love, that this wise man, through inner visions, brought me." Even the changes of "All Kinds Of Love," not to mention its sentiments and the timbre of Stephens' voice, are reminiscent of Wonder's distinctively spiritual and well-wishing approach to pop music.
In between the love songs, like "The Fountain Of You" and "Deeper In Fantasy," Stephens interjects some funk tunes like "Enuff Of You" with its throbbing electric bass lines and synth horns akin to the spirit that Prince's music encompasses. Throughout the entire CD, Stephens charms the listener with sung vulnerability mixed with wit and optimism.
As a compleat entertainer who no doubt has paid his dues and who remembers the importance of an audience, Ty Stephens has so much energy that he can't be contained. He should be breaking out to the recognition of a much wider audience...soon.
Track Listing: Love Planet, Somethin' Strange, Let The Other Guy Go, Daydream, He Cannot Find His Way To Love, Deeper In Fantasy, I'm Just Here To Be Loved, Too Many Gone, Enuff Of U, The Fountain Of You, All Kinds Of Love
Personnel: Ty Stephens, vocals; "Shea" Taylor, saxophone; Rob "R.T." Taylor, Abdul Hameed Zuhri, guitar; Aziza Miller, keyboards; Gwen Laster, violin; Ron "Rondew" Monroe, bass; Rod Gross, Damon DueWhite, drums; Tony Tilmon, percussion; other instruments & programming, Joe Scott; Janet Van Kline, Branice McKenzie, Janet Van Kline, Arif St. Michael, Stanley Hopkins, Greg Clark, background vocals