When it starts, you hear synthesizers and plaintive guitar – the start of a typical “smooth” album. Then the theme closes with a catchy three-note pattern and the guitar gets louder. Alex Foster’s alto enters the picture, and the theme seems stronger; the synthesizer also makes like plucked strings. The guitar solo is high and piercing, musing with the slightest touch of urgency. It’s a pure sound with a touch of the Byrds’ classic tone. When the theme returns, the backing is thick and everyone plays the last part in unison. The tune is simple; the arrangement is not. And then you realize: this is NOT
a typical “smooth” album.
Janet Marlow plays the 10-string guitar, which is sort of a compromise instrument. You get the sound of a classical guitar, the range of a 12-string without its distinctive jangle. On occasion you’ll hear chords, but you don’t get an avalanche of technique: her style is to play simply and let the tone stand out. And it does, in a variety of contexts. On the Latin-tinged “Heritage”, she sounds forceful and Spanish as the percussion percolates. The theme comes from Darmon Meader, whose alto is stronger than Foster’s. His insistent solo ends the piece, as congas and Janet’s strumming urge him along.
Three tunes are vocals, and they show three faces of love in as many voices. “Good Company” is soft and sultry as the organ and muted trumpet drift by. Up high, her voice is pure, with weight on the low notes. This is late-night jazz, and the only thing smooth is the touch of your partner. Lew Soloff is dynamite, and his solo explodes – he then retreats to the shadows with tiny moans. In her high whoops and closing chant of “Company”, I hear Laura Nyro. On the reggae “Just People” there are three overdubbed Janets, and they harmonize like the I-Threes on Bob Marley records. Alas, it’s hurt by an attempt to sing in a Jamaican accent; it sounds artificial. The tune itself is delightfully warm, and Meader again has a great solo. “Heartlovers” is also dubbed, but here Janet duets with herself (there’s also some delay echo, which I find annoying.) This one sounds very commercial, with Janet’s best lyric; the overdubs are highly effective as the tune fades. The vocals are not the main attraction, but they demand your attention; better, in fact, than the vocals on her SMOOTH ROMANCE album.
“Jungle Walk” is almost a vocal; as the rhythm pushes, Janet scats lightly over her rhythm part. Pete Levin’s organ solo is fun, and another fine effort from Meader. “Steady Climb” uses an ascending riff, liquid tones from Janet (on electric this time), and a bold shout from Foster (it’s his best moment.) Alan Brennan’s tangy violin rules the roost on “Optimist”, soaring high with a happy glissando. Meader, this time on alto, charges with all his power – the results are glorious. “Free Fall Love” shows some single-string playing on the theme, a rolling turn on her solo. And “Dream On” has vigorous acoustic (played differently than before), a gentle piano that turns tough over the shuffle drums, an organ stepping in, and all becomes calm with Janet’s restating the theme. A kaleidoscopic performance, as is this album.
Janet is always a presence here, but her sidemen get plenty of space. (Meader impresses me to no end.) The tunes are good, and the moods they conjure are better. It shows you what can be done when in good company.