Babatunde Lea and Phenomena: Levels of Consciousness (2004)
1979's Levels of Consciousness features San Francisco Bay Area percussionist Babatunde Lea’s familiar Afro-Caribbean mix shaded by the prevalent R&B phase of the time. At the center lies his sunny positivism and furious drumming prowess. The eclectic program includes funk, soul ballads, and jazz as played by guests Julian Priester, Eddie Henderson, and Mark Isham.
Muziki’s driving piano starts his “Thailand Stick,” a hopped-up horn arrangement bouncing off the complex rhythms. Hiroyuki Shido’s bass keeps the pressure on through Martin Fiero’s fiery alto solo. Eddie Henderson growls like Rodan before showering molten brass on the riff. Priester eases his way in on Marvin Boxley’s silky rhythm guitar, then Muziki takes a toboggan back into the tight horns. Changing pace to an easy going festival anthem, “Use Your Hands” must have caused a nightmare of defective returns for record stores, with its abrupt dropped beat. William Murphy’s earthy tenor grounds the praising lyric, giving way to a more restrained Muziki.
Babtunde’s “Levels of Consciousness” goes from flute driven breezy, to piano led gutsy. Fiero brings the quick imagination he expressed on alto to flute, while Henderson swaggers through the swirling percussion. Guitarist Boxley’s “Thang (And I Love It)” stomps in on such atavistic funk, you expect Rufus Thomas to take the vocal. Instead Cedric Deombi delivers the paean to the pussy with an arrangement informed by Earth, Wind, and Fire’s saturating late ‘70s influence.
“Plea From the Soul” keeps the EWF tap on and adds some Isaac Hayes. While Deombi’s unsettling falsetto and light tenor seems ineffective, the background chorus of Dee Dee Dickerson, Umgoh, and Vicki Randle is pure ear candy. Bringing back a clipped African funk, “Merely a Suggestion” uses cliched lyrics to attempt an invocation of Curtis Mayfield. Boxley’s “It’s That Simple,” fares worse than his “Thang.” Murphy comes to the rescue with a solid flute solo.
Somewhat like a weak effort by Santana, Levels of Consciousness uses the best of intentions to fall short of a lofty goal, yet provides some soul stirring moments on the way. The collection also includes more impressive testimony to Eddie Henderson’s legacy.
Track Listing: Thailand Stick; Use Your Hands; Levels of Consciousness; Thang (and I Love It); Plea From the Soul; Merely a Suggestion; It
Personnel: Babatunde (Michael Lea) Drums, timbales, congas, vocals, producerMuziki (Duane Roberson) Piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals, producerMarvin Boxley Electric guitar, vocals, producerHiroyuki Shido Electric bassCedric Deombi Lead vocalJose Najera Congas, percussionWilliam Murphy Tenor saxophone, fluteMartin Fiero Alto saxophone, fluteForest Buchtel TrumpetSPECIAL GUESTS:Eddie Henderson TrumpetJulian Priester TromboneMark Isham Synthesizer programRussell Baba Alto saxophoneDee Dee Dickerson Background vocals (Use Your Hands, Plea From The Soul)Umgoh Background vocals (Use Your Hands, Plea From The Soul)Vicki Randle Background vocals (Use Your Hands, Plea From The Soul)