First off, don't be too quick to dismiss this album. James Brown gets his jazz credentials honestly, copping his stage antics from Louis Jordan and sprinkling his early releases with standards associated with the likes of Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole. And with a band led by expert drummer Louis Bellson and arrangements by Oliver Nelson, certainly the ingredients are there for an interesting ride.
However, calling this James Brown's jazz album requires quite a stretch of the imagination, for the end product is clearly more James than jazz. The notion of the Godfather of Soul taking a crack at some well-worn standards is certainly compelling, but everyone plays it safe by sticking to what James Brown does best, recording his own songs or songs that sound like they could have been his. Perhaps Brown, who produced the album, was concerned with presenting himself in an arena where he felt most comfortable, or maybe he just wanted an album that would be sure to appeal to his zealous fans. Whatever the case, those expecting a radical departure from James Brown's usual method will be disappointed.
That being said, Soul On Top is a pretty good album, and avoiding more chancy material was probably a good idea. There's no denying the power of James Brown's delivery, which does indeed rely on a style of vocal interpretation, and familiar tunes like "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" get a little extra punch with the added instrumentation. Nelson, whose career by this time consisted almost entirely of supplying rock-inflected scores for television, provided charts by borrowing the same heavy-powered riffing and guitar-based rhythms featured in Brown's music. While there's plenty of musicians to go around, the only featured soloist is Maceo Parker, Jr., a holdover from Brown's band who effortlessly adopts his licks to the setting. The end result is plenty of James Brown's typical juiced up delivery, backed by a band that eagerly feeds off of his energy, and while even the liner note writers admit that the end result is uneven, there's enough crackle and spark to get through the rough spots.
Jazz cognoscenti will no doubt be appalled that this might be labeled a jazz album, but James Brown fans will find a lot to like in this new reissue.
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Personnel: James Brown - vocal; with the Louis Bellson Orchestra featruing arrangements by Oliver Nelson.