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Jazz Soul Seven: Curtis Mayfield

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Singer-songwriter and guitarist Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) isn't nearly as well known today as he should be. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mayfield, like Sly Stone, leveraged the assertive music and messages of James Brown—whose Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud in 1968 launched a socially conscious soul music revolution. 

After leaving the Impressions in 1970, Mayfield wrote sweeping and critical orchestral works that were developed for LP rather than the singles market. Starting with the album Curtis, which featured We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue and Move On Up, Mayfield's songs were deeply observational.

Mayfield also favored blunt lyrics and a sermon-like singing style that resonated with black urban audiences abandoned by white flight and trapped in underfunded cities unable or unwilling to halt the deterioration of entire neighborhoods. Mayfield's talk-sing approach agitated for social changed and was advanced by other recording artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Marvin Gaye. 

Now (finally!), a jazz group has revived the music of Curtis Mayfield, and the resulting album is among the most important new jazz CDs of the year. Jazz Soul Seven's Impressions of Curtis Mayfield sheds new light on Mayfield's most significant works, giving the material a jazz-soul interpretation that enhances and enlivens the music's original intent. Best of all, the songs have been updated without losing the essence of their bold message of self-determination.

The Jazz Soul Seven is comprised of Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), Russ Ferrante (piano), Master Henry Gibson (percussion), Rob Hurst (bass), Wallace Rooney (trumpet), Phil Upchurch (guitar) and Ernie Watts (saxophone). Once again, Carrington is on the cutting edge, making a significant contribution to the development of jazz and the soul-revival movement. (You may recall that Carringon won a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy earlier this year for The Mosaic Project.)

For example, Move On Up, one of Mayfield's best-known songs, opens with a beautiful solo piano intro by Ferrante that merely hits at the song's well-known melody. The band joins with a two-chord motif that's akin to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Watts and Upchurch follow, with sax taking the lead and guitar running the rhythm. Then Rooney [pictured] plays a muted trumpet solo on the theme that's akin to Miles Davis on Human Nature. The execution is spiritually flawless.

The rest of the tracks on the album are Freddie's Dead, It's All Right, We're a Winner, Superfly, Beautiful Brother of Mine, Check Out Your Mind, I'm So Proud, Keep on Pushing, People Get Ready, Gypsy Woman and Amen—the last two written by Mayfield while he was still with the Impressions.

The music here proves yet again that jazz and soul are inextricably linked and that the soul era has yet to be fully mined by today's jazz artists. On this album, the Jazz Soul Seven pays homage to one of soul's boldest risk-takers, giving his music fresh intellectual life. What's more, the group has managed to show that what we commonly call the Great American Songbook actually extended into the '70s—except these chapters were written by black composers.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Jazz Soul Seven's Impressions of Curtis Mayfield at iTunes and at Amazon.

JazzWax clip: Here's Curtis Mayfield's It's All Right, as recorded by the Jazz Soul Seven...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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