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Ronnie Foster: On the Avenue & Cheshire Cat

C. Andrew Hovan By

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While it's true that the declining years of the Blue Note label saw many releases of a lesser quality when compared with the golden gems of the label's heydays, sweeping generalizations lead to value judgments that might not always be applicable. Up through the mid '70s, artists like Horace Silver and Gene Harris continued to record viable albums even if they didn't quite reach the heights of earlier accomplishments. During this same era, a few uniquely talented young artists made the scene in an attempt to bring the music in line with the current fashions and trends.

A native of Buffalo, organist Ronnie Foster was one of the lucky ones to hop on board the Blue Note train just prior to the label's demise. A proponent of the funky organ crowd of the time that boasted peers such as Rueben Wilson and Lonnie Smith, Foster's first two records, Two-Headed Freap and Sweet Revival , met with little critical success and even less popular appeal. Still, Blue Note stuck with Foster and a live set from 1973 at the Montreux Jazz Festival proved that he had chops to burn and was a talent deserving of wider recognition.

It's at this point that guitar man George Benson would step into the picture to serve as producer for Foster's next two albums, On the Avenue and Cheshire Cat , both the topic of attention this month. The former release, from 1974, very successfully walks the thin line between jazz sensibilities and more commercial proclivities. With backing from Phil Upchurch on guitar and bass and drummer Marvin Chappell, Foster's ensemble also includes a percussionist and four-piece horn section. The groove is mostly of the funk variety, although "Big Farm Boy Goes To a Latin City"? speaks with a salsa tongue and Freddie Hubbard's "First Light"? is a marvelous straight ahead vehicle for the organist. Foster also debuts his singing talent on his own "To See a Smile"? and proves to be a talented vocalist to boot.

By the time of 1975's Cheshire Cat , his last effort for Blue Note, Foster had put all key elements in place for his strongest showing to date. A funky and deeply satisfying affair that remains a prized favorite of the acid jazz crowd, this set presents us with all three aspects of Foster's musical personality-the keyboardist, vocalist, and composer. His originals are catchy and disparate in their moods and complexities. "Like a Child"? is prototypical with its memorable chorus and pop- friendly attitude. The real highlight though is a reworking of Stevie Wonder's "Tuesday Heartbreak"? which just might be more exciting than the original, thanks to an incendiary Latin jam that gets things cooking early on.

While Cheshire Cat was briefly available as a Japanese import several years ago, both of these albums have been shamelessly hard to acquire even through the Internet. Unlike a majority of the soul-jazz fare of the time, Foster's final two Blue Notes have not dated a bit and are a key reminder of the organist's neglected talents. With so many Blue Note albums appearing in their second or even third incarnations, it would do the label well to dip further in the vaults for albums such as On the Avenue , Cheshire Cat and others that have yet to even debut on disc.

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