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SILKY SOUL MUSIC
''AN ALL STAR TRIBUTE TO MAZE Feat. FRANKIE BEVERLY'' [USA, 2009] @
We should all have a son as committed as drummer/producer Anthony Beverly. Beverly, determined that his famous father, Frankie Beverly, get honored in proper fashion, convened a truly all-star group of artists to create one of the strongest tribute albums to be released in recent years. Veterans Mary J. Blige, Musiq Soulchild, Kevon Edmonds, The Clark Sisters, Mint Condition and most impressively, Joe, came out in support of a band that has racked up 30 charting singles, including 14 top twenty R& B hits. Relative newcomers Kem, Ledisi, Raheem DeVaughn, and Kierra "Kiki" Sheard also join in the fun, celebrating Maze featuring Frankie Beverly's 33-year legacy of 10 top twenty R& B albums including two #1s. Not only did Anthony Beverly recruit an enviable set of artists to pay homage to his father's admirable accomplishments, Beverly is finely introducing his father's music to a generation of fans that has little experience with Black America's number one party band.
If the millennia generation hasn't heard of Maze, it's partially Anthony's pop's fault, as Maze fans have not been treated to a new album by this group in sixteen years. Odd, given that Maze's last album, Back to Basics, peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts and produced two top twenty hits, including "The Morning After." Still, even if the kiddies don't know the group by name, they know Maze's songs, thanks to hip hop samples and consistent radio rotation of "Joy and Pain" and "Before I Let Go" on urban AC.
Not that the lack of new product has hurt the Philly cum northern Cali octet's bottom line. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly consistently sells out to two and three thousand seaters all over the world, living off twenty- and thirty-year old hits that play like the national Black Family Reunion soundtrack. Every concert is a party, where participants literally "step" and hand dance down the aisles. Responsible soul parents expose their children to this group's family-friendly classics early by taking them to these joyous gatherings, creating shared memories that will be as timeless as this band's music.
That timelessness is mostly captured here with strong performances by unlikely sources. Musiq Soulchild, a voice that has been hit and miss on recent tribute projects, makes "Silky Soul" completely his own, with subtle riffs and a playful, bumping execution that transfers the song from the bedroom to the dance floor. As much as Soulchild delights, it's Joe who surprises most, with a phrasing faithful, but nonetheless personal rendering of "Can't Get Over You." Justifiably, Joe's airy, mournful cover is already receiving top 40 radio play in some urban markets. First Signature-one of the best traditional R& B albums of the year-and now a cover any legend would be proud of; 2009 is shaping up to be the year of Joe. Not to be completely outdone, a crooning Kevon Edmonds on "Never Let You Down" does his best El Debarge impression, hinting at the sugar in store for fans on his forthcoming release, Who Knew. A layered Raheem DeVaughn also makes his mark on "We Are One, " breathlessly demonstrating how a good arrangement can resuscitate new life into an old friend. Suede smooth, all.
What may surprise are how rare the characteristically ho hum performances of tribute projects are on Beverly's. Still, a few manage to hum through. Avant's take of "Joy and Pain" just slides through the silky singer's fingers when he tries to pretty up the anthem of our lives. Kem is in strong, but maybe too strong of voice on "Golden Time of Day, " failing to reflect the gentle, awestruck delivery of the gauzy original. Breaking the trend of sound, but ill-fitting singer, Stokely of Mint Condition vocally struts through "Back In Stride, " but the band's synthesized proceedings falters, dropping the shoulder bouncing drive of its origins. The Clark Sisters' harmonic, Iowa corn opener and J Moss channeling Kirk Franklin almost undoes the Donald Lawrence produced "I Wanna Thank You, " but a triumphant ending with Kierra and Karen wailing to the heavens keeps from scorching this buttery popcorn in the eternal flames. Thanks to producers Rex Rideout and Anthony Beverly, who produced nine of ten tracks, no rusty performances tarnish the silver off this project or detract from the majesty of Maze's music.
The royal producers do extract a little majesty of their own from the queens on this king heavy collection. No one should be surprised that a fiery Mary J. turns out "Before I Let Go" or that a chart conquering Ledisi absolutely devours "Happy Feeling" (fans of this cut must also check out Sam Logan's exquisite take on the What's The Worst That Could Happen? soundtrack). You may only wish that these divas were lending their admirable chops on more obscure Maze gems like "I Need You" or "Running Away." Maybe we'll get these dusty cuts a revival cleaning on a much deserved second volume of the Beverly catalog? If anyone could make it work, Frankie Beverly's prodigal son just proved he can, opening the door to a possible second generation of Beverly brilliance. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson