LETTER TO THE EDITOR, JazzTimes Magazine
Sent to: email@example.com
That you failed to get the name of the album right was an oversight [“Highs & Lows,” Jan/Feb ‘07]. It’s Soul On Top which appeared in JT [“Reviews Vox,” Nov ‘04]. But not to have mentioned that evening’s reunion with Louie Bellson (whose orchestra had played the original 1970 album) was a gross omission. After Bellson’s guest performance, Brown graciously exhorted the audience to stand in homage to Bellson. It was truly an historic and unforgettable evening for all.
Francine Bellson - JazzTimes, Letter to the Editor (Jan 23, 2007)
Caught in The Act: James Brown’s “Soul on Top”
When soul shouter James Brown released his big band album—Soul on Top--in 1970, it was received as neither fish nor fowl by the public. Jazz people were put off by the rawness of chart and voice, while the soul audience didn’t get the raw funk it craved. While the ensuing years have seen a rapprochement, of sorts, in public tastes, the 2004 Verve reissue of the album failed to stir much attention. In September, Soul Brother Number One closed out the Bowl’s summer jazz series with his first-ever live performance of the album. The enthusiastic near-capacity crowd suggested that now, finally, the public was ready to listen.
The 73-year old soul-funk icon was in excellent musical hands. A handpicked orchestra of some of Los Angeles’s finest players, led by bassist Christian McBride, gave loving attention to Oliver Nelson’s original charts on standards and some JB evergreens. Brown’s touring band, the eleven-piece Soul Generals (complete with epauletted uniforms), alternated segments with the big band. Before the evening was over, a featured singer, a string contingent, three backup singers, two emcees and two go go dancers were onstage.
Traditional songs like “Prisoner of Love” were rare items in Brown’s voluminous discography. His numbers with the orchestra pointed out inherent problems in these indulgences. While The Godfather of Soul is a rhythmic genius, melody has never been his strong suit. Although rhythmic invention allowed Brown to riff and embellish rhythm figures on swingers like “Every Day I Have the Blues,” ballads betrayed him. Fare like “September Song,” “That’s My Desire,” and “It’s Magic” depend on melody and Brown doesn’t have much of that left in his voice. His patented, rough, back-of-the-throat screech (what Wilson Picket called the “cornbread” sound) is similarly diminished.
Brown reverently introduced drum legend Louie Bellson, who drove the original album, for a feature on “For Once in My Life.” Bellson played an immaculately executed solo that was measured in its speed and exuberance. Tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb—another participant on Soul on Top—spun a lyrical and soulful chorus. The statuesque Tommie Rae (Mrs. Brown to you) emoted a histrionic “This Bitter Earth” that was buoyed by a biting alto solo by Soul General Jeff Watkins.
Standard tunes weren’t the only challenge for The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. The dance movements that once defied human ability (nobody ever served up the hydraulic mashed potatoes like James) were nodded to by a couple of rubber-legged interludes. It was when Brown threw in with the Generals, though, that the rabbit was thrown into the Briar Patch.
A medium-tempo Nelson chart on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” let Brown do what he’s always done best: riff and improvise over funk rhythms to ever more intense effect. Generals trombonist Tyrone Jefferson let loose on a solo that put him in the company of the great JB instrumentalists like Fred Wesley. The go go dancer who shook and undulated upped the ante on “I Got You.” “Sex Machine” brought the whole house to its feet and when the orchestra—which had been still for a few numbers--broke into spontaneous background figures, the whole stage was jumping. It was a soul extravaganza of the old school and we’ll probably not see its like again.
Kirk Silsbee - Downbeat (Dec, 2006)
The 1969 album