Jazz Album of the Week: David K. Mathews’ The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Revisits Soul and R&B, Vol. 2

Sep 27, 2020

September 28, 2020. And now for something a little different. Since 1975, David K. Mathews has been a sideman for some of the biggest names in jazz, funk, soul and R&B, playing keys most notably for Tower of Power, Etta James and, for the past decade, Santana.

But being a leader on an album is something a little different. Inclined to produce something that reflected the breadth of his musicality, Mathews soon realized this couldn’t be accomplished with just one record. That’s how he finds himself in the midst of a five-volume project, one that began with the release of 2018’s The Fantasy Vocal Sessions Vol. 1, an acoustic set devoted to standards.

His latest, the second “Fantasy Vocal Session” and last to be recorded at the recently shuttered Fantasy Studios in Berkeley where Sonny Rollins, Mingus and Beat-era icons like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce all recorded, is being marketed as a collection of jazz-inspired arrangements of soul, pop, and R&B tunes.

By my standards, it’s much more of the latter than the former.

That said, if you’re looking to have a relaxing dinner, maybe a little dancing to familiar tunes with creative adaptations, this album might just be for you. Most of the cuts here are tunes either written or defined by Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and James Brown, but the focus from Mathews’ perspective as an arranger is to showcase Bay Area mainstays like vocalists Amikaela Gaston, Tony Lindsay, “Funky” Fred Ross, and the man called “the Superman of the Bay Area jazz scene,” Kenny Washington. The album, more than anything, is a love letter to the diverse, talent-rich music community that’s nurtured  Mathews throughout his career.

One interesting take here is a version of “One Mint Julep,” the big band blues tune made famous by Ray Charles and his Wurlitzer. Bookended by the familiar Quincy Jones arrangement, it somewhat awkwardly transitions to a middle section with Steve Miller— aka the Gangster of Love, aka the Space Cowboy—on vocals backed by an arrangement that sounds like some sort of cross between Smashmouth, Sugar Ray and Jimmy Buffett. It’s much more Jersey Shore deck band than Ray Charles—or Quincy Jones for that matter. You’ll either find it fun and festive or cloying; either way, you’ll have an opinion.

For fans of 70s-style soul, takes on the Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” might be just what the love doctor ordered. Amikaela Gaston appears on both, lending lead vocals that will resonate with folks who still hold The Sound of Philadelphia close to their hearts. 

Tony Lindsay, best known as Santana’s lead singer over the past 25 years, is out front for two ballads, Donny Hathaway’s “You Had to Know” and Ray Obiedo’s “So Sweetly.” The latter is probably the stronger of the two; it’s right in Lindsay’s vocal wheelhouse, the kind of slow jam over which you might picture a ruffle-shirted bandleader imploring wedding guests to “find that special someone.” The alto sax solo here is so pitch-perfect era-wise, that you might find yourself reaching for the Soul-Glo.

“Funky” Fred Ross lives up to the nickname on a high energy take of what might be called the high energy anthem, James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Pretty sure this tune was what was meant by cognitive behavioral therapy before the Becks formally pioneered the practice up at UPenn. It still works as well as ever.

Vocalist Lady Bianca, who’s backed up Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, and Sly Stone, comes closest to replicating the power and blues authenticity of Mathews’ longtime boss, Etta James. She brings it on Van McCoy’s “Giving Up,” enlivened by a steely guitar solo, tight but tasteful horns and synthesized strings.

The closer, an extended take on Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday,” sees the aforementioned Washington live up to his lofty billing, with bursts of scatting and almost Michael Jackson-like “hee-hee” falsetto runs that re-energize the Beatles’ classic.

If you can grin and bear it through some hokey and overwrought moments you’ll find an album, in Mathews’ latest, that, whether it be called jazz, funk, soul, pop or R&B, has a little something for everyone.