[1 November 2006]
The process by which someone obtains musical credibility often varies depending upon the type of music that person performs. In rock circles, bands gain credibility by ignoring tradition and blazing new and rebellious musical paths. The jazz scene works somewhat differently. Every now and then, a renegade artist will earn a reputation based upon pure experimentalism, but jazz artists are more frequently expected to position themselves as part of a longer tradition. One way a young jazz artist can gain credibility is by earning an older, established artist’s stamp of approval. On his latest release, the young British DJ Will Holland, aka Quantic, has chosen this method to enhance his musical profile. Calling upon the talents of 1960s soul singer Spanky Wilson, Holland and his band, the Quantic Soul Orchestra, created their latest album, I’m Thankful.
Wilson and Holland first collaborated on two tracks on the third Quantic album, Mishaps Happening. Their combined efforts were so successful that the pair decided to cooperate on a whole album. Listeners should not be fooled by the fact that the duo’s previous collaborations occurred on a Quantic record; without a doubt, Wilson is definitely the star of the latest release. In her career, Wilson has worked with musicians such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lalo Schifrin, and Marvin Gaye. In 1985, Wilson moved to Paris to continue her career and released several solo albums. Eventually, Wilson’s work earned her favor with DJs all over the world, including Will Holland. Her latest album demonstrates numerous qualities that should appeal to fans of dance music, including keen timing, skillful phrasing, and a deep sense of soul.
I’m Thankful begins with a song bearing the same name, which follows a funky, laid-back bass groove occasionally punctuated by horn stabs. The next two songs are also subdued, yet groovy, and they give Wilson ample opportunity to dig into her vocal lines. Throughout the album, Wilson’s vocals hold up well. She shows her age at the edges of her register, but if she has lost some of the luster of her voice over time, she has only improved her control of her instrument. She can hang behind the beat just long enough to enhance the impact of the underlying groove, and her bold timbre adds raw energy to the songs.
Two of the tracks are an extension of a previous Quantic / Spanky Wilson collaboration, “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man”, and fall directly in the middle of I’m Thankful. The first, “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man (Part 2)” is a vocal track in which Wilson reminds listeners that joking with a hungry woman could also be dangerous. “Don’t Joke with a Hungry Man (Part 3)” is an instrumental that uses the groove from Part 2, and features a saxophone solo.
I’m Thankful could have easily been a throwback album, but the fact that it isn’t testifies to the quality of the effort by the musicians involved. While using the sounds of the past, Wilson sings lyrics influenced by conflict in modern America. On “That’s How It Was”, she reflects on Hurricane Katrina, and on “Message to Tomorrow”, she presents an impassioned plea for peace. Although Wilson is definitely the star of I’m Thankful, Holland deserves special mention for his contributions, playing a major role in making the album sound vital and current. His arrangements are neither nostalgic nor campy; instead, they are fresh and energetic, and anyone who has heard a Quantic or QSO record should know what to expect. Although obviously not as intricate as the electronic compositions on a solo Quantic record, the arrangements on I’m Thankful are just as groovy as any of Holland’s previous work. Some of the best funk players in Los Angeles contributed to this album, including trumpeter Todd Simon and trombonist Phil Ranelin. The instrumental playing is often understated to accompany Wilson, but it is by no means merely background music. The repetitive, funky beats bounce around Wilson’s penetrating voice, enriching the musical texture of the songs.
Near the end of I’m Thankful, Wilson sings, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”. Perhaps this title is the best encapsulation of her latest album. Few people would suspect that a singer who debuted 40 years ago could make a funk album which is truly exciting and modern. Likewise, few listeners would expect that a 20-something DJ from Britain would possess the mature understanding of 1960s soul that Holland represents. Further, almost everyone will be surprised to hear how well the personalities of these two very different performers mesh. The fact that the music sounds completely natural testifies to the high personal and musical character that Wilson and Holland possess. On her title track, Wilson sings that she is thankful for the rhythm, the rolling beat, the melody, and the harmony so sweet. All these elements are in top form in Wilson’s music, and they are reason for listeners to be thankful, too.