It’s hardly unusual for a serious jazz musician to make a dance record. It’s fun, it’s funky—it might sell. Why the heck not?
Liquid Soul is the soul-groove imprint of saxopohonist Mars Williams. Williams is about as broad-based a musician as you’re likely to find—a hardcore free blower who studied with Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and recorded as a member of the Vandermark 5, and a collaborator with the Psychedelic Furs and Billy Idol. For Williams, Liquid Soul’s brand of disco-fied soul and pop-hop is not a betrayal of purity—it’s just what the guy does in part. And, without question, the saxophone sound he applies on One Two Punch, the first Liquid Soul album since 2000, is beefy and strong, no compromise on the horn at least.
But is it good, fun music?
Neither fish nor fowl, I say. Most of the rhythm tracks on One Two Punch are extremely processed—hard-hitting but generic grooves that sound mechanical the way today’s hip-hop or soul often does. So, on a tune like “Sex God”, which features a hard-bop-ish riff melody for sax and trumpet and a hard driving solo by Williams, the robust fun of his saxophone playing is candied up by the rhythm track. Other tunes feature R&B or rap vocals (“Attaboy”‘s refrain is “Shake that ass and move those hips, girl, if you came to party,” while “Body and Mind” features Brian Quarles singing and rapping about how he’s “crazy gifted” and name dropping A Tribe Called Quest) and sound more at home with the Velveeta grooves. But which record is this? “Peanut Head” makes a decent case for some kind of middle ground, with an attractive instrumental theme that tap-dances on the blues, as well as sampled vocal sounds and a slap-happy drum track, but the guitar solo is the kind of bland Strat-metal that is so outclassed by Williams’ saxophone that you wonder how it snuck into the studio.
A decade ago this kind of thing was happening (at least in Europe), and they called it “acid jazz”. Today?
Some tunes stick out interestingly. The closer, “Kong”, opens with Vernon Reid on guitar in a sound straight from his Living Colour hey-day. What a disappointment, then, when the first solo is some kind of electronically processed soprano saxophone rather than the titanic Reid. The guest then solos mutely under an interlude and leads a glorious freak-out at the end, but it seems an opportunity horribly wasted.
This time out, Liquid Soul is both too bland and too muddled to compete with proper commercial pop, with commercial hip-hop, or with the kind of rock ‘n’ soul-informed jazz that other musicians are making without worrying about a market. On the pop side, One Two Punch has neither the innovative production sound nor the charismatic MCs to break through. On the jazz side, records like Bobby Previte’s recent Coalition of the Willing are out-punching this thing by a unanimous judge’s vote. A tune like “Boxer’s Fracture” is breezy fun—a slick horn line, a skip-a-beat-happy drum track, a serious of fluid samples with vocalists urging the music on—but it falls utterly between the cracks.
I have no doubt that Williams had fun making this record, and it’s fun to listen to as well. You could do much worse with the windows rolled down this August. But I’m pretty sure that no one will be tugging at your sleeve either to borrow the disc for a party or to rip the thing so they can hear it again and again on their iPod. It’s a popsicle of a record: not a meal, and not a great dessert either.