Perhaps no other musical innovator has stuck as consistently to the middle-of-the-road as Roy Ayers. Ever since Ayers abandoned his strict jazz roots in order to explore the distinctive mix of R&B, funk, and lite-jazz that would form the roots of acid jazz, a wide range of “alternative” hip-hop acts of the past and soul revivalists of the present have benefited from his smooth, yet forward-thinking, grooves. Still, despite his groundbreaking work, particularly with the crossover group Ubiquity, Ayers was never much of a true experimentalist. His aim was squarely at the pop charts, and he made sure his genre mixing was never too radical for radio. As a result, his output was always iffy, with moments of genius like “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” surrounded by disposable filler and smooth jazz boredom. With respect for the best of his earlier work growing in stature, now marks the perfect time for Ayers to make a full return to the music scene, while taking full advantage of the new styles of music that he himself once inspired.
Mahogany Vibe, which began life as a fan-club exclusive release, makes mostly successful attempts to update Ayers’s classic sound, most notably with the introduction of overt rapping and the radiant vocals of Erykah Badu. Many artists embarrass themselves by trying to keep up with current musical trends — the examples are too legion to mention — but Ayers actually sounds reinvigorated by such modern sounds as hip-hop drum machine programming and an expanded array of synthesized bleeps and bloops. When these elements appear on the astounding, mantra-like “Mama”, it does recall — just a bit — The Love Below, but they mix so perfectly with Ayers’s summertime funk that it becomes apparent that Ayers has been exploiting these grooves long before Andre 3000 was even born. “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” has been sampled and covered so much in the hip-hop world, that the unlikely straight-up hip-hop remix of the song is astoundingly successful, despite the absolute hideousness of some of not-ready-for-prime-time rapper MC Sakoni’s rhymes. (For instance: “I’ve got the world on a string / And my nickname’s Geppeto”.) “Ft. Dupont Park”, perhaps the best original on the album, has a deep enough groove to appeal to rap/R&B fans and a smooth enough delivery to impress the more genteel contemporary jazz audience, a difficult feat that Ayers pulls off with ease.
Erykah Badu, as could be expected, practically steals the album away from the understated Ayers with her pair of vocal performances. The two artists work very well together, as Ayers’ strict professionalism offsets Badu’s well-documented inclination towards self-indulgence, while, on the other hand, Badu’s soulful vocals offset the occasional sterility of Ayers’s compositions. Ayers’s classic “Searching” is reshaped into an epic in two parts, a straight cover and then, later on in the album, a bizarre free-form riff credited, bafflingly, to “Roy Ayers Feat. Roy Ayers and Erykah Badu”. She also breathes new life into the oft-covered “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which qualifies as the second best reinterpretation of Ayers’s landmark moment (right behind Cibo Matto’s heart-stopping and sadly obscure reinterpretation). Listening to the two of them riffing off each other on the expanded “Searching”, one gets the impression that there is something magical going on between this forward-thinking pioneer and this backwards-looking revisionist.
When Ayers no longer engages with outside influences, he tends to revert back into the dull smooth R&B mode that has continually clashed with his experimental side. “Long Time Ago” is only salvaged by the fabulous vocal work of the much missed R&B siren Betty Wright (of “Clean Up Woman” fame). The rest of the vocal numbers are typical Ayers filler, passable for a fan-club release but otherwise unimpressive on a proper album. Worse yet, the tedious eight-minute instrumental “Crystal Vibrations”, ostensibly an opportunity for Ayers to flex his impressive vibraphone playing, is such an unimpressive piece of smooth jazz noodling that it only serves to prove the mainstream jazz critics right that his entrance into the pop world softened him as a player.
Overall, however, Mahogany Vibe, which I initially assumed to be a last-gasp attempt by a long-dormant artist to gain a younger audience, reveals Ayers to be an artist who can adapt to the present better than most of his peers, which shouldn’t be surprising. He helped shape it, after all.