1. Olajope, Batidos (Six Degrees)
Olajope are Ron Trent and Jay Roderiguez. Ron Trent is the legendary Chicago deep house producer who surprised a lot of people with his soulful eclecticism when he took up residence at New York’s Giant Step nights. Multi-instrumentalist Jay Roderiguez is a Columbian New Yorker. Together they made this album which, as the sleevenotes say, is all about “Africa connecting all of the Americas through the language of sound”. Batidos has been my constant companion throughout the year and I am still fascinated by its magical interplay of soul, jazz, Columbian song and Latino and house rhythms. Roderiguez on sax is a revelation, Trent adds that unhurried landscaping at which he excels and guests of the caliber of Chucho Valdes pitch in to make this the most exquisite fusion imaginable. “Urban Groove” takes on a new meaning in the hands of these musicians. Syncretic funk of the first order.
2. Jaheim, Still Ghetto (Warner Bros.)
A refreshingly good year for male vocalists. Dave Hollister, Gerald Levert, Rance Allen and (can we mention him?) R.Kelly all served notice on the juvenile and more nasal that have dominated of late. But it was Jaheim, the youngest and most contemporary sounding, who outshone them all. Still Ghetto is the finest downtempo R&B album for years and Let’s Talk About and Fabulous can already take their place among the great soul performances of all time.
3. Angela Johnson, They Don’t Know (Dome, UK)
Why New York’s Angela Johnson debut album was released on a small English label is a question Americans will have to ask themselves. The Cooly’s Hot Box vocalist is a gifted keyboard player, has a fine voice, writes intelligent lyrics and combines a knowledge of ’70s arrangements with an indepedent modern persona. Only the lack of an absolute killer track stopped this being my pick of the year, but for craft and consistency it had no rivals in the soul/R&B field. “They” may not know now but talent like this will find its rightful audience one day.
4. Blaze, Spiritually Speakin’ (Slip’n’Slide)
OK, so the lyrics are a bit corny,the “poetry” irritating and the whole thing sounds a little too Earth, Wind and Fire for 2002 but you have to love Josh Milan and Kevin Hedge. The “soul” of New Jersey house and one of the few that can sustain an album’s worth of material, this is as good as anything they’ve ever done and I actually prefer it to their much vaunted Motown debut all those years ago. As long as Blaze are with us, dancefloors will never be devoid of feeling and emotion. Vocally, “Breathe” and “One World” scooped the honours but check out the more experimental and free-flowing instrumental tracks. Superb.
5. Kevin Yost, Hypnotic Progression (i records)
Along with KY Funk and Stuff (Distance), Hypnotic Progressions served as a reminder that as far as deep, jazzy house goes Kevin Yost remains the most inventive and exploratory worker in that (lately rather crowded) field. Unlike most practitioners, Yost’s music becomes more intriguing the more you play it. His sense of space, harmonics and rhythm is unique and though there is an easy, minimalist ambience that gets him classed as simple chill-out fare there is something much more intense and demanding going on. Introspective certainly, but engaging and wrought with a classicist perfectionism that always impresses.
6. Juba Collective, Juba Collective (Premonition)
Afrocentric,avant-garde house and jazz with a little poetry and rap. Master drummer Kahil El Zabar and the Collective created an album that bristled with energy, ambition and sheer exuberance. “Papa’s Bounce” should have got club plays as it was the most infectious of tunes, but the whole set sparkled with wit and passion. Too leftfield to fit into any one category, this is an album that will be much sought after in a few years time.
7. Miguel Migs, Colorful You (Naked)
With this and the Aquanote set (Omega Brown’s “One Wish” especially) the Naked Music banner was raised aloft once more. Detractors may sneer at the smoothness of the West Coast beats but as long as tracks like “The One” (with Lisa Shaw’s serene yet aching vocals) are in circulation the club world will have a sophistication and depth it doesn’t always deserve. Good to see this championed by the UK modern soul scene because that is what this is . . . exquisite modern soul.
8. Syleena Johnson, The Voice/Chapter 2 (Jive)
Plenty of strong female sets this year (Conya Doss, Heather Headley, Vivian Green, etc.) but the bluesy anguish of Syl’s daughter just about gives this the edge. Lacked some of the highpoints of her previous two outings but more sustained and generally satisfying than those creditable offerings. I still suspect she can do even better though.
9. Various Artists, Las Palmas Collectives (Vu Deja)
The first CD from a fascinating LA label. Superior Latin-flavoured house from the likes of Aztec Sol, Jesse Outlaw and Yuka Matsuda (no, they don’t mean much to me either). Percussive and persuasive, a little rough and gauche but none the worse for that. A label and lots of acts to look out for in the future. Their club nights must be something else. Advertised as one of LA’s best kept secrets, dance and jazz-funk aficionados should do their utmost to spread the word. Something hot is happening in the City of Angels.
10. Earl Bostic, Flamingo (Proper)
I could have chosen Amos Milburn, T-Bone Walker, Tiny Bradshaw, Lucky Millinder, The Dawn of Doo Wop or any one of the incredible, re-issued jazz and R&B items that Proper have churned out this year. Box sets and double packs, ridiculously cheap but well-annotated and with wonderful historical essays, this series gives an essential insight into the music of 1940s Black America. Dynamic in each case, listened to together they break down all sorts of artificial barriers between genres. When John Coltrane joined Earl Bostic he wasn’t slumming but serving an apprenticeship with a true master of the saxophone. Unmissable.