Blaze presents the James Toney Jnr. Project: Natural Blaze
Blaze have been around nearly 15 years. In that time they have become the leading exponents of jazzy, soulful house music, with endless remix credits and a string of club classics behind them. From their New Jersey base, Josh Milan and Kevin Hedge have been churning out smooth, keyboard driven dance anthems with enviable regularity. To those that inhabit the space where jazz, house, disco and jazz collide, Blaze are little short of gods.
Yet this is only their third album (fourth if you count the compilation, Many Colours Of). The first, 25 Years Later (Motown 1990), marked that lost opportunity when House and Garage briefly entered the mainstream of black American music. That album, though still highly regarded, disappeared without trace. Blaze went back to Jersey and the Shelter club and built a reputation as producers and remixers at the deep end of dance. Basic Blaze from the late '90s is a lot of people's favourite dance album, while tracks such as the afrocentric "My Beat" and the nu-disco gem "Wishing You Were Here" have had a life expectancy far greater than the usual dancefloor fodder. "My Beat" in particular is a tune that defines the terms jazz-house, deep house or soulful dance as well as any.
So, to say that this album was eagerly awaited is my understatement of the month (and I am particularly fond of understatements). The response to its arrival is, not exactly a disappointment, but something less than ecstatic. It is a fine, discofied, jazzy affair -- very reminiscent of a number of late '70s releases -- but there is a definite sense of water-treading and laurel-resting about the nine tracks on show.
The sound is as sublime as ever -- organic, smooth and drenched in soul. The sentiments are as spiritual and socially conscious as we have come to expect, and the general feel is as relaxing as slipping into a warm bath. However it is all a little safe, and the standard of the tunes is second-rate at best. Lyrically and vocally it also leaves much to be desired.
It is still streets ahead of many in the field and will work in certain bars and clubs ("Elevation" has already been tanned by the DJs that know). It will appeal to the home listener who adores Earth, Wind & Fire, George Benson and George Duke and wishes people still made records like they did in the old jazz-funk era. It will not, I suspect, win many new converts. It fits into the category the scarier end of the dance scene calls, disparagingly, "Dadhouse".
As to the actual tracks, for "My Beat" we get "Revolution Poem" and "Afro-groove". "Revolution Poem" has the right attitude but is clumsy and slightly embarrassing in its sub-Mutabaraku (it might even be him) "conscious" lyrics. "Afro-groove" is better but again the spiritual spoken-word vibe has been done better elsewhere, not least by Blaze. It kicks along nicely though and has a lovely organ groove that gets better on each hearing. "Time For Love", which opens the album, has some sharp, squirty alto sax which promises something more adventurous, but settles down into a bouncy, jazzy swayer. "Lovely Reprise" has some infectious acoustic guitar and a good chill-out feel. The best instrumental is "The Grooves" which sums up the strengths and limitations of the whole effort. Funkier and a little darker than most of the others, it retains the seventies feel and takes you on a hammond,synth and percussion led journey that holds no shocks but gets you in a good mood. It is the sort of thing Reuben Wilson or Charles Earland would have been proud of -- nothing new but oozing class
"Elevation" is the pick of the vocal tracks -- poor lyrics sung in that rather wet EWF style don't endear it to me though. It gains greatly if whacked up really loud and then becomes a solid soulful houser. "Better Days" and "How Deep is Your Love" are likeable with lovely piano touches, but too lacking in character or bite to really convince. The gentle "Lovely Ones" is structurally the most satisfying but the vocals sound a little off-key to me. Blaze's vocals have never been their strong point and that fragility has finally been fully exposed.
Still, I will probably play this album more than most I get this year. But I am a sucker for this stuff and an unrepentant "Dadhouser". Instrumentally, it is a solid album. If you like Blaze, and know what to expect, you will get plenty of mileage from it. If they are a new name to you I would not start here. There is no reason why artists should always innovate and Blaze have done enough to assure themselves of a prominent place in dance history. What is something of a let-down is that at this very moment there are some killer Blaze remixes doing the rounds, far more satisfying than anything on display here. This is a confirmation that it is the paucity of material on this outing that is at fault and all of Blaze's musicality and feel for the groove cannot quite hide that fact.