Before Kevin Mahogany emerged in the mid-1990s, male jazz singers had become a nearly extinct species, with no heir apparent to the giants: Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Hibbler, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Johnny Hartmann, Nat King Cole, Jon Hendricks. Kansas City native Mahogany studied piano, sax and clarinet in high school, but only started singing in college, after which he worked with an array of soul, R&B and jazz groups through the '80s. Then a trio of early '90s releases on Enja (the innovative German label that brought Keith Jarrett to wider audiences) revealed Mahogany as a fully realized jazz vocalist.
While Mahogany's prior work has drawn upon Percy Mayfield, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder, on Pride and Joy he plunges to the heart and soul of the Motown sound, imaginatively reworking perpetual contributions by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Wonder, and Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Mahogany explains his rationale this way: "Now the time has come to combine my musical loves, the unique harmonies of jazz with the lyricism of Motown. This isn't a new concept, not at all. . . . Combining jazz and Motown music seems natural to me. I grew up loving both styles and . . . I hope to be able to continue the tradition of jazz with creative music that can challenge the artist as well as entertain."
Jazz artists have a history of taking popular music to higher ground. Think of Dizzy Gillespie's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac", Rahsaan Roland Kirk's hijacking of the Burt Bachrach songbook, or Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" -- to cite just a few examples. But unlike bebop, say, Mahogany's intention is not to render the familiar astonishingly new, so much as to bring Motown's expressiveness into the jazz repertoire.
A regard for his source is evident from the get-go, as Mahogany turns Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" into a remarkable, scatting a cappella doo-wop rendering, with finger-popping harmonic backing by tenors Gregory Clark and Todd Johnson, baritone Gerald Trottman and bass Peter Eldridge. The same dazzling vocal combo weaves its expressive harmonies through The Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There".
Trumpeter Jon Faddis, guitarist Dave Stryker and pianist James Weidman leap in with a muted, hard-bop take on the title track, a Marvin Gaye standard, against which Mahogany, with pipes to spare, blows a bluesy, growling, masterfully scatted counterpoint -- Ella and Louis must be smiling somewhere back of beyond. Stryker's guitar pays tribute to George Benson on the Barrett Strong-Norman Whitfield plaint, "I Can't Get Next to You", in which Mahogany lays a pensive jazz spin on source renditions by the Temptations and Al Green.
Against the evocative hand percussion of Alias, Mahogany explores the smoky Latin clave concealed within the Jackson Five's "Never Can Say Goodbye", conjured up in a Stryker arrangement dappled with a fluid guitar, Weidman's cabaret piano and Mahogany's scatted chorus. Betty Carter's reigning spirit moves through Mahogany's conjuring of the unsettling cast of Smokey Robinson's "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game".
Mahogany and Stryker (this time on acoustic guitar) craft a subtle duet on "The Tears of a Clown", a minimalist construal of Stevie Wonder's confession of love-wounded pride. Both here and on the Supremes' "My World Is Empty Without You" (backed only by bassist Melissa Slocum and percussionist Don Alias), Mahogany's stripped-down acoustic approach resonates with the impressionistic vocal signature of Cassandra Wilson. Equally reflective, albeit with a fuller instrumental foundation, is Mahogany's conscription -- as jazz ballads -- of Motown standards "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)", "She's Out of My Life", and a bittersweet "Just My Imagination", the album-closing Temptations tribute.
Throughout his stylish reframing of the Motown legacy, Mahogany's silky smooth baritone, subtle arrangement, and a finely attuned ear for supporting talent testify to his unchallenged status as today's foremost working male jazz vocalist. Mahogany's is an expressive artistry whose extraordinary vintage has come of age.