A contemporary fusion album with a bass player in charge? And it's called Velvet? So, it's either going to be full of post-Stanley Clarke virtuoso excesses or it's going to be so syrupy-sweet that it absolutely sickens. Yes? Not quite, in fact. Firstly, Gerald Veasley is part of a genuine band and though he takes a prominent role, he does not overwhelm his bandmates. Secondly, though undeniably smooth, there is enough of a creative spark to counter, except to the absolutely prejudiced, most if not all of the customary charges. One for soul fans rather than mainstream jazz types certainly, but a solid album and yet more proof that Heads Up have got it going on as far as this corner of the market is concerned. There are too many tunes like the well-intentioned "Sarah's Song", more sentimental and bland rather than the strived for poignant and moving, but on the whole Velvet rewards far more than it ever irritates.
Veasley, who has played with the good and the great from McCoy Tyner to Joe Zawinul, has sought to join the dots between '70s jazz-funk, '80s fusion and current smooth jazz sounds to produce something contemporary but with a certain historical weight. This he hasn't quite managed, but what he has done is enliven a normally over-cautious recipe with some much needed back-catalogue spices. These come in the shape of actual old songs (The Staples' "Let's Do It Again"), retro pop-grooves ("Do You Remember") or the almost Eddie Harris-like funker "Bread Puddin'". None of it is very deep -- it definitely is not as raw as some would wish -- but a pleasant, mellow funkiness surrounds the whole set and gives it an endearing warmth. If your record collection has room for the Crusaders, Weather Report, Pieces of a Dream and some "Quiet Storm" soul then Velvet will make a welcome addition.
There are some vocal tracks which modern soul fans should immediately investigate. The Stevie Wonder-ish "Summer Kiss" is proving popular with jazz FM radio but much more interesting are the aforementioned Staples cover and the breathy "It's All Right". "Let's Do It Again" is sung by Jaguar Wright (with help from "Summer Kiss" vocalist, John Stephens). It is very similar to the Curtis-produced original, but Wright's vocals have an earthiness to them that makes what is essentially an exercise in nostalgia sound fresh and surprisingly invigorating. This is nearly as good as her Labelle cover on her debut album and should remind the fickle R&B world what a talent she is. Mikki Konnegay and Warren Cooper handle "It's All Right" with equal aplomb, giving this late-night love song a down tempo reading that sits half way between neo-soul and an earlier "Penthouse Soul" sophistication.
Of the instrumentals, the pick of the livelier numbers is the sprightly "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" while the slowies are best served by "Still Movin' On", which features some delicious mute-trumpet work. On both tracks, as throughout the set, there are constant reminders that Velvet is a real group effort. Two of the worst features of smooth jazz over the years have been the reliance on one soloist over faceless backing and the equally depressing abandonment of "real" drums. Neither limitation applies here. Drummer Richard Walker, saxophonist Chris Farr, and keyboard players Will Brock and Mark Knox are integral to each tune. Around them, a well-arranged horn chart adds considerably to a richer sound than one often associates with the genre. Veasley allows himself plenty of space to strut his stuff, of course (on "Coup De Ville" and "Forever", especially). However, his is a fluid, unhurried bass style with little in the way of over-indulgent excess.
This must be Veasley's seventh album for Heads Up and while it is certainly not as mould-breaking as it would perhaps like to imagine itself to be, it has more "meat" to it than most in its field. Some strong melodic lines, playing that does not sound at all tired or throwaway and an easy but definite groove add up to a sterling exercise in modern fusion. Relaxing rather than soporific, Velvet is one of the reasons why this is turning out to be an encouragingly "soulful" year for the critics' least favourite genre. It won't convert the skeptics, but there is more good music here than they would care to admit. I like it.