What is in many ways an absolutely run of the mill smooth jazz offering is generating great interest within the UK soul fraternity. This is because one track on Evolution, “I Am Love”, has that easy, mid-tempo sway beloved by English soul fans. More than that, it is sung by the increasingly elusive and enigmatic heroine of pre-house clubbers, Teena Marie. That fact alone has guaranteed that this album will find itself in rather more record collections than would otherwise have been the case.
“I Am Love” is classic Teena Marie, a singer whose association with the Philly saxophonist Williams includes tours and an earlier appearance on an album for Heads Up. Classic, in this case, means that those who love her persuasive but slightly strident voice will feel that all is right with the world once more; the long awaited and endlessly deferred new solo project will undoubtedly be as good as “Ohh La La “, “Portuguese Love”, or any of those fondly remembered cuts from the eighties. Even if, like me, you have never quite seen why this vocalist is the most favoured of blue-eyed soulstresses it is certainly the most distinctive track on a competent but fairly unexciting set.
Williams was at high school with Pieces of a Dream and cut her musical teeth on the road with Patti Labelle. Her style shows the traces of that apprenticeship. Inevitably, Grover Washington is a major influence, although her tone suggests she has the potential for a slightly bluesy lyricism of her own. Too often she settles for the Allbright/Whalum/Beasley school of well modulated blandness, but there is another added ingredient which might prove to be a turning point in her career.
The mysterious Teena M is not the only voice on this disc; Williams sings herself on several cuts. In fact, the only real shock this album provides is that her soulful sax does not at all prepare you for her vocal delivery. Williams sounds folky, even soft-rockish at times, and although it is not in itself a plus, this has the advantage of being a little different and may open up a wider audience for her. She relies on an earnest breathiness that has short-lived appeal, but there are certainly some successes.
The moody ballad “Poison” is well-structured and undoubtedly effective even to these rock-resistant ears. The most soulful effort is “At the Concert”, a duet with Glenn Soukesian. This has possibilities but, unusually for this session, is cluttered and a little clumsy. The cod-Mexican “Placero” is probably the most engaging of any of the songs, managing to be genuinely sensuous despite its essentially bogus exoticism.
Another form of exoticism, though some will take offence at my terming it so, is the watered down Afrocentrism of the album’s pseudo-Egyptian conceptual structure. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of our own age’s politically charged version of the Cleopatra’s nose theory. Let us just say that Pamela Williams does at least grant that Egypt was a slave society. Other than that, Egypt bequeaths no more than some nice jewelry for the cover and some dubious film-score Orientalist flourishes.
The best of the straight sax-led pieces is the opener “Lifeline”, which is standard playlist fare but tightly organised and surprisingly punchy. The title track is noteworthy in that it hints of a more searching quality to her playing can be detected. There is some particularly clever use of, I presume, double tracking that adds considerably to the texture of her deep-register alto technique. The blues soaked “The Dance” is also a cut above the average and has a smoky, after hours feel that gives it substance. The rest of the album is sadly much of a muchness. No worse than the stuff your local contemporary jazz station plays daily, but certainly no better.
As with most smooth jazz it is the limited ambition that eventually disappoints. Williams is evidently a fine, precise player and sounds as if she might be well suited to a rawer, funkier setting. A keen rhythmic awareness shows why she has been successful as an accompanist. Just one track where she really let rip would have been welcome. As it stands, Evolution is content to sit comfortably within the confines of a genre that is itself far too sedentary.
Still, there is that Teena Marie track and just enough evidence of a personal signature to Williams’ playing to make you listen more than once. If some relaxed, effortless blowing, combined with well-tailored R&B/soul beats (nothing too bumpy, mind) is what you are after, this record has plenty to offer. Williams has at least tried to vary the song writing styles, which is to her credit, but it is as a laid-back, smooth sax effort that this album will be judged and thereby praised or condemned. As such, it is worthy of its place alongside, but neither above or below, a plethora of similar records.