Pamela Williams: Evolution

Maurice Bottomley

Pamela Williams


Label: Red Ink
US Release Date: 2002-02-12

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.