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The Graham Album Review #2118

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Chicago Soul Jazz Collective Meets Dee Alexander: On the Way to Be Free

(JMarq Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/15/2022)

I suppose that it’s probably natural for music fans and self-styled critics of a certain age to be attracted to music that evokes a previous generation – the sounds that were popular or emerging during one’s more formative years. And for Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers there has been a lot of activity with younger performers legitimately evoking sounds from perhaps a half century back, in many cases being played by artists who had had not yet been born when the music came around the first time. On Mixed Bag, we have done quite a few retro sets, featuring contemporary artists doing impressive work in styles like folk, Beatles-influenced rock and soul sounds evoking the 1960s and 1970s. And the sounds of 1980s electronic pop are also being revived by artists in the digital era.

This week we have another very good retro album. It’s by the descriptively named Chicago Soul Jazz Collective. It’s their third release, titled On the Way To Be Free. They nicely evoke the sound of groups like Crusaders and Sly & the Family Stone. While their previous albums had been largely instrumental, their new release prominently features creative jazz singer Dee Alexander.

The Chicago Soul Jazz Collective is co-led by saxophonist John Fournier, who wrote all but one of the original compositions on the album, and trumpeter Marques Carroll, who is featured prominently in solos. The group also includes Amr Fahmy on keyboards, Larry Brown, Jr. on guitar, Andrew Vogt on bass – mostly acoustic bass – Keith Brooks II on drums and Victor Garcia on percussion.

The album’s guest vocalist Dee Alexander has been called one of the most creative jazz singers in Chicago. She was a member of the sometimes avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, and has recorded a few albums on her own, as well as collaborating with trumpeter Malachi Thompson. As the group’s name says, the sounds are a mixture of soul with jazz sensibility. The music evokes some 1970s soul, and some of the lyrics, such as on the title track, also harken back to the era of the civil rights struggles, which seem relevant with the rise of racist right-wing groups and politicians. The group’s arrangements and playing are first-rate, and embody the soul and jazz dichotomy of the band’s name.

The album opens with Mama Are We There Yet? a somewhat funky song, which can a bit reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone, which like all but one of the tracks on the album was written by saxophonist John Fournier. The lyrics consider the history of the civil rights movement and how it seems that some are forgetting it. <<>>

The title track On the Way to Be Free continues in a similar lyrical mode but takes a jazzier direction. It’s nicely done. <<>>

A more contemplative song is the track called So Alive, done as a breezy jazz waltz. <<>>

Also conjuring 1970s soul with lyrics newly relevant again, is The Man in Coming Back hinting at the attempts to bring back Jim Crow and the proliferation of open racism among right wing groups and political figures. <<>>

There are a couple of love songs on the album. But Crazy Wrong is not exactly a conventional girl meets boy song, but about an illicit affair. It’s the one tune written by guitarist Larry Brown, Jr. <<>>

There are two instrumentals on the album. One is called Behind the Crusaders with the influence obvious from the title. It captures the aura of the Crusaders’ sound from the 1970s. <<>>

Probably the most straight-out love song on the album is another soulful arrangement, Sweet Things, nicely sung by Ms. Alexander. <<>>

The album ends with its other instrumental, Nothing Good Ever Goes Away another tune celebrating the soul and jazz from the early 1970s from which this group draws its inspiration. <<>>

On the Way to Be Free, the new third album by the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective, featuring guest vocalist Dee Alexander, definitely lives up to the group’s name, tastefully evoking the mix of jazz and soul that was embodied by the Crusaders and the social consciousness of Sly and the Family Stone. The band gives their own spin to the sound, not being imitative, but drawing inspiration from 50 years ago, and incorporating the best aspects of the style, and providing some lyrics that seem suddenly to be appropriate today. The musicianship is top-notch with the players easily able to move back and forth between the jazz and soul facets.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B+. The mix is commendable, but as is so often the case, there’s too much volume compression, and overall sound is not as bright or airy as it could have been, especially with the horns.

The Chicago Soul Jazz Collective definitely lives up its name on their third release. With people in the commercial hip-hop world sampling bits of 1970s soul, it’s nice to see the genuine music being made by current generation artists.

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This page last updated June 20, 2022