James T covers Motown, but why?
Martin Longley 2007-12-03
Gone are the Acid Jazz days, when Hammond organist Taylor could happily vibrate amidst a youthfully cultish crowd. As the years roll by, James seems to find himself becoming an old school operator in the field populated by departed gurus like Jimmy Smith, or current upholders of the organ trio groove such as guitarist Melvin Sparks. So, Taylor's audience is now wider, but he's still retaining admirers from several different camps, be they garage maniacs, smooth soulsters or jazzy footwork freaks.
This concept album represents another fidgety shift, surely angled at populist sales and radio play, like so many other tribute projects of this type. Taylor is devoting himself to the Tamla Motown repertoire, but the big question is always going to be 'why?'. Yes, the essence of jazz, for instance, has always been embedded in the continuous chewing over of established standards. So why do such activities within the rock and pop world suffer from a harsher judgement? Who can say, but this disc does generate a fundamental response that shouts out 'why not just spin the original Motown records?'.
This is probably due to the fact that Taylor's treatments mostly don't depart from the feel and thrust of the original recordings, at least not enough to create much deep interest in the performance. Taylor is flailing across the keys straight off, on "Money", with the horn section punching, pumping and parping, Andrew McKinney's bass waddling with sass, and Nigel Price picking out a typically stinging guitar solo. There's a strong 1960s aura in the production, of course, with chorus vocals on several tracks, and even a slight injection of cheese, when Taylor beams off on what can only be called a skating rink excursion. When Omar sings "After The Dance", matters become a touch slimy, and then "Jimmy Mack" doesn't offer much to tear the listener's ears away from the original. It's the less obvious selections that succeed: the swirling, instrumentally loaded versions of "Machine Gun" (early Commodores) and "Cleo's Mood" (Jr. Walker).
The augmented Quartet's playing is excellent throughout, of course, and this will probably make a much more engaging live show. There lies the crux. The whole need of re-creating the work of rarely sighted (or even deceased) artists is far more viable on the stage, where audiences can't find the experience elsewhere. But, do we really need take-home souvenirs of these concept-nites?