DEXTER WANSEL-VOYAGER.

DEXTER WANSEL-VOYAGER.

For any label, losing many members of their house-band, plus some of their best songwriters, arrangers and producers could’ve proved fatal. This is what happened at Philadelphia International Records in 1975. Many of M.F.S.B. were locked in a dispute with Gamble and Huff over money. When the dispute couldn’t be resolved many of M.F.S.B, plus some of Philadelphia International Records’ top arrangers, producers and musicians headed to New York, becoming The Salsoul Orchestra. This left a huge void, a void that needed filled. One of the men to do so was Dexter Wansel. Soon, Dexter would become Gamble and Huff’s top arrangers and producers. He’d also form a successful songwriting partnership with Cynthia Biggs, and played keyboards and synths on many of Philadelphia International’s post 1975 releases. Soon, Gamble and Huff realized just how talented Dexter Wansel was and in 1976, signed him as a solo artist. He would go on to release four innovative and groundbreaking albums. These albums were quite unlike anything else Philadelphia International Records was releasing and as a result, divided opinion. His debut album was 1976s the groundbreaking Life On Mars which reached number forty-four in the US R&B Charts. 1977s What the World Coming To reached number 168 in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-five in the US R&B Charts.  A year later, in 1978 Dexter released Voyager, his third solo album. Voyager saw Dexter Wansel continue his innovative and imaginative journey, where he fuses funk, Philly soul and jazz-funk. Would Voyager see Dexter Wansel make his commercial breakthrough or would he continue to be Philadelphia International Records’ nearly man?

For his third album Voyager, Dexter wrote two tracks, I Just Want To Love You and Time Is the Teacher. He cowrote four of other five tracks, Solutions and I’m In Love with his regular songwriting partner Cynthia Biggs. Dexter cowrote All Night Long with Derrick Graves, who wrote and arranged Latin Love(Let Me Know). Together with Dexter and Derrick cowrote the title-track Voyager with Steve Goldstein, Herb Smith, Lemuel Harper, Billy Johnson and George Howard. While Dexter produced the seven tracks on Voyager, and arranged four tracks and arranged All Night Long with George Howard and Jack Faith arranged I’m In Love. The seven tracks that comprise Voyager would be recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.

Dexter Wansel sang lead vocals and played Fender Rhodes and electric piano on Voyager. He was accompanied by M.F.S.B. Mk 2.  By 1978, it was a very different, almost unrecognizable lineup of M.F.S.B. Gone were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, replaced by bassist Derrick Graves, guitarist Herb Smith and drummer Billy Johnson, who also added temple bells. Steve Gold played Baldwin grand piano and Mini Moog, and George Howard tenor and soprano saxophones. Among the familiar faces were conga player Larry Washington and Don Renaldo’s strings and horns. Adding backing vocals were Terri Wells and legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts, Barbara Ingram, Evette Benton and Carla Benson. 

Before Voyager was released in 1978, All Night Long was released as a single, but failed to chart. Things improved when Voyager reached number 139 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-seven in the US R&B Charts. The Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs penned Solutions was then released as a single, reaching number eighty-seven in the US R&B Charts. Voyager proved to be Dexter’s most successful album, but why was that? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on Voyager?

Opening Voyager is the lead single All Night Long, which Dexter and Derrick Graves cowrote. On its release as a single, It failed to chart. Stabs of squelchy and buzzing synths open the track, before exploding when the driving rhythm section enter. They’re joined by blazing horns, cascading strings and keyboards. Soon, the track heads in the direction of funk. Dexter’s vocal is a sassy growl, as a pounding, funky bass and guitars join the myriad of horns, strings and banks of synths and keyboards. Tender, gentle backing vocals accompany Dexter’s vocal. Later, Herb Smith lays down one of the best guitar solos on Voyager, as this uptempo slice of catchy 21st Century funk unfolds.

Solutions is the first of two Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs penned tracks, and was the second single released from Voyager. Dexter’s innovative side comes to the fore as he replicates the crackling sound of a radio being tuned before the track reveals its secrets. The arrangement sees Dexter impassioned vocal, accompanied by a bass synth while a myriad of synths and keyboards fill out the arrangement. As the arrangement meanders along, the track’s social message is interspersed with snippets of radio news. They detail worlds ills, while Dexter sings about Solutions. On the face of it, it’s a pleasant enough song, with a radio-friendly sound, but listen carefully and to quote The O’Jays there’s a “Message In The Music.” 

The title-track Voyager sees Dexter take the album in the direction of jazz-fusion. This eight-minute track has a tougher, harder sound than much of Dexter’s music, with the track heading in the direction Mahavishnu Orchestra. When the track opens, it’s bold, dramatic and even grandiose. It’s the rhythm section that drive the track along, with a pounding, slap bass, searing guitars and drums combining. Bouncy, melodic keyboards and growling, rasping horns combine, as Dexter and his band showcase their considerable talents. Jazz, funk and rock music are combined, as a dramatic, and sometimes, space age sounding track reveals its secrets and subtleties. Sometimes, you wonder what direction the track is heading? By the end of the track, you can only marvel at the combined talents of the band, and realise that Dexter Wansel, was seeking to innovate, explore and push the musical boundaries.

I Just Want To Love You is one of two tracks Dexter wrote, and sees a return to the funk of All Night Young. The track sounds like something Prince was producing a decade later and being called an innovator. Maybe Dexter was ahead of his time? He certainly influenced a generation of artists including Andre Cymone and Prince. As drums pound relentlessly, swathes of synths and keyboards combine with Dexter’s vocal, which sounds uncannily like Prince’s. Later, in the track, Dexter’s vocal grows in power and passion, becoming a sassy vamp. The finishing touch is a searing, sizzling guitar solo, which weaves its way across the arrangement, an arrangement that like Dexter, was way ahead of its time. 

Time Is The Teacher sees another change in style, with the track heading in the direction of jazz, with diversions into jazz funk and smooth jazz. Key to the track’s sound and success is George Howard’s saxophone, that veers between tenderm, subtle and thoughtful to powerful and dramatic. It’s accompanied by lush strings, percussion, keyboards and sometimes, an uber funky rhythm section. During the track, Dexter fuses everything from rocky guitars, plus elements of jazz funk, smooth jazz and classical music. In doing so, Dexter and M.F.S.B. create one of the best tracks on Voyager.

Derrick Graves wrote and arranged Latin Love (Let Me Know). From the get-go, the track is best described as space-age funk. M.F.S.B.’s rhythm section, including bassist Derrick Graves and guitarist Herb Smith are key to the track’s sound. Billy Johnson’s drums provide the track’s heartbeat, while Derrick’s bass playing is spacious and funky and Herb’s guitar playing dynamic, energetic and rock-tinged. Banks of synths and keyboards are joined by bursts of punchy, blazing horns, but it’s three men that prove crucial in the tracks’s success, Herb Smith, Derrick Graves and Dexter Wansel. They’re key to the track’s space-age, funky sound.

Closing Voyager is I’m In Love which Dexter cowrote with Cynthia Biggs. It’s the most Philly sounding track on Voyager, with Cynthia Biggs’ piano accompanying Dexter’s emotive, impassioned vocal. The Sweethearts of Sigma add tight, heartfelt harmonies, while the lushest of strings, rasping horns and a thoughtful rhythm section combine to create a beautiful backdrop. Ironically, what is the most Philly sounding track on Voyager, is also the best one, and is the perfect way to close Voyager.

Voyager, Dexter Wansel’s third albums sees Dexter flitting between, and fusing a variety of musical genres over seven tracks. From the opening track, All Night Long, with its 21st Century funky sound, which he revisits on Latin Love (Let Me Know), Dexter heads towards a tougher jazz-fusion sound on the title-track Voyager. In between there’s the radio-friendly sound of Solutions, while on I Just Want To Love You, Dexter creates a template for artists like Prince and Andre Cymone. This track demonstrates how innovative and imaginative Dexter Wansel was as an artist, and how far ahead of his time he was. Of the other two tracks, Time Is The Teacher sees Dexter fuse smooth jazz and jazz funk, while I’m In Love, which closes Voyager, is the only Philly sounding track on Voyager. Given how eclectic Voyager is, that could also be part of the album’s problem. 

Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what was coming next on a Dexter Wansel album. It could be anything from Philly Soul, jazz-fusion, smooth jazz or funk. That was the case on Voyager. Whereas most of Philadelphia International Records’ other releases could be categorized, you couldn’t pigeonhole Dexter’s music. After all, what would you refer to it as? It’s neither funk, nor soul, or even jazz. Indeed, Dexter’s four albums for Philadelphia International Records were quite unlike anything else on the label. Maybe it would’ve been better if Gamble and Huff had released the albums on a subsidiary label, like other labels did? By releasing Dexter’s music on Philadelphia International Records, it maybe confused people. They were used to Philadelphia International releasing soul and funk music, but Dexter’s music was very different to the labels other releases. 

Another problem with Voyager’s eclectic nature means it doesn’t come across as a cohesive album. The constant change in style of music sometimes jars, even though most of the tracks work. Apart from Solutions, which comes across as somewhat lightweight, even with “The Message In the Music” the other six tracks work. The other six tracks on Voyager demonstrate that Dexter Wansel was innovative, imaginative and way ahead of his time. Sadly, people neither understood nor appreciated his music in the late seventies. It was only when a new generation of music lovers and producers discovered Dexter Wansel’s albums, including Voyager, that people realized just how talented Dexter was and that he was something of musical visionary, whose talents were under-appreciated. Sadly, by then Dexter Wansel had retired from music, and albums like Voyager were a reminder of  a musical visionary way ahead of his time. Standout Tracks: All Night Long, Voyager, Latin Love (Let Me Know) and I’m In Love.

DEXTER WANSEL-VOYAGER.

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