Gene Russell-Talk To My Lady.

Label: Real Gone Music.

Format: CD.

Release Date: ‘5th’ March 2021.

As 1973 dawned, LA-based Black Jazz Records had already released nine albums since 1971. Its first release was Gene Russell’s critically acclaimed sophomore album New Direction. However, another two years passed before the LA-born pianist returned with the followup. 

Gene Russell spent the spent the rest of 1971 and all of 1972 running the label as well recording and producing albums for the artists who had signed to Black Jazz Records. This left little time for him to write and record a new solo album. He had to sacrifice his solo career for the good of the label he cofounded in 1969.

Pianist Gene Russell and percussionist Dick Schory cofounded Black Jazz Records in Oakland, California, in 1969, and the nascent label’s raison d’être was “to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers.” This, however, was only part of their vision for their new label.

The cofounders were determined that Black Jazz Records would released an alternative to what they saw as the old school jazz that was popular at the time. They wanted to release an alternative to traditional jazz, and this included albums that featured political and spiritual influenced music. However, spiritual jazz was just part of the Black Jazz Records’ story. The label released twenty albums that included everything from free jazz and funk to soul-jazz between 1971 and 1975.

After Gene Russell’s New Direction became Black Jazz Records first release in 1971, the nascent label released  Walter Bishop Jr’s Coral Keys, Doug Carn’s Infant Eye, Rudolph Johnson’s Spring Rain, Calvin Keys’ Shawn-Neeq and Chester Thompson’s Powerhouse. It was the final release of 1971. By then, word had spread about Black Jazz Records and its musical philosophy

The cofounders were determined that as wide an audience as possible hear the albums that the label was releasing. Gene Russell decided that one way to do this was to organise a promotional tour. 

In September 1971, Gene Russell and his Ray Lawrence who was his marketing consultant toured America giving interviews to newspaper journalists and featured on radio and newspaper where they showcased Black Jazz Records and its artists. This resulted in valuable publicity for the label.

By then, other labels looked on enviously at the new label and artists were keen to sign to Black Jazz Records. This was no surprise.

Cofounder Dick Schory had founded Chicago-based Ovation Records which was a successful country and western label. It was providing funding for Black Jazz Records and distributing its releases. This gave the label a much needed helping hand and meant it had an edge on its competitors.

Having released six albums during 1971, the first album that Black Jazz Records released during 1972 was Henry Franklin’s cult classic The Skipper. This was followed by Doug Carn’s second album for the label Spirit Of The New Land, which was the most successful album the label released during 1972. The final release of the year was The Awakening’s Hear, Sense and Feel. 

While 1972 wasn’t as a busy as the previous year, the three albums that Black Jazz Records released were well received by critics and cultural commentators. The releases were also starting to find a wider audience. This was another reason why artists were keen to sign to the label.

However, it wasn’t a new signing that released Black Jazz Records’ tenth release. Instead, it was cofounder Gene Russell who returned with his second album for the label, Talk To My Lady.

Despite his busy schedule, Gene Russell had written Talk To My Lady, Get Down and Blues Suite. The other five tracks were cover versions. This included a cover of the Billy Paul classic Me and Mrs Jones which Cary Gilbert wrote with Gamble and Huff. It was joined by Donald Meyer, Elise Bretton and Sherman Edwards’ For Heaven’s Sake; Stevie Wonders’ You Are The Sunshine Of My Life; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things plus Carl Sigman and Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. These eight tracks became Talk To My Lady which was Gene Russell’s much-anticipated followup to New Direction.

Recording of Talk To My Lady took place at Hollywood Spectrum Studios, Los Angeles, with Gene Russell producing the album and playing Fender Rhodes and a Steinway piano. He was joined in the rhythm section by drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, bassist Henry Franklin and guitarist Calvin Keys. Eddie Gee played tambourine and Charles Weaver congas on an album that was a mixture of new material and familiar songs.

Talk To My Lady was released to critical acclaim in 1973. Critics were won over by an album that featured elements of blues,  funk, fusion, hard bop, jazz, jazz-funk and soul-jazz. Accompanied by a tight, talented and versatile band, Gene Russell switches between and fuses disparate musical genres. 

That’s apparent on the album opener and title-track Song For My Lady where elements of funk, fusion and hard bop are combined by Gene Russell and his band. Leon “Ndugu” Chancler’s drumming is complex but subtle and soon, the track swings. By then, he’s been joined by bassist Henry Franklin and the pair form a potent partnership in the rhythm section. Meanwhile, Gene Russell plays a starring role as his fly across the keyboard of Fender Rhodes which later takes on a slinky sound. He seems to have been inspired by Herbie Hancock as he adds a fusion influence to this genre-melting title-track that sets the bar high for the rest of the album.

Covering a classic like Me and Mrs Jones is never easy as the definitive version has already been recorded. Instead, it’s a case of reinventing the song and taking it in a new direction. It opens with Calvin Keys’ guitar combining with Henry Franklin’s bass. He goes on to play a starring role and combines with drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler’s who like Calvin Keys doesn’t overplay. It’s a case of less is more. Meanwhile, Gene Russell’s Fender Rhodes takes centrestage and combines power, emotion and degree of drama on this beautiful, impassioned cover of a Philly Soul classic which gets a jazzy makeover.

For Heaven’s Sake was originally recorded in 1948, and a decade later was made famous by Billie Holliday. This cover is slow and understated with drums played by brushes accompanying Henry Franklin’s bass. He plays slowly and choosing each note with care while Gene Russell plays Fender Rhodes. His playing is expressive, emotive and heartfelt on a truly beautiful cover of an oft-covered track.

Earlier in 1973, Stevie Wonder had a hit single with You Are The Sunshine Of My Life. Gene Russell’s cover starts off as a shuffle but become an upbeat and joyous  track that has a cinematic sound. It sounds as if it belongs on the soundtrack to seventies film. 

It’s all change on Blues Suite which is a ballad where Gene Russell switches to the Steinway piano. Behind him, the rhythm section provide an understated accompaniment. Drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler plays with brushes while Henry Franklin resists the temptation to overplay. This allows him to enjoy a musical masterclass from Gene Russell who jabs and stabs the keyboard playing with power and passion on this bluesy ballad.

Very different is the cover of My Favorite Things which was the title of John Coltrane’s seventh album, and the first where he played soprano saxophone. It’s as if Gene Russell wants to pay homage to one of the most innovative musicians in the history of jazz. This cover bursts into life and quickly reveals an avant-garde sound. A space bass accompanies a shimmering Fender Rhodes which heads in the direction of fusion as drums power the arrangement along. What follows is groundbreaking avant-garde cover of a Rogers and Hammerstein’s much-covered track.

If You Could See Me Now closes Talk To My Lady and is narrated by Gene Russell. The piano-led arrangement accompanies his needy, hurt-filled soliloquy. It’s a mixture of a music and theatre and shows another side to bandleader, pianist and label owner Gene Russell. 

Talk To My Lady was the much-anticipated and critically acclaimed followup to New Direction which was the first release on Black Jazz Records. Two years laters, Gene Russell made a welcome return. He was backed by a crack band of musicians  when they recorded an album where new songs sat side-by-side with cover versions of classics and familiar songs. Some of these songs were reinterpreted and were taken in a new direction. To do that, Gene Russell and his band switch between and combine elements of avant-garde, blues funk, fusion, hard bop, jazz, jazz-funk and soul-jazz on an album that he also produced. 

The result was Talk To My Lady, which is one of the greatest and most eclectic albums of Gene Russell’s long career and a reminder of a pioneering musician who in 1973 was at the peak of his powers.

 Gene Russell-Talk To My Lady.

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