CD review

Gene Russell – ‘Talk To My Lady’ (from 1973)

Gene Russell – Talk To My Lady
(Real Gone Music RGM-1188. Review by Chris Wheatley)

As we head into the third month of a very strange year, here is something interesting to perk you up: Gene Russell‘s 1973 album Talk To My Lady gets a welcome reissue on both CD and vinyl (appearing on the latter format for the first time since its initial release). Keyboardist Russell is best known for being at the helm of Black Jazz Records. That short-lived label, operating out of Oakland, California, issued 20 albums between the years 1971-1975. Russell operated with the admirable aim of promoting young black jazz talent at a time in which the music had arguably lost its way, alongside much of its popularity.

In-between acting as producer for all of Black Jazz’s releases, Russell cut two albums on the label himself. Talk To My Lady is the second of these. There’s an intriguing line-up here; alongside Russell on piano and Fender Rhodes, we have Henry Franklin (whose credits include time with Hugh Masekela) on bass, Calvin Keys (former Ahmad Jamal side-man) on guitar, and no less than Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler on drums. Chancler is of particular interest, his long list of recordings covering such diverse artists as Eddie Harris, Kenny Rogers, Santana and Michael Jackson. Charles Weaver and Eddie Gee provide congas and tambourine respectively.

Opener and title-track Talk To My Lady rolls with an off-kilter rhythm, smouldering nice and slow, before settling into a bouncing, playful groove. Russell’s keyboard playing here is both laid-back and thoughtful. Franklin’s bass walks with a deep, highly affecting stride. The group treads a fine line between straight-ahead melody and fractured, free-thinking exploration. Ndugu’s drums are a standout; he uses every bit of the kit to kick up a cloud of incandescent beats. Building from a fascinating bass-riff, follower Get Down does just that, with delightful wah-wah guitar, shimmering funk percussion and Russell’s lovely, floating keys.

The much-covered soul classic, Me And Mrs Jones, gets a cool, instrumental re-working, ambling along with splashes of fuzzy bass and gentle guitar strums. Ndugu’s crashing, tingling drums inject a restrained energy which ever threatens to boil over, counterpointing pleasingly with Russell’s relaxed approach. Another veteran song, For Heaven’s Sake, closes side one, a slow tempo, broiling affair, which neatly balances pathos with a certain edginess.

You Are The Sunshine Of My Life is treated to a calypso make-over, shuffling and gliding briskly. What could have been a throw-away is saved by the assembled players’ ability to conjure a nuanced, infectious rhythm, together with Russell’s light, but never ‘easy’ runs.

The Russell original, Blues Suite, is a stately wonder. Channelling the bitter-sweet ghosts of Beale Street and the Deep South, Russell and company sweat and exclaim with wry humour and invention. For Rodgers & Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, indelibly linked with John Coltrane in the jazz world, the group take a running, free-jazz inflected approach. Over five minutes of swinging, darting acrobatics, they pull it off with aplomb. For this reviewer it remains the album’s highlight.

On the closer, If You Could See Me Now, Russell narrates an ever-green tale of love-gone-wrong. With just voice and piano, it’s a charming track, and a fitting way to end this extremely enjoyable set.

LINKS: Talk To My Lady (Remastered Edition) at Real Gone Records
Background article about Real Gone / the remastering of the Black Jazz catalogue

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