D’Angelo, the J.D. Salinger of soul music, has produced two full albums in 17 years. The mere hint of new tracks at recent performances in Holland and the UK gets the internet twinkling with anticipation. Let’s make a comparison, take Maze featuring Frankie Beverly who between 1977 and 1993 produced 8 studio albums and two absolutely classic live albums, both of which contained 4 new tracks. Productivity vs. brooding artistry?
Let us delve deeper though, for the real sadness is, I feel, not in the indulgent laziness of D’Angelo but in the abrupt and brutal decision by Frankie Beverly not to record new music after Warner Brothers remixed a track from Maze’s final album ‘Back to Basics’ without Beverly’s permission. This principled stand has stood for nearly twenty years, with the exception of one track on ‘The Brothers’ soundtrack album in 2001. The twist in this tale is that Maze are still one of the biggest live acts in soul music and frequently tour with successful artists who are still releasing new material and reaching a new audience. No retirement, no retreat to the Bay Area of San Francisco running a nice little bar, no shift to song writing and production for other artists. Maze, with The Isley Brothers, one of the greatest soul music bands of all time, are still enthralling live audiences nearly twenty years after they made a full studio album.
If that brings ‘Happy Feelings’ to quote one of their great jazzy, summer classics then all well and good but for me it feels desperately sad and frustrating. Why? Because Frankie Beverly is one of the best songwriters in soul music and his band possess a unique sound that blasts vitamin D and warmth out of the radio. Not enough? Beverly is also one of the great soul vocalists, a fragile, whispering voice that is somewhere between Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross. His voice does not have the range or dexterity of those singers but when placed against the wonderfully individual sound of his band, it weaves a dreamy path through some brilliant songs and grooves.
Famously, Marvin Gaye took Frankie Beverly and his band on tour, suggested a change in name (previously they were The Butlers and Raw Soul) and then facilitated a deal with Capitol records in 1977. Listening to their debut album, the self titled “Maze featuring Frankie Beverly’ is to be drawn immediately into the sunshine soul of the band. No string sections, occasional horns, mainly an organic, live band feel with guitars and keyboard breaks to provide a brilliantly laid back context for Beverly’s voice. The ballads are impassioned, the mid-tempo tunes perfect radio material and the funk is melodic and lacks the overwrought machismo of some of the other funk bands who were successful at the time. This debut album also contains a remake of one of a Raw Soul tune, ‘While I’m Alone’ which is one of the most perfect soul records and should be played during any late summer evening when the sun is dropping and the first chills of Autumn are descending. A guitar led, dancer whose lyric should be sad but whose spirit is deliriously uplifting.
There followed a series of albums that have become iconic in soul music. All combined some legendary dance floor anthems with some wistful and moving ballads and all had that unique Maze sound. In England the band become a cult and the title track of their 1980, fourth album, ‘Joy and Pain’ became the hymn of the soul weekender scene and all night soul parties. The song became a signifier for a certain patronising cliché of the soul music fan, furry dice at the front of a souped up Ford saloon, white socks and an oily slick demeanour. What better anthem for the British soul scene, a scene where hard working people find a release in the transcendent joy of beautiful music? A simple synthesiser melody builds up to a chorus that sums up not only the ups and downs of a long term relationship but the struggles of making enough money to thrive in difficult times. Eerily the song feels like it could have been written for our current recession, the knife edge that separates ‘joy and pain’. Many prefer the 9 minute live version on the classic ‘Live in New Orleans’ double album and it is undoubtedly one of the great live albums and live performances.
Some of the band’s more upbeat funk tunes have dated and although one can still love their exuberance, the repetitious refrains no longer sound as fresh as they once did. Yet I’d implore that we revisit the band’s work for two reasons, firstly the superb song writing that underpins their ballads and mid-tempo tunes and secondly the tragedy of a self-contained band that could thrive in the new world of self-distributed, independent soul retiring from recording.
If you don’t own any Maze work go online and pick up the compilation ‘Greatest Slow Jams’. Don’t be fooled by the title, many of the tracks are just below mid-tempo and some are even soul steppers. All are glorious. From the delicate vulnerability of ‘When You Love Someone’ to the uplifting unity declared in ‘We Are One’. If you’ve never heard a Maze song maybe start with ‘Lovely Inspiration’, it’s simplicity and optimism might fool you into dismissing it as merely a charming love song but it has such energy, wait for the moment when Frankie Beverly bursts forth after the organ and guitar introduction and like a bottle of Californian sparkling wine the track cries out for a summer’s evening with your beloved.
If the collection gives you a taste for the good stuff, my favourite of their albums is ‘Can’t Stop The Love’, their last full studio album for Capitol and consistently strong all the way through. The mid-tempo ‘I Want To Feel That I’m Wanted’ and ‘Magic’ are worth the price of entry alone, both could work on the dance floor but if you’ve got a cabriolet or a mate with one, wait for that rare sign of the sun and go for a drive into the country with them playing. The grooves are laid back but the musicianship, song writing and of course Beverly’s vocal are tightly produced and easy to underestimate such is the overall quality.
Soul music is now a much-loved niche of the musical world and many of our artists produce and distribute their work via the internet to a dedicated audience. The days when even the smallest independent label could add strings and horns to their productions have long gone and a smaller live band feel is now prevalent amongst the best of the emerging online soul stars. What better time for a self-contained group, who never used the sweeteners of strings and horns, to release some new material to their almost obsessive fans and to two new generations of soul fans? The Maze covers album showed just how well the new generation connected with the band’s work. If D’Angelo finally releases album number 3 I’ll raise an eyebrow and wait to see whether it actually contains any songs (or if Raphael Saadiq is involved). Imagine reading the message that revealed there was a new Maze album? Bring in the conciliation services, cease the industrial action, life is short and twenty years is too long to underline the right of an artist to influence their work. Frankie, we agree with you and the very best way of demonstrating your victory is to get back in the studio and simmer up some Maze magic.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch with James via Twitter, @jreldon.