Kevin Mahogany – Pride & Joy

Kevin Mahogany
Pride & Joy

(Telarc – 2002)
by John Barrett

It was “The Sound of Young America”, tough yet elegant – a label that sold millions as it led the way to R&B’s Golden Age. Motown got much of its power from jazz, in its session musicians (Marcus Belgrave, Jack Brokensha) and its singers (Smokey Robinson was inspired by Sarah Vaughan). Kevin Mahogany returns the favor here, with this lavish tribute to the songs of his youth. With a gritty, full-throated voice, Kevin fits the Motown mold; he’s a cross between David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards (Ruffin’s replacement in the Temptations).

Gently he sizzles on “Pride and Joy”, rasping the words as Jon Faddis blows fire. All else is peaceful: pianist James Weidman hits a perpetual chord, with Dave Stryker’s guitar as a slinky garnish. It owes nothing to the original chart, creating a mood that’s pure jazz … and a pure joy.The arrangements, mostly by Stryker, stay away from the original versions; now you hear cool chords and breezy vamps. A lonely guitar wanders through “Tears of a Clown”, sketching the tune in faint outlines. Kevin coos, the instrument weeps … it sounds like James Taylor, which is most unexpected. More forceful is “I Can’t Get Next to You”, where Stryker does a chicken-scratch and the drums are rock-hard. Weidman goes everywhere, rolling boogie on the verses and dropping cocktail notes on the chorus. (Melissa Slocum plays the Tempts’ part, answering Kevin with a bomp from her bass.)

The singer is breathy and bleak on “My World Is Empty Without You” (Slocum does the original organ riff, then leaps high for her solo) and lilts on “Never Can Say Goodbye”, with a good bossa bounce. Faddis blows some warm anguish on “She’s Out of My Life”; if you think Michael Jackson is lightweight music, you gotta hear this lyric. Kevin is placid, resigned, and very hurt – few performances are more real than this. Weidman is flippant on “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”; Stryker helps with Montgomery octaves. The songs sparkle, the background glitters, and the voice of Mahogany rises like a cozy fire. It’s a perfect match, and then some.

As a change of pace, two tracks have Kevin as the lead of a vocal quintet, arranged in the style of Take 6. They scat the surroundings to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, with each note embellished as they go on. Tempos and timbres change often – of you ask me, it’s too fancy for the song. (Motown was about artifice, but was also direct in its emotion.)

“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is a vast improvement: the singers scat fast as Kevin does his best Levi Stubbs (and that ain’t bad). On this track, doo-wop meets the present age with electrifying results. You must hear it to believe it, a sentiment that applies to the whole album. The Motown Sound was once described by Berry Gordy as “rats, roaches, and love”. The first two are absent here, but there is love in abundance.