It’s sometimes fashionable for ‘old school’ music lovers to dismiss contemporary artists with a quick shrug insisting, per Ashford & Simpson, ‘ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.’ But every once in a great while we hear a CD that is a reminder that ‘neo-soul’ or ‘retro-soul’ or whatever term is fashionable to use actually has some great purveyors. Such is the case with Maryland native Marlon Saunders, the multi-talented singer/songwriter and musician known among those in the know as the lead singer of Jazzhole and member of Bobby McFerrin’s “Voicestra.” Marlon’s “A Groove So Deep: The Live Sessions” (released last fall) is a fine piece of work, from his remake of the Rose Royce ‘70s classic, “I Wanna Get Next To You” to original tunes like his “Afro Blue My Mind” and the album’s title cut with its wonderful vocal nod to Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover.”
Four of the thirteen tracks on Marlon’s sophomore CD are actually ‘live-in-the-studio’ versions of songs on “Enter My Mind” cut with his band, Mood Control before an invited audience. Marlon explains, “I wanted to capture the band and the music we’ve been doing after being on the road for the past year-and-a-half. We found ourselves stretching the music out in live performances. There was a different interpretation as we lived with and through the songs. I wanted to do a ‘live‘ record but not at a club. We cut it like a lot of (older) jazz records where it’s an organic experience and the inspiration came from conversations I would have with (keyboardist) Joe Scott. We talked about how, during rehearsals, we would often go to beautiful [spontaneous] musical places and the idea of that stuck in my head when I was thinking about what the second album should be.”
Drawn from over fourteen hours of recorded material, “A Groove So Deep: The Live Sessions” received “a really good response. I think it shows that people are ready to hear things that are live again, that they like the organic quality of what we did. Of course, when you record like this and do something live in the studio, you’re never going to be sure how it will go but I am excited that really is live…” One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the album is the generous use of imagnative background parts done with the kind of harmony associated with some of the wonderful recordings of artists like the late Sylvester who employed gospel-flavored licks and runs to great effect on his albums. That’s not entirely surprising when you consider that Marlon’s own entry into the music biz came through session work. “As a kid, I grew up looking at the credits on my favorite records,” he explains. “I would see names like Tawatha (Agee), Lani Groves, Fonzi Thornton and Ullanda McCullough. The same people would keep occuring on albums like Quincy Jones’ “Stuff Like That,” Chic’s records, the Roberta Flack/Peabo Bryson ‘live’ album, records by Change, Ashford & Simpson… I enjoyed the harmonies: in fact, as someone who grew up playing instruments, I found the harmonies mind-blowing. They were so sophisticated, weaving through the air the way saxophones do in big bands. Then I found out that was how these singers made a living – and that great artists like Luther and Marvin Gaye had launched their careers this way. I remember when I met Tawatha on a session…it was a big deal to me!”
While it didn’t happen overnight, Marlon broke into jingle singing “doing a Miller (beer) campaign which was followed by a Miller Lite campaign…when they were looking for a new black R&B singer! I did many tapes before I got the gig but by 1992, I was doing jingles and background session work and helped financially. In fact, I still do jingles – I did one for Oscar Meyer franks – and other background sessions but it’s not the same as it was. Nowadays, the music is already recorded and by 1998, the jingle and session scene started to change. Session work was not as busy as it was before back when you could two or three jobs a day. It dwindled down to where you might be doing just one. It changed…”
Over the years, Marlon’s name appeared on albums by Sting, Billy Joel, Shawn Colvin and Martha Wash and he’s sung with a diverse range of artists that Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Nine Inch Nails and of course, Bobby McFerrin – as a member of his famed Voicestra. While still serving as a professor at the acclaimed Berklee School Of Music (also Lalah Hathaway’s alma mater), Marlon began singing, writing and producing with the renowned acid jazz band Jazzhole in 1994 working with partner Warren Rosenstein. In all, the duo cut three albums as Jazzhole with a number of guest artists appearing on the records: inevitably, Marlon’s lead vocals on the critically-acclaimed trio of CDs led to the question: “When I would do interviews, people would always ask, ‘When are you going to do a solo record?’ Then, on the road with Bobby (McFerrin), I said if I ever did the solo thing, I would incorporate that sort of musical flow. I said to myself, ‘Let me go ahead and try it.’ Doing all the session work meant I had out away some money and I knew what it took to make a solo record. I totally thought it out and when I needed to, I’d come back and hustle some session work so I could finish the record…”
The result, the 2003 album, “Enter My Mind” : “We just thought if we could make a little noise, we’d be o.k.,” Marlon recalls. “We knew there would be a time when we would need to hit the road and traveling on the road can be costly – especially when you take keyboards, drums, bass and background vocals!” Gigs in the U.K., Sweden, East Coast cities like New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and shows in the South (“Alabama, the Carolinas”) definitely helped get the word out about Marlon’s album and it didn’t hurt that the members of his band, Mood Control are seasoned musicians whose collective credits included work with a diverse range of artists from Dizzy Gillespie to MeShell NdegeOcello and Brian McKnight.
All of which led to “A Groove So Deep,” which sizzles with soulful spontaneity. Check “I Wanna Get Next To You,” which Marlon states “was cut after I was watching the movie ‘Car Wash’ (which features the song) at home. I knew it was a good song: I talked to my musical director, Carl Carter and we played around with it and came up with this down tempo version of it. Then, “Keep Doin’ What Ya Do,” which was on the first record, we changed the feel…it was like a magical moment for all of us. And using that “Love Hangover” line with “A Groove So Deep”? I was demo-ing the song and I felt it would be great to use it in the beginning of the song. A lot of people recognize it immediately and they jump when they hear it on “A Groove So Deep”!”
That was certainly my own reaction when I first heard it and no question, it was something that made my ears perk up, leading to our albeit-a-little-truncated chat! Since the album’s 2005 fall release, Marlon’s been doing some dates but a lot of his time and energy has been directed to the world premiere of his original jazz composition, “Workin’ on a Building.” More than an innovative composition, “Workin’ on a Building” is a musical and cinematographic journey through slavery and the complexities of race on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and more broadly, a meditation on the Black experience in America. In addition to the live performance by Marlon and his band, the program also includes the screening of “Papa’s Branch,” a documentary created especially for “Workin’ on a Building,” in which Marlon uses the story of his own family—and especially his great-great-grandfather, “Papa” Albert James Walker—to reflect on the importance of honoring the deep roots which continue to give us a firm foundation. There are plans for performances throughout the U.S. following its’ February 2006 premiere.
And as if that weren’t enough, there will be a new Jazzhole album featuring Marlon entitled “Poet’s Walk,” initially being issued in the U.K. on Soul Brother Records before its’ U.S. release in the spring. Clearly, this multi-talented man has learned one of the most important and valuable lessons for survival in the music biz: always diversify and never rely on one area to sustain yourself. While he continues to branch out and put his many musical talents to full use, discerning record buyers can avail themselves of one of last year’s better releases by picking up a copy of Marlon’s latest work. After all, it’s never too late for a groove this deep!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.