Picks and Pans Review: Back on the Block
updated 01/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
The extraordinarily uneven nature of this all-star album may be accounted for by the fact that Jones has been working on it for 10 years. But he has gotten sidetracked by such projects as producing albums for Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra and writing the music for (and co-producing) the film The Color Purple, and he has only now completed what he calls "an autobiographical footprint."
The footprint is indistinct, which is not surprising considering how many people have been trampling around it. Among the performers on this album are Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, Sarah Vaughan, Take 6, Barry White, James Ingram, El DeBarge, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Melle Mel, Ice-T, Al B. Sure! and Al Jarreau, and the sound—even with the benefit of Jones's production—often resembles what you might get if you taped people milling around at a garage sale. (All right, maybe a talented-customers-only garage sale.)
The one track where Charles appears, sharing a lead vocal with Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You," is (for this album) typically formless; so is "The Places You Find Love," where Khan and Siedah Garrett do the lead.
Generally, Jones has chosen a remarkably routine singer, Garrett, to handle a lot of the leads and also picked a remarkably bland batch of songs, given his own musical sophistication and clout. A line in "The Secret Garden," which Jones co-wrote with Garrett, DeBarge and Rod Temperton, provides an idea of the level of inventiveness of the album: "I'll take good care of you That's what a man is supposed to do."
There are two exceptions—and exceptional pieces of music. One is "Wee B. Dooinit," in which a cappella stars McFerrin, Jarreau and Take 6—with an assist from Garrett, Fitzgerald and Vaughan—creature a human orchestra of strikingly deep dimensions. "Birdland," which beautifully achieves Jones's stated purpose of blending the musical influences of his era, mixes a rap introduction with a rendition of Joe Zawinul's "Bird-land" that gives Benson, Davis, Gillespie and saxophonist James Moody a chance to weigh in with jazz solos while Fitzgerald and Vaughan scat along with them.
Those two tracks generate lots of thoughts about what might have been (also questions about why neither Jackson nor Sinatra appear on what amounts to a testimonial album produced by the man they have both praised so often and so extravagantly). Better to dwell on that than what is—which is too often disappointing. (Qwest)