I'm for giving these guys (Rick Braun - trumpet, flugelhorn and valve trombone; Kirk Whalum - tenor sax and flute; Norman Brown - guitar) the comtemporary jazz album of the year award right now, on the second of July! Whenever they merge their exceptional talents as soul-jazzsters it's an event to be savored. The concept of transforming Michael Jackson's 1970-1988 songbook into jazz was undeniably clever from the start despite running the risk of some of the originals just being too indelible to approach from another direction. To wit: "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." On "Billie Jean" Rick Braun comes up with a brilliantly layered and fast-flowing arrangement that entrances for all of its six minutes. "Beat It" (another Braun arrangement) lays down a ska-beat percussion bed and is off to the races. There are just too many tremendous moments of soloing by these fine artists on this CD to even begin to single them out. Their solo "handoffs" are frequently spine-tingling, as are the interplay crescendos reached on nearly all of the songs here.
My personal favorites: a gorgeous "I'll Be There," chock-full of chills-inducing moments; Smokey Robinson's "Who's Lovin' You," the oldest song here (from 1960-61), done in a way that honors the sound of that period as black r & b/doo-wop was transitioning into soul; and a fragile and lovely "She's Out of My Life," which grows into something more powerful as it progresses. The title song features a warm and delicate vocal by Sheléa that serves as a beautiful tribute to Michael. I was dreading that "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" might turn out to be mere throwaway dance-funk filler, but instead it's transformed into exhilarating Latin jazz. There is, however, one comparatively weak track, and unfortunately it's in the leadoff position: "Another Part of Me." Despite nice playing by the BWB three, it just doesn't have the melodic heft to support or justify its five minutes. Thankfully, it's overwhelmed by the next ten tracks, allowing one to forget this initial minor misstep.
Sorely missing here are the beautifully melodic "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Michael's first solo hit, "Got to Be There," both from 1971. How about a follow-up collection of Motown songs, guys, containing these two? Please!