Friday, September 7, 2012

The live Donny Hathaway, back in circulation

Posted By on 09.07.12 at 05:12 PM

The fame and influence of Chicago soul singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger Donny Hathaway seems to have grown exponentially since his suicide in 1979 at age 33. He only made three solo albums in his brief career, all between 1970 and '73 (he did most of his work behind the scenes, for other people), but that music was far ahead of its time and remains incredibly powerful. His gospel-jazz vocal style opened the way for Luther Vandross and a million subsequent slow-jam singers, though most of them have never approached his outsize talent, artistic discipline, or good taste.

Hathaway's two remarkable live albums (Live from 1972 and In Performance from 1980) showcase his improvisational abilities better than his meticulous studio recordings, and most of the tracks on both were cut with a killer band—guitarists Phil Upchurch and Mike Howard, bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Fred White, and conga player Earl DeRouen—that really stretches out and grooves in a way that makes me suspect they operated like a jazz ensemble onstage. Earlier this summer Shout Factory! packaged both albums together as Live + In Performance, which is as good a reason as any to revisit them. Each includes only a few of Hathaway's originals, but he managed to make the eclectic array of covers—which includes John Lennon's "A Jealous Guy" and Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black"—all his own. In that spirit I'm including his knockout version of the Marvin Gaye classic "What's Going On"; the original was a massive hit in 1971, the year before Live was made. It's kind of unfortunate that this reissue doesn't contain the bonus tracks that surfaced on These Songs for You Live (a single-disc anthology of the two live albums from 2004), but I won't split hairs.

Today's playlist:

John Escreet, The Age We Live In (Mythology)
João Lencastre's Communion, Sound It Out (Tone of a Pitch)
Various artists, Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso 1974-1979 (Analog Africa)
Karina Buhr, Longe de Onde (Coqueiro Verde)
Gregory Tardy, Monuments (Steeplechase)

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