Friday, December 18, 2015

Leon Thomas - 1973 - Full Circle

Leon Thomas 
Full Circle

01. Sweet Little Angel   
02. Just In Time To See The Sun   
03. It's My Life I'm Fighting For   
04. Never Let Me Go   
05. I Wanna Be Where You Are   
06. Got To Be There   
07. Balance Of Life (Peace Of Mind)   
08. You Are The Sunshine Of My Life   
09. What Are We Gonna Do?   

Leon Thomas: vocals, maracas, writer
Glenn Osser: arranger, conductor
Neal Creque: piano, electric piano, writer
Richard Davis: bass
Joe Beck: electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Lloyd Davis: electric guitar
Pretty Purdie: drums
Herbie Lovelle: drums
Jimmy Owens: trumpet, flugelhorn
Pee Wee Ellis: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Joe Farrell: tenor saxophone, flute
Sonny Morgan: percussion, berimbau
Richard "Pablo" Landrum: percussion, bata
Leo Kahn: violin
Gene Orloff: violin
Joe Malignaggi: violin
Raoul Poliakin: violin
Emanuel Green: violin
David Nadien: violin
Richard Dickler: viola
Cal Fleisig: viola
Anthony Sophos: cello
Alan Shulman: cello
Tasha Thomas: backing vocals
Carl Hall: backing vocals

This is probably one of Leon Thomas' lesser-known albums, and I can see why.  Not that it's bad, it just completely bizarre by virtue of its utter normality.  Putting this album the first was a jarring experience for me, because I would never have envisioned the singer I know through Pharaoh Sanders band - the guy who innovated "jazz yodeling" as a technique all his own -- covering songs from B.B. King, Santana, The Jacksons, and Joe Scott (writer of "Never Let Me Go" and also responsible for the classic "Turn On Your Love Light.")  The title of the album, Full Circle, might indicate a return to R&B and soul-music roots for Thomas.  The album cover, which has him pimped out in bad-ass blaxploitation-soundtrack garb, does nothing to clarify this mysterious record. 

The first time I played it, I thought it was a confused, incoherent mess of songs.  It probably still is that, but over time I've come to enjoy it quite a bit for what it is.  According to Discogs database, there were two versions released in quick succession with different track running order -- according to this, I have the second of those two.  They also seem to have been issued in the same year -- it seems like maybe Flying Dutchman also didn't know how to market this stylistic jumble of tunes and tried messing around with them.  I would be curious to hear from somebody who has the other version, as I have one major gripe with the mix on some tunes: the songs that have strings have the strings mixed WAY too loud, overpowering everything else.

The album leads off with "Sweet Little Angel", which oddly enough seems to have been the most played track on my copy if the surface noise is any evidence -- I am thinking "college radio DJ at a southern university where they like their black men playing unthreatening, beaten-to-death blues standards...".  It's not terribly, but its not terribly convincing.  Thomas makes an okay blues singer.  The next tune, a cover of Santana's "Just In Time to See The Sun" is actually quite good, with no attempt to "rock" but instead given a full soul-jazz latin-tinged treatment with Pee Wee Ellis on sax.  So far, things are getting better.  The next song is the first original tune and one of the highlights of the album for people who have followed and admired the rest of Leon's career.  "It's My Life I'm Fighting For", written by keyboardist Neil Creque, is driven by his Rhodes electric piano, its ten minutes of a soulful jam with `free` elements and, FINALLY some jazz yodeling!  I never thought Thomas' jazz yodel would sound so welcome to my ears.  Herbie Lovell on the drums on this track really keeps things going, with great riffing from Joe Farrell on flute, solos by Creque and Jimmy Owens that keep this solidly chugging along.  The song is then inexplicably followed by old-school R&B ballad "Never Let Me Go".... the word "buzzkill" comes to mind.  Leon redeems himself with "I Want To Be Where You Are," a Jackson 5 tune that seems to have been in vogue with soul-jazzers in the early 70s: Gary Bartz also released an instrumental version around this time where he went all modal on its ass.  Here, this is easily the most successful of the cover tunes on the albums, slowed down a notch, augmented with some choice Muscle Shoals slide guitar courtesy of Joe Beck, punchy trumpet from Farrell, and Leon just can't help himself -- he lets rip a few JAZZ YODELS here and there on the chorus.  But they only last for a couple of seconds, as if he remembers suddenly that he is supposed to be a soul music balladeer on this song and must restrain his urges.  Flip the LP over, and another Jackson-related tune, "Got To Be There", is a huge disappointment, with Leon just taking it on as a straight interpretation with nothing particularly remarkable about it.  "Balance of Life (Peace of Mind)" is another original tune and brings us back to more familiar Leon Thomas territory.   Opening with the Brazilian instrument, the berimbau, accompanied by other urgent percussion that seemlessly gives way to a mellow jam led by Creque's electric pianoa and congas by Pabldo Landrum and Sonny Morgan, it keeps the groove going for 7 minutes with a full-on percussion jam in the middle.  Then, once more, the album shifts gears for a basically pointless reading of Stevie Wonders "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life".  It is almost a novelty song for its straightness, getting slightly trippy towards the end.  The album closes with the somber and soulful "What Are We Gonna Do?" which is just Thomas on vocal and Neil Creque on acoustic piano.  A meditation on ecology, peace, love, and violence, its a beautiful tune, reminding me of all the reasons to love Leon Thomas in the first place. 

Perhaps this album was meant to `prove` that Leon Thomas could have been a huge figure in straight soul and rhythm and blues, which he probably could have been if he felt inclined.  But the album is indeed a weird jumble.  The three original tunes are the best here, followed by "I Want To Be Where You Are" and "Just In Time To See The Sun."ed.

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