From Jeffrey Osborne and Howard Hewett to Ray Parker, Jr. and James Ingram, some of the best pop soul singers of the 70s and 80s are finding a cool comfort zone in the smooth jazz world, where many of their fans enjoy a mix of soulful vocals and instrumentals. Regaling audiences with their parade of classic hits and solid new material, Osborne and Ingram have toured with Dave Koz and Parker and Hewett have hit the stage on Christmas tours with Brian Culbertson. The other great pop soul singer of this era, Michael McDonald, has also toured with Koz, and while exciting live audiences with his mix of Doobie Bros. hits and 80s solo tunes, he’s found a unique niche in this decade mining the R&B classics of his (and some of our) formative years.
2003’s Motown and 2004’s sequel Motown Two, McDonald’s two party-oriented albums celebrating the music that came from Berry Gordy’s musical empire, were out of the box smashes. The first hit #14 on The Billboard 200 while selling platinum and the second reached #9 while selling gold. The coolest part of his latest album Soul Speak is that, while with the exception of three strong original tracks he’s carrying on in the tradition of classic R&B covers, he’s not limited to the artists on a single label or era. So while his rousing jam sessions of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” and “For Once In My Life” would have been at home on one of the Motown discs, he moves ahead a decade to launch Soul Speak with a high energy spin on 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me” (a #1 duet for George Michael and Aretha Franklin).
The new collection rolls like a sampler of the some of the best R&B songs of all time, but McDonald digs deeper than he did on the Motown dates to show a vulnerable side via some moody, thoughtful and even sometimes spiritual work on “Love TKO” (Teddy Pendergrass), “Walk On By” (Dionne Warwick), “Into The Mystic” (Van Morrison), “Redemption Song” (Bob Marley) “You Don’t Know Me” (well known by its version by Ray Charles) and especially Leonard Cohen’s brilliant and melancholy “Hallelujah.” Sure there’s a few festive tracks in the mix that will bring to mind the Motown triumphs, most notably “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (Jackie Wilson), but McDonald’s overall aim seems to be to show these deeper shadings.
This holds true on his original tracks (which fit comfortably alongside the legendary songs) “Still Not Over You (Getting Over Me),” “Enemy Within” (which has an uptempo rock soul vibe but still explores the darker side of love) and the slow burning gospel number “Only God Can Help Me Now.” Taken as a whole, this generous 14-track collection functions as both a look back and a glimpse forward, a deep exploration of McDonald’s considerable artistry that’s as compelling as any of his recordings in his original pop heyday. More than likely, his Soul Speak will continue whether