For most of the 1960s and into the early '70s, Detroit, better known as Motown or the Motor City, was the true music capital of America. Soul music was in -- and purveyed with great skill and grace by the likes of the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas and super-talent Stevie Wonder.
Two jazz vocalists have just released two very different recordings paying tribute to that splendid tradition.
Kevin Mahogany said he grew up with the Motown sound and never lost his love of it, even after his serious move into the top echelon of jazz vocalists.
"Some of Motown's earlier recordings had jazz musicians recording the backing tracks for some of the greatest R&B acts. Even though I started with jazz at an early age as an instrumentalist, I have always loved the sound of Motown music," he said.
"It was as deeply instilled in my heart as the jazz music that I had grown to love."
His newest album, his first for Telarc Jazz, is "Pride & Joy." It is a collection of Motown classic hits done in a jazz style. With varying combinations of sidemen, Mahogany tackled tunes written by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Barrett Strong, Clifton Davis and the great Motown songwriting team of Edward Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland, who together penned hit after hit for a wide variety of Motown artists including the Four Tops and the Supremes.
Mahogany's 11 tracks include Gaye's "Pride and Joy," the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye" from 1971, the Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There" and Robinson's clever "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game."
One of the great treats is a duet version with just Mahogany's voice and Dave Stryker's guitar wizardry on the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' hit "The Tears of a Clown," which Robinson co-wrote with Stevie Wonder and Henry Cosby.
Nnenna Freelon took a very different tack. She focused on one artist. Her latest Concord release, "Tales of Wonder," is a collection of her interpretations of 12 classic Stevie Wonder tunes.
"I wanted to reinterpret the music we grew up with, and choose material that was in my bones. Stevie's music is art. He has a way of writing so deeply. It takes the improvisational soul to look at these tunes in a different way and jazz allows us to do that."
From Wonder, who began his career as a Motown prodigy with voice and harmonica, she selected a wide variety of tunes. They include "Overjoyed," "Creepin'," "Lately," "Superstition," "The Tears of a Clown," "Black Orchid," "My Cherie Amour," "Bird of Beauty," "All in Love is Fair," "Send One Your Love," "Another Star" and "Until You Come Back To Me." "Send One Your Love" includes some delightful harmonica backing by Enrico Granafei.
It's a mixture of great, classic Wonder and some tunes that will be fresh discoveries for all but the most fervent Wonder fans, all performed in a breezy yet elegant style that has come to epitomize a Freelon session.
Besides Granafei, her band includes Gerry Niewood on flutes and saxophones, Ronnie Buttacavoli on trumpet, Brandon McCune on piano, organ and electric keyboards, Dave Samuels on vibraphone and marimba, Chuck Loeb on guitar, Gerald Veasley on bass, Woody Williams on drums, Bashiri Johnson on percussion and Jason Crosby and Andy Stein on violins.
Wonder will be remembered as one of the true powerhouse talents in American pop music, creating tune after tune that crossed artificial stylistic boundaries.
And Freelon shows us why he earned those credits in a most artful way.