With a name like AB, the Cleveland native could easily be mistaken for an up and coming Midwest rapper rather than a soulful musician and vocalist. But that’s the point for AB: The singer/songwriter is one who does everything for a reason, and that also includes his rather different nom de plume. AB has built and impressive music resume over the years, working with such talents as Eric Roberson, Slum Village and The Foreign Exchange. But considering his impressive pedigree, it isn’t a surprise that AB has made significant strides in the neo-soul world.
Born Aaron Abernathy, AB is a relative of former civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy (thus, his stage name) and is a product of the same high school prep music program that produced Cleveland legend Gerald Levert. AB is also an alumnus of Howard University’s music program, which means he attended the same HBCU that produced music legends/icons Billy Eckstine, Donald Byrd, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Angela Winbush, Meshell Ndegeocello and Kenny Lattimore, among others.
While AB might have developed his talent in grade school and at Howard, he honed his skills serving as an understudy in Los Angeles for musician and super producer Terry Lewis, one half of the production team Jam and Lewis. A gifted keyboardist who is also proficient on acoustic guitar, AB puts his considerable skills to use in every aspect of music, whether it’s serving as the musical director for Slum Village and Black Milk, or singing background for The Foreign Exchange or producing for Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes). AB’s vocals, for the untrained ear, will take you straight to the world of D’Angelo, but upon closer listening you can hear his other influences like Prince and Stevie Wonder. He keeps his singing smooth, but never monotone, and most important, vocally, AB gives you something you can feel.
AB’s new project, Prologue, Vol. 1, is a four-song EP that also features two music interludes. The album gives a bit of something old and something now in a smooth and mellow neo-soulful package. The familiar cuts are are covers of Total’s “Kissing You” and the Shuggie Otis composition “Strawberry Letter 23” (famously covered in 1977 by the Brothers Johnson). AB creates an ethereal feel with the EP; the music is smooth with a heavy organic keyboard feel that’s reminiscent of neo-soul’s heyday in the late 1990’s. On “Kissing You,” AB goes a different direction from the Raphael Saadiq-produced original tune. AB keeps the song smooth, but the drum beat is a bit harder, giving the song a stronger hip-hop vibe. “Strawberry Letter 23” isn’t the psychedelic trip of Otis’s original, nor is it as funky as the Brothers Johnson cover, but the song does continue on the along AB’s organic lines with a slinky rhythm guitar thrown in for added flavor.
More interesting for listeners may be the new material on Prologue. “Everlasting Love” is a smooth song that stretches a bit more into AB’s mellow side. The coupe de gras of the EP, however, is “Sweetest Thing,” a six-minute odyssey into organic soul music experimentation through instrumentation. The song, a splendid mixture of vocals and musicianship, ebbs, flows and breaks down, only to build back up before concluding, a rarity in today’s soul and R&B music.
AB is clearly an artist who clearly understands and executes on a goal of making music and vocals that blend and ultimately intertwine harmoniously in order to create a specific sound. Prologue, Vol. 1 gives a look inside AB’s world, and gives insight into the mind of an artist who is intent on making timeless music. In today’s music world, where so many vocalists merely sing over beats instead of live instrumentation, AB is carving out a nice space for himself. His album and overall sonic approach provide old school values but with a distinctly modern twist. Recommended.
By Gabriel Rich