Chester Gregory - In Search of High Love

Chester Gregory
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A Broadway baby with several esteemed theater credits, Tarzan's Chester Gregory swings into the indie soul scene with an impressive debut, In Search of High Love. Gregory offers listeners a solid set of smooth R&B and contemporary soul grooves with more than a few standout tracks. While there are the usual handful of quizzical choices that characterizes many indie debuts, Gregory has crafted an LP with enough attitude and modernity to beat that whispered curse plaguing many a divo who have-like their more successful sisters-tried to make the storied transition from Broadway to soul.

A Broadway baby with several esteemed theater credits, Tarzan's Chester Gregory swings into the indie soul scene with an impressive debut, In Search of High Love. Gregory offers listeners a solid set of smooth R&B and contemporary soul grooves with more than a few standout tracks. While there are the usual handful of quizzical choices that characterizes many indie debuts, Gregory has crafted an LP with enough attitude and modernity to beat that whispered curse plaguing many a divo who have-like their more successful sisters-tried to make the storied transition from Broadway to soul.

The list of black Broadway divas who have efficiently made the transition to commercial recording stars is as long as my arm. The men? Not so much. Gregory Hines (Jelly's Last Jam, The Tap Dance Kid), Hinton Battle (The Wiz, Sophisticated Ladies, Miss Saigon), Ralph Carter (Raisin) and most recently Gavin Gregory (The Color Purple, The Lion King), are all just a handful of male Broadway stars who have tried unsuccessfully to make the transition from the stage to commercial stardom. Hines came close with the number #1 R&B hit "There's Nothing Better Than Love" with his legendary duet partner, Luther Vandross. Sadly, Hines's self-titled 1987 debut suffered the same fate as the 1986 debut from his dancing partner in Sophisticated Ladies, the three-time Tony Award winning Hinton Battle. Battle's Untapped didn't garner the extraordinary tap dancer the praise that Carl Anderson (Jesus Christ Superstar) would receive for his hit duet with Gloria Loring, "Friends and Lovers," a solitary hit following-and by-a string of critical successes and commercial flops. Good Times sitcom star and Broadway child star Ralph Carter caused a little pandemonium on the dance floor with "Extra, Extra" and "Young and In Love" during the disco craze, but couldn't parlay those minor hits into a successful recording career. I won't go into Gavin Gregory's self-titled independent debut, as my mom is a reader and would rebuke my tongue in the name of Jesus. In any case, it is against this daunting backdrop of tragic history that Chester Gregory (Tarzan, Cry Baby, Shrek: The Musical) daringly throws his hat into the mix in hopes of securing the higher love of audience praise.

If Gregory does fall prey to the "Soul Curse of the Black Broadway Brothers," it won't be because he hasn't studiously avoided those victims' project pitfalls. With few exceptions, the music of the listed stars of stage historically has been an uninspiring mix of middle of the road soul pop with some jazz inflections thrown in for good measure. Always there was a song or two done with a nod to the hot producer or trend of the moment, usually with disastrous results for the clueless albeit talented singer. When listening to these projects, one got the nagging sense that somebody was in the studio telling the star in the booth to rein in all that belting and diction, to be "more...you know...street." Only, there was very little street about these brothers next door (with the possible exception of Hines, who managed a gritty everyman status throughout his brilliant life and career), so it all felt false.

Chester Gregory's largely self-penned album works because it mostly feels like an authentic introduction to Gregory as an artist and a man. This is not a group of songs pulled together by an A&R guy crafting the Chester Gregory image. It also helps that these squarely urban contemporary songs are similar enough in tone and feel to lend the project a thematic cohesiveness, rather than an eclectic jumble of poll-tested tunes each chosen for their appeal to a different market or demographic. What you hear is completely Chester Gregory, both good and bad.

When In Search of High Love is good, it's very good. "Dreamin," "If U Only" and the interlude "Rainy Day" are all sophisticated, horn-tinged ballads in line with the sweeter smooth soul hits of the late 90s. The sample of Kenny Loggins' "This Is It" on the uptempo, radio-ready "Say Its Over" is both smart and surprising. So is the interpolation of Angela Bofill's "Under The Moon and Over The Stars" on the cool groove, "Universe 4 U." Gregory's synthy club groove, "Higher and Higher (Revisited)," is a jazzy house delight in the spirit of Sylvester and newcomer Phillip Anthony. Both "Search In" and "On (plus) On" have fantastic hooks and-like most of this catchy LP-a Jaguar sheen. 

When In Search of High Love is bad, it's less bad than suffering from head-scratching moments and artistic decisions. Though I appreciate Gregory's choice to cover the rarely sung the Flamingos' hit "I Only Have Eyes For You" (here titled: I Only Have Eyes 4 U), the constant riffs and modulations ultimately detract from the song's original otherworldly simplicity. There are other moments on In Search of High Love-ones more hair-raising than awe-inspiring-when Gregory's transitions from his pleasing natural tenor to his false and in some of his runs where Gregory comes dangerously close to being out of tune. The fact that his wavering pitch (at least in these instances) manages to technically stay "tuneful" fails to make those moments any less disturbing. Culprits like "Move On" also seem to lack direction and drive in their composition and vocal arrangement.

My biggest gripe comes through the implied title track. On "High Love," Gregory follows another long tradition, one of male singers whose hip hop sensibilities derail material that has all the makings of a classic in its feel, production and composition (think: Jagged Edge "We ain't gettin' no younger babe; we might as well do this" from "Let's Get Married" or Jaheim's hook on "Beauty and the Thug"). In Gregory's case the lyric goes: "don't wanna roll no trees baby/only thing I wanna smoke is you/we'll get drunk off each other baby/we'll get high on love." Maybe I have to be a weed smoker-or rather a weed addict-to get the comparative "romance" of "Just Say No" as an act akin to spending time loving my boo. Since I'm not, I just think "High Love" is silly at worse and a novelty record at best-a grossly missed opportunity.

Despite these pointed concerns, I actually like enough of Gregory's debut to recommend it. There are plenty enough good songs, intelligently executed, to keep the parts you'll skip from becoming too annoying. I recommended it in my column soon after its release, debut "Say It's Over" for a worldwide audience on my indie soul segment on the Dave Brown Radio Show on Sky Network/SolarRadio.com, and have gladly lent it a rather ecstatic blurb. I believe Gregory definitely does enough "right" here to keep his distance from that sinister Broadway curse. Indeed, a fruitful life outside of the stage does await this singer and it's on your MP3 player. Recommended.

-L. Michael Gipson

 
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