Cleveland P. Jones - Ace of Hearts (2013)

Cleveland P. Jones
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It’s hard to watch one of your favorite teams break-up. “Twice,” “Nature Boy,” and “Sensitive”: each songs that inspired and excited a slew of underground soul/R&B fans in recent years, eager to see what Ahmed Sirour on production and Cleveland P. Jones on vocals would do next. We should have known there was trouble in musical paradise when “Bye, Bye Lonely Days,” “My Heart,” “Up and Leave” and, most recently, “Free Yard Sale,” harkened a change in direction and producers for esteemed countertenor/tenor Cleveland P. Jones, as he found his voice independent of the über-talented Sirour. With Ace of Hearts, listeners will get to hear an unabashed Jones and only Jones as the Berklee grad here serves as writer/producer/arranger and star of his own raw solo debut LP. But, can Jones do it all well? Better yet, after setting such a high bar with Sirour, can he make us believe he can do it all too?

It’s hard to watch one of your favorite teams break-up. “Twice,” “Nature Boy,” and “Sensitive”: each songs that inspired and excited a slew of underground soul/R&B fans in recent years, eager to see what Ahmed Sirour on production and Cleveland P. Jones on vocals would do next. We should have known there was trouble in musical paradise when “Bye, Bye Lonely Days,” “My Heart,” “Up and Leave” and, most recently, “Free Yard Sale,” harkened a change in direction and producers for esteemed countertenor/tenor Cleveland P. Jones, as he found his voice independent of the über-talented Sirour. With Ace of Hearts, listeners will get to hear an unabashed Jones and only Jones as the Berklee grad here serves as writer/producer/arranger and star of his own raw solo debut LP. But, can Jones do it all well? Better yet, after setting such a high bar with Sirour, can he make us believe he can do it all too?

As artists from Al Green to The Gap Band have illustrated, the artistic road to finding one’s own distinctive sound can be a long and varied one. With Sirour’s productions, the South Carolina born and Boston-trained male singer with the androgynous voice found his ample instrument set in a lush bed of atmospheric jazzy soul thick with city lights’ ambience and indigo moods. That the covers of Little Dragon and Nat King Cole, respectively, in “Twice” and “Nature Boy,” and the original single, “Sensitive,” all had such an indelible and distinctive personalities all their own but still were so undeniably Cleveland P. Jones, they might have given listeners the impression that Jones had already found his sound and there was more from that specific ladle to come. Then came the mishmash of super contemporary productions independent of Sirour, songs that varied in quality but still largely showcased a vocal range and technique that still inspired plenty of awe, “Bye, Bye Lonely Days” and “Up and Leave,” being among the best of these more radio-tinged urban adult contemporary productions. The issue with placing Jones’ voice in these more modern UAC environments better suited for Joe and K-Jon was that the productions felt too heavy-handed, burying the lead, which as always, is Jones’s completely original voice. Other, more routine R&B crooners might need all those synthy bells and electronic whistles, but Jones’s signature instrument most assuredly did not.

This thought might have also occurred to Jones as well, since none of those songs made the final cut on Ace of Hearts, a stripped down, live instrumentation affair that introduces us to yet another version of him. Where the collaboration between Jones and Sirour felt surefooted and the heavily produced urbanity of the subsequent "buzz cut" releases felt overdone, Ace of Hearts suffers from too little on the instrumentation, arrangement and production side, but is otherwise devastatingly right vocally, lyrically, and emotionally. It’s fine that Jones wanted to record everything live in the studio and helm it all largely by himself, but the result is the feel of a Broadway one-man show with some fairly consistent themes of love, loss, hurt and the struggle for healing tying the whole narrative together. If this album had been framed as such, like the similar feeling Billy Porter’s At the Corner of Broadway & Soul (Porter’s live NYC show at Joe Pap’s Public Theater set to wax), Ace of Hearts would be a fine showcase for a vocal talent that is never less than brilliant and almost uncomfortably vulnerable. Yet, at least so far, this project has been pitched to critics and consumers as Jones developing his “own lane” in “soul.”

The lane isn’t as unique as perhaps believed, so much as of a certain bygone singer/songwriter era that might be coming back, who knows? If someone can bring it back, it could be Jones who has the core elements that once made the recipe of raw minimalism a success. There was a period between 1968 and 1971 that soul was this barebones and the music more accompaniment than primary player for those who both wrote and sang their own material; Roberta Flack’s early work immediately comes to mind. Most of Ace of Hearts is of this milieu, one double-stuffed with soulfully sung piano and old-world gospel-tinged ballads, like “Back to Me” and the doo-wop title track. Unencumbered traditional drums and guitar do a good deal of the heavy lifting for the rhythm section with chords and rhythms that fans of ‘70s country music would find familiar (think “Harper Valley PTA”) on songs like “Lesson Learned” and “Free Yard Sale,” music that also harkens back to early Betty “Clean-Up Woman” Wright. Strings and guitar are the primary accompaniment on a few cuts like “Go On” and “My Father.” The band is competent, but with few transitions, layers, chord changes or unexpected surprises, too often the music arrangements and compositions are almost too simple and lacking in their own personality in their contribution to Jones’s work, given the exceptionalism of everything the music surrounds. Whether Jones wants to admit it or not, this is an intimate concert done in the studio, not a studio production of urban adult contemporary or new school soul. If not for the stories and voice, these choices would be all pulled punches on an album that is shy of its fullest potential impact. The six-minute climactic blues of “Don’t Leave Me,” the Motown stomp of the energized “Patience,” and lead single “Free Yard Sale,” with their much more considered movements are but a few exceptions to this twelve-track rule.   

Lyrically, Jones is revelatory to rare ends, making us voyeurs to his interior hurts. “I know you don’t love me/so let’s stop pretending/we both know I’ve never mattered to you/but, I’ll be okay,” is the hook of “To My Father,” a raw vocal knockout that should leave listeners breathless, if not in speechless tears. Without a doubt this is a man who has had his heart broken and for whom healing is still a process, as essentially stated on the good morning heartache of “Heart Breaks,” the sad epiphany of “Give A Damn,” and the guess who I saw today of “Go On.” Even on the mid-tempo pep of “Free Yard Sale” and “Lessons Learned” there is blues lacing that defiant stiff-upper lip performed and in his bittersweet answer closing the calypso swing question of “Think It Over.” Like the best one-man shows, there is catharsis and therapy being worked out above the footlights, and there is plenty of reflective self-analysis that listeners are being privileged to throughout Ace of Hearts; some of it difficult in its reservoir depths. Accordingly, there isn’t a single false moment on this most sincerest of heart sleeve offerings.  

None of these cuts could work as well as they do, when they work, if not for Cleveland P. Jones’s electric vocal performances. It’s always emotionally present and positioned front and center in the mix, with his supporting vocalists doing little more than gospel oohs and ahhs and the music playing backseat driver. The quality of his vocal androgyny has grown more masculine than on his early work, having recently earned a raspy, rough-hewn grit to its previous purity than was heard in past recordings, especially when he belts. And Cleveland P. Jones’ belts long and often. Fans of Patti Labelle and Sylvester will find themselves falling deeply in love with this most timeless of melismata rebel yellers. When Jones tunefully cries he’s been “crying” or begs “don’t leave me, baby,” you believe him down to his toenails.

It’s no crime to still be a debuting artist who’s developing in some areas while excelling in others. Nor is it one to relinquish the reins as a producer and composer if your truest strengths lie in lyrics and voice. Jones is not alone in either, even among some of our most vaunted R&B veterans, and Ace of Hearts demonstrates the promise in both paths, whatever Jones’s decision. Only time will tell which road the future recordings of this otherwise exceptional talent will take. In the meantime, he’s opened calloused hands and uncovered some dripping red heart notes and blood beating performances to provide a unique theatrical experience for you listeners right in the comforts of your living room or headphones. Just be sure to bring tissues. Highly Recommended.     

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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