Frank McComb is a great talent who has yet to receive much deserved attention on this side of the Atlantic. Raised in Cleveland in a musical family, McComb was immersed in a sea of great artists, from jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson to soul giants Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway (to whom his voice is most often compared) and Stevie Wonder.
In 1990, at age 20, he became the keyboardist and musical director for the Rude Boys ("Written All Over Your Face"). That introduced him to their producer, Gerald Levert, and to the rich musical world in Philadelphia, where he moved. There, he became part of the Gamble and Huff stable of writers and musicians, and worked with Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass and others. From there, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a much sought-after musician, ultimately scoring a spot in Branford Marsalis' experimental group, Buckshot LeFonque, where he handled vocals (including on the wonderful "Another Day"). He also recorded a debut album for MoJazz (Motown's jazz label) which was unfortunately shelved by the label (more on that below).
Finally, in 2000, Marsalis helped McComb land a contract with Columbia, resulting in the release of Love Stories, a terrific album that introduced McComb's soulful stylings to the world. While Columbia's indecision as to whether to market Love Stories as a soul or smooth jazz album ultimately sank it commercially, it is worth seeking out. It is a lyrically positive album that highlights McComb's writing as well as his wonderful voice. His spirit-filled cover of the traditional "Eye On The Sparrow," was one of the most moving musical moments of the year, and could alone justify the album.
In 2002, McComb joined forces with producer Steve Harvey (who most recently produced Donnie's brilliant Welcome to the Colored Section) and began working on The Truth for Expansion Records. The Truth was another excellent disc and featured a number of great artists and writers, including Billy Preston, percussionist Paulinho De Costa, and popular new song stylist Ledisi. It was released in Europe in July 2003, but is still unavailable in CD form Stateside. In late 2004, The Truth became available for download on iTunes (downloaders should note especially the funky "Whatcha Gonna Do," "Cupid's Arrow" and the beautiful ballad "When You Call My Name").
After a career's worth of unsatisfactory record contracts, in 2004 McComb finally decided to take his recording career into his own hands and self-released Straight From The Vault. In addition to releasing and distributing the disc himself, McComb also wrote, produced, programmed and sang every note on the album. As on McComb's first two albums, Vault served up a number of tasty mid- and uptempo smooth soul/jazz vocal numbers, the best of which are "Still Has a Hold On Me" and "The Things That You Do." However, it also boasted three fine instrumental numbers fronted by McComb's keyboard work: the funky "To the Left," "King of the Open Road," and my favorite, the smooth George Duke-like "Morning Glory" (there's also a short instrumental bonus at the end of the disc, "A Good Past...A Better Future"). Some of McComb's most notable cuts in the past have been his occasional slow songs, and Vault includes three fine piano laden ballads, "The Thing I Failed To Do," the jazzy "It Was You," and the lyrically moving, sad track, "Left Alone." It was, start to finish, another excellent performance by this talented, underrated artist. SoulTracks readers agreed, and they voted Straight From the Vault as the top album of 2005 in the SoulTracks Readers Choice Awards.
In early 2006, McComb decided to again raid his "vaults," and released the long-buried MoJazz recordings under the title The 1995 Bootleg. The release demonstrates why McComb's fans sought these recordings on the black market for a decade. Bootleg was a lost gem. Great mid-tempo numbers like "So Lovely" and "Somebody Like You" are surrounded by equally strong ballads such as "Intimate Time" (which was also included on The Truth) and "More Than Friends." McComb has always been a good songwriter and an even better singer. But The 1995 Bootleg reminded us again of his greatest gift: the ability to create music with incredible intimacy, music with which his listeners intensely connect. It's an intangible that a number of modern artists demonstrate in concert, but few can replicate on studio recordings. And it's what makes Bootleg another essential Frank McComb recording.
As 2006 came to a close, McComb released A Tribute to the Masters, an all instrumental disc filled with homages to piano greats ranging from Patrice Rushen to Ramsey Lewis to George Duke. It was another critically acclaimed album that McComb's legion of fans scooped up. He followed in 2007 by recording a new Live In Atlanta CD/DVD, which was released in two parts in 2007 and 2008.
By Chris Rizik