Zo! - Freelance (2006)

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    When reviewing music I try to apply the Motown founder Berry Gordy's philosophy of, "if you were down to your last dollar and hungry, would you buy this song or a sandwich? Presumably, if you said a sandwich, then the music wasn't doing what it was supposed to do, and if you chose the song, then you had a hit.  I am saying this as a preface because this review is of someone's music with whom I have become personally acquainted (and happen to like) via Detroit's rich, albeit migratory music scene.

    His name is Zo, and he is a former professional baseball player for the Toronto Blue Jays turned musician.   The CD, his 9th -- yes, his 9th Cd in 6 years -- is entitled Freelance. Freelance opens with  ‘Yooou,' featuring emerging DC area soul chanteuse, Tiffany Paige, which is cool but not necessarily all that moving.  On the songs to follow, Zo really begins to lay out his musical vision, which seems to be an intimation of transition from his recent past to a bright future in music. 

    The CD makes it apparent that Zo is a student of sound, and that he has wittingly or perhaps even unwittingly absorbed the sounds of his forefathers.  Throughout Freelance are clues of the spacey-ness of Lonnie Liston Smith and Larry Mizell. This is most apparent on "I-94 East," which is a gem of a song.  ‘Free Weighted' is a great interlude, which should have been a full-length song. ‘Detroit District' is stepper-ready, and should be immediately dispatched to Chicago and Detroit stepper groups.  â€˜Inertia,' The Cd's last song doesn't sound inert at all but rather quite energetic, and here, Tiffany Paige and Zo do one another justice!

    Amazingly, Zo encapsulates the varied musical elements of his home town.  Again, from the vibratory inflections of Milt Jackson, the futuristic sounds of techno gods Derrick May and Carl Craig to the bass-driven drumlines of Dilla, Freelance seems to reflect a distinctly Detroit aesthetic.  There is even the hint of Donald Byrd in there somewhere (There's a parallel here: Donald Byrd, too, migrated to D.C. where as a professor at Howard University he made some of his most commercially successful music).  While Freelance seems to channel many of these influences, I was left with a very gnawing feeling that Zo can do better.  I once spoke with a prominent expatriate of Detroit's music community who said that he ‘wished Zo would take more chances and really develop his musical voice' so to speak.  I concur. I believe that Freelance comes in at about 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. And while I would not sacrifice my lunch money for the CD, I would certainly forego a couple of beers for it.  I am certain his next effort, on which I hope to see Zo absorbing Go-Go and other musical perspectives of his new home, will be a 10.  After all, it has to be a 10, since this album is his ninth.  Bottomline: You should own Freelance, because it will be a collector's item once it's out of print.  Watch out for Zo, because after 9 albums, Freelance manages to point in an upward direction that says that he's only just begun!

    By Drake Phifer