I put Norman Connors in the same category as Quincy Jones because their careers overlap and are similar in several respects. First of all, Connors and Jones made major marks as musicians and producers on the pop, R&B and soul music scene even though both started off playing jazz. Jones played trumpet for jazz legends such as Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. While still a middle school student, Connors once sat in for John Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones and went on to play in bands led by Pharaoh Saunders and Archie Shepp before becoming a leader in his own right.
And while Jones has had more crossover success in recent years, both men perfected a formula that made their music mainstays on the R&B charts in the 1970s and early 1980s. Jones and Connors created R&B music that leaned heavily in the direction of their jazz roots. Jones and Connors share another thing: The listener rarely hears the voice of either man. Both men are content to allow their music and the voices of their collaborators to speak for them.
Over the years, Jones and Connors played a major role in introducing a veritable who's who of soul singers to listeners. Jones' music was the platform that launched the careers of James Ingram and Patti Austin. Connors featured vocalists Phyllis Hyman, Jean Carne and Michael Henderson (who up until his duet with Carne on "Valentine Love" was probably best known for being the bass player in Miles Davis' early 1970s fusion bands).
The confidence in his ability as a producer and arranger is evident on Connors' latest work, Star Power. The album includes guests vocalists Peabo Bryson, Howard Hewett, Christopher Williams, a new female vocalist named Antoinette and an up and coming male singer, Danny "Danny Boy" Stewart, as well as jazz musicians Bobby Lyle, Marion Meadows, Norman Brown and Danny Lerman.
The record features a solid remake of Connors' own "You Are My Starship," performed by Bryson. A jazz-infused remake of Sade's "The Sweetest Taboo" sports a nice piano solo, while a bluesy cover of Gamble & Huff's "I Waited All My Life For You," featuring the vocals of Juanita Daley, is the best of the remakes. Two others - "Walk on By" and an instrumental of "Rock With You"- are less interesting. The former does little to distinguish itself from the 1960's version while the latter is a by the numbers smooth jazz piece. There are other instrumental pieces on Star Power, such as "Stormin' Norman" and "Shades of Brown," that work much better as fusion pieces because the players seemed to be free to create and improvise.
The original pieces showcase the Connors formula at its best. Two of the high points are "Thinkin," an infectious merging of funk and hip-hop that proves that the old dog can learn new tricks. The ballad "You Take My Breath Away" is a song written by sax player Danny Lerman with Stewart providing vocals for a song that could easily become an addition on many wedding day set lists.
Star Power is a record that recalls the days when artists made records that had something for everybody. Connors is trying to make music for his long time fans, but he is not averse to making a play for the youngsters, and he largely succeeds in making an album that gives everybody something that gets their heads nodding. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes