Bobby Caldwell - After Dark (2014)

Bobby Caldwell
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It's been 35 years since singer and songwriter Bobby Caldwell took the world by storm with "What You Won't Do For Love," arguably one of the most perfect pop/soul confections of all time. And while initially he may have been viewed as "another guy who sounds like Stevie Wonder" -- though different because the tall, blonde Caldwell was one of the least Stevie Wonder-looking soul singers of the era -- Caldwell proved himself to be far more complex and versatile than those initial audiences and critics may have expected. After his initial, brief run as a charting blue-eyed soul man was over, he became a hitmaking songwriter for such stars as Chicago, Boz Scaggs and The Commodores. He followed that act with a long stint as a star on the international smooth jazz circuit.

It's been 35 years since singer and songwriter Bobby Caldwell took the world by storm with "What You Won't Do For Love," arguably one of the most perfect pop/soul confections of all time. And while initially he may have been viewed as "another guy who sounds like Stevie Wonder" -- though different because the tall, blonde Caldwell was one of the least Stevie Wonder-looking soul singers of the era -- Caldwell proved himself to be far more complex and versatile than those initial audiences and critics may have expected. After his initial, brief run as a charting blue-eyed soul man was over, he became a hitmaking songwriter for such stars as Chicago, Boz Scaggs and The Commodores. He followed that act with a long stint as a star on the international smooth jazz circuit. And then, most surprisingly, he turned his talents to the big band music that filled his house as a child, portraying Frank Sinatra in "Rat Pack" tributes and releasing two late 90s albums (Blue Condition, Come Rain Or Come Shine) that faithfully interpreted jazz and swing classics while also composing terrific period-appropriate new songs. After a few years of alternating between those styles on CD, Bobby Caldwell returns to his love of big band music and all things Sinatra on the new, self-released After Dark.

While always notable for its soulful tone, Caldwell's voice has both deepened and thickened over the years, settling now to a baritone that fits nicely on an album that pays tribute to the songs of Sinatra. Equally importantly, Caldwell has taken over the production reins on After Dark, showing a penchant for working with a large orchestra. The result is that even well worn Sinatra songs like "My Kind of Town" and "Come Fly With Me" sound full-bodied and completely authentic.

Certainly there are questions about what can be added to original versions of Sinatra's greatest hits (especially after those vaults have been raided so many times over the years by artists such as Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble), but Caldwell gives these familiar songs an energetic workout. "Fly Me to the Moon" and "You Make Me Feel So Young" have been covered countless times, but Caldwell's versions absolutely pop from the speakers, with an immediacy that is a tribute to the both top notch orchestra he has assembled and the arrangements of Andrew Neu and Jason Long.

As good as the covers of the bigs hits are, where After Dark shines most is in bringing light to the second tier of classics, those that have often been ignored by the most accessible Sinatra tributes. That begins with the hopping, horn-filled "Saturday Night," perhaps the most exciting cut on the disc and one of many resounding uptempo discs. But even where the pace slows down, these somewhat unheralded classics get shine.  The gentle swing of "Please Be Kind" is a hidden gem, and the beautiful take on "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," with Caldwell sharing the spotlight with the piano intro by Long and the smooth sax solo of Neu, is another high point. Caldwell even takes a turn on the album, creating a new, samba-fied version of his signature "What You Won't Do For Love."

There have certainly been dozens of Sinatra tribute albums over the years, but few have had the kind of lovingly authentic feel as After Dark. With varied song selection, terrific arrangements and production, and Bobby Caldwell providing the kind of on point, mature vocals that even he couldn't have delivered two decades ago, it's a great listen that gives a surprisingly fresh look at a familiar songbook. Highly Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 

 

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