Brandon Williams - XII

Brandon Williams
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With the emergence of the musical cities in the South over the past decade, traditional Midwestern R&B and Jazz powerhouse cities like Chicago and Cleveland/Dayton have received far less shine. And then there is Detroit, arguably the most important music city in America of the last century. It has, at various times, been at the center of jazz, blues, Gospel, electronic and R&B/soul, with the peak of its influence coming in the 1950s-70s.  And while some feel that Detroit's pre-eminence is in the rear view mirror, the Motor City is still, quietly, an assembly line for talent, often now centered in its club and indie music scene. It's that "quietly" part that will cause out-of-towners to stand with mouths agape -- while native Detroiters will simply smile knowingly -- when they all hear XII, the stunning new album by the D's favorite local drummer, Brandon Williams.

With the emergence of the musical cities in the South over the past decade, traditional Midwestern R&B and Jazz powerhouse cities like Chicago and Cleveland/Dayton have received far less shine. And then there is Detroit, arguably the most important music city in America of the last century. It has, at various times, been at the center of jazz, blues, Gospel, electronic and R&B/soul, with the peak of its influence coming in the 1950s-70s.  And while some feel that Detroit's pre-eminence is in the rear view mirror, the Motor City is still, quietly, an assembly line for talent, often now centered in its club and indie music scene. It's that "quietly" part that will cause out-of-towners to stand with mouths agape -- while native Detroiters will simply smile knowingly -- when they all hear XII, the stunning new album by the D's favorite local drummer, Brandon Williams. With a clear musical vision, an amazing set of guests, and exquisite execution, this talented brother, who is a relative unknown outside of his native town, has delivered an unexpected Christmas gift: the best album of 2014.

Three decades ago, Quincy Jones brought the "producer's album" to the forefront with his smash LPs The Dude and Back On the Block. They presaged a generation of thematic albums driven by ambitious young producers, all being judged with reference to Q's seminal work. Then Robert Glasper reinvented the producer's album for the BAM generation with 2012's Grammy Award winning Black Radio. The boundary-less musical excellence of that album spoke to adult audiences of both the jazz and R&B, and opened the eyes of music executives (if not urban radio) to the breadth of modern black music beyond hip-hop. It is in that light that Brandon Williams issues XII, a disc that walks through the door opened by Black Radio and equals Glasper's gem in every way, while in the process also harkening back to the work of greatest soulful jazz producers of the past half century.

One sign of a great producer is the ability to guide the vision of a project while also allowing the artists to deliver their own voices. And Williams' success is a reflection of his personality as one who makes his direction known without overpowering his impressive guests. Musical visitors like Amp Fiddler, Bernard Wright, Derrick Hodge, Li'l John Roberts, Dennis Coffey, Lin Rountree, Nicholas Payton and a roster of other notables shine in an environment that feels both controlled and free flowing.  And a jaw-dropping collection of many of the brightest vocalists of the indie soul movement also participate, each seemingly matched with the perfect vehicle to shine.

There are several movements and styles to XII, but two particularly stand out: The first is a series of jazz-influenced songs that pay subtle modern tribute to past masters such as Quincy Jones ("Velas Icadas feat. Nadia Washington & Nicholas Payton"), George Duke ("Spend My Life feat. Don Blackman & Geno Young"), Joe Sample ("Godsend feat. De'Sean Jones & Jon Dixon") and even Glasper, who lends his assistance on "Now I Know" (feat. Jesse Boykins III).  While surrounded by tracks that lean more toward adult soul, these songs are in no way out of place, providing unspoken context and historicity to the album, as if to create a foundation for the other thirteen cuts, most of which fall into the second stylistic camp, adult soul (save the opening two outlier cuts, a fun Sesame Street cover and the hip-hop oriented "Intimidation (So Fine)"). 

Most listeners will gravitate to the preponderence of the disc that fits squarely in the adult soul mode, in its highest form.  Mid-album brings five consecutive tracks on which Williams coaxes career performances by talented emerging female vocalists. "Leave Love Be" is an ethereal, gorgeously lush ballad that hot newcomer Alex Isley (daughter of Ernie Isley) delivers with striking innocence, supported by the Cali trio, Moonchild. It is followed by longtime DC favorite, Deborah Bond, on "Make Believe," a fantastic, horn-filled midtempo that seamlessly leads into the muscular neo soul interlude, "You Make Love Real," fronted by Detroiter Joi Tiffany. For those who haven't followed Jean Baylor since her Zhane days, "Stronger" (co-written by Baylor and her husband Marcus) displays her underrated mastery as a song stylist; its the kind of mature soul ballad that Anita Baker or Regina Belle would have killed for in the 90s. The series ends with longtime SoulTracks fave Choklate baring her heart with full attitude intact on the fabulous "Where'd You Come From."

Even outside the song clusters described above, repeated listenings of XII reveal additional gems, from the breathily glorious vocals of Chicagoan Meaghan MacNeal on "Mind, Body and Soul" to the rock solid performances of indie soul star Frank McComb on the midtempo "Feel Free" and rising singer/songwriter Matt Cusson on the pop/jazz number "Everything," to the sweet, sexy ballad "I Love You," featuring Anesha and Casey Benjamin  - any of which would be the cut on most albums, but which here are simply more stars in the crowded constellation of XII.

Cynicism is often the best friend of a reviewer, helping him or her to deal honestly with artists who compromise their artistry for elusive sales or who simply don't have the chops, no matter how earnest they are. It is rarer that the reviewer experiences an album that melts the cynicism and turns him or her into a pure fan again. XII is that album. It is the kind of project that adult soulheads routine scream for and rarely receive; one that pays such close attention to detail -- from uniformly strong material, production and musicianship to nearly perfect vocal performances -- that it draws comparisons to not only the best albums of 2014, but to the greatest "producer's" albums of the past generation.  For all those who spend their days complaining about what modern music isn't, Brandon Williams has delivered an album that instead screams of all that it is and can be. XII is a triumphant love letter from Detroit that reminds us of the power of music - rarely delivered - to transport its listeners to a place where no other art form can take them. Highly Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 

 
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