Chris Jasper - The Essential Chris Jasper (2015)

Chris Jasper
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The first and only time that I saw The Isley Brothers perform live came in 1981. Two of my buddies and I saw them in August of that year at the former Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville. The show was great because the Isleys were in the latter portion of their commercially and critically successful run as a hard driving funk band. Chris Jasper was the keyboard player and the younger cousin, and that’s really about all we knew about him. Information in those days was a whole lot harder to come by and opaqueness rather than transparency was considered the primary virtue.

Oh, there was one other thing. As 17 year olds, we were certainly impressed with the way the ladies in the front rows swooned when Jasper strapped on that keytar and waded through their outstretched arms as if he were walking on a sea of hands.

The first and only time that I saw The Isley Brothers perform live came in 1981. Two of my buddies and I saw them in August of that year at the former Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville. The show was great because the Isleys were in the latter portion of their commercially and critically successful run as a hard driving funk band. Chris Jasper was the keyboard player and the younger cousin, and that’s really about all we knew about him. Information in those days was a whole lot harder to come by and opaqueness rather than transparency was considered the primary virtue.

Oh, there was one other thing. As 17 year olds, we were certainly impressed with the way the ladies in the front rows swooned when Jasper strapped on that keytar and waded through their outstretched arms as if he were walking on a sea of hands. I doubt that either my two buddies or Jasper’s adoring throng had much of an idea of the significant role Jasper played in crafting the great songs that the Isley Brothers performed during that concert. At the time I know that I didn’t.

The Isley Brothers were a vocal trio that scored hits with “Shout” in the 1950s and later “This Old Heart of Mine” during their stint with Motown in the 1960s. The Isleys were a mid-level act on Motown as a vocal group consisting of Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph, but the addition of Jasper along with Ernie and Marvin Isley ushered in the period that saw the Isleys craft the sound that fans recognize and love. Jasper, especially, had a large hand in creating that sound as he was the main songwriter during the Isleys immensely creative period from 1973 to 1983. Once the group split, with Jasper joining Marvin and Ernie Isley in the trio Isley, Jasper, Isley, the keyboardist wrote their biggest hit, “Caravan of Love," and “Insatiable Woman,” another cut that received considerable airplay.

Jasper’s biggest hit as a solo artist was the inspirational “Superbad.”  All of these tunes are included on The Essential Chris Jasper, a compilation that reveals the keyboardist as a prolific songwriter, producer and arranger who stayed busy long after the Isley Brothers disbanded. The bulk of the compilation includes tunes that Jasper penned during his time with Isley, Jasper, Isley and as a solo artist from 1984 through the late 1980s.

Tracks such as the aforementioned “Caravan of Love,” along with “Brother to Brother” and “Insatiable Woman,” find Jasper deploying themes constant in the music he wrote for the Isleys in the 1970s while endowing them with the smooth 1980s R&B sound. “Caravan of Love,” and “Brother to Brother” both take on socially relevant themes – the former a cry for peace in the in the Middle East that sounds increasingly naïve and dated with each heartbreaking headline. “Brother to Brother” finds Jasper making common cause with the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa at a time when the practice seemed as entrenched but was doddering on shaky legs. Jasper couldn’t see President Mandela from the mid-1980s vantage point, and that cut says something about Jasper’s penchant for using his music to express the world’s determination to end the evil system of Apartheid.

The Isleys were one of the funkiest bands of their generation, but the group was responsible for some of 70s R&Bs most memorable slow jams, and Jasper’s fingerprints can be found on most of them. He continued that trend as a solo artist with the major difference being that it would be his - and not Ronald’s - tenor heard on cuts such as “Insatiable Woman.” That cut, along with others such as “Love Is Gonna Last Forever,” “Givin’ My All” and “The First Time” find Jasper in command of the smooth, keyboard driven R&B ballads that dominated R&B airwaves in the late 1980s and into the early 90s.

In fact, the ballads and mid-tempo love songs stand as the gems on this compilation. Tracks such as the mid-tempo funk ballad “Margie,” an homage to Jasper’s wife, are the type of cuts oldies radio would uncover if those stations weren’t every bit as beholden to the tyranny of the playlist as the stations playing the hot R&B and hip-hop hits.

While those ballads show that Jasper still knew how to woo the ladies, tunes such as “Dance For the Dollar” provided Jasper with platform to show that he could take those synthesized keyboards, programmed drums and hand claps and give listeners some funk. Rock was also a major component of the Isley sound that Jasper maintained post 1983, and he brings on cousin Ernie to provide some of his trademark distortion on the 1980s pop/rock influenced “Break This Chain.”

It was increasingly difficult for Jasper to command the attention of radio as he moved further from those Isley Brothers salad days. However, The Essential Chris Jasper shows that, while some attention spans may have drifted, the quality of Jasper’s musical output throughout the decade remained constant. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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