Isley Brothers - Power of Peace (with Santana) (2017)

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The Isley Brothers and Santana - Power of Peace

My initial reaction to learning about the Here I Am project, where Ronald Isley teamed with Burt Bacharach to sing lush arrangements of tunes from the Bacharach-Hal David songbook, was surprise. Of course, initial reactions, as is often the case with those type of first takes, don’t fully consider the history of Ronald Isley or the Isley Brothers. Throughout that band’s creative period in the early and mid-1970s, the Isley Brothers often plucked tunes associated with singer/songwriters of that period and reimagined them – often giving the cuts second lives – as funk infused soul numbers. Todd Rundgren's “Hello, It’s Me,” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Love the One You’re With” both got the treatment, as did Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze.”

The Isley Brothers and Santana - Power of Peace

My initial reaction to learning about the Here I Am project, where Ronald Isley teamed with Burt Bacharach to sing lush arrangements of tunes from the Bacharach-Hal David songbook, was surprise. Of course, initial reactions, as is often the case with those type of first takes, don’t fully consider the history of Ronald Isley or the Isley Brothers. Throughout that band’s creative period in the early and mid-1970s, the Isley Brothers often plucked tunes associated with singer/songwriters of that period and reimagined them – often giving the cuts second lives – as funk infused soul numbers. Todd Rundgren's “Hello, It’s Me,” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Love the One You’re With” both got the treatment, as did Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze.”

So, when I heard Ronald Isley perform renditions of songs made famous by Dionne Warwick (and in the case of “Make it Easy on Yourself,” by Jerry Butler), my attention went to the wall of sound arrangements that included strings, flutes and the other elements of a full orchestra. It’s not at all surprising that Ronald Isley was up to the challenge, and in fact seemed energized to be working with the great Bacharach and getting his crack at tunes touched vocally by the likes of Butler, Warwick and Luther Vandross.

Carlos Santana had a musician’s reaction when he first heard Here I Am and saw Isley perform the songs in concert on PBS in 2004. The legendary guitarist decided then that he wanted to work on a project with Ronald Isley and that wish comes true with the release of Power of Peace, a project where Isley lends his soft tenor to numbers from the soul, rock, jazz and pop songbook. This project sports an all-star cast that includes Ronald Isley’s brother Ernie, a great guitarist in his own right, along with several members of Santana’s band, including his drummer and wife Cindy Blackman Santana. Eddie Levert joins to provide backing vocalist while the great keyboardist Greg Phillinganes sits on the piano bench.

Still, it is Ronald Isley who shows throughout that he retains the vocal talent that Santana heard on that PBS program 13 years ago. Isley’s range shines through on numbers, including his energetic performance of a rock infused rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” the simmering funky version of “Gypsy Woman,” and a charging rock reinterpretation of “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” that features guitar work that conjures up the great Jimi Hendrix.

However, the two highlights of Power of Peace are “God Bless the Child,” along with another selection from the Bacharach-David library, “What the World Needs Now.” The arrangement on Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.’s Great American Songbook standard begins with an ode to lounge piano jazz before sliding into a gospel-soul arrangement that references Curtis Mayfield and Rufus and Chaka Khan before Santana tears into one of a guitar solo. The cut then finds Isley entering a vocal give and take with Santana’s rock guitar. “What the World Needs Now” begins with a similar piano and voice paring. However, this arrangement has more of a straight gospel feel before sliding into a convergence of piano jazz swing and rock and Isley is there for every transition.

All but one of the songs on Power of Peace are covers, with the exception being the ballad “I Remember,” written by Cindy Blackman Santana and performed on the record in a duet with Isley.

In music as in sports, all-star groupings can be risky. The names may be legendary, but sometimes the game just isn’t that compelling – as anyone who watched the last NBA All-Star game will attest. However, Carlos Santana wasn’t going to mail it in after achieving his dream of working with Ronald Isley. As for Mr. Biggs, well, he always comes to play. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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