Jeffrey Osborne - A Time For Love (2013)

Jeffrey Osborne
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In 1983, Linda Ronstadt released the album What's New, surprising her fans by recording a disc filled with remakes of pop and jazz standards. It became an unadulterated smash, topping the charts for several weeks and leading to two sequel albums by Ronstadt. It also began a three decade (and counting) run of aging pop and soul stars issuing albums filled with familiar songs of days gone by, an often cynical attempt to maintain relevance in a changing musical environment.  Each time the trend appeared to mercifully slow down, it would receive an unexpected boost from platinum successes by artists such as Michael McDonald, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow.
 
Of the literally hundreds of big name "covers" albums, a select few have been great; most have been forgettable.
In 1983, Linda Ronstadt released the album What's New, surprising her fans by recording a disc filled with remakes of pop and jazz standards. It became an unadulterated smash, topping the charts for several weeks and leading to two sequel albums by Ronstadt. It also began a three decade (and counting) run of aging pop and soul stars issuing albums filled with familiar songs of days gone by, an often cynical attempt to maintain relevance in a changing musical environment.  Each time the trend appeared to mercifully slow down, it would receive an unexpected boost from platinum successes by artists such as Michael McDonald, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow.
 
Of the literally hundreds of big name "covers" albums, a select few have been great; most have been forgettable. It has been a rare project that has successfully demonstrated the kind of memorable performances that neither remain too faithful to the lauded original versions nor vary in ways that are more provocative than satisfying.
 
So it was with great trepidation that I opened A Time for Love, the new album of standards by 64 year old Jeffrey Osborne, who hasn't recorded since 2005's For the Soul, a so-so album of covers of 60s and 70s soul hits.  Though Osborne is one of the truly great R&B vocalists of his generation, it was tough not to groan at A Time for Love's song listing.  Do we really need to hear new versions of such tired, over-recorded songs as "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Nature Boy," "Smile" "What a Wonderful World" and "When I Fall In Love"? Well, it turns out that the answer is a resounding - and surprising - "yes."  For what separates the beautiful A Time For Love from the dozens of lesser recorded performances of these same songs are three things: Osborne's consistently strong vocal stylings, a backing band of A-List musicians and, most of all, the brilliant work of producer George Duke.
 
During his "lean years" Osborne spent time working with many of the great contemporary jazz artists, and his friends return the favor big time on A Time for Love, with such stars as Paul Jackson Jr., Rick Braun, Everette Harp and others providing stirring performances. And Duke, one of the most notable producers of the past four decades, puts on a clinic, giving the project a decidedly jazzy edge and a languid pace, with liberal musical solos.  Sure, there are string and horn sections, but they neither have the pretension of the Stewart projects nor the mechanized, low budget feel of many of the secondary artists' albums that have littered this subgenre. Instead, they simply enhance the relaxed, cool approach to the album, creating an intimate club feel and a surprisingly sensual aura to pop standards such as "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," "The Shadow of Your Smile" and the title track.  The disc reaches its most engaging and romantic point on "My One and Only Love," with saxman Kamasi Washington leading an inspired track that relies on grand piano and brushed drums behind Osborne's assured lead.
 
With so many covers albums now in the rearview mirror, it was improbable that an album of standards released in 2013 would have anything new to add. And in many ways, A Time to Love is the most standard of them all, with no attempt to drastically reimagine the great compositions that fill the disc. But it is tough to remember an album of this genre that has been executed so well and with such a clear vision. There are no left-field statements, no bombastic surprises.  It is intentionally undemanding of the listener, asking only to be enjoyed for its simple beauty and near-perfect execution. A Time For Love is not only the most unapologetically romantic album of the past year, it is also a disc that accomplishes the near impossible: it makes this group of oft-recorded pop standards sound fresh again. Highly Recommended.  
 
By Chris Rizik 
 
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