Michael Jeffries - Fonky Sexy Late Nights in the Lab (Advance Review)

Michael Jeffries
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Michael Jeffries - Fonky Sexy Late Nights in the Lab

Mention the name Michael Jeffries in conversation of classic R&B, and it’s likely only a few astute listeners will immediately connect the dots. Although he’s experienced success both as a vocalist (fronting Tower of Power from 1978 to 1983 and featuring with Jeff Lorber several years later) and as a songwriter (Deniece Williams’ top-10 hit “Never Say Never”), his name and image haven’t graced as many album covers as his resume warrants. Nonetheless, he’s remained active throughout recent years with his own recording studio and low-key projects, finally having returned to the limelight in 2015 on Cool Million’s “Summer Breeze.”

Michael Jeffries - Fonky Sexy Late Nights in the Lab

Mention the name Michael Jeffries in conversation of classic R&B, and it’s likely only a few astute listeners will immediately connect the dots. Although he’s experienced success both as a vocalist (fronting Tower of Power from 1978 to 1983 and featuring with Jeff Lorber several years later) and as a songwriter (Deniece Williams’ top-10 hit “Never Say Never”), his name and image haven’t graced as many album covers as his resume warrants. Nonetheless, he’s remained active throughout recent years with his own recording studio and low-key projects, finally having returned to the limelight in 2015 on Cool Million’s “Summer Breeze.”

Arriving a solid three decades after his self-titled solo debut album for Warner Bros., the independently released Fonky Sexy Late Nights in the Lab finds Jeffries coming back with the kind of funky acumen he employed with Tower of Power on jams like “Rock Baby” and “We Came to Play,” while also exploring celestial ballad territory a la hidden gems like that group’s 1981 slow-jam, “Never Let Go of Love” (a Jeffries co-write). It’s the striking contrast between these two realms that give his new album the authenticity indicated by its title. Taking the reigns of writing and producing the majority of material, Jeffries proves himself the rare modern artist with not only meaningful repertoire, but the kind of organic musical approach that comes from long-term dedication.

Jeffries takes on some deeper vocal tones than on past projects, injecting decidedly gritty character into the mid-paced romp “Git the Fonk out My Face” and the electric, rock-infused “Be Yo Baby 2 Nite” (featuring vocoder work by Artie Wafer). He executes a fair share of the instrumentation himself over the course of Fonky Sexy—playing bass and guitar on the aforementioned tracks, while also performing synths and percussion on a number of selections. One of the set’s highlights, a collaboration with vocalist Ashlee Nikol entitled “Sweat,” merges both the fonky and sexy with an appealing combination of Marciel Garner’s live drums next to Jeffries’ programming. It sets the groove for a number that is at once summery and dance floor-ready. Peter Leone’s flute flourishes provide a nice counterpoint to Jeffries’ guitar strums, while his harmonies with Nikol are of the mellifluous variety.

On the slower side of Fonky Sexy, Jeffries exudes both finesse and true-blue emotion on a dreamy rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You” and his own “More Than Happy.” His reading of Mayfield’s 1970 nugget is guided by the acoustic guitar bliss of Greg Crockett, which Jeffries layers with a rich falsetto and Peter Leone embeds with beautiful flute prowess. Meanwhile, “More Than Happy” flows steadily with lyrics of gratitude and soul-deep melodies set atop ‘70s-rooted rhythmic touches. The stacked vocal arrangements showcase Jeffries’ adeptness for mixing the bold with the sweet, conjuring memories of Gerald LeVert while exhibiting a distinct tenderness.

Fonky Sexy Late Nights in the Lab closes out with a distinctively smooth boogie number, “Fire.” Tapping into sleek phrasing and smooth urgency, Jeffries carries the tune’s message of passion and devotion with aplomb, once again layering his own backing harmonies to round out the number in a way that few vocalists could do without additional assistance. The synth drum groove and cool shades of piano make the number a standout in a sub-genre of soul that, in less capable, hands might have turned out more formulaic. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

 
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