PJ Morton - Gumbo Unplugged
PJ Morton - Gumbo Unplugged
There are some seminal live recordings in the musical annals of soul music that are historic, and essential for lovers of the genre. Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Filmore West, Donny Hathaway’s In Performance, EWF’s Gratitude, Natalie Cole’s Live!, Patti Labelle’s Live in New York, The Spinners Live!, and The O’Jays’ Live in London to name but a few. Each both embodies and transcends the genre, is a declarative statement by its stars, and creates a timeless, magical moment for listeners grateful to have been born at a time that allowed them to have this experience. Recorded with the 22-piece Matt Jones Orchestra in studio in his home of New Orleans for the first time, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, producer, and keyboardist PJ Morton gets to have his moment to join their historic ranks through his live streamed recording, Gumbo Unplugged.
PJ Morton opens his dance with history with “Sticking to My Guns,” which is more spacious and lighter in feel than the studio version. Right from the outset, Morton makes it clear that he’s grown as a vocalist, one with greater dexterity, control, and, most of all, ease. An unassuming figure, rocking a red sweat suit and a rolled up yellow skully in what feels like a subtle nod to the iconic images of Marvin Gaye in the studio recording I Want You, Morton seamlessly moves between the Fender Rhodes to the grand piano, putting his unique brand of stank on the groove for his defiant stance of personal resiliency and artistic independence in “…Guns.”
Transitioning into “Claustrophobic,” Morton talks about his time in L.A., where he experienced multiple record labels encouraging him to chase trends and switch his style to something harder, urban, and likely more “radio.” The song itself is Morton’s version of Sophia’s “Hell, No” stand ala The Color Purple: The Musical. Opening with violins, guitar, Fender, and drums, the soul ambrosia eventually transitions into reggae. When the strings return, the music blends classical, R&B, funk, and reggae all together as Morton effortlessly spits rhymes over the groove before longtime collaborator and trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s jazz horns takes the lead and carries the song to a conclusion that feels anything but musically claustrophobic. The panoramic song is purposely showing off and illustrating to the industry how soulful, hard, lush, rural, urbane, and even “radio” music can be when allowed to just be music.
Without missing a beat, “Claustrophobic” slides into “Religion,” using the impactful bars of contemporary gospel rapper superstar Lecrae as the bridge. The featured artist’s moment is brief, even utilitarian. No matter how generous Morton may be, it’s not Lecrae’s moment. On “Religion,” Morton’s delicious interplay with his two vocally voluptuous background singers is perhaps most center stage, as they bring some old-time religion to a protest song ironically about the misuse of religion and the naming of God in acts that are less about holiness and more about fear and control. Like “Claustrophobic,” it finds Morton, the devoted son of a famous pastor and gospel musician, Bishop Paul S. Morton, pressing his elbows out against expected convention to find his own path and way to what speaks to his soul.
Speaking of preacher’s kids, the viral clip of Gumbo Unplugged is one of emerging singer-songwriter Yebba, who joins Morton for a cover of the Bee Gee’s oft-covered classic, “How Deep Is Your Love.” The daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, Yebba and Morton bring a bit of church to a ‘70s pop song best known for its questioning vulnerability. Yebba phrases like Phoebe Snow and riffs like Kim Burrell for her all-too brief solo, nearly stopping the show with studio members surprised approvals and applause. The song concludes with everyone in the studio singing the hook in a way that approaches something sacred and spiritual, lifting the air in the room and elevating a song you think you already know too well. It will leave you smiling.
Morton’s foray into “First Began” with just piano and voice, is the first time I felt a true comparison could ever be drawn between Morton and Donny Hathaway, not in tone the way one gets from Frank McComb or Tony Momrelle, but in feel and emotional truth. These elements were always the hallmarks of Hathaway and as much as simple but effective melody has always been Morton’s songwriting hallmark from the start. However, what was vocally light and lovely before has evolved as Morton here demonstrates a deepening ability to connect heart and voice to one another in ways that has improved with time, intangible ways that are not just about technique. If anything, Morton has become less concerned about clean precision, more trusting of his training, and more able to surrender to the spirit and story of his songs in ways he once appeared to resist. In this take of “First Began,” he moves emotional mountains.
As with the studio version, the outlier of Gumbo Unplugged feels like “Go Through Your Phone.” While a fun song with a nice thump that is well performed, it isn’t until Morton strips down the song to just voice and piano that the song achieves a sweetness that gives it a comfortable place among the rest of the set.With violin accents and a ballad tempo, “They Gon Wanna Come” is here touched with a melancholic disappointment more keenly felt in this almost elemental setting. One can hear how much more Morton wished folks hadn’t proven themselves so predictable, so common. Its yield to the call to God in “Alright” is unexpected, but it makes sense given the suppressed cry in “They Got Wanna Come” that’s finally here given a welcome release. The narrator of “Alright” is one of a self-soother trying desperately to convince himself to hold on to his faith in dark times.
If “Alright” is the dark overnight, then “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” featuring The Hamiltones and BJ the Chicago Kid is the blessed sun of the morning, the celebration, that glorious moment of faith rewarded. The jumping jubilee of “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” is still the inspirational standout of both projects. The multi-movement jam is made that much more impressive when one considers that this live song with 22 players and distinct voices could possibly be fully and correctly captured in a “one and done” take. The skill and talent displayed here is a testament to every artist on this Southern soul and gospel classic recording. It’s on this cut, as with all of this wonderful time capsule of an artist at his peak, that Morton gamely shows out. Pulling from his past experiences as a musical director and a Minister of Music, conducting all the parts throughout this historic recording and giving us the fullness of key work on par with greats like Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, and Hathaway throughout. Gumbo Unplugged will make you glad PJ Morton stuck to his guns and grateful that his work as an artist with something vital to say and say well is far from done. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson