Zo! - SkyBreak (2016)

Zo!
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Personified by light funk, infectious grooves, and elegantly unconventional ballads, SkyBreak is Zo! at his most creatively edited and emotionally cool. While there are personal moments like Sy Smith’s bittersweet opener, “Lake Erie” (Lorenzo Ferguson is Detroit born and bred), and a bit of sly resistance in the tropical “Steal My Joy (featuring Tamisha Waldon),” for the most part Zo! keeps most of his usual introspective emotionality at arms length. The intricate counterpoint harmonics aside, even “Packing for Chicago” with Musinah, District of Columbia singer/songwriter/producer/arranger extraordinaire, is a blithe love affair absent any musical melodrama, silks, or satins.

Personified by light funk, infectious grooves, and elegantly unconventional ballads, SkyBreak is Zo! at his most creatively edited and emotionally cool. While there are personal moments like Sy Smith’s bittersweet opener, “Lake Erie” (Lorenzo Ferguson is Detroit born and bred), and a bit of sly resistance in the tropical “Steal My Joy (featuring Tamisha Waldon),” for the most part Zo! keeps most of his usual introspective emotionality at arms length. The intricate counterpoint harmonics aside, even “Packing for Chicago” with Musinah, District of Columbia singer/songwriter/producer/arranger extraordinaire, is a blithe love affair absent any musical melodrama, silks, or satins. Interestingly, the feather touch characterizing SkyBreak’s tone and weight allows Zo’s skilled arrangements and musicality to be more visible, demanding a certain amount of respectful attention, especially for the keyboardist/producer’s percussion and synth programming prowess. However, in its radiant pep, some longtime fans may miss Zo’s heavier brocades like “Make Luv 2 Me (featuring Monica Blaire)” or the more deep philosophical musings of Manmade. For them there is a brief reprieve from this buoyant approach in the passionate “For Pops,” a heartfelt fusion both powerful yet still artfully restrained. 

For some, SkyBreak is going to feel like a new The Foreign Exchange (+FE) album without being called such, and they wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say so. Past and present vocal guests and lead singers of the band are frequently in the booth, including the lovely Carmen Rodgers on the winsome “Wishing You Well.” While flawlessly executed, the Zo! production style is also not dramatically different from +FE’s now signature style. Really, upon hearing a rote +FE type song like “A Season (featuring Eric Roberson),” with Phonte doing his usual backgrounds, the main difference between a +FE album and SkyBreak is a more sophisticated, traditionalist flair, arguably funkier basslines as indicated by pure ‘80s rollerskaters like “I Don’t Mind (feat. Shana Tucker)” and Joi’s “Just Whatcha Like,” and the notable absence of Chicago or Baltimore House. Other than that, the keyboardist and sometimes writer/producer from +FE has delivered what could be considered a sunnier take on the North Carolina outfit’s often darker, but more humorous sound.

There are notable departures where Zo! almost completely extracts himself from the +FE feel and achieves something wholly unexpected. It happens twice on SkyBreak. Once is on Dornik’s “Lifelines,” which could totally have been on Michael Jackson’s criminally undervalued Invincible. And, while the MJ connection is indisputable, it is more impressionistic than mimicry, with Dornik resisting taking his clean falsetto a quarter step up to match Jackson in tone and pitch -- even though one can tell Dornik’s voice would rest just as comfortably there as in the slightly lower register selected. The layered song has distinctive movement and the crackle of urban sophisticate energy flowing over Zo’s synthy backdrops. In fact, when Phonte briefly comes on to spit some bars, it’s almost distracting from the song’s more organic soul flow. While the intrusion isn’t bad, it isn’t necessary either. As he does on almost every track here, Phonte works perfectly on the cut’s supporting vocals. Along with “Just Whatcha Like,” “Lifelines” is also one of the quietly weightier songs of SkyBreak with the most effortless radio potential.

The second time Zo! magic happens is through “Steal My Joy.” An inspiring carnival celebration of life boasting a resistance hook that could be a rebuking mantra for us all to deliver to life’s ominous clouds: “I got something real/nothing will/steal my joy/something I can feel/nothing will/steal my joy.” The Afro-Latin percussive groove, go-go cowbells, and fluttery woodwind accents echo past classics like Angela Bofill’s “Under the Moon and Under the Stars” and the All ‘n’ All era of Earth Wind and Fire, with their vague fusions of world, jazz, and R&B music. The layered Phonte choir on backgrounds and his lead’s interplay with Tamisha Weldon are smile inducing all on their own. It feels the most personal of the Zo! cuts and the most feel good of those presented on SkyBreak. “Steal My Joy” is also the ripest for soulful house remixes of endless varieties. This bit of radiance closes the album leaving us wanting more, which is exactly how a master musician and producer operating at the top of his game should leave us all…until next time. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

 
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