Zo! - ManMade (2013)

Zo!
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After twelve years into a recording career that includes a whopping fourteen independent releases of both EPs and full-length music, it’s strange to say that an artist is finally settling into his groove. Yet, on the last three releases by keyboardist/composer/producer Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson, that’s exactly what has occurred: an artist who has comfortably found his niche. It helps that two of the last three releases have largely been original material and not the re-imagined renditions of ‘70s and ‘80s soft rock and soul classics that have dominated much of Zo’s prodigious output. On ManMade, Zo! continues sharing the kind of adult electronic and organic soul blends that not only personify his brand but that of his label and collaborative partners, The Foreign Exchange.

After twelve years into a recording career that includes a whopping fourteen independent releases of both EPs and full-length music, it’s strange to say that an artist is finally settling into his groove. Yet, on the last three releases by keyboardist/composer/producer Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson, that’s exactly what has occurred: an artist who has comfortably found his niche. It helps that two of the last three releases have largely been original material and not the re-imagined renditions of ‘70s and ‘80s soft rock and soul classics that have dominated much of Zo’s prodigious output. On ManMade, Zo! continues sharing the kind of adult electronic and organic soul blends that not only personify his brand but that of his label and collaborative partners, The Foreign Exchange.

With cover albums like his …just visiting series and novelty records like Zo! and Tigallo Love the 80’s, Zo! showed facility as a keyboardist, arranger, and producer who could recreate the sound and feel of the music he grew up with in Detroit, but make it feel current for those who wanted both nostalgia but also modernity. On 2010, SunStorm Zo! brought a blending of the jazzy Philly soul of Norman Connors with the hip hop soul of Jay Dilla, whose influence is never far from many younger soul producers, including Zo!. Underground hits like “Greatest Weapon of All Time featuring Sy Smith” and “This Could Be The Night featuring Eric Roberson, Darien Brockington & Rapper Big Pooh” demonstrated that Zo! could make bonafide commercial soul that was wholly his own. Still, it was on sultry B-side cuts like “Make Luv 2 Me featuring Monica Blaire” and creative ventures like “Flight of the Blackbyrd featuring Phonte” that demonstrated an emerging signature to his maturing artistry. It’s follow-up cover project, …just visiting three, proved that SunStorm was no fluke, bringing new energy to the Pages’ “Let It Go (featuring Nicholas Ryan Gant)” and Eric Tagg’s “Marzipan (featuring Eric Roberson and Phonte).”

With ManMade, Zo! reveals a quiet confidence that the creative success of those latter career projects has afforded him. While ManMade isn’t necessarily a new Zo!, the work is a continuation and extension of SunStorm and …just visiting three, carving out something of a Zo! formula. The work overall is more relaxed, jazzier in many respects, and better able to bring out the best in his cadre of talented vocalists. And what a cadre it is, with many Zo! and The Foreign Exchange alums showing up and out, from Anthony David and Eric Roberson to Choklate and Jeanne Jolly.

On ManMade, frequent collaborator and touring partner, Sy Smith, again looks good on two solid offerings that open and close the set. While the first, “The Train” was the album’s peppy electrosoul buzzcut, the latter, “Body Rock” is the stronger of the two, mirroring Monica Blaire’s “Make Luv 2 Me” as an elongated jazz affair, both romantic and laced with fusion flourishes worthy of George Duke. The two work well together and another successful Zo! and Sy Smith tour now has even more original collaborative work to showcase.

As with Sy Smith, Eric Roberson, Anthony David, and Choklate, the better-known veterans of the set all deliver the best of the project’s offering. With “We Are On The Move,” Roberson bests his performance on SunStorm and finally finds a fitting companion piece to his up-tempo performance on “Let Me Know” from Angela Johnson’s A Woman’s Touch single-producer compilation. Roberson and Zo’s sophisticated Niles Rodgers-flavored bass guitar driven bit of soul funk that harkens back to the halcyon days of disco and CHIC. Bringing a bit of Barry White to “Show Me The Way,” Anthony David is considerably laidback, giving Carmen Rodgers ample room to shine in ways that should make listeners eager to hear more from this Dallas artist turned Atlanta transplant. On the horn-laden “Making Time” and the synthetic, new wave “Out in the World,” Choklate is heard in new, more interesting ways that make the thought of a Zo! and Choklate collaborative project suddenly a very compelling prospect.

Of the veterans on the project, Phonte, who has made singing under the note something of a signature, is the weakest. His unique tone, sincerity, and natural humor have normally made his flat singing something worth overlooking, but on cuts like “ManMade” and his duets with Choklate and newcomer Gwen Bunn, respectively, the technical deficit can begin to grate. His rap on “Out in the World,” is more in his wheelhouse and befitting that cut’s less demanding flow.

More surprising is Zo! gifting Jeanne Jolly her strongest outing to-date with the hooky and finely structured “Tell Me Something New,” a soulful cut whose rhythm section is nothing less than drum tight. With a cut that could have come right out of The Foreign Exchange playbook, on “New in Town (Happy),” Zo! also grants Carlitta Durand and newcomer 1-O.A.K. a bit of sunny brilliance. With sweet harmonies, an infectious bassline, and cooing, earnest vocals, Zo! is at his electrosoul meets hip hop pop zenith on what is a fun and inventive jam. The far too short “For Tina,” which beautifully showcases Zo’s key and woodwinds work is nothing short of 1:55 minutes of sonic bliss. Collectively, these works find an artist in his prime, enjoying the fullness of his creative and romantic powers.

Like SunStorm, Zo’s relaxing confidence on ManMade sets just the right mood to ease the day away. Highly Recommended. 

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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