Some universal truths
Back in 1982, Billy Valentine and his brother John recorded a song called “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”, a slice of disco-funk that made the lower regions of the R&B chart. Its lyric reminded me of Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper” and I liked it enough to buy the 12-inch from Groove Records on the corner of Greek Street and Bateman Street in Soho. Three years later it was covered by the Manchester band Simply Red, for whom it provided a first hit and the basis of a rather more successful career than was granted to the Valentine Brothers.
Now Billy returns with what will certainly end up among my albums of the year: Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth, a collection of rearrangements of eight well-known songs united by a certain social relevance. In age they range from the spiritual “Wade in the Water” to Prince’s “Sign of the Times”, first recorded by its composer in 1987. In between come songs written by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas, the members of War, and Leonard Caston and Anita Poree.
Valentine brings the wisdom of his years to these “message” songs. The softened edge to his tone reminds me of the great southern soul singer O. V. Wright, but his vocal agility enables him to handle the rapid-fire phrasing of the Prince song with ease. The anguish in “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” matches that of Esther Phillips’s famous 1972 version.
The arrangements here are modern and imaginative, often making use of jazz gestures. There’s the eloquent improvising of the new star saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, sensitively accompanied by Larry Goldings on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Abe Rounds on drums. There’s Claire Daly’s barely controlled baritone saxophone, preaching the spiritual jazz message on Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, and Theo Croker’s elegant trumpet on “Sign of the Times”. There’s Goldings again, reincarnating the spirit of mid-’60s Ramsey Lewis on “Wade in the Water” and a beautiful opening-up of Wonder’s scathingly political “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”. Other featured players include the vibraphonist Joel Ross, the percussionist Alex Acuña and the guitarist Jeff Parker.
Produced by Bob Thiele Jr, the son of the man who produced John Coltrane’s Impulse albums and recorded Ornette Coleman on his own Flying Dutchman label, this isn’t a jazz record any more than it’s a soul record, a funk record or an R&B record (some of the tracks have a rhythm section of Pino Palladino on bass guitar and James Gadson on drums). It’s all of them, mixed together in perfect proportions. And if the message of these songs isn’t new, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the continuing urgency of what they have to say. In a post-truth world, they hit even harder.
* Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth is released on 24 March on the Acid Jazz/Flying Dutchman label: http://www.acidjazz.co.uk. The photograph is by Atiba Jefferson.