Tenor and soprano saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. was faced with an almost impossible task in 1976: following up his two 1975 critically acclaimed and wildly successful commercial recordings Mister Magic and Feels So Good. Both recordings crossed over to R&B on the radio and on the charts. A Secret Place was produced by Creed Taylor and issued on his Kudu imprint, while the versatile David Matthews arranged the horn section. The players include pianist Dave Grusin, drummer Harvey Mason, Ralph MacDonald on percussion, bassist Anthony Jackson, guitarist Eric Gale, trumpeter John Gatchell, and alto saxophonist Gerry Niewood. Guests include bassist George Mraz and guitarist Steve Khan, who appear only on a reading of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance."
This lineup may not be surprising, but the scope of the recording is. Washington could have gone the easy route and followed up his R&B chart success with a series of uptempo, rousing tracks that leaned heavier on funk -- in the style of the title tracks of both the previous albums. But he went in a different direction, at least partially. There are four cuts here, each between eight and nine minutes. The first two (which comprise side one of the LP), the title track, and Hancock's tune, are a bit more laid-back and mysterious. Washington takes his time letting them unfold, utilizing dynamics. "A Secret Place" does have a slippery funky backbeat, and a killer guitar line by Gale (did he ever play anything else in the '70s?) but the groove is nocturnal, spacy, and soulful. His soprano sings over the backbeat as Grusin's Rhodes piano plays down a vamp for the rhythm section, and fills in the painted backdrop beautifully. The tempo picks up with Jackson's bassline becoming more prominent in the mix, but it never overpowers the easy groove established at the beginning. "Dolphin Dance" begins every bit as sparely and exotically spacious as Hancock's own version, with beautiful soprano and alto work, gorgeous floating Rhodes piano, and lots of warmth. When it begins to swing near the middle, it does so in such a relaxed and languid manner that the shift from soul-jazz on the preceding tune to the straight up fingerpopping nightclub swing on this one is seamless. As usual, Washington's own soloing and melodic improvising are stellar. "Not Yet" opens the second half of the set. It's a funky groove, but the easy, laid-back feel and chord changes in this Washington original make it irresistibly sexy. Once more, Gale's guitar pleases as it leads the horn section vamps that fill his sophisticated, soulful, bluesed-out solo. The lilt in Grusin's Rhodes piano is the perfect tastemaker, since Washington's tenor is so throaty and on the low-end growl. Harvey Mason's straight up funky soul number "Love Makes It Better," takes the set out on a high note, with gorgeous guitar vamps by Gale, the three-horn line playing a sparse but pronounced melody line, and Grusin filling the middle with enough sweetness and light to offer the drums and percussion room to really pop. Washington's tenor solo is sophisticated and utterly tasteful; its emotion ratchets up the dynamic in the entire tune. The bottom line on A Secret Place is that while the set did well commercially, it got nowhere near the critical praise of its predecessors. That's a shame, because it is a truly fine album whose grooves and pleasures stand the test of time easily. It's ripe for reappraisal. ~ Thom Jurek