While there can be no doubt that the late great Grover Washington, Jr. released his most commercially successful recordings for Columbia and Elektra, there is also no doubt that, critically and creatively, Washington's most visionary material, the stuff that virtually created the template for the smooth jazz generations that came after, were on the Kudu imprint and produced by Creed Taylor. Washington was a monster saxophonist on tenor as well as soprano, and a true stylist. Before coming to Motown and Kudu he had apprenticed with a number of soul-jazz masters, including Charles Earland and Johnny "Hammond" Smith. The material here focuses on the seminal eight years Washington recorded for Motown and Kudu, beginning with his early renditions of standards like "I Loves You, Porgy," from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, but quickly moves into what he did best in his early years, making killer records full of contemporary soul-jazz recordings of the hits of the day: "Where Is the Love" and his deeply funky readings of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," "Mercy Mercy," and especially "Trouble Man" (presented in an edited single version here that may actually be tougher than the original!), with arrangements by Bob James and Don Sebesky. His sense of time and his phrasing were, and remain, a standard for melodic improvisation, and all of his lame imitators -- especially Kenny G -- can't hold a candle to his ability, whether considering his lyric, on-the-money improvisational genius or especially his sense of time and phrasing.
This set is divided in a sense by two periods, the Motown years and then the Kudu ones, and all the major and some minor cuts (which are still major) are here. For evidence of this, check his soprano medley of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and J.J. Johnson's "Theme from Man and Boy," as well as Withers' "Lean on Me" a little later on disc one. The medley, with great charts by James, is still remarkable for its ability to meld deep soul, lithe funk, progressive big band charts, and pop. The second disc focuses more deeply on the Kudu years and kicks off with "Reed Seed," a composition by Washington when he was already pushing past his own boundaries as he had on Feels So Good and Mister Magic -- not only are both tunes here, but the best tracks from both those and the Reed Seed album are as well. The breezy hand percussion, the violin solo, the electric piano, and of course Washington's own solo make it an irresistible opener. "Black Frost," co-written with James, is a solid example of the deep-groove funk Washington was pioneering at the time; while his tenor had an edge, his delivery and the other instrumentation were smooth, and the combination is still ahead of its time. As for those who questioned Washington's pure jazz chops, there is a revolutionary version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Bright Moments" here, radically reinterpreted in its harmonic sequence and rhythmic complexity. When the tender reading of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" found here can be said to be the "weakest" link in the bunch -- and it's far from weak -- then the listener is getting something special indeed. This is the one to start with until early Motown albums are re-released in America on CD, and it is the one that compiles all the great stuff from Kudu. For any serious fan of soul-jazz and melodic jazz-funk, or even smooth jazz, all of these records are essential purchases, but this is a fantastic beginning. It is easily the best compilation of Grover Washington, Jr. material anywhere. ~ Thom Jurek