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Various Artists: This Is Mainstream

Various Artists: This Is Mainstream

What does Judd Apatow have to do with jazz fusion?

Various Artists: This Is Mainstream

3.75 / 5

What does Judd Apatow have to do with jazz fusion? His grandfather Bob Shad ran Mainstream Records, and with his sister Mia, Apatow has brought his family’s musical archive back into circulation with a series of reissues that includes a much-missed soul jazz session from Alice Clark. We Want Sounds has released a compilation that condenses the label’s ‘70s roster into a disc that captures a singular moment in jazz that looked forward and backward. On the aptly titled This Is Mainstream, musicians sometimes take avant-garde ideas and transform them into something more commercially viable. Yet that doesn’t mean this is a formulaic endeavor. Young and veteran talents tapped a variety of subgenres within its milieu, but for all that, this remains a cohesive look at a diverse catalog.

The album opens with a pair of heavy funk tracks. Saundra Phillips’ gutbucket anthem “Miss Fatback” (“Don’t nobody wanna bone but a dog!)”) was originally released in 1975 on the related label Brown Dog (its terrific logo made up of a curved dachshund). It’s an early production by Greg Carmichael, a relatively unheralded disco producer who would go on to work with the likes of the Universal Robot Band. Afrique’s synth-heavy “Kissing My Love,” originally on the 1973 album Soul Makossa, continues in the funk vein, drummer Ray Pounds launching an infectious opening break while Los Angeles session player Charles Kynard squeezes out a spacey organ line.

But the Mainstream sound takes a radical shift for the nearly 12-minute “This Moment,” led by keyboardist Hal Galper. With session men the Brecker brothers on horns and drums from Billy Hart, a veteran of Herbie Hancock’s early ‘70s sextet, this mellow improvisation defines a jazz mainstream that in 1972 was immersed in electric fusion. Michael Brecker’s searching tenor solo generates some tension by threatening to go free, but the rhythm section’s smooth groove keeps it grounded as it shifts from mild dissonance to outright romance, while Randy Brecker’s trumpet solo pulls off the neat trick of quoting the abrupt blats of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” in a context that recalls late-night Quiet Storm R&B. There’s a whole narrative about the changing aesthetic and commercial prospects of jazz in this piece, but it goes down as easy as a coffee shop Spotify mix.

As suits a varied lineup, the compilers keep your ears on notice for what amounts to a well-paced hour-plus mixtape. Galper’s seductive session segues unexpectedly to the crisp guitar intro of “Livin’ (Way Too Fast),” a 1970 track from December’s Children, and that moves seamlessly into electric funk from one-time Blue Note artist Blue Mitchell. “Blue’s Blues,” from 1972, again features Ray Pounds, as one of two credited drummers, and harmonica from surprise guest John Mayall provides the bridge between old fashioned blues and the new sound.

Seeming to drift even further from the jazz norm is Maxine Weldon’s cover of Bread’s easy listening staple “Make It with You.” Wrecking Crew legend Carol Kaye is one of three credited bassists, and the arrangement is from Artie Butler, whose credits include everyone from Herbie Hancock to Neil Sedaka, which gives you some idea of the broad genre-crossing at work. It’s one of several Top 40 covers here, including a less-than convincing version of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” re-written as the inspirational “Lean on Him” (meaning the Lord) and led by reedman Buddy Terry. More successful is Sarah Vaughan’s respectable take on “Just a Little Lovin’.” It doesn’t quite beat Dusty Springfield’s definitive version on Dusty in Memphis but is a fine recasting for what, by the end of the album, you’ll begin to recognize as Mainstream’s versatile house style, as adept at reaching into the past as it was at looking to the future. That’s what Mainstream did, and This Is Mainstream is a wonderful introduction to the company’s deep cuts.

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