A couple of years ago, the brilliantly creative Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra made a Sly Stone tribute MTO Plays Sly, and after his band got done reconstructing Stone’s music, I wondered if there was a need to devote an album revisiting that body of work anymore. Keyboardist and producer Jason Miles thought so and for the most part, he justifies it.
Miles has done tribute records before: the music of Weather Report, Ivan Lins, Grover Washington, Marvin Gaye and Miles Davis have all been topics for prior records so he’s no stranger to the idea of a devoting albums to a single artist or act. But for the first time, he turned to one of his side projects to be the vehicle for it: his world fusion/RnB unit he masterminds with DJ Logic and vocalist Malu, Global Noize. And in somewhat of a coup, he got original Family Stone drummer Greg Errico to not only bless the project, but also actively participate in it (he lent his vintage rhythms to five of the ten tracks).
Miles didn’t stop there. Global Noize is a musical collective with a large, changing cast of characters deployed around the core members to fit the needs of the song’s arrangements. And that’s where SLY succeeded the most in his quest to bring those virtual standard bearers of late 60s/early 70s adventurous pop into the here and now. It was done without diluting at all the original, inclusive spirit of these songs.
Roberta Flack, a contemporary of Stone’s, only sings the title of “It’s A Family Affair (Groove Vibe Version),” but that’s enough; you know it’s her and just being she is good enough to bring you back to Sly. This version is jazzier with Ingrid Jensen’s mute trumpet and Jay Rodriguez’s sax fluttering about, and that Indian shaded percussion is so integral to the gurgling groove. Nona Hendryx brings her powerful, gospel-kissed pipes to two Sly deep cuts: “In Time,” which starts surprisingly with vocal percussion before that familiar vamp appears from an organ; Hendryx’s righteous vocal fits that funky percolation. Her swaggering vocal does Sly’s way-past-his-prime nugget “The Same Thing” sound like the classic it never was.
Maya Azucena fronts the much more familiar hits “Fun,” “The Same Thing” and “Stand!” “Fun” gets a lift from Ron Holloway’s hard blowin’ sax solo and Miles’ uptight funky organ. A new riff was invented for “You Can Make It If You Try” features Mocean Worker (aka Adam Dorn) playing a hard popping bass like Larry Graham via Marcus Miller, and the intriguing, conspicuous absence of horn charts leaves behind a leaner groove and Jensen’s effects-altered trumpet solo is plopped right in the middle of the song. “Stand!” is presented as a relaxed groove, but Amanda Ruzza’s bass is tight and Miles’ Moog instrumental adds a new twist to the song.
Falu applies Jaipur gharana Indian vocalese to the strung out, heavy bass groove of “Thank You For Talking To Me Africa” as Scrapomatic lead singer Mike Mattison leads the chorus.
“A Family Affair” and “The Same Thing” get the remix treatment, the former with Williams’ male vocal replaced by Falu’s Indian styled singing and more turntables from DJ Logic. The latter is turned into a near instrumental because much of Hendryx’s vocals are removed in place of more sax and more synths. The alternative versions are competent but don’t set themselves apart enough to justify including them on the album. “Dreams” is sung well by Falu, but this funk/electronica dance number doesn’t stand out in any way and worse yet, is out of place on an record dedicated to Sly’s songs.
Sly Stone’s catalog is just too rich for relegating a tribute album to just seven unique songs. This could have been a great salutation to a real giant of pop music that’s informed so much music we hear even today. Instead, it’s a great EP with three unnecessary appendage tracks tacked on to the end. SLY Reimagined continues Jason Miles’ flair imaginative reimagining. If only he had kept on with that winning recipe all the way to the end.
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SLY Reimagined, by Zoho Roots, drops on June 11.