The story behind Grover Washington, Jr.'s first session date as a leader revolves around a sheer coincidence of being in the right place at the right time. The truth is, the date for Creed Taylor's Kudu imprint was supposed to feature Hank Crawford in the soloist's chair. Crawford couldn't make the date and longtime sideman Washington got the nod. His being closely affiliated with organists Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond didn't hurt, and his alto and tenor saxophones' tone was instantly noticeable for both its song-like quality and Washington's unique ability to dig deep into R&B territory for his expression of feeling. Released in 1971, produced by Taylor, and arranged and orchestrated by Bob James, the list of players in this band is equally impressive: James played Fender Rhodes, there's Richard Tee on organ, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Idris Muhammad, then-new guitarist Eric Gale, percussionist Airto Moreira, Thad Jones and Eugene Young on trumpets, trombonist Wayne Andre, and baritone saxophonist Don Ashworth. James also added a violin section and a small vocal chorus on certain tracks.
Inner City Blues kicks off with its title track, a burning version of the Marvin Gaye tune with Washington lending a heft and depth to it that reveals the sophistication of Gaye's original. From Airto's hand drums and Muhammad's hi-hat whispers to the chunky wah-wah guitar vamp and a funky bassline by Carter, it becomes clear that Washington's methods of deep soul articulation on his horn extend into the heart of this mix. James decorated his charts with subtle organ flourishes and his piano, but this is early jazz-funk at best. While Miles Davis was abstracting jazz on the margins, Washington and his cohorts were keeping the music in the street, in the barroom, on the radio, and in the nightclubs and bowling alleys.
The tune was a hit at a time when fusion was becoming widespread; free jazz from both sides of the Atlantic was considering itself the new standard bearer for the music, and the many legends of the '60s Blue Note and Prestige eras were beginning to feel the music get away from them. With this entry, Washington's screaming, edgy solo stayed in the killer grooves with breaks laid down by Muhammad and Moreira, Gale and Carter. Washington was just getting started and it was evident here that this cat was deep. He walked the standards side of the fence on this date as well, bringing them into the jazz-funk era: his readings of "Georgia on My Mind" and "I Loves You Porgy" are sensitive, deeply lyrical, and sophisticated, but come from the soul side of the fence. Carter's warm, bubbly bassline and the brief guitar break introduce the strings in the former tune while at the same time Washington plays the melody on his alto. Muhammad lays down some beautiful and pronounced rhythmic statements without getting in the way, and before long the groove develops, taking the tune right into the club with Gale's solo and some hot comping by James that fades as the strings and Grover return deeper in the cut to take it out.
The other cuts are modern standards and pop songs creatively voiced by this soloist and band. They include a stellar, lightly funky version of Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and a knock-out take on Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," rivaled only by the original and Rahsaan Roland Kirk's flute version on Blacknuss. On the former tune, it's the popping rhythm groove dressed in some smoking hand percussion and fat chunky Rhodes chords that set up Washington's solo, which just burns and wails with all the pleading and pain in Gaye's voice. The latter cut begins subtly, nocturnally in the blues, with Gale, James, Carter, and Muhammad. Washington enters playing the melody on the alto, and the strings sound draped around him just as the horn section comes in to play counterpoint a beat behind. This is some deep soul. A vocal chorus begins almost subliminally with the "I know, I know, I know, I know" intonation and introduces the popping solos by Gale with the rhythm section in the bridge underscored by the horns. The strings well up with all the drama and emotion emanating from Withers' words, and then just drop behind to allow the saxophonist back in to work it all out with some very sophisticated grooves. The other "modern" standard here is also one that's endured after all these years, the sensitive reading Washington and company put in on Buffy Sainte-Marie's beautiful "Until It's Time for You to Go." Its melancholy sweetness after the eight-and-a-half-minute Withers' jam is breathy, clear, and quiet; James and Washington set it in a light bossa groove. Its shimmering strings and the saxophonists' restraint on the tenor is so elegant and graceful that the tune carries emotion, gentleness, and the bittersweet commitment of its lyric all the way through to its end. This is an amazing debut in so many ways, and it was followed by a run of albums for the label through the end of the '70s when Washington left for Elektra. Inner City Blues remains standing today as a landmark and a turning point in jazz.