With precious few exceptions, star-studded lineups on benefit recordings are usually a mixed bag at best -- particularly when it comes to the jazz arena. We tend to support these albums more as a way of showing solidarity than for their musical value. This set of stellar, contemporary jazz versions of socially conscious pop and soul songs is a clear exception. Promises Made is a benefit offering on Koch for the Millennium Project, an organization dedicated to the relief of hunger, disease prevention and economic development in Africa. This set is co-directed by saxophonist Kirk Whalum and pianist Takana Miyamoto. Some of those who signed on for this date include George Duke, David Sanchez, Marcus Printup, Russell Gunn, and Earl Klugh, who appear as soloists in different settings with a couple of different rhythm sections. The album was recorded in Nashville and produced by Miyamoto and Whalum with Norbert Simmons acting as executive producer.
This set is a treat: it's polished to be sure, but it's far from slick. The rhythms are all organic, there are no programmed beats, just drums and percussion instruments. Every selection is drenched in real emotion and, to quote Charles Mingus, "plenty, plenty soul." The opener is a great place to start: Whalum and Miyamoto front a septet performing Ben E. King's classic "Stand by Me," which becomes a hymn of solidarity underscoring this project. With a B-3, electric guitar, two bassists (upright and electric), drums, and percussion behind the soprano and piano, it is reminiscent of the Blue Note soul-jazz sound of the mid-'60s except that the production is pure 21st century, smooth and seamless. The melody is pronounced and there is a bridge for the soloists to move forward a bit before returning to it. It is groove conscious without being synthetic and is drenched with honest emotion. The songs of Lennon and McCartney are well represented here: "Eleanor Rigby," "A Day in the Life," and "The Fool on the Hill" are present. In addition, there as are excellent readings of Curtis Mayfield's standard, "People Get Ready," Barrett Strong's and Norman Whitfield's "War," Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Alvertis Isbell's "I'll Take You There," (so closely associated with the Staple Singers), and the civil rights-era classic, "I Wish I Knew (What It Means to Be Free)" immortalized byNina Simone. As fine as this set is as a whole, there are some clear standouts: "A Day in the Life" with Klugh's warm but funky acoustic guitar and gorgeous piano work by Miyamoto, the long improv that introduces the Mayfield tune with Whalum at his soloing best on soprano and a nice koto part woven in by Junko Takeo; Sanchez's lyrical tenor paired with Printup's trumpet on "Fool on the Hill"; and the five-horn front line of the Common Ground Collective on "War," with talking drum, wah-wah guitars, and smoking breakbeats. This is not only a benefit record worth supporting, it's a musical statement that stands on its own; it is worth celebrating as one of contemporary jazz's shining lights in 2008.