Tennyson Stephens / Phil Upchurch

Upchurch/Tennyson

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1975 was a hell of a year for Creed Taylor's Kudu Records. Not only was the mighty, mighty Feels So Good album by Grover Washington, Jr. released, but so was saxophonist Hank Crawford's Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing. It was one of two recordings issued by Crawford for the label in that calendar year. But perhaps the most deeply satisfying and out of character album from that year was the absolute soul-jazz masterpiece Upchurch/Tennyson by Chicago guitar god Phil Upchurch and pianist/vocalist Tennyson Stephens. Where else can you find tracks by Bob James, Charles Stepney, Stevie Wonder, Ralph MacDonald, and Franz Schubert on the same album played by a cast of musicians that includes Steve Gadd, David Sanborn, Hubert Laws, James, Upchruch, Stephens, and a slew of others. While the album kicks off soulfully with MacDonald's mellow groover "You Got Style," with Stephens hitting all the low notes correctly and with smooth verve throughout, the next tune is the one that set the mark for acts like Enigma, Delerium, Adiemus, and others: James' setting of Schubert's "Ave Maria" to a slow funky backbeat with a chorus of female voices all colored by guitar and Fender Rhodes. The read of Wonder's "Tell Me Something Good" is stunning in a different way than Chaka Khan's, with Upchurch bending the hell out of his single-string notes, and James' "South Side Morning" is one of the most beautifully composed -- as well as executed -- tunes he's ever conceived. Throughout is the warmth and tenderness of Stephens' singing and his lilting pianism, and Upchurch's always in the pocket, without any flashy guitar playing, making this a late-night and early-morning album to live by. This is one of those soul-jazz records that is heavier on soul and is all the better for it.

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