Harlem's Carlton Jumel Smith has been fronting bands and making records for the better part of 40 years. Whether singing house and/or techno under a stage name (Napoleon Soul-O), fronting the funky rock band the Thrill Cycle, subbing for James Brown (whom he played in Barry Levinson's 1999 film Liberty Heights) and Ray Charles, playing clubs in New York and Europe, or cutting his own independent records, Smith has done it all. 1634 Lexington Avenue is his debut long-player for Finland's premier indie soul label, Timmion, and his first full-length since 2008. The title reflects Smith's childhood address. He is backed by Helsinki's Cold Diamond & Mink, Timmion's production team and studio band led by guitarist/organist Seppo Salmi, bassist Sami Kantelinen, and drummer Jukka Sarapää. The horn section includes arranger/trumpeter Jukka Eskola, Pope Puolitaival on baritone sax, and global jazz-funk saxophonist Jimi Tenor, with Janne Auvinen on congas and Tuomo Prättälä on organ, piano, and background vocals filling. The ten-song set was co-composed by Smith and the band via the Internet, then cut live in studio with each song captured in one or two takes.
While Smith claims Brown as his biggest influence, it's obvious he also reveres the sounds of Memphis' Hi-Records and Stax, Detroit's Motown, and Chicago's Curtom. Set opener "Woman You Made Me," is a '70s-esque dancefloor slipper, steeped in punchy horns and funky wah-wah guitar slashing out major sevenths as Smith growls passionately. "Love Our Love Affair," is smoother, inspired by Chicago's harmony groups from the Impressions to the Chi-Lites, underscored by a killer trumpet break. Smith's phrasing, command of tone and dynamic, and smoldering passion color each note. "Remember Me," is deeply romantic; Smith allows Al Green's vocal gifts for understatement and balance to guide him. The rhythm section and backing vocals stroll behind and frame his delivery. The sultry single "This Is What Love Looks Like," is a mid-tempo groover that's sexy, poetic, and committed. "You Gonna Need Me," is possessed by a Memphis vibe, drenched in Smith's sweet baritone that weds gospel, soul, and blues in its grain. The upright piano, popping bass line, and sweeping horns make this nearly rhapsodic. "We're All We Got," is a socially conscious, up-tempo call to brotherhood; it's (spiritually) reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" but filtered through early Latin funk and jazzy Chicago horns. Closer "I Can't Love You Anymore" is drenched in Brown's break-saturated funky soul with Smith adding a passionate falsetto to the swaying horns, spiky guitars, bubbling bass line, and simmering B-3. 1634 Lexington Avenue is the album Smith through his wandering and woodshedding has been promising for decades now. It is retro to be sure, but free of artifice or false appropriation. He is personally invested in these songs and it shows. Essential.