Afro Strut

Amp Fiddler

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Afro Strut Review

by Thom Jurek

Detroit keyboard and vocal ace, producer, arranger, and composer Amp Fiddler has pulled an end-around on Afro Strut. He followed up the brilliant Waltz of a Ghetto Fly in 2004 with an import version of Afro Strut in 2006 on Genuine. The U.S. version followed in 2007, and instead of simply reissuing the set, he's retooled it considerably. The bottom line is that this is one of those records that is decidedly not a rip-off designed to grab your cash by the inclusion of a bonus cut or two. For starters, the single "If I Don't," which was an Amp solo joint on the earlier version, was re-recorded as a duet with Corinne Bailey Rae. Keeping its 1930s vibe, with a jumpy little Fats Waller-esque melody and rhythm, he and Rae whip the tune into a jaunty frenzy with killer instrumental fills by jazz legend (and fellow Detroiter) Wendell Harrison's clarinet, and the upright piano loops that tinkle and twinkle around the edges, adding a late-night, prohibition-era party vibe. It's playful and snappy. The funky opener, "Faith," produced by Raphael Saadiq, remains in its earlier form, offering a real alternative to the Jamiroquai-trademarked plastic funky soul that seems to be ever present on the other side of the pond these days. Saadiq's bassline is rubbery and deep in the cut as Amp keeps the slippery groove relaxed vocally and on his keys. Another killer moment on the American version is the radical revision of Billy Robert's standard "Hey Joe." Closely associated with Jimi Hendrix, Fiddler's version is compelling because he doesn't do away with the guitar-based soul in the original, but deepens it with his keyboards, allowing guitarist Rob Bacon to ape the axe master while the beautiful B-3 lines do the fills and Fiddler's vocal moves into prime deep soul storytelling mode, making it a kind of future blues by way of the newspaper headlines. It's an age-old story told over the fence by word of mouth with the careening synth lines underscoring the violence that takes place. The narrator doesn't judge; he merely accepts and listens. The B-3 climbs to a shattering intensity as Fiddler lets his stellar voice range from smooth to gritty to underscore the action in the narrative. As Bacon plays the Hendrix guitar lines straight, the original is kept in the context of this new reading, but make no mistake, it's brand new, with a bottom-heavy bassline and punched-up chorus line. "Not" is a modern new-soul tune. The jazzy guitar fills by Chris Bruce stand in sharp contrast to the keyboards and programming. Fiddler's acoustic piano rides well with that rubbery synth bass, and his smooth, airy vocals. The harder nocturnal funk that is "Scared" is another new addition. There's a sampled Bobby Byrd voice that bubbles up from underneath, bringing James Brown's contribution back to the front intermittently. But the tune, slow as it is, gets down. Acoustic piano lines rub bellies with the loose-spined programmed bassline and tough-as-nails hi-hat and muffled snare loops, accenting the smoking chorus line-backing vocals. Fiddler's ability to make even the toughest, leanest lines seem relaxed in the groove is a trademark at this point. The African-language backing vocals provided by Mpho Skeet are offered as a percussive device and tier-thin reedy tonality is a sharp but welcome contrast to the sexual soul croon of Fiddler. As for the moments on the original that garnered it the critical acclaim it got overseas, there's the first single from the last version, "Right Where You Are," which is an uptown strutter of a new-soul jam. With strings layered in by Pete Whitfield, flutes (alto and B flat) by Helena Price, live drums by Joshua McKenzie, complement the barrage of shimmering programming and backing tracks layered both on top of and underneath Fiddler's vocal and keyboard lines, Tony Bowry's live bassline bubbles like Michael Henderson's did with both Miles and in his latter days at Motown playing with the Funk Brothers. It pumps the groove while letting Amp do his laid-back thing in the verses. Two welcome vocal guest spots have been returned here in "You Could Be Mine" with Neco Washington. The single-chord melody line and intertwined vocals that alternate with call-and-response lines are stunning. It's a big fat groove that rarely contains the pair as they let it all fall out in front of everyone. This is the kind of love song that carries body as well as soul. The Collin Duouis breakbeats on the trap kit work nicely with the open righteous feel of Amp's crazy future funk keyboards and programming sonics. The other smoking vocal guest spot belongs to Stephanie McKay on "Heaven." Bass is played by Paul Randolph, saxophone by Jacques Schwartbart, Ronald Wright on drums, a beautiful pair of guitars by Jean-Paul Maunick and Tony Remy, with additional keys by James Shelton. But the glory belongs to McKay, whose soul croon is pure, elegant, airy, and able -- and she can get to any note without sliding. Amp croons along with her, but she takes it up a couple of notches. The harp loops add the dreamy outer-realm textures and layered-in flutes, and overdubbed shooting star sounds whisk in and out of this dense but not crowded mix. The pairing of voices moves it into orbit. The set closer, "Come See Me," officially ends at about 4:50, but after a two-minute silence, there's a great surprise that we won't spoil. The bottom line is, as good as the original Afro Strut was, this new version actually improves on what was already close to perfect. This one cannot be recommended highly enough.

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