Recorded in 1971, shortly after he departed Cadet where he served as a house sideman-playing on dozens of records and a prefferred guitarist for Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, Phil Upchurch headed for the West Coast and Blue Thumb Records. Produced by Tommy LiPuma, Upchurch's Darkness, Darkness is his quintessential (double) album, full of laid-back funky grooves, elegant, mind-blowing guitar work, elegant string and horn arrangements, and fine Fender Rhodes work from Donny Hathaway with legendary session bassist Chuck Rainey and smooth jazz piano great Joe Sample in the house. Upchurch effortlessly walks the line where jazz, blues, rock, soul, and funk fold into one another, yet he never gives quarter in the process. The title track is a cover of the Youngbloods hit. Upchurch leaves all the fuzz tone and distortion of his early work behind him for the shimmering cleanliness of the West Coast sound. He gets the dirty grooves through the notes, not the effects, bringing out the funky side of Jesse Colin Young's original. Hathaway's spare, tasty muted horn arrangements follow in counterpoint to the melody, creating an extended harmony that acts almost as another voice. On "Fire and Rain"-- the James Taylor evergreen that was a hit when he covered it--Upchurch begins tenderly, wringing its melody slowly and purposefully, before the keyboards and strings reach in and grab it. Forced to respond, he chunks it up with large Wes Montgomery-styled chords and knotty fills at the piano and horns, cascading like water in the background. He increases the tempo and transforms it into a funky soul tune, with a haunting melodic invention that restores the poignant melody. And while these tunes signify his capablility for turning even the most melancholy folk-pop tunes into funk-driven boogaloos, it's on the soul tunes where he shines brightest. Conversley, his readings of James Brown's "Cold Sweat," Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" are turned toward pop and reveal an accessibility that not readly apparent to that audience. While the rock music was danceable and inspiring to begin with and was reinvented both structurally and emotionally by Upchurch's playing, it's when he digs into classic R&B material that things really start to happen. He plays with such a sticky groove that he wrings every ounce sweaty emotion from these songs, revisioning them as anthems to funky transcendence. There isn't anything extra in his silky approach, but a profound knowledge of when to move and when to slip, slide, and groove through these charts-- is Upchurch's trademark. Virtually no one else could take a raw tune like "Cold Sweat," smooth it out, and still give it the mean, lean read that Upchurch does. His fingers are flying all over the place but are never outside the reach of the rhythm section. Darkness, Darkness is 1971's soul-jazz album to beat, and despite its under-recognition at the time--it is one of, if not the, decade's finest albums in the genre, period.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek