Phil Upchurch

Love Is Strange

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One of the most remarkable things about guitar hero Phil Upchurch's output from 1961 to the present day is that it's remarkably consistent. No matter the style, whether it is R&B, soul, jazz, blues, funk, rock, or smooth jazz, he's on it and in it. This date from 1995 is no exception. Upchurch teams up with Ben Sidran -- who acts as both producer and vocalist -- for a remarkably tasty and mellow date of shimmering jazz and contemporary soul. The opening track, "Winds of Change," features a stunning vocal performance from Mavis Staples. Her voice, heading for the rafters, is allowed to break and crack naturally (thank God Quincy Jones didn't produce this; he would have had her sounding like she was doing an ad for satin sheets); it blends nicely with Upchurch's understated, graceful playing. Staples delves deep into the lyric for meaning and puts in front of the band, who floats it out transcendentally. On the funked up blues of "It's My Thing," Upchurch pops notes with a greasy fury. His vocals, limited though they are in range, are perfectly suited to the arpeggiated funk-blues. In the title track Upchurch slips in for the voodoo blues kill with Chaka Khan using her smoky, alluring voice to bring home a dark, sensual lyric. Upchurch uses both acoustic and electric guitars to bring in an undertow of conflicting, sexual emotions. The finest track on the album, however, is "It Was Groovy in There," with Sidran on vocals. It's actually a remake of Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo" with lyrics. Upchurch glides through the knotty, angular melody with Sidran doing his best Jack Kerouac. The matching arpeggios, the long, staccato melody lines, and Upchurch's burning, slippery solo offer a large tapestry for Sidran to sing from, and place his accents and diction in the right spaces. While it's true that Love Is Strange may be among Upchurch's slickest records, it's nonetheless a rewarding one.

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