Jazz-funk fans, believe the hype: James Mason's Rhythm of Life is every bit the overlooked classic its small but fanatical cult following has built it up to be. Smoothly soulful (but not slick) and spiritually uplifting throughout, the album's blend of funky fusion and progressive R&B is hardly the stuff purist dreams are made of, but anyone who loves the deep grooves of Donald Byrd or Mason's former employer, Roy Ayers, will immediately understand why this is considered a masterpiece in acid jazz circles. Breezy ballads and ferocious up-tempo groovers alike benefit from Mason's sure sense of songcraft and his knack for full-bodied arrangements. Mason plays all the guitars and loads of vintage synths (two different ARPs and Fender Rhodes electric piano among them), so he's largely responsible for the instrumental meat of every track. And though he's a strong soloist when he chooses, his focus is more on creating luxurious textures and working the grooves. And work them he does -- the faster tracks are amazingly driving for the jazz-funk genre, taken at tempos that would be fast even for R&B or rock, with lots of frantically slapped bass from Gene Torres. Clarice Taylor's vocals are far more soulful than the charmingly amateurish jazz-funk norm; what's more, the songs -- all but one co-written by Ninoska Escobar -- aren't just perfunctory groove vehicles, but feel more substantially structured than is typical for the genre. At least four -- "Sweet Power Your Embrace," "Free," "Funny Girl," and "Slick City" -- have become rare-groove club standards, and the title cut is an absolute monster. Records like Rhythm of Life -- catchy, funky, richly textured, and utterly joyous -- are a huge reason the acid jazz movement came into being; since their virtues aren't as prized by hardcore jazzers, they might otherwise be consigned to oblivion. Thankfully, this one was rescued.
AllMusic Review by Steve Huey