Bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen toyed with the idea of plopping R&B pop tunes within a modern mainstream jazz framework on their previous Mack Avenue album Get Ready, and do it again here on Work to Do, the title track borrowed from the repertoire of the Isley Brothers. Their set list is expanded beyond Motown and Philly soul to include standards, post-bop originals, a tune from the Beatles, and personalized tributes to friends, family members, and influences. The band is also bigger, featuring saxophonists Kirk Whalum or Vincent Herring at one time or another, their regular pianist the excellent George Colligan, trumpeter Brandon Lee, up-and-coming Detroit trombonist Vincent Chandler, and especially the multi-faceted guitar veteran Rodney Jones. Whitaker and Allen are true team members and musical soulmates, their vision of what jazz can be in contemporary times firmly established, and their quest to also make new music impressive enough to stand alone apart from the cover tunes. Allen and Whitaker are, first and foremost, modern boppers as evidenced on the sax and brass front line during "For Garrison (Both)," an Art Blakey/Jazz Messengers with a Curtis Fuller-type tribute to bassist Jimmy Garrison and his son Matthew, or "Grahamstown," a modal piece, potentially a new standard, filled with Colligan's marvelously conceived chord structures urging the band and especially Vincent Herring's Bobby Watson-styled alto saxophone onward. "Relativity" is perhaps the most hip, youth oriented track with its lively clockwork beat, deeply soulful organ courtesy of Dorsey Robinson, and Herring's more personalized sound. Of the tunes taken from the pop charts, the title track mixes bossa and bop changing up back and forth, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" has the kind of funky groove, inquisitive horn inserts, probing organ, and lead guitar melody from Jones, suggesting not only Whitaker's Detroit roots, but the band's love for post-bop combos like that of Woody Shaw. "Eleanor Rigby" is not an afterthought, but an intriguing, well planned, and complex piece in a 5/4 time signature accented by mixed meters, fronted by Lee's lead trumpet melody. Also included for contrast is "With You I'm Born Again," in somber reverent overtones for sure via Whitaker's bowed bass, but also a sneaky underground feel that suggests both angel and devil. Jones and Whitaker play the standard "A Time for Love" in duet form, as tender as can be. Certainly the source material for the band is not exhausted if they want to keep adapting rhythm & blues classics into current-day jazz vehicles, and they are crowd-pleasing for sure. While Allen's and Whitaker's strong suit remains their individuality, it's an aspect of their professional lives heard in several different contexts, and quite prevalent here no matter whose tunes they play.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos