Papa Mali’s latest album Music Is Love is proof that positive eccentricity can be a definite a virtue in the realm of music. The Louisiana native, whose given name is Malcolm Welbourne, collaborates with producer John Chelew (Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, John Hiatt) on a set of tunes as spooky as they are earthy.
This is a remarkably seamless recording given the range of authors credited with its songs. Mississippi Fred McDowell wrote the voodoo chant “Lonesome Road” at the start, while R&B icon Al Green co-authored “I’m A Ram.” Leadbelly’s “Bottle Up and Go” precedes Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver,” between which are two of Papa Mali’s originals – “Wild Gardenias” and “Bought and Sold (Body and Soul) – written with Shannon McNally that sandwich the title song, taken from David Crosby’s very first solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. And in a quietly eloquent bottleneck instrumental take, Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” closes the album, yet another thread of continuity here as the ex-Byrd produced her debut album.
Along with such contemporary elements, the sounds of the American South permeate these recordings, rendered with a purity of intent that makes them work. The understated presence of New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich reaffirms the roots of the record as evidenced on Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield;” the warm glow of vibes add a ghostly air there that complements Mali’s whispered vocals. Additional seasoning appears elsewhere in the form of gospel- styled vocals from the Harmonaires and Josh Paxton’s piano and (sometimes intentionally cheesy) organ, as Mali himself proffers restrained tasteful guitar work in both acoustic and electric textures, all of which serves the songs.
Kudos to him for his humility, but also to Chelew for expertly apportioning the instruments and vocals within the arrangements so that nothing calls attention to itself and nobody unduly commands the spotlight. Representing a different perspective on Papa Mali’s persona, each of the dozen cuts stands on its own as it plays, yet still connects with its surroundings. And it’s perfectly appropriate NOLA author L Maistro’s “Go Down Water,” signals the homestretch of the album, again invokes Mali’s muse in much the same haunting way it begin. This recording is an artful act of sequencing that insures Music Is Love’s ultimately enchanting impression.