Keyboard Master David K. Mathews Honors Bay Area Vocalists with Soul, R&B, and Pop on “The Fantasy Vocal Sessions, Vol.2” (Album Review

Keyboard master David K. Mathews, longtime sideman for Santana and Etta James prior to that, delivers his second vocals project, again calling on some of the singers in the Bay Area. While 2018’s Vol. 1 was an album of jazz standards, he goes in a different direction this time with soul, R&B and pop. This was recorded at the iconic Fantasy Studios as was its predecessor, but with the studio now closed, future projects, of which two are planned, will have to be recorded elsewhere. 

Even with the switch in genres many of the same band members and featured vocalists return for these sessions.  From the band returning members include guitarist Jim Nichols, drummer Akira Tana, guitarist Carl Lockett, and tenor saxophonist Wayne De Silva. Returning featuring vocalists are Amikaeyla Gaston, Steve Miller, Glenn Walters, Tony Lindsay, and Kenny Washington.  These vocalists also join for this one: Lady Bianca, Funky Fred Ross, and Alex Ligertwood. Additionally, there are multiple bassists, drummers, and guitarists.

Mathews joined Tower of Power at the age of 23 and toured with them for two years. He then spent 20 years accompanying Etta James, right up to her last performances. Since 2010 he has been touring with Santana. He has performed as a sideman across several genres with artists such as Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Ruben Blades, Box Scaggs, India Arie, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, and many, many more. He has a vast knowledge of all kinds of music, especially jazz, which you don’t hear here. His dream (fantasy if you will) was to put out a series of recordings with his favorite singers and musicians. A blues effort is planned for Vol. 3 and an Afro-Cuban plus Brazilian set for Vol. 4.

<P> This is both a love letter to the Bay Area to the originators of these great songs. Mathews, no matter which keyboard he plays, shines along with the vocalists on these well-chosen tunes. He includes a booklet that gives a brief bio on each vocalist and detailed musician credits by track. Our review will be touching on some of that information. The set begins with jazz artist, activist, and educator Amikaeyla Gaston performing The Isley Brothers’ “For the Love of You.” She also shines brightly on her poignant take on Stevie Wonder’s “Super Woman” and deeply expressive version of Jimmy Webb’s classic “Wichita Lineman.” Tony Lindsay has perhaps the strongest vocal performance on al on his passionate reading of Donny Hathaway’s “You Had to Know,” which to these ears reminds us how much we miss Luther Vandross. Lindsay has spent 25 years as Santana’s vocalist, and he returns for Ray Obiedo’s “So Sweetly.” 

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Steve Miller, a close friend of Mathews, sings on the Ray Charles associated “One Mint Julep,” like on Lindsay’s “You Had to Know,” backed by a large ensemble.  In the case of “Mint Julep” it’s more than appropriate as it appeared on Brother Ray’s 1961 big band album Genius + Soul = Jazz. Funky Fred Ross who has backed Aretha and been a frontman for Pee Wee Ellis does an amazing cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” while Lady Bianca, with a lineage tracing to Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, and Sly Stone, interprets Van McCoy’s “Giving Up.” She brings some of that special “it” that reminds Mathews of Etta James. She is backed by a large ensemble on the tune, which features a searing lead guitar solo from vastly underrated blues great Chris Cain.

For this writer, blue-eyed soul vocalist Glenn Walters was the prevailing star of the Vol. 1 jazz standards album, and he returns her for his version of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ 1964 hit (oh, those AM radio days) “Goin’ Out of My Head.” He slows the tempo and transforms it from giddy teenage love into an anguished plea. Tenor saxophonist Wayne De Silva was more prominent on Vol. 1 but comes through here with an expressive solo. Alex Ligertwood is another Santana alumnus, having sung sporadically with the group between 1979 and 1994. He steps up for a version of Al Kooper’s Blood, Sweat & Tears tune “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” modeled on the Donny Hathaway version. No matter the version, it’s a terrific song and one that’s great to hear again and Ligertwood wails away.  Fittingly one of the top jazz vocalists of the Bay Area, Kenny Washington closes with a 12-minute take on Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” which features plenty of interplay with the backing quartet as Mathews plays Fender Rhodes and synths while Ray Obeido handles the guitar.

With the excellent song choices and Mathews’ stellar arrangements, this is strong a vocal album from various artists that you’ll hear in any setting.  The Vol.1 was an impressive outing, but this surpasses that one, leaving us highly anticipating the other two that will follow. In the meantime, keep this one near your player. It’s conducive to multiple repeat listens.

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