The Fantasy Vocal Sessions – Vol. 1 Standards
If you’re not from the San Francisco Bay Area or an ardent fan of Santana, you’re probably not familiar with keyboardist David K. Mathews. Yet, considering this, his first as a leader in fifteen years, could lead to five or six projects across several genres for Effendi Records, you’ll get to know him rather quickly. Before his current long running gig with Santana, he played with Tower of Power and Etta James. Ironically, he replaced Chester T. Thompson in Tower of Power and then again in Santana.
Mathews is a self-taught keyboardist who cites as musical training as ‘on-the-job’ in addition to private piano study with various piano professionals. Here’s how he describes the sessions, ‘’It’s basically a bunch of informal get togethers with some the great vocalists that I’ve worked with since 1979 through the present, backed by my favorite players. Volume 1 is mostly standards and ballads, recorded in two days with no rehearsal and only 1 or 2 takes per tune – pretty much an ‘old school,’ small group jazz recording where I pay strictly acoustic piano……Further volumes in the series will explore my eclectic tastes and will be more “electric.” They will delve into pop, rock, soul, R&B, blues, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music, played by all of the wonderful musicians that have been part of my life here in the Bay Area.”
Mathews talks in the liner notes about his goal of making an album with the late Etta James, whom he supported for nearly two decades. He was never able to make that session happen due to Etta’s passing, and, as a result, he scuffled until getting the keyboard chair with Santana in 2010. But, even though he came to jazz relatively late, his work with Etta and later in backing singers in the former Jazz at Pearl’s in North Beach, Mathews developed a love of working with singers. Mathews has worked extensively with Maria Muldaur, who is featured in two tunes. Besides Steve Miller, who does “Blue Skies,” the others are mostly Bay Area jazz and R&B singers that may be relatively unfamiliar to most. The liners do a nice job of providing a capsule of each. We’ll spare you that detail but encourage you to seek out those descriptions. We’ll mention some that are particularly striking.
Nicolas Bearde, has that deep rich voice reminiscent of Billy Eckstine. Bearde was a founding member of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra and sings both “I Want to Talk About You” and “Smile.” Amikaeyla Gaston may have the purest voice of all the vocalists and does a scintillating take on “Alfie.” Glenn Walters is a Bay Area institution who is a natural balladeer, injecting some new life into the rarely heard “Ruby” and the oft- covered Carmichael/Mercer chestnut ‘Skylark.” The album highlight though is Kenny Washington’s, who Mathews calls the best jazz singer in the world, version of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Maybe it’s because I am so used to the Eckstine and the Coltrane/Johnny Hartman versions, it becomes rather revelatory to hear Washington’s vocal in a higher register.
Speaking of Coltrane, saxophonist Wayne DeSilva plays in style like Trane’s ballad period. His solos are tight and tastefully melodic. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Mathews claims that he was listening to lots of McCoy Tyner’s work with Coltrane around this time.
In any case, this album both introduces us to Mathews, who stays mostly in support role so that the vocalists can assume the spotlight. Not every performance is flawless and perhaps the rock and pop singers may be a bit misplaced among the likes of Bearde, Gaston, Walters, and Washington. Nonetheless, we should be grateful for the exposure of the latter and commend Mathews on an auspicious start to his series.
- Jim Hynes
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