Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: The J.B.'s and Fred Wesley, 'The Lost Album Featuring Watermelon Man'

Sometime during the early '70s, when soul and funk were experiencing the same stylistic growing pains as rock and pop, James Brown let his band have a run at the recording studio.

Composed of top-drawer session players, the ensemble that came to be known as The J.B.'s (wonder who dreamed that name up?) provided the frenzied motion and stop-on-a-dime precision that complemented Brown's performance intensity. Add the talents of musical director Fred Wesley, a trombonist schooled in jazz, and you had a show band that could amply shine when its own studio time came up.

The story behind what is now the rather drably titled The Lost Album Featuring Watermelon Man is a tale indeed. Wesley cut an album that highlighted the jazzier inspirations of The J.B.'s without losing the huge, brassy groove that ignited Brown's wildest hits. There also was a modest pop-soul sheen that made the music radio-friendly, had radio been so inclined to pay it any mind.

It wasn't. It couldn't. An ornate, brass-fueled cover of the early Herbie Hancock hit Watermelon Man made its way out of the studio as a single in 1972 — as did a streamlined take on the then-current O'Jays single Backstabbers — but the bulk of the sessions were shelved, hence "lost." The J.B.'s recorded more as the '70s progressed, surrendering incrementally to the pop tastes of the times (as did Brown's music) until they hit the commercial sinkhole of disco.

Last month, the 1972 sessions were finally released as a semi-cohesive album. Now we get to hear what a crafty soul man Wesley was as a band leader.

Watermelon Man starts the party with busy, brassy horn lines and a jubilant Brown sitting in on drums. It's pretty textbook stuff for the Godfather of Soul and his bandmates, with airtight grooves and an unrelenting funk drive.

But then things turn subversive. The personnel morphs considerably as Wesley recruits the cream of New York jazz session players, including drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Joe Farrell and the trumpet/sax sibling duo of Randy and Michael Brecker.

The stylistic shift is remarkable, with the Wesley ballad Sweet Loneliness easing along with lushly orchestrated horns and not a hint of groove. It's as if Brown's band had been caught moonlighting with Stan Kenton.

The music turns deliciously urban for the fusion-flavored Transmograpfication (which could have been a soundtrack for an episode of Starsky and Hutch) and the big band-savvy Seulb.

Reworkings of pop fare including Everybody Plays the Fool and the Backstabbers are less inviting simply because of cloying vocal additions. For the most part, though, Wesley turns the Brown sound to pure gold on The Lost Album.