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Issue 1084

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Feature

AL GREEN: Soul Deep

Al Green
Al Green Rev Al Green Rev Al Green Rev Al Green

Itâs a tough call for most legendary soul music artists: how do you make a new album that will appeal to a contemporary audience while not alienating the tried-and-tested loyal following youâve created over decades and still retain your own artistic integrity?

Few succeed but hands down, Al Green â known back in the day as the 'Prince Of Soul' â has done it. 'Lay It Down,' his third album for Blue Note Records, may well be the Reverend Al Greenâs best and most authentic soul recording since his Hi Records heyday back in the mid-â70s. Thatâs a bold claim to make but listening over and over, I am convinced that working with The Rootsâ Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson of The Roots and Philly hitmaker James Poyser, Al Green has crafted his most satisfying project in decades.

?uestlove and Poyser have truly captured the essence of who Al is musically and the result is remarkable. But enough gushing, time to hear from Al himself, whose association with 'Blues & Soul' goes back to his first recordings for Hi: indeed, at the outset of our phone interview, I remind Al of his first visit to the offices of the magazine since it was B&S in conjunction with Contempo that was responsible for presenting him in concert (along with then - unknown band Bloodstone) in Britain. âYou remember that, man?â Al asks incredulously when I mention our first encounter in the tiny Hanway Street offices of Contempo. âWow, we really go back!â

After reminiscing on those good olâ days, Al says the idea of working with ?uestlove and James Poyser was collectively arrived at: âThe folks at the record company mentioned it on a casual level and asked me what I thought. I was aware of these new kids on the block, the guys who were coming up and doing a great job so I thought, âwhy not let them work with me?â It was like âback to the futureâ â amazing!â

The first thing that Al discovered when starting to work with the pair was the degree to which they wanted his creative involvement: âThey wanted me to write the songs. It was the same as it was back in â72 and â73. They told me, âWe donât want to change you, Al.â They played the music for me and I just started writing the songs. We were working at the old Jimi Hendrix studio, Electric Ladyland in New York. I was sitting on the floor and I just started making the songs up. Nothing had been written down and by the end of the first night, I had written eight songs! The music just overflowed and I didnât stop it. I think we went to 2:00am and boy, I was tired! I felt like I had given everything to the music.â

In addition to giving Al the space to fully be himself creatively, the producers brilliantly brought in some very special guests. Featured on the title track and 'Youâve Got The Love I Need' is contemporary soul man Anthony Hamilton: âHeâs so real and genuine,â says Al. âIt wasnât about whoâs the star but about letâs get the hob done. We had sheets of paper everywhere while we were writing those two songs!â Brit sensation Corinne Bailey Rae came into New York especially for the session: âShe was such a doll,â Al states. âShe brought in her guitar and set it up in the booth and we came up with three or four songs â everyone was doing the workâ¦â The final result was the mellow 'Take Your Time,' one of the standouts on an album filled with great music.

The third guest artist for the project (which features The Dap-King Horns, known for their work with Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse among others) was John Legend: âHe brought his computer along but he didnât get to write much on it!â Al laughs. âHe was a great guy, a charm to work with, he has a real loving spirit. The result speaks for itself,â Al adds, referencing the excellent 'Stay With Me (by the sea),' the albumâs first single.

Al reflects that working with Thompson and Poyser âwas similar to how we did the sessions with Willie Mitchell. We ate together, worked together. I remember when the guys would play half a song and I would start smilingâ¦and they looked at each other and said, âhe loves it!â We went over the songs just like we used to at Hi Recordsâ¦â

When asked for his own thoughts on working with a legend like Al, co-producer James Poyser notes, âWe really didnât do any homework because ?uestlove and I were already familiar with the sound. We pretty much knew what we wanted to do and then it was about calling in the players that could fit the vibe.â Poyser recalls, âWhen we first went to meet him at the hotel, we didnât know what to expect or what kind of personality heâd have. He turned out to be a real cool guy and once we got in the studio, we started jamming. It was really organic: four of the first ideas turned into songs and we used the first takes Al did on the final record. For instance, with the song 'Lay It Down,' Al was writing as we were playing. He was coming up with lyrics off the top of his head.â

Thinking about the songs on the album, Al says after listening three or four times, heâs particularly fond of 'No One Like You,' 'All I Need,' the title track and 'Wild About You,' noting that with the latter, âthe producers didnât let me say all the things I wanted to say! They wanted to keep it civilized! And as for 'Lay It Down,' it means, âI want to love youâ and thatâs not too bad, as the people in church say!â

James Poyser adds, âTo work with a legend like Al Green, one of the greatest voices in history is up there. A few times in the studio, I would think, âWow, thatâs Al Green saying my name!â Doing those sessions with him, I felt like I was right there in the â70s in Memphisâ¦â

Al concludes that heâs still surprised at the reaction his classic music gets from todayâs artists: âI never thought that would happen. A whole generation of kids have been born since I started making this music! And when I hear people say this new record is the best Al Green album since the â70s, I say, âyouâre right!â If youâve been listening to my music over the years, itâs impossible not to love it!â Amen, Reverend Green. As far as this writer is concerned, 'Lay It Down' is track for track, possibly Alâs best work since â74 but also one of the finest contemporary soul albums in years. Right on, right on!

Al Green plays London's Royal Albert hall on November 5th & 6th - with Gabrielle supporting.
Words DAVID NATHAN

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