Blue Note has always been one of America's -- and the world's -- premier jazz labels, bestowing upon us classic platters by such luminaries as Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter. But the past few years have found the label expanding its focus (no doubt to the consternation of jazz purists), releasing albums by hip-hop artist Madlib and jazz-influenced rock icon Van Morrison. Now it has gone one step beyond (to quote an old Jackie McLean album title) by signing Al Green, one of the all-time greatest rhythm & blues/soul singers, and issuing his first secular album since 1995's Your Heart's in Good Hands. (Green became an ordained pastor in 1976 and subsequently recorded gospel music.)
I Can't Stop, Green's "comeback" album, effectively revisits the style of his 1970-73 Hi Records commercial and artistic peak (1977's The Belle Album was superb but something of a commercial disappointment). The new work is a spirited synthesis of slightly rough-hewn, gospel-inspired Memphis groove with a pronounced backbeat and the lush strings and production of the sleeker soul variants that once came out of Philadelphia (Thom Bell's Philly soul) and Detroit (Motown). Green's voice is unaltered by the passage of time -- one could consider him Marvin Gaye's country-bred cousin, as he has Marvin's suavity, but with a slight rasp charged with sanctified moans and falsetto wails. He's reunited with producer Willie Mitchell and many of the same musicians and singers of his Hi days, including guitarist "Teenie" Hodges and bassist Leroy Hodges, who still lay down a tight, smoldering framework. New guys the Royal Horns provide the same tangy embellishments as their predecessors the Memphis Horns.
Al Green is one of the last and best of his kind, a soul(ful) singer who thrives on the conflicts and joys that occur when spiritually based fervor rubs up against temptations of the heart, and it's comforting to see that after all this time he still has the right stuff. I Can't Stop is, alas, not likely to make the charts these days, but devotees of old-school soul will find it a godsend.