Al Green’s status in the pantheon of African American music is beyond question. The albums Green released in the 1970s-Let’s Stay Together, Call Me, Al Green Explores Your Mind, Al Green is Love-stand beside the classics of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aretha Franklin as the sounds that defined a musical era. With the release of The Belle Album in 1977, Green turned away from secular stardom and devoted the next two decades to his spiritual calling, pastoring the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green continued to make good music, earning eight Grammy awards for his gospel performances, but only hard core gospel fans would dispute the notion that Green’s most important work is 30 years in the past. His two “comeback” albums, I Can’t Stop (2003) and Everything’s OK (2005) had the feel of more-than-competent exercises in nostalgia rather than music that had to be heard.
In an interview with Wax Poetics (no. 28, 2008), hip-hop drum legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson states that, when he entered the studio to begin work on Green’s new album, Lay It Down, his intention was to make ” the thirty-year follow-up to the Belle record.” Sharing production duties with Green and virtuoso R&B keyboardist/producer James Poyser, Thompson at least came close to realizing his goal. Where most cross-generational collaborations between hip hop and soul artists have suffered from their obvious, and doomed, desire to make the elders sound hip, Lay It Down contents itself with the classic soul virtues of emotional and musical depth. “The thing that I find missing from music today,” Questlove observed, “is the feeling. That, to me, is the most important ingredient missing from the soul-food platter today.”
To capture that feeling, Questlove and Poyser (best known for his work with Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mariah Carey) convinced Green to explore a more improvisatory process than the one he developed with long-time producer Willie Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s. Working with a first-rate band including guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and bassist Adam Blackstone, Questlove and Poyser organized free-form sessions, letting the tape run no matter what was going on. Where in the past Green had worked mostly from composed charts, the songs on Lay It Down emerged from the give-and-take between the musicians. “Al Green could give most freestyle rappers a run for their money,” Questlove observed. “The energy and excitement that you hear in his voice, him ad-libbing to himself, talking to us, laughing, that’s just genuine excitement of what he never knew was still around, which was the feeling of the music.”
Here is a a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lay It Down:
You can hear the excitement from the first bars of the title cut, which opens the album. The sound is classic soul: simple guitar line, bass and drums hitting the rhythms with unforced precision, the Dap-King horn section smoothing the way for Green’s vocal entry. Anthony Hamilton, one of three young R&B artists who makes a guest appearance on the album, provides perfect harmonic and emotional counterpoint. The best thing you can say about “Lay It Down” is that you could put it on The Belle Album and no one would notice the change. That’s not to say it’s derivative. Nothing on Green’s classic albums felt like it was copying anything else. The highlights include both ballads-the title song and “Take Your Time” (featuring Corrine Bailey Rae)-and funky up-tempo cuts “I’m Wild About You” and “Standing in the Rain,” both powered by Questlove’s virtuoso drumming.
Lay It Down won’t replace Al Green Explores Your Mind on anyone’s heavy-listening rotation, but, unlike the vast majority of new releases by the singers of Green’s generation, it won’t gather dust on the shelf.
Posted by Craig Werner
(Werner is the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, And The Soul Of America, and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul)