Have you ever wondered whether an interesting nickname helps kick up a musician’s career? Or to ask the question in a different way, does a guy with extraordinary talent but an ordinary-sounding name sometimes find himself flying a little below the radar? Case in point (always wanted to say that) is saxophonist Gerald Albright, who can blow with the best of them but is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you list great saxophonists.
Which is not to say that he’s unappreciated — over the last couple of decades, Albright has gained lots of fans with his virtuosity and his pure and soulful sound, and that has translated to numerous chart appearances for many of his albums. His newest, Sax For Stax, now out of the Peak Records label, should please his many fans and almost certainly make a few new ones.
The album came into being because of Peak’s parent company (Concord Music Group) relaunching Stax, the old Memphis-based record company. Co-producer Rex Rideout and Albright planned the album to pay tribute to that storied label’s fiftieth anniversary with a mix of tunes that are mostly R&B classics from the early years.
Albright, who is supremely skilled with alto, tenor, and baritone sax in addition to flute and even bass guitar, is of course the main show here, but he’s helped by a variety of pros. He’s also joined by some intriguing guest stars, including fellow sax-man Kirk Whalum and vocalists Philip Bailey and Ledisi.
The eleven tracks on the album include three originals by Albright, but the focus here is on the remaining eight, which are covers of many timeless Stax records. Among those are a knockout version of Isaac Haye’s “Theme from ‘The Men’,” and an instrumental of legendary Memphis soul singer Eddie Floyd’s huge hit, “Knock On Wood.”
Other good listens here include Ledisi’s sexy and soulful sound on the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” and Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire, turning in a nice guest shot with the Dramatics’ “What You See Is What You Get.” Another nice vocal is actually more of a supporting role, performed by guest Will Downing on “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a song written by Clifton Davis that was a hit for the Jackson 5. His singing intertwines with Albright’s smooth and silky sax play to help make this my favorite on the album.
Among Albright’s new compositions for the album, I especially enjoyed “Walkin’ Down Beale Street,” which – in addition to Albright’s outstanding play – includes some nice work by Whalum. But Albright is the star and the driving force here, and helps make this a strong recommendation for anyone who likes classic R&B and funky jazz performed by dazzling musicians.