In 1970, James Brown took what has been judged both a bold leap forward and a career misstep with the jazz-tinged, big-band outing Soul on Top. Though the public literally didn’t buy the Godfather of Soul stretching out with the Louie Bellson Orchestra (Soul on Top climbed to a disappointing 125 on the Billboard charts at a time when Brown platters were all but guaranteed to turn gold), it remains an anomaly in a career so deeply steeped in funkified excess. As the much-anticipated CD reissue from Verve attests, Brown, working here with arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson, manages remarkable restraint on such traditionally soft, mellow fare as “What Kind of Fool Am I?” “That’s My Desire” and “It’s Magic.” Still, this is James Brown, a guy who has never pulled well in harness. He turns “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into three minutes of groove-shaking exuberance and renders “September Song” all but unrecognizable while urging aging listeners to “put more gut in your strut.” Most interesting are inventive covers of such then-contemporary Brown hits as “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” which do more than anything else here to demonstrate the breadth of his underrated musical dexterity.
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