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Phil Upchurch: Love Is Strange

This 1995 recording by guitarist Phil Upchurch, the man who played a significant role in putting the groove to George Benson’s hit album Breezin’ back in the ’70s. Here, Upchurch is joined by an array of luminaries, including Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, The Steeles and Paisley Park regulars Paul and Ricky Peterson.

The names listed on the supporting roster suggest that this is going to be a somewhat “commercial” project with a fair share of air play-destined vocals. And while that’s true to a certain extent, let’s be clear that the material and arrangements are soulful and grooving from start to finish. True to form, Mavis Staples does a great job setting a mood on the gospel-soaked ballad “Winds of Change,” while Chaka Khan gets way into a quirky version of the already quirky “Love Is Strange.” As if that weren’t enough, Upchurch even gets his voice into the act for the first time on record during the ultrafunkified original “It’s My Thing,” the lyrics of which are bound to produce a smile.

Instrumentally, Upchurch is as good as ever. On the vocal numbers, his guitar plays a prominent role, providing killer fills and various other touches. But it’s on the album’s four instrumentals where he really shows what he can do with his patented blend of jazz and blues. Especially check out his scorching, funky fretwork on “Midnight Blue” and “Blues for J.O.S.,” a sophisticated groove tune that gives him a chance to flex his considerable chops. Pop-jazz albums don’t get any better than this.

Originally Published