Two years ago, Chicagoan Milton Suggs’ sophomore album, Things to Come, marked the arrival of an immensely promising jazz-soul vocalist who was also a gifted songwriter. As a follow-up, the first in a proposed series, Suggs leaves the compositional duties to such masters as Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Tadd Dameron and Roy Hargrove, fitting new lyrics to their music. Though Suggs is also a fine pianist, on all but one of the dozen tracks he assigns keyboard duties to one of Detroit’s foremost players, Mike Jellick, forming the rhythm section alongside two other exceptional young lions out of the Midwest: Liquid Soul bassist Josh Ramos and drummer Greg Artry. Throughout Lyrical, they’re supported by a spectrum of guests-10 in all-including vibraphonist Jutsefan, guitarist Larry Brown Jr. and saxophonist Christopher McBride.
Suggs opens with “Before It’s Too Late,” based on Shorter’s “Armageddon,” a cautionary tale made all the more foreboding by his close-step, chanted delivery. Thereafter love becomes the through-theme, including explorations of love lost (“Only a Memory,” shaped from Morgan’s “Ceora”), exalted (the ode to adoration “Side by Side,” from Golson’s “Stablemates”) and familial (Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” transformed into “Jayme’s Song,” a balladic paean to the singer’s newborn daughter).
If there’s fault to be had with Lyrical, it’s that Suggs’ supple, cognac-hued voice is too much on display. He provides all backing vocals, ofttimes sounding like a one-man Take 6. While it enriches some tracks, particularly “Will You Fly With Me” (based on Dameron’s “Lady Bird”), it overcrowds others.