DONNY HATHAWAY — Extension of a Man (review)

DONNY HATHAWAY — Extension of a Man album cover Album · 1973 · Jazz Related RnB Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
For an artist whose recording career lasted just short of a decade, Donny Hathaway had and still continues to have an amazing amount of influence on some of the biggest names in R&B and contemporary jazz. His name is dropped right and left. That’s no surprise. There was something special about his craft and his voice that made musicians, especially singer/songwriters in multiple genres, gravitate towards him like iron filings to a magnet. His superb small venue live album released in 1972 was highly admired by even those in the rock & roll army because it was so honest and real. He and his band sounded like what so many wished they could sound like on stage. On what unfortunately for the world turned out to be his last studio album, “Extension of a Man,” he further showcased the vast dimensions of his talent by not restricting himself to any certain style or to what others thought he ought to be playing. By doing so he, along with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, continued to deconstruct traditional black music and take it down foreign avenues, something considered by purists to be in direct conflict with maintaining its ethnic heritage and exclusive identity. As did all the acknowledged pioneers of modern music in the early 70s, Hathaway proved that the only limit to self-expression was the quantity of one’s imagination and the courage to use it.

The bold opening cut serves as a landmark case in point. “I Love the Lord; He Heard My Cry (Parts I & II)” is a revelation. Very few black composers in that era or any other would cite Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Gershwin as major influences but Donny claimed them all without apology. At the same time this bold composition doesn’t brazenly rip off any of them in particular. He created his own impressionistic piece of Romanticism that more than stands its ground. Although the concert master was Gene Orloff, Hathaway conducted the orchestra himself and it’s an impressive five and a half minute long symphony. What truly sets it apart is his insertion of a cascading electric piano to the score because all common sense tells us it shouldn’t work. But work it does. The tasteful chorale adds a human element and the punctuated 5/4 meter he adopts on Part II lends it purposeful motion as well as a jazzy tint. It’s a very unique and ambitious undertaking to say the least. At the end it segues smoothly and naturally into a flowing R&B number, his much-heralded anthem of liberation “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” If at this juncture this is your first encounter with his fluid singing voice then you’re in for a treat. It’s as golden as sunlight. Marvin Stamm’s beautiful trumpet solo stands out proudly from the ensemble of strings, brass and reeds and the expressive accents they perform as one in the last segment are excellently arranged and executed.

“Flying Easy” leans heavily toward pleasing the connoisseurs of AOR fare yet it retains a jazzy atmosphere that keeps it from being an imminent danger to diabetics. (According to the liner notes he wrote the melody with Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass in mind so that information should speak volumes to you about its pop personality.) It’s not an embarrassment, though, and Donny gets to demonstrate that he’s not a slouch on the electric piano. The Latin-rock instrumental “Valdez in the Country” is next and it’s no lazy stroll down a flower-strewn pathway. It has an energetic momentum from start to finish fueled by the rhythm section of Willie Weeks on bass and Ray Lucas on drums, another fine electric piano ride from Hathaway and some intriguing chord changes on the bridge to keep it from being predictable. What follows is what I consider to be the best version of Al Kooper’s classic blues ballad “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” on record. Donny sings it with sincere, heartfelt passion and David Newman’s tenor sax is as fresh as mountain air. The blend of the basic combo with the strings, brasses and reeds on the emotional bridge section is heavenly as they climb step by step to the climactic full-measure rest that leaves you breathless. It’s not to be missed in your lifetime, especially if you’re a fan of the Blood, Sweat & Tears original.

A straight beat from Fred White’s snare leads to the up-tempo 5/4 rhythm of “Come Little Children,” a hypnotic tune in which Hathaway emulates Stevie Wonder’s lower register with mixed results. Say what you will about this odd track, Donny definitely wasn’t afraid to be an adventurous envelope-pusher. “Love, Love, Love” is next and despite Hathaway’s gorgeous crooning the Motown-ish attitude he adopts makes it the nadir of the project. The strings and background vocals are as schmaltzy as a Hallmark greeting card. On “The Slums” Marvin Gaye’s inimitable style is palpably felt in its street-level approach but then who in black music wasn’t affected by that great innovator’s trailblazing in that day and age? It’s a hot and funky instrumental with soulful, bright brass highlights, a perky guitar solo by Cornell Dupree, more forceful electric piano shots being fired from Donny’s nimble fingers and a fat bass guitar ride courtesy of the revered Willie Weeks. Talk about a change of pace, his cover of Danny O’Keefe’s “Magdalena” is shocking in that respect. Its “Roaring Twenties” flavor complete with appropriate instrumentation of tuba, clarinets, trumpet and trombone could’ve been a nostalgia disaster but Hathaway’s soaring voice makes it a delight as he defies anyone to try to pigeon-hole him into any size or shape. The finale comes in the form of “I Know It’s You,” a song suggested to him by Atlantic’s executive vice-president Jerry Wexler that fits Donny like a satin glove. The legendary Arif Mardin arranged this one and he locks it solidly into a slow soul groove with Hathaway’s expressive piano riffs filling in the gaps underneath. The tune builds and builds to the huge chorus of “No, I ain’t got/nobody else in mind…” while Donny’s vocal performance elicits chill bumps as he lets his gospel roots shine through. That, folks, is how you leave ‘em begging for more.

Donny Hathaway, a gifted man who suffered for years from debilitating depression and crippling bouts of paranoid schizophrenia, tragically took his own life at the young age of 33 in January of 1979. His greatest public successes came in the form of duets with Roberta Flack (their “Where is the Love?” was a #2 hit) but his impressive body of work and the stellar reputation he earned as a solo artist lives on and will continue to grow in stature far into the future. This album has too many minor blemishes to be labeled a masterpiece but it more than adequately displays the immense talent he possessed as well as the unbound musical freedom he claimed as his inalienable birthright. We lost a shining star when he died but, thanks to well-produced albums like “Extension of a Man,” he’ll never be forgotten.
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