He describes his music as 'rhythm and cool' and there couldn't be a better definition for the stellar collection of jazz, R&B and funk tunes that comprise multi-talented music man Alfonzo Blackwell's third album for Street Life Records, Body of Soul. Building on the response he received for his two previous best-selling recordings - his 1995 debut Let's Imagine. and his self-titled 1996 chartmaker - the New York native has shaped his latest musical venture with a view to expanding his audience without comprising his artistic integrity. From the urban 'feel' of "The Smoothest," a hip infectious slice of cool jazz to the wistful beauty of "Spiritual Love" and on to the out-and-out funk of "A Little Bit of Sax," Alfonzo's third album reflects his natural progression as a musician, writer and producer.
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Not only was Alfonzo involved in writing or co-writing and producing nine of the twelve cuts on Body of Soul, he also played alto, tenor and soprano sax, piano, bass, drums and acoustic guitar on all but three tunes. "I took a very different approach to this record," says the amiable musician. "I wanted to feature myself as a producer and as a writer, so I decided to play all the instruments on most of the tracks. Basically, I built each cut starting with the piano and the sax was actually the last instrument on most of the tracks. It was a very easy thing for me to do and I really got to play exactly what I felt."
As he did on his second album, Alfonzo worked once again with renowned producer songwriter, Preston Glass, who contributed three cuts to Body of Soul, adding another dimension to an album that showcases Alfonzo's creative evolution. Says Glass, whose credits include work with Kenny G., Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind and Fire, and George Benson among others, "The one thing I noticed on this project is that Alfonzo is more refined in his playing.. he's a serious student of the sax and there's been a lot of growth with his playing and with his focus as a writer and producer."
From the hypnotic 'feel' of the title track to the laid-back glide of "Sands of Time" and on to the vibrant groove of "Feels Good," Alfonzo has crafted a record that evokes a range of moods and emotions. The melancholy "Dandelion In A Windstorm," produced by Glass, features the soulful vocals of new female artist Chance, and for good measure Alfonzo added strong instrumental covers of Brian McKnight's 1998 smash "Anytime" and Sting's 1995 chestnut "Fields of Gold" given an R&B flavored makeover to the ten original tunes on Body of Soul.
By using live drums on a number of tracks including "The Smoothest" and "A Little Bit of Sax," Alfonzo was able to create a sound best described as a fusion of 70's old school jazz fusion and 90's cool. He explains that the songs he contributed as a writer "are inspired by my own life experiences. I hear different things in the music and that's where I come up with the titles. Take a tune like "Passion" which has a 'friendly' feel to it. It seems to have an uplifting effect on people when they hear it. And the title cut has a certain fullness to it which I think it gives the listener an idea of what to expect musically from the album as a whole."
What record buyers and concert goers alike have come to expect from Alfonzo Blackwell is a distinctive blend of contemporary jazz and urban rhythms, smooth R&B and street funk. Born and raised in New York, Alfonzo was playing saxophone by the age of eleven while demonstrating his natural gift as a student at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. "My early training was classical and my influences were more traditional jazz players and be-hop giants like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Lester Young. I listened a lot to Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley. Those guys provided my foundation in jazz and someone who really knows jazz can hear those influences in my style."
Exposure to soul legends like Marvin Gaye and the jazzy orchestrations of Philadelphia's MFSB helped give Alfonzo the kind of well-rounded musical base that put him in good stead after he continued his formal education at Queens College and Five Towns College of Music. But the decision to go into music as a full-time profession was not automatic: "I was considering a career in body-building," Alfonzo explains. "I used to work out in the basement with my father and I actually won a couple of trophies from competitions I entered. That was before music got in the way!" he laughs. "In 1988, I had to make a choice and I chose a career in music…"
Once focused full time on his musical ambition, Alfonzo began playing at clubs in and around New York, eventually snagging a weekly residency at a popular Manhattan niterie. In 1995, his talents caught the ear of executives from All American Music Group who signed him to the company's Street Life imprint.
Released in May 1995, Let's Imagine… featured a number of original tunes alongside covers of Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" and Sade's "Cherish." The LP garnered strong reviews and critical acclaim reaching the Top 15 on Billboard magazine's Contemporary Jazz charts and heralding Alfonzo's arrival as a significant new recording artist.
Released in October 1996, Alfonzo Blackwell built upon the strengths of his first set. The first single, "Hermina" - a Blackwell original written for his mother ("my toughest critic!") - generated a good deal of airplay while his reading of the Quincy Jones standard "Killer Joe" gave audiences a chance to see Alfonzo's musical range and helped propel the album into the Top Ten on the Contemporary Jazz charts.
Added exposure came with Alfonzo's performance on the highly popular television series "Baywatch Nights," and he could be seen weekly on the show's closing credits. The tune "Baywatch Nights Theme: The Nights Will Never Be the Same" was included as a bonus track on the Alfonzo Blackwell CD and the groundswell of interest in Alfonzo's music led to shows with a diverse range of artists including Gladys Knight, The Whispers, Pieces of a Dream and Alex Bugnon throughout 1997.
Now comes Body of Soul, a record that reflects Alfonzo's ongoing love affair with music: "I had a lot of fun working on this album, from the tracks I did myself to the tunes I cut with Preston," says the music man who likes to spend time off practicing martial arts and maintaining his body-building skills. "I feel like I was able to put down on tape exactly what I heard in my head and I've waited a long time to be able to do that. By doing so much of the music myself, I think people will get to hear a real continuity on this album."
The song titles themselves sum up the essence of Body of Soul. From "Passion" to "The Smoothest," from "A Little Bit of Sax" to "Spiritual Love," Alfonzo Blackwell's third album demonstrates that there is indeed, "Method To the Madness." And, no doubt about it, the record "Feels Good" just about "Anytime" it's played. The latest step in his musical journey, Body of Soul is sure to please his ever growing audience while creating new converts to Alfonzo Blackwell's special brand of rhythm and cool.
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