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Onaje Allan Gumbs Thrills With His New Album

Sunday, June 3, 2007.



By Mark Anthony Neal


Though pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs is classically trained, he has staked his professional reputation on his ability to be conversant in wide range of Black musical idioms.


The list of vocalists and musicians that Gumbs has collaborated with reads like a who’s who of black American musicians including Nat Adderley, Norman Connors, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Bofill, Abbey Lincoln, Gerald Albright and Stanley Jordan.


In particular it was while working with the legendary and enigmatic trumpeter Woody Shaw in the late 1970s that Gumbs came into his own as a jazz pianist. By the late 1980s Gumbs was a much in demand accompanist, producer, and arranger playing a prominent role on recordings such as Will Downing’s breakthrough recording A Dream Fulfilled (1991) and Soul Eyes (1991) the debut recording of jazz vocalist Vanessa Rubin.


Gumbs also released two recordings, That Special Part of Me (1988) and Dare to Dream (1991), for the MCA label. Tracks like “Quiet Passion” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” and “Dare to Dream” from those recordings remain staples of the smooth jazz radio format. And yet for all of his success, Gumbs remains largely a musicians’ musician, as he bears witness to on his new release Sack Full of Dreams.

With a core trio of Gumbs, bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer George Gray, Sack Full of Dreams features classic compositions from the likes of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard alongside several originals from Gumbs. It is Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” that opens Sack Full of Dreams with guitarist Bob DeVos providing the track with a modern edge.


As to be expected Gumbs’s natural post-Bop instincts are on full display on Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring”. Of the four Gumbs originals on the disc, the funky “Stank You Very Much” and “Lament” are the clear standouts. The latter track was written by Gumbs 35 years ago as a dedication to the inmates who were killed in the uprising at Attica State Prison in 1971. Now Gumbs offers “Lament” as a remembrance of the lives that were lost on September 11, 2001.

Gumbs’s ability to parlay beauty in the midst of otherwise troubling times has historically been a hallmark of his playing, particularly on ballads. Two ballads, “Sack Full of Dreams” and “Try to Remember” emerge as the highlights.


The title track, written by Gary McFarland and recorded by the likes of Grady Tate and Donny Hathaway, features the vocals of Obba Babatunde. Though the seasoned stage actor makes his living these days as an-in-demand character actor, Babatunde made his early mark playing Effie White’s brother in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls.


Sack Full of Dreams closes with a haunting solo rendition of the standard “Try to Remember”. The song was a favorite of his mother, who made her transition home in 2003, and Gumbs’s version here serves as one final tribute to her spirit.


Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies. He is a columnist for Vibe Magazine and writes for other reputable publications. Mark blogs at New Black Man.


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