BOBBY WOMACK: ACROSS 110TH STREET (1972)
1) Across 110th Street; 2) Harlem Clavinette; 3) If You Don't Want My Love; 4) Hang On In There (instrumental); 5) Quicksand; 6) Harlem Love Theme; 7) Across 110th Street (instrumental); 8) Do It Right; 9) Hang On In There; 10) If You Don't Want My Love (instrumental); 11) Across 110th Street (part 2).
Nice little soundtrack here to a mostly forgotten «blaxploitation» movie (come to think of it, are there any «blaxploitation» movies that have not been mostly forgotten?), starring Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn. The soundtrack was mostly forgotten, too, until Tarantino acted on the urge to revive the title track for Jackie Brown, which is where the average pop culture fan is most likely to get his first taste of ʽAcross 110th Streetʼ.
It is somewhat unfortunate, though, that the song never made it to a regular LP: it is good enough to transcend soundtrack quality, a tempestuous tale of «gotta-get-out-of-this-place» ghetto suffering with a formulaic, but terrific arrangement and one of Bobby's most soulful vocal deliveries ever — you won't find much of that sort of ominous, disturbing fury even on a Stevie Wonder or a Marvin Gaye record. Sure, the brass fanfares and howling pre-disco strings sound dated not only to their epoch, but even to their movie genre, yet in this case, they actually work in full unison with the escapist message of the song. And this is without even mentioning the reprise of the theme at the end, where the vocals quickly give way to a nightmarish mix of wailing guitars, electronic keyboard effects, and occasional ghoulish screaming — the thickest, densest arrangement on a Womack album so far, with a heavy psychedelic effect if played at top volume.
The rest of the album wanders between several other vocal numbers, masterminded by Bobby, and several instrumental themes, directed and conducted by Jay Jay Johnson «and his Orchestra»: Jay Jay, formerly a bebop trombonist, had only recently moved to film score composing, and his work here is quite outstanding in its own way — ʽHarlem Clavinetteʼ is swaggerishly funky and polyphonic, with predictable wah-wah guitar passages alternating with far less predictable flute solos; ʽHarlem Love Themeʼ is a good example of early 1970s «fusionistic» take on the late night jazz standard of the 1950s (provided you can stand the ultra-high frequencies of those opening keyboards — Jay Jay must have been appealing to the bat segment of his audience); and his instrumental reworkings of Bobby's own compositions always bring out the best in their melodies (the brass substitution of the vocal melody in ʽAcross 110th Streetʼ fully preserves the tension and decisiveness in Womack's delivery).
As for Bobby, he contributes a new, slower, more romantic reworking of ʽIf You Don't Want My Loveʼ, and a couple extra funk numbers: ʽQuicksandʼ goes by too fast to be memorable, but ʽDo It Rightʼ is a pretty hot rocker, set to a rhythm that will be familiar to everybody who knows The Who's live rendition of ʽSpoonfulʼ (though I'm sure it must have had an even earlier precedent) and featuring some smoking guitar and Moog solos. On a curious note, most of these numbers also feature Bobby in «totally loose» mode, repeatedly screaming his head off like he'd never allowed himself earlier on any of his proper LPs — talk about the liberating powers of blaxploitation filmmaking!
For technical reasons, Across 110th Street has no chance to remain as culturally significant and thoroughly enjoyable as Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, still arguably the definitive blaxploitation soundtrack of its era — too many instrumentals, too many reprises, too many rewrites — but in the overall context of Womack's artistic travelog, it is not to be overlooked, and if you are a major fan of orchestrated funk experiments of the decade, Jay Jay Johnson's work here also makes it a must-have. Thumbs up.
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