Donny Hathaway is one of the most important black performers to emerge in recent years. Important in the sense that Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, Funkadelic/Parliament or the Last Poets are important: influential (for better or worse), far-ranging and possessed of a unique, new style. Hathaway had already completed brilliant work as producer, arranger, composer, musician (choose one or any combination of the above) with Roberta Flack, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions and others before releasing an album of his own late last year. Everything Is Everything a collection of mostly original material including his spirited celebration. “The Ghetto” — was a confirmation of Hathaway’s strength and a remarkable, finely-balanced first album.
Now we have Hathaway’s second, produced for the most part by Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin. The new work is equally impressive but predictably self-conscious, the result, I expect, of Hathaway’s being “discovered” a process the liner notes describe in unfortunate detail. If there was any fault in the Everything album, it was its over-finished quality; here, again, you sense the tight, careful structure of the production a little too strongly. Great expectations make me uncomfortable.
Still, it’s a cerebral discomfort and certainly a minor reservation about what is otherwise an exceptional, rich album. The majority of the material is borrowed but all of it is transformed by Hathaway’s warm, intense style. Like Roberta Flack, Hathaway tends to measured, dramatic interpretations whose excitement lies in their classic restraint rather than any jukebox explosiveness. “He Ain’t Heavy” is given a beautiful gospel reading, with piano, strings and harp acting much like a forceful vocal chorus, especially at the end. “Giving Up,” a pre-Motown Gladys Knight song, is extended to more than six minutes, and is exquisite: rippling with harps, full of horns that seem to sigh in the background, Hathaway’s piano and a wonderful break superimposing King Curtis on high-flying sax against waves of strings.
“A Song for You” is even better than I had realized in Leon Russell’s original — a great song but a very delicate one that Hathaway’s serious, strings-and-horns treatment weighs too heavily upon. But the song is a perfect choice and one of those cuts that mellows and improves with each hearing. Hath-away’s only composition and the only cut he produced, “Take a Love Song,” is also simple — based on four repeated lines that sum up the spirit of the album: “Take a love song and sing it/ Take a warm smile and wear it/ Take a glad dream and build it/ Take a strong heart and use it” — but it too is irresistibly warm and joyful. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” closes the album with a rousing modern gospel, sparked by church piano and full chorus.
The variety here isn’t as satisfying as it was on Everything Is Everything. Especially on side one, the songs are all given the same ambitious, heavy treatment; fortunately, the results are so ultimately stunning that you don’t mind. It’s a very special album. I’ve been playing it about once a day for the past three weeks — do I need to say it’s one of the best records so far this year?