Like Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Donny Hathaway’s Extensions of a Man, produced by Arif Mardin, is an ambitious breakthrough album that significantly broadens the musical palette of a major black artist, fulfilling in large measure promises long-offered. But whereas Wonder has lately concentrated on expanding the textural definitions of R&B as it has evolved out of Motown, Hathaway shows himself to be a sophisticated traditionalist of great versatility, able to weave already-established ideas of jazz, classical and soul into luxuriant musical settings.
The album opens impressively with a five-and-a-half-minute orchestral tone poem, “I Love the Lord; He Heard My Cry,” composed and conducted by Hathaway for 45-piece orchestra and choir. To construct this highly cinematic tableau, Hathaway has taken a modal melodic fragment and treated it impressionistically, its first part reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis And Chloe, with overtones of Gershwin, the jazzier second section featuring the trumpet of Marvin Stamm and Hathaway on electric piano.
The tone poem then segues into the album’s finest cut, “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” a powerful soul anthem with a fine melody and rich orchestral backing of strings, brass and reeds. Hathaway is supremely at home with this type of ballad. Perhaps more than any other contemporary black male singer, he has the vocal equipment to carry the weight of a full orchestra without being overwhelmed.
In addition to the tone poem and three ballads, there are goodies of a different nature. “Valdez in the Country,” a Hathaway-written instrumental, neatly interposes the laid-back twang-funk guitars of Keith Loving and Cornell Dupree against Hathaway’s jazzed-up electric piano. Then there are three flashy disco delights — “Come Little Children,” a rhythmic stunner; “Love, Love, Love,” an expert tribute to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye; and “The Slums,” Hathaway’s bouncy sequel to “The Ghetto.”