BOBBI HUMPHREY: ‘Dig This!’ (Real Gone/Dusty Groove)

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This was Texan flautist Bobbi Humphrey’s second outing for the Big Apple-based Blue Note label and followed in the wake of her ’71 debut, ‘Flute In.’ The Afro-topped woodwind virtuoso, then only twenty two, had already made history by being the first female musician to ink a solo deal with the iconic label that had been co-founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion. But by 1972, hard bop – the type of blues-inflected bebop that Blue Note had become famous for – was all but dead and jazz audiences were shrinking as rock and pop held sway. It was a difficult time, then, for Blue Note, which had lost its independence and been acquired by United Artists. A&R man/producer George Butler had been appointed to oversee the development of the label, and he elected to take it in a new, more contemporary and radio-friendly direction. Humphrey was the first of several groundbreaking young musicians that Butler would bring to Blue Note – others included Marlena Shaw, Earl Klugh and Noel Pointer.

Expertly helmed by George Butler, ‘Dig This!’ is an overlooked gem in Bobbi Humphrey’s canon. It’s a terrific little set that’s funky, soulful and boasts the participation of some top-notch musicians (Ron Carter, Harry Whitaker, Paul Griffin, and Alphonse Mouzon) as well as top-drawer arrangements (mostly from Wade Marcus). Sadly, though, the 8-track album’s been overshadowed by the flautist’s mid-’70s work with the Mizell brothers on Blue Note, which yielded a clutch of charting singles and albums.

‘Dig This!’ begins with a splendid instrumental reconfiguration of soul troubadour Bill Withers’ ‘Lonely Street, Lonely Town.’ After a slow, reflective intro where Humphrey’s mellifluous flute is framed by Horace Ott’s lush string charts, the arrangement morphs into a gritty funk groove that’s enhanced by symphonic orchestral touches. ‘Is This All’ is a dreamy ballad that highlights the warm sonorities and rich vibrato tone of Humphrey’s flute while the Undisputed Truth’s psych-soul smash, ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes,’ is retooled as a clavinet-driven funk groove that allows Humphrey to show off her improvisational skills. Another early ’70s Motown hit, Stevie Wonder’s infectious ‘I Love Every Little Thing About You’ (which was a smash for Wonder’s then wife, Syreeta) is faithfully recreated. More sombre but still romantic is a sensitive rendering of Dave Grusin’s ‘Love Theme From Fuzz.’ The session’s drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, contributes a couple of cuts: the driving, Latin-esque ‘Virtue’ and the shimmering ‘E Mundo De Maravillas (A World Of Beauty).’ The album ends with a succulent slab of funk that is Humphrey’s spin on Kenny Barron’s ‘Nubian Lady.’

Anyone who has other Bobbi Humphrey Blue Note albums in their music collections – such as ‘Blacks & Blues’ and ‘Fancy Dancer’ – should check out this first time CD reissue. It’s a marvellous soul-jazz set that deserves a wider audience.

(CW) 4/5