july 2008

Net Gains

By David McGee

Wayman Tisdale
Rendezvous Entertainment

During his productive decade-plus career as a professional musician, former NBA, Olympic and college basketball star Wayman Tisdale has never shied away from employing as album titles sly references to his former life on the court. Typical of the genial giant’s sense of humor, these have usually had a positive, double edged, self-affirmative meaning, from Power Forward to In the Zone to Hang Time. None, however, have been freighted with more personal relevancy to his own life and philosophy than this, his eighth album, titled Rebound. In March of last year Tisdale was diagnosed with bone cancer; now, after a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and knee replacement surgery, he’s back, sounding and looking at full strength, with one of the most appealing and vibrant long players of the year, evidence anew that upon his return to the active list he brought his A++ game.

Enough of the sports metaphors. Tisdale, who describes himself as a “self-appointed ambassador of the old school,” puts his smart, spirited bass work where his mouth is in employing four producers and a sterling cast of supporting musicians on a smooth cruise through a dozen songs (all but two of which he co-wrote) exploring a variety of textures, moods and styles. Those who favor horn-driven funk with a driving dancefloor groove, twangy electric guitar and punchy lead bass lines will work up a sweat over the ever escalating emotions of “Throwin’ It Down”; conversely, in the silky rhythms of “In Love,” Tisdale crafts a tender, melodic lead line that veers off into angular, soulful exhortations over celestial atmospherics courtesy producer Derek “DOA” Allen’s synthesized backdrops, all supporting Raw J’s lush, crooned, multitracked sweet nothings in a rich soundscape that is dreamy defined. Similarly, in “I’ll Do the Driving,” the music kicks off at a graceful, loping pace, keyed by Tisdale’s sputtering bass and a steadily percolating ensemble mesh of sax, flute, and Fender Rhodes courtesy producer Darren Rahn; as the trip winds and curves through this gentle terrain, pianist Brian Simpson joins in to answer Tisdale’s conversational, easygoing lines with expressive right hand riffing, the two engaging in lighthearted banter over the last minute or so as the bracing, pastoral journey rolls on.

Then there’s the deeply personal tracks. At the start, the title tune announces itself with a synthesized cry of Asian extraction, before Tisdale enters chuckling, over a musical underpinning of roiling bass, piano and percussion, and advises: “When life tries to get you down/it’s the perfect time for a rebound. Let’s take it to another level.” Which kick starts a pulsating mix of forcefully plucked bass interjections, soaring horn lines, gritty electric guitar jabs, jittery percussion and, not least of all, a tasty bit of wailing sax work courtesy Dave Koz, to, well, take it to another level. The bookend to “Rebound” is, literally, just that, the final song, a glorious, triumphant gospel celebration with the self-explanatory title of “Grateful,” driven by low-key hip-hop rhythm; a testifying, gutsy vocal from Marvin Sapp; smooth, responsive background vocals by the Byrd Sisters; a striking, stinging guitar solo from Tim Stewart; and finally a full-blown congregational hallelujah, Sapp in full, house wrecking flight above it all, before Tisdale, a man of deep faith well before his bout with cancer, returns with his own benediction praising God’s grace, adding, “…and remember, you’re just a rebound away.”

The most talked about track, even before anyone had heard it, is a faithful cover of Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up.” Producer Darren Rahn honors White with a surging, swirling, string- and Rhodes-enhanced soundscape (which quotes verbatim those fanciful, flitting keyboard filigrees from the original), and Tisdale adds a popping bass line to complement a spot-on, sensual vocal by none other than Toby Keith, whose muscular baritone is well suited to take on a Barry White melody, albeit with tinges of country inflections here and there. Nevertheless, it works, and beautifully so, in this most unexpected pairing, which is also, as far as anyone’s been able to determine, the first time two former University of Oklahoma varsity athletes have made a commercial recording together. That’s the least of Rebound’s selling points—having gone to school on Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke, Wayman Tisdale is becoming one of contemporary jazz’s most distinctive voices on the bass, and in using it as a lead instrument he’s exploring new tonal and melodic possibilities each time out. Argue that if you will, but there’s no denying the deep well of humanity his music draws from. These are the stirrings of a man who’s glad to be alive and determined to make the most out of each day he’s been given from here on out. You can hear it and you can feel it—oh, how you can feel it.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024