John Morales: The M&M Mixes Volume 4

The fourth volume of M&M Mixes from Bronx native John Morales offers a history lesson of the best possible kind. Anyone wishing to be schooled in the glorious soul music of the ‘70s and ‘80s should dig right in, as the four-CD set features mixes of songs by defining era artists such as Barry White, Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass, Atlantic Starr, Donna Summer, Cheryl Lynn, and Eddie Kendricks. Consider: most of the thirty-two cuts run nine to ten minutes long, making for a release that weighs in at a hefty five hours. Morales is undoubtedly up to the challenge, with the remixer bringing more than three decades of production work and 800-plus remixes to his name.

Make no mistake: the collection is neither techno nor house, even if connections could be made from them to Morales' release; instead, the focus is soul, funk, R&B, and disco, and the mood largely celebratory. A typical Morales production supports the vocalist with chunky, Niles Rodgers-styled rhythm guitar plus strings, keyboards (piano, organ, clavinet, synthesizer), hand drums, horns, and a hard bass-and-drums groove, the latter the most crucial non-vocal ingredient. His handling of the material is artful: while another remixer might simply extend the original three-minute song by affixing a run-on groove, Morales re-imagines the original as a ten-minute version of itself; while breakdowns occur to let the groove sing, vocal elements appear throughout the production, and in place of a fade, Morales often ends the track with a satisfying vocal flourish. His touch is so tasty, he even makes a track by Cher, of all people, palatable, her 1979 disco sparkler “Take Me Home” a solid enough reminder of her vocal chops.

There are, predictably, highlights aplenty. Barry White's “I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” sets the bar high with a nine-minute mix that's as epic as one might expect from the ‘Love Unlimited Orchestra' figure. That familiar deep baritone is present in all its glory as well as a resplendent strings- and woodwinds-sweetened arrangement and, of course, Morales' trademark funk groove. Keith Barrow's “Turn Me Up” blazes a funky trail through a wonderland of syncopated guitar riffs, disco strings, bongos, and a lithe Stevie Wonder-styled bass pulse. Produced by Van McCoy in 1975, David Ruffin's “Walk Away From Love” naturally exudes a bit of a Temptations vibe, but as appealing as the arrangement is, it's the impassioned vocal you'll remember most. Though Thelma Houston's is the better known version, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' “Don't Leave Me This Way” (with Teddy Pendergrass singing lead) preceded her 1977 hit by two years and is here treated to an eleven-minute Morales makeover.

Dan Hartman, who wrote “Free Ride” as a member of The Edgar Winter Group before embarking on a solo career (and dying, sadly, in 1994), penned the irrepressibly exuberant disco anthem “Vertigo/Relight My Fire” in 1980, and the set continues its move into the ‘80s with the boogie vibe of The Controllers' “Stay” and the classic Prince stylings of Teena Marie's synth-funk jam “Lovergirl.” Dynamic steamrollers by Tata Vega (“I Just Keep Thinking About You Baby”) and Donna Summer (“Heaven Knows,” on which she's joined by Brooklyn Dreams and singer Joe ‘Bean' Esposito) add considerably to the release's appeal, the vocal performances alone arguing on the package's behalf. Offsetting the celebratory cuts are ones that work their magic using subtler means, the sultry melancholia of The Jones Girls' “Life Goes On” and Frankie Beverly's “Joy & Pain” cases in point. One of the high points is definitely Cheryl Lynn's “Got To Be Real,” not only because her fabulous vocal makes the 1978 original so irresistible but because Morales' treatment amplifies the song's already euphoric feel.

Fans of slap bass and stabbing disco strings should find their appetites well-sated by the time the last note sounds, and funky is, of course, the best word to capture what's happening here. As glorious as its lead vocal is (background vocals too), a track like Jackie Moore's “This Time Baby” derives a major part of its epic thrust from its charging, bass-powered groove, and the tight instrumental break Morales drops into its center is tasty in the extreme; describing it as ten minutes of ecstasy isn't hyperbolic. This all-purpose release even comes with a life lesson or two, Pendergrass's “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” and its related “Why don't you / Sing it” line offering words to live by.

December 2017