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Love Stronger, Al Strong. Al Strong, trumpet/flugelhorn. Jeremy 'Bean' Clemons, Producer; Al Strong, Executive Producer; Dejuan Lavae McClinnahan, Associate Producer. Alstrongmusic.com. Stream the single "Black Love" on Spotify or Apple Music.
Al Strong's newest album, Love Stronger, comes as a much-anticipated follow-up to his 2016 record, Love Strong Vol. 1. This new work relies on Strong's innate sense of taste, social awareness, and musical acuity. Although native to Washington D.C., Strong's residence in North Carolina can be felt throughout the album. With a steady band of mesmerizingly talented local musicians, and guest appearances by modern jazz legends, Love Stronger never ceases to delight and inspire.
The album boasts many original compositions alongside classic standards and modern hits. The first three tracks highlight this musical diversity better than anything else. After a short, solemn introduction, "Lullaby for Ancestors," Strong gives us an original composition, "At-Nimara's Journey," on which his trumpet howls and growls on top of a robust rhythm section. Following this instant classic, Marc Cary is featured playing a Fender Rhodes alongside Strong's flugelhorn, on the delectably dreamy "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. These tracks highlight Strong's versatility, accompanied by his reliable bandmates and associates. And that's just the beginning!
With plenty of beauty, Love Stronger has several original tracks that are just plain fun, like the up-beat, make-you-want-to-dance, "Bull City Bounce," or the spitfire "The Dog Who Always Finds His Way Home," which feels utterly classic and yet eminently contemporary. With his regular band, Strong takes the listener on an adventure that nosily moves about, here, there, and back again, like the titular canine. Kevin Beardsley on upright bass underscores the lively solos from each bandmate; Clemons plays a particularly delightful drum solo that evokes the meandering dog's bouncy attention span.
Strong's rendition of "Fly Me to The Moon" features the indelible alto vocalist, Gabrielle Cavassa, and pianist extraordinaire, Sullivan Fortner. Fortner has played with a wide array of jazz legends, including the late Roy Hargrove's band for several years. Cavassa's voice leaps around the solar system, like being in love on a rocket ship or roller coaster. Fortner's stylings accompany the group with frills that make your heart jump for joy. One of Strong's greatest abilities lies in his immaculate ability to group musicians together, and to shepherd the diverse voices into a unified entity.
The hit single from Love Stronger, "Black Love," is a smooth, tender number featuring guitarist Mark Whitfield. Whitfield, who has played alongside Mary J. Blige, D'Angelo, and John Mayer, among many others, brings a unique blues sensibility to this soft-spoken ode. As a composer, Strong consistently demonstrates his versatility and his vast knowledge of jazz history. This comes across over and over again, as in "Old Town Diera," which features the brilliant alto saxophonist Braxton Cook and a magnificent piano solo from Chris Pattishall.
The album ends with what might be Strong's crown jewel, an exquisitely sincere arrangement of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," colloquially referred as the Black National Anthem. In this opus, Strong adds a rich string quartet on top of a dynamic jazz setup. Arranged, almost accidentally, in early 2020, Strong's passion for this song really amped up during that summer, following the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Strong's trumpet belts over the ethereal ensemble; the song feels more like a cry from a mountaintop than a jazz number. With a ripping distorted guitar solo, Durham-based musician Hugh Swaso adds fervor and urgency to this majestic rendition of an American anthem. (See Strong's moving YouTube video of the arrangement here.)
Love Stronger evinces Al Strong's penchant for finding and uniting talented musicians from around the nation. His unique ability to adapt classics from all genres, melding them into his own idiosyncratic flavor, makes Strong one of the most fascinating jazz musicians working in the field today.