Donny Hathaway - vocals, piano, electric piano; Gil Silva - guitar; Bassie Saunders - bass; John Sussewell - drums; Chuggy Carter - congas
On the final night of the second annual Newport Jazz Festival held in New York, George Wein presented a monumental bill at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. This was an ambitious move as Newport Jazz Festival events were rarely ever staged at such a large venue, but the 1973 festival grand finale boasted one of the most impressive lineups ever assembled on one stage, with headliners Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and one of the most talented artists of the era, Donny Hathaway.
An incredibly gifted singer, songwriter and musician, Hathaway had proven himself equally adept as an arranger, composer, conductor, producer, and innovator. Although best remembered as the smooth soul singer who partnered up with Roberta Flack on several popular hits during the 1970s, Hathaway's own recordings were far more ambitious. Right from the start, his albums displayed a genius for rhythmic complexity, harmonic sophistication, and a distinct sanctified vocal style with changes in intonation and timbre as richly textured as Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. Capable of near operatic tone control and with a graceful soulfulness beyond compare, Hathaway reached musical, lyrical, and vocal heights that have rarely been equaled or delivered with more sincerity.
Presented here is Hathaway's set on that final night of the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival, which captures the multi-talented artist at the peak of his powers. Performing a wealth of material from his 1972 live album, which many consider to be some of the most glorious live club performances of the early 1970s, this set finds Hathaway connecting with a far larger audience. Despite the lack of intimacy, Hathaway creates an emotional experience approaching the fervor of a church revival. Much like the live album from the previous year, this set includes a mix of originals and choice cover material. Two songs from Hathaway's ambitious new album, Extensions of a Man, are also included and everything displays the potent soul, funk, and jazz chops of his hot new band.
The set begins much like the live album from the previous year, with Hathaway's fresh interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." Gaye's own version redefined the boundaries of soul music and with Hathaway's background in classical, jazz, and gospel music applied, those boundaries are further blurred to marvelous effect. Here the song becomes a jazzy soul sermon, with the Carole King ballad "You've Got a Friend" serving as a follow-up reply. First recorded as a duet with Roberta Flack, "You've Got A Friend" has now been covered by countless artists and this Hathaway performance easily ranks among the best.
Singing with a passion and urgency that can come only from one with a tender affection and understanding for the children of his generation, the next song, "Little Ghetto Boy," ups the intensity level another notch. This haunting yet positive plea for black American youth remains one of the most honest outpourings of grief and hope ever expressed through song.
Two originals sourced from Hathaway's new album Extensions of a Man follow and lighten up the mood. "Valdez In The Country," is a breezy jazz instrumental showcasing Hathaway's electric piano work, followed by the uplifting and melodic "Love, Love, Love." The former may be familiar to many listeners as dozens of artists have covered it, including guitarists Jerry Garcia and George Benson, and it was first recorded by King Curtis as the b-side of a 1969 single under the title "Patty Cake" (on which a young Hathaway played keyboards). The latter number is certainly influenced by Gaye's What's Going On album and is equally inspired. It's also a prime example of the oboe-like vibrato and gospel influenced vocal phrasing that always set Hathaway apart.
The performance concludes with an extended jam on Hathaway's R&B hit "The Ghetto." Composed in collaboration with Impressions singer Leroy Hutson, this pulsating polyrhythmic workout features Hathaway's band laying down the soul/funk grooves while he improvises both instrumentally and vocally. Fueled by his trademark spirituality and a super propulsive bass line courtesy of Saunders, this final workout fully engages the massive audience, prepping them for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who would next hit the stage (also available here at Wolfgang's).