JAZZHOLE / “Superstar”

MP3 11 Superstar - Jazzhole.mp3 (6.87 MB)

I knew "Superstar" was a pop song that Luther had appropriated and immensely improved on, but I was always bit mystified as to what the song itself actually sounded like. I mean Luther played with it so much, it was hard to tell what was the song, and which part he was making up. And then I heard the Jazzhole version featuring Kaissa Doumbe, and I said to myself, "Boy, you know that song," but she was singing in a language I couldn’t identify. And thus began my search to figure out this one.

The song was popularized by the Carpenters but written by Leon Russell along with Delany and Bonnie Bramlett. Before we get to the Carpenters, let’s get to Leon Russell. Strange cat. Strange in a good way.
leon russell.jpg  
Leon Russell is a great songwriter in the Willie Nelson mold, except he started out doing rock and rhythm & blues, before he went country & western. One of his big, big songs is "A Song For You" as covered by both Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, as well as a bunch of other people from all over the musical spectrum. And that’s one of the noteworthy distinguishing features about Russell’s music: people from all over the map travel his song-roads. That’s cause Russell’s music takes you somewhere meaningful. All kinds of folk can relate.

But for sure you can’t judge a book by the cover. What you see when you look at him? Certainly not the cat who wrote "Lady Blue" (y’all do remember George Benson caressing the shit out that moaning-for-my-baby in a jazzy-sort-of-way song?). Nor does Leon appear to be someone who produced "This Masquerade" for Benson. I mean he don’t look like nobody that would be hanging with Benson, but then you got to ask yourself what does good music look like?
bette midler.jpg 
So, the Carpenters get a big hit with Leon’s "Superstar" and if I held my nose, I could post that song as a starting point, but, naw, I can’t do it. I’m already catching grief from Mtume for using Bette Midler’s version, which I’m using because you can clearly hear the melody, the song structure and the lyrics, plus, I like what she does with the last chorus. So, check Midler as a reference, not a preference. OK, now let’s get to the heart of the matter: Luther.
Luther. Damn. This man was more than a pop singer. Much, much more. Indeed, this four-part version is as far as the train goes. He starts off with that dramatic pause after teasing us with first few bars. The audience is screaming. You hear them. And my man just lays in the cut, taking his time.

Your lover is naked. Instead of kicking off your shoes and getting it on, you take your time. Untie each shoe. Place each sock in the proper shoe. Set the shoes side-by-side beneath the bed. And then, take more of your time to trod your bare feet over to the CD player to drop some Luther before turning to unbuckle your belt.… You know, like that. And by the time you finish the opening chorus, peoples (I mean your lover) is screaming. Luther hits a high note and where most folk would be thankful to be able to reach such a rousing climax, Luther drops out and gives the piano player some.

The piano player is Nat Adderley Jr. (son of the famous cornet-playing brother of jazz saxophonus-supremus Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley).  Nat Jr. is the musical director for Luther and he proceeds to play the shit out of that piano, so much so, that all those womens who is screaming "Luther, we love you," actually hit the pause button in their adoration of Luther in order to shower some love on Nat Jr., recognizing the sterling work my man has offered up.

Part Three. Luther re-enters and re-establishes delirium. The track is almost 13-minutes long and we’ve still got over four minutes to go, but it sounds like we have reached the end, you know, the "wait-a-minute baby, let me catch my breath, I don’t want to hurt nothing" point in the proceedings. But crafty Luther got one more trick to drop.

To close out, Luther starts improvising, carrying the background singers with him as he effortlessly floats all over love land. The sound man puts a little reverb and a touch of delay in the mix and Luther takes it and runs like he’s snagged an interception on the one-yard line and is running 99-yards untouched—prancing and high-stepping the last twenty yards—for the game winning touchdown.

Luther even goes to quoting "Oh me, Oh my," you know, "I’m a fool for you." And then, when he runs out of lyrics to play with, he starts hitting wordless high notes. Ooo-ooooh-oh-ooooohhhh. And by now you’re giving that ironic Negro-exhortation that means the exact opposite of it’s cognitive definition; you know, "stop, stop, stop, shit, oh shit, stop! Stop! STOP!" And by the way, check out your lover crooning in the background. "I’m a stop your ass!"

Ok, so that’s my favorite version of "Superstar." Now it’s time for some afterglow. This is my other favorite version. Hey I got two ears, why I can’t have two favorite versions of the same song? One for my right ear and one for my left ear.
This is the New York-based, neo-soul outfit Jazzhole which is co-led by founding members Warren  Rosenstein, John Pondel and Marlon Saunders. They present a mind-blowingly unique version of “Superstar” featuring vocalist Kaissa Doumbe who is from Cameroon and sings in her native Duala language. The groove is a mid-tempo undulation that sways back and forth, offering feather-soft aural caresses, baby babbling talk blissfully all up in your earhole. I could listen to it all night, particularly the sweet promise of dreamy rest inherent in the huskiness of Kaissa's voice. Superstar indeed.

And, of course, the ultimate irony, is that all of this is behind a song about unrequited love. Go figure.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

          I think I need a cigarette         

Damn. I think I need a cigarette. And I don’t even smoke. ;-) No seriously, you hit the nail on the head with both of them. The Luther is baaaaad. The Jazzhole is cooooool. Both of them are keepers.

And as for the Bette Midler, I like her as a performer, but I don’t like the her version of the song. I actually do like some Seventies AOR/light rock, whatever you call it. Stuff like The Eagles’ "I Can’t Tell You Why" and Carly Simon’s "You Belong To Me" or "You’re So Vain" and Steely Dan’s "Hey Nineteen." I’m a sucker for that stuff. Not feeling the Bette though.

—Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 11th, 2005 at 1:19 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “JAZZHOLE / “Superstar””

Marian Says:
December 13th, 2005 at 4:53 pm

It’s odd. Luther’s version is more interesting vocally. He plays with the audience; there is a conversation there. He elongates sections when he sees that they are enjoying themselves. It’s fun to sing with. He’s obviously playing with the audience.

But until I heard Midler’s version, I didn’t realize that the song is a song about unrequited love and that the target is not even present to hear the singer. It sounds like a song from a musical. It is being sung for a particular purpose and to a particular person and the voice is jagged at times and definitely not “pretty”.

Go figure. Given that, I am going to go with Jazzhole’s version. The singer is beautiful vocally without giving me the feeling that I am being manipulated.

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