Mary J. Blige was an artist that I had a deeply rooted respect for when I first heard her interpreting Rose Royce’s 1976 slow jam funk classic “I’m Going Down” in the mid 90’s. And what was most refreshing is how instrumentally oriented and close it was to the original. Of course as was typical with a lot of people in terms of the press from that point on through the turn of the millennium? The saturation press Mary received,likely for all the wrong reasons, turned me off to the point where buying any of her music during that time wasn’t a very appealing notion. It wasn’t until Mary had been a seasoned artist for a decade by around 2003-2004 did I start to really reach out to her earlier music to which I’d once given the slip. It was my love of photography that drew me like a moth to a flame when I saw the black & white side profile portrait on her 1999 CD Mary. Something about that imagery,similar to that of Cicily Tyson on Miles Davis’s Sorcerer album in 1967,bought me into mind that his would be an elegantly funkified affair. And that opinion was intensely upgraded upon putting the CD on for the first time and hearing it open with “All That I Can Say”.
Produced,written and arranged by Mary’s musically vital contemporary Lauryn Hill,the song begins with a lilting,lowly mixed Spanish guitar with a sunny,pre-dominating high pitched synthesizer solo that continually pitch bends between major and minor chords. Shortly a percussive,mid tempo electronically dirived Afro-Latin rhythm kicks in. This instrumental bed is joined by a glockenspiel-like ringing keyboard that scales downward in a dream-like way on each instrumental refrain. At this point Mary’s low,plaintive tenor successfully follows along the songs elusive melody with a lyrical tag stating first “loving you is wonderful/something like a miracle” and going on to add “meeting you,it isn’t hard/with you I can’t let down my guard/stay secure,that’s all I’m asking of you”. By the time the chorus,which repeats the title with a call-and-response bit of vocalese from Mary singing in her higher voice? The melody of the song has likewise gone up a lot higher in pitch-with Mary again keeping up with the elaborate chord changes. By the end of the song,it fades out the way it begun with Mary adding some extremely jazzy,wordless scat singing that expresses the general mood of the song.
From the first time I heard this song? While realizing so many early retro and neo soul artists were attempting to replicate his sound? I was convinced that it was Stevie Wonder himself who played the overriding high pitch-bent synthesizer solos on this song. It was actually someone named Loris Holland,whom I’d never heard of before. As my friend and blog partner here on WordPress Henrique pointed out to me the other day? The fact that Lauryn Hill and the musicians on this album could so thoroughly replicate not only the sound but the melodic language of Stevie Wonder’s challenging instrumental approach on keyboard is a tribute not only to her talent,but musical connectivity as well. This constantly shifting melody,which embraces soul music’s classic structural complexity,is totally reflective of the fact that Mary is alternately overjoyed and cautious in regard to the prospect of the new romantic partner in her life that she portrays on this song. Its seamless mix of both dreamy fantasy and uncertain reality was a balance that was rarely felt in the “keeping it real” era. In the end,I thank Mary J Blige and Lauryn Hill both for their contribution to helping the late 90’s soul/R&B listener to understand what it was they might’ve really loved so much about the 70’s funk era in the first place.