Release Date:
January 27, 2009

Reviewed by:
Anne Aufderheide

No doubt about it – Walter Beasley is phenomenal. He’s been performing, recording, and teaching his unique mix of soulful instrumentals and R&B-style vocals since the dawn of this jazz genre.  He has performed and/or recorded with icons Brian McKnight, Gerald Albright, Ronnie Laws, Kirk Whalum, Bob James, Norman Brown, George Howard, Art Porter, Everett Harp Stephanie Mills, Vanessa Williams, and Rachelle Ferrell. He has also opened concerts for traditional jazz legends Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon. With over a dozen music albums to his credit (not to mention his numerous instructional DVDs and collaborations), one wonders how he finds time for his day job! Yes, on top of it all, he’s a full professor at the Berklee College of Music!

There’s another aspect that makes Beasley’s music so righteous. Through his music, he lets us look into his soul.There is an honesty to this work. He shares himself, what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling, what emotions and experiences he’s been going through. He does all that and more in his new album Free Your Mind.

In a recent radio interview, he was asked “Why the title Free Your Mind?”  Beasley explained in the most tender of voices that his “Aunt Minnie” died before he started the project.  He got to feeling very low and had a hard time dealing with her passing. It affected him so much that he couldn’t work. Then, James Lloyd (Pieces of a Dream leader and keyboardist) sent him a new track. Beasley listened to the melody and, in that instant, the music reaffirmed that he had more living to do.  The melody freed him.  He could see clearer, feel his emotions a little bit more. That melody helped get him over the hump; there is more life to live and a lot of people to love.  It is in this spirit of renewal, rebirth, and freedom that Beasley could approach the new project Free Your Mind.

The album includes songs that are tributes and messages to people he loves and is inspired by – some living, some have passed on. “All I wanted to do with this record was accurately reflect the times and how I felt about them,” says Beasley. “I had been working so much in the past few years, and living this musical life so intensely, that I hadn't taken the time to recognize the emotional impact of some things that had been happening in my life and in the world. With the times being what they are, I think this is a record that can help people let go of their concerns for a while and just lose themselves in the moment.”

The eleven tracks are a mix of Beasley’s own writing as well as Pieces of a Dream keyboardist James Lloyd who wrote, played keys, and produced five of them. Phil Davis and John Roberts also had a hand in writing, and there’s one cover tune of a Kem hit.

Classic rhythms of the 1980s combine with Beasley’s contemporary sax in the opener, Lloyd’s tune, “Steady As She Goes.”  For Beasley, there is significant symbolism in the song’s steady rhythm.  It represents the steady constants in our life; that’s the way he likes people to be in life: steady as she goes. This anchor track has become the project’s first radio single. His playing is in the pocket and it feels really good.

Not only a gifted sax player, Beasley has a seasoned, velvety singing voice. He showcases this vocal power on the second track “Love Calls.”Beasleysays his approach to singing is from his heart; that’s when he’s at his best.  Singing reveals who he is. Along with Beasley on sax and vocals, stalwart veteran vocalist Lynne Fiddmont sings back up. Together they render a gorgeous and passionate version.  Written by Kem, this is the song from his debut album Kemistry, and it was soon recognized as a "Motown classic" by USA Today.  

Within seconds, “Oh Yeah” hit me as a tribute to Grover Washington, Jr.  Whether it was consciously intended or not, between Beasley’s inspired playing and the song’s groove, the Grover vibe is spot on. Oh Yeah! The track is written by hit maker Lloyd. This track should have some legs on it; we’ll be hearing it for a long time to come.
True to his word, Beasley continues his catharsis with his own reflective straight-ahead composition “Message To Mark,” written to honor multi-instrumentalist and Pat Metheny band mate Mark Ledford who died of a heart attack in late 2004 at age 44. In this Metheny-esque track, Derek Cannon’s trumpet is featured (the son of Beasley’s first trumpet teacher – yes, a tribute within a tribute,) Craig Shaw on bass, Phil Davis on keyboards and John Roberts delivers some superb percussion. Beasley and Cannon deftly entwine elegant duets and solos in this excellent work.

"Shirlitta" brings a cool, urban groove with some really hip programming. Beasley and saxman Tony Watson Jr. play layer-upon-layer saxophones, impressively complementing each other. Lloyd penned the song and plays keys here.

With its relaxed and easy groove, “Free Your Mind” showcases Beasley’s sax which is pure, natural, and lilting. The bridge takes us to a cheerful place where we can let go and exist unencumbered, at least for awhile.

Beasley didn’t want to regret missing an opportunity to thank another one of his musical heroes. The Latin-flavored, polyrhythmic “DukeZillia” is a song Beasley composed with John Roberts. Beasley had George Duke's music in mind, (Brazilian Love Affair on Columbia, 1980) which blends jazz, funk, R&B, and Brazilian music.  Duke had a major influence on Beasley. Roberts and Beasley add lively vocalese. Roberts and Rafael Perriera contribute fantastic percussion work.  Before the album was final, Beasley actually had a chance to send the track to George Duke and received the distinct honor of hearing Duke’s pleasure and acknowledgement.
“Just Breathe” is a good opportunity for Beasley to demonstrate his incredibly skilled breathing technique and for Lloyd to show more of his graceful piano style. 

This album is released one week after the inauguration of the new U.S. President Barack Obama. A very cool, interesting track, written and produced by Phil Davis, “Barack's Groove” is one of the first-ever recorded tributes to our new president. “Obama has changed history for every child of any color in this country. Barack and Michelle Obama have demonstrated to people of color and families of color that you can be born into a traditional African-American family – or a Latino family or an Asian family – and actually become president of the United States,” says Beasley.

“She Can't Help It” is another Davis composition.  Davis plays keys and Roberts mans the drums. Along is the lead sax, Beasley also performs some flute elements.
A respectful and contemplative tune with its tender melody, “Miss Minnie” is lovingly dedicated to Minnie Dangerfield, an important influence in Beasley’s life while he was growing up in California. Beasley recalls, “She always gave me good advice. When I was making big decisions in my life, she would always tell me what I needed to know – not just what I wanted to hear.”

Free Your Mind is the work of a spiritual journey.  Beasley openly shares the process with us, from the losses to the living tributes, we experience perhaps Beasley’s most mature and poignant work to date.  Highly recommended.