Release Date:
January 22, 2008

Reviewed by:
Anne Aufderheide

Bassist Michael Manson just released his third CD, Up Front, on January 22 from Nu Groove Records. I’m here to tell you this is a classy and intelligent recording! It’s great to witness the growth and progression of talented artists. For those who do not yet own a Michael Manson CD (there are 3,) this would be the one to start with. And if you already own his previous work, this one is a “must have.” 

Between the superb musicianship, original compositions, and excellent production qualities, there is an appealing sophistication about this record. Up Front is such an appropriate title for this fine musician who has worked hard to move from sideman to center stage.  And he’s up front in these performances. His exceptional playing is perfection, carrying his crisp, lyrical melodies like a songbird in flight. Manson plays with deft prowess. His nimble fingers dance over the strings, with such authentic tenderness and soul. His amazing dexterity makes him capable of playing such melodies with great beauty. Because of this, it is worth noting that it does not get tiring hearing bass as a lead instrument throughout the album. 

To record for the new songs, Manson pulled together some of his best friends: George Duke, Jeff Lorber, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun, Najee, Norman Brown, Paul Jackson Jr., Tom Braxton, Nick Colionne, Steve Cole, and many terrific backing musicians, including a killer horn section. The result is a high level of ingenuity and expertise. The production is full and lush with complex layers and colorful textures. 

Manson has dedicated Up Front to his wife, Lana.  The album has 13 tracks: 4 brand new Manson compositions, 2 covers (Babyface Edmonds and Bill Withers,) 5 tracks are remastered from Manson’s previous albums; and 2 tracks are reprises at the album’s end. 

You may hesitate. Why do musicians reissue previously released material?  In this digital age of the music industry, many CDs are hard to find on disc and it’s even possible back catalog albums have not yet been released by the digital music stores.  So, it makes a lot of sense for artists to reissue top tracks along with new material.  Great songs are easily enjoyed over and over. That’s why it didn’t bother me that half the album is reworked from his previous offerings. 

The album opens with “Bring It On,” a new composition from Manson.  That talented producer, Darren Rahn puts together an easy groove, with Manson on lead bass. George Duke solos on piano, Paul Jackson Jr. on guitar, Lenny Castro on percussion. Darren Rahn shares the lead on sax, and also plays Rhodes and keys. The tight horn section is the Rahn Brothers, Darren on sax and Jason blowing trumpet and flugelhorn, which fills out the lush sound. 

Next is the funky and sultry “Coming Right At Ya” which Manson wrote for his 2006 CD Just Feelin’ It. “Coming Right At Ya,” features Jeff Lorber on piano, Kirk Whalum on sax, Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar, and Lenny Castro on percussion. The track really gets cookin’ with contributions from the brass section. Manson is in fine form on tenor and piccolo basses.  

Another new composition, “Steppin' Out,” features Najee on melodic and feisty flute, the hot sax of Darren Rahn, and that killer horn section. This track is interesting how it contrasts Manson’s strong bass funk with the sweet, soaring flute and melodic sax. 

“She’s Always There (For Lana)” is new, written for his wife, Lana. It is a mid-tempo track, with a romantic melody and brilliant interplay between Tom Braxton’s stellar sax and Manson’s agile bass. It’s a fitting tribute to their lasting love.   

The romantic mood continues with a cover of Babyface Edmond’s hit “End Of The Road.” Manson caresses the melody and keeps good company with that luscious, warm sax of Steve Cole. The vocals are tender and passionate as they harmonize in a full choir sound. 

In 2006, Manson wrote “It's The Way She Moves.” Manson plays so beautifully against the standout percussion of Lenny Castro, Tom Braxton’s soaring sax, and the great ensemble work of backing band and brass section. 

In 2002, Manson released his debut The Bottom Line. His original composition “Outer Drive” reached the Top 10 on the R&R Smooth Jazz chart. Here it is “Outer Drive (Chicago Style)” and has come to be my favorite track on the album. It is simply delicious how Manson’s bass and Nick Colionne’s guitar play off each other, complemented by flavorful accents of Lenny Castro’s percussion. The horns really step out on this version. Michael Logan adds some great texture on Rhodes. Manson’s agile playing is top notch.   

“Still Thinking About You” (2006) features the distinctive guitar of Norman Brown.  In this slower groove, Manson makes his bass croon that gorgeous melody. It has a very nice interplay of guitar, bass, horns, and full band. 

Bring on the funk!!! The new Manson composition and title track “Up Front” is up-tempo with a Tower-of-Power-like horn section laid over Manson’s funky, funky bass groove. The outstanding backing ensemble gets this track smokin’! 

“Way Back When” in 2006, Manson wrote this easy going song. It has excellent production qualities brought by Jeff Lorber as producer.  Lorber plays his trademark keys alongside the unmistakable trumpet of Rick Braun on this very cool track.

You’ve probably heard this song enough for 3 lifetimes, but somehow this cover is so expertly rendered. Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” is, quite simply, lovely. Manson’s bass lines sing along with Kevin Whalum’s lead vocals and the wonderful backing choir of Armiriss Palmore, Trina Davis, and Felica Coleman-Evans. It’s like a fresh breeze on a sunny, spring afternoon. It feels good!

Tracks 12 and 13 are reprises of “End Of The Road” and “Outer Drive,” respectively. There is a spoken word component to this “End Of The Road.”  The relaxed reprise of “Outer Drive” has some fun improv and is definitely worth listening to the end.

About this recording, Manson said, "In the making of Up Front were moments of great joy, extreme focus, and some very exciting performances. We've taken some artistic license and ‘jammed’ a little more on this project.  I've made some new friends who have shared their gifts and old friends who chimed in as well. I'm very excited to share this with the people who love music. Enjoy."

I most certainly did, Mr. Manson!  Thank you for this extremely enjoyable CD filled great songs and expert performances.  It gets my enthusiastic recommendation.