The Jazzy Soul of Teena Marie

Today, I was supposed to post my Outstanding Jazz of 2010 list, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Right now, I feel compelled to pay tribute to a woman whose music was such an important part of my early adulthood and whose death has affected me more profoundly than I would have expected: Mary Christine Brockert, known to all of us as Teena Marie or more simply, “Lady T”.

Much has been written since her death about Teena Marie’s influences.  As with many R & B singers of our generation, the jazz she heard at home while growing up helped to shape her musical personality.  So my intent here is to briefly introduce jazz fans, who may not be familiar with the lady, to a fabulous artist, who wasn’t a “jazz singer”, but possessed the creativity, daring and spectacular chops, to have been a very fine jazz vocalist, if she had chosen to be.

Teena always counted jazz singers, such as Ella Fitzgerald and especially, Sarah Vaughan (famously named dropped by “T” in the rap break of her hit song “Square Biz”) among her idols. And you could hear those influences come through loud and clear on many of her ballads. None of her jazzier tunes were commercial radio successes, but many became staples of late night 80’s and ‘90’s “Quiet Storm” programming.  Teena demonstrated a natural affinity for scat singing and improvisation that could teach a thing or two to young, aspiring jazz vocalists. She also enlisted the aid of famous jazz musicians on some tracks and often left room for strong instrumental solos.

Here are six of Teena Marie’s best jazzy soul excursions, presented in chronological order:

“Tune in Tomorrow” from Irons in the Fire (Motown 1980)

Irons in the Fire was Teena’s third album and the first time that she tried her hand at producing and arranging. She was more than up to the task.  The album was a gorgeous piece of orchestral soul and this track, written by Teena, was one of many highlights. Check out her scatting:

 

 Tune in Tomorrow – Teena Marie

 

“Portuguese Love” from It Must Be Magic (Motown 1981)

Teena also composed this Latin-tinged track, which picked up where “Tune in Tomorrow” left off. Though the single version topped out at #54 on the Billboard charts, the album version heard here became a favorite of late night radio programmers.  It was also covered by Maynard Ferguson on an album a couple of years later. There’s a tasty tenor solo by Daniel LeMelle during the instrumental break. And yes, that is Teena’s on again/off again paramour Rick James joining her for a bit of bilingual pillow talk near the end.

 

“Casanova Brown” from Robbery (Epic 1983)

Two years and an infamously acrimonious lawsuit with Motown passed between album releases. Though artistically solid, Robbery was a bit of a commercial disappointment. However this torchy ballad, written about (surprise) her tumultuous relationship with Mr. James, outshone everything else on the album and not surprisingly, is one of the most enduring songs in her catalog.

 

 Casanova Brown – Teena Marie

 

“Sunny Skies” from Emerald City (Epic 1986) [this version is on Love Songs (Epic 2000)]

The rock influenced Emerald City was a commercial dud that alienated many in Lady T’s R & B loving fan base. Just when all seemed lost, out of nowhere the album closed with this track which was arguably the strongest jazz statement of Teena’s career. It featured Branford Marsalis on tenor, Stanley Clarke on bass and a 4/4 jazz break in the middle that gave Branford room to do some boppish soloing.  (A compilation album from 2000 featured a version of “Sunny Skies” with an extended jazz break and that’s what you hear here.)

 

“Black Rain” from La Doña (Cash Money 2004)

Fast forward now almost two decades. Teena has had a few more musical highs and lows and she left the scene for a number of years, to give birth to and raise a daughter. She returned with La Doña, which unsurprisingly, had a subtle hip-hop influence. But it was still a Teena Marie album through and through. “Black Rain” with its hip-hop cum jazz vibe, muted trumpet and finger snaps, sounds like it would have fit perfectly on Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor project and that is a high compliment.

 

  Black Rain – Teena Marie

 

“Harlem Blues” from Congo Square (Stax 2009)

Congo Square would prove to be the final album released during Teena’s lifetime. Ironically, she said that one of her intentions on this album was to pay tribute to the influences of her youth, including jazz.  Again, several jazz artists such as Terri Lyne Carrington, George Duke, Ray Fuller and Brian Bromberg made guest appearances. This track, which was dedicated to Sarah Vaughan, is not the old W.C. Handy tune, but an original penned by Ms. Marie.  The cool vibe is irresistible and I could easily imagine a 21st Century “Sassy” digging this one.

 

If these tracks whet your appetite for more, here are a few more “jazzy soul” tracks by Teena Marie that are worth checking out:

  • “Déjà vu (I’ve Been Here Before)” from Wild and Peaceful (Motown 1979) 
  • “Now That I Have You” from Lady T (Motown 1980) 
  • “Young Love” from Irons in the Fire (Motown 1980) 
  • “Irons in the Fire” from Irons in the Fire (Motown 1980)
  • “You Make Love Like Springtime” from It Must Be Magic (Motown 1981)
  • “Baby, I’m Your Fiend” from La Doña (Cash Money 2004)
  • “You Blow Me Away” from Sapphire (Cash Money 2006)
  • “The Rose N’ Thorn” from Congo Square (Stax 2009)

 

Though she always dabbled around the edges of jazz, sadly, we’ll never know if Teena Marie would have one day taken the next step and recorded a full-fledged jazz album. She was certainly moving in a musical direction to make us think that it was not out of the question.  However, we’ll always have these wonderful selections from her catalog to remind us of what a unique talent she was.

Rest in Peace, Lady “T”.  You’ll never be forgotten.

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5 Responses to “The Jazzy Soul of Teena Marie”

  1. Thank you, Curt. Beautifully written and inspiring.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Curtis Davenport, Curtis Davenport. Curtis Davenport said: Hey TwittaFam. There's a new post on Curt's Cafe Blog – "The Jazzy Soul of Teena Marie" Chk it out: http://wp.me/pFsCc-49 […]

  3. This is a gigantic… and I mean a humongous loss to the music industry. The ripple effect of her leaving will be felt years to come. A void is is there that cannot be filled. Sitting here in Tokyo I am still in shock & have been holding back writing about her until In am ready. What a versatile and inspiring vocalist. He Jazz side and influence was clearly noticeable.

  4. […] “Magic and Music”, a touching tribute written by Ms. Carrington, to the singer Teena Marie, who passed away suddenly last […]

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