Here’s an easy bet to win against the novice Isley Brothers fan: Who was the only non-Isley brother included in their peak early 1970s to early 1980s lineup? Keyboardist, composer, vocalist and one of the primary architects of that glorious “3 + 3” sound Chris Jasper of course! Jasper was induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Isley Brothers Ronald, Ernie, Rudolph, Marvin and O’Kelly back in 1992.
By the early 1970s, the Isley Brothers had already carved out quite a career for themselves as a vocal trio during the late 1950s and 1960s. But a brand new era began when they added their younger brothers and brother-in-law as musicians. This new so-called 3 + 3 configuration racked up a dozen gold- and platinum-selling albums from 1973-1983 and was one of the biggest R&B bands of that decade.
As a teen growing up during that time they were one of my very favorite groups and I wore out all of their LPs. Not only was their overall sound (which eschewed the popular horn-augmented formula of the day) immediately identifiable, but they were extraordinary in that they were equally adept at hardcore funk, guitar-driven rock and sensual ballads. In fact, their work in any of those categories ranks with the best from anyone during that era.
The key ingredients to that sound were lead vocalist Ronald, who was masterful in both gritty and delicate contexts; Ernie, a blistering guitar player and one of my all-time favorites (way too underrated in rock circles and discussions of six-string masters); and the classically trained wizard of the ivories and brother from another mother whose most recent recording I’m reviewing here.
“Share With Me” is amazingly the 14th solo album Jasper has released since 1987. He also participated in three Isley Jasper Isley LPs during the mid-1980s, scoring a major worldwide hit with “Caravan of Love.” You can see and hear much more about his amazing career with the Isley Brothers, IJI and a solo artist in a special new three-part installment of the “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” show.
Jasper came out of the gate flying high with his full-length solo debut and its title track “Superbad,” a mid-tempo funker with a hypnotic groove. It set the pace and tone for the rest of his catalog, in which Jasper wears both his melodic soul and gospel inspirations on his sleeve while delivering a variety of thoughtful, spiritual and romantic ruminations set against keyboard-driven textures and varied tempos. In most cases, Jasper also handles the songwriting, production, vocals and instrumentation.
The latest 10-song “Share With Me” doesn’t break much with that pattern but it does rank as highly as any of its predecessors. However, steeped in funk as I am, I was a little taken aback by how slowly and mellow this album kicks off with its two cover tunes, “How Great Thou Art” and the Billy Preston chestnut “You Are So Beautiful.” As with all Jasper efforts, they certainly are earnest and heartfelt, and ballads fans may enjoy them. They are just not my cup of tea. Although it is interesting to hear “So Beautiful” get “the Isley Brothers-style treatment (a la “Summer Breeze”) it bogs down the beginning of the record back-to-back with “How Great.”
The moderately paced title track livens up the proceedings a bit with its Michael McDonald-like vibe. Jasper’s adoration and influence of Stevie Wonder rears its tuneful head in “I Love You,” currently a sizeable hit in the U.K. The low end gets to thumping a little harder with the ensuing “That’s What Love Can Do,” and the circular motion of “Spend Your Live With Me” comes on like a hybrid of Isley Brother classics “Between the Sheets” and the cha-cha rhythm of “Coolin’ Me Out.”
For me, “Share With Me” really shifts into high gear for its home stretch, beginning with “Lucky Guy.” That nugget pulses along with the funky, deep grooving elegance of vintage late 1970s Isley Brothers, replete with “Winner Takes All”-style synth bass to emulate the late Marvin’s contributions and overdriven guitar that makes one double check the liner notes to make sure Ernie hasn’t sneaked into the mix. Nope, it’s Jasper singlehandedly essentially completely recreating the wonderful Isley Brothers’ vibe.
That track proves just a warm-up as Jasper takes it to the next phase with the album’s most slamming cut, “Funky Thing.” What the voice-box enhanced song lacks in lyrical content it more than makes up for in sheer, authentic visceral groove. If Jasper had expanded a bit on the lyrics and thrown in some real drums and a guitar break midway through and on the outro he would have had a bona fide classic on his hands. How about bringing that to fruition with an extended remix?
Jasper entertains his poppier leanings with the bouncy “Why,” again nicely augmented with the best Ernie Isley guitar replication this side of sampling. But while he has that sound down, he unfortunately lacks the six-string chops to take it into the stratosphere in the manner his former bandmate accomplished with ease. Guys, how about a reunited effort while you are both still so able-bodied? I would be the first to sign that petition! Fittingly, this album’s closing anthemic “America” speaks to the kind of healing and uniting we need for the first ever Jasper-Isley (or Isley-Jasper) album.
Even if that dream pairing never materializes, classic soul and funk fans can indeed take solace that Chris Jasper is keeping real, honest music alive and well. None of us may have realized it back the age of bell bottoms and disco balls, but we now know more than enough to treasure just what a vital role he played in rendering that one-of-a-kind Isley Brothers’ sound, a marvel he continues to share with all of us today.