There are a number of defining moments in almost every artist’s career that signify a significant milestone. It could be a debut album, or it may be a top ten tune or album itself. There’s the possibility of a headlining tour is a yardstick marker, an award of accomplishment or something even as admirable as an award nomination. Often overlooked, however, is when an artist has amassed a collection of songs so well loved by fans and music programmers, that the next natural step in their evolution is the release of a greatest hits collection.
The latest of our premier Wave artists to do just that is guitarist, composer, producer, and founder of his own label Skytown Records, U-Nam with his exciting new release The Essential Collection. Pinch yourself, because it really has been ten years since the brilliant and eclectic hit maker with a peculiar name broke through the smooth groove genre with is breakthrough album Back From The 80s’, which yielded his first of eight Billboard Top 30 smooth jazz hits (and several Wave Top 10 entries and chart toppers) with a scorching funk filled rendition of Joe Sample and The Crusaders’ timeless hit Street Life. What followed next is a treasure trove of some of the greatest music ever offered in the genre that leads U-Nam to where he is today as a revered multi-talented and dimensional musician who has spearheaded any movement to put the ‘fun’ in ‘funk’.
The consistency of his success is based upon rhythm heavy hits, many with 70s and 80s retro funk vibes, lush production and arrangement, and layers of horn and symphonic accompaniment to back up U-Nam’s signature guitar work that has produced more earworm songs than I can personally count. The Essential Collection takes fans through a retrospective tunnel of smash hits of supreme endurance and relevance, including Keep The Faith, Love X Love (from the George Benson tribute album Weekend In LA), Throwback Kid, Spice Of Life, Something’s Up, Going For Miles, Risin’ To The Top (Kenni Burke original). Smoovin’ and a handful of other classics, in addition to some new and previously unreleased material. When you consider that two of U-Nam’s most recent albums, C’est Le Funk and Surface Level, have only been released in the last three years, that alone is remarkable accomplishment from the musician I have unabashedly referred to as a genius in a previous album hot take, and on-air.
It’s perfectly acceptable when compiling your legacy of songs into a definitive collection of your success and leave it right there. But it’s not suprising that the enigmatically creative U-Nam would want to take it to another level and give fans what they crave, more music. In addition to a standout collection of slickly producer and performed funk rich hits, U-Nam delivers a cover of Let The Music Play, a 1976 soul classic from the legendary Barry White, whom U-Nam worked with prior to his passing. However, it’s the new track Soul Breeze with its cool, airy R’n’B groove that has been a late summer scorcher on music charts everywhere. The song could easily have been titled “Soul Inspiration” (if Anita Baker hadn’t already laid claim to it) because of how this addictive tune was conceived. U-Nam recounted to me that while he was at a loss to compose a new hit song for The Essential Collection line-up, he happened to be walking his then-nine month old son Myles (the namesake of the hit Going For Miles) down to his room for bedtime. While holding his little man’s tiny hand, he quietly meditated upon and requsted inspiration to help Dad complete the project. The very next day, Soul Breeze was born, perhaps through some father and son soul melding. After all, the word U-Nam translates in French to ‘one soul’. Sure, the story behind of smooth jazz music’s hottest hits may seem esoteric to some, but to me it’s perfectly logical and I never blinked an eye or lowered a brow when the story was explained to me during a chat with U-Nam.
Every artist strives to carve an indelible sound that becomes synonymous to his or hers name or brand. U-Nam achieved that status long before his decade long tenure of churning out vibrant sophisticated funk classics and interpretations of others’ work. To analogize or get metaphorical, U-Nam is like a musical candy man that tempts you with sweet treats and sends you on a sugar high you don’t want to come down from.
The Essential Collection celebrates a decade of sheer endurance and hit spinning from a guitarist who refuses to simply push the boundaries, but has redrawn them and broken any rules that may have existed. It is an album that any fan, follower, or music lover must add to their collection for pure unfettered party energy on a release that pays tribute to the past, but to the future.
Reviewed By Stu Berketo