Chaka Khan ‘What cha’ Gonna Do For Me’ (BBR) 5/5

chaka-khanAs her period as lead vocalist with Rufus was shortly about to end bar a reunion concert tour and double album, Chaka Khan set about establishing her credentials as a solo artist of some standing and this 1981 recording is for many including this writer the finest album she ever cut outside of Rufus. This is partly based on the multiplicity of styles showcased and the impressive array of studio musicians, from jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock, to superb arranging and production from Arif Mardin and, on occasion, the strings of Gene Orloff.
What the album needed to launch it was a hit single and this came in the shape of the instantly catchy chorus to the title track which reached number one in the American R & B charts while the album itself went top twenty in the US Pop charts. Bizarrely, in the UK Chaka was yet to fully establish herself as a solo singer in spite of the success of ‘I’m every woman’. However, this was by no stretch of the imagination a one hit song album and there are hidden gems contained throughout. One of this writer’s favourites is the lovely minor key number, ‘Night moods’, and this showcases the jazz singer that Chaka Khan always has concealed within her. Khan has ever been an adaptable vocalist and the subtle delivery allied with the jazzy orchestrations including flute make for a stunning song. The album abounds in killer hook lines and bass grooves and both combine on the punchy, ‘I know you, I live you’, which should have been another hit single.

If the album has a left-field tour de force, then it is surely, ‘And the melody lingers on (Night in Tunisia)’, which is none other than a radical reworking of the be-bop classic, ‘A night in Tunisia’. This new reading breathes new life into the original with a heavy emphasis on funk with some delicious keyboard licks from Herbie Hancock, but pays homage to the original in two respects. First of all, it accomplishes the technical feat of inserting the original Charlie Parker alto saxophone solo and this really works. Secondly, and equally impressive, the trumpeter on the original, Dizzy Gillespie, still alive and well in 1981, was invited onto the new version and lays down a stunning solo while Chaka ad-libs as only she knows how. This is one of the all-time great interpretations and one that is totally original. Chaka’s jazz credentials are beyond dispute and the only pity is that later in her career, she has not devoted an entire album to her jazz side.

In some respects parts of this album were a precursor to the major UK success a few years later of the ‘I feel for you’ single and album release. The heavy funk synthesizer bass on ‘Heed the warning’ certainly hints at the newer instrumental accompaniment that would catapult Chaka Khan to her biggest ever hit in 1984 and even the admirable and successful attempt at a cover of a Lennon and McCartney song, ‘We can work it out’, that opens the 1981 album on a breezy and uplifting optimistic note is repeated three years later with the famous cover of the Prince title track on ‘I feel for you’.

The extended CD edition features three bonus cuts, a remix of ‘I know you, I love you’ with thumping drum beats. Of the two songs originally left off the album, ‘Only once’ is a quality soulful ballad, but the mid-tempo groove of ‘Lover’s touch’ is the real find and should have been included first time round. As always with BBR re-issues, great care is taken over the extensive and beautifully illustrated inner liner notes and this proves to be no exception. Rare album photos of Chaka are supplemented by black and white photos of Khan in the studio with Gillespie and Marin, and the added new lyrics by Khan and Mardin are included. A superb re-issue all round.

Tim Stenhouse