The early 1980s was a transformative period for soul music and a smoother production sound was on the way in. One group that bucked the general trend and carved out their own path was Maze with Frankie Beverly in the lead vocalist role. This unbeatable value for money package pairs up the quintessential Maze album, ‘Maze live in New Orleans’, with a second live album from five years later in Los Angeles. Thankfully, there is virtually no overlap between the choice of songs and therefore the listener can appreciate a wider range of the Maze songbook that commences in the late 1970s and spans a decade through to the mid-1980s. The music is evenly divided up on separate CDs and need to be listened to on different occasions to fully take in the quality of the musicianship.
Maze were at their absolute peak on the New Orleans recording and from the very beginning, this performance captures a very special concert. With the opener, ‘You’, the band enter into a jam session feel and there is the sense from the listener’s perspective that you are straight into the concert proper and experiencing the moment live in person. Maze were a stunning live band, arguably stronger than in a studio setting and this is exemplified by the thrilling reading of the funk-tinged, ‘Southern girl’. Melodicism is the order of the day on ‘Happy feelin’ with a guitar riff that would not be out-of-place on a George Benson album, while the vocal harmonies sound as though they were directly influenced by Earth, Wind and Fire. That is without factoring in the mellifluous vocals of one Frankie Beverly who is a towering influence on the band, both as the lead man and as a gifted songwriter. His close and intimate rapport with the audience comes across on the extended riffs and direct involvement with the crowd on, ‘Feel what you’re feelin’ which has a fabulous mid-tempo groove.
Pride of place, however, must go to the definitive version of ‘Joy and pain’ and so compelling a rendition was this that it was released in all its glory as a 12″ single in the UK. Side four of the original double album was actually new material recorded in the studio and of these new numbers, ‘Before I let you go’ is by far the strongest and upon release in the US reached a respectable number thirteen slot in the R& B chart.
How do you follow an album as near to perfection as ‘Live in New Orleans’? By waiting another five years, assembling a new set of material from subsequent albums and then working hard to perfect those songs in a live setting. Only two songs were repeated from the New Orleans recording on the 1986, ‘Live in Los Angeles’ double album. In the meantime the group had recorded arguably their strongest ever studio album in ‘We are one’ and this forms the backdrop to much of the new live recording. A fine interpretation of their 1985 top five R & B hit, ‘Too many games’ was typical Maze terrain in a down home mid-tempo funky vein that suits their sound down to the ground. A stunning ‘We are one’ complete with dramatic intro before settling into a relaxed groove first equals then improves upon the original with another of those fabulous guitar riffs while it sounds as though Beverly is enjoying every second on stage while ad-libbing on ‘Back in stride’.
Extensive notes by soul music connoisseur and journalist Charles Waring round off a terrific package. If you want to know what the very best of early-mid 1980s soul sounded like, then this is as good a starting place as any alongside some Bobby Womack and Anita Baker. With hindsight what is particularly impressive about the Maze sound is that it managed largely to avoid the slickness of a lot of soul music from the same period, even if by the second recording elements of glossy instrumentation were slowly creeping in. Full marks to Robinsong for finally putting out these two recordings together.