Dexter Wansel ‘Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980’ 2CD (BBR) 4/5

dexter-wanselSome musicians are fixed in a given time frame and in the case of keyboardist Dexter Wansel, he will be forever associated with the mid-late 1970s. A native of Philadelphia, in his early teenage years, Wansel witnessed from the sidelines some of the major soul artists who visited the city of brotherly love and these included James Brown, the Isley Brothers (one of whom members just happened to be a promising young guitarist Jimi Hendrix) and the Supremes. The young Wansel would often assist and do errands for the esteemed musicians.
His 1973 debut for Gamble records was an unauspicous one and in truth the rock-influenced band Yellow Sunshine made very little impact and there was no real audience for that sound. Wansel therefore changed his sound by incorporating the then new of the ARP synthesizer and it was this conscious effort to forge a new direction that would eventually reap dividends and create a clearly distinctive voice fusing soul, funk and jazz that he could finally call his own. The tracks on this anthology focus squarely on Wansel’s albums that were mainly instrumental in nature, but tended to include the occasional vocal guest piece and it is these, where soulful voices merged with jazz-tinged keyboards, that would cement Wansel’s reputation. Most famous among these are the vocals of Terri Wells on the anthemic, ‘The sweetest pain’, but the leader regularly worked with the Jones Girls and Jean Carn, all of whom feature here in places. The only pity is that Phylis Hyman who is captured in her prime on photo with Dexter never recorded with him. What a sumptuous album that might have been and the two surely had lots in common musically.

A real favourite of this is writer is the soulful dancer, ‘I’ll never forget(my favourite dancer)’ that is a whole lot less formulaic than the title might first suggest, while in a jazzier vein, Jean Carn offers up, ‘Dream of tomorrow’. However, Dexter Wansel comes into his own on the instrumental cuts and of these, the gritty, ‘Life from Mars’, is now regarded as a jazz-funk essential and was a left-field disco hit, and others of a similar calibre include, ‘Times is slipping away’, ‘Voyager’ and ‘What is the world coming to’, all of which were released as singles and made minor ripples in the US R & B charts of the period. While never a straight ahead jazz keyboardist, Dexter Wansel deserves his place alongside say the soulful vibes of Bob James who has influenced countless hip-hop artists and Wansel’s appreciative public is similarly diverse, with a nod towards the soulful side of the music spectrum. Fans of George Benson from his ‘Breezin’ album will feel right at home here. Informative and lengthy inner sleeve notes with usual BBR attention to detail, and generously illustrated with original album covers, 45 labels and photos of the musicians involved.

Tim Stenhouse