Salsoul Orchestra ‘Up the Yellow Brick Road’ (BBR) 3/5

An interesting project undertaken here by the Salsoul Orchestra and one that only the disco era would attempt. If disco could descend into farce with Ethel Merman’s ‘Disco Duck’ the lowest of all lows, then discofied versions of other musical genres should rightly be treated with due caution. However, in the very capable hands of the Salsoul Orchestra under the expert arrangements of conductor and vibraphonist Vince Montana Jr, potential listeners should not be intimidated nor put off. This album project surfaced in 1978 when the musical ‘The Whizz’ starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross was in full swing and served as a pretext to explore different musical soundtracks with mixed results. As a whole the album goes through a variety of stages and musical moods and as such is not exactly dancefloor friendly. On the other hand, there are some inventive reworkings and all mixed by one Tom Moulton so underground disco fans in search of something a little more unusual will find this a treat in parts. This is illustrated by a funky take on the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’ complete with heavy backbeat and a blues-inflected keyboard in the background. Booker T and the MGs did a similar updated job on the Fab Four catalogue in the early 1970s to dramatic effect and, perhaps, the Salsoul Orchestra should have followed suit and devoted the whole album to the group’s repertoire. As an opener, ‘Ease on down the road’ features a stunning intro with blues guitar licks and electric piano while the vocals are collectively taken care of by the Sweethearts of Sigma and a vibes solo simply adds to the listener’s unadulterated pleasure. Where the project falls down somewhat is on a misguided take on the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ medley which would have been far better off left alone on this occasion. This is a step too far and the klezmer clarinet and pumping disco beat make for extremely odd bedfellows to say the least. However, even this does develop into a mid-tempo groove with Cal Tjader-esque vibes. A bonus cut of a 12″ disco version of ‘West Side Story’ adds a little more percussion and lengthens out the already long album version. The roller skating diva on the cover conjurs up the hedonistic ambiance of the era to perfection. Tim Stenhouse