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Alone But Not Alone
Artist: Marvin Winans 
Label: Pure Springs Gospel
Time: 12 tracks/54:32

Every so often, an artist comes along with talent and charisma so imposing that it can’t be contained or defined by the genre he’s associated with. These are artists whose talent overflows the barriers and stylistic walls that would normally restrict one’s musical output, trapping them within the safe parameters of the ‘expected’ audience. This is the type of artist who gives us wonderful musical gifts that surprise, delight, and enrich the soul: Marvin Winans is that kind of artist. As the front man of the crossover Gospel group, The Winans, Marvin (known as Reverend Marvin L. Winans is some circles, thank you) helped propel the family band of brothers into the mainstream market with his rich songwriting abilities as well as his amazing voice and on-stage charisma. Those who were paying close attention knew that someday Marvin would have to do a solo project. The wait has been way too long, but it’s over: Alone But Not Alone is Marvin Winans' first solo project, and it has provided surprises, and more than fulfilled expectations. 

It has to be stated here that Winans is a master at vocal phrasing. With a Gospel background and an R&B engine (with some cool jazz thrown in for good measure), Marvin knows how to take a lyric, lay it onto a melody, infuse  the joy, pain, disappointment and intensity of life into the moment, and send it straight to the listener’s soul. Throughout the album, Winans’ employs his sometimes powerful, sometimes whispering, delivery to tell story after story of love, disappointment, revelation, joy and pain: his vocals can sneak up on you out of nowhere, and can shift effortlessly from a vibrato-less pure tone to a Gospel shout, not unlike his father, ‘Pops’ Winans might deliver. Alone But Not Alone features some wonderful, sophisticated, cool musicianship by the likes of Marvin Sims, Dan Needham, and Javier Solis on drums, and the amazing Tommy Sims, who not only co-produced and mixed the project but gets songwriting credit for “Peace and Love” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” as well as contributing very tasty acoustic and electric guitars and a variety of keyboards. Among the group of amazing musicians on this disc are such notables as Jerry McPherson (guitar), Tyrone Dickerson and Daniel Weatherspoon on the Hammond B3 and on acoustic piano – the Reverend Winans himself also is featured on acoustic piano, and does a great job, which should be no surprise to anyone who’s ever been to a Winans concert. As with The Winans' albums, Marvin has generously shared the spotlight on several songs with guest vocalists – most notably on this CD, Take Six, adding wonderfully arranged back-up vocals to “I Will Try,” and the amazing Kim Burrell  on the same track, making the song, essentially, a very special duet performance.

With this album, Marvin Winans has taken us by surprise: stylistically, it’s not pure Gospel or straight R&B, but blurs the lines of both of these styles by mixing in healthy doses of a more adult-oriented jazz approach on many tracks. The orchestrations are big, emotional and jazz-inflected, owing much to the production sound of (believe it or not) Jimmy Webb. More than once, in the course of these 12 tracks, you’ll hear the ghosts of Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and even another Marvin, with the last name of Gaye. This is not to say that there’s any lack of funk on Alone But Not Alone – the CD’s title track kicks off the project in high gear with a catchy, up-beat tune, punctuated by familiar Winans-style back-up and crisp horn parts, and is followed by “My Story,” which is Marvin saying ‘hello’ to us and letting us know where he’s been. “My Story” is one of several songs with a hook that will stay with you through the day (a vocal riff delivered, I believe, by brother Carvin). 

Things take a more introspective turn with “Just Don’t Wanna Know,” a powerful confession of Winans’ need for a human touch, while still acknowledging God as The Teacher through lonely times; it’s a confessional, heart-felt song that will no-doubt bring tears to the eyes of many who will understand the emotion and message. The alternately gentle and powerful vocal delivery of the lyrics backed at first by a simple acoustic guitar-driven combo, expands into full, swirling strings and backup singers, yet the emotional core of the song remains strong and un-cluttered. This song, the album’s first single, has ‘classic’ written all over it.

Things lighten up a bit with the refreshing, “I Still Believe,” with its easy-going beat and pleasant harmonies. The song is a well-placed respite from the emotional intensity of the previous track. An instrumental track follows, leading into the big, anthem-like, “I Shall Never,” which introduces us to Deshondra Rideout helping with a solo vocal guest-shot. Marvin’s late brother, Ronald contributes what was perhaps his last recorded vocal performance on the next song, “He Brought Me Joy.” Ronald’s performance adds a poignant note to this more traditional Gospel song of encouragement.

“I’m Over It Now” is another big jazzy ballad with lush orchestration and world-weary, but devotional lyrics; here we have not so much the calm, but the peace after the storm…

Things get warm and funky again with the light-hearted and pleasant “The Rain,” a bouncy tune with tight background vocals for those of us who need to know when to ‘come in out of the rain.’ This sets us up for one of the real showpieces of the project – the jazzy, slow barn-burner, “Try.” Over a small jazz combo and light strings, we’re treated to the amazing vocal tag-team of Marvin Winans and Kim Burrell. What more could we ask for? How about Take Six providing back-up vocals? There’s more good vocal stuff going on in this one track that you might hear in a whole year’s worth of recordings. Trust me on this – and Kudos to Tommy Sims for just-right production.

The penultimate track, “Peace and Love,” harkens back to Marvin Gaye and the kind of R&B radio we used to hear ….well, that many years ago. The album then closes with a composition that could have easily become a signature Ray Charles song, if it was Ray that had the chance to record it. As it stands, it’s a sweeping, darkly majestic piece that Marvin nails on every level. The track is indicative of what makes this project stand apart and almost defy categorization. Like much of Alone But Not Alone, this track simply doesn’t sound like what we’ve come to expect from a Gospel artist – it gives us more than we’re prepared to hear. 

Marvin Winans, along with Tommy Sims, has produced an album that is lyrically honest and musically adventurous. Fragile, confessional, introspective lyrics have not always been what Gospel music (and certainly Praise and Worship music)  has given us: Marvin Winans has chosen to allow us to look into his soul and see a reflection of our own hurts and triumphs, our own defeats and dreams. Musically, Winans and Sims have stepped way out of the Gospel Music box to deliver a project with universal appeal, which might break new ground in both Gospel and secular radio formats.

Reportedly, Marvin’s got lots more songs. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for his next project as we did for his first.

By Bert Saraco  


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