You might not expect a man who calls himself the Chocolate Genius to make a subtle, understated record, but Marc Anthony Thompson is not easily pigeonholed. Black Yankee Rock, released in October on Commotion Records, completes an ambitious trilogy of records, which Thompson describes as “a narrative that looks at family, faith and future.” The new disc oozes with remarkably well-played arrangements and a quiet elegance that yields a more musically accomplished and warmer result than Black Music (1998) and Godmusic (2001).
Going against the grain of contemporary R&B and the hip-hop nation, Black Yankee Rock was recorded almost live in the studio. If you want to make a musician’s record, the thing to do is get some musicians, and Thompson and producer Craig Street assembled some of the best in the business, including Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Roy Nathanson, Abe Laboriel Jr., Oren Bloedow, Toshi Reagon, Glenn Patscha and Van Dyke Parks.
“We were in this great old castle in upstate New York, like something out of Xanadu in Citizen Kane,” Thompson recalls. “There were walk-in fireplaces that were going 24 hours. It was snowing outside. On some of the really quiet songs, like ‘Same Time Tomorrow’, you can hear a fireplace popping a little bit.
“We only recorded for three days. We moved in there and everybody stayed together. So we ate together, did everything together. Hopefully you can kind of hear that. The first time I played it for Marc Ribot — because we didn’t have the luxury of having Marc with us on the basic tracks — he said this thing that was really great: ‘It sounded like we were all on the same drug.’ Even though the record was drug-free, I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Thompson describes the result as “my version of a singer-songwriter record.” The singing on the quieter tracks, especially “The Yes Eye”, “It’s Going Wrong” and the sadly beautiful “Cry”, is the best of Thompson’s career — no surprise, perhaps, given Street’s track record with vocalists (Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, k.d. lang, Lizz Wright, etc.). Overall, the album has a subtle and low-key feel, but a few tracks are more immediate: the contagious, rocking opener “The Beginning Of Always”; “Chasing Strange” (which Wright covered on her recent disc Dreaming Wide Awake); and especially “Forever Everyone”, one of those “Losing My Religion”-esque perfect pop moments.
“‘Forever Everyone’ was written about a really good friend of mine, Gregg Arreguin, who played on every record I ever made and passed away right before we started recording this record,” Thompson explains. “So it started out as a really slow, languid piano song. But I took about 30 songs into the studio, and Craig and I would just play everybody these songs, and depending on the mood of that particular time of day, we’d pick a song to do. By the time we got around to doing ‘Forever Everyone’, the record didn’t have many uptempo moments, and so that’s the way that song went.
The track also reflects Thompson’s earliest musical influences. “I grew up on the west coast, so that was a big part of me coming up,” he says. “I wanted to have something in there that was really California pop, that ’60s kind of Burt Bacharach stuff with that kind of middle section, those sounds, those kind of orchestrations.”
If all this sounds far from most music being made by popular black musicians today, it is. The feel, and the appreciation for deep musicianship, recalls Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, or Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On”; yet it also sounds completely contemporary. It’s very much like how his comrade in neo-soul, Joe Henry, has described his own recent work: “Inspired by the past, but not beholden to it.”
Thompson doesn’t necessarily consider his music to be so unusual in the current climate. “Plenty of black people are doing some pretty different stuff,” he contends. “Listen to Bloc Party, and there are some bands back here, like Apollo Heights, the Black Madonna — there are many bands doing very different things that are under the radar.
“I don’t really think about it. I’d go crazy if I thought about who was gonna listen to these songs before I recorded them. With my records, I just sit down and think about what I’m not hearing. What do I want to hear right now if I put on a record?”
“Not only are there people ready to listen to adventurous music by black people, but there are also a lot of people over the age of 30 who just want to hear good songs. Look at some of the songwriters enjoying a lot of success now, whether it’s Jack Johnson, David Gray or Norah Jones. I know this sounds really lame like I’m looking at some demographic, but I know there’s an audience out there. We’re just trying to find a tribe.”