Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey possesses one of the most stunning instruments in pop music history. His incomparable falsetto, showcased on songs like “Fantasy” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” is almost unearthly at times, and when surrounded by the lush arrangements conceived by EW&F founder Maurice White and his cohorts, the results were breathtaking.

Because EW&F has been such a powerhouse for so many years, first as a chart-topping sensation and later as a touring machine, Bailey has mostly stayed within the ranks. He’s made 10 solo albums, beginning with 1983’s Continuation, but three of those were gospel albums. His most successful solo album was 1984’s wittily titled Chinese Wall, which featured “Easy Lover,” a duet with Phil Collins, who also produced the disc. His most recent album was 2002’s Soul On Jazz, produced in collaboration with Bob Belden and Myron McKinley; it included versions of Thelonious Monk‘s “Ruby My Dear” (retitled “Dear Ruby”), the standard “Nature Boy,” Chick Corea‘s “Sometime Ago,” Herbie Hancock‘s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” Freddie Hubbard‘s “Red Clay” (retitled “On the Red Clay”), Gene McDaniels‘ “Compared to What,” and two Joe Zawinul compositions, “My Indiscretions” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” the latter made famous by Cannonball Adderley.

Seventeen years later, Bailey is back with a new solo release, Love Will Find a Way (get it from Amazon), and while the material leans toward R&B and early ’70s jazz, with one notable exception, the performers cross generations, including several names that are very much of the moment. The roster of guests includes Robert Glasper, Chick Corea and Kenny Barron on piano and keyboards; trumpeter Christian Scott; saxophonist Kamasi Washington; guitarist Lionel Loueke; bassists Christian McBride and Derrick Hodge; and drummers Steve Gadd and Kendrick Scott, as well as guest vocalists including Bilal and Casey Benjamin.

The songs Bailey has chosen for Love Will Find a Way are a surprising mix. There are two Curtis Mayfield compositions, “Billy Jack” from 1975’s There’s No Place Like America Today and the Impressions‘ 1967 single “We’re a Winner,” from the album of the same name; Marvin Gaye‘s “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” from 1973’s Let’s Get It On; the title track comes from a 1978 Pharoah Sanders album produced by Norman Connors, and features Kamasi Washington on soprano sax, an instrument he rarely plays on record. “You’re Everything” comes from the second Return to Forever album, 1973’s Light as a Feather; “Long as You’re Living” was written by Oscar Brown Jr., Julian Priester, and Tommy Turrentine, and was recorded by Abbey Lincoln on her 1959 album Abbey is Blue. The most unexpected track here, though, has to be a version of Talking Heads‘ “Once in a Lifetime,” which Bailey and his cohorts turn into a drifting cloud, the lyrics delivered in a half-whisper rather than the barely controlled panic of the original. It’s a strange treatment, but it…works?

There are also three original pieces on the album. “Stairway to the Stars,” “Brooklyn Blues,” and “Sacred Sounds” are mostly instrumental. “Stairway” is a showcase for Christian Scott, while Washington steps forward on “Sacred Sounds,” and “Brooklyn Blues” is a brief, atmospheric interlude dominated by African percussion, not unlike something that would have bridged a classic EW&F album.

Listeners who are only familiar with Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire‘s hits may find Love Will Find a Way shocking. It’s a powerful, assured artistic statement of the sort veteran artists rarely make; though the actual records sound nothing like each other, it reminds me of Tom Jones‘ 2010 and 2012 albums, Praise & Blame and Spirit in the Room. Bailey has earned the right to make any album he wants. That he wanted to do this is a testament to his wide-open ears and his bone-deep awareness of his own instrument and its uses.

Phil Freeman

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