Marlon Saunders

Marlon Saunders

    Let me start by saying I first heard of Marlon Saunders in a very unusual way.  While he was quietly wowing folks both as the lead singer of the group Jazzhole and through his session work with other artists, I heard of him through my teenage son, who was listening to two jazzy rap songs Marlon recorded for the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series.

    Marlon Saunders is one of those rare individuals who was, quite simply, born to sing.  Raised in Maryland , he was naturally picking up tunes on the piano at age five, and was singing at home and church from the time he was able to talk.  And while it was clear early on that music would be his life, in his formative years it was quite unclear how that eventuality would play out.  He attended the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, studying saxophone.  However, his desire to sing ultimately made him felt constrained by the path on which he was traveling, both with regard to instrument and musical direction, and, rather than take the international musician career track, he chose instead to study vocal music at Boston's Berklee College of Music (where SoulTracker Gabrielle Goodman now teaches), determined to become a great jazz singer.

    Following graduation, he began the rough road of establishing a career in music.  Fortunately, his substantial talent led to a number of increasingly important gigs.  He paid the bills writing and recording jingles, including one for Miller Lite, and his rich tenor voice found him backup singing roles for such stars as Billy Joel, Barry White, Michael Jackson and Sting.  Perhaps the seminal moment in his musical development and education was when he became a member of Bobby McFerren's innovative vocal group, Voicestra.  McFerren, a truly unique singer, became an important mentor, and helped turn Saunders from a great voice to a great vocalist.

    In the early 90s, Saunders became a founding member and lead singer for Jazzhole, an acid jazz group that attained a significant following in Europe .  Their innovative and somewhat eclectic jazz and soul stylings made them critical favorites, although they've never received the popular attention that their excellent writing, singing and playing deserve.

    While Saunders remained part of Jazzhole, his work with McFerren convinced him that he truly wanted to express himself through solo work.  Thus, he formed a record label (Black Honey) and, in 2003, released his first solo recording, Enter My MindEnter was an ambitious, incredibly performed shot back to the mellow soul and early acid jazz sounds of the late 70s and early 80s.  And while one can hear traces of Rufus, Incognito and Earth Wind & Fire at various times on the disc, Saunders' nimble voice and creative arrangements keep the sound from being derivative in any way.

    As you would expect given Saunders' jazz roots, Enter My Mind avoids the death trap of dominant electronics, relying more on strong, organic rhythm sections around a Fender Rhodes lead, and nice jazzy touches such as flutes and guitars in various spots.  But the highlight is the breathtaking vocal arrangements, with Saunders' cool lead surrounded by great choirs that include such notable vocalists as Fonzi Thorton and Tawatha Agee.

    Saunders came back a couple of years later with the excellent A Groove So Deep: The Live Sessionswhich had the look and feel of a classic live soulful jazz album. He also produced the debut album of April Hill, who won Best New Artist at the 2008 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards for the project.

    After a long absence, Saunders returned to the studio in 2012, recording the song "Beautiful Design" and beginning work on an accompanying album.

    By Chris Rizik