Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On ★★★★★

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Marvin GayeUniversal Motown

Gaye (v, p), The Andantes, the Detroit Lions, Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, Eligie and Kenneth Stover (backing v), James Jameson, Bob Babbit (el b), Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith (kys), Joe Messina, Robert White (g), Jack Ashford, Eddie Bongo Brown, Bobbye Hall, Earl De Rouen (perc), Jack Brokenshaw (perc), Eli Fountain (as), Wild Bill Moore (ts) and Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Van De Pitte. Rec. June, 1970 and March-May1971

Marvin’s masterpiece is possibly to soul music what Miles’ Kind Of Blue is to jazz. Both are works of great sophistication and ambition that opened new pathways in their respective genres. The latest package of Gaye’s high water mark is a 3-CD opus that comprises the original 1971 album as well as the previously released Detroit mix and 19-track collection of odds and ends. Suffice is to say that the original song cycle still has the artistic grandeur that made it so compelling in the first place, and the combination of Gaye’s urbane but emotionally charged vocals, his majestic lament and desperate, bitter holler, seamlessly closes the gap between the highbrow and the honky tonk in black music. Indeed, the contrast between the gliding melodic sophistication of the title track and the biting backbeat of ‘Inner City Blues’ positions Gaye at a coherent crossroads of jazz sensibilities and funk inclinations.

The input of master bassist James Jamerson was crucial to the endeavor insofar as he perambulated so effectively around the lead vocal, almost as a piano or guitar, finishing Gaye’s lines with gorgeously felt-like low phrases. Special mention must also be made of David Van De Pitte whose string score simply heightened the timbral beauty of the backdrops by way of soaring, silken motifs that appeared as a kind of metaphor for human dignity in the midst of cold hearted dehumanization. What’s Going On is, lest we forget, a chef d’oeuvre of protest music, a wake-up call to a world that is destroying itself through war, government corruption and ecological rape, and it’s uncanny that some of the singer’s most poignant lyrics – “there’s too many of you dying”, “fish full of mercury”, “I can’t pay my taxes” – have such a potent resonance in this age of both widespread geopolitical skullduggery and socially divisive economic austerity. Gaye may have written the soundtrack for a Vietnam stress disordered world in 1971, but sadly it also acts as effective incidental music to an Iraq induced planet in 2011. The singer was thus of and beyond his time, and that is the definition of great art, a fruit that just will not wither on the vine.

– Kevin Le Gendre