Evans and Stewart Reissues Travel to an Alternate R&B World

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

It’s not every day that a flea market score turns into an Arts & Leisure feature in the New York Times or a story on NPR (or ultimately an art book), but when a private investigator/soul fiend went out digging in Washington, D.C. one day back in 2004, he came across a treasure trove of music from the obscure R&B artist Mingering Mike. There were dozens of records in the bin, all featuring hand-drawn covers for albums that paid musical tribute to Bruce Lee, or a benefit album to fight sickle cell anemia, or else “Boogie Down at the White House.”

"Listening to them now seems to suggest an alternate realm of R&B. Or at least a world where a three-toed sloth-as-medallion on the cover of a disco record might connote a good thing."

Only, when the records in question were pulled out, they were revealed to be discuses of cardboard, right down to black-markered grooves drawn in. Mingering Mike was a soul superstar, but in his own mind, one who had never set down a note of music.

Perhaps it’s the outsider-art styled sleeve art from children’s book illustrator Zachariah O’Hara adorning two recent reissues from Tommy Stewart and Andre Evans, productive yet low-key players on the '70s soul/funk scene (out on the Boston’s Culture of Soul label) that evoke Mingering Mike. But the music of both men hearkens from the other end of the spectrum. Stewart and Evans may have written, arranged, recorded and even toured the music contained on these two discs, but little-to-none of it ever emerged, much less had the chance to enter into the collective consciousness or the play rotation at Kiss-FM or WBLS. So listening to them now seems to suggest an alternate realm of R&B. Or at least a world where a three-toed sloth-as-medallion on the cover of a disco record might connote a good thing.

Tommy Stewart was a prime mover on the Hotlanta soul scene in the 1970s after gigging with James Brown hornman Fred Wesley and jazz pianist Duke Pearson. He worked and arranged sessions for the likes of Clarence Carter, Candy Staton, Johnny Taylor, Millie Jackson, and Tamiko Jones at the height of funk, before the disco wave swept across the African-American musical landscape. Stewart was one of the first to concoct “disco-funk” on his rare self-titled 1976 album. Shortly thereafter, he teamed up with a sweet tenor voiced drummer named Stevenson “Stevo” Milner. They cut ten tracks for a full-length album that wound up shelved when Milner was fatally shot in 1980. Mostly, the tracks gathered here land on the more billowing and soft Barry White satin pillow territory, a few ranging into Delfonics territory due to Stevo’s smooth delivery. It’s the squelching, noisy instrumental stomp of Stevie Wonder’s “Livin for the City” that stands out though.

"What better party is there than the one that suspends the notion of time altogether?"

Andre Evans’s C.V. is even more impressive. He drummed with jazz legends like Grant Green Big John Patton as a teen and provided the tough backbeat on Dyke and the Blazers’ Funky Broadway album before joining up with the Delfonics and Isaac Hayes in the early 70s. Perhaps being versed in so many types of African-American pop music leads to the mercurial nature of this collection of Evans’s work as Evans Pyramid. There’s obviously the nod to Earth Wind and Fire’s iconography and the big horn arrangements of Chicago and Kool and the Gang, while set opener “Never Gonna Leave You” suggests an uptempo -- albeit melancholic -- take on Marvin Gaye. Elsewhere, one can hear the influence of Prince on his productions.

What makes Evans Pyramid’s music intriguing some forty years on though are the weird sound choices he makes. The muted guitar strings of “Never” are both percussive and melodic, mixing with a gentle piano line while “Dip Drop” has a duck whistle appear amid its funk. The weird boogie cut “No I Won’t” has a haze of processed violin rather than the standard synth line and rather than a canned handclap setting on “Soul Petrol,” Evans’s attached metal handles to two 2x4s, a propulsive “thwak” powering the proto-electro track.

Both Evans and Stewart got lost in the shuffle of the late ‘70s and early-‘80s, as soul mutated first into funk and then into disco, before splintering into electro, modern soul, boogie, and early ‘80s house, not to mention the new pop sounds crafted by Prince and Michael Jackson. In the Darwinian nature of pop music, these are failures, mutations that never propagated. But there’s an uncanny feeling in hearing a soul song about unrequited love that was never, in fact, heard. Even weirder is Evans’s percolating “Party Like it’s 2001,” written in the late ‘80s, not heard the year of, and only reaching our ears some eleven years after the fact. And what better party is there than the one that suspends the notion of time altogether?