While in the United States the late ’80s and early ’90s saw hip hop, and it’s younger, more soulful sibling New Jack Swing at the forefront of Black music, in the UK it was acid jazz that had the ear of the younger generation. To this day there is no concise definition as to what acid jazz is, ask those familiar with the style and you will get as many answers as people asked, but ask them what artists they think of as producing that type of music and you will get a pretty small list. The term dates back to the late ’80s and influential British DJs — and now tastemakers — Gilles Peterson and Chris Bangs who, looking for a name for the new breed of danceable, soulful jazz-funk, coined the name acid jazz. The name stuck and became a handle with which to push this type of music into the commercial realm, freeing it from the rather stuffy, elitist image often associated with jazz, and making it something the kids in the clubs would want to dance to.
One of the first acts to which the label became firmly attached were British instrumental Jazz-Funk group, The Brand New Heavies. Having formed in the early ’80s the core trio, comprising Jan Kincaid, Simon Bartholomew, and Andrew Levy, originally went by the name Brother International and built up a cult following on the London club scene. A chance encounter with some of James Brown‘s liner notes, declaring him to be the “Minister of New Super Heavy Funk” led to a name change, and the addition of vocalist Jay Ella Ruth completed the formation of The Brand New Heavies. Their self-titled debut was a largely instrumental affair and was released in the UK on Peterson’s Acid Jazz label in 1990. US label Delicious Vinyl picked up on their success in the UK and decided to re-package the album for a U.S. release, on the condition that American vocalist N’Dea Davenport — who was already on Delicious’ artist roster — replace the already absent Jay Ella. And so, a 20+ year career began.
Although now an official part of the band, only four of the original album tracks were reworked to feature N’Dea on lead vocals which left six instrumental cuts, brave for a band trying to crack the difficult U.S. market at a time when the hook was king. As if aware of the that fact, The Brand New Heavies kicked off with the strong, jazz-heavy instrumental “BNH.” Anchored by Levy’s bass guitar and giving a glimpse of the horn work that would go on to feature heavily in The Heavies’ music, it acted as the perfect introduction to their sound and established their mission statement: this was music to groove to. “People Get Ready” upped the funk factor and showcased what The Heavies could do when they let their hair down, pairing flawless instrumentals with a catchy hook from one of the guys (I think it’s Bartholomew), and “Put The Funk Back In It”, contrary to its title, displayed their ability to craft a languid jazz groove just as effortlessly as a dance floor-storming funk workout. Out of all the instrumentals on the album it is often “Sphynx” that is cited as the standout and, although “Put The Funk Back In It” gets my vote, it’s easy to see why with the killer saxaphone work courtesy of Heavies affiliate Jim Wellman.
Of course, it was when the guys teamed up with N’Dea that their material took flight and gained them the popularity that, as an instrumental-only band, would have been almost impossible to garner. Without a vocalist on board it’s difficult to believe that The Brand New Heavies would have peaked at #17 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The U.S. single, “Never Stop,” peaked at #3 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts (#43 on the UK charts) and is still, to this day, one of their most popular hits. N’Dea’s strong, free-flowing vocals complemented the tightness of the band perfectly, at times sounding like she was taking part in a jam session rather than recording for a studio album, her aversion to over-singing and matter-of-fact delivery struck the perfect balance. Their label also saw the magic at work when the guys teamed up with N’dea resulting in the decision that all three singles from the album, “Dream Come True,” the aforementioned “Never Stop,” and “Stay This Way,” were tracks featuring her.
While it would be 1994’s Brother Sister to really cement The Brand New Heavies place in the hearts of music lovers on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the globe, it was their self-titled debut with which the seed was sewn, laying the groundwork for the likes of Incognito, Jamiroquai, Young Disciples, and The James Taylor Quartet to have success both at home and, to varying degrees, in the U.S. N’Dea would later leave the band in pursuit of a solo career, to be replaced by a revolving roster of vocalists, none staying for more than one album. Almost 10 years after the split she returned though and now, five years on, The Brand New Heavies are still going strong, building on the foundations established on their ’91 debut and looking towards the future, a future that will apparently deliver not one, but two new albums in 2012.