The Stroke of Midnight, the second album from RJ and The Assignment, is something of a mixed bag. It touches a lot of musical bases: jazz, gospel, R&B, soul. Add a couple of different vocalists, a guest artist or two, and even a dollop of spoken word, and you’ve got a recipe for a meal that will surely have something to please the palate of anyone who appreciates good music. On the other hand there will be those who may like the meat but not the vegetables. There is a lot going on here and it is unlikely that it will please all of the people all of the time.
Me? I found myself buying into the more straightforward jazz tracks, less open to the sermonizing spoken word tracks. Whether it’s the paradoxically titled “One Sunny Night,” with its catchy melody and dynamic solos from saxophonist Julian Tanaka and RJ on piano, or the brilliant brass work from guesting trombonist Michael Evans and trumpeter Jorge Machain on the title cut and the killer version of Betty Carter’s “Tight,” jazz is where the group shines.
RJ’s solo work adds some excitement to his own “Roseland,” an upbeat number with a Latin flavor. Their treatment of the oft-recorded John Coltrane classic “Naima” is a revelation with some haunting flute work from Eddie Rich. It is as fine a treatment of a tune that everybody and his brother has covered as I’ve heard.
Most of the vocals on the album are handled by Assignment member Jocelyn Winston. She has an intense duet with Tanaka on “What You Won’t Do 4 Love,” and her cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” is audacious. I mean, how often do you come across a singer willing to scat Lennon and McCartney? Windy Kairigianes is a guest vocalist on “Tight” and the RJ original “Tears of a Lonely Damsel.” Spoken lyrics for “Choose Life” and “Hold On” are written and performed by Khari Bowden.
Other members of the Assignment are bassists Mariko Kitada and Jason Bolden, along with drummer Terry Wesley. Jeff Ray guests on guitar on half a dozen tracks, as does Tom Schuman on keyboards and percussion.
On a GLT Jazz Next podcast recorded after the release of their first album, Deceiving Eyes, RJ laments the state of jazz, especially with the younger audience. Their music attempts to appeal to that audience. They are trying to break down generic boundaries. Even if you don’t like it all, this is the kind of album where you’re bound to find something you love, and in the age of iTunes you can always get exactly what you want.