March 2006

Michael Dunston Septet | The Music of Donny Hathaway
March 24, 2006The Rex Jazz & Blues BarToronto
Keeping The Flame Alive
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert
I first came across Michael Dunston singing at The Rex in Toronto a few years ago. It was the first time I had heard a R&B/soul show there and the first time I had heard of Donny Hathaway. Michael Dunston encouraged everyone to google Donny Hathaway if we did not already know him, and like a man on a mission, he made sure the name was burned into our cerebral cortex before the end of the night. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and I was surprised at how much of the material I recognized, despite the fact that I could not remember ever having heard of Donny Hathaway.

Michael Dunston
Recently, a calendar of events listing caught my eye. It was for the Michael Dunston Septet playing the music of Donny Hathaway. In the band were some of the best players in the country — Terry Clarke on drums, Dave Young on bass, Garry Williamson on piano, John Johnson on sax, Dave Dunlop on trumpet and Gord Meyers on trombone. There were also two back-up vocalists, Gail Berry and Lorraine Scott. It was a must hear.

So, who exactly was this Donny Hathaway? I did my googling. Like many R&B musicians, he grew up singing gospel in the church and playing piano. He won a full scholarship to study music at Howard University in 1964, but never finished. Instead, he started working full time in the music industry with a mix of jobs as a pianist, singer, songwriter and arranger. He was soon working with people such as Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers and Curtis Mayfield (as one of the Mayfield Singers).

Donny Hathaway’s biggest sellers were the albums of duets he recorded with Roberta Flack. I prefer other albums with his own tunes and covers that have become classics of the soul/R&B genre. This is also the material I have heard from Michael Dunston. Donny Hathaway’s output was enormously varied, from the funk and soul on his Everything is Everything album to the classical composition that is “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry, pts 1 and 2” on his Extensions of a Man album. He also wrote the 1972 theme to the TV series Maude and a film score for Come Back Charleston Blue, supervised by Quincy Jones.

Unfortunately, throughout the 1970s, Donny Hathaway was also battling severe depression, requiring hospitalization for increasing periods of time. This was a battle which he ultimately lost, plummeting to his death from a 15th floor window in 1979 at the age of 33.

Michael Dunston's respect and admiration for Donny Hathaway is immeasurable and his affinity with the material is obvious. Arriving near the end of the first set, we just had time to settle in our seats before the start of “Everything is everything”. We were immediately hooked by the great vocals and Dave Young’s unbelievably funky electric bass. He is just as good in this setting as he is playing acoustic bass with Oscar Peterson or playing the music of Charles Mingus with his own quintet. Equally at ease in a variety of styles, multi-instrumentalist John Johnson who had been playing Shostakovich at Harbourfront Centre Theatre just a little earlier the same evening, got to stretch out on this tune.

On “Trying Times” Michael Dunston was enjoying John Johnson’s solo so much that with a “Go, Johnny” he encouraged him to carry on through another chorus. Michael Dunston has a smooth, unfaltering voice very much like Donny Hathaway’s. Occasionally, just as Donny sometimes did, he sounds like Stevie Wonder. Michael Dunston expertly sets up his songs, creating the mood with a voice that transitions cleanly into song. And he certainly has a way with a lyric. When he sings, you listen to what he is saying. The poignant “Little Ghetto Boy” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” were beautifully rendered.

The night was filled with gospel, funk and classic soul songs like “Thank you Master (for my soul)” with Gary Williamson’s gospel piano introduction, the upbeat “I’m going To Wait for Him” with its three-part vocal arrangement, “Someday We’ll All be Free”, and “Handwritings on the Wall”.

To my knowledge, Michael Dunston has never recorded a CD under his own name although he has shown up on a surprising range of other musicians’ CDs over the years. Let’s hope there is an upcoming CD of this material with this band, classic R&B/soul with a jazz twist.

Gail Berry

Lorraine Scott

Michael Dunston, Dave Young, Gord Myers, Dave Dunlop and John Johnson
We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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Roger Humbert
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