Billed somewhat misleadingly as "Blaze Presents the James Toney Jr. Project," Natural Blaze isn't the result of Josh Milan and Kevin Hedge hooking up with yet another new talent; instead, the billing pays tribute to a dear music-loving friend of the duo who passed away prior to the album's release. Due to the sparse credits on the sleeve, one can only infer that the album is primarily -- or strictly -- the work of Milan and Hedge. Only the most devoted Blaze freak could have predicted that this full-length would have so many elements to it. Natural Blaze, more than any other Blaze work, exemplifies the duo's well-studied mastery of several styles. With the house foundation a given, Milan and Hedge seamlessly integrate disco, jazz, gospel, samba, soul, and Afro-beat into their bold, crisp productions. Their syntheses are as natural as one can imagine. Breezy instrumentals and a trio of spoken-word pieces dot the album, full of horn punches, piano tickles, keyboard warps, guitar spangles, and Latin percussion. Two vocal tracks, "How Deep Is Your Love" and "Better Days," rate with the very best the duo has produced. The former is particularly heavenly, with a brisk tempo played out by some ultra-tight programming and some very sweet vocal arrangements. As with most other Blaze releases, listeners will either feel uplifted and purified or bored to tears. Blaze is always very respectful to its influences -- Earth, Wind & Fire, George Duke, the jazzier end of Loft classics -- and, as modern as they sound, have trouble relating to the younger dance music fans who aren't all that open-minded. Regardless of opinion, it is an undeniable fact that Blaze has the market cornered on accomplished, immaculately crafted house music with a positive edge. Natural Blaze is further evidence of that.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo