U-Nam, the guitarist with a memorable name and an acrobatic, soulful and sweet melodic touch, with “Back From the 80’s” has crafted music firmly rooted in funky smooth jazz but crossing into genres as excitingly diverse as R&B, Hip-Hop, Pop, Rock and Chill. He calls it "Classy, Jazzy, Funky, Frenchy." This remarkable CD, U-Nam’s first for Soulvibe Recordings, offers fresh versions of classic and lesser-known gems from the ‘80’s. But even more remarkable are U-Nam’s brand-new songs inspired by his favorite songs from the decade.
“I’m focusing more on my guitar playing with this CD,” says U-Nam, a Parisian whose debut from 2005, the well-received “The Past Builds The Future” offered instrumentals and a number of soulful vocal tunes. This time around, U-Nam focuses on instrumentals exclusively mixed with well-timed vocalese and background vocals. In addition to the guitar, U-Nam played bass, keyboard and percussions on the CD as well as producing, arranging and mixing the music. “I remember listening to George Benson, Al Jarreau, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Maze, etc.. all that great music when I was a kid. My goal was to write songs that captured that mood in addition to the covers.”
That explains the CD’s title, in addition to the fact that he’s a huge fan of the “Back To The Future” time-travel movies from the ‘80’s. “Instead of ‘Back To The 80’s,’ though,” says U-Nam, “I thought ‘Back From The 80’s’ better described what I set out to do: honor my influences and musical heroes but make music that is contemporary and hip to today’s scene.
The CD gets a boost from the musical stylings of U-Nam’s musical partner, Frank Sitbon, who co-wrote some tunes, played keyboards and sang background vocals. To round out the project, U-Nam recruited an incredible mix of veteran musicians known both for their solo careers and studio playing: Jeff Lorber; Michael White (George Benson, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly ); Alex Al (Stevie Wonder); Maysa Leak (Incognito); Steve “The Scotsman” Harvey (The Temptations, Ledisi); Melvin Davis (Chaka Khan, Lee Ritenour); and Paulinho da Costa (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones ,Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Botti, Al Jarreau and countless others). But U-Nam wasn’t done, as he also recruited some of the best musicians France has to offer, including the Paris Horns and the Merkevah Orchestra, a string section conducted by Raymond Gimenes.
The first single from “Back From The 80’s” is one of the best-loved songs from that period – the Crusaders’ “Street Life” “Some covers were better suited to the album since I wanted to shine the melody on guitar,” U-Nam says. “I’ve been a fan of ‘Street Life’ for many years and the keyboard solo by Joe Sample.” For this new version U-Nam brought in Grammy-nominated keys man Jeff Lorber, who also performed on U-Nam’s first CD, for a spirited solo. “Jeff Lorber is the like the new Joe Sample to me,” U-Nam says. “I couldn’t hear anyone else but him doing the Rhodes solo on that track. He did an amazing job, and it was obvious he was having a lot of fun!”
“Breezin M.A.” is the first song on the CD that honors the past while creating completely new material. As the title suggests, U-Nam channels the flowing and effortless guitar sound of George Benson in a tune where strings add a fun disco feel. While that tune suggests Benson’s playing, “Keep The Faith” opens with an improvisation of one of Benson’s best-known songs, “Affirmation” before setting into a relaxed and wholly original groove punctuated by a snappy horn section. An instantly recognizable Benson riff from “Give Me The Night” pops up at the end of “Slowdown” “I wanted to slow things down a bit on this track,” says U-Nam, explaining its title. There’s a lot of guitar playing on this CD, but here U-Nam put the pick aside and played with his thumb in a style popularized by the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
By this time, it should be clear that Benson is one of U-Nam’s biggest influences and favorite musicians – he just had to cover at least one of his songs. But, true to the spirit of “Back From The 80’s” U-Nam selected one where the guitar wasn’t the main driver: Benson’s vocal hit single “Turn Your Love Around” “I didn’t want to do a George Benson song where he plays the guitar out front,” he explains. “He’s an amazing guitar player and my playing is influenced by his. So I decided to do something brand new and make new guitar solos where his vocals were. I’m happy with the way the melody comes out on guitar.”
One last tribute to Benson is realized on “Mister GB” which begins with gorgeous strings before segueing into the familiar melody of “Breezin’ ” From there, U-Nam takes the song into a new direction and, like the rest of the CD, makes it his own. The latter part of the song has a Big Band sound that adds a spice of jazz.
Three other covers tunes have U-Nam’s unique spin. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is The Love ?” channels Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” before settling into a rhythmic groove and Sitbon’s rich vocals on the chorus. Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” has a dancing bass line and a groovy guitar talk box handling the familiar chorus. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it at first, but the talk box sounded so great,” U-Nam says. “It reminds me of Roger Troutman and Zapp, who did the great songs ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ and ‘I Want to Be Your Man’ ” Finally, U-Nam plucked an obscure song by Lionel Richie called “Love Will Find a Way” from his 1983 album “Can’t Slow Down” That album had five smash hit singles, but U-Nam instead chose the track that meant the most to him while growing up. U-Nam’s version is an irresistible, neo-soul dance number with thick and tasty beats.
The final, original tunes include the personal “Just A Kiss & Goodbye” a sentimental ballad; “Just Like Real Lovers Do” which features U-Nam’s trademark cascading guitar riffs, some wah-wah guitar riffs and a romantic sensibility “à la” Marvin Gaye; and “From Overseas” with steel pan legend Andy Narell and Maysa Leak’s scatting in time with U-Nam’s guitar.
U-Nam was born Emmanuel Abiteboul in 1970 in Paris, where he picked up the guitar at age 12 and studied for three years at the Paris-based CIM – the first European school for jazz – between 1986 and 1989. At age 19 he turned professional, becoming a fixture at Paris studio sessions. He continued to produce and make music before releasing “The Past Builds the Future” on the Trippin’N’Rhythm record label in 2005, scoring a smooth jazz hit with “I’m Only U-Nam.”
For the past ten years, while focusing on his solo career, U-Nam has also devoted himself to songwriting, production and remixes, working for national and international acts such as Barry White, Honeyz, Luis Fonsi, Alsou, Kool & the Gang, Billy Paul, and CNote. U-Nam’s biggest success has come with Pop/Rock vocalist Cindy Daniel, whose 2006 CD titled “J’avoue” reached No. 1 in album sales in Quebec, Canada. U-Nam produced the project.
While U-Nam is releasing “Back From the 80’s” a side project of his will be offered. The R&B vocal CD titled “The ONE-SOUL’s Project” will feature some of today’s best soul singers, including Rahsaan Patterson, Myron, Maysa Leak and Phil Perry.
By this time you may be asking: Just how did U-Nam come up with his unique name? It was while releasing his first CD that the guitarist decided to change his stage name. He’s long been known by those close to him as “Manu” an abbreviated version of his first name. U-Nam is simply “Manu” backwards. (“Breezin’ M.A.” takes its title from “Manu” the name of his Paris suburb, “Maisons-Alfort”, and his young son, Melvin Abiteboul.) But the name works on another level, he says. “When you say ‘U-Nam’ in French, its meaning is ‘One Soul’ in English. I guess that’s what I’m all about.”