JOJOFLORES' BIRTHDAY THERAPY featuring JODY WATLEY , BLAZE , JOJOFLORES , TEELOO'S KITCHEN , MILES MOORE and MIKE FRESCO at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Saturday (November 8). $30, advance $25. www.gotsoulrecords.com Rating: NNNNN
Jody Watley's career has followed an opposite path to the one pop divas usually take. After making her mark in the mid-80s as part of teen group Shalamar and then quickly moving on to solo pop success, Watley turned her back on straightforward top-40 music in the early 90s and started recording more adult-oriented soul music, what now gets referred to as neo-soul.
The major labels weren't as interested in marketing this new direction for her. But instead of getting back on the pop music machine, Watley has reached out to the underground for inspiration and support in the late 90s, working with some of the most respected producers in soulful New York house.
Though this work may not have kept her in heavy rotation on MTV, it has brought her respect and attention from people who might not have taken her seriously before.
It's a bit of a trip seeing deep house icons like Masters at Work, Blaze, King Britt and Ron Trent producing tracks with her, but her powerful voice sits well in the grooves they've provided and stands out among vocal house tracks featuring less experienced vocalists.
Going from pop star to serious independent artist might not offer the financial rewards of doing it the other way around, but it seems to have worked for her. While solidifying her ties with her substantial gay following, it's also kept her close to the parts of the black community turned off by the bling-pop dominating the charts. If you've been around as long as Watley, a smaller, more dedicated audience is a more stable market than trying to chase popular trends and the teen dollar.
Also appearing Saturday with Watley are New Jersey legends Blaze (aka Kevin Hedge and Josh Milan) who, next to Masters at Work, are most responsible for the sound of deep soulful house since the early 90s. Blaze aren't really known for touring, so this rare live appearance is a big event for the house scene in Toronto.
The Blaze sound is deeply rooted in the history of dance music, referencing disco/R&B greats like Earth Wind & Fire more than anything else. In fact, Hedge recently became president of West End Records, the legendary underground disco label that put out countless anthems over the course of the 70s and 80s. Before that, he was equally hard at work behind the scenes helping run Shelter, the club where most of the post-garage crowd ended up after the Paradise Garage closed in the late 80s.
Blaze's last full-length album, Spiritually Speaking, veered from the four-on-the-floor thump they're known for to include more neo-soul and jazz influences along with their trademark sound. The big single on that album, Do You Remember House?, made it clear, though, that the more varied sound they've embraced isn't about distancing themselves from house; it's more about reminding people that house music's strength is its ability to encompass many influences.