According to the man himself, The Ballads is the best Marvin Gaye album you’ve never heard of. Originally conceived to be Gaye’s debut as a jazz crooner in 1967, only to be abandoned and then restarted a decade later, The Ballads was completed but shelved indefinitely by Motown Records in 1978, then finally, quietly released posthumously as Vulnerable in 1997.
And though the album doesn’t have the warm compassion of What’s Going On or the smoldering magnetism of Let’s Get It On, Gaye’s collection of orchestral jazz standards gives audiences a look into the music that he truly cared about, even if his label bosses didn’t.
“The reason why we focused on it was to give people a chance to see a completely different side of Marvin Gaye, and it’s a side that he was really in tune with,” says Skip Smith, associate professor at Berklee College of Music and leader of the school’s Neo-Soul Ensemble. Along with guest performers Bilal, Aloe Blacc, Chris Turner and musical director Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Smith will perform Vulnerable in its entirely live for the first time in concert this Thursday night. “He always wanted to be a crooner. He loved Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and Billy Epstein and all those guys. That’s what he really wanted to focus on after he had the hits that he had in the early and mid-’60s.”
Gaye began his passion project in 1968 when he hooked up with jazz composer/arranger Bobby Scott in New York, but left disappointed by his vocals. Nine years later, he resurrected the project and re-cut his vocals in sessions that yielded “the best stuff I ever did,” according to the singer himself. But when his divorce-fueled concept LP Here, My Dear failed commercially in 1978, Motown pulled The Ballads from its release schedule.
In presenting the material live, Atwood-Ferguson will focus on recreating the album’s glossy jazz sound as faithfully as possible with a 50-person orchestra.
“It shows that he was a real musician, not just some handsome sex symbol that could kind of sing,” says Miguel-Ferguson. “There’s a certain type of sophistication and elegance where the arrangements are an active participant in the dialogue going on in the music. There’s a lot more going on there than it might seem.”
VULNERABLE: A MARVIN GAYE TRIBUTE W/ ALOE BLACC + BILAL + CHRIS TURNER + MIGUEL ATWOOD-FERGUSON + BERKLEE NEO-SOUL ENSEMBLE. BERKLEE PERFORMANCE CENTER, 136 MASS AVE., BOSTON THU 12.4. 8PM/$28/ALL AGES. BERKLEE.EDU