No sophomore slump for contemporary jazz‑pop artist Michael J. Thomas, who recently released his album Driven on the Harbor Breeze Records imprint. The 10‑song set burst out of the gate, jolted by a wave of national airplay for the first single “Baby Coffee,” earning Billboard most‑added honors in its debut week, followed by an add at SiriusXM’s Watercolors, leading the saxophonist‑vocalist to sign a distribution deal for the project with Perry Music Group/Sony Music.
It’s been seven years since Thomas issued his instrumental debut City Beat, and six years since he made his vocal debut with the infectious standalone single “I Think About Amy,” which peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard chart after a remix by two‑time Grammy winner Paul Brown. Driven is Thomas’ first collection to combine sax‑led soul‑jazz instrumentals and R&B‑pop vocal tunes that showcase a voice programmers and reviewers have compared to Michael Jackson and George Michael. It’s a varied, exhilarating session written and produced by Thomas and longtime collaborator Shannon Wallace, with additional tracks produced by Oli Silk, Trammell Starks and Music Man Dre Forbes.
“I got the bug to record a new album in 2014. I hadn’t written anything new in a while, and all of these melodies and lyrics were hitting me. However, the songs didn’t all fit into one genre, but I recorded them anyway. I decided that this would be a passion project for me more than trying to write music that fits the traditional model,” says the Destin‑based musician, who is submitting Driven for Grammy nomination consideration. “I titled the album after one of the pop‑oriented songs I wrote that has to do with staying driven and motivated to compete.”
While “Baby Coffee” has all the makings of a late summer instrumental hit—percolating groove, stimulating funk beats and energizing horn‑powered harmonies—Thomas opens the disc with the shimmering and slick “My Love,” one of four vocal numbers. An empowering vocal drop adds street cred to “In America, You Can Do It!,” an instrumental inspired by Thomas’s alto sax and Gino Rosaria’s glistening keyboards.
“You Know You Got This” is another confidence‑building instrumental. A Minneapolis‑style-old‑school‑funk‑party‑meets‑disco‑vibe breaks out on “Girls Got Moves,” a dance floor filling vocal tune that also closes the album in instrumental form. The percussive instrumental “Make Me Crazy” is an aggressive agitator that showcases Thomas trading barbs during an extended improvisational breakdown with trumpeter Paul Scurto. A congenial “Get Your Smooth On” benefits from a luminous anthemic chorus.
Thomas caresses on the intimate “Say Goodbye” with a mix of heartbreak vocals and a tender soprano sax solo followed by the reassuring Quiet Storm instrumental affirmation “Never Gonna Leave You.” The title track offers a take‑no‑prisoners attack on raw ambition as kinetic beats, incendiary horn and synth blasts, and a screaming electric guitar solo from Mark Jaimes (Simply Red) ignite this scorching vocal number.
Underneath the invigorating instrumental veneer and the pure power pop panache that make Driven a bright, vibrant and assured listen, there is a vulnerable artist who struggled to overcome an intense personal crisis to complete the record.
“Driven is very personal and represents a particularly sensitive and difficult period that I endured emotionally,” says Thomas. “I started writing it in the midst of a romantic relationship. Tragically, she passed away and I didn’t know if I could finish the album after dealing with depression in the aftermath. But I did, and I continue to push forward. That’s what I want the takeaway to be from this album.”
For more information, visit michaeljthomas.net.
‑ Rick Scott
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