On his new record On My Mind/In My Heart, the question is not if Jesse Dee can step up to the challenge of making authentic soul and R&B music in 2013, but rather how he goes about it. Like Manny Ramirez in the batter's box, the singer/songwriter is elusive on the question of what goes through his head when he's trying to do his thing. But instead of saying something like "I just go in there with my bat and don't think of nothing," he offers this: "What I'm trying to do is make real music, to write honest songs that people can connect to." For Dee, it's not about driving the sound forward, or hitting on all the period fixtures, or even staying true to the genre, but rather about what happens between one man, one microphone, and one crowd.
While On My Mind/In My Heart (Alligator Records) has many elements of the best soul and R&B of the past — from the stirring vocals, always mixed up top, to the imposing horn charts and loosey-goosey guitar figures so often associated with the giants from RCA, Stax, Atlantic, and Hi Records — but in odd combinations. Consider the album's opening one-two punch. "On My Hand, In My Heart" serves uptown Sam Cooke–styled syncopations over a New Orleans brew. It's an authentic blend, but it never would have happened in soul's heyday. "No Matter Where I Am" takes the genre apart and puts it back together again — a guitar figure right out of the Steve Cropper playbook, some call-and-response from the baritone sax, the female back-up singers, and of course, Dee's own reinforcing cornbread growl (à la Wilson Pickett).
These hodgepodge but nonetheless convincing productions (recorded live, in analog and abetted by Eli "Paperboy" Reed's Roll With You producer, Jack Younger) veer towards the sort of halcyon wholesomeness of such soul-revival tracks as John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" and away from the brute jadedness of Amy Winehouse. Dee might even be more positive than some of the singers he most seeks to emulate.
"I'm not making music to be in a scene. It's debatable if there is a soul and R&B scene in Boston," says Dee in response to the idea that he has anyone to please other than himself. "The music that I'm playing or writing has to hold my interest first." And when asked whether or not Dee feels like he has fallen down into a retro rabbit hole with his musical comrades, he blows off the suggestion as another unnecessary distraction. "I think [soul and R&B] has the potential to move and affect the largest span of people," says Dee with a smile. "We don't call Beethoven retro."
JESSE DEE + SPECIAL GUESTS :: Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave, Boston :: March 9 :: 8 pm :: 18+ :: $15 :: 617.779.0140 or brightonmusichall.com