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Revive animates jazzy Marvin Gaye rarity at Berklee

Nancy Kaye/ap file photo 1983

Even deep connoisseurs of classic soul music may have missed this one.

“I didn’t know it,” says producer and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.

“A friend of mine played it for me. I had never heard these versions before,” says impresario Meghan Stabile, founder of New York-based Revive Music.

“I wasn’t even aware that it existed, and I grew up listening to Marvin,” says Skip Smith, Berklee College of Music professor and head of the school’s Neo-Soul Ensemble.

“Vulnerable,” the most obscure of Marvin Gaye’s albums, came out only in 1997, 13 years after the great singer’s tragic gunshot death at the hands of his father. The short collection of orchestral ballads had sat in a record company’s vaults since 1977, when Gaye recorded the songs for a planned album, “The Ballads,” that got shelved.

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Among the R&B releases of 1997 — a year that brought Erykah Badu’s debut “Baduizm,” Mary J. Blige’s magisterial “Share My World,” and Usher’s hit-laden “My Way” — a 27-minute set of 20-year-old jazz-oriented arrangements from Gaye attracted little notice, even from those who consider his work a touchstone.

Now, at Stabile’s instigation and with Atwood-Ferguson’s arrangements, Smith’s band, and a host of co-conspirators including three of today’s most soulful vocalists, “Vulnerable” is getting its due. It’s the centerpiece of the Marvin Gaye tribute concert and celebration being held on Thursday night at Berklee.

The Neo-Soul Ensemble and the Berklee Contemporary Orchestra will together back singers Bilal, Aloe Blacc, and Chris Turner as they interpret “Vulnerable” in full, plus a range of better-known songs from different phases in Gaye’s career.

“It’s going to be a massive production,” says Smith.

“Vulnerable” was to be Gaye’s jazz album, and the songs are standards, the likes of “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So.” Gaye first took a crack at them in 1968 with arranger Bobby Scott. But the singer wasn’t happy with the work, and set it aside. When he returned to the material nearly a decade later, he was a more complete artist, at once liberated from Motown’s conventions and scarred in his personal life — and perhaps able, as a result, to infuse the songs with all-too-genuine pathos and pain.

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“It wasn’t until after ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Live at the London Palladium’ and more experience that he came back to finish things up,” Smith says. “He was also going through his messy divorce with [ex-wife] Anna at the time. He has all these emotions, and they come through.”

The album was also a musical statement for Gaye, says Atwood-Ferguson.

“Marvin said at various times that he would have rather been a jazz ballad singer than a pop star. And often it will happen that way that artists will make a huge name and become a legend but it’s not necessarily what they set out to do, or love the most.”

An omnivorous composer and producer who has worked with an extravagant list of pop, jazz, and classical stars, Atwood-Ferguson says he detects something special in the sound of “Vulnerable.”

“The arrangements are really elegant and essential,” he says. “Every note you hear has a purpose. There’s not a lot of fat — not that there’s anything wrong with fat, but there is a sobriety and subtlety to these arrangements.”

Stabile, whose Revive Music production company has helped bring attention to a new wave of artists at the crossroads of jazz and experimental R&B — the likes of Robert Glasper, José James, Otis Brown III, and many more — says that hearing “Vulnerable,” with its jazz sensibility, immediately made her want to bring the little-known gem to life.

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“I felt really inspired musically, and wanted to reimagine the album in a live format,” Stabile says. “And if we’re going to do a Marvin tribute, then also incorporate some of his more notable works, with an orchestra. We’re bringing it full circle: This is the Marvin you know, and this is the Marvin you may not know so much about, and here’s what that would sound like today.”

The concert at Berklee — where Stabile, an alumna, studied with Smith and sang in his ensemble — is the project’s premiere, and the pinnacle of three nights Revive Music is holding around the school, including one at the inimitable South End club Wally’s. (For details about all three shows, visit www.revive-music.com.)

And this is only the first of a series of projects around classic soul artists that Stabile and Atwood-Ferguson say they are cooking up. They hope to bridge the gap between an older audience that isn’t familiar with today’s soul innovators, and a younger crowd that can no longer be automatically assumed to know the work of Gaye and his illustrious peers.

“I still feel like Marvin’s a household name,” says Stabile. “But the generation coming up now has so many different kinds of music on so many platforms, the market has become super diluted and extremely saturated. Reintroducing his music this way can open a door for people to explore.”

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Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@
gmail.com
.