Album of the Week: Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968)

Isaac Hayes was the man before he was the man. At 22, the Tennessee native was playing keys on Otis Redding records and writing songs for Sam & Dave. Fast forward a few years and we arrive at his breakout Hot Buttered Soul (1969), one of those records to end all records, a consummate soul masterpiece. Stand it up next to What’s Goin’ On, Innervisions, what have you. Hot Buttered Soul is a monolith.

But it wasn’t Hayes’ debut. That would be the previous year’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, a surprisingly unknown soul-jazz session that deserves more props. The back-cover details the story of a typical 60s night in Memphis with Big Ike: “A few years back, Isaac strolled into Currie’s Tropicana Club in Memphis and sat in with the group, which included drummer Al Jackson, Jr. He sat down at the piano and began rambling over the keyboard. His offerings were an instant crowd success.” This was the Stax/Volt Records house band, essentially Booker T. & The M.G.s augmented with Isaac Hayes instead of Booker, who was in school at the time.

Presenting finds Hayes on piano and vocals, with the aforementioned Jackson Jr. on drums and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass guitar. The trio’s Stax sessions for the album were improvised with no additional musicians. I’d love to hear more from these sessions, since the original album with 5 tracks is only half an hour long.

Once you’ve heard the full version of “Precious, Precious”, the album edit doesn’t really work. It’s sort of like if you took a 20-minute Coltrane session and cut it down to 3 minutes. Like its perfect follow-up Hot Buttered Soul, Presenting Isaac Hayes works best outside the confines of radio-friendly time constraints. The longform tracks here are just excellent – “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is raw: the sound is live and intimate, like you’re in the studio with the three players. With alcohol on his breath, Ike has a vocal swagger that pushes the track to the next level. It’s blues, as blue as Willie Dixon’s original, but Hayes’ chops on piano take it to the ever-transcendent realm of soul-jazz.

The “Going to Chicago Blues” track is another rambling wonder, with a fantastic vocal from Hayes at the end of the conjoined “Misty”. The closer “You Don’t Know Like I Know” is one of two Ike originals (though he makes every song his own), and the instrumental piece wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ahmad Jamal Trio record. There’s something in the timbre of the drums here, they’re just so warm and organic. While I wouldn’t mind vocals, it’s a great cut nonetheless.

And then, on streaming and reissue versions, we conclude with the long version of “Precious, Precious”. Wow! Big Ike is feelin’ it here! It’s no wonder he has that top hat and baton on the cover, because this is 20 minutes of magic. Sorry for the corny line, but listen! The man mumbles and wonders, the band carries the driving theme and the music just flows and flows. I love Isaac Hayes wordless vocals, it sounds like he’s making love to the music. Or, as Lil Wayne would say 45 years later, “I just fucked this piano”. Probably another reason they cut it for the first release.

If you like jazzy R&B, soulful jazz, soul-jazz, improvised blues jams or otherwise groovy tunes, don’t hesitate to give this one a spin. It’s an overlooked debut by an underrated master.

Listen to Presenting Isaac Hayes on Spotify.

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