At first glance, classically trained pianist John Stoddart wouldn't appear to be at the forefront of anything. But this little known artist may be the springboard for yet another style of popular music that will certainly appeal to many SoulTrackers. Mixing an orchestral background with soulful rhythms, mellow adult vocals and ethereal spiritual lyrics, Stoddart may be a force that leads Gospel into Soul Music "Quiet Storm" radio.
Stoddart was a musical prodigy, playing classical piano as an early teenager. He attended Columbia Union College and debuted in his early 20s as a conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He subsequently became an educator, serving as an adjunct faculty member at Oakwood College. He has spent the majority of the past decade as a songwriter, pianist, background vocalist and/or producer for a number of Soul and jazz acts, including Diana Ross, Patti Austin, Michael McDonald and Kirk Whalum.
In 2003, Stoddart released his first major label CD, the mellow gospel Wings to Walk This Road, on Reprise (He had previously issued a limited release called Love So Real, on Urban Junction East Records). It was an unusual release for that label, as Wings fit neither the bump and grind style of popular urban music, nor did it follow the path of traditional or modern Gospel releases. Wings is unapologetically spiritual, emotional and sentimental, and is aimed at an adult audience that is looking for meaning in their music, and that loves balladry in a style less formulaic and more soulful than Josh Groban.
Wings leads off with "Anything," a piano-rich midtempo number that sounds like BeBe Winans at his best. And BeBe (for instance on "Did You Ever Know?" from his solo debut) is probably the closest comparison for Stoddart, though Stoddart is more consistent in both his style and his message. In many ways Stoddart's sound is what many Soul and Gospel fans hoped that Brian McKnight would become, before he moved into R Kelly territory. He is a soulful crooner who has combined "old school" soul stylings and full arrangements with a spiritual message.
The album's most noted cut is "Angel," a beautiful love song to a spouse who arrived as a blessing at a moment of ultimate loneliness. It is matched in its beauty by "You Will Never Know," the album's biggest ballad and perhaps its best cut. The rest of the mellow album rarely breaks a sweat. The pace works very well on an island-beat cover of the Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child," and the spoken jazz medley of the classic spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" combined with Stoddart's own "Fly Away." Wings drags a bit on a couple of uptempo tunes that are too subdued to work effectively, but Stoddart recovers nicely on "Anytime You Need A Friend," an early 80's feeling midtempo number that sounds like a classic Winans cut, and on the touching last number, "...How Much I Love You," a song that simply reminds of the Creator's love for the created. Throughout the album, tasteful production and nice guest work by top tier musicians such as Whalum, Paulinho Da Costa and Ricky Peterson all provide fine support for Stoddart's rich, deep vocals, and make this excellent late night listening -- but with a flavor very different from the standard torchbearers such as Barry White and Peabo Bryson.
Wings to Walk This Road is a very notable debut for Stoddart and has the feeling of an album by a much more experienced recording artist. Stoddart clearly is a talented writer, singer and musician, and will undoubtedly continue to make his mark in support of other artists, much as could be said of Tommy Sims a half decade ago. Here's hoping that he will continue to push a solo career that offers a nice alternative for lovers of mellow soulful music.