Fronted by Frankie Beverly's plaintive soul voice, Maze were absolute masters of the midtempo smooth R&B groove. Their debut album, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, laid down a bold marker in American R&B music. It was released in March 1977, a time when a frantic disco-funk inferno was consuming black music. But Maze dared to be different. The dancefloor wasn't their priority. Sure, they could increase the funk quotient when they wanted to, but mostly they were looking for something deeper and more meaningful, welding soaring melodies with reflective lyrics to extended, jazzy, mid-paced grooves.
What also distinguished Maze from the pack was that they had complete creative control in the studio. Instead of having a hot-shot record producer breathing down their necks looking for the next disco hit (as was the norm in R&B during the late 70s), they had their chief songwriter, Frankie Beverly, bringing his musical vision to life behind the mixing desk. Though Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly wasn't their biggest album (1983's Can't Stop The Love was their commercial pinnacle) it remains profoundly significant because it laid out Maze's soul manifesto, which would become a stylistic blueprint for all their future releases. It also contained some great tunes, all written by Beverly. Opener "Time Is On My Side" showed Maze's funkier side, but mostly their songs simmered with a quiet, slow-burning intensity.
This quality was exemplified by songs like the mesmeric "Happy Feelin's" (one of Maze's all time classic songs), the evocative "Look At California," the Latin-inflected groove-ballad "While I'm Alone" (the band's debut single and a Top 30 US R&B hit), and the livelier "You," a long track whose combination of super-soulful vocals and a chugging backbeat is irresistible. In sharp contrast, "Lady Of Magic" (the group's second single and also their first to penetrate the US R&B Top 20) demonstrates Maze's ability to hit the target with even slower songs. But Maze were never stuck in one gear, as the funkified "Color Blind" shows. It's a song whose lyrics about the absurdity of racism show that Maze weren't afraid to articulate socio-political concerns.
Helped by two charting singles, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly reached not only the US R&B albums Top 10 but also hit No. 52 on the Billboard 200. Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly takes us right back to the beginning of their journey, exactly 40 years ago. While everyone else was chasing the disco dollar, Maze were mining their own unique and distinctive groove. Neither too fast or too slow, it was the ideal tempo of romance and reflection.