Donny Hathaway‘s repertoire occupies a peculiar space in jazz. Though not a jazz artist, he has influenced a variety of jazz musicians through his work as a singer, keyboardist and composer. Still, jazz musicians have only skimmed the surface of his small but remarkable catalog.
During his run in the 1970s, Hathaway would see only five LPs released under his name. Bouts of mental illness sidelined his productivity, which came to an unexpected end in January 1979, when he leaped to his death out a window of a New York City hotel.
Rhino Records’ new four-disc anthology, Never My Love, captures and confirms Hathaway’s enduring legacy, particularly in the realms of R&B and jazz. It contains all the famous classics, as well as previously unreleased material (both studio and live) and one disc dedicated entirely to his timeless duets with Roberta Flack. These selections reflect some of the Hathaway treasures most frequently covered by jazz artists.
5 Donny Hathaway Covers By Jazz Musicians
- Album: African Exchange Student
- Song: Someday We’ll All Be Free
This song ranks up there with Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” with Hathaway capturing a melancholic optimism that speaks to the oppressed. Even though the song has been adopted as an anthem for social equality, Edward Howard wrote the lyric to address Hathaway’s personal struggles with depression. In this alluring makeover, Kenny Garrett gives the lamenting melody a biting urgency through his piquant alto sax, draped in a gorgeous arrangement with African percussion, gentle piano and pulsating bass.
- Album: Absolute Benson
- Song: The Ghetto
One of Hathaway’s grooviest message songs, “The Ghetto/El Barrio” exemplifies that fertile 1970s period when R&B and Latin soul were inextricably linked. Given that George Benson’s singing sounded similar to Hathaway’s, it comes as no surprise that he uses this song as a vehicle for both his expressive baritone and sizzling jazz-guitar chops. Teaming up with house producers Masters at Work (Kenny Dope Gonzalez and Louie Vega) makes it all the hotter in the burning “El Barrio.”
- Album: Harry for the Holidays
- Song: This Christmas
A staple on urban radio during the holiday season, this is one of the rare Christmas songs that you can probably get away with playing two months before December, thanks to the catchy melody and funky arrangement. Hathaway himself offers two equally moving versions: a snappy up-tempo one and a smoldering ballad. Harry Connick Jr.’s wonderful remake leans more toward the ballad tempo, nestling his gravelly baritone inside a magnificent orchestral arrangement that recalls the work of bassist and composer Bill Lee.
- Album: Old Devil Moon
- Song: Flying Easy
It’s a bummer that this song was omitted from Never My Love — it’s an effervescent gem, with Hathaway sounding his most carefree atop a sunny arrangement. (It is featured on Rhino’s French-edition box set, Someday We’ll All Be Free, which came out in 2010.) Here, Carmen Lundy articulates the breezy words and melody through her rich alto, set against a sinuous Latin jazz arrangement.
- Album: Everything Is Everything: The Music of Donny Hathaway
- Song: Love, Love, Love
This ballad is cut from the same cloth as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? with its hypnotic conga riffs, funky backbeat, symphonic arrangement and soaring vocals that blend solemnity with sensuality. Tenor saxophonist Kirk Whalum keeps the original intact with a sweeping arrangement that shines a new light on his raspy tone and economical phrasing; it also provides a fine vehicle for trumpeter Rick Braun.