After having the privilege of writing about and of course praising the stellar, hypnotic, nonstop and infectiously grooving “Jazzy Lil Jane II” and “I Want to be Rich II,” the lead singles from Matthew Shell and Kenny McNeil’s first dual project We’ll Find A Way II: The Chill Afrobeat Album over the past few months, it’s finally time for the full reveal.
Collectively, these eight tracks, bookended handsomely by an intro and outro, add up to more than just refreshing and danceable escapism just in time for summer. Whatever season it is when you allow these grooves and the island energy they create into your heart, souls, fingers and feet, you’ll no doubt agree with my assessment that it’s one of the best, most uplifting and inspiring contemporary jazz albums of the year.
For those immersing in the ever-evolving, dynamically colorful and above all intriguing sonic universe of Matthew Shell for the first time, I included in my write-ups of the singles the sense of adventure, dynamic mood shifts and rhythmic curiosity populating the last few years of his discography. Along the way he has worked with great guitarists like Sami Turunen and Arun Shenoy, often playing a supporting role behind their unique artistry.
The new collection is a revelation in that with every joyous crackling riff, every fluid and edgy tone, each intoxicating modulation, his guitar is the star of the show, as if a greater depth of his musical soul is at last being unleashed. From the rockin’ fire and crisp intimacy he splashes over the spirited island dance grooves of the intro to the buoyant, bouncing electric pluck and melodic coolness he floats over the sexy thumping and horn fire of “No More 9 to 5 II,” he’s finally entering, unrestrained, the top tier of contemporary jazz guitarists.
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The reason for Matthew’s “upping his game” so powerfully seems clear enough. Though he’s long been a master collaborator with other top musicians and artists, there’s something special about the connection he has and the chemistry he shares with his longtime friend and musical soul mate, Maui based producer, singer, songwriter and creative consultant Kenny McNeil.
The two first met at Assembly Line Studios in Vienna VA in 2008 when Matthew engineered a session for Kenny, who was vocal arranging and producing for an artist named Elika. Matthew loved Kenny’s vocal artistry and asked if he would contribute to writing and singing on a song he wrote called “Forever.” Their instant “brother from another mother” friendship evolved into a successful business partnership and inside of a year, they recorded the album What’s Your Dream? On the current album, they harken back to that initial project with “What’s Your Dream II,” a jamming, brass-tinged jazz fusion track featuring some of Matthew’s most unrestrained, rock-influenced playing. Another important contributor to the project is Matthew’s co-producer Angie Nicole.
The duo’s desire to venture into the chill Afrobeat sound comes from important elements of Matthew’s life and career. His mother hails from South African and grew up in Zimbabwe, so this African-flavored energy and sonic flow is in the DNA of his family’s heritage. He was also inspired by playing guitar on Masu Takumi’s 2022 Grammy winning global music album Sakura – an experience which opened his creative mind to fresh new possibilities for his own projects.
While We’ll Find a Way II: The Chill Afrobeat Album is best experienced (and surely designed for) a straight through listen and immersion into its highly intoxicating 33 minutes and 45 seconds, the fact that Matthew and Kenny have created such unique titles, powerful individual melodies and keenly felt rhythmic variations is thematically significant. All titles, even the cleverly named “Jazzy Lil Jane II,” signify positive concepts like uplift, hope, pushing through difficult times, self-fulfillment and personal empowerment and dream fulfillment.
So let’s unpack a few. “Jazzy Lil Jane” – which rolls along in a flow that’s part organic, grounded and visceral, part surreal and soaring – is about being wise, savvy and street smart in a dangerous world. The swirl of Matthew’s laid back but purposeful guitar and exotic percussive beats will make you feel like you want to stay in a blissful state “Forever.” Part of asserting our identity is staying true to the dreams and visions in our heart, an emotional swell the duo expresses on the sly, brisk, electrifying romp “Identity II.” The confident, rhythmic strut of “Victorious II” finds them reassuring themselves – and by extension, us – that we can overcome any challenges and become our best selves.
As they explain the idea behind the eminently tasty, sensual soul tune “I Want To Be Rich II,” the “song is rich with all the elements of peace and serenity that will leave the listener wanting more.” Matthew and Kenny later reassure us, with the trippy brass and intensified bass and percussion driven title track that indeed “We’ll Find A Way II.” The lighthearted, convertible top down, summery thumping dance floor energy of “No More 9 to 5” is both autobiographical and inspirational, as the two translate to their music the pride and liberation of transforming one’s passion into a thriving and impactful career.
Fans of Matthew and Kenny and this multiple-shades-of-awesome album may wonder what all the Roman Numeral II’s are all about. By choice, the artists are keeping the specifics a mystery for now – all the more reason use our imaginations as we listen over and over to the ultimate expression of their dual magic.
Those listening on Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon Music can enjoy We'll Find A Way II: The Chill Afrobeat Album in Dolby ATMOS immersive audio, as mixed by Matthew Shell, Ken Mertz, Chris Keeney, and Doug Greer at Immersive MMG in Lancaster, PA.