Conventional wisdom says to never judge a book by its cover, but when you look at the cover for the Dexter Wansel anthology Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology, it’s impossible to not automatically assume you’re going to get some heady, out of this world funk. The front cover features Wansel looking aloof, tight afro and mustache behind an astronaut’s helmet, whilst the back cover features him on a lunar landscape. Thankfully, Stargazer turns out to be everything you’d expect it to be, and more. Wansel, who was a member of PIR’s in-house group MFSB, was the label’s go-to guy for funky synth sounds. He also held a fascination with science fiction and the very real advances in space travel of the era. Between 1976 and 1979, he recorded four albums for the label, all of which appear here, albeit not in chronological order.
Musically speaking, the four albums are of a piece; jazz-funk with a touch of disco rhythms and the occasional soul ballad. He utilized a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists, creating a diversity of sound that kept the records fresh even as they tread similar sonic territory. He could throw down a heavy groove (“Ode Infinitum,” “Voyager,” “Let Me Rock You”), then turn around with a mellow dance number (“Theme From The Planets,” “Time Is The Teacher, “Disco Lights”) or a lovely ballad (“Dreams of Tomorrow,” “One Million Miles From The Ground,” “Holdin’ On”). He also threw in some stylistic curveballs, such as the brief classical number “Prelude #1” or the roots reggae of “Going Back To Kingston Town.”
But Wansel’s solo career was short-lived; he would soon return to his regular studio production duties, and would enjoy a second career as an oft-sampled musician on dozens of hip-hop tracks. In fact, Wansel released two rare, impossible to find albums of straight up keyboard riffs and melodies designed for sampling and rap melodies. Still, even though he only released four albums on PIR, each one is an essential slice of late 70s Philly funk and soul, and Stargazer is an essential—and enjoyable—voyage into the musical head space of a master musician and arranger.
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Categories: Album Reviews