Trumpeter Eric Morel Ensminger is a Philly native, and as such, his big, slick, brassy version of jazz tends to be more urbane and Northeastern. Think Dizzy instead of Satchmo, R&B rather than funk, Tower of Power instead of the Marsalis clan. Yet, he’s paid his dues as a NOLA sideman, playing every shade of “black” music known to post-war man, and he’s definitely earned his solo debut no matter what his zip code. When Wrong Woman Knockin’ fails, it’s not due to his remarkably expressive flugelhorn but rather his remarkably unexpressive vocals—his voice is mostly serviceable, fairly flexible, even, but it just can’t carry the weight of his horn.
“My Baby’s Eyes,” an instrumental, ends up saying more about love than his genuinely touching death ballad, “Whitey’s Lament,” which otherwise succeeds at creating his own lyrical “Softly, As I Leave You.” The bluesy title track has considerably less grit than the wordless “Philly With My Baby,” which is no mean feat, since the former is about the dangers of sleeping with a crackhead’s girlfriend. Interrupting his trumpet’s version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” with his throat’s version of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is a bad idea for at least three reasons.
Happily, Eric’s only tentatively flirting with the bandleader role on his debut. For most of the album, he’s content to speak through his horn (and his unassailable ear for arrangement), and a better collection of pop-soul-flavored jazz you won’t find in the city this year. He opens with “Philly” and ends with a lovely elegy called “Grace,” a brave vocal stab at “The Way You Look Tonight,” and comes close to finding a vocal track that works on “No Night So Long.” Which is only partially because Eric didn’t write it: a Dionne Warwick AC hit from 1980, it’s only marginally better than his own originals. But it does feature the pipes of one Elaine Foster Clem, and she immediately points up the glaring hole in “Knockin’.” Man here needs a girl with soul. Object: money.