By Lauren Wise
By New Times
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Louie Vega's musical journey to maturity has been an extensive tour of self-discovery through collaboration and experimentation. Vega broke as a teenage DJ in the Bronx Latin freestyle scene of the '80s (notably remixing the classic 1987 hit "Silent Morning" by Noel) and has been a dominant figure in house music for more than a decade. He is best known for his long-running partnership with Kenny "Dope" Gonzales as Masters at Work (a.k.a. Nuyorican Soul), one of the most influential duos in the genre.
Their passion for craft has forced an expansion of their description as musicians. And they have shown a versatility that ranges from modern soul (working with the likes of George Benson and James Ingram) to the Latin influences that make up their new album, Elements of Life.
Significantly, on this work Vega has dropped the "Little" prefix from his name after using it throughout his career. It's not a casual omission, either; it seems more like a transition in his perception of self. A new marriage (to Anan, the singer from the Cape Verde Islands, who can be heard on three tracks) and infant son greatly affect the album's tone, which feels like a celebration of life from start to finish. While creating an uplifting song isn't a new skill for Vega, the degree of his own happiness does seem to come across more strongly here than on his other productions.
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One of the album's true highlights is the collaboration with New Jersey duo Blaze (Kevin Hedge and Josh Milan) on "Brand New Day" and the title song. Milan's roots in the church are clear in his extraordinary voice, which really has no parallel in the world of house music. Notoriously reclusive, Blaze should garner a wider audience as a result of its work here.
Milan's voice blends effortlessly with the other male singer on Elements of Life, Raúl Midón, a singer-songwriter who has also provided backing vocals for Christina Aguilera (on "Mi Reflejo") and Marc Anthony (whose first album Vega produced). "Brand New Day" flows very well into Midón's "Cerca De Mi," which sounds no less joyous than Milan's inspired performance, though their backgrounds are very different.
This isn't a dance album, although it comes from one of the genre's significant architects and is easily appreciated in that context. Louie Vega, no longer little, has a large artistic gift, the full potential of which he's just truly starting to grasp.