Jay Middleton scored his last Top 40 hit almost three decades ago but has never stopped performing. For four decades he’s worked with various musicians and shared stages with countless well-known performers, but COVID sidelined him like it did so many peers and contemporaries.

URL: https://jaymiddletonmusic.com/

He began penning a series of songs during that downtime that reflected his desire to deliver a message of optimism and hope in the midst of uncertainty. It resulted in Forward, a six song EP resplendent with positivity and first-class musicianship that should garner Middleton richly deserved praise. The San Francisco based singer is working near or at the peak of his considerable powers.

The single “Last Time” opens the EP. The song swells into life before launching into a robust groove driven by steady drumming. Middleton’s soulful vocals enter the picture soon after the track begins in earnest and his presence captivates the listener’s attention. He sounds inspired, brimming with life, and locks into the groove like a master. The lyrics are one of the many reasons why Middleton chose this as a single. They are incisive and thought-provoking without ever sounding overwrought. Organ plays an important role in fleshing out the track, adding color, as do the horns he shrewdly chooses to add into the mix.

“I Like the Way” isn’t quite as spirited as the opener. Nevertheless, Middleton digs into this wonderful love song with a percussive and ever soulful vocal. The backing vocalists return to this track, as well, and help punctuate his singing. Several of the changes are compelling – the shift from the primary groove into the bridge and beyond pepper the cut with ear-catching shifts. Piano and acoustic guitar are keys to the song’s musical success. It’s groove-centric material and Middleton excels placed in this setting.

It takes a bit for the atmospheric “Hard 2 Luv U” to get going but, once it does, we’re ensnared once again. Tasty electric guitar makes its presence felt early on and there’s a bluesy mood pervading the piece that helps keep the listener involved. Horns return and Middleton makes continuing good use of the backing singers who have had such a positive effect on the release. His ability to change gears from one song to the next while retaining a core sound is one of the strengths of Middleton’s work in general, but it truly elevates Forward into a memorable release despite its obvious brevity.

The deeply personal title track is an exceptional ballad on every level. Acoustic guitar plays a crucial role in bringing this song off for listeners, but the star is Middleton and his near-confessional lyrics that finds a man deciding to push onward despite whatever self-doubt he may struggle with. It has an atmospheric touch like the aforementioned track and Middleton takes his time developing the performance. It’s the EP’s key moment and reminds listeners why this talented singer and songwriter continues to leave his mark. It is the sound of an artist fully engaged with life and his work alike. 

Garth Thomas