There's little doubt that Aretha Franklin is the greatest soul singer of all time. But in recent years, she has sacrificed her vibrant and emotionally direct gospel instinct to the constraints of pop production. "Jump To It," produced by new studio wunderkind Luther Vandross, finds Franklin in an uncharacteristically relaxed state that threatens to subdue her strengths. Vandross' production is a bit too slick and glossy. But since he's also a gospel-grown singer and songwriter, he has a particular empathy with Franklin's sudden embellishments, be they melismatic fancies (where one syllable enjoins several notes), soothing moans or spine-tingling shrieks; they all come out of black gospel tradition, but get washed out in mainstream considerations.
Though most of "Jump To It" is in the ballad mode, the title cut is a basic dance track built on a percolating rhythmic bottom (Marcus Miller on bass and Yogi Horton on drums). Franklin's remarkably earthy voice jumps out full force from note one, its pure, accessible, bell-clear tone still a natural wonder after all these years. Elsewhere, there are several nods to other soul veterans: Franklin does a smooth duet with Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops on "I Wanna Make It Up To You," and covers songs by the Isley Brothers and Smokey Robinson ("It's Your Thing" and "Just My Daydream.") Unfortunately, she doesn't sound challenged.
The old Aretha comes through, though, on two Vandross compositions. On "It's Just Your Love" and "This Is For Real," Franklin exhibits her dynamic range (from husky asides that fall somewhere between warning and confession to swooping falsetto shrieks), her ability to turn even a mundane lyric or melody inside out, her tendency to garnish a phrase with an exhilarating scale run or a smokey growl. "Jump To It" is a well-made Franklin album, but not an accurate reflection of her immense, passionate skills. Maybe next time, Vandross can light the fire that only smolders this time around.
Pianist Patrice Rushen is a distaff George Benson, trading in the poverty of jazz accolades for the comfort of crossover pop success made possible by several easy-listening vocal hits. Her work with Jean Luc Ponty, Sonny Rollins and Lee Ritenour proves that she can play in good company. But on "Straight From the Heart," she's content to lock herself into the safety of a groove, hardly venturing out. Rushen doesn't play, she comps; her band doesn't fill, it riffs. And her voice is simply not compelling enough to lift the cliched Hallmark-card lyrics out of their studio trappings. This is pop-soul at its most obvious and commercial dead-end. ON RECORD, ON STAGE:
THE ALBUMS: Aretha Franklin, "Jump To It" (Arista AL9602) and Patrice Rushen, "Straight From the heart" (Elektra E1-60015).
THE SHOW: Franklin, Kool and the Gang, Maze with Frankie Beverly, Sister Sledge, Patrice Rushen,
Saturday at 7, Capital Centre.