IT'S THE TAIL end of morning, and before heading into the recording studio to finish up her next jazz-influenced album, British singer/actress Cleo Laine is warming up her voice with an interview.

"Generally, I don't record in the morning, because that wouldn't work at all," says the exotically beautiful Jamaican-English Laine, unmistakeably a diva, but making a noticeable effort to be relaxed and friendly. "The voice starts waking up when performing times come around. It announces, 'I'm ready.' Before that, one has to nurse it and kind of guide it, just talk to it, 'Come on now, behave yourself, get rid of all those grumbles."

Laine, with her husband, arranger-composer-instrumentalist John Dankworth, will christen the Cabaret Series at the spanking new Center for the Arts at George Mason University Saturday. Dankworth auditioned Laine some 30 years ago and recruited her for his British band before marrying her in 1958. And after three decades of ever-changing personal and musical terrain, the collaboration remains friendly and fruitful.

"So far, so good," Laine says wryly. "If we have a punchup I'll let you know."

She obliges with a brisk jaunt down Memory Laine. "I auditioned for John's small group in 1952. It was called the Johnny Dankworth Seven and he was the blue-eyed boy of jazz in Britain, and the flavor of many years -- he lasted longer than 'flavor of the month,' and won all the polls year after year not only as alto saxophone player, but as arranger, orchestrator . . . . And that went on for many moons until he then went into the big band domain, and the same thing happened there. Until 1958, when he asked me to marry him.

"I married him and left the band. And started to act," she says and laughs, a charmingly husky, musical sound.

"Actually, now I act out all my songs," Laine says, who has received acclaim in whatever genre she sings, be it pop, classical, jazz, art song or Broadway. "I'm a cabaret singer wherever I am. I think it's a part of me that the words are very important, much more so than improvisation. I think that the drama of a song is a lot more important than oobly-shoobling all over the place."

This particular morning, Dankworth is somewhere in the apartment, "up to his eyeballs in scribing for this album -- it's really a 'hot off the press' sort of thing. We should finish today."

Laine has already completed tracks with jazz notables Toots Thieleman and Clark Terry. "I go in with {saxophonists} Jane Ira Bloom and Gerry Mulligan today, and the next day, I will do touch-ups, depending on if I've hit a note inexactly or if I had a grumble."

This day she's slated to sing "Midnight Sun" and Mulligan's "Walking Shoes"; and with Jane Ira Bloom, John Coltrane's "Naima" and a new song called "I Told You So." Four songs in a day is an impressive day's work, it is suggested. "Really? I've done 24 in a day," she laughs. "But I'm of the older generation."

Lately, Laine has been recording whatever strikes her intelligent fancy, building collections around themes and concepts -- for example, her most recent album "Woman to Woman," which showcases 16 songs by woman composers, including Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee and Marian McPartland, Billie Holiday, Carrie Jacobs Bond (circa 1906), Tania Maria and Laine herself. That's quite a range of voices. But eclecticism has always been Laine's motif.

The album came about when a friend asked Laine to record Melissa Manchester's "Come in From the Rain," which had long been a staple of her concert act.

"One of my friends said 'It's my favorite and you should do it,' so I got it together to do for her, to please her. I do things like that. I'm a nice person," she says, and laughs that laugh. "But there wasn't any reason at that time to put it on an album, we weren't doing any string-ballady things. So someone had this idea -- why don't you do an album with all women writers?

"We started out thinking this was going to be virtually impossible, that there weren't enough writers that would sit comfortably on my shoulders. Of course, there are a lot of lady singer-songwriters, but their songs suit them, not particularly me. So we decided at first to do an album with male music and lady lyrics or vice versa, then thought that would be cheating, too easy. We started researching, and came up with enough quality songs really to do two albums."

What sort of a song wouldn't be suited to Laine's exquisitely shaded voice, with its legendary 4 1/2 octave range?

"That's difficult to explain until you start singing the songs," she says. "You can't imagine many contemporary songs being sung by anyone else but the composer -- they know what their voice can do, they go in certain directions I wouldn't go in. And to change it to suit someone else would destroy the feel of the song. There were two or three Carly Simon pieces that were wonderful for her, but weren't for me."

While having a high time playing the role of the Witch in the Los Angeles company of Stephen Sondheim's neo-fairy tale musical "Into the Woods," Laine decided to do an album of Sondheim songs, the lush "Cleo Sings Sondheim," which benefited from the composer's input. Laine's daughter Jacqueline recently opened in the London company of "Into the Woods," keeping it all in the family.

"We saw her the first night, before we came over here," Laine says. "And she was wonderful and got good reviews, which I was very pleased to read before we left."

At the moment, Laine says she's not in a hurry to jump back onto the stage herself.

"One reads certain scripts and decides whether one should put aside a year of one's life to take the plunge. And unless it really jumps out -- I mean, eight shows a week, you have to really be devoted to that show," she laughs. "And so things come in, and I reject them. I'll wait and hang about."

But then it's relatively easy for Laine to wait, having recently played what might be considered the Ultimate Role.

"It wasn't singing or acting actually, it was narrating -- in Benjamin Britten's 'Noah's Flood' at the Albert Hall.

"I played the voice of God! It was a first, because they've never had a woman God before. Well, nobody knows," she laughs.

"It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Laine says of the experience. "The funny thing was I was practicing, learning the words walking around the garden and the fields around my country house. We have a small theater complex, a 300-seater in the stables, and the secretary and the artistic director are working there all the time. And they heard me roaring around the garden, declaiming in this awesome voice. And they asked John whether Cleo was all right."

CLEO LAINE -- Appearing Saturday with John Dankworth and the Dankworth Quartet at GMU's Center for the Arts. Call 703/764-7970.