Washington's Marvin Gaye would have been 60 in April. What kind of music would he be capable of, what new directions might he have explored, had he not been shot by his father the day before his 44th birthday? "Midnight Love," Gaye's last album and first away from Motown, produced the classic "Sexual Healing," but its overall unevenness suggested how erratic his work had become. And yet his vocal style remains imprinted on every great R&B singer who's come along since, while his anguished explorations of sexuality and politics continue to inform all genres of music.
Four years ago, Gaye's considerable legacy was honored with a four-CD set, "The Master 1961-1984," and an all-star tribute album, "Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye." The latter included a very strange tech-inspired duet--Gaye and U2's Bono on "Save the Children"--as well as some folks rightly connected to the artist (Stevie Wonder, Sounds of Blackness, Speech) and some less so (Madonna, Lisa Stansfield).
Now comes "Marvin Is 60: A Tribute Album" (Motown), more focused but almost as uneven, and featuring a new generation of R&B singers addressing Gaye's repertoire. Some do so a bit slavishly--Joe's "Soon I'll Be Loving You" and Jon B.'s "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" sound like karaoke call-ins. Several singers manage to evoke Gaye's subtle sensuality without imitating it, notably Brian McKnight on a shimmering "Distant Lover" and Kenny Lattimore, another Washington-bred singer, on "Just to Keep You Satisfied."
Nobody is brave or foolish enough to recast these gems, and the few flourishes added to certain songs are noticeable. For instance, El DeBarge straps "Sexual Healing" with an edgier, choppier rhythm that undermines the smoothly mesmerizing pulse of the original. And while the female duo Zhane brings an interesting cast to "Got to Give It Up," the studio band simply can't replicate the loose percussive jubilance of the original, a casual studio jam turned No. 1 R&B hit. On the other hand, Gerald Levert brings his rough-hewn timbre to bear on "Let's Get It On," turning what had been a sensual come-on into a demand.
The tribute is bookended by a pair of duets. The first teams D'Angelo and Erykah Badu on "Your Precious Love," the 1967 hit that is the oldest Gaye standard honored here, as well as one of the most vibrant love songs in his catalogue (and a great first-dance song at weddings, too). D'Angelo, who kicked off the current retro-soul revival but seems unable to take advantage of it, interacts well with the sultry Badu, though they stretch the song 90 seconds beyond the original without adding anything to its joyful declamation. And Tony Rich, another soul revivalist, comes through in "If This World Were Mine," an engaging acoustic-guitar-driven encounter with Grenique, a new Washington artist whose own album, "Black Butterfly," has just been released. Their voices avoid mimicry while richly detailing the extremes of commitment that originally inspired Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Of course, as Gaye himself once sang, "ain't nothing like the real thing," and Motown has put together a special two-CD limited-edition package (also called "Marvin at 60") that includes one CD of covers and another of Gaye's original versions of those songs (the covers CD is available by itself as well).
To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and enter 8152 (new version) and 8153 (original version).
CAPTION: "Marvin Is 60" is a tribute to R&B pioneer Marvin Gaye in what would have been his 60th birthday year.