In any black neighborhood in North America or Europe, you can find a corner lounge with a stylish jazz-soul singer. Quite often these anonymous toilers are unrecognized great stylists: They are equally adept at Billie Holiday's smoky melodrama, Ella Fitzgerald's flashy scatting, Sam Cooke's romanticized gospel or Stevie Wonder's refined pop.
Many black singers grow up with the notion that these lounge vocalists and their mix of jazz and soul standards represent the epitome of good singing. For years, Marvin Gaye tried unsuccessfully to persuade Motown Records to let him sing jazz standards instead of soul hits. Only now, nearly two years after his death, have his attempts at that genre finally come to light.
The genre is alive and thriving, however, in Sade (pronounced Shar-Day). Born in Nigeria and raised in England, this London ingenue has lifted jazz-soul lounge music from dusty obscurity into the Top 10 charts. It was more than her dazzlingly photogenic looks that enabled her to do this; Sade owns a hypnotic purr that calls forth the late-night, slightly dazed romanticism that every jazz singer aims for.
Sade, who appears at Constitution Hall tomorrow, writes all her material with her sympathetic band of young Anglo jazzmen and arranges it to fit her sensual soprano. After scoring blockbuster hits in Europe, her debut album, "Diamond Life," was finally released here earlier this year. Her quick follow-up, "Promise" (Portrait, FR 40263), not only avoids the typical sophomore slump but consolidates the promise of "Diamond Life" into a surprisingly assured step forward.
Nonetheless "Promise" also retains the weaknesses of the first album. On any given song, Sade sounds mesmerizing, but she approaches each one in the same breathy swooning croon. After listening to nine consecutive songs with the same vocal tone, the listener aches to hear the singer cut loose at least once.
While her compositions effectively mimic old standards, closer examination reveals that most of them are slight -- just a few lines elegantly phrased and rephrased by that tempting voice. And while Stuart Matthewman's sax and guitar solos provide nice setups for the singer, they can't even compare with the solos by the Motown band on Marvin Gaye's records.
Despite these flaws, "Promise" is a most intoxicating album. On the first single, "The Sweetest Taboo," Sade's satiny voice rides a light soul shuffle. When she sings, "There's a quiet storm," her translucent soprano resembles Smokey Robinson's breathy falsetto. At one point Sade breaks up a proclamation of love with an overcome sigh -- which holds the melody perfectly.
The two side-ending songs indicate a new maturity in Sade's songwriting. With a stoic vocal and a lazy Latin beat, "Maureen" fondly describes an old friend whom the singer has nonetheless left behind. "Jezebel" is a thinly disguised autobiographical song about a gorgeous woman who rose from poverty to celebrity. When Sade sings, "Every winter was a war, she said, I want to get what's mine," her voice loses its romantic burnish and reveals the unbudging strength at its core.
The best-sung song is "Is It a Crime?" Over a straightforward jazz arrangement of tinkling piano and massed horns, Sade seems to be whispering in the listener's ear as she stretches syllables seductively. For once she punches out a line and then collapses into an exhausted swoon. When she coos, "Is it a crime that I still want you?," there's no denying her.
Sade has always listed Marvin Gaye among her principal influences, and Gaye's own devotion to romantic jazz-soul standards is finally showcased on his second posthumous album, "Romantically Yours" (Columbia FC 40208).
Side 1 is taken from two different sessions. The three songs produced by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon are overorchestrated cliche's that could have been Johnny Mathis outtakes. Much better are the three songs produced by Bobby Scott, whose restrained string and woodwind arrangements give Gaye room enough to put his personal stamp on the songs.
The one masterful performance is Gaye's duet with himself on Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile." Gaye's tenor lead vocal moans and sighs with nerve-tingling heartache while his heavily echoed falsetto improvises at the edge of the song, as it did so often on the album "What's Going On."
The highlight of Side 2 is "Just Like," which Gaye fills with a string of Smokey Robinson-like similes. Gaye's smooth crooning tenor makes a convincing plea for his woman to return without ever losing its dignity. His forlorn falsetto wails in the background until the song trails off in inspired improvisation.
Almost as good is "I Live for You," a stylish cabaret blues number that Gaye cruises through like Joe Williams or Jimmy Rushing. "Walkin' in the Rain" and "Stranger in My Life" are string-heavy ballads that Gaye redeems with his expressive vocals that hover between high tenor and falsetto.
What this album proves, however, is that at least this once, the artist was wrong and the record company was right: Gaye's early Motown singles, his protest-soul anthems and his later erotic-soul set pieces boast far more substance than anything he could have gotten from Broadway. Sade would do much better to imitate Gaye the innovator than Gaye the crooner.