Anita Baker is not a jazz singer, but when she makes one of her trademark moves -- stretching a syllable into an alto moan that slides downward across notes or improvising a trilling soprano harmony to her just-finished melody -- she sounds like someone who has listened to a lot of jazz and learned a lot in the process. She specializes in rhythm-and-blues ballads about well-weathered love, and her jazz techniques help her capture the self-conscious ambivalence that is so much a part of adult romance.
Baker (who performs at Wolf Trap July 9 and 10) reminds one of the 1950s, when singers such as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson moved back and forth between the jazz and R&B fields often and easily. The R&B sessions provided these singers not just a better payday but also the chance to apply jazz skills to material that was more down to earth and emotionally direct. When Washington sang Clyde Otis tunes such as "This Bitter Earth" or "Baby (You Got What It Takes)," she wasn't slumming -- she was digging into the nitty-gritty of love. And Baker is doing the same by bringing her jazz influences to modern soul ballads.
Her new album on Elektra is called "Compositions" because the singer composed seven of the nine numbers. All the songs are slow, moody vehicles for her vocal embellishments -- very much in the same vein as her last two multi-platinum albums. After a while, Baker's tunes start to sound pretty much alike, as if she were singing the same song over and over with only minor variations. That song is very good, though, and she sings it exceedingly well.
The new album has a looser, more spontaneous feel than her previous efforts because Baker recorded the basic tracks live with a piano trio: keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist Nathan East. Phillinganes in particular stands out -- he straddles the line between R&B and jazz as adeptly as Baker does, and his tasteful fills and solos are the perfect complements to her vocals.
Reunited with producer Michael J. Powell, Baker sings so well that she takes a piece of fluff like "Perfect Love Affair" and gives it some substance by transforming key lyric lines into melancholy moans or sighs of abandonment. The album's best song is "Fairy Tales," which actually generates some rhythmic momentum as it contrasts wishful thinking and actual outcomes in romance.
Cassandra Wilson: 'Jumpworld'
Baker's approach to both jazz and R&B tends to be fairly conservative, emphasizing the well-established, mainstream pop tendencies of each. A far more daring and modern approach to blending jazz and R&B singing can be heard on Cassandra Wilson's "Jumpworld" (JMT/PolyGram).
Wilson first made her reputation by singing with members of Brooklyn's M-Base jazz collective, especially on the early recordings of saxophonist Steve Coleman. Her own debut album, a collection of standards called "Blue Skies," went to No. 1 on the jazz charts, but her second album reflects the innovative montage of avant-garde jazz, mainstream jazz, funk, blues and R&B that has marked M-Base projects.
Wilson wrote or co-wrote all but one of the 11 tunes on the album, often collaborating with Coleman or her rhythm section. The inspiration for the connected songs is Darvis Joval, an African American comic-book hero who beams himself to a new planet called Jumpworld, where he helps the Freak Thinkers battle the Grand System Masters. Wilson's lyrics treat this material very loosely, and many of the songs stand on their own as descriptions of life in these United States.
"Domination Switch," for example, is a down-home blues that attacks Grand System Masters who promise a kinder, gentler land but ignore the poor and homeless. "Lies" may refer to intergalactic betrayal, but the jazz/funk number makes perfect sense as a powerful lament about romantic dishonesty. "Whirlwind Soldier" is about lovers from different planets, but the acoustic-jazz ballad works just as well as a pledge of love to someone from another ethnic group.
The music (played by such M-Base figures as Coleman, Robin Eubanks, Greg Osby and Gary Thomas) is a bold, heady mix of sounds that owes as much to Ornette Coleman and George Clinton as to Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin. The rhythm section conjures up an odd mix of swing and funk -- Mark Johnson has a light, crisp feel on the cymbals and snare, but Kevin Harris plays a pelvis-oriented electric bass. Guitarist David Gilmore and the various horn players play quirky digressions that increase the music's breadth and tension without destroying its focus.
Holding it all together is Wilson's voice, a trumpetlike instrument that roams across its wide range with remarkably precise control. When she asks pointed questions on social-realist songs such as "Woman on the Edge," her voice is as much a percussive instrument as a melodic one; when she sings romantic numbers such as "Warm Spot," her voice turns tender and intimate. Every bit as expressive as Baker and much more inventive, Wilson displays full command of each style on this eclectic album, the most promising breakthrough in jazz singing in many years.
Oleta Adams: 'Circle of One'
The story of how Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith (the British superstar duo known as Tears for Fears) discovered Oleta Adams in a Kansas City hotel lounge is the stuff of fairy tales, the ultimate fantasy for every lounge singer in the world. After their arena rock concert, Orzabal and Smith retreated to their hotel lounge. There they were so knocked out by Adams's set of soul, jazz and gospel that they eventually invited her to sing on their next album, "The Seeds of Love." She so impressed them at those sessions (especially her duet with Orzabal on the single "Woman in Chains") that Orzabal agreed to produce her solo album and persuaded his label, Fontana/PolyGram, to release it.
The result, "Circle of One," indicates that Tears for Fears may have uncovered a major talent. Adams has a deep, honeyed voice that fills every space it's given. Like Baker, Adams combines the sensuality of soul with the ornate embellishments of jazz, but unlike Baker she also delivers a rock-and-roll punch that the Tears for Fears band reinforces most effectively. One of the advantages of working in the obscurity of a Midwestern lounge is the ability to master several musical genres and then fashion the best elements of each into an individual style before a producer or manager forces you into one narrow slot.
It paid off for Adams, for she's a solid pianist and songwriter who can pull off a radio-ready rock confessional such as "Circle of One" as well as a catchy gospel hymn such as "I've Got to Sing my Song." Orzabal constructed one Tears for Fears-like synth-rock production number for her, a sinuous meditation called "Rhythm of Life." The best song, though, is Brenda Russell's "Get Here," a lover's plea for her man to come home -- it has a terrific pop-soul hook that Adams belts out with seasoned authority.