You hear Luther Vandross's voice everywhere these days -- and not merely on his own recordings. Listen to the recent albums by Freddie Jackson, Will Downing, Omar Chandler, Keith Washington, Peabo Bryson and Phil Perry and what do you hear? Studied imitations of Vandross's trademark purrs, octave climbs and rounded tone.
As good as these impersonations are, none of them approaches the thrilling art of Vandross's new album, "Power of Love" (Epic), his first collection of new songs in three years. That's because Vandross's powerhouse tenor and flamboyant vocal technique are just means to an end for him, while vocal skill is an end in itself for his imitators. Vandross's goal is nothing less than re-creating emotions with such intensity and such clarity that we can't help but reconsider those feelings in the wake of his songs.
Vandross's imitators make the mistake of giving us romantic fantasies instead of real-life romantic experience. Listen to Downing's "A Dream Fulfilled," "Omar Chandler" or Washington's "Make Time for Love," and you'll hear spectacular voices that sound as hollow as the platitudes they're singing. These imitators pander to the audience with reassuring fantasies about love as a sure thing. Love is never a sure thing in Vandross's songs.
In his best performances, the character Vandross plays has just been roused by a romantic opportunity but finds himself suspended between possible bliss and potential disaster. This is the classic human dilemma, and Vandross captures the fears and hopes involved with the vivid credibility of a Marvin Gaye, an Al Green or a Van Morrison. Vandross deserves these comparisons, because he's one of the greatest singers of the modern era.
On his new album, Vandross downplays the bravura vocal fireworks that won him his reputation. Instead he goes for a subtler, more restrained approach that shifts the focus back to the stories he's telling. Vandross is only a so-so lyricist, but he takes the familiar plots of love songs and makes them brand new with the inflections of his voice. When he sings "Don't Want To Be a Fool," you can hear him weighing the promise of new love against the wounds of past betrayals. When he vows to change his ways on "I'm Gonna Start Today," he sounds as if he's trying to convince himself as much as his lover.
These hints of uncertainty give Vandross's songs an openness, a sense that anything could happen -- just as it could in real life. The album's best song is "I Want the Night to Stay," whose gorgeous ballad melody is elaborated into dizzying lushness by Nat Adderley Jr.'s string charts and Vandross's choral arrangements. What really makes the song work, though, is the suspicion in Vandross's voice that his evening of erotic pleasure must eventually end -- his pleas carry the helpless desperation of real life. Like his hero, Aretha Franklin, Vandross repeats the title line over and over -- each time with a different harmonic path and new emotional twist -- until the words lose their meaning and the voice becomes pure feeling.
Like most great artists, Vandross has a sure grasp of both his own era and of the history that led up to it. Of all the romantic balladeers in pop today, he works with the funkiest rhythm tracks -- most of them fashioned by his longtime co-producer, Marcus Miller. On up-tempo songs such as "She Doesn't Mind" or the title track (which is the first single), Miller staggers the programmed beats with such originality that the songs grab your attention before Vandross's voice ever enters the mix.
Every Vandross album also features a nod toward the past with a song associated with one of his heroes. On this album it's "I (Who Have Nothing)," which Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for Ben E. King. Vandross does it as a seven-minute duet with Martha Walsh. They pull out the stops on this one, trying to top each other with melismatic sighs and falsetto cries -- and entertain us fabulously in the process.
Keith Washington: 'Make Time for Love' Of all the Luther Vandross impersonations, Keith Washington's is perhaps the best. On his debut album, "Make Time for Love" (Qwest/Warner Bros.), you can hear all the Vandross signature touches: the shudder-sigh, the note-wavering sustain, the synchronized pitch/volume climb and the whisper-to-bellow transition. Washington has the vocal instrument and technique to meet Vandross's exacting standards, and the sound of this album is most impressive.
Unfortunately, Washington has nothing to say about love, and thus has no choice but to resort to tired cliches and fantasies. Even worse, many of the lyrics ("This need in me let me share tonight with you" or "Sometimes a person outgrows the love they chose who fails to keep it new") mangle the English language beyond recognition. The Detroit singer's album was assembled by committee (10 songwriters and seven producers are credited), and the results have the blandness of pop-music bureaucracy. It's a shame that someone with such a special voice should make such an ordinary album.
Jon Lucien: 'Listen Love'
Jon Lucien predates Vandross. His smoky baritone, rippling rhythms and bedroom ballads were perfect for the "Quiet Storm" radio format that flourished in the early '70s, and he had hits with songs such as "Rashida" and "Lady Love." When his sales dwindled by the end of that decade, Lucien retreated to his native Virgin Islands to play in jazz bands. Now, after a nearly 10-year absence from the North American recording scene, he's back with an album, "Listen Love" (Mercury), that is little different from his earlier work.
Like Vandross, Lucien has a seductively sensual voice that disarms the listener and pulls one into the singer's world. He never introduces the drama of uncertainty into his songs, but his understated delivery creates a comfortable sense of honesty, in contrast to the usual overstated fantasies. Rather than the big thump of contemporary American pop, Lucien still favors the scattered polyrhythms of the Caribbean. Moreover, the harmonies and scat solos that come out of Lucien's jazz background keep these romantic ballads interesting. All in all, it's not an earthshaking album, but it boasts a voice distinctive enough to escape the large shadow of Luther Vandross.