Blues with modern flair


January 04, 2001|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Keb' Mo'

The Door (Epic 550/Okeh 61428)

Think of Keb' Mo', and what springs to mind aren't string sections or synthesizers, but sheer bluesy simplicity. After all, the recordings that earned Keb' Mo' his reputation featured little more than his voice and a National steel guitar, a sound that harked back to the earliest days of the blues.

But Mo' (born Kevin Moore) is not a musical throwback or a man out of time. He's a songwriter whose ideas draw from the blues but are not limited by them, and that's the side of his sound that comes through on "The Door."

Recorded with a stellar crew of sessionmen (including Michael Jackson keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and Traveling Wilburys drummer Jim Keltner), the album finds Mo' working in all sorts of settings, from the brass-and-string fattened "Gimme What You Got" to the rhythm-driven, harmonica-spiked Sound of the title tune.

Perhaps the most surprising treatment is on "It Hurts Me Too."Although Mo' plays to tradition by using this Elmore James oldie to show off his bottleneck licks, the track as a whole sounds nothing like classic blues as that whining National is backed by percolating synths, funk bass and fatback drums.

Naturally, this electronic update is likely to ruffle some feathers among hardcore blues fans, but it would be a mistake to say the arrangement doesn't work. It does, but not in the way blues fans expect.

Then again, Mo' seems to enjoy upending the expectations of traditionalists on this album-and pretty much everybody else. "Stand Up (And Be Strong)," for instance, rolls along on a funky, gospel-tinged groove that would put listeners in mind of '70s Isley Brothers, were it not for the banjo plunking through it. Then there are songs like "Anyway" and "Change," which carry the sort of folk-rock sweetness associated with James Taylor.

That's not to say that Mo' has turned his back on the acoustic blues altogether. The wry, flirtatious "Loola Lo" is the sort of song that could have as easily fit on any of his previous albums, while both "Don't You Know" and the title tune are blessed with the gritty, down-home feel of Taj Mahal's '7Os recordings.

But like Mahal, Mo' isn't the sort of musician likely to let himself be defined by an audience's notion of what the blues should be. Back when the music started out, blues singers sang all sorts of material, from comic songs to sentimental ballads, just as Mo' does here. Maybe Mo' is suggesting that it's time to revive the tradition of stylistic versatility in the blues. ***

Keith Jarret/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette

Whisper Not (ECM 1724/25)

What makes a great jazz trio isn't virtuosity but chemistry, the ability to make the music sound like the product of a single organism. And frankly, it would be hard to find a jazz trio with better chemistry than what pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette exhibit on "Whisper Not." Recorded live in Paris last year, this two-CD, 14-song set emphasizes linear, bop-derived playing, as Jarrett spins long, elegant improvisations from the likes of "What Is This Thing Called Love" and "Groovin' High." But what really makes the music sizzle is the way Peacock and DeJohnette mirror the sense of space in Jarrett's lines, so that the silences say as much as the notes played. ****

Christina Aguilera

Mi Reflejo (RCA 7863-69323)

Even though she didn't get her start in Latin music, teen queen Christina Aguilera is proud enough of her Hispanic heritage to want to record In Spanish as well as English. Hence "Mi Reflejo," which remakes much of Aguilera's self-titled debut, only this time en Espanol. It isn't a direct translation, though, for not only does the album include a smattering of songs not on the first album- among them the saIsa-spiked "Falsas Esperanzas" and a duet with Luis Fonsi called "Si NoTe Hubiera Conocido" - but the remakes of her Anglo hits "Genie in a Bottle" ("Genio Atrapado") and "What a Girl Wants" ("Una Mujer") offer vocals that are much more elaborate and vlrtuosic than their predecessors. Could it be that Aguilera Is a more interesting singer In Spanish than she is in English? ***

The Ladies Man

Music from the Motion Picture (Dreamworks 0044 50276)

There was a time, back in the '70s, when the sexiest sound on the radio was something called Quiet Storm. Inspired by a Smokey Robinson album of the same name, this format was built around slow jams and sensuous love songs - and that music is at the heart, literally and spiritually, of the soundtrack to "The Ladles Man." Although the album does include some made-for-the-movie tracks, most of the songs are strictly old-school. from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's "The Closer I Get to You" to Grover Washington's "Mister Magic." Of course, no such set could be complete without such obvious favorites as Teddy Pendergrass' "Turn Off the Lights," but the album's real charm is its fondness for such lesser-known classics as Bobby Womack's "Lookin' for a Love" and Willie Hutch's "I Choose You." All that's missing is the incense. ***

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