'United 2' delightfully sticks in your Krall

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

April 29, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

Out with the stagnant stuff, the worked-for-a-time-but-now-it's-stale stuff. This area needs some fresh air.

Perhaps, while recording their new projects, Diana Krall and the various artists on Neo Soul United 2 had that kind of mind-set. Each performer offers something smarter, more adventurous to jazz and soul -- something more real and nuanced than what we've heard from the genres lately. You already know of Krall. And if Neo Soul United 2 picks up any heat (I certainly hope so), then you will also know about such standout artists as Michael Bohannon, Keith Robinson (aka Black Keith) and B'more's own Mia Miata.

Although she's been a critical darling and a consistent platinum-selling star (in jazz!) since '99, Krall never really snagged my attention. Sure, I heard her music -- and thought it was pleasantly boring most of the time. I was never in a rush to cop any of her records until I saw her croon "A Case of You" on a Joni Mitchell tribute a few years back. Absolutely stunning.

I remember literally sitting on the edge of my couch, transfixed by the gorgeous, just voice-and-piano rendering of one of Joni's best compositions. I gained new respect for the Canadian chanteuse -- even if 2001's The Look of Love, her last studio album, dripped with syrupy arrangements and was stalled by her bland, detached interpretations of "I Remember You" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well."

Her next set, 2002's Grammy-winning Live In Paris, featured "A Case of You" and Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" along with such tried-and-true standards as "Let's Fall in Love" and "Fly Me to the Moon." The set shimmered, but, still, it felt a little too mannered at times. On The Girl in the Other Room, Krall's studio follow-up to The Look of Love that hit stores this week, she adds exciting colors to her velvet vocal tones and masterful piano skills. (She is scheduled to perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion July 3.)

Her recent marriage to Elvis Costello has helped to unleash the songwriter within. And as a lyricist, Krall soars, recalling (perhaps even rivaling) her idol Mitchell with the crisp, poetic details of "Departure Bay," a song about bereavement: "The house was bare of Christmas lights / It came down hard that year / Outside in our overcoats / Drinking down to the bitter end / Trying to make things right / Like my mother did."

Actually, Krall collaborated with her celebrated hubby on the lyrics. (The two wrote half of the 12-track album.) He helped to shape her random ideas, descriptions, memories and images into a tight lyrical form. And the results are instant vintage, classy tunes that others will surely try to reinterpret years from now; but they probably won't come close to capturing the evocative spirit with which Krall imbues the sassy, smoky "I've Changed My Address" and the tale of loneliness simmering in the title cut.

Vocally and musically from time to time, Krall pours on the down-and-dirty blues (jazzed up, of course) on Room. She sprinkles generous amounts of grit in her phrasing on Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like a Man," which swings with righteous keys courtesy of the refined blonde and a stank-you-very-much guitar solo by Anthony Wilson. Tom Wait's "Temptation," Costello's "Almost Blue" and Joni's "Black Crow" are lifted to new heights by Krall's elegant, inspired singing and piano playing. But the album also benefits from the creative, sympathetic skills of such top-shelf players as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassists Christian McBride and John Clayton. Getting to know The Girl in the Other Room is a beautiful thrill.

Last year, independent, New York-based Glory Records put out Neo Soul United, a compilation of urban soul artists bubbling under the radar: Lizz Fields, Kelli Sae (a vocalist with Incognito), Ellis Hall and others. Through word of mouth, the set was a strong international seller, the songs frequently making most-played lists on the Internet.

Neo Soul United 2 complements the first installment with thoughtful, organic tunes from artists who best some of the established ones out here selling us "new" soul. But here's the thing: There's nothing particularly new about the soul on NS2, either. Shades of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Barry White and Minnie Riperton haunt the joint in different spots. But, for the most part, the lyrical content is firmly rooted in today's urban jungle. For instance, Martha Redbone's funny groover, "Boyfriend," centers on the madness behind the DL (that's "down low") culture that's rampant in big cities. Honey finds out that the guy she's diggin' on has a dude on the side; he tells her matter-of-factly, "I gotta boyfriend, but I kinda like girls, too." The stuff of urban soap operas.

Odes to romantic love float through the 16-song disc, including Michael Bohannon's intoxicating "Make Love Last Forever" and Keith Robinson's sweetly nostalgic "Utopia."

"Music Is," a mostly instrumental number by Baltimore's Mia Miata, rightfully closes the set. Over a bed of exotic percussion enlivened by serpentine tenor sax lines, she sings-chants, "Music is my religion / Music is my therapy / Music is my inspiration ..."

And I'm feelin' every word.

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