Jesse Powell takes listeners back in time

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

May 27, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

When he steps to a mike, there's no denying the brotha: Jesse Powell can flat-out sing. His is one of the more impressive if underrated voices to emerge in urban pop in the past decade. I'm talking about a clear four-octave range imbued with just the right amount of soul fire: sweet, melodious.

And it's obvious from his yearning delivery that he has studied a few great voices of romantic soul -- specifically Smokey Robinson, Emanuel "EJ" Johnson of Enchantment and El DeBarge.

"If you ride in the car with me, I'll take you back to the '70s and '80s," says Jesse, who's calling from his cell phone in Los Angeles. "Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind & Fire, DeBarge -- all that. If you're beside me at the red light and I've got the music up, you'll feel like you're in a time warp."

I wouldn't say that about the music on the singer-songwriter's new CD, Jesse, his first release in two years. The production is thoroughly modern and radio-ready: programmed drums and keyboards, digital bleeps bouncing through the mix here and there. But Jesse's vocal approach is still rooted in the dreamy sounds of that long-ago era when dapper dudes with killer falsettos crooned lines like "betcha by golly wow" and "la la means I love you."

"Some artists try to do what everybody is doing," says the 30-something singer-songwriter. "Like everybody right now is trying to sound like R. Kelly. Me? I'm about trying to be me. That's all I can do anyway."

What I have always found so frustrating about Jesse's albums (he's put out four so far, starting with his 1996 self-titled debut) is that they tend to be so uneven, the material and productions at times offering little spark and substance. One minute, he's romancing us with that gorgeous voice of his -- promising lifelong devotion, nights of endless passion and all those other exaggerations you find in the typical urban love jam. Then on the next two songs, over a noisy, trend-conscious track, he's trying to sell us some hardcore, big-pimpin' stuff. Yeah, like we're supposed to buy that Jesse Powell, the pretty boy with the Sunday-morning voice, is a stone-cold playa. Whatever.

I prefer the softer side. And the performer offers more of that on his latest CD. He is, after all, a contemporary R&B artist who's trying to sell units (and I'm not hatin'). So on the album, you find such requisite, lyrically empty club joints as "Touching It" and "Talking In Your Sleep." But they serve their purpose well: To make you get up out your seat and work it, or "twurk somethin'," as they say down South.

"On my first record, I had to deal with a lot of insecurities because it was my first time out," Jesse says. "But now I'm more mature in my delivery and the song choices."

His last hit was 1998's "You," an urgently sung ballad that urban radio seemingly wouldn't give a rest. (For some reason, the cut also appeared on the Indiana native's '96 debut but was never released as a single.) "You" catapulted 'Bout It, Jesse's sophomore set, to gold. He put out JP in 2001 but, because of zilch promotion, the CD generated no heat and flopped. Then his label, MCA, closed up shop and Jesse was left floating, feeling "burned out."

"It took a while to get my business affairs in order," he says without going into any specifics. "Things had gotten really messy. I was trying to make sure I could pay the bills so that I could concentrate on my music."

Like other artists burned by the politricks at major labels, Jesse has gone the independent route, signing with Riviera Entertainment, which is distributed by Liquid 8 Records.

"Now, I'm in a position to pay my mortgage on time," he says. "So it's all good."

The new album should put Jesse back in the game. Overproduced in spots and a tad predictable, the new record is a decent one overall and could certainly compete with what's out here now. As he's done on all of his albums, the church-trained artist pays homage to his romantic soul idols with a remake. He does a note-for-note update of DeBarge's classic "I Like It."

"I had to do the tribute to the old school," he says with a chuckle. "We take so much from it anyway. So why not do a remake? Basically, my main hope is to be able to make music that's timeless."

Keep at it, brotha. I'm sure the best is yet to come.

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