Blossoming soul-jazz artist Jill Scott needs no gimmicks

She lets her voice, lyrics warm fans

Pop Music

September 05, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

My clothes were damp from the rain outside, and my feet hurt from standing so long in the line that snaked around the block. But all was well, all seemed so light and bright when Jill Scott strolled out on this late July evening and smiled on us at D.C.'s 9:30 Club. The place was packed for the first show of her two-night stand at the venue. It was part of her short, national "buzz tour," held to promote the release of her long-awaited sophomore album, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, which hit stores last Tuesday.

Scott excels in concert. The arrangements shift colors, a rainbow of vibrant reds, blues and warm browns. The band behind her is always supportive, the musicians' interplay democratic and lively. Scott came out, smiled, and the house roared with applause. There were no dancers, no pyrotechnics, no overdone stage setting. Jill Scott came to communicate through melodies and jazz-wrapped rhythms.

Looking slimmer (she lost 25 pounds in her four years away from the spotlight) and radiant (she has a new husband, art director Lyzel Williams), Scott delved into new songs and threw in some favorites from her 2000 debut, Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1, an essential neo-soul record that sold more than 2 million copies largely by word of mouth.

The Philadelphia native is a fascinatingly complex artist: a poet, singer and actor. Her sincerity floats through the music. Her debut kept it real with tales of confronting scheming women in the street ("Gettin' in the Way"), relishing the simple pleasure of new romance ("A Long Walk" and "The Way"), walking away from dead-end love ("Slowly Surely"). The connective tissue on that solid, though slightly rambling, debut was Scott's vulnerability. She wasn't afraid to show us her nappy edges, to look foolish, to spread the gospel as she knows it. That emotional openness - and that incredible voice - makes her music so endearing and, more important, real.

Beautifully Human is the best soul record you will hear this year, an amazingly fluid showcase of Scott's blossoming skills as a lyricist (the narratives are more focused this time, with poetic detail slightly reminiscent of The Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell) and vocalist (her admiration of Minnie Riperton glows throughout Beautifully Human; she even dedicates the album to the late pop-soul star.)

One of the main problems with Who Is Jill Scott? was that the arrangements, at times, felt pedestrian and unimaginative. But Beautifully Human - with most of the production team from Scott's debut, including Jazzy Jeff Townes, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis - weaves in more vibrant styles, from hip-hop beats to big-band jazz. Drawing on the black hippie soul of Riperton and Stevie Wonder and the lush '70s Philly soul sound, the music now seems to match the feeling behind the lyrics, never overwhelming Scott. But there's that heavy, throbbing bottom that gives each song a modern feel.

The first single, "Golden," would sound like a corny, self-help anthem by a lesser singer: "I'm living my life like it's golden/I'm taking my own freedom ..." But Scott imbues the lyrics with a resonance, a brightness that feels genuine.

The album is as immediate and as refreshing as Scott's performance in D.C. that July evening: humorous, earthy, gentle, beautifully human indeed.

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