Lalah is back, even though she never left

Music Notes

September 23, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON

SHEM-FS NOT HARD to miss. The trendy D.C. bar where we agreed to meet isnM-Ft crowded on this sultry Wednesday evening as Lalah Hathaway makes her way to my table. SheM-Fs wearing a poncho the color of Sunkist orange soda, a knitted rainbow cap, vintage jeans and seriously high platform heels.

Before she sits, Lalah pulls off the cap (a gift from a friend, she tells me later) and extends her hand. Her smile rivals the brightness of her clothes. Sitting across from her, I canM-Ft help but notice the undeniable resemblance to her father, the late soul great Donny Hathaway. Those are his full lips, his penetrating eyes and high cheekbones, all framed by shoulderlength, mud-brown dreadlocks. And listening to Lalah sing, you hear strong traces of her fatherM-Fs husky, blues-suffused phrasing.

WeM-Fre here to talk about her new album, Outrun the Sky, which hits stores Tuesday. ItM-Fs been 10 years since the Chicago nativeM-Fs last record. Although we may not have heard her on the radio or seen her around much in the last decade, sheM-Fs been busy.

M-tIM-Fve been touring a lot,M-v says Lalah, whoM-Fs based in Los Angeles. M-tIM-Fve been on a lot of records that you probably never heard of because they only came out in other places. IM-Fm, like, the worldM-Fs best kept secret.M-v

She sang on other artistsM-F albums, songs for Meshell Ndegeocello, Take 6, Marcus Miller, Ricky Peterson. And she recorded a stellar duet set with Joe Sample, 1999M-Fs The Song Lives On. Lalah is in D.C. this evening to help promote Forever, For Always, For Luther, a tribute set to Luther Vandross featuring various smooth jazz and R&B artists. On it, Lalah interprets the famed balladeerM-Fs M-tForever, For Always, For Love.M-v Outrun the Sky, which also features the Luther remake, wonM-Ft hit stores for another two weeks. But Lalah is excited to have her own album coming out. Finally.

M-tThe record is all me,M-v she says. M-tIt came together over years and years of blood, sweat and tears. A lot of songs are old, ones that I wrote when I got dropped [from Virgin Records].M-v

Lalah has put out only two albums: her self-titled debut from 1990 and A Moment from M-F94. Neither sold well. (Which is undoubtedly the main reason Virgin kicked her to the curb). But early on, despite the unevenness of her records, Lalah displayed great execution and a haughty sensuality reminiscent of Phyllis Hyman. She was so beyond the substandard urban fare she was made to record.

M-tNow, IM-Fm older,M-v says the 30- something artist. (Lalah doesnM-Ft like to give her age.) M-tIM-Fm more confident. IM-Fve listened to a lot of music in the last 10 years.M-v

M-tLike what?M-v I ask.

M-tLots of Shirley Horn,M-v Lalah says between sips of water. M-tHer delivery is so true: very melancholy, very bittersweet.M-v

M-tKinda like yours, huh?M-v

M-tI donM-Ft know,M-v Lalah says. M-tIM-Fm so critical of myself. IM-Fve learned a lot just listening, you know. I feel IM-Fve grown a lot as an artist during the time away.M-v

Released by Mesa/Bluemoon, Outrun the Sky is a consistent effort. ItM-Fs heavy on chunky urban grooves and agreeable midtempo tunes, ideal music for the over-30 crowd. But fans of LalahM-Fs impressive jazzy outing with Joe Sample wonM-Ft find anything like that on this record.

M-tWhen we started the album, we started in a myriad of different places,M-v says Lalah, who wrote or co-wrote the 13 cuts on the CD. M-tI was trying to figure, M-fWhat am I?M-F IM-Fm not neo-soul; I donM-Ft like that. IM-Fm not hip-hop and IM-Fm really not adult contemporary. IM-Fm certainly not jazz, although a lot of people think thatM-Fs what I do. ItM-Fs a lot of things IM-Fm not. But all of those things I am.M-v

Amazingly, the record doesnM-Ft give off an allover- the-place vibe. Essentially, itM-Fs grown-folks music, mature R&B with jazzy overtones here and there. LalahM-Fs plush voice anchors each song, sounding more assured on the ballads. M-tWe Were Two,M-v a slow-burning, heartbreak number, is a highlight. M-tTo give what I do a label, I just call it soul music,M-v the singer says. M-tThatM-Fs just honestly what it is.M-v

Later on in the evening, Lalah, her friendly publicist Karen and I head over to KiliM-Fs Kafe Lounge & Nightclub, a hip, bohemianchic joint that, in a way, reminds me of the spoken- word haunt in the movie Love Jones. ItM-Fs full tonight. Lalah and fellow soul singer Ledisi are here to promote the Luther tribute set.

M-tI am not singing tonight,M-v Lalah tells me as we stand in the VIP room, looking out at the crowd.

But after she sips a Malibu and Coke cocktail, signs autographs and poses for pictures with fans, after her homegirl Ledisi tears the roof off with her performance of LutherM-Fs M-tMy Sensitivity,M-v Donny HathawayM-Fs baby girl takes the stage anyway.

Her platform heels kicked off, Lalah croons M-tForever, For Always, For LoveM-v movingly. Despite the bad acoustics, the singer and the band satisfy the house. She receives a standing ovation.

Outside the club, I ask Lalah if she feels any pressure to keep her fatherM-Fs legacy alive. Like Natalie Cole back in the day, does she ever feel the need to measure up to her fatherM-Fs genius?

M-tI deal with my own private emotions about it,M-v Lalah says. M-t But I donM-Ft feel any pressure at all to carry on the legacy. I feel like he was here, in part, so that I could get here. And IM-Fm here so that he could stay here. Pressure? Not at all.M-v

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