Brenda Russell making a strong comeback

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 07, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

I slip on Brenda Russell's cashmere music and feel loved. There's so much emotion in the songs she writes. And I know when the insanely underrated pop-soul singer releases an album, she's not going to sell me short. I'm getting a set of intelligent tunes arranged with taste, radiating from a mature woman who sings movingly about love (romantic and spiritual), hope and individualism.

Best known to pop audiences for the 1988 Top 10 smash "Piano in the Dark," Brenda has put out just eight albums over the past 25 years. And some are better than others. But Between the Sun and the Moon, her latest CD in stores this week, is her strongest offering in years, a consistently inspired record and a soulful melange of wildly percussive world music, jazzy pop and rich R&B.

"The new record reflects the fun I'm having and my love of life now," says Brenda, who's calling from Atlanta, where she's working on the stage production of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. She's not acting. Along with Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native is writing the music for the play, which hits Broadway next spring.

"I managed to make this record last year," Brenda says. "I flew back and forth from Los Angeles, where I'm based, to London to work with some great producers."

Jean-Paul Maunick, the mastermind behind Incognito, is one of them. He arranged two standout cuts on Between the Sun and the Moon: the festive, samba-tinged opener, "Make You Smile" (a Top 10 hit in the U.K. this summer; the album was released overseas in July), and the dusky, sexy "Ain't No Smoke." Stellar session players and guest vocalists -- Brenda always uses top-shelf folks -- abound: Patti Austin scats up a hurricane on the evocative title track, which she co-wrote with Brenda. Acclaimed guitarist Lee Ritenour provides nimble acoustic notes and understated bass lines on "The Tracks of My Tears," the Smokey Robinson evergreen and the only song on the 12-cut album Brenda didn't write. Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band and the Perry Sisters (one of the best working vocal groups on the scene) contribute background vocals. The new record is brighter than 2000's Paris Rain, the artist's last album.

"Paris Rain was more moody and romantic," the singer-songwriter says. "I knew it wasn't gonna be a big commercial record. The quality was more important to me than the styles on the radio."

Well, Brenda has always played the game that way. Her classic, self-titled debut (which Universal Records wisely reissued in 2000) came out in 1979 at the height of disco. The album features the singer's first Top 40 hit, "So Good, So Right," a jubilant tune with breezy strings and a mellow rhythm. The rest of Brenda Russell is a treasure trove of pristine, ageless numbers: "God Bless You," "In the Thick of It," "If Only For One Night," a ballad Luther Vandross popularized in the 1980s though Brenda's version is more heartfelt. Not a strong seller, the album was just too thoughtful for pop radio at the time, too relaxed and grown-up. Label executives wanted more Donna Summer, less Carole King.

"I just couldn't do a disco record," Brenda says. "I was fortunate in that I found a producer then (former Rufus drummer Andre Fischer) who understood me and the music. People still talk to me about that first record and how it touched their lives. That's worth more than gold or platinum to me."

Brenda has never sold many records, but her songs have been widely covered by others, including Oleta Adams (whose fiery 1991 version of "Get Here" became a massive hit), Patti LaBelle, Ray Charles, Chaka Khan and Joe Cocker. Critics generally love her. But after her 1993 album, Soul Talkin', was ignored and her label at the time, EMI, promptly dropped her, Brenda stayed away from recording for seven years. She traveled and spent time with her daughter, Lindsay, now grown and recently married.

"I had to step back for a minute and think about why I got in this business," she says. "It's kind of ruthless, and it's hard for an artist like me to maintain my integrity. During those years, I worked on other artists' projects and with international artists and it was inspiring."

Steve McKeever, head of Hidden Beach Recordings, lured Brenda back into the studio and executive produced Paris Rain, which failed to generate a hit though it was critically well-received. Now back with EMI by way of the Narada Jazz imprint, Brenda hasn't changed her focus. Between the Sun and the Moon exemplifies what she has always been about: making real, melodious music that sinks into the soul. And stays there.

She says, "One thing I love about the business of making music is that it's recorded. The song has a life, and it's documented. So those who want to hear it can find it. You know, I'm very grateful that people still care about my music. It's one of the joys of my life."

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.

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