Rising and shining

Jazzy vocalist Amel Larrieux named her new CD `Morning,' when all things are possible

July 20, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

First thing in the morning at six o'clock, Amel Larrieux starts running.

The category-defying singer-songwriter undoubtedly maintains her svelte figure this way, but the vigorous run also clears her mind. Afterward, she's ready to tackle her day, handle her wifely and motherly duties and follow her musical muse in her home studio. Like the mental benefits of her daily runs, the music on her new album, Morning, evokes feelings of renewal and reinvigoration.

"You think about the promise of a new day when you think of morning," the artist says. "It represents what the album means. It feels refreshing and new, in a way, and introspective -- all the things that happen in the morning time."

In a way, the CD is an extension of the former Groove Theory member's previous two solo efforts: 2000's Infinite Possibilities and 2004's Bravebird. Like its predecessors, Morning is serene, sparkling with jazz-inflected vocalizing and anchored by a free-flowing mix of live and programmed instrumentation.

But on the new album, the Los Angeles-based artist, who headlines the Camelot of Upper Marlboro tomorrow night, pushes her vocals over sparser arrangements, sometimes using only two instruments. The music leaves room for Larrieux to explore the Betty Carter-inspired scatting she deftly wove through her previous albums. Unintentionally, she and her producer husband, Laru, found themselves doing more with less.

"It's never this well-thought-out process of what direction it will be," Larrieux says. "We're always recording and experimenting. We didn't set up this formula and follow it. You come up with different recipes. It's different every time."

Since leaving Epic/Sony, the mighty label that released (and shamefully underpromoted) Infinite Possibilities, Larrieux has become bolder and more assured in her musical exploration. (Her past two albums were issued by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based indie company Blisslife.) Because of her nuanced, jazz-minded approach and eschewal of the histrionics and hip-hop cliches that mar much of urban music these days, Larrieux's often brilliant solo career has garnered little attention from mainstream outlets. There's often a poetic earnestness to her lyrics. While she may overreach a bit with a metaphor, she doesn't come off as preachy. Her open-hearted songs generally feel more like thoughtful diary entries than mantras.

Regarding her image, Larrieux goes against the status quo for urban female performers: She doesn't vamp around in scanty designer drag in her videos, and she sings left-of-center songs like "Gills and Tails," which uses a fish metaphor to explain how it feels to be in an oppressive relationship. The thirtysomething native New Yorker, who grew up in the artists-friendly environment of Greenwich Village, is usually more subtle and less accessible than her "neo-soul" sisters: Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India.Arie.

"If my style is changing, it's changing in a way that I'm finding my personality as a vocalist," says Larrieux. "It's not about following trends -- vocal trends or production trends."

Where Bravebird, the artist's last album, was dusky, Morning glows with sun-kissed love songs such as "No One Else," a piano ballad that celebrates her marriage, much like "Make Me Whole" did on Infinite Possibilities. "Earn My Affections" is perhaps Morning's quirkiest, most alluring track. Sassy with nothing more than a knocking beat and a deep, rolling bass line, the song features Larrieux multitracking her vocals, harmonizing with and singing against herself. "I listen to a lot of people like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Bobby McFerrin and how their vocals drove everything and how the music just cushioned it," she says. "Hopefully, people know that in a live performance it's going to have a different dynamic. But the attack will be the same. You want a good balance of what's on the album and what goes into the live performance, the energy."

Over the years, balancing home life (Larrieux's daughters are Sky, 12, and Sanji-Rei, 8) and her career has enriched her music and lyrical scope.

"My daughters are a constant source of energy," the performer says. "It's not all about me. I've been able to tap into my personal stuff with my music and hope that people can connect to it. Within that, I'm hoping that people accept my humanity. But you don't want to rely on everybody's opinion, because it doesn't make you a whole person or a strong person. I want that sense of growth reflected in my work."

See Amel Larrieux at the Camelot of Upper Marlboro, 13901 Central Ave. in Upper Marlboro, tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $38.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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