Anita Baker has never really been a jazz singer. But she could be; she certainly has the chops. Over the years, the Ohio-born, Detroit-raised singer-songwriter has performed at jazz festivals around the world. On her six studio albums, all of which have at least sold gold, Baker has flirted with jazz. But in her 25 years as a recording artist, she has yet to take the plunge into the genre. What a shame.
Although Baker is one of the most distinctive vocalists in pop and soul, I have always found much of her music to be frustratingly tentative. She possesses an amazing instrument, impressively rangy and gorgeously smoked. But over the years, she has kept it contained in largely unimaginative R&B arrangements, most of which haven't aged well.
The multi-Grammy winner, something of a recluse for the better part of a decade, will headline the Paetec Music Tour, formerly the Paetec Jazz Festival, at Pier Six Concert Pavilion tomorrow night. Baker may not record much these days. (Her last album, the pleasant if unremarkable My Everything, came out in 2004 after a 10-year recording hiatus.) But she's a much better singer today than she was in her mid-'80s heyday. I caught her show about four years ago when she shared the bill at 1st Mariner Arena with Maze and Frankie Beverly.
Baker had just launched a comeback, performing a string of national dates. She was a bit heavier than she had been on her last tour in the mid-'90s. She had also grown out her signature tapered, feathered haircut and was wearing a smart, sleek bob. But her merlot voice had become richer during her time away. The slurred, Sarah Vaughan-like affectations that marred some of her latter albums, namely 1990's Compositions, were gone. My friend and I left the concert as renewed fans.
In her mid-40s at the time, the mother of two preteen sons, Baker had come into her own. During her decade away from the industry - as she cared for ailing parents and recorded in fits and starts - Baker's vocal artistry still managed to evolve and deepen. But it was mostly underserved on her comeback album. Though far from a bust, My Everything still didn't do much to push the artistic envelope. Baker more or less returned to the slick urban soul that made her one of the biggest-selling black female artists of the '80s, behind Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. It was a safe, but perhaps smart, move. After all, we hadn't heard a note from Baker in forever, and hardly anybody in 2004 was singing the yearning, midnight-love songs that cemented her fame. My Everything, released four Septembers ago, essentially picked up where she had left off in the '80s, only this time the arrangements were slightly warmer and fuller.
But still, Baker had signed with Blue Note Records, a venerable label with a rich jazz legacy. I thought: Well, it's about time. She'll go ahead and cut a full-on jazz album, right? Wrong. Instead, she did an adult R&B CD that, though nice and tuneful, hasn't drawn me back in a while.
Baker hasn't released a proper follow-up, but I hear she's writing new songs. She's a notorious perfectionist, an artist who must have complete control of her music. And that's all good. But after more than 20 years of essentially the same sound, it would be nice if she would loosen up musically, do something completely out of left field, record that dynamite jazz album she's been hinting at for years.
But Baker is 50 and doesn't record or tour very often. So maybe I should just give up hope of getting my hands on an Anita Baker album that blows me away from start to finish. Sure, Rapture, her 1986 multiplatinum breakthrough, had its moments: "Sweet Love," "Caught Up in the Rapture," "Mystery." Though the songs themselves have held up well, the production of them (oh, those tinny, very-'80s synths) sounds dated today. Perhaps Baker's most transcendent album is her most overlooked one, her 1983 debut The Songstress. It features her most delectable ballad, the swooning Top 10 R&B hit "Angel." But even that set was uneven.
If anything, Baker is certainly an industrious diva. She sticks with what works for her. Forget the critics. Forget the discerning fans who wish she'd fully unleash the stellar jazz singer within. That day may never come. She seems to be absolutely fine with keeping that magnificent voice locked in a velvety, if well-worn, musical comfort zone. Forever.
See Anita Baker at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave., at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Gates open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $39-$125 and available by calling 410-547-7328 or going to paetecmusic.com or ticketmaster.com.