Lattimore has got R&B covered

He puts his own stamp on obscure cover songs on his latest CD, 'Timeless'

November 20, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Although more than a decade has passed since his self-titled debut went gold, Kenny Lattimore feels as if he's a new artist. And in a way, he is. The R&B-pop singer, perhaps best known for the breezy 1997 wedding-song smash "For You," is attempting to establish himself as a song interpreter. The days of trying to shoehorn his soft approach into hard-edged, trendy styles are behind him.

On Timeless, his new CD and first solo release in seven years, he's making tentative steps in a new direction by singing covers. The album is his first release for Verve, a label best known for its jazz legacy.

"The label had the concept for the album," says Lattimore, who headlines Blues Alley in Washington on Wednesday night. "They wanted to do an album of covers that were obscure. ... We chose songs that were obscure enough they would feel new."

There's nothing especially radical about the concept or sound of Timeless. For the most part, the production updates the softer touches of Lattimore's previous three albums. An amiable, smoothed-out R&B approach - warm keyboards, fluid bass lines and unobtrusive programmed drums - cushions his sensitive vocals. The mix of songs, mostly ballads, is eclectic. Seemingly without breaking a sweat, Lattimore croons cuts ranging from the Beatles ("And I Love Her") to late '80s pop sensation Terence Trent D'Arby ("Undeniably").

"I wanted to make sure there were certain songs that R&B fans would know, like Norman Connors and 'You Are My Starship,' a song I've loved for a long time, and Aretha's 'Ain't No Way,' " says Lattimore, who spoke last week from his home in Los Angeles. "[The album] was like an exploration. It was an interesting concept, I thought, to do more pop and rock and stretch it to R&B."

One of the highlights on the album is Lattimore's yearning rendition of Jeff Buckley's "Everybody Here Wants You," which soars on his silvery falsetto.

"This album became an arranger's project and a real singer's project," says Lattimore, who grew up near Howard University in Washington and in Prince George's County. "It was an easy project to do. The songs were already there. The challenge was to add your stamp to it. We changed tempos, softened beats, changed a few lines in some songs, like Aretha's 'Ain't No Way,' to fit a man's perspective."

Lattimore's last solo album, 2001's Weekend, was a stiff, uninspired effort that came and went. Since then, he's recorded two well-received duet albums with his wife, singer Chante Moore. He says going back to the studio without his supportive partner wasn't easy.

"It was so scary," says the singer, 41. "Chante is so amazing, such a great arranger and writer. Her musical talent is greater than mine. In lots of ways, I was able to lean on her. But being back in the studio by myself, I had to find my voice again. I'm still in the process of figuring myself out as an artist."

Lattimore landed a record deal during his first year at Howard University, where he was an architecture student and where his mother was an academic and life skills counselor. But after he moved to New York in the late '80s, his music career stalled. He was part of a group called Maniqun, which recorded one album in 1989 that flopped. The group soon disbanded, and Lattimore eventually landed a deal with Columbia Records.

The company released his self-titled debut in 1996 with little promotion. But word of mouth and urban radio's support of the singles "Never Too Busy" and "For You" helped spur sales. The album was eventually certified gold, and Lattimore garnered a Grammy nomination.

Though his sophomore release, 1998's From the Soul of a Man, received strong reviews, it didn't repeat the commercial success of its predecessor. Artistically, Lattimore felt adrift.

"Some people feel that I still haven't been pushed," he says. "There's something that seems unexplored or untapped. I've been under the radar, kind of like Phyllis Hyman was - not overexposed but not exposed enough. It takes a team and a focus, and if you don't have that then you kind of fall between the cracks."

At his new label home, Lattimore says he's hopeful that he will grow more and find a style that best suits his delicate, hopelessly romantic approach. He says he could see himself as a Josh Groban or Michael Buble type. Whatever the musical direction, class and romance won't be lost.

"It's about me communicating with the audience, which is why we're touring small venues right now," Lattimore says. "The record company will probably hate me for saying this, but it's not about just the new album. Getting close to the people, listening to their feedback - it will help me nail down my next direction."

if you go

See Kenny Lattimore at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. in Washington, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $35. Call 202-337-4141 or go to bluesalley.com.

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