Standard Setter 

In a marketplace that's nearly forgotten him, veteran soul crooner returns with strong album

In a marketplace that's nearly forgotten him, veteran soul crooner returns with strong album

Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross (J Records)

Luther Vandross was dominating the R&B charts when most of today's youthful soul stars were either toddlers or not even born yet, but in recent years, his name has more likely been the subject of gossip or parody. Vandross' self-titled debut for Clive Davis' J Records, released this past summer, signals something of a comeback, restoring some of the luster that was lost when Sony unceremoniously terminated his contract in the late '90s. It certainly shatters the rumors of medical woes and diminishing skills that were exacerbated by his limp 1998 album, I Know.

Indeed, Vandross displays the versatility, range, energy, and prowess that was evident throughout his great '80s run. But while his new album has been a masterful artistic triumph, it hasn't come close to equaling the chart success that Vandross' past releases enjoyed. Part of that can be attributed to the influx of virile neo-soul stars—such as Bilal, Maxwell, and D'Angelo—who have carefully absorbed attributes of his style: being assertive without sounding overly macho, expressing vulnerability without coming across as weak. Thus, while Vandross' disc sets a high standard for contemporary R&B, it hasn't gotten the attention or exposure it would have received during a lesser period for urban music. Even so, it remains yet another feather in the cap for longtime producer and record mogul Clive Davis' fledgling label.

Initially, Luther Vandross was considered the signature piece Davis desperately needed to attain credibility in the currently unstable marketplace. But the unprecedented strength and soaring popularity of stunning newcomer Alicia Keyes, plus a recent distribution deal inked with Wyclef Jean, have instead rendered Vandross' album icing on the cake. Moreover, Davis now looks like a genius on another front. He had once hoped to lure Whitney Houston—whom he not only discovered, but helped nurture into a huge star—away from Arista, the company that dumped him last year in an ugly, bitter public dispute. Instead, she recently re-signed with Arista in a eye-popping deal that reportedly topped the $100 million mark. His successor at Arista, Antonio Reid, has since been angrily denying rumors of trouble in paradise while also taking the heat for the horrendous sales of the last (and probably final) Run-DMC record. Meanwhile, Vandross has remained far above this fray, doing selective concert dates and basking in the glory of his finest album in well over a decade.

Vandross' stylistic adaptability was evident almost from the beginning. The New Yorker formed a vocal group while in high school but made his first major impact on David Bowie's mid-'70s album Young Americans. Recruited only to do backgrounds, Vandross was soon arranging all the vocal parts, and he eventually served as Bowie's opening act on tour. This led to contributions on other sessions by Ringo Starr, Donna Summer, and Chaka Khan, and a reputation as the finest unsigned vocalist among '70s R&B acts.

Unfortunately, Cotillion ended up signing Vandross and almost destroyed his reputation. The label issued two ill-fated albums marred by unimaginative production and dreary up-tempo songs that buried his wondrous voice underneath fifth-rate disco arrangements. Vandross wisely returned to the studios, doing more backup dates for Patti Austin, Gwen Guthrie, Chic, and Quincy Jones, plus cutting profitable jingles for advertising companies. A guest stint on the studio group Change's 1980 LP The Glow of Love made Vandross a star in England when their songs "Glow of Love" and "Searching" became monster hits.

No other vocalist in either soul or pop was more dominant during the '80s than Vandross. Whether doing percolating dance tunes like "Never Too Much" and "Stop to Love," cutting great duets with his idol Dionne Warwick on "How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye" and Cheryl Lynn on "If This World Were Mine," or scoring his own emphatic triumphs like "Here and Now," Vandross showed that a silky tenor and easy, flowing sound and delivery could be as electrifying and sexually attractive as the muscular approach of Teddy Pendergrass or earthy baritone of Barry White. While his songs were idolized and admired, his weight struggles became fodder for celebrity publications and tabloids. But Vandross was such a great singer, his popularity never waned no matter what size he was—for a while, at least.

He stayed on top from 1981 to 1994, but the magnitude of his inevitable collapse surprised many observers. Besides being abandoned by his longtime label, health rumors dogged Vandross during the mid- and late '90s, including the recurring charge that his weight losses were due to the AIDS virus. Vandross plans to write an autobiography that will hopefully put such gossip to rest. In the meantime, his new disc demolishes the notion his voice has lost tone, range, or ferocity. "Can Heaven Wait," "Hearts Get Broken All the Time," and covers of two Burt Bacharach classics, "Any Day Now" and "Are You There (With Another Guy)," reveal he's still the master of tender love tunes. While Chuck Jackson's surging treatment of "Any Day Now" remains a soul masterpiece, Vandross' less demonstrative, more elegant reading is just as memorable; and where Warwick sounded hurt and anxious on "Are You There," Vandross sounds a note of regret and disappointment.

He's just as impressive doing faster material such as "Say It Now" or "Take You Out," letting his smooth, fluid tenor coast over the beat. While he hates being typed as only a great slow song performer, there is no doubt that there haven't been many singers in the modern R&B era who can handle a ballad the way he can. Luther Vandross brings the singer into the 21st century, and it also marks another phase in Clive Davis' master plan to show that he too is not quite finished.

New Shepp

When tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp was at his freewheeling, maniac best during the '60s, one of his frequent partners was trombonist Roswell Rudd, whose sometimes outrageous, always outstanding rubbery solos were an extra bonus in Shepp's compositions. Shepp frequently stretched jazz's framework, yet never totally abandoned coherent song structure or a link to the blues. Perhaps his most unusual, intriguing unit was a two-trombone group with Rudd and Grachan Moncur III, bassist Lewis Worrell, and drummer Beaver Harris in the late '60s. The band won critical praises and European notoriety, but proved too unorthodox for mainstream America, even in the jazz community. Shepp and Rudd traveled in divergent directions after the group disbanded in 1967, but they reunited with Moncur last September at the Jazz Standard in New York for their first gig in 33 years.

Shepp and Rudd's Live in New York (Verve), a document of that evening, contains moments of supreme beauty; sections where the musicians rage, splinter, and converge; and songs that give each soloist ample time to display his personality. Rudd creatively merges elements from the traditional to the avant-garde, Moncur resides more in the mainstream, and Shepp wails the blues, shouts, cries, and moans on tenor sax, revealing his debts to Ben Webster and John Coltrane. This is inspired music that has links to the past and ties to the present, while speaking to the future.

—R.W.

Cole comfort

Pianist Marcus Roberts is usually cited as exhibit A among jazz critics who charge modern players with placing technique ahead of heart and emotion. Roberts' past releases have sometimes sounded overly clinical, especially his foray into ragtime that reduced the magical songs of Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake to laboratory exercises.

Thankfully, Roberts has toned down the academic approach and reflected the joy and energy of Nat King Cole on Cole After Midnight (Columbia). His renditions of "Unforgettable," "Embraceable You," "It's De Lovely," and "Ace in the Hole" effectively communicate the warmth, flash, and charm Cole brought to the originals. Among his assembled partners, bassist Roland Guerin (on "Embraceable You") and drummer Jason Marsalis (on the title cut and "Unforgettable") provide him with fine assistance.

Marcus Roberts does sometimes play too many notes and overpower the material, but he comes very close on Cole After Midnight to approximating the sophistication and passion Nat King Cole displayed whenever he touched the piano.

—R.W.

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