Second time around yields a first-rate album for Mary J. Blige

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MY LIFE

Mary J. Blige (Uptown 11156)

As the intro to Mary J. Blige's "My Life" puts it, there were quite a few people wondering if the singer could "do it again," and release an album of new material that could match the edge, excitement and commercial success of her debut. Though it will be a while before we see how well "My Life" will sell, it seems safe to say that on the artistic end, at least, Blige has more than surpassed expectations. Unlike a lot of singers her age, Blige refuses to let her producer do most of the work; good as the grooves are, it's her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs, from the driving, hypnotic "Be Happy" to her lazy, sinuous reading of the Mary Jane Girls oldie "All Night Long." Granted, her taste in vocal embellishment remains a tad overstated, but that rarely gets in the way this time around, because the songs she's working with are so resolutely melodic. All in all, "My Life" suggests that not only can Blige "do it again," she'll likely keep doing it.

HIGHER POWER

Big Audio (Columbia 53827)

What's in a name? In the case of Big Audio -- formerly Big Audio Dynamite -- not much, apparently. After all, the basic sound of "Higher Power" isn't that much different from what the group did before the name change. There's more technology at play, of course, with numerous (and clever) samples punctuating the throbbing, techno- derived rhythms, but the heart of the songs remains with front man Mick Jones' workaday voice and rudimentary rhythm guitar. So despite the rap snippet in the intro and the house-style electronic percussion, "Looking for a Song" boasts the same rough-edged charm as Jones' work with the Clash or B.A.D., just as "Modern Stoneage Blues" would sound as good with only a couple of acoustic guitars carrying the arrangement. Who says change has to be traumatic? (Big Audio will perform at Hammerjacks on Monday, Dec. 5.)

TWENTY-ONE

Geri Allen Trio (Blue Note 30028)

Geri Allen may be the best-kept secret in jazz. Even though this young pianist has been making albums and wowing critics for years, the population at large has yet to give her work the kind of attention lavished on the likes of Marcus Roberts. Fortunately, "Twenty-One" should go a long way toward remedying that. Backed by the strong, inventive rhythm team of Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Allen moves easily from the smooth, flowing pulse of "If I Should Lose You" to the hard-driving swing of "Tea for Two," to the twin-fisted ferocity of "RTG." Even better, though her playing recalls both the elegant lyricism of Herbie Hancock and the muscular aggression of McCoy Tyner, there's never anything second-hand about her playing; whether through the gentle pastels of "In the Morning" or the surging polyrhythms of "Drummer's Song," her solos are strikingly original, and wholly engrossing.

VROOOM

King Crimson (Discipline 9401)

However much King Crimson might take its ideas and direction from guitarist Robert Fripp -- the only Crimsonite to have endured all the band's personnel changes -- its sound usually derives from the rest of the band. So it's no surprise that "VROOOM," the six-song EP intended to introduce the new "double trio" incarnation of King Crimson, explodes out of the speakers with an entirely new twist on the band's sound. Though many of the traditional devices are in place -- the angular dissonances, the dramatically shifting dynamics, the lengthy instrumentals -- the overall feel of the band has shifted, moving away from spotlit solos to carefully intertwined ensemble work. That's most obvious on the instrumental title tune, but it even carries through to vocal numbers like "Cage." If, as the liner notes suggest, "VROOOM" is meant merely as "a calling card," it should be very interesting to hear what the band has to offer when it makes a real visit.

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