How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Music from the Motion Picture (Flyte Time/MCA 11806)
Obviously, if you're putting together the score for a film with a title like "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," you're going to want music with plenty of groove. Moreover, given the story's Caribbean setting, you're going to want a specific kind of groove, one that suggests the sweet, hot sensuality of Jamaica - but without going entirely native.
"Music from the Motion Picture 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' " meets both criteria, and then some. Produced for the most part by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and featuring a first-rate collection of reggae, rap and R&B; performers, the "Stella" album is everything a superstar soundtrack should be.
For starters, there's none of the disappointment that follows when the musical quality of a project fails to live up to the marquee value of the participants.
When Wyclef Jean joins Stevie Wonder for a sweaty, soulful remake of "Master Blaster (Jammin')" - renamed "Mastablasta '98" for the soundtrack - what we get is a true collaboration, with Wyclef putting his unique vocal stamp on the song while Wonder somehow outdoes his original. Likewise, the pairing of rapper Big Punisher and dance-hall star Beenie Man generates plenty of heat in "Makes Me Sweat," as the two spar over a backing track based on the INXS oldie "Need You Tonight."
Shaggy's "Luv Me, Luv Me" isn't quite as even a match, but then, it doesn't pretend to be. Credited to "Shaggy featuring Janet," it's essentially a solo performance by the Jamaican lover man with backing vocals by Ms. Jackson. But that hardly takes away from the twosome's chemistry, as Jackson's coy cooing seems to inspire Shaggy to greater heights of romantic hyperbole.
Perhaps the most surprising pairing is that of Boyz II Men and Chante Moore on "Your Home Is in My Heart (Stella's Love Theme)." A classic Jam & Lewis ballad, the song reinforces the dreamy yearning of its chorus with the slow-building drama of its string-drenched arrangement. But what really gives the performance its power is the way Moore's tart, girlish voice brings out new colors in the Boyz' polished harmonies.
"Stella" also has its share of solo spots, some of which are just as dazzling as the duets. Mary J. Blige gives an impressively restrained performance on the lush, tropical "Beautiful," while Diana King once again demonstrates her star potential (why isn't this woman better known?) with the steamy "Make My Body Hot."
All in all, it's a fair bet that by the time the album gets to its cool closing number, "Jazzie's Groove" (featuring Soul II Soul's Jazzie B.), Stella won't be the only one who's got her groove back. ***1/2 The Key (MCA 70017)
Because he arrived in Nashville by way of the rock band Pure Prairie League, Vince Gill has never been ranked among the Music City's corps of country traditionalists. But as "The Key" makes clear, Gill definitely has a feel for old-school country. Working with a first-class band (Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Randy Scruggs, Stuart Duncan) and big-name backing vocalists (Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Alison Krauss), Gill and producer Tony Brown create such a perfect simulacrum of the '50s sound you'd think they recorded the album with a time machine. Even better, the songs - all Gill originals - easily evoke the vintage feel of heartbreak ballads and aw-shucks love songs, from "I'll Take Texas" to "Kindly Keep It Country." ***
The Gathering (Verve 314 557 614)
It would be hard to name a more versatile or distinctive jazz pianist than Geri Allen. Having recorded with everybody from Ornette Coleman to Me'shell Ndegeocello, Allen's voice is unmistakable regardless of context. Even better, she knows how to bring out the individuality of other players, as she demonstrates on "The Gathering." With its evocative writing and lush horn arrangements, the album will likely put some listeners in mind of "Maiden Voyage"-era Herbie Hancock, but this is no mere throwback. Not only does Allen take a totally different tack from Hancock's elegant modalities, she spikes her ensembles with everything from Mino Cinelu's chattering percussion to Vernon Reid's snarling guitar, so the sounds are as singular as the solos. A masterful performance. ****
Groove Update (Milestone MCD-9276)
The racks are full of jazz "updates" these days, but few are infused with as much fun and daring as this latest effort by tenor saxophonist Ron Holloway. "Groove Update" demonstrates that the D.C. native, though steeped in jazz tradition, also maintains an unashamed respect for the commercial soul and funk of the '60s and '70s. A highlight is
Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," delivered with a strutting style that evokes James Brown and even Miles Davis in his funk-rock phase. Equally exciting are treatments of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" and Horace Silver's "Psychedelic Sally," both played with refreshing exuberance and spontaneity. Holloway, who wails and swings throughout, is capably backed by trumpeter Chris Battistone, pianist Larry Willis, vocalist Gil Scott-Heron and various bassists and drummers. We also get surprising twists of tuba, guitar and Hammond B-3 organ. ***1/2
Medeski Martin & Wood
Combustication (Blue Note 93011)
From the first, jazzmen Medeski Martin & Wood have enjoyed toying with convention, presenting themselves almost as a sort of post-modern organ trio, mixing traditional improvisation with rock-oriented excursions into rhythmmic stasis and textural excess. But "Combustication" takes that approach even further, playing not only with form but with the listener's expectations. Although there's more than enough cool groove in "Just Like I Pictured It" and "Coconut Boogaloo" to please long-time listeners, "Sugar Crait" and the spacey "Church of Logic" are full of odd edges and unusual sounds (some provided by turntable-ist DJ Logic). Add in the unsettling mood of tracks like the dark, brooding "Nocturne," and "Combustication" turns out to be challenging and provocative in ways jazz albums rarely are anymore. ***
Pub Date: 8/20/98