If you've been following her recording career for the last 15 years or attended any of her shows in that time, then you won't be surprised by Regina Belle's new musical transition. In the '80s and '90s, the New Jersey native climbed the charts with such mellifluous urban-pop numbers as "Baby Come to Me," "Make It Like It Was" and "A Whole New World," the Grammy-winning duet with Peabo Bryson from the 1995 Disney film Aladdin. But on her new album, the elegant Lazy Afternoon, Belle pushes her jazz roots to the top, injecting new life into Broadway show tunes and standards made famous by Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and others. This direction was inevitable: Belle has always indulged her jazz impulse on her records and especially in concerts.
"This album is something I've always wanted to do," says the singer, who's calling from her home in Fairburn, Ga. Belle performs at WWIN Radio's Stone Soul Picnic at Druid Hill Park Saturday afternoon. "Peak [Belle's record label] kinda saw the vision because they're a jazz label. Andi Howard, the president, always had her sights set on me doing a jazz album."
Lazy Afternoon isn't a jazz record in the traditional sense. The incomparable George Duke handles the production, backing Belle with organic urban-soul arrangements radiating a tasteful, unobtrusive jazzy sheen: smart saxophone solos by Everette Harp, supportive bass lines by Christian McBride. At the heart of these re-interpretations, propelling them into flight is Belle's voice - a dynamic instrument recalling the sultriness of Nancy Wilson, the powerful soul punch of Dakota Staton. With Duke's lean, swingin' arrangements, such evergreens as "Lazy Afternoon," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Corcovado" are not easily recognizable.
"George is not trying to impose himself on you in the studio," Belle says. "That's not the case with all producers, especially someone of his caliber. They want you to sound like they want you to sound. George was there and made it easy to be myself."
Over the years, the songstress has shared the stage with the singer-songwriter-producer.
"We're a lot alike," says Belle, 40. "We do our gig and go back to the hotel. We don't hang out, so that's why we never met personally all these years until he came to work on this album."
One of the most overlooked singers to spring out of the urban scene in the late '80s, Belle, for the most part, stood in Anita Baker's shadow. Both artists put out smooth R&B; records with subtle jazz overtones. Both boasted an ornately stylish vocal approach - though Baker's phrasing was far more eccentric. Of the two, Belle was always more accessible. But Baker scored four multi-platinum albums while Belle landed just two gold-certified LPs.
While the Detroit star has been away from the scene for the last 10 years, Belle has worked consistently, though the chart hits have dried up. Two years ago, she garnered a Grammy nomination for This is Regina, a modern soul-pop album and her first for Peak Records.
She has devoted much of her energy to raising her five children, ages 7 to 25. Four of them are still at home. In 1991, at the height of her fame, she married former NBA player John Battle. And as her home life quickly blossomed, Belle curtailed her tour schedule to accommodate her family.
"I try to make sure I'm not the mom missing in action," she says.
Belle works mostly on the weekends and tours regularly during the summer months. At this point in her career, the veteran urban-pop performer says she feels no pressure to compete with the current crop of bodacious R&B; starlets out there. Musically, there are some things she still wants to try, like a gospel album. But with the positive critical response to Lazy Afternoon, the jazz bag may take her career to another level.
In making the album, "The problem, if any, was trying to make sure I didn't insult anybody musically," Belle says. "I pay tribute to all the greats: Billie, Dinah, Sarah. My challenge was doing this in a way to show respect and allow me to be myself."
Regina Belle performs at WWIN Radio's Stone Soul Picnic Concert Series at 5 p.m. Saturday in Druid Hill Park, 2600 Madison St. Admission is free.
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.