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Don't let these artists get lost in the shuffle

The Baltimore Sun

I know my homegirl Kayce is on the other end of the phone, rolling her eyes. Somehow in our conversation, the designation of June as Black Music Month comes up.

"What's that?" Kayce wants to know. "Isn't every month Black Music Month? Do we need a month to listen to black music now?"

I remind her of a column I wrote three years ago, exploring such questions. In that time, contemporary, even retro soul and hip-hop sounds have dominated the chart-topping pop hits of Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, Robin Thicke and Amy Winehouse. But for as long as anyone can remember, black sounds have been pilfered, filtered, diced and sliced by the mainstream. It was four years ago that President Bush proclaimed June as Black Music Month. Ostensibly, it is during those 30 days that the musical accomplishments of African-Americans are recognized and praised.

In the three-year-old column, I concentrated on reissues of music by masterful black artists with far-flung influence such as Donny Hathaway, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. This time, I'm spotlighting under-the-radar or on-the-verge performers whose music I dig and whose passionate artistry keeps the proverbial soul flame burning.

Jaguar Wright --Ever since I saw her perform seven winters ago at the Electric Factory in her hometown of Philadelphia, I've been hooked on this girl. Her stage name definitely fits her persona: She's fierce on the mike, be it rapping, scatting or just wailing away. After practically stealing the show singing backup vocals on Jay-Z's solid 2001 live set, Unplugged, Wright seemed poised for a breakthrough.

That same year, she appeared in a popular Coke commercial and her fabulous debut, Denials, Decisions and Delusions, was released by the now-defunct MCA label. Although the album was poorly promoted, Wright still generated enough buzz to push the CD into the Top 20 on Billboard's R&B; albums sales charts. But she was somehow lost in the shuffle. The angst-laced, Millie Jackson-influenced songs of three-way love affairs and sexual liberation that made her debut so vivid and refreshingly real weren't heard by nearly enough people.

Four years later, Wright finally delivered a follow-up, Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul, released independently. Although the material was often as clunky as the album title, Wright's searing vocals stood out. One of these days, and I hope some time soon, she will deliver on the promise of her debut.

Rahsaan Patterson --It's puzzling that this native New Yorker isn't a bigger star. Hands down, he's one of the most distinctive male vocalists working in soul these days. His elastic, emotive, jazz-inflected approach can elevate the most banal tune. Fortunately, you won't find too many in his catalog.

Although his stage show is often hit or miss (the performer is sometimes aloof onstage and overdoes it with the vocal acrobatics), Patterson's three albums are studded with gems. His last release, 2004's After Hours, is perhaps his finest effort. Released independently after a commercially fruitless two-album stint with MCA, the CD ripples with Princely funk and charming, sweetly orchestrated ballads. After Hours was one of the best R&B; albums of 2004. But you probably didn't hear it.

Sadly, it suffered the same fate as Patterson's first two records: the mostly impressive 1997 self-titled debut and the sterling 1999 follow-up, Love in Stereo. For whatever stupid reason, urban radio continues to ignore Patterson's smart, evolved take on modern soul. And that's a shame.

Lizz Wright --Extending the sophisticated, blues-suffused, smoked-honey approach of Phyllis Hyman and Cassandra Wilson, this Georgia singer-songwriter impressed many a critic (including yours truly) with her 2003 debut, Salt. I hadn't heard a voice so pure and sensually evocative in I don't know how long.

Hers is a controlled sound steeped in gospel feeling and rich with jazz subtlety. On her last album, 2005's Dreaming Wide Awake, Wright eschewed the urbanity of her debut for a swampy, meditative production overseen by the acclaimed Craig Street. It was a bold shift in direction that brilliantly showcased the powerful nuances of her style.

Ledisi --When friends ask me about new artists I champion these days, I shoot back, "What you know about Ledisi?" The Oakland, Calif., native -- whose style melds Chaka Khan's funk firepower with Sarah Vaughan's beguiling musical sophistication -- has been a buzz name on the international underground soul circuit for nearly a decade.

She has released two dynamic but hard-to-find independent albums: 2000's Soulsinger and 2002's Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue. Now signed to Verve Music Group, Ledisi will drop her major-label debut, Lost & Found, in August. She appears on We All Love Ella, the fine, all-star Ella Fitzgerald tribute released two weeks ago by Verve. But the best way to experience Ledisi is on stage, where she's often moving, hilarious and beautifully wild.

Ryan Shaw --OK, I'm not a huge fan of this Georgia singer's debut, the overly calculated This is Ryan Shaw, released in April by Columbia Records. But I dig his cornbread vocals, seasoned with generous amounts of fiery, Southern-style gospel. Shaw's sweaty, masculine sound is evocative of Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack, whose songs he self-consciously covers on his debut. With better-written original material and production that doesn't co-opt so much of '60s soul, this 26-year-old could really soar. He's somebody to watch.

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