I considered calling this week's playlist "music for the grown and sexy," but that tag is tired and overused. Yet it's an adequate description of the recently released CDs I've been spinning at home and in the car. The styles range from adventurous vocal jazz to hip-hop-laced modern R&B; -- mature music you definitely won't hear on commercial pop and urban radio.
Cassandra Wilson, Loverly: It took some time for me to get into this Mississippi jazz star. I discovered Wilson in 1995 when I bought a copy of New Moon Daughter, her Grammy-winning album released that year. Knowing nothing about her music, I dug the CD cover, which featured an artful shot of a topless Wilson, back turned to the camera. But when I first played the album, I hated the brooding vocals and rambling, sparse arrangements. The CD sat on the shelf for a few years before I returned to it with an open mind. I've been a fan ever since.
In the past 12 years, Wilson has released a string of explorative albums building on her approach that weaves rustic, folkish instrumentation with slow-simmering Southern blues and sophisticated jazz phrasing.
On Loverly, her seventh album on Blue Note Records, the singer-songwriter breathes new life into tunes from the American Songbook. It's the first time she has released a set of mostly standards since 1988's Blue Skies, her fine album on the JMT label.
Recorded in her hometown of Jackson, Miss., Loverly is a warmly sensual effort whose grace, intelligence and refreshing sense of whimsy gently wash over you with repeated listens. But the album still manages to be one of Wilson's more immediate sets. It's also her most satisfying release since 2003's Glamoured. Wilson's interaction with the intimate band feels organic. With that smoked, soothing voice, Wilson never rushes songs. Cuts such as the dreamy "Black Orpheus" and the tender "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," on which Wilson duets with Marvin Sewell's shimmering acoustic guitar, unfurl beautifully. Lately in the jazz and pop worlds, there has been a dearth of vocal-standards albums, but Loverly is one of few that really matters.
Incognito, Tales From the Beach: You can always depend on this British acid-jazz collective for solid cosmopolitan albums, rippling with swinging horns and soul-rich vocals. For Tales, Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick, Incognito's chieftain and visionary, evokes the buoyant music he heard from hotel bands while growing up around the beaches of Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar. The music, inflected with punchy horns, is decidedly loose and breezy and evocative of sultry summer nights.
Maunick wisely uses Baltimore's Maysa Leak, perhaps the best-known vocalist of Incognito, on the new album. She's featured on "I've Been Waiting," one of several highlights. Leak's plush, sensuous vocals underpin the song's hard-driving groove and chunky bass line, which give way to a buttery chorus. "It May Rain Sometime" slows things down a bit. Singer Joy Rose movingly croons the lovesick ballad over a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
At 15 tracks, Tales From the Beach is a generous album, bedazzled with colorful textures. But it never feels forced or overlong. The refreshing and unobtrusive music would play well at a barbecue or a hip cocktail party. But its verve and sass keep it from melting completely into the background.
Hil St. Soul, Black Rose: It's baffling that after three charming albums, the British duo of Zambian singer-songwriter Hilary Mwelwa and producer Victor Redwood-Sawyerr, collectively known as Hil St. Soul, remains in the margins of contemporary R&B.; It could be that the unit is distributed in the United States by Shanachie, an indie label without a big promotional budget.
But that has nothing to do with the quality of the music, which has deepened since Soul Organic, the group's 2000 debut. With its laid-back, mostly programmed arrangements, Black Rose isn't very different from previous Hil St. Soul albums, but the songwriting has become more fluid and assured. Mwelwa is nostalgic on the floating "Sweetest Days" ("There was no Nintendo or computer games but a natural interaction with your friends") and socially conscious on "Don't Forget the Ghetto" ("What is a dollar if you got no sense?").
She also gets a little catty, taking a not-so-veiled lyrical swipe at acclaimed (overrated?) British pop-soul star Amy Winehouse: "Don't get it twisted, 'cause I gotta speak my mind/I'm not trying to split hairs, but I gotta bee in my bonnet/English rose singing soul music, they get praised for it/A black rose singing soul music gets no love for it."
Mwelwa has a point. With a formidable, crystalline voice and four fine albums under her belt, there's no reason she shouldn't be a bigger star.