The signs all said “Celebrate Brooklyn!” because that’s what they call the summer festival in the Prospect Park Bandshell. But with so many Africans, Afrocentricans, Afrophiles, and just plain Afros keeping it real in traditional dreads for Senegalese world star Baaba Maal on Sunday, you could have sworn that Africa was a stop on the D train. Of course, all borders melted in the gentle rain as WLIB’s African International host Ogo Sow yelled in his ecstatic intro, “Baaba Maal is the voice of the human race!” Indeed, Maal does have the kind of piercing, powerful shriek you want to hear erupting from a minaret at the end of the world. Not surprisingly, the 48-year-old’s father was a muezzin. Maal has a vocal tone perfect for peacemaking hymns, moralizing, and tributes to the family—not what you’d expect from a lawyer.
Seduction has only recently arrived in his vocabulary, which was one reason the tracks from his new Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), a set of mainly acoustic ballads in a Palm Wine style, sounded fresher onstage than some of the professionalized versions of older songs like “Sidiki” from 1994’s Firin’ in Fouta. Fela Kuti never forgave Bill Laswell for his Westernized mix of “Army Arrangement,” because slick execution saps exuberance—lifeblood in a 20-minute pop tune. Exuberance hit high points with Maal’s leaping and twirling, and also in the block-party encore, yet the funksexy part of pop was MIA. (With the addition of a blue rainbow-and-nebula light show above the robe-clad band, it seemed a PBS special might break out.) Smoothing out the rough edges for American ears might seem like a sound tactic for commercial success, but then Maal would be expected to compete with the likes of D’Angelo, and that ain’t right. Just because you’re Senegalese doesn’t mean you have to have more soul than D’Angelo. After all, soul is not native to Africa, but it is native to Brooklyn. —James Hannaham
Measure for Measure
Writing in down beat in the late ’60s, Carol Sloane, who launched a three-week stay at the Algonquin on August 14, advised young singers to “think of the lyric at all times and forget attempts to emulate trumpet or saxophone sounds. . . . It is essential to be constantly aware of the story and the words, not the sound you create.” For years, that struck me as an example of how wrong an artist can be about her own work. Sloane isn’t a pure lyric singer like Mabel Mercer or one of those drummerless cabaret divas. She’s a hardcore jazzer, scatting and stretching notes in the tradition of the two great ladies for whom she is frequently mistaken (on the radio, that is): Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae.
But Sloane’s recent projects have made me think again: Romantic Ellington, which dwells in the ballad hemisphere of the Dukal planet, Ballad Essentials, which gathers the best love songs of her eight Concord Jazz albums (1991-97), and the brand-new I Never Went Away. The capper is her run at the Gonk—ground zero for worshipers of the Great American Lyric. Here indeed is compelling evidence that Sloane is one of the best balladeers living. Even the normally high-octane “Cottontail” was delivered deliberately enough so that Jon Hendricks’s lyrics could for once be comprehended. Abetted by piano ace Norman Simmons, she doesn’t have to get loud to sound exciting or go soft to sound intimate. Where some singers—like her idol, Sarah Vaughan—seem to be giving everything they’ve got, Sloane always seems to be holding just the slightest bit back, lending every line she sings a feeling of mystery. It’s another trait that makes her, at age 64, the youngest of the great ladies on the Mount Rushmore of jazz singing. —Will Friedwald