Live: Maxwell and Jill Scott at Staples Center
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What do “real music” and meaningful sex have in common? Everything, it seemed, for the committed couples and best-girlfriend clusters who filled Staples Center on Saturday night to enjoy the R&B grooves of Maxwell and Jill Scott. The two singers pleasured the crowd with complementary sets that emphasized individuality, slow-building excitement and the skills that come with practice -- valued qualities in both the bedroom and on a stage where musicians are collaborating in real time.
Maxwell and Scott have both outlasted the 1990s neo-soul trend that launched them to become bastions of sophisticated urban pop. On this tour, Scott, who’s also enjoyed success in Tyler Perry movies and through television roles, is opening for Maxwell, whose 2009 album, “BLACKsummers’night,” was a major commercial and critical success, returning him to the spotlight after several years away.
In essence, though, the show is a long dialogue between the 37-year-old Brooklynite and the 38-year-old Philly girl, with Scott representing for the ladies through her jazz-blues monologues on love, loss and the importance of living your truth, and Maxwell answering with the kind of honorable seduction grown women feel they deserve -- and the gentlemen holding their coats at Staples presumably hoped to deliver.
What’s interesting about this pairing isn’t just that each artist takes intimacy as a main theme, but that the musical settings they cultivate -- big bands with jazz roots that create expansive, funky beds upon which Scott and Maxwell lay down vocals -- realize a particular connection between music and the libido. This music was very polished, but always felt organic. It stood for a healthier and sexier alternative to the more synthetic constructions many younger pop stars favor. Throw away the sonic enhancement drugs of Auto-Tune and elaborate stage sets, Scott and Maxwell insisted; fulfillment lies in a more straightforward performance.
For Maxwell, this performance found it high points in falsetto, the magical realm of unlocked emotions for many soul singers. Though more recent songs such as “Pretty Wings” and “Bad Habits” highlight his plaintive mid-range, the most intense moments of his set came when he accessed that airy voice, which for Maxwell is also slightly raspy, adding earthiness to ethereality. His signature version of Kate Bush’s ballad “This Woman’s Work” was like a long tightrope walk, full of difficult notes delicately executed.
Maxwell’s sound combines the environmental approach of ambient music and cool jazz with the vocal urgency of classic soul. It’s a heady mix, and it’s taken him awhile to figure out how to perform it. At Staples, he took the stance of a classic soul man, wearing a shiny silver suit and executing frankly erotic dance moves. “I’m just the appetizer,” he teased the men enduring the squeals of their dates, telling them they’d better deliver the main course later.
The ladies continued their screaming throughout a set that featured Latin rhythms and sharp solos from members of Maxwell’s horn section and his backup singer, LaTina Webb, as well as the athletics of the star himself. At the set’s end, Maxwell let his band members introduce themselves, sending home the message that human interaction was what made this music so hot.
Though her band also delivered a fresh sound by working together, Scott excelled in a different kind of interplay. Like a century’s worth of blues and soul queens before her, Scott directly addressed her female fans in songs that explored every detail of romance, from the first phone call to the accidental encounter on the street long after the flame has died.
Outfitted in Adidas wear and a big Afro that reinforced her homegirl accessibility, Scott sampled from her decade-deep catalog, offering long monologues and lascivious torch blues. She complimented the long-term couples in the crowd and admitted she hadn’t yet succeeded in that arena. Introducing a new song meant as an apology to a wronged lover, she said, “It didn’t work for me, but maybe it will for you.”
Scott’s frank sensuality reflects back as far as Bessie Smith, but its main source is the 1970s; she tapped into Millie Jackson’s lovable raunch and Patti LaBelle’s self-realizing melodrama. (She also had a Barbra Streisand moment, showing off a bel canto tone on one ballad.) Like Maxwell, Scott seemed a throwback at the start of her career, but over time she’s established herself as a strong voice expressing the classic themes of domestic life. Her sound also seems more timeless now. “The industry wants hits, but you’ve allowed me to make music,” she told her fans. What comes naturally works best, she was suggesting, in music as in love.
-- Ann Powers
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