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Experience This Jill Scott

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TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Jill Scott’s 2000 album was one of the most promising debuts in ages--a work filled with the testimony and conviction of classic R&B; that established her as a leader in the new, female-led brigade of neo-soul artists. The songs were richly crafted looks at the sweet and sour edges of relationships that conveyed the cool sophistication of Erykah Badu and the sassy candor of Macy Gray.

More than 2 million people bought “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1,” and even in this era of low fan loyalty it’s hard to imagine that many of them wouldn’t be eager to check out what Scott had in store for Vol. 2.

Well, Scott’s next album has arrived, and it is a phenomenal work in many ways. But it is also something of a curveball that may raise eyebrows among even her most enthusiastic fans.

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“Experience: Jill Scott 826 +” is a live album that includes nine of the songs from the debut. That may make many of her fans ask, “Why should I buy the same songs again?”

Normally, live albums arrive a decade or more into an artist’s career. Sting’s new “ ... All This Time,” for instance, is only the second formal live album in a solo career that stretches back to the mid-’80s. Putting out a live album this soon seems like a gamble on the part of Scott and her record label, Sony-distributed Hidden Beach.

If the bulk of her fans decides to skip the collection, weak sales could lead radio programmers and retailers to believe that Scott has cooled off. In an industry where perception is often everything, the live album could also encourage some observers to speculate that Scott, who co-wrote everything on the first album, is having trouble coming up with new material.

Once you hear the album, however, all doubts are blown away. The concert versions of the songs are far superior to the already impressive studio recordings, and Scott offers a second disc of previously unreleased material--all for virtually the same price as a single CD.

On “Who Is Jill Scott?” the singer, who draws heavily on both R&B; and jazz, framed the songs with tasteful, understated, string-heavy arrangements. At the House of Blues in West Hollywood last December, however, Scott and her six-piece band added aggressive funk backing and the gospel-edged fervor of soul, infusing the music with a passion and force that made the celebration and heartache of the songs take on a new dimension.

One of the highlights of her show came when she stepped away from the album material to deliver “Thickness,” an emotionally charged, 11-minute poem about a young girl’s self-hatred and self-abuse. As the tour continued, Steve McKeever, founder of Hidden Beach Records, became intrigued with the idea of capturing this Scott on record.

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“Experience” is drawn from shows in Washington, D.C., in August. That was some 40 to 50 concerts after the West Hollywood stop, and the interaction between Scott and the band, with its flurries of exquisite brass punctuation, is even more dynamic.

In moving from the studio to the stage, Scott (who headlines the 100.3 the Beat’s Holiday Cooldown concert Dec. 16 at the Wiltern Theatre) boldly reworks the material, sometimes doubling or tripling the length of the studio version. There’s much to be said for economy in pop, but Scott, in both the vigor of her vocals and the vitality of the band, makes the studio album feel obsolete.

“Love Rains” is the most drastic reworking--expanding from 4 minutes in the studio to more than 12 minutes live, giving Scott room to better convey the joy, bitterness and subsequent healing in the tale of romantic tensions. By doubling the length of “Gettin’ in the Way,” Scott makes the song’s “other woman” combat more fully realized.

“For me, the motivation for this album was simply showing people the artist I was seeing night after night onstage,” McKeever said this week. “I know the album is a risk by some industry thinking, but that is exactly what we are trying to do at the company.

“The fact is, only 100,000 people have seen her live, and we felt this was so compelling musically, it outweighed any of the so-called risks involved.”

Because there is no hit video or single to draw attention to the album, sales have been modest. After two weeks in stores, it has sold only about 105,000 copies and it rests at No. 62 on the Billboard magazine pop album chart.

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Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse retail chain, thinks the live album is a great bargain because it is a specially priced two-disc set. The second disc includes a live rendition of “Thickness,” whose frank sexual language earns the album a parental warning sticker.

“The challenge for the label is to make sure consumers know about the album with a single or video,” Brown added.

McKeever said both are on the way. A video of the song “He Loves Me” was sent to television outlets this week, and a single of the teasing, upbeat “Gimme,” one of the new songs on the album, will be released in January.

“As an artist, I want the freedom to grow and to change, so I never went onstage with the idea of just trying to do the songs note for note,” Scott said this week. “I wanted me as a singer and the band to have the freedom to explore new things in them. I still don’t know if I’m finished with these songs, and that’s good. I always want my music to be evolving.”

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