Mala Waldron

Always There

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Because singer Mala Waldron is the daughter of the late hard bop/post-bop pianist Mal Waldron (as in "Soul Eyes"), it would logical to expect Always There to be a straight-ahead jazz release. But actually, Always There is more R&B than anything; this is an album of jazz-influenced soul, not hardcore vocal jazz -- and stylistically, the comparisons that come to mind include Phyllis Hyman, Minnie Riperton, Randy Crawford, Chaka Khan and Angela Bofill rather than Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae. Some jazz snobs might be disappointed to learn that Waldron doesn't spend all her time scat-singing her way through bop standards like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" (although she does scat at times), but as Duke Ellington once pointed out, there are really only two types of music when you get down to it -- good and bad -- and Always There is a good R&B album. Waldron's R&B isn't R&B of the hip-hop-drenched neo-soul variety à la Jill Scott, India.Arie or Lauryn Hill; rather, she gets much of her inspiration from what was called quiet storm in the late '70s and early '80s. Back then, there were a lot of quiet storm stations in the United States that favored a smooth, polished blend of crossover jazz and uptown soul; they would play Grover Washington, Jr., Ronnie Laws and David Sanborn on the instrumental side followed by Hyman, Bofill or Khan on the vocal side, and that vocal side of quiet storm is clearly what floats Waldron's boat on Always There (which is dominated by the singer's original material but also contains a likable remake of the Doors' "Light My Fire.") Even the production is very '70s-minded; instead of embracing the high-tech, programmed approach that has been the norm in R&B since about 1983-1984, Michael "T.A." Thompson (the album's producer) keeps things organic and oversees an honest-to-God band. Always There, which was recorded in 2003 and 2005, falls short of spectacular, but it is a good, solid, noteworthy example of '70s-style R&B being made in the 21st century.

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