[10 January 2005]
Brenda Russell tends to be slapped with the “one-hit wonder” label quicker than an NBA star is slapped with a paternity suit. Most people remember her solely for her 1988 Top Ten ballad “Piano in the Dark” (although she did reach #30 on the US pop charts in 1979 with “So Good, So Right”), but when you factor in the hits that she’s written for other artists, it’s evident that her career is not nearly so one-dimensional.
Most notable amongst her songwriting credits are Luther Vandross’s “If Only for One Night”, Donna Summer’s “Dinner With Gershwin”, and fellow one-hit-wonder Oleta Adams’s “Get Here”. With all of these tunes, Russell has gone beyond mere authorship and has actually recorded them herself—either before or, in the case of “Gershwin”, after their more commercially successful versions.
Given the talent involved with these covers, it’s no insult to say that they all improved on Russell’s renditions. For all her tremendous talent, she’s always been a singer-songwriter with an emphasis on the latter (having written for the likes of Patti LaBelle, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, Mary J. Blige, and Earth, Wind & Fire).
Between the Sun and the Moon, Russell’s eighth album, continues the pop jazz tendencies that emerged so strongly on her previous release, 2000’s Paris Rain. Having taken a seven-year break from 1993 to 2000, Russell re-emerged with a newly jazz-centric sound that may have been more indicative of a changing musical landscape that was squeezing out adult contemporary and traditional R&B than of a premeditated switch on her part.
Though still incorporating a healthy dose of R&B and pop, Russell has adapted nicely to this jazzy style thus far. However, on Between the Sun and the Moon, Russell also continues her trend of offering up inferior renditions of her own tunes. In this case, it’s the gospel-infused ballad “Let Somebody Know”, which she wrote for Diana Ross’s 1995 album Take Me Higher. While Russell’s version is certainly passable, there’s a sterility that’s absent when performed by a polished singer of Ross’s magnitude.
But the deficiencies of “Let Somebody Know” are minor compared to her limp, country-tinged cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”. As a showcase for either Russell or Lee Ritenour on guitar, it falls short and brings to the forefront the shortcomings of both her singing and his smooth jazz tendencies.
Beyond these two covers, however, Between the Sun and the Moon manages to erect a dreamy landscape of jazz for people who don’t like jazz. Normally very consistent and “safe” in her sound, Russell here incorporates a bit of an international flavor that’s a welcome change of pace for the veteran crooner. Perhaps the worldly vibe has something to do with the fact that about half of the album was recorded in the UK, with a variety of British writers, producers, and musicians—although I wouldn’t exactly call it British in sound.
For instance, the ever-reliable Jean-Paul Maunick (AKA Bluey) of British acid jazz outfit Incognito co-writes and co-produces the lead-off tune, “Make You Smile,” which rides an invigorating Afro-Brazilian rhythm. Bluey also contributes to “Ain’t No Smoke,” an edgy, bass-driven slice of funk that conjures up images of a smoky juke joint full of undulating hips.
Meanwhile, Hill St. Soul producer Victor Redwood-Sawyerr co-writes/produces the sleepyjazzycool jam “Too Cool for the Room,” and fellow Brits Simon Law and Lee Hamblin pull writing/producing duty on the up-tempo, feel-good “You Know Our Day Will Come.” The worst of the UK bunch, though, is the duo’s co-production “When You Comin’ Back to Me,” a neo-soul also-ran that sounds like an Erykah Badu B-side.
The US productions aren’t quite as reliable as their UK counterparts, although “The Message,” featuring co-producer RonKat Spearman on all instruments, comes the closest of any track on the album to recapturing the magic of “Piano in the Dark.” Fellow balladeer and one-hit wonder in her own right Patti Austin (1983’s “Baby, Come to Me”) gives Russell some skatting support on the title cut, which revives the Afro-Brazilian mood of “Make You Smile.” The sultry “I Know You By Heart” rounds out the best of the American productions, all recorded in and around the Los Angeles area.
As for the rest, the strumming, folksy “Different Eyes” has a recycled Tony Rich-meets-Des’ree feel, and the tribute to past and present jazz performers “It’s a Jazz Day” relies too much on gimmicky wordplay (”Count me in! Duke it out!”) and a sound too derivative to do the artists mentioned in the lyrics justice.
All in all, Between the Sun and the Moon, though an up-and-down affair, provides ample evidence of Brenda Russell’s songwriting skills. It’s more than enough to satisfy her fans and should even win over new listeners yearning for an antidote to Ashanti and Beyonce.