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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Bailey May Still Have Earth, Wind, but Fire's Gone

August 08, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — As the golden-hued voice of Earth, Wind and Fire, Philip Bailey set hearts aflutter with his amazing range and soulful presentation. Bailey has played on that reputation now that he's out on his own, dealing in romantic ballads and funk-fluff designed, it seems, specifically for lovers.

But there was little romance involved Friday when Bailey appeared at the Hyatt Newporter's outdoor amphitheater. Though Bailey has a new, eponymous album out, he chose to do only one song from it, instead working through a program of pop and jazz tunes and the occasional ditty from his EW&F days. If the program seemed hardly inspired, his singing was even less so.

Maybe it was the format. Teaming with a mostly ad hoc band that had rehearsed only briefly the day before--and that session, Bailey admitted to the audience, contained more eating than playing--the singer was strapped into material that was less than representative of his current direction.

The crowd didn't seem to mind. They wanted to hear the kind of numbers that Bailey has been associated with over the years and they weren't disappointed, coming to their feet at the end of most of the familiar tunes. But, truthfully, there was little about his presentation worth cheering.

Bailey's fabled falsetto betrayed him at every turn. Though he still climbed to amazing highs with tones that pierced the upper ranges with the bite of a toothy whistle, his pitch was often unsettlingly flat. At times, he seemed to be unable to decide between the falsetto and his normal tones, falling away to tenor-pitched range just when it seemed he was ready to soar.

Worse, the singer's many attempts at scatting rang with amateurism. Empty of snap, his wordless vocals came off as more of an attempt to show off his range than any exhibition of rhythmic savvy. And when he broke off into "A Tisket, A Tasket" in obvious deference to Ella Fitzgerald, one couldn't help but wince at the comparison.

Despite sound balance problems, the program started out with some promise as Bailey's "jazz quintet," as they were introduced, worked out the kinks on an up-tempo blues tune. Then Bailey came out to "Shining Star," moving handily through the verse and throwing some promising variations into the chorus.

But things went down from there. "Return To Paradise" fell flat, and Bailey's attempt to close the song with lines from Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year" only made it worse. The upbeat numbers that followed seemed to drag.

Surprisingly, Bailey's best effort came on the standard "A Time For Love," as he avoided the falsetto and sang with concentration and conviction. If only more of the songs had been treated with such respect.

Bailey was repeatedly saved by his band, which added excitement missing from the vocals. Saxophonist Brandon Fields fired up every tune in which he soloed and keyboardist Rob Mullins added strong funk accompaniment and a palette of tonal color, often presented in funky fashion. Guitarist Kevin Chokan was often missing in action due to the sound mix while bassist Don Patterson and drummer Laval Belle, both part of Bailey's regular ensemble, held things together admirably.

The opening act, singer Kevyn Lettau, presented a more professional set. Backed only by her percussionist-husband Michael Shapiro and keyboardist Lou Pardini, Lettau displayed her sweet-toned, Brazilian-flavored delivery in a performance of mostly original material. Pardini also sang, but it was Lettau who came away as the evening's best vocalist, upstaging the night's headliner before he even came on.

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