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An Englishman With Soul--and Stateside Album Goals

Pop Beat: Jason Kay, lead singer of the British R&B band Jamiroquai, aims to spread the group's success to America's Top 10.

May 10, 1997|CHEO HODARI COKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Kay, lead singer of the R&B quintet Jamiroquai, may be a white Englishman, but you'd swear from his records that he grew up in America raised in the Baptist soul tradition. His voice alternately combines the sensuousness of R. Kelly's with the melodic grace of Stevie Wonder's. But somehow, he remains his own man.

After scoring Top 10 albums everywhere from France to Japan, Kay's group now has its sights set on the United States--and things are progressing well. Thanks to the hit single, "Virtual Insanity," and its accompanying video, Jamiroquai has enough of a following here to headline the Hollywood Palladium Friday.

In the striking clip, a current MTV favorite, Kay dances around a room where everything, from the singer to the furniture, seems to be moving on conveyor belts. It's a dazzling cinematic sleight of hand.

A smiling Kay, 27, won't divulge how the video was put together, but he's happy to talk about how he's trying to conquer the U.S. pop market.

"They used to tell me, 'Slow it down, man, if you want to sell records in the States,' " he says, referring to the frantic tempo of most British dance music. "That's just not the way that I do it, man. Why do people want you to follow a trend just at the time when people are beginning to see things the way I see it? I'm glad I haven't had to compromise the way I want to do things or how I want to present myself."

Kay, born in Stretford, Manchester, to an absentee Portuguese father and a jazz-singing British mother, was weaned on the music of Stevie Wonder, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington. In his opinion, soul music wasn't as much a choice as a natural extension of who he is.

"My mum always liked music that had punch," he says in a thick accent. "If it was dull and droning, she'd have me turn it off. She liked brassy in-your-face music, most importantly music with soul--and as a result, so do I."

Influenced greatly by Britain's mid-'80s rare-groove scene, where American jazz/funk pioneers such as Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green and others reigned, Kay wanted to keep that frame of reference but maintain a distinctive sound when he finally assembled his own band.

"So many people want to look at the past, but the way that we look at it is completely different, you know?" he says. "But at the end of the day there are a number of ways you can put together a group of live musicians, and it's the style of music you aim for, not the exact sound. If you just sample Barry White or Sly Stone, that's one thing; to get their spirit is different."

"Traveling Without Moving," the group's third album, is an engaging work that achieves precisely that. The collection--which has sold 4 million copies worldwide--brings together everything from symphonic funk and disco to jungle--without ever sounding like a rehash.

The songs are fun yet political, gritty without being unrefined. Through a deft mix of styles and tempos, and anchored by Kay's beautiful voice, Jamiroquai manages to outdo the more famous British soul group Brand New Heavies at their own game by offering music that has its own edge and a jumpy personality out front. Where "Virtual Insanity" manages to juxtapose messages of urban decay with sunny melodies, "Use the Force" has a tribal, carnival ambience and "Everyday" has a slow, deeply romantic tinge.

That he's a white man singing soul isn't lost on Kay, but he's not obsessed with it.

"I don't think of myself as a white singer--I just use my soul to the best of my abilities," he says. "Singing is my only concern--I'm just happy that I get respect in black communities on both continents. Our band stands out musically; it isn't like we're on this white Boyz II Men type thing, and people enjoy it."

* Jamiroquai plays Friday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6250 Sunset Blvd., 6:30 p.m. Sold out. (213) 962-7600.

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