One glance at the glowing countenance on the cover of Anita Baker's Grammy-nominated album "My Everything," and you wonder whether the veteran singer has discovered some kind of magical, anti-aging elixir.
"Not me, no magic here," she says, laughing. "But it's nice to hear."
So, apparently, is Baker's voice, which sounds as youthfully vigorous on her first album in a decade as it did when she released a series of platinum records and piled up eight Grammys in the 1980s.
Fans old and new have welcomed Baker's honey-smooth contralto and hook-driven songs, with "My Everything," released last September, selling 573,000 copies and Baker, 47, returning to the Southland in style Saturday night for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
"My Everything" includes eight originals in its nine-song program, among them a duet ("Like You Used to Do") with singer Babyface, who opens for Baker on Saturday. She dips into her jazz roots for "I Can't Sleep" and celebrates her husband and two young sons in "Men in My Life." The song "You're My Everything" was nominated for a Grammy for best traditional R&B vocal performance, but lost to Prince's "Musicology."
Baker says she's simply pleased to be singing, performing and recording again, even though her songs from the '80s have never completely disappeared from many smooth jazz radio play lists.
But neither Baker's elegant appearance nor her soulful singing qualify as the most remarkable aspect of her return. What's striking is that she has done so after nearly a decade of relative inactivity, during which she dealt with difficult business setbacks and family illness.
An earlier effort to return to the recording studio in 2000 resulted in the loss of an album's worth of material because of faulty tapes and a subsequent lawsuit. Over the next three years, Baker experienced a painful sequence of losses.
"My mom was a high blood pressure patient her whole life," she explains, "which caused a myriad of problems -- little strokes, things that caused a form of Alzheimer's. She was ill for over seven years, and then she, my dad, and my birth mother passed away ... so it was one thing after another."
At the same time, Baker was rearing her two young boys -- now 11 and 12 years old -- going through a temporary separation from her husband, Detroit real estate developer Walter Bridgeforth, and having difficulty finding her musical reality.
"When my parents were ill," she says, "I couldn't finish a sentence, much less finish a song. Everything was kind of locked down. And what did come wasn't stuff that I wanted to sing; it was too negative."
It took a while, even after her parents had died, for Baker to recycle her energies back to performing.
"As a means of dealing with the grief from my parents' passing," she recalls, "I did a benefit for a municipal candidate who was running for office. People came out and they were responding like crazy, and that kind of got my juices flowing. Then I started singing the national anthem for the Pistons at the Palace and people were so encouraging, and that got me going. And then I did a benefit for my church. It was just one thing tied to another."
Baker's return to songwriting took a different, more direct path.
"When my mother passed, it was like a faucet just turned on in me that had been locked for so long," she says. "It was almost like she sort of pushed me, 'Go, go, go!' and I was just inspired."
The question facing Baker, however, was whether her inspiration was still as in sync with the public's taste as her music was a decade (and more) ago. Dramatic changes took place in the pop music world during the period of her inactivity, with an emerging generation of young people looking in very different musical directions.
But Baker insists upon retaining her optimism.
"I just think that the listening audience is so broad and so diverse that there is space and room for all kinds of music," she says. "And I think the record industry is starting to see that they've only been focusing on one demographic. If they broadened their horizons and services to include all the age groups who want to consume -- and we all want to consume -- then I think everybody would be happier.
"I mean, I'm happy that I was able to hear voices like India.Arie while I was away. I'm encouraged to hear Jill Scott come to the forefront. I'm watching Faith Evans start to mature. So I'm definitely hopeful and encouraged."
And apparently with good reason. A Christmas album is being recorded for release this winter.
"I swear to you," she says, "it feels as though the planets have been aligned. I'm still alive, my brain cells are still firing and I'm riding an amazing wave."
Don Heckman can be reached at email@example.com.
Anita Baker, with Babyface
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: (323) 850-2000