Monday, April 14, 2003

Jean Carne steals Ronnie Laws' fire

By Jeff Wilson
Enquirer contributor

Ronnie Laws was the only name advertised for Friday's concert at the Syndicate, but normal concert-goers protocol of skipping the first act would have been ill-advised. The opening act was of equal interest. In fact, vocalist Jean Carne might have won out for concert-goers drawn to performances by musicians who seem unlikely to appear in this area.

Jean Carne is not a household name, but she boasts a resume as full as it is intriguing. In the '70s she performed Masses with Duke Ellington, worked with avant-garde jazz musicians, and recorded with Earth Wind and Fire.

Since then, the list of jazz and R&B instrumentalists who have hired her as a guest singer could fill the rest of this review.

During her six-song, half-hour set, Carne focused primarily on older material.

Sung as a duet with keyboardist Nathan Heathman, "Valentine Love" is a warm R&B ballad she first recorded in the '70s. Of similar vintage was her cover of a classic by Rufus with Chaka Khan, "Sweet Thing."

Carne's appearance marked a rare opportunity to see a veteran old-school R&B singer work a crowd, and by the end of what she described as a "three-Kleenex" love song the only part of the stage she didn't cover was occupied by her four-piece backing band.

The a cappella climax, which brought the crowd of almost 600 to its feet, proved that she deserved the tribute hip-hoppers Brand Nubian recently paid when they resurrected "Don't Let it Go to Your Head," which was also performed at Friday's concert.

Backed by the same band that accompanied Carne, Ronnie Laws opened his five-song, 45-minute set with the jazz fusion classic, "Always There," from his 1975 debut album, Pressure Sensitive. His lengthy tenor saxophone solo was raw, gritty and imaginative - so it was even more disappointing that for the rest of the show he stuck to the soprano saxophone and played it in a subdued fashion.

The songs that followed were as mellow as anything by Carne but lacked her distinctive vocals. "Every Generation," "Very Special," and "Friends and Strangers" were nice enough individually, but played sequentially they failed to sustain the interest of an increasingly chatty audience.

Walking out, the crowd seemed surprised that someone who comes around so rarely played such a short set and, considering his firepower, limited his hard-edged blowing to a single song.

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