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December 2002

Sweet Baby J'ai
Evolution
Sunset

Somebody ought to tell Kansas City's Sweet Baby J'ai that the "bachelor pad" renaissance is long over. J'ai opens Evolution (Sunset Music) with a swooping, swerving "Nature Boy" that, complete with Yma Sumac yelps and tropical bird calls, recalls Les Baxter at his most exotically outrageous. Truth is, though, her Vargas Girl calisthenics represent only one aspect of a surprisingly multifaceted album. A powerful young performer blessed with Lena Horne's biting enunciation, J'ai sometimes sounds as pure and creamy as Ann Hampton Callaway, other times embraces the earthy integrity of Nina Simone. Such dexterity enables her to shift from a hard-boppin' version of Monk and Hendricks' "Suddenly (In Walked Bud)" and a finger-poppin' "Hit the Road, Jack" to a spicy "Autumn Leaves" that's as warm and inviting as an Indian summer afternoon. She injects the Gershwins' lilting "Summertime" with sweaty, Central Avenue street cred and offers up a quartet of original compositions that are consistently fine. Best of the bunch are the bouncy "Wish I Could" (sort of a latter-day "I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out") and "Cooler Than Cool," an icy concoction worthy of Ramsey Lewis' imperturbable detachment.

Originally published in December 2002
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