The title is a bit ironic. For this 13-track collection, a follow-up to Latifah’s 2004 The Dana Owens Album, she’s carrying a lot of baggage. There’s the small army of producers (with Ron Fair and Tommy LiPuma dividing 12 of the tracks and Marc Shaiman stepping in for a thirteenth) and accompanists: alternating drummers Abe Laboriel Jr., and Jeff Hamilton; four different bassists (Christian McBride among them), an equal number of keyboardists (led by George Duke, who handles piano and Rhodes duties on four tracks), five guitarists, two arrangers (Jerry Hay and John Clayton), plus enough brass, woodwinds, strings and background vocalists to fill an entire page of liner notes. There’s also the weight of history. Can a politicized rapper turned Oscar-nominated actress be taken seriously when she makes a mid-career segue into soul-infused jazz singing? Critics began sharpening their venomous darts long before the album’s late-September release.
Truth is, as velvet-smooth journeys into the pop-jazz canon go, Trav’lin’ Light is an estimable exercise in showmanship, shaped by a well-seasoned pro who, though perhaps lacking the daring of a Cassandra Wilson or Diana Krall, is deserving of respectful attention. Sure, her cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” is a little too Diana Ross, and, yes, her reading of Smokey Robinson’s “What Love Has Joined Together” ventures nary an inch from its carefully choreographed Motown roots. But those are the exceptions here, not the rule. Listen to Latifah’s tender melding of bruised pain and hard-earned self-respect on “Georgia Rose,” hear her wade gently into “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” embrace the breezy joie de vivre of Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here with You,” bring “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” to a life-affirming boil, percolate the sassy acumen of the Pointer Sisters’ “How Long,” then slide into the simmering sensuality of “I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl.” Then you’ll know the oft-applied affirmation “multi-talented” is fully appropriate.