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Queen Latifah: Nature of A Singer

Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah onstage with bassist Christian McBride, Hollywood Bowl, July 2007

In the late ’80s, rap records were about recording over a beatbox rhythm and a musical loop with a repeated chorus. “I wanted to sing to it, I wanted more music in it, and I wanted more melody. I wanted more harmony, and not too many people were doing anything like that,” says Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah. Defying convention, Latifah sang her own hooks and choruses, adding reggae toasts and Brazilian melodies and pop harmonies to the material on her 1989 debut All Hail the Queen and the 1991 follow-up Nature of a Sista.

“I wasn’t just a rapper, you know. I hear music in my head; I hear songs. I always needed to combine that and I heard different genres,” she says, pointing to her club hit “How Do I Love Thee,” which was built over a Tania Maria piano groove. “I had an active imagination as a budding 17-year-old. I heard poetry and romance and sensuality.”

Latifah is now 37, and on Sept. 25 released her second album of vocal tunes, Trav’lin’ Light, through a partnership with Verve Records. The CD debuted in the number one position on Billboard’s jazz albums chart, cementing Latifah’s burgeoning rep as a jazz talent.

As on her first all-vocal album, 2004’s The Dana Owens Album, Latifah balances big-band-style numbers from the jazz era with an eclectic mix of more recent pop, R&B and blues tunes, filtering them all through her own contemporary sensibility. The 13-track album ranges from the sassy blues of “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and Johnny Mercer’s lovelorn title anthem “Trav’lin’ Light” through a version of Phoebe Snow’s love song “Poetry Man” and a little-known Roberta Flack gem by Donny Hathaway called “You Are Gone.”

The rapper-turned-movie-star sounds more assured than she did on The Dana Owens Album, letting the warmth of her personality shine through as she swings, sasses and soars through tunes even a Berklee-trained singer would find challenging, particularly in a live recording setting. But where she sounded tentative on the first set, Latifah is fully in her element on Trav’lin’ Light. “I do actually feel like I’ve grown since doing The Dana Owens Album,” she says, adding that the subsequent tour she did to promote that album helped get her chops up. “I think I was a little more conservative on that first album and left myself in the hands of the producers … This one I kinda loosened up and had fun.”

Five of the tunes on Trav’lin’ Light are produced by jazz veteran Tommy LiPuma, whose credits include George Benson, Al Jarreau, Art Tatum, David Sanborn, Diana Krall, Miles Davis and Natalie Cole, among many others. LiPuma called in top-flight arranger John Clayton and a studio full of session pros, including bassist Christian McBride, keyboard pros George Duke and Joe Sample, drummer Jeff Hamilton (Clayton’s partner in the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band) and guitarist Anthony Wilson. The LiPuma section includes the little known Billie Holiday tune “Georgia Rose,” featuring a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder; swinging versions of Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You” and the Sarah Vaughan nugget “I’m Gonna Live Until I Die,” and an assured version of the Etta James hit “Don’t Cry Baby.”

Pop and R&B specialist Ron Fair, who has worked with the likes of Mary J. Blige, the Pussycat Dolls, the Black Eyed Peas and others, produced the other half of the album. His sessions, completed a little more than a month before the album was released, include “Poetry Man,” “You Are Gone,” the Pointer Sisters’ “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side),” a gently sensual “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (an Antonio Carlos Jobim favorite), the bluesy “Don’t Cry Baby,” 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” (inspired by Dee Dee Sharp’s 1976 R&B version) and Smokey Robinson’s composition “What Love Has Joined Together.” Duke lent his keyboards to these sessions as well, as did guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., bassist Alex Al and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. Veteran arranger Jerry Hey was also called in for his expertise.

Included on the set is “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a tune co-written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The choir-backed song is from the soundtrack to the screen musical Hairspray, the John Travolta hit in which Latifah portrays Motormouth Maybelle, a role originated on film by the late Ruth Brown.

While some of the material presented on Trav’lin’ Light was handpicked by Latifah because she had heard the songs growing up in East Orange, N.J., other tunes were suggested to her by the project’s A&R director, Monica Lynch, whom Fair calls a “walking encyclopedia” of music. Lynch’s relationship with Latifah goes all the way back to 1987, when as president of New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, she signed the then-teenaged rapper to her first recording contract.

The gorgeous “Georgia Rose” was one of the unearthed gems of the set. “It has a certain sadness to it, it moves me,” Latifah explains. “The content of the song is what really touches my heart, and to know that it was recorded so long ago and it’s still so timely. Black women still need encouragement and to know, hey, you’re beautiful no matter what shade you are; for me it was important to record that.”

Luck enabled her to snag Wonder, who recorded his harmonica solo for the tune separately. “I ran into him in a restaurant and told him about it and he came in a week later,” says Latifah. “You know, Stevie just has a sound, whether it’s on vocals or harmonica or production. So to have him on the song was just amazing; it was like a dream come true.”

Working with Clayton, whose arranging expertise has boosted the careers of Diana Krall and others, was also a dream-come-true for Latifah. “I really wanted to do a lot of big-band stuff on the last album because I’m a big Quincy Jones fan. His big-band sound is so rich and lush, but we weren’t really able to get it done on the last album, so I wanted to make sure we did a couple big-band songs on this album,” says Latifah. That element is evident in the swing of the classics “I Love Being Here with You” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” which Latifah calls the theme song of her life. “It’s about just living and enjoying every moment,” she says.

Clayton didn’t meet the artist herself until he showed up in the studio, though he was intrigued by her work on The Dana Owens Album. “She’s very professional, she’s talented, she has speed-and by speed I mean she can learn things very quickly, and she always lands on her feet, and that’s something you can’t teach,” says Clayton, also a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

“Not only is she filled with soul, but also technically she can do pretty much anything she needs to with her voice. That has to do not only with range and intonation but also with shading and color. And since she’s an actress, she knows how to sell the lyric, she knows how to sell the meaning of the song. There are a lot of good singers out there that haven’t really grasped that.”

Session bassist McBride, the Creative Chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was similarly impressed. “I was under the impression that she had done some type of rehearsing with John Clayton before she went into the studio, but I later found out that she just came in and nailed it,” he said. McBride, also a co-director for the Jazz Museum in Harlem, added, “I thought, that’s something that singers used to do in the ’50s. Not saying that she needed to rehearse. I was just surprised that she did such a great job just coming in and singing it down a couple of times before we rolled tape. She’s like an old pro.”

Latifah agrees that the recording process was a blast. “It was about getting the music right first because we had the musicians for a limited amount of time. Then we went in and it just clicked right off the bat. I mean, Jeff Hamilton and Joe Sample and Christian, everything just flowed,” enthuses the singer. “The musicians and myself, we fit in really quickly together and then got the music down and I was able to get my vocals right … I felt great working with Tommy LiPuma, I felt great working with John Clayton and Jerry Hey and Ron Fair and [engineer] Al Schmitt and the musicians and it was just a lot of fun.”

Recording had to go quickly because of everyone’s varying schedules. After hitting the studio with LiPuma and Clayton in February and March, Latifah went on location to shoot Mad Money, a heist caper comedy with Diane Keaton and Katie Holmes due some time next summer, before returning to the studio in August with Fair.

Fair’s team, including arranger Hey, found themselves recording at L.A.’s Record Plant studios in August, just over a month before the CD was due to hit retail. Fair, who also co-produced Latifah’s 2004 CD, noted her artistic growth. “The Dana Owens Album was like, ‘Hey, I’m not just Queen Latifah, I’m Dana Owens,’ and I think she was dipping her toe in the water to see what the temperature was. What’s cool about it is watching somebody with this intellect jump around all these different highly conceptual art forms … ‘Poetry Man’ was made in about, honestly, six hours from setup to band playing to final mixing to vocal overdubs to editing, which for me is extraordinarily fast. It’s more of a photograph live and I just love it. To me, it’s as important a record as [one by] Norah Jones.”

Latifah says that she did “Poetry Man” for her mom, a major Phoebe Snow fan. “Certain songs I know my mom likes so I record them with her in mind, sorta like my little dedications to her,” she explains. Fair calls Latifah’s recording of the Snow hit “one of the most magical records I’ve ever done.”

Songs like “I Love Being Here with You” and “Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars” (also known as Jobim’s “Corcovado”) came up as suggestions during the recording of The Dana Owens Album. “‘Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars,’ I love that song, but I fell in love with that song in Portuguese, so I wanted to do the English version,” says Latifah.

Queen Latifah’s rise to respected singer and beloved media personality is now almost 20 years in the marking. After making her mark in the world of rap, a medium very much about social immediacy and verbosity, Latifah’s laidback singing talent seems a surprise. That she would go from earning the first female rap Grammy (for 1994’s “U.N.I.T.Y.”) to performing music from the 1920s through the late ’70s is even more astonishing, as she tackles material made famous by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James and Peggy Lee with seeming ease.

“The album title could have been Who Knew?” says Fair, laughing. “She’s extraordinary to be a black female in this society and rise from where she did, to being one of the leaders in hip-hop music, for her run through recording and a Grammy and being a producer, and TV and movies, and all this time, trapped in there, is this singing ability and the ability to interpret song.”

Her appreciation for different styles of music was evident even on her first recordings as the queen of hip-hop. “Honestly, I’ve always seen this,” says Latifah of her reincarnation as a jazz chanteuse. “But even with hip-hop, it seemed like everything needed to catch up to where I was.”

Remaining creatively static was not in Latifah’s plans, which meant hip-hop couldn’t hold her forever. “I hated the idea of being boxed in. I loved jazz, I loved singing, I loved reggae, I loved all kinds of music. I still do,” she says. “And jazz has always been one of my favorite forms of music, so that’s why I like to keep these albums at least half-jazz, and then we can play with the other half and just have fun and see what kind of enjoyment we can bring to it. ”

Although Latifah had long wanted to record an all-vocal album, the real transition to being taken seriously as a singer came with her film roles. She had already had a successful run on TV’s Living Single and had made notable film appearances, but in 1998 she was cast as a nightclub singer in the Holly Hunter female empowerment tale Living Out Loud, and made an impression performing standards, including Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Then came the 2002 musical juggernaut Chicago, where her performance as duplicitous Matron Mama Morton-who sings the set piece “When You’re Good To Mama”-earned her an Academy Award nomination. “The awareness of just me being able to sing grew so immensely just off the success of Chicago and the underground success of Living Out Loud. It was like, now they’re ready, now we can create this album and people will be ready to receive it.”

As with most of her career, Latifah’s leap from hip-hop to jazz-pop represents a first. “That’s about as drastic a stretch as anyone can possibly make,” says McBride. “I think that’s a testament to the broad range and scope of her talent. She goes from doing ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ to doing ‘I Love Being Here with You.’ I guarantee you that no one else can do that, certainly not from the hip-hop world.”

“That kind of talent is indestructible,” agrees Fair. “It’s not a computer, it’s not ProTools; it’s the God-given talent. And it’s almost freakish that it is as evolved in her as it is but only because she never let anybody know about it.”

While jazz purists are notoriously critical of artists seeking to join the canon, Latifah isn’t necessarily worried about criticism. “I feel like I’m true to it, and I think that’s important,” says the artist about her entrée to the jazz world. “I think maybe that’s part of what jazz purists want to feel, that the person is true to the music and true to themselves and not just doing something on a whim or for some profit. And I honestly feel like I have some incredible musicians that I’ve been fortunate enough to play with. They’re all incredible in their own right; you’d have to sort of knock them down to knock me down.”

Queen Latifah embarked on a national concert tour in the fall to promote Trav’lin’ Light. She also planned to perform music from The Dana Owens Album. The 44-date trek kicked off Sept. 29 in Dallas and, as of this writing, is scheduled to run through Nov. 20. But while Latifah has gracefully assumed the mantle of jazz chanteuse, she hasn’t left her rap roots behind. “Performing live is definitely about exploring and having fun,” says Latifah, who sees another hip-hop CD in her future. “So if I see I got a cool crowd that’s diverse and I can tell they enjoy various kinds of music, I might try one or two tunes just for fun.”

Originally Published