Nicole Henry: Embraceable

Nicole Henry’s vocal kinship to the creamy Vanessa Williams is more evident than ever throughout her fourth studio album, but her sugar is now less refined. Henry, whose previous efforts veered too often into skyscraping diva territory, has settled into an easier, looser, more soulfully sweet groove, spiced with just enough grit to sidestep treacliness. It’s a good space for Henry, allowing her to explore more fertile territory by taking a less-is-more approach.

Along with the stylistic streamlining comes a broadening of her musical palette. There’s still plenty of room in her repertoire for sturdy standards, and her whirling “Like Someone in Love,” soulful “Since I Fell for You,” testifyin’ “Trouble in Mind” and blissful “Embraceable You” are exceptionally well shaped. Casting wider, her beautifully befogged “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” gently funkified “Just a Little Lovin'” and dreamy makeover of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” are impressively affecting.

And Henry’s artistic maturation is equally well exercised across four original pieces. The yearningly romantic “Anything for You” and tenderly plaintive “Even While You’re Gone,” both written by gospel and R&B artist John Stoddart, prove her a balladeer worthy of Natalie Cole. Stoddart and Oli Rockberger’s “Hush Now” is a bit overblown, yet Henry makes the most of the tragedy-fueled tale. Best is Doug Emery’s “A Little Time Alone,” a stirring ode to budding self-reliance, its dynamism significantly enhanced by guest saxophonist Kirk Whalum.