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Quiet Storm of the ?80s, Still Softly Raging

Date: 2009-05-21
source: New York Times
author: Stephen Holden

When Freddie Jackson introduced a slow-jam rendition of ?When I Fall in Love? on Tuesday evening at Feinstein?s at Loews Regency, he dutifully ticked off a list of R&B balladeers in the love-god tradition that carried him to pop stardom in the mid-1980s. The roster, which included Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Donny Hathaway, Peabo Bryson and James Ingram, ended with Nat King Cole, whose late-?50s recording of the song is probably the most famous and who exemplifies an older, more sedate pop-jazz crooning style.

The name that drew the biggest applause was that of Mr. Vandross, who died nearly four years ago and is the closest stylistic forerunner of Mr. Jackson. Like Mr. Vandross, Mr. Jackson makes quasi-operatic, gospel-oriented vocal ornamentation the entree in his menu of techniques. Song lyrics become a platform for vocal pyrotechnics that demonstrate an intensity of expression that trumps mere words. And ?When I Fall in Love? became a drawn-out vocal serenade in which the word ?never? was one of several elevated to special prominence.

The show is a sleek mixture of Mr. Jackson?s old hits ? ?Rock Me Tonight (for Old Time?s Sake),? ?You Are My Lady,? ?Jam Tonight,? ?He?ll Never Love You (Like I Do)? ? and pop and pop-soul standards of relatively recent vintage: the Spinners? ?I?ll Be Around,? Norah Jones?s ?Don?t Know Why? and Captain and Tennille?s ?Do That to Me One More Time.?

If Mr. Jackson?s patter is loaded with erotic innuendo, like other pop-soul singers of his generation, he shies away from raw explicitness to speak the soft-core language of romantic seduction. The implications are still clear enough to elicit cries of delight from an audience primed for vicarious bedroom thrills. Mr. Jackson, who is 52, stepped back from the songs enough to imply that he was portraying a younger version of himself, and his good-humored self-recognition lent the show a playful edge.

Since his heyday, the love god has largely been supplanted by the more ferociously athletic sex god, and pop-soul itself has been largely vanquished by hip-hop and rap. But old styles never die; they just fade away. The warm response to Mr. Jackson at Feinstein?s suggests that this Park Avenue club, in which Ashford and Simpson have had major success (they were present on Tuesday and joined him onstage), is an ideal place for post-Motown pop-soul singers of a certain vintage to carry on the sweet talk.

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