Bilal is back, mixing jazz and soul playfully

Boston Globe, May 14, 2005

For the hybrid genre called “neo-soul,” 2001 was an exceptionally strong vintage, with Erykah Badu’s second album and debut efforts from Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, India.Arie, and Musiq released in the space of a few months. Somewhat lost in the shuffle was the young Philadelphia singer Bilal, whose witty, groovy gem of an album, “First Born Second,” earned critical plaudits but was largely ignored by the purchasing public.

Since then, while Keys and Scott have gone on to fill arenas, Bilal has stayed under the radar, devoting himself in large part to production work and teaching. And though a second album is finally near completion, it’s a different side of his considerable talent that Bilal has taken on the road lately his jazz side, where the emphasis on spontaneity and freedom to stretch out favor his pipes and his range.

Though reasonable from an artistic point of view, Bilal’s trajectory hasn’t exactly been the fast track to mass recognition. So it was a small but attuned audience that welcomed him to Regattabar on Thursday for the first of a two-night stand.

Any misplaced purism about jazz-soul collaborations was swept away by the technique and versatility of the fine rhythm section assembled for the occasion, including prolific pianist Stephen Scott, drummer Eric McPherson, and bass virtuoso Tarus Mateen, a regular accomplice of Greg Osby and Jason Moran.

On standards such as “Tenderly” and “I Thought About You,” as well as on Bilal’s own material, the band’s interplay with the singer was musically rigorous yet playful, even goofy. Small and sinewy, sporting short twists, frayed jeans, and a short-sleeve shirt that revealed a well-inked right arm, Bilal was a man in motion, swaying and writhing, with a propensity to ham it up and josh with the audience. But though he’s anything but solemn, his voice including a terrific falsetto can still a room, and he has the ability to head in unexpected directions, at the edge of off- key, only to bring back the song with the emotional satisfaction that comes when risks pay off.

The set’s highlight was a drawn-out exploration of “Queen of Sanity,” a ballad from Bilal’s first album. It was a vivid demonstration of the natural kinship of jazz and soul styles, and a reminder perhaps to the artist as well that it is high time we hear from him again.