Hathaway returns home in triumph

Boston Globe, September 26, 2005

She is blessed with what may be the most perfect voice in R&B and soul today, yet singer Lalah Hathaway has appeared far more often on other people’s records than she has under her own name. Three albums in 15 years does not a major-label, commercial career make. Hathaway’s quiet life as a sort of session musician appears to suit her fundamentally shy temperament. But when she takes center stage, watch out.

In a triumphant performance Friday at the Berklee Performance Center, Hathaway deployed her flawless pitch and exceptional range across a selection of her own songs, covers, and standards, delighting an ebullient capacity crowd that hung on her every half- note. Calls of “Right on!” and “Sing it, girl!” fused whenever she stretched out, scatting and vocalizing to turn even the most formulaic love song into a perfect piece.

It was an auspicious opening to both the Berklee fall concert series and the increasingly successful BeanTown Jazz Festival, which continued in the South End the next day. It was also a terrific homecoming for Hathaway, a Berklee grad who pays homage to her time here on her new album, “Outrun the Sky,” with a pretty ballad called simply “Boston.”

Lalah is the daughter of the incomparable soul singer Donny Hathaway, who passed away in 1979. She seems more at ease with the burden of this legacy than she may have been earlier in her career. The concert opened, in fact, with a mini-medley of recorded snippets of her father’s landmark songs. And she sparked chills of recognition when, working the lower register, she channeled Donny’s signature emotion-laden hum.

It was almost enough to eclipse the tight supporting band and splendid backup singer, but Hathaway gave everyone their chance to shine. And two saxophonists Donald Harrison Jr., visiting from New Orleans after escaping Hurricane Katrina, and Berklee professor Walter Beasley contributed funky, blistering solos on “Summertime.”

“You know I grew up on this stage, right?” Hathaway asked conversationally at one point. She recounted that as a student, she was so shy that she usually ended up facing away from the audience. But this exceptional show conveyed the feeling that the old ghosts are exorcised now.