Jill Scott's spirituality is an earthly delight. Her songs fly with exuberance that the air is so filled with love, but they inevitably come down to the fact that love needs to be active to be anything more than good intentions. Scott reminds us that truest love—whatever the context—is a bodily function: you can think it and you can feel it, but you've also got to be it.
And here comes Valentine's Day, 24 hours when everyone wonders whether they're in love. It's a day that ripples with the forces of affection, from ethereal connectedness to tactile practicality, not to mention lots of boxes of chocolates and bunches of flowers. It's an occasion dedicated to melting our hard dichotomies into soft harmonic convergence—and hopefully, gettin' a little sumpin'-sumpin' along the way.
Scott taps our desires' duality and contradictions in her music. A 28-year-old former schoolteacher from Philadelphia, she exudes street shrewdness and extols hands-on solutions, coming across as a woman who has absorbed a few bumps and is still out there grinding. Although the R&B, funk, jazz, gospel and even flamenco that she intersperses with spoken-word poetry on her solo CD, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1, is produced by an actual band playing real instruments, the effect is an homage to sampling's unbound philosophy of "it's all good." If the CD never specifically answers its titular question—well, it still captures her very well.
All this makes Scott's concert at the Sun Theater the perfect Valentine's date. Will it get you laid? Well, it could, probably. But the thing is after Scott has finished her set, sex won't be the high point of the evening anymore. Her music assumes our innate hedonism and is instead much more fascinated by the exhilarating succession of small but crucial risks required to become truly intimate with another person.
Consider the subtle but powerful possibilities that Scott suggests in the opening lines of her song "A Long Walk":
You're here, I'm pleased. I really dig your company: your style, your smile, your peace mentality. Lord, have mercy on me, I was blind, now I can see what a king is supposed to be. Baby, I feel free. Come on and go with me. Let's take a long walk.
Along with Lauren Hill, Eryka Badu and Macy Gray—and the lesser-known Bahamadia and Ambersunshower—Scott is part of a welcome wave of Mother Wit and melody that has begun to retrieve modern soul singing from the rocket-launcher lungs of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and the raunchy mouths of Foxy Brown and Da Brat. Like her new genre-mates, Scott comes from the cream of hip-hop culture—urban and urbane, angry but analytical, proud but not defensive. Her talents were first sprung on the public during collaborations with the Philadelphia conscious-rap group the Roots, for whom Scott wrote the Grammy-winning "You Got Me." She was supposed to sing on the record, but executives wanted the commercial push of a bigger name and substituted Eryka Badu. Undaunted, Scott hooked up with another Philly native, Fresh Prince sidekick DJ Jazzy Jeff, who produced Who Is Jill Scott?
Scott's singing isn't as distinctive as Lauren's, Eryka's or Macy's, but her voice is strong and beautiful and remarkably malleable. There are startling moments on her CD when you could swear she's channeling the essence of predecessors as dissimilar as Diana Ross, Big Maybelle, Roberta Flack and Minnie Ripperton.
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It's a bit of a shock when Scott walks onstage. She's not as delicately pretty as she looks in her pictures, but she is much more powerfully beautiful. Her creamy skin and substantial figure give credibility to her lyrics, whether she is promising to take you for a tumble or threatening to knock your block off.
On "Love Rain," when she brags about being the notes—"his boop and his bit"—in her man's sexual jazz scat, you envy the guy. On "Gettin' in the Way," when she threatens her lover's persistent ex—"Queens shouldn't swing, if you know what I mean, but I'm 'bout to take my rings off, get me some Vaseline"—you fear for the woman. And on "Show Me," when she gently encourages a lover to be brave enough to be himself—"Keep fightin', boy, I know you're in there," she says again and again—you pray that he will.
Scott also tackles larger issues, like self-reliance ("One Is the Magic #") and technological surveillance ("Watching Me"), but she's at her best when detailing the sensuous satisfaction of realized relationships, the heartbreaking confusion of those that fail and the fear of upsetting this precarious balance. Listening to Jill Scott, you realize there is no next-best thing to being in love—and that is love's power over us, whether we're in it or not.
Jill Scott performs at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Wed., 8:30 p.m. $45. All ages.