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Review James Ingram - Best of

James Ingram was being metaphorical Thursday night at the Coach House when he posed the question “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” The song, a hit from the pop-soul balladeer’s 1983 debut album, anxiously surveys the barriers and pitfalls that make it difficult for love to endure. In literal terms, though, Ingram seems to have found a sure-fire way to keep the music playing. When he reached points in his show where mere speech would suffice for most performers, this rich-voiced songbird instead improvised tunes of his own and warbled or crooned whatever he had to communicate. Those sung asides put some needed spice into a 90-minute performance that had to overcome the common problem of the ‘80s and ‘90s vintage pop-soul crooner: smooth, urbane, generic material that isn’t even a faint echo of the great soul and R & B hits of the ‘60s and pre-disco ‘70s. Ingram emerged as a protege of producer Quincy Jones in the early ‘80s, taking a featured role on Jones’ Grammy-festooned album, “The Dude.” Jones also included Ingram on the “We Are the World” session and involved him in Michael Jackson’s mega-selling “Thriller” album as the co-writer (with Jones) of Jackson’s hit “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” Ingram has since been heard most widely as the leading man on romantic duets such as “Baby, Come to Me” (with Patti Austin) and “Somewhere Out There” (the theme from “An American Tail” that he sang with Linda Ronstadt). Those ardor-filled hits, and others like them, made up the gist of Ingram’s show, but some of the most memorable moments came during impromptu asides, moments when other performers wouldn’t even have bothered to sing. Spotting an old friend in the audience, Ingram started singing instead of chatting. An inquiry (how long would the Tokyo-based pal be in town?) and a request (leave your phone number) were melodiously made. The buddy, Ronnie Rucker, held up his end of the conversation by singing his answers into Ingram’s outstretched microphone. After the show, Rucker explained that he and Ingram became friends years ago when they both played in the Coasters’ backup band and that their musical chat wasn’t prearranged. Not content to reserve his chivalrous, modern-day Galahad’s ardor for the women in his ballads, Ingram at one point could be heard crooning his affection to a red plastic cup. “This water tastes so good,” he sang, turning to the drum riser where the cup rested as if it were the altar in a temple of Venus. “Baby, I need you, you let me be my best. . . . I love you.” Can water swoon? One of the pleasant things about Ingram’s style is that while his romantic cup is surely full, it doth not runneth over. In a field where singers tend to gush forth in showy demonstrations of vocal gymnastics, Ingram sticks to the song at hand. He applied note-stretching filigree judiciously, not needing histrionics to impress with a superb range that went from mellifluous cooing on high notes commonly associated with screeching cats, to firm and manly chest-tones in moments that called for a lover’s declaration of deep sincerity. * As a ballad singer, Ingram was at his best in “There’s No Easy Way” and “I Don’t Have the Heart,” two troubled songs that let him play the role of a nice guy who would never deliberately break a lover’s heart, but, romance being an unruly and unkind thing, is placed in circumstances where heartbreak is inevitable. Those were nicely dramatic; most of the rest was insubstantial by comparison, and the unbroken succession of smooth mid-tempo songs and ballads brought on a sense of sameness. Ingram’s nine-member band included three female backup singers who divvied up, with uneven results, the duet-partner roles required for three of the songs from his hit discography. Also on hand was keyboards player Kiki Ebsen, the daughter of Buddy Ebsen, who spent her childhood in Newport Beach and now makes a living as a touring player for various pop stars. The band’s playing was polite and characterless, until Ingram got that old-time soul religion and brought the show home with some welcome and satisfying heat. “Yah Mo Be There,” an urgent plea for God’s help in the face of troubles, hit with a hefty beat and persuasive urgency. Then came the encore, a cover of Ray Charles’ “In the Heat of the Night” that shucked off the evening’s dominant contemporary sheen and got down to sweaty soul fundamentals. The backup singers testified; the band cooked, and Ingram sang his way right off the stage and up the dressing room steps. It was too little of the real stuff, but it wasn’t too late to leave the audience with an energized buzz. The opening singer, Cathy Cornell, joked early in her set that when she arrived in California from her native Oklahoma, her expectations of stardom were so high that she named her dog Grammy. Many years later, Cornell’s expectations remain unfulfilled: The song she was introducing was called “Life Ain’t What It’s Supposed 2-B,” which is also the title of her do-it-yourself debut CD. But the thirtysomething singer’s often-striking performance suggested that her disappointments have been due to a lack of breaks rather than of talent. Cornell was full of confidence as she played to a house that included many of her fans. Accompanying herself on a digital piano, she displayed a clear, strong voice that recalled Bonnie Raitt on sassier material, and a tawny-sounding Christine McVie on a couple of yearning ballads (one of them, “Will You Stay Forever Song,” was the show’s highlight). Cornell could power her way through an emotive chorus, but she sang not to show off, but to get her meanings across, creating an almost conversational tone with her phrasing. On her album, Cornell goes for a mid-'70s Southern California rock sound, with some nice country touches supplied by pedal steel guitar. The country hues didn’t come through in the solo performance, but her songs still came across well. They were simple and direct, not striking works of imagination, but the kinds of songs that reinforce familiar sentiments honestly, believably and without resorting to cliche. * One of Cornell’s most appealing qualities is her ability to sing about sex in a candid, refreshingly frank way. Those songs never sound tawdry because they ring true to life rather than projecting fantasy. Cornell made one big mistake in concert by playing along with a recorded instrumental track from her album on the set-closing R & B song “Fallin’ Out of Love With You.” The only purpose in doing it seemed to be to brag about how her studio band consists of musicians who are touring pros with the likes of Michael McDonald and Rod Stewart. Big deal. Playing to tinny, canned backing, Cornell lost the vibrancy and immediacy she had generated just fine on her own.


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