Class of 1994, Lalah Hathaway is a Berklee alum, and daughter of iconic soul singer, Donny Hathaway. I saw her for the first time in my hometown, Oakland, California, where she gave an amazing performance of many of the songs on her then-unreleased Live album. She encouraged the audience to pre-order the album. To be honest, at that point, I had heard Lalah Hathaway songs and listened to her in my sister’s car, but I had yet to own an album of hers. The night of her performance at the famed jazz club, Yoshi’s, would change it. Lalah Hathaway Live is the first album of hers that I’ve purchased, and it is fantastic. Watch her accept her Grammy Award for Best R&B Traditional Performance here.
One song that stands out from the start of the album is her return to “I’m Coming Back” from her self-titled 1990 album. There is an energy and atmosphere created around this song in particular that resonates throughout the entire project. And then, right into a rendition of one of her father’s songs, “You Were Meant For Me,” which really illuminates the similarities in tone between father and daughter. Still, Lalah makes the song her own, before heading into what is the highlight of the project: a rendition of Anita Baker’s “Angel.” Anita was known for her contralto voice, and here is where Lalah capitalizes on her ability to modernize a song without losing its integrity. This updated version is arguably jazzier than Anita’s, and the riffs are expertly placed, but not overdone.
It’s difficult to review this album without wanting to talk about every single song because they each drive the listener deeper into Lalah’s world. Another standout on the album, however; is her version of Luther Vandross’ “Forever, For Always, For Love.” This is one of the songs which I saw her perform live with such vocal majesty that we were all irreversibly entranced. While she takes on some of Luther’s classic vocal arrangements, this is also another track where her ability to access high level riffs is illuminated and elevated. Also, the way in which she engages the audience throughout the album, but particularly on this song, made me feel like I was back in the crowd again, trying to sing background for her. I dare any Berklee vocalist to listen to this song and NOT harmonize with the vamp! It might be my favorite song on the album (including a crazy guitar solo, which when I saw her was played perfectly by the incomparable Jairus Mozee, but which another guitarist plays on the album).
Ultimately, I think Lalah Hathaway has achieved what we’re all here trying to achieve as performers: relevance and longevity, in an industry that doesn’t often grant either to many. It’s kind of crazy to think of a time when I was just a casual listener of her music. I’m pretty much obsessed with it now. Let’s just say Lalah Hathaway Live woke me up!