It takes either a lot of talent or a lot of nerve to make your second album essentially a live version of your first. Fortunately, Erykah Badu has plenty of both, and so manages to make Live more than just an in-concert reprise of double-platinum Baduizm.
This new album is jazzier, for one thing. As much as Badu’s light voice, broad vibrato, and fluid phrasing evoked echoes of Billie Holiday, the jazz content on her debut was fairly slight — mainly a bit of flavor beneath the hip-hop beats and a quick cameo by bassist Ron Carter.
Not so Live. Badu’s band, a guitarless trio grounded by bassist Hubert Eaves IV, swings hard enough to make the Miles Davis cop in the show’s intro — a gloss on ”So What” — seem like more than just a clever conceit. There’s also a version of Roy Ayers’ ”Searching” that confirms the combo’s soul-fusion roots while giving the boys in the band a chance to stretch out.
Still, it’s Badu who benefits most from this rhythmic infusion, as jazzing up the arrangements generally strengthens her songs. On Baduizm, ”Rimshot” was little more than an inspired riff, but it seems a full-blown song on Live, where the blissfully relaxed pulse loosens the groove enough to let Badu play with the beat on the verse, then scat beautifully through the final chorus. Even better are the improvements made on ”Certainly,” where the growling swagger of the bass line inspires a sassy, swinging performance from Badu — one that not only validates the comparisons to jazz singers but shows off how original and idiosyncratic her phrasing can be.
To her credit, Badu doesn’t overplay the jazz aspects of her sound. When she augments her set with cover tunes, she prefers ’70s soul to jazz standards — and with good reason, considering the heat she generates with the Rufus oldie ”Stay.” But given the differences between the semi-improvisatory live version of ”Tyrone” and its more staid studio rendition, she’d do well to keep a little swing in her soul. B+