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Singer Teena Marie pays tribute to New Orleans jazz

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - A recent fan post on YouTube about Teena Marie says it all: “She still sings like she did 30 years ago.”

Showing no sign of slowing down, the R&B funkstress displays her inimitable chops on her current single, “Can’t Last a Day.” Stationed at No. 55 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 16 on Adult R&B, the song is the lead track from the June 9 release “Congo Square,” Marie’s Stax Records/Concord Music Group debut and 13th studio album.

Extolling what Marie describes as that “mystical, joined-through-God kind of love,” the midtempo “Can’t Last” features a duet with another noteworthy singer, Faith Evans.

“Of the younger ladies, she’s the one I love most,” Marie says. “I’ve always loved her vocal style. She reminds me of a younger me.”

On “Congo Square,” Marie pays tribute to artists who inspired her, ranging from Sarah Vaughan and Curtis Mayfield to Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday. The album borrows its title from a section in New Orleans’ French Quarter where slaves were allowed to wear their fancy clothes to dance and sing on Sundays.

“I thought about all the amazing music and musicians who came out of New Orleans, from father of jazz Louis Armstrong to unknowns on the corner playing their guitars,” Marie says. “That powerful and spiritual music is not just about older musicians but also about younger artists who are helping to keep jazz alive.”

Each of the 16 songs that Marie wrote for “Congo Square,” most of which she produced, features something musically reminiscent of several of her favorite artists. “Ear Candy 101” calls to mind Mayfield’s vocal styling, while its bridge possesses a Gaye vibe. “Marry Me” evokes Aretha Franklin’s early blues flavor; “Rose n’ Thorn” pays homage to Marie’s favorite jazz singer, Vaughan.


Also riding along on Marie’s journey melding jazz, soul and dance funk are rapper MC Lyte, Howard Hewett, pastor Shirley Murdock, pianist George Duke, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist Brian Bromberg and Marie’s daughter Rose LeBeau.

Formerly with Cash Money/Universal Motown, Marie is thrilled to be part of Stax’s continuing soul legacy, but she remains close to Cash Money principals/siblings Bryan and Ronald Williams. In fact, LeBeau is working with the label on her own solo album. Marie says her last Cash Money release, however -- 2006’s “Sapphire,” which sold 164,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- got caught in “a bad place and time” after Hurricane Katrina.

“At that time, the guys didn’t even have a house,” she says. “And while I was at the rap label, they let me do my own thing. But there was no bad reason for leaving; sometimes it’s just time to move on.”

Born Mary Christine Brockert, Teena Marie began her career at Motown, mentored by former labelmate and fellow funkster Rick James. Signed to the label in 1975, she spent four years working with various in-house producers before James took the helm on her first album, 1979’s “Wild and Peaceful.” During her Motown tenure and a later run at Epic, Marie -- also nicknamed Lady T -- charted several R&B hits including “I’m a Sucker for Your Love,” “Square Biz,” “Lovergirl” and “Ooo La La La.”

“He would love this (new) record,” Marie says of James, who died in 2004. “A lot of people don’t know that he was a jazz head. I have many memories of (the two of us) just sitting and playing jazz records.”

Currently on a national tour whose stops include the Essence Music Festival (July 3-5) in New Orleans, Marie is appreciative that she’s “still here singing 30 years later and happy that people are filling the seats. It’s an awesome thing to still be doing something you really love.”

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)