By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
If the local birth notices are unusually high late next February, we’ll know why. Sunday night at Starlight, neo-soul stars Maxwell and Jill Scott set a romantic mood with three hours of slow jams designed to linger long after the last note expired.
Shortly after sunset, a silhouette appeared on the screen behind the band. As the 10-piece band vamped, Maxwell suavely strolled out in a three-piece suit and sunglasses. Women erupted in spontaneous shrieks of delight as he set the mood early with “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”
It was hardly the only time Maxwell would play to the fairer sex. Over the course of his 90- minute set he praised (“Fortunate,” “Ascension”), chastised (“Cold”), apologized (“Pretty Wings”) and seduced (pretty much every other song) the women in the audience. The set comprised two-thirds of Maxwell’s 2009 comeback album “BLACKsummer’snight,” and another half dozen hits and favorites for good measure.
The band rolled through the first three numbers without stopping. The come-hither strut of “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” easily rolled into “Get To Know Ya” and an arrangement based on James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” After a New Orleans jazz breakdown and trumpet solo, the ensemble took a deft turn into the Kool and the Gang-inspired “Cold,” one of the most upbeat kiss-off songs of all time.
Nearly every musician backing Maxwell has a foot in the worlds of jazz and hip hop. Many members have collaborated with rappers Mos Def, Jay-Z or Diddy. Pianist Robert Glasper was received a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album “Double Booked.” This jazz pedigree was on display all night, in the way Glasper or organist Travis Sayles would respond to a vocal phrase, or feed off the rhythm section.
Although the size of venues, staging and setlists have changed, Maxwell and the band have been touring together for nearly two years now. They’ve had plenty of time to sand out the rough spots, and Sunday’s night was an effortlessly paced ride. The roughest element was likely the most surprising: Maxwell’s voice.
The rasp in Maxwell’s throat was obvious from the first number; by the fifth he ‘fessed up to overdoing it the previous night in St. Louis and asking for the audience to help him on the high notes he couldn’t hit. He then bravely launched into the falsetto-sung “This Woman’s Work,” holding the mic stand over the crowd on the chorus. It was a generous gesture, but Maxwell would have been better off letting back-up singer Latina Webb play a greater role. Their duet on “Reunion” was one of the better moments of the night.
This was a small hurdle to overcome. Maxwell’s voice grew stronger with each number, to the point that he was able to handle the high parts in a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” with ease. The set ended with two guaranteed crowd-pleasers, “Fortunate” and “Ascension.” On the latter, the very full (but not sold out) house delivered the entire first verse a capella, much to Maxwell’s delight.
Jill Scott had the misfortune of taking the stage with the sun blazing through most of her 80-minute set, rendering most of her lighting and effects moot. It wasn’t a big loss, though, because like Maxwell the focus was on her voice and her band.
The 10-piece group sizzled through the keyboard propelled “It’s Love” that got most of the crowd up and dancing. If that number bounced with the energy of a passionate night on the town, then the next song, “Not Like Crazy,” gently embraced the delicate pleasure of waking up next to that person the following morning.
The two new numbers were studies in contrast. “I Love You” rode a bubbly ‘80s synth line, but wasn’t a radical departure in sound or subject. “Hear My Call” was a desperate, dead-of-night cry for help in the aftermath of a relationship. Scott performed the song backed only by piano. When it was over, she walked to the opposite end of the stage where her other keyboard player started one of her most affirming songs, “He Loves Me.”
Soon the band and the crowd were both fired up, but Scott stopped the show with her near-operatic vocal display that brought a richly deserved standing ovation. Scott made sure everyone stayed on their feet with the girl-power anthem “Hate On Me,” early hit “A Long Walk” and carpe diem hymn “Golden.”
It would have been a delight to have Scott and Maxwell share the stage for a number, but even apart the pair was a perfect complement. Both realized their roles as facilitators as much as entertainers.
“I’m here to support, engage and enthuse,” Maxwell said suggestively.
Scott was more direct: “This is an effort to get y’all some tonight.”
Jill Scott setlist: Gimme, The Real Thing, Insomnia, It’s Love, Not Like Crazy > The Way, Come See Me, Crown Royal, I Love You (new song), Cross My Mind, Hear My Call (new song), He Loves Me, Hate on Me, A Long Walk, Golden.
Maxwell setlist: Sumthin’ Sumthin’ > Get to Know Ya > Cold, Lifetime, Bad Habits, This Woman’s Work, Help Somebody, Fistful of Tears, Stop the World, Reunion, Till the Cops Come Knockin’, Don’t Say Goodnight (Isley Brothers cover) > Fortunate, Ascension. Encore: Pretty Wings.