Miki Howard - Private Collection (2008)

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    I always felt that Miki Howard would have opted to sing jazz full time if she had her druthers. She's not one of these R&B singers who turned to the Great American Songbook to revive a career when demographics and changing musical tastes made sticking with R&B and pop a choice with diminishing returns. Nope. Miki Howard included jazz standards on her albums when she was cranking out chart topping R&B joints such as "Love Under New Management" and "Come Share My Love." Plus, the standards Howard chose marked her as somebody who possessed more than a passing knowledge of the songbook material.

    She did Billie Holiday songs because Miki Howard loved Billie Holiday. Still, Howard left the beaten path when she went looking for a standard to record on her debut album. No "Misty," or  "Solitude" or "Someone to Watch Over Me," or any of those great songs that have been done to death. She went and found the overlooked gem "Imagination," fought the suits to get the tune included on the record and released the song as a single. Yes, Howard actually got urban radio programmers to play a song that included the phrase "willy nilly." So, if you wonder where Howard gets sassiness and guts to sing tunes such as "Beer for Breakfast," and "She" on Private Collection, her latest album, now you know.

    Private Collection is an album that includes five original R&B songs and five standards. However, in a real sense, even the original stuff on Private Collection is steeped in jazz and makes a glancing acknowledgement of soul, blues, funk and hip-hop. "Crazee," has a sparse arrangement that features the classic jazz rhythm section - upright bass, drums and piano. The mellow "Favorite Time of Year," features that staple of jazz drumming - metal brushes. Howard introduces the electric organ on the fun and bluesy "Beer For Breakfast." In that song, Howard employs a conversational tone to talk about how she's going to spend a day alone in the house. "She" is one that will likely cause a little speculation more than a little muttering. The song tells the story of a woman who finds some unexpected pleasure in a same sex tryst - to the extreme consternation of her male lover. The last of the original compositions, "You Made Me Love You," is a classic soul torch song.

    The second half of Private Collection is not nearly as entertaining as the first half, perhaps because Howard so respects the Great American songbook stuff that she approaches it material with museum-like reverence. The songs aren't bad, but they do pale in comparison to the five original tunes. The covers never quite come alive for me. The best of the covers is the song "Guess Who," a tune done most famously by Nancy Wilson. That song works because Howard sings it in the same conversational style that worked so well on "Beer for Breakfast."

    Even though Private Collection is uneven, it's probably a worthwhile buy because the original material is so strong. Besides, Howard's voice has grown and matured over the years and now has a smokiness that gives every song she sings a certain intimacy.

    By Howard Dukes