The music of Luther Vandross has always been played at low volume with the lights turned down, all the better to stoke the romantic embers. This tribute show — based on the recently released Verve album “Forever, for Always, for Luther” — played around a bit with that formula and actually ended up delivering its most involving moments when the performers ratcheted up the wattage a bit.
That was certainly true of singer Maysa, who gave the crowd its first shot of adrenaline with a roof-raising perf outfitted with just the right dose of melisma. Ledisi brought a similar energy to her version of “My Sensitivity,” but rather than Pentecostal testifying, the Oakland-based songstress alternated smart scatting and lyrical repetition to create a sort of soulful mantra.
A few of the evening’s participants crossed the line that separates self-assured from shrill. Saxophonist Mindi Abair, for instance, seemed to revert back to her days as a Backstreet Boys backing musician in a preening rendition of “Stop to Love” that sacrificed melody on the altar of flash. Brian Culbertson, while considerably less strident, was equally ill suited to negotiating the subtle curves of “If Only for One Night.”
Kirk Whalum, on the other hand, brought an appropriate degree of sensuality to “Any Love,” expanding the version he contributed to the “Forever, for Always, for Luther” disc with gently winding improvisation. Likewise, Lalah Hathaway took the caressing route to the heart of “Forever, for Always, for Love.”
Although at times disjointed — the sentimental value of the pre-taped get-well wishes played between performances was outweighed by their momentum-stopping — the concert ultimately served its purpose by giving voice to a soul icon who’s still unable to use his own.