The joy of sound

Jill Scott brings back the Philly soul

“J-I-L-L S-C-O ...” For a moment this fall, Jill Scott couldn’t hear the lyrical calling card that introduced her to America on the Roots’ 1999 live album, The Roots Come Alive. She was suffering from Sudden Deafness Syndrome, at one point losing nearly 85 percent of the hearing in her right ear. It was an occupational hazard, likely the result of maintaining a hectic international touring schedule to promote her glistening debut, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1.
But as an artist whose life has been filled with music since she used to creep up to the bathroom door to listen to her grandmother sing — an artist whose song and poetry are heavily dependent upon cadence, intonation and timbre — the loss of her first sense was scary. “My equilibrium was off; my spirit was shaky,” Scott says from Philadelphia, where she’s resting in between legs of her national tour. “I’d never had anything like that happen, and it happened so suddenly. I wasn’t sick, I didn’t feel bad, nothing. I said to God, ‘Well, if you want me to do something else, I’m listening.’”
Fortunately, Jill Scott will have little problem hearing her calling when she swoops into the Tabernacle this weekend. Her auditory sensibilities have returned, and she is ready for her first visit to Atlanta since visiting a year ago with the Roots. “I cannot wait to get to Atlanta,” she says gleefully. “It’s brown strong.”
It was the Roots who helped catapult Scott into the public view, as the group rode the strength of “You Got Me” (which Scott co-wrote) to its first gold album. But while Scott performed the song on tour, Erykah Badu’s voice graced the recording. “That decision was made because no one knew who I was and the label felt they needed a face to help promote that album,” Scott recalls. “I wasn’t happy. The Roots were happy with my work, but in the long run, to be a writer and have the first thing you write sung by Erykah and held in such high acclaim, that’s a great way to begin.” The song also won a Grammy Award this year for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Now Scott basks in the glow of her own aura with Who Is ... , which cuts through the polluted, minimally serviceable music market like pure sandalwood first massaging the olfactory nerves. Its 17 tracks settle in pleasantly with the comfort of autumn, its true colors shining warmly through a muddied soundscape.
The project draws upon all the aspects of Scott’s Philadelphia upbringing, but mostly ... Jill Scott is about love: be it the Vaseline-on-the-face, inner-city-throwdown-preparation sort of love (“Getting in the Way”) or the post-coital, lay-in-bed, “Damn I need a cigarette” sort of love (“Love Rain”) or the Mars-meets-Venus, why-can’t-we-get-this-together sort of love (“Honey Molasses”). Scott’s cadre of Philadelphia production partners (including James Poyser, who has contributed to D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Eric Benet’s A Day in the Life; and Jazzy Jeff Townes, of Fresh Prince fame) provide her a Technicolor palette upon which she can — and does — take full poetic license. In all, the album resurrects and reinterprets the Philly International sound by combining the orchestration of MFSB, the texture of Dexter Wansell and the rawness of Schoolly D.
The showstopper is “A Long Walk,” a track its author says was inspired by her first date with her fiance. “I literally wrote down the date when I heard the music,” Scott sayes, the smile in her voice cutting through tour fatigue. “That was the first thing I cut. When I heard it, the words immediately started coming. It just happened so easily. We did it on the first take.”
She also wanted to convey a larger message. “I was letting men know that we’re still interested in romance,” Scott continues. “A long walk didn’t cost anyone anything and the conversation was priceless.”
With the album receiving such wide acclaim and buzz, about the only things Scott misses are anonymity and quietude, things that, ironically, her ear ailment had involuntarily forced upon her. “I like to ride the train, see my people running the streets, and it’s a little harder to do that now,” she says, noting that those quiet times inspire some of her best writing. “I’m not a star; I’m Jill. But I don’t want anyone to get the feeling that I don’t want to be bothered. I just want to be able create, and I’ll be able to create more for you that way.”
Jill Scott appears with Common, Fri., Oct. 27, at the Tabernacle. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.50, available through Ticketmaster.