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Arts: Pop: Soul man finds perfect pitch

WHAT DO you do with a voice? A recent Mojo magazine celebrated Aretha Franklin as the singer of the century, and she hasn't made a decent album in nearly 30 years. While he's not yet in the Aretha class, David McAlmont can certainly be talked about in the same urgent, soulful breath.

How best to harness his gorgeous instrument, however, hasn't been entirely clear up to now. A background in indie-crossover acts, first with Thieves, and then in the brief partnership with Suede's Bernard Butler, allowed McAlmont to avoid the black hole that all Brit-soul careers seem to end up in. But where was it leading to, other than occasional Shirley Bassey pastiche?

Thankfully, on the recent solo album A Little Communication (Hut), McAlmont has put his soul cards on the table. The result is a record, produced by Tommy D, with backings stripped to the bone, that just keeps getting better with every listen. The rare jewel of a voice is at last given a setting worthy of it. Whether the programmed beats and murmurs could be reproduced live remained the wild card in the pack.

A pre-gig soundtrack of Al Green's greatest hits tempted fate, but once McAlmont took the stage, all doubts vanished immediately. The superbly versatile and laid-back quartet of two keyboard players, bass and drums stroked out the insouciant rhythms; the singer took his position by the microphone, and we all prepared to swoon. Almost from the first note, it was achingly, breathtakingly good. With his retro specs and the sweeping gestures of his pipe-cleaner arms making him look like a less messianic version of Malcolm X, McAlmont was a marvel.

Unlike Al Green, Aretha or Marvin Gaye (whose "Sexual Healing" era beatbox rhythms are copied occasionally on the new album), McAlmont's voice is more airy than earthy. Rather than testify, he soars, twitters and trills like a miraculous bird. The mastery of his voice and microphone technique are quite remarkable. Notes are projected at an intimate volume and then subtly caressed, with the off-mike breath calibrated to produce the desired effect. The only doubt is that the music is so subtle and elegant, and McAlmont's charm so sophisticated, you wonder if they risk going over the audience's heads.

Though the performance was one of the best I've ever heard from a vocalist, the encore was far from assured. It came all the same, in the beautiful form of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", with the opening verses sung wonderfully, not by McAlmont, but by keyboard player and bassist. It was magical already, but when it came to McAlmont's turn it got better still. What a voice!

Phil Johnson

McAlmont plays the Jazz Cafe, London NW1, tonight. His new single `A Little Communication', was released yesterday on Hut Recordings