After Three-Year Layoff, En Vogue Come Back Classical

Masterpiece Theater includes songs that sample Beethoven, Tchaikovsky.

During the three years between En Vogue's previous album, EV3, and this week's release, Masterpiece Theater, acts such as Destiny's Child and TLC have taken their place at the top of the charts.

But En Vogue singer Maxine Jones says she doesn't feel any pressure to reclaim the R&B girl-group crown.

"We weren't sure how everybody was going to take [the album], or if the niche that we had carved for ourselves was still there," Jones said from a Burbank, Calif., rehearsal studio, where the group had been rehearsing for Monday's "Tonight Show" appearance on NBC-TV. "We just wanted to create music that we could be proud of."

After teaming with such big-name producers as Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds for EV3, Jones and her fellow singers, Cindy Herron and Terry Ellis, decided to stick with their original production team, Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, for Masterpiece Theater.

"The wonderful thing about them is that when everybody else is thinking right, they're thinking left," Jones said. "We wanted to incorporate some of the stuff way from the past, as well as getting back to some really hardcore R&B."

When Jones says "way from the past," she means it. Masterpiece Theater includes several songs that take their musical foundation from well-known classical compositions. "Love You Crazy" (RealAudio excerpt) is built on Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," while "Sad but True" comes from Ludwig van Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

En Vogue's Early Years

The San Francisco group released its first album, Born to Sing, in 1990 and followed it with 1992's Funky Divas. The group's tight vocal harmonies, distinctive individual voices and sexy image landed them such top-10 hits as "Free Your Mind" and "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" (RealAudio excerpt).

Singer Dawn Robinson made the foursome a trio when she left the group in 1997 to pursue a solo career; she's now a member of R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl. But EV3 still featured her vocals on several tracks, including "Don't Let Go (Love)," a sultry rock ballad that went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

"Riddle," the first single from Masterpiece Theater, is a sassy sing-along featuring tinkling keyboards and plucked strings. "We wanted to pick something that was really radio friendly, so that people could get a little taste of us first, before we ventured into the classical stuff," Jones said.

Jones also said it was Foster and McElroy's idea to experiment with classical music. The group started working with composer Nina Rota's "Main Title (The Godfather Waltz)," from the 1972 movie "The Godfather." The track does not appear on Masterpiece Theater because the group couldn't get permission to release it, but it provided the impetus for further forays into classical territory.

Classical Slant Was A Challenge

Jones said the classically based songs presented the group with new vocal challenges, especially "Sad but True."

"It changes keys so many times, it was hard to do any ad-libbing, because you could go through like two bars and then you're out, you're in a whole other key," Jones said. "It was like, 'Oh God, please, do we have to do this?' And it worked."

Jones said she doesn't get a chance to listen to much new R&B, since taking care of her 4-year-old daughter occupies most of her time. She said she hadn't heard anything from Robinson's new group and doesn't feel any competition with her former singing partner, whose album, like En Vogue's, came out Tuesday.

"It gives people something to talk about on both sides," Jones said.

For her part, Robinson said the sounds on Masterpiece Theater affirmed her decision to leave the group. "I could see the direction they were going in," Robinson said. She wouldn't comment further, saying only that "things take time to grow on you. I haven't heard the album enough to form a good point of view."

Jones said the challenge now before En Vogue is learning how to sing the new material live. "We're definitely going to have to get a good vocal coach in there to make sure the harmonies are all worked out," she said. "That's what we normally do anyway, is get a good vocal coach, because the most important thing to us is that we sound good when we're out there."

She said the group will play several summer radio festivals, though no dates have been confirmed, and a tour is planned for the fall.