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OutKast Bring the Jazz

Rap duo draw on the Thirties for "Idlewild" jams

October 7, 2005 12:00 AM ET

While preparing for her big-screen debut, R&B singer-songwriter Alicia Keys releases her first Unplugged CD/DVD this Tuesday. "I wanted to be able to bring it back to the essence of me as a performer," she says, "intimate and personal."

Recorded live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on July 14th, the session features pared-down versions of songs such as "Fallin'" and "A Woman's Worth," off her 2001 debut Songs in A Minor, as well as a few special duets: Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine on a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," and Common, Mos Def and Damian Marley on a fusion of Keys' "Love It or Leave It Alone" and Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock." The disc also debuts two new songs: "Unbreakable," which is already in heavy rotation on MTV, and "Stolen Moments," co-written by soul legend Al Green.

Before committing to work on a new studio album, which she plans to do early next year, Keys is readying her film debut, rehearsing for Smokin' Aces. The film stars Jeremy Piven (HBO's Entourage) -- as well as, according to Keys, Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta -- and is written and directed by Joe Carnahan (2002's Narc). Shooting for the movie, about a Las Vegas comedian (Piven) who turns mafia informer, begins November 4th. Keys plays the part of an assassin.

"He has a very, dark, gritty style," Keys says of director Carnahan. "I sometimes compare him to Quentin Tarantino, in the sense that it's very out there."

In addition, Keys is set to star in Halle Berry's film adaptation of Compositions in Black and White, Kathryn Talalay's biography of Forties Harlem piano prodigy Philippa Schuyler. Keys -- a graduate of Manhattan's Professional Performance Arts School, where she acted before becoming a professional musician -- had vowed not to play a pianist onscreen, but she was seduced by Schuyler's fascinating life. Born to a black journalist father and a white heiress, by age five Schuyler was composing for the piano; by her teenage years, she was touring internationally. Throughout, she encountered bias, both because of her race and her gender.

"It felt perfect for me," Keys says of the role. "It's about this woman who grew up in Harlem, where I grew up, who is obviously half-black and half-white, like I am, who studied classical, like I did. But the twist comes in for me, obviously, because the time period had so much tension." Shooting for the film may begin in late 2006.

Keys, whose 2001 debut Songs in A Minor sold ten million albums worldwide and 2003 follow-up The Diary Of Alicia Keys another seven million, says the next studio album is "in the process of being developed." Her third studio effort, she reveals, will move in a new direction.

"I feel it will be more raw; I feel it will be more aggressive; I feel it will be more in your face," says Keys. "Like you can picture Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin: very gorgeous, strong songs -- but with a little bit more mm-hm in there."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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