Leon Ware described himself precisely during his early set at the Blue Note on Monday night. “I’m a sensualist, meaning that I pray to sex,” he said from behind his sunglasses. He also called himself a “religious pervert.” His prayers are incantations delivered in weightless, improvisatory vocals above undulating grooves; they’re entreaties of yearning and devotion.
Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times Leon Ware: The singer performed languid, leisurely sets at the Blue Note on Monday.
“I want you, but I want you to want me too,” he sang in “I Want You,” the title song from the Marvin Gaye album that he produced and partly wrote.
It’s sensuality in suspended time, lingering in the moment, with singer and band savoring every intimate nuance. A song on Mr. Ware’s new album, “Moon Ride” (Stax), is called “Just Take Your Time,” and while the early set didn’t include it, Mr. Ware heeded his own advice.
Mr. Ware, 68, grew up in Detroit and made his way to Motown Records .
Although he’s best known for “I Want You,” Gaye’s 1976 album, Mr. Ware is one of the architects of a 1970s R&B style that never disappeared, spanning soul and neo-soul. He worked on hits for Michael Jackson (” I Wanna Be Where You Are “), Minnie Riperton (“Inside My Love”) and the Average White Band via Quincy Jones (“If I Ever Lose This Heaven”) in the ’70s, and he collaborated with Maxwell on “Sumthin’ Sumthin’ “ in the mid-1990s. The Blue Note set mingled his hits for others with songs from “Moon Ride,” all with the same unhurried approach.
The band was supple and assured, cruising through the songs as if they were jams. It included Onaje Allen Gumbs on piano and Selan Lerner on electric keyboards, with Maya Azucena as Mr. Ware’s backup singer, duet partner and figurative object of desire. The rhythms held undercurrents of bossa nova, gospel, reggae and thumb-popping funk; the arrangements were full of jazzy chords and rippling glissand os.
Luckily, Mr. Ware has the voice of a genuine singer, not a typical producer. It’s a velvety high tenor, never pushy, that can be remarkably similar to Gaye’s voice. He slipped phrases between the beat or made them float above it, praising and promising; he crooned, implored and teased.
This wing of R&B can easily turn cheesy or crude, and often does. Between songs Mr. Ware hinted that he might get raunchier in the late set. But instead he kept his songs knowing and poised. They fused elegance and aband on, confidence and longing, need and fulfillment; they understood primal pleasures in an adult way.
At the end of his set, climbing the stairs toward the Blue Note’s dressing room, Mr. Ware paused on a land ing to sing a little longer with his wireless microphone. For the moment he was a preacher of sensuality in his pulpit.