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A solid tribute to Vandross

Always made with the best intentions, tribute albums can yield wildly uneven results. Some participants are so reverent they lapse into unfortunate impersonations, while others are so ill-suited for the material, one wonders why they were even invited in the first place. Rare are the inspired performances that succeed both as an homage and a great recording in its own right.

''So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross" was already in the works before the great R&B singer's death in July from complications from a stroke he suffered in 2003. Boasting an A-list roster, including Usher, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Elton John (in a studio-tweaked duet featuring Vandross's original vocals on ''Anyone Who Had a Heart"), Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, it misses most of the pitfalls that plague such collections. There's one certified gem, several above-average efforts, a few head-scratchers, and only one true misfire.

On the duet ''If This World Were Mine," Alicia Keys is joined by Jermaine Paul. Although Keys is simply too good for a bad performance, she seems to be holding something back. Save for a brief spark in the song's closing minute, a deeper, lasting passion never kicks in.

Compare that with Angie Stone's shimmering ''Since I Lost My Baby." She has one of the best voices around -- warm, mature, sexy -- matched with enough confidence to let a song unfold organically. She doesn't stampede the lyrics, or undermine the song with showy tricks, yet at the same time she makes her mark. Produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it's a lovely, memorable performance.

It also helps that it isn't one of those tunes indelibly identified with Vandross -- unlike ''A House Is Not a Home." No one should ever mess with his signature song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But you have to figure if anyone could take it on, it would be the Queen of Soul, one of Vandross's favorite singers.

Yet Franklin -- and it pains me to say this -- no longer has the pipes to carry it off. (Somehow, this seems like saying Mike Tyson can no longer fight. He's not the boxer he once was, but he can still pound most of us into dust.) At times, Franklin's voice is so scratchy, she barely sounds like herself. She gets through the performance on sheer will, but it's still a disappointment.

Better is Fantasia, who takes the joyful ''Til My Baby Comes Home" straight to church, while Celine Dion mostly reins in her usual excesses for the emotional ''Dance With My Father." Wyclef turns the evergreen ballad ''Always and Forever" into a half-sung, half-rapped reggae two-step. Yeah, it's kind of a mess, but at least it's more interesting than Usher's take on ''Superstar," which sticks as close as possible to Vandross's version, right down to the ad-libs.

Beyonce and Stevie Wonder team up for ''So Amazing," and it's glorious to hear Wonder again. Oddly, he doesn't get to sing ''Creepin," which he wrote -- that honor goes to Jamie Foxx, who finally shows that, as a singer, he can do more than just a dead-on Ray Charles imitation.

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