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Hear and Now


"When I play the piano in the System II recording studio that used to be at Carnegie Hall I'm thinking, Duke Ellington played this piano," says pianist Jason Moran with evident awe. "I've got a bootleg recording of some raggedy jam session Charlie Parker did right around the corner from me. It's a lineage here in New York."

There's been one ever since the Harlem Renaissance, when Fletcher Henderson (from Atlanta), Coleman Hawkins (St. Joseph, Missouri), and Duke Ellington (Washington, D.C.) came to Sugar Hill to make it here. And New York is still the nation's only jazz proving ground for players like Moran, 26, who left Houston in 1993 to settle in Sugar Hill himself.

On his third album, Black Stars, which features the legendary 78-year-old saxophonist-flutist Sam Rivers, Moran draws on passions from hip-hop to free jazz and influences from Ligeti to De La Soul. Urbane and full of highbrow idiomatic nuance, Black Stars, says Moran, is an album he could only have made here in the city. "Growing up in Houston, I'd look at New York and it was surreal," he says. "It still is."

It's the weekend before this year's first Democratic primary, and the sixth annual Fordham Road Renaissance Festival has been decked out with signs welcoming Fernando Ferrer. But it isn't the neighborhood's favorite mayoral candidate who makes the women holding small children and the men drinking cerveza out of paper bags jostle to get close to the outdoor stage -- it's salsa singer La India.

With her coltish legs and mane of black hair, La India looks a bit like Jennifer Lopez. But unlike the videogenic Lopez, the 32-year-old La India can sing -- and she improvises trills and yelps that all but overwhelm her twelve-piece band's slinky salsa.

"I've always liked singers who had drama to what they did," she says later. "When I was little, I couldn't get enough of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand." But La India -- so nicknamed because of her dark complexion -- also absorbed the salsa, hip-hop, and house music she heard in her North Bronx neighborhood. "My parents played Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, but my older brothers and sisters went to clubs like the Paradise Garage," she explains, "and I grew up right near the Zulu Nation parties."

Her diverse influences show in both her traditional salsa recordings and the exuberant dance anthems on which she sings for the house-music production duo Masters at Work. "I don't consider myself just a salsa singer," she says. "I'd rather be thought of as an artist who sings rhythmic music, whether it's Afro-Caribbean or house."

Though the music business is reluctant to recognize such range, La India could follow Marc Anthony into the mainstream: After another album for the Latin-music label RMM, she'll record for Sony Latin. "Tommy Mottola knows my potential," she says, "but I think Sony is more excited about the tropical side of my music when they should be looking at me for the crossover." La India pauses, turning serious. "There's nobody in my category," she boasts, "who has been able to top me."

"Devil, you are a liar!" shouts Hezekiah Walker. "The blood of Je-sus is against you!" It's a hot Tuesday night, and the Pentecostal minister and Grammy-winning gospel singer is calling out to his congregation in the Love Fellowship Tabernacle in East New York. He's turned out the lights, and his booming baritone echoes off the low ceiling. "Satan, you are a lie! Uh-huh!" he yells, contrapuntal gasps emphasizing each furious breath as the members of his congregation clasp one another, praying and shouting.

"I love the Lord!" he shouts, choking the mike like a rapper and stamping a brutal tap-dance into the battered wooden stage. As Walker looks skyward, the lights flash on, the drummer kicks in, and the choir belts out Hallelujah. As Walker asks for a yeah, middle-aged women in their Sunday best dance with thugged-out young men in Sean Jean and Triple 5 Soul sweatshirts. One worshiper in fubu, baggy jeans, and cornrows passes out and gets carried down the aisle by friends.

Upstairs in his modest office, sitting on a leather sofa and typing messages into a Motorola pager, Walker explains that his hip-hop-influenced approach to gospel is designed to "update the church, make it a little more urban." Since founding the ministry in 1994, Walker, who grew up in the Fort Greene housing projects and lost both of his parents by 21, has recorded nine albums, each one immersing the gospel spirit ever deeper in the slick sound of contemporary hip-hop and R&B. Now, with another ministry in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Walker is on the brink of crossing over to MTV the way Kirk Franklin did. He's already been dubbed "the Pastor of Hip-Hop" for his role as spiritual adviser to stars like Lil' Kim, Nas, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

"I got a lot of flack from the church community at first," admits Walker, who, in true hip-hop style, drives a black Mercedes. "But reaching out is a pastor's job. You know, Billy Graham reached out to Johnny Cash." Of course, Graham never took it to the next level: Walker, with Combs, is co-producing the long-overdue Thank You, a gospel album on Combs's Bad Boy label that will pair his choir with R&B singers like Brandy, Faith Evans, and Brian McKnight.

And while Walker's been telling Combs that "he doesn't have to act like that to sell albums," it's clear that advice is flowing both ways. "I see what Sean does and I say, Okay, I could do that, too," says the pastor. So this winter, he'll unveil his new clothing line, Hezekiah Walker Wear.

Walker, who recently appeared with his choir on the "Tribute to Heroes" telethon, backing stars like Celine Dion, is already achieving the mainstream success most contemporary Christian singers can only pray for. Before the show, he remembers, "this guy Bon Jovi kept calling me. So I said I'd better look him up on the Web and find out who he is."

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