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The 17th Annual Houston International Jazz Festival

The Houston International Jazz Festival attracts two indie-soul heavyweights

Eric Roberson and Anthony David will likely be two of the biggest draws at this year's Houston International Jazz Festival. Some may see this as ironic, considering neither man actually plays jazz. However, if you're already a fan, that shouldn't be much of a problem — you'll be too psyched they're coming at all.

If you're not aware of either, shame on you. Roberson and David are in the vanguard of independent soul, alongside Frank McComb, Amel Larrieux, Conya Doss, N'dambi, etc. These artists bypass the major-label drama and drop music on their own terms, by their own damn selves.

If there were a general in this indie-soul battalion, it would be Roberson. In the past few years, the 33-year-old from Rahway, New Jersey — also the home state of underground soul men Gordon Chambers and V — has been alternative R&B's most recognizable voice. Roberson has released a slew of albums on his own Blue Erro Soul label, including his latest, ...Left. He's been drafted as guest vocalist for albums by beatnuts J. Rawls, DJ Spinna and Kev Brown, and he also has a steady songwriting career, penning tunes for Dwele, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and producer DJ Jazzy Jeff.

Anthony David (pictured) and Eric Roberson bring the vanguard of indie-soul to this weekend's Houston International Jazz Festival.
Anthony David (pictured) and Eric Roberson bring the vanguard of indie-soul to this weekend's Houston International Jazz Festival.

"I will say that my artistry went to another notch, another place musically because of the time I spent in Philadelphia," says Roberson from his South Jersey home. "Rocking with Jazzy Jeff and all the [production company] Touch of Jazz guys helped me tremendously."

Like most with flourishing careers, Roberson ("Erro" to his friends) has learned from past mistakes. He signed a deal with Warner Bros. while still attending Howard University, but apart from recording and releasing one single, nothing came of it.

These days, Roberson finds the independent life much more fulfilling. "I've always said I would never talk somebody out of doing a deal with a major," he says. "Or that I would never, ever do a deal with a major. But it's not the place right now. My focus right now is to turn my actual label into a powerhouse, to some degree, that we can not only put out my records, but probably put out some other artists as well. That's the goal."

Besides, Roberson sees nothing alluring about today's mainstream R&B that would make him want to inch toward the majors. "It's less now to even try to convince me to go there now, because it's doing poor," he says. "It's getting poorer by the second."

While Roberson distributes his music the DIY way, Savannah, Georgia native David has a little help from his friends. David's label, Brash Music, has distributed both his 2004 debut, 3 Chords & the Truth, and his latest, last year's The Red Clay Chronicles. But composing his music, David is on his own, which he says works out well for him.

"I have a studio," says David, 30, calling from his adopted hometown of Atlanta. "So basically, I just work out of my studio. And all the people that I'm associated with — you know, I live downtown — it's easy to get folks to come through and do their parts."

David rounded up several of the ATL's most valuable players for Chronicles. One track includes background vocals from fellow fringe R&B artist P.J. Morton, Tori Alamaze — the original, discarded vocalist on the Pussycat Dolls' hit "Don't Cha" — and Laurnea Wilkerson, formerly of Loose Ends and Arrested Development. On the album's centerpiece, "Words," he duets with longtime friend and occasional tourmate India.Arie.

For the most part, Chronicles shows David beaming with pride over the city; the title is a reference to Atlanta, which sits on top of red clay, and the talented performers he's happy to have as neighbors.

"It is a lot about things that are going on here," he says, referring to the same soul circle that has produced Cee-Lo, Joi, Donnie and transplanted Brit Julie Dexter. "I can either tell the side of the story that's being told a million times, or tell the side of a story that I see."

Roberson and David may differ vocally — Roberson's soft-spoken balladeer style is essential for quiet-storm fans, while David's smoky, raspy vocals are a must for those who like a touch of gospel with their R&B — but both aspire to spark a similar electric charge onstage. This is where both men say they work the hardest.

"It's been pretty much hotels and airports and stages," says Roberson, who tours ferociously, not just domestically but overseas in England and Japan. The same goes for David, who usually entertains audiences here and abroad with just a guitar and his songs. (They share the same international distributor.)

And it's not just David's own songs that unite his audiences. Whenever he covers an unlikely tune, like '80s Britpop/funk band Level 42's "Something About You," he's not the only one shocked at how everyone knows it. This may explain why he includes the song on Chronicles.

"A lot of black people are always surprised that they know it, and a lot of white people are surprised 'cuz they didn't know everybody that knew it," says David. "It shows a lot about how universal some good songs are, you know."

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