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After more than a decade playing backup for Sade, Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale, and Paul Denman are stepping (for the moment) from behind the shadow of the diva of love and misery to form their own gig. They admit that Sweetback is an extension of her highness but are taking advantage of newfound artistic freedom to explore territory beyond the ethereal blues that has become the smooth operator’s tag. Question is, can the popular shadow players stay afloat minus the vocals of the sure-fire hitstress? It’s looking pretty damn likely, given the jazzy-phat-nasty tracks on their mostly instrumental debut. Still, though the band members are quick to explain that they play for the heart and not the kudos of Billboard, they are no doubt hip to the fact that their audience favors tunes complemented by airy vocals. So maybe it’s no coincidence that on the trio’s first single, “You Will Rise,” Sweetback is fronted by Groove Theory’s Amel Laurrieux; the rookie diva offers the same simplistically mellow style that Sade devotees are keen on. Sweetback also ably tosses up musical settings for other singers; soulster Maxwell is hypnotic on “Softly, Softly,” which becomes untouchable once the instrumentals rip through, and rapper-fatale Bahamadia glides her rhymes like velvet over the funky “Au Natural.” Sweetback similarly parades its diversity on instrumental tracks, but when partnered with such extraordinary vocalists, the band promises to explode.

—Deborah Rouse