With young devotees like Duffy, Ryan Shaw and Amy Winehouse celebrating old-school soul, now's the perfect time for one of the old masters to be teaching class again.

Al Green

's new album of love tunes,

"Lay It Down" (Blue Note, A)

is truly a crash course worth taking.

Produced right here in Philadelphia by James Poyser and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the set took more than a year and tons of dough to make, yet never feels overcooked. That's largely because Green has a loosey-goosey, playful vocal quality that always seems spontaneous and right.

For just one example, dig how he ad libs some goofiness on "Lay It Down," suggesting, "I would love you for free." No, he's not gonna make his lady pay for the pleasure of his company!

Other faves - the Dap Kings horns and Poyser organ-peppered celebration of loyalty "Just For Me," an oh-so-sweet, Philly-to-Memphis soul-styled "No One Like You" and Green's honied harmonizing with Corrine Bailey Ray on the slow-burn instructional, "Take Your Time."

Also offering subtle support are the tasty guitar punctuations of Chalmers "Spanky" Alford, the smooth strings arranged by local legend Larry Gold, and backup singers Jaguar Wright and Mercedes Martinez. Fine cameos also come from Green's neo-soul spiritual offspring Anthony Hamilton and John Legend.

ENTER, USHER: Like more contemporary flava in your R&B? Usher is the man with the plan on "Here I Stand" (LaFace/Zomba, B+). When he wants to (and I think it's his natural inclination), the guy can go the traditional, soul-balladeering route, too.

Here he does it on tunes like the PG-rated, Stevie Wonderish declaration "Love You Gently" (which name checks Al Green and Marvin Gaye as romantic soundtrack inspirations), the hidden bonus track (wait for it!), "Will Work For Love," and Usher's vow to always stand by and pray for his offspring, "Something Special."

But this star also knows how to play the street game to win radio play. Here, he's hooking up with heavy-hitting rappers like Young Jeezy, who demonstrates how to put the moves on the girls in "Love in the Club," and with Jay Z, who suggests it's finally time the "boy becomes a man" on the track "Best Thing." Beyonce, will.i.am and Lil Wayne also make appearances.

Usher carries the whole show by himself, though, on the best, most theatrical track, "Trading Places," in which he becomes the passive player during a sex scenario and also the morning after - when he's serving her the Folgers and making the bed, walking the dog in "just my T-shirt" and letting her take him out and buy him stuff.

CRAVING STILL MORE? Self-proclaimed "Soul Prince" Calvin Richardson serves up plenty of passion and precious soul-pop on his new platter, "When Love Comes" (Shanachie, B). Any other week, with less competition, he would have gotten more ink and maybe even a better grade.

A WORLD OF ROCK: Rootsy, down-home storyteller John Hiatt is reminiscing about the good old days as only he can on the crafty "Same Old Man" (New West, A-). Hiatt's howling polecat voice seems even more weathered than usual on some tracks, like the slide-Dobro-flavored "On With You" (which riffs a bit like "All Along the Watchtower"). But whatever the cause, the effect works.

On "Perfect Time for a Breakdown" (CBS, B+), Philly-based singer/songwriter Sharon Little shows off a smoky, sultry vocal confidence and the blues-tinged material to match, co-written with local guy Scot Sax.

Fans of Grace Potter and Joan Osborne will easily connect the dots here. And what a great Cinderella story Little has to share: Two months ago, she was waiting tables. Next month she'll be on tour as the opening act for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

From Japan with beads, bells and incense comes Love Psychedelico with (what else?) "This Is Love Psychedelico" (Hacktone, A-). A frisky, frothy co-ed duo, they've been twisting my brain inside out with their nimbly shape-shifting, bilingual Japlish lyrics (listen long enough and it makes sense) and super-catchy guitar- and keyboard-buzzing rock, which samples classic flavors from the B-52s to Mott the Hoople to "Money" man Barrett Strong.

The duo has sold four million albums on home turf since 2001; this U.S. introduction represents a "best of" those domestic releases.

Aussie duo the Veronicas got their girly-whirly electropop spinning again on "Hook Me Up" (Warner Bros, B), available today as a digital download. They're back in town at the TLA on June 16.

In his youth, he was billed as France's answer to Elvis Presley. But as heard on the CD and DVD concert releases "Live At Montreux" (Eagle Rock, B), Johnny Hallyday makes an equally strong connection to the boulevard-balladeering ways of Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, only with screeching guitars and drums a-blazing.

BROADWAY BABIES: As a child, I was spoon-fed on the original cast album of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," until songs like "Some Enchanted Evening" and "There Ain't Nothing Like a Dame" became part of my DNA.

So believe it when I say that the new Broadway cast recording (Masterworks Broadway, A) of the show starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot is really, really fine. The cast dramatizes the songs in a wonderfully natural fashion, orchestrations are true to the originals (with a luxurious 30 pieces in the pit band!), and the CD adds bits of material - like Lt. Cable's song about his home in Philadelphia, and the second, "Entra'acte" overture, which couldn't be fitted on the original, "long-playing" vinyl album.

Devotees of exotic and/or cheesy film-noir classics from the 1940s and '50s (think anything with Peter Lorre) will delight in the recording of last season's wacky off-Broadway musical, "Adrift in Macao" (LML Music, B). The mercilessly parodistic lyrics are by Christopher Durang, and the equally impressive, genre-jumping music's by Peter Melnick, one of two grandsons of Richard Rodgers (the other being Adam Guettel), now walking in the man's giant footsteps.

Ever been close to the planning of a wedding? If so, you'll get a kick and maybe a few tears out of the cast recording of "A Catered Affair" (PS Classics, B). John Bucchino supplied the supple score and Harvey Fierstein the book, and the show stars Faith Prince, Tom Wopat (yes, the former country singer) and Fierstein himself in the plummiest role of the gay uncle who saves the day.

JAZZ TIME: It ain't every day that somebody comes up with a new recording by Charlie Parker. So fans of the super saxophonist should stand up and cheer "Charlie Parker & Arne Domnerus In Sweden" (Oktav, B), a newly unearthed concert recording from 1950 that adds four fuzzy tracks and about 15 minutes to Bird's legacy. (Saxophonist Domnerus is co-billed 'cause he takes over on three other tunes.)

Fans of Hammond B3 organ-based jazz ensembles will go bonkers over Vince Seneri's "The Prince's Groove" (PVR Records, A), a recent but classic '60s-boppin' style session also featuring the likes of trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Houston Person and flute man Dave Valentin.

Warm up for the fusion jazz superstars' forthcoming reunion tour, landing Aug. 5 at the Mann, with "Return To Forever: The Anthology" (Concord, A-). *