Don't try asking Raul Malo what kind of music he plays.

"That is the hardest thing" to answer, the former Mavericks front man says over the phone from a tour bus en route to Spartanburg, S.C. "Whenever I run into somebody asking me, 'Well, what kind of music do you do?' I honestly am at a loss for words. I just say, 'I'm a singer-songwriter and my stuff is on iTunes,' and let them decipher it for themselves."

Malo, 43, is not kidding - at least about being tough to categorize. He rose to prominence in the '90s with the Mavericks playing a distinctive brand of tradition-minded yet progressive country. But he has also distinguished himself as an Orbisonesque rock balladeer and a Sinatra-style crooner, and he has incorporated the sounds of his Latin heritage into his music.

The desire to branch out - for a while he alternated solo and Mavericks work - led to tensions in the group and prompted him to leave, he says. "If the Mavericks would have had their way, I wouldn't have done any solo stuff . . . and that to me was not appealing at all. So I'd rather lose the Mavericks altogether and have my freedom."

That freedom is manifested in his new album,

Lucky One,

due March 3. Coproduced by Malo and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, it's Malo's first solo album of original material in seven years, after two covers sets, a Christmas album, and assorted other projects. Both lush and earthy, the new album abounds in retro echoes but still maintains a contemporary freshness as Malo weaves together country, rock, R&B, jazz and Latin.

"You have to look backward to move forward," says Malo, who will preview some of the songs at his Collingswood show Saturday but will highlight selections from last year's typically stylish yule set,

Marshmallow World and other Holiday Favorites.

"I have a lot of reverence for the people that have come before me. I think I definitely borrow from some of those things in the past, but hopefully put it in a more modern context. . . .

"Good music, at least to me, takes me somewhere, and that's usually someplace in the past. . . . If any of my songs do any of that for anybody, then I say that's a job well done."

Raul Malo's Christmas Party is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood. Tickets: $29 and $36. Phone: 856-858-1000.