R.I.P. Smooth Jazz, Round Two

by Will Layman

5 November 2008

Smooth Jazz truly is the music of the gesture. It is music of the pose. It is music -- maybe particularly when it is made by a skillful musician -- that hints at real music without being real music.
Jeff Lorber 

This past April, I wrote an obituary for “smooth jazz” (R.I.P. Smooth Jazz, 1985-2008?). There was some pushback.

Alan Kurtz at jazz.com called it “premature” and was put-off by what he called my “smugness”. He also claimed that listening to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” was “like undergoing root canal minus anesthetic while enduring bagpipes on headphones”, and he celebrated “the virtues of background music”. Hmmm.

cover art

Jeff Lorber

Heard That

US: 30 Sep 2008
UK: Available as import

Keith Goetzman at utne.com was kinder to my analysis and more rational as a jazz listener. However, he ominously noted: “I suspect it will take more than a presumptuous obituary to draw a death rattle from Kenny G’s horn. After all, the Yellowjackets have a CD coming out next week, and elevators and hotel lobbies everywhere have dead air to fill.”

And so, perhaps it’s true that Smooth Jazz is not a corpse yet. I like to think, however, that I stand over the grave, holding a heavy shovel in hand.

Which brings me to Jeff Lorber.

Not Shooting Fish in a Barrel
There is no shortage of music marketed as Smooth Jazz that is scraping-the-bottom terrible—computer sequenced to the point of puerile sterility, plastic in tone and sensibility, as repetitive as the hiccups. Writing about, and criticizing, this music is too easy and too boring. Like the music itself.

But the real indictment of Smooth Jazz is that even the good stuff is exhausted.

As I have previously detailed (perhaps to death), Smooth Jazz traveled a long and interesting itinerary on its way to the mood music marketplace.  Jeff Lorber—a Berklee student born in Philly in 1952—came along with a band called Jeff Lorber Fusion in 1977, releasing two albums on the highly credible independent jazz label, Inner City. This was hardly first-generation fusion, the acidic and aggressive stuff that arrived in the early ‘70s in the wake Miles’ Bitches Brew. But it had some snap to it, or at least enough so that Chick Corea himself and former Return to Forever-ite Joe Farrell appeared on the band’s sophomore release, Soft Space in 1978.

What I’m saying is that Lorber, despite the longish perm he sports on his old album covers, is no mere whetstone upon which a jazz journalist might sharpen his rhetorical tools of resentment.

However, even in his early period, Lorber plainly had a taste for the smooth stuff. Only two years after Soft Space, he picked up a saxophonist for his band named Kenny Gorelick. You know, that Kenny. Lorber had moved over to Arista Records, and his song titles included the evocative “Sweet”, the self-explanatory “Fusion Juice”, the futuristic “Wizard Island”, and the banal “Reflections”.

Fast forward 27 years and through much music being used on the Weather Channel. And where do we find the now middle-aged Mr. Lorber? On Blue Note Records. That’s right. Blue Note. He Had a Hat came out in 2007 and it was nominated for a Grammy.

My point being only this: Smooth/Fusion Keyboardist Jeff Lorber is not a terrible hack or any kind of untalented poseur. But his most recent recording, Heard That (Peak Records), remains a full-on indictment of Lorber’s genre. It is precisely because it is not terrible or wholly bankrupt that this disc demonstrates that Smooth Jazz is an empty gesture that has, finally, run its course. In short, this is the pretty-good stuff, and it’s still a nightmare.

I’ll write about the music, to be sure, but before you can listen to Heard That, you have to open up the compact disc itself.

(Note: If this were some other kind of music, I might not put as much emphasis on the CD packaging, as more and more music is not sold in disc-form but is downloaded, legally or otherwise, by savvy less-than-middle-aged music consumers. Smooth Jazz, however, is a particularly CD-centric form of music with a demographic between 30 and 65 according to Arbitron, the company that pretty much knows when the average music consumer takes a dump every day, not to mention what he/she buys and why. That makes the average Smooth Jazz-ophile, Wow!, almost exactly my age, which is 47.5 and counting. These folks still buy CDs, even if not in the quantity they used to.)

On the cover of Heard That is a color photograph of a dog that I believe to be a Boston Terrier. This dog is staring up at the camera against a white background, and he/she can only be classified as, like, heart-numbingly cute and adorable. This is the kind of dog that, say, a person in the 30-65 demographic might see at the pound or in a PetSmart and think, “I’m kind of missing my kids about now, off at their fancy colleges, and wouldn’t it be great to have a new friend?” Presto-Buyo.

Am I being cynical about why Lorber (or, more likely, the good people at Peak Records) would put a hyperbolically cute Boston Terrier on this CD cover? Well, what other reason could there be? Arguably the little poochie has his/her ear cocked, thus relating the dog back to the album title. Maybe.

The title itself is hard to pass over if you’re feeling cynical. “Heard That” is articulated here without the question mark that would make it a provocative question, presumably to be answered in the negative. As a statement, “Heard That” is—you betcha—a perfect description of the contents of this CD. Inside there will be (1) lite funk rhythms, (2) shimmering keyboards, (3) pentatonic melodies that sound exactly like a million other pentatonic melodies, including the improvised pentatonic melodies that will pass for “solos” on these very songs, (4) a handful of innocuous horn solos on trumpet and saxophone that either are actually played by Rick Braun and Gerald Albright or, in the alterative, sound exactly like they were played by Mssrs. Braun and Albright, (5) and you get the idea. “Heard That” indeed—and don’t say you weren’t warned.

(Another Note: The average 47.5 year-old Smooth Jazz Fan might point out that “Heard That” is not a warning at all but rather an advertisement or product promise. “This recording,” the title suggests, “is just what you are expecting.  It’s what you want.” It’s like a photo of a Big Mac outside a McDonalds. “Tasted THAT”!  Exactly right.)

Lorber dropping some keytar science.

Lorber dropping some keytar science.

When the eager 47.5 year-old consumer gets past the CD sealing, there is a glossy CD booklet to be enjoyed.  The booklet contains one photograph of Mr. Lorber, no longer curly-locked but now sporting a conservative middle-aged (he is currently 55 and nicely within his own demographic) side-part, standing on a dimly lit sidewalk in front of a telephone pole and a “No Stopping Any Time” parking sign, hands in pockets. Presumably somewhere in Southern California where, needless to say, the vast majority of the album was recorded. It also contains eight photographs of Mr. Lorber playing a cool-looking knob-covered synthesizer of some kind. Open-collared but with his dark purple-ish cuffs perfectly buttoned, Lorber takes on the role of a hip accountant with a snazzy wristwatch who happens to play some keyboards. For guys 30-65 (and, though I am not an authority on what women within the demographic find sexy, maybe gals too), this might well be a decent fantasy image. You could do worse than to own a cool-looking knobby synth and a Boston Terrier and know what to do with each of them.

Also in the booklet, we learn that six of the ten tracks were co-written with the album’s co-producer, another keyboard guy and Smooth Jazz regular named “Rex Rideout”. Promotional material for Heard This states plainly that Lorber considers it a huge honor and genuine opportunity to work with Mr. Rideout on this recording, as RR has apparently produced Luther Vandross as well as Gerald Albright, Will Downing, the Smoothified George Benson, and Richard Elliot. I would note here only that I would be willing to gamble much of my kids’ college funds that no one unassociated with the production of this disc could possibly tell the Rideout-co-written tunes from the non-Rideout tunes in a blind listening test.

Finally, the booklet tells us that Amy Winehouse’s middle name is “Jade”, which I did not know.

As you might have guessed, Lorber performs Winehouse’s mega-hit “Rehab” on this new album. It’s hard to know what to say about this track, musically. If you know the original, then you know it has a retro feel, with a syncopated surf-meets-hip-hop beat, old-fashioned horns, a ‘50s-style piano line, and the distinctive use of orchestral bells. And, of course, it is sold by Winehouse’s vintage vocal delivery.

Lorber’s version sands every edge on the original to a satiny polish. The percussion track erases all traces of hip-hop and of Memphis. The horns are genericized to the point where they could be synths. The only bass is from Lorber’s keys. The melody is played by piano—or maybe by a keyboard pad that combines piano with organ?—and by a Wurlitzer electric piano on the bridge. Eventually, Lorber improvises on acoustic piano, leading to more melody and then a fade-out. The out-chorus is pretty exciting, with Lorber getting in some Richard Tee-style two-handed gospel playing. Because, as I’ve said, Lorber can really play. But the best stuff is faded out.

What this cover of “Rehab” really amounts to is a backing track. You might sing the tune on top of it, karaoke-style. The only problem is, everyone at the party would wonder why the track behind you was so soft and mushy.

“Rehab” is not alone in seeming like karaoke. “Come on Up” starts the album with a driving drum track and quickly lays out a pseudo-melody on Fender Rhodes electric piano. This melody—and very nearly every instrumental melody on Heard This—is a generic pentatonic lick. It could be almost any set of notes in the blues scale over the song’s harmonies. And this is clear because when Lorber solos on that same pentatonic scale, the improvisation is just a subtle variant of the generic melody. As a result, these tunes have no distinctive melody. The track sounds like it needs someone to sing over it. And when the track’s brief bit of vocalizing arrives (“Uuhh!

Come on up, now!”) it sounds like the limited background singing that ought to accompany the real, but utterly absent, lead vocal.

“Don’t Stop” has the same feeling of being a plate without an entrée. Chelsea Nicole sings, “Don’t you stop the music”, and the easy soul groove begins, then Lorber plays some more pentatonic stuff, and eventually there is a background-ish horn line, with that one line of singing repeating again after some eight bars.  So…where is the lead vocal?

Glimpses of Life, But Mere Gestures
Here and there, because Lorber is in fact no slouch, a track seems to take off on its own. “Gamma Rays” has a skittering excitement, generated by a semi-memorable melody played by keyboard and flute in tight unison. And “Night Sky” features a keen combination of Harmon-muted trumpet and tenor sax in conversation with the piano. The title track features Albright’s alto sax in genuinely soulful song, including a passage of punching unison with the bass, trumpet, and tenor sax.

But these moments, cheerful as they are, simply work to lay bare how bleached-out the rest of the tracks seem. On that Blue Note album from 2007, there are a couple of clearer flashes of “real” music, such as “BC Bop”. Amazon.com’s reviewer, Eugene Holley, Jr. (who, additional Side Note here, as a kid used to work in a bunch of DC record stores that I frequented, and who, even then, knew his stuff, but who here is pretty plainly just trying to sell some CDs, I’m sorry to say—still, Hey, Eugene!) writes that this tune “proves that some smooth stars still have a little hard bop left in them.” Fair enough, except that “BC Bop” is all of 2:28 in length, which is shorter than most pop songs created for AM radio in the old days.

The point being: even these brief glimpses of “real jazz” are not much more than Lorber’s other splashes of color—a quick organ line, a dash of reggae guitar, a single line of soul singing, a hint of gospel. All these things, including the moments of seeming authenticity, are just gestures.

Smooth Jazz truly is the music of the gesture. It is music of the pose. It is music—maybe particularly when it is made by a skillful musician—that hints at real music without being real music. It is a kind of simulacrum of music, a hollow suggestion rather than something truly filled up. It sounds great, kind of, in the same way that a beauty queen looks great coming toward the audience in Atlantic City. The music on Heard That no doubt took plenty of work to arrange and perform, and the skill of the performers is manifest. But, ultimately, the music adds up to little more than a set of gestures put together for effect. Behind it all, there’s just air.

The Paradox
It is not that Heard That reaches new depths of Smooth Jazz despair. It’s actually not bad, and Lorber himself does good work, particularly when he plays on vintage keyboards such as the Rhodes or the Wurlitzer.

But, given that Lorber is, in fact, about the best that Smooth Jazz has to offer, the desperate state of the music is that much clearer. Even the relatively good stuff is being check-out-the-cute-dog marketed to a specific demographic. Even a talented player has his solos faded down after four minutes. Even a guy with taste for vintage keyboards conceives of taking a cool retro-hip song like “Rehab” and bleaching it of everything that gives it soul.

Smooth Jazz must be dead when its best stuff smells of the worst kind of generic Wal-Mart marketing and shorthand imitation. Maybe this stuff will garner Lorber another Grammy nomination. And that will only serve to remind us that something here is very, very wrong. Still.

Smooth Jazz, I rest my case.

You’re down—now stay down.

Good riddance.

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