LListening to Kenny Garrett’s sweet-tough sax on Happy Days, his seventh outing for Warners, it is tempting to speculate on what might have happened if smooth jazz had not appeared on the scene. Instead of two separate schools (late modernist and smooth),we might instead be used to hearing more albums like this one. Happy Days, while not short on experimentation and post-bop edginess, leans heavily towards warm, soul-tinged fusion. It is not a smooth album as such but may find itself competing more in that market than in that of its rarefied and increasingly distant cousin.
Indeed, it strays far enough down the populist road to have made the “serious” critics’ hit list. The taste-guardians have been busy and reviews have echoed to a dismissive mantra—“Cloying”, “Bland”, “Commercial”, etc. etc. . . . However, to my coarsened ears, Garrett and Co. display an improvisatory drive that will test the bravery any standard smooth jazz radio programmer. This is jazz, do not believe some of what you may have read.
Despite the rush to condemn, Garrett has attained enough respect and industry clout not to worry overly and I think, if the radio stations of whichever ilk back him, he could attract plenty of new listeners while retaining the support of the less Leninist of former devotees. If he does, jazz will be the winner, for it might encourage a few other more formulaic musicians to stretch out a little. At its best, this album shows that you can be melodic, funky, and pop-friendly without sacrificing boldness and imagination.
It is true that such is the easy, feel-good flow that you hardly notice that Happy Days is actually awash with “real” jazz’s requisite triumvirate—6/8 time signatures, Far Eastern motifs and some unrestrained (if not exactly “free”) soloing. Garrett and producer Marcus Miller manage to keep things in groove-mode to the extent that someone who wants their sax playing no more demanding than Grover or Gerald Albright should find much to enjoy, while demonstrating a creativity and a diversity that ought to (but won’t) placate those who are keener on the experienced altoist’s earlier, more “orthodox” efforts.
Choice of producer, material and fellow musicians for such a project are crucial and, in this case, are appropriate to the task and prime reasons for its success. Both Miller’s distinctive bass and his recent track record do not currently go down well with the cognoscenti, but here his playing is excellent and his production well suited to the aims of the disc. The material includes down-the-line jazz-funk and soul-flavoured uplift, incorporates some Korean and Japanese themes, takes in the odd winsome ballad and finishes with an extended post-Bop chaser. None of it is particularly groundbreaking and as a package it is sometimes too unthreatening, but monotone and mindless it most certainly is not.
Garrett’s quartet consists of himself (alto and soprano sax), Vernell Brown (piano), Chris Dave (drums), and Charnett Moffett (acoustic bass). Apart from Miller, guests include guitarist Randy Razz and trumpeter Patches Stewart. Vibesman Bobby Hutcherson and ex-Zhane soulstress Jean Norris make the most telling appearances. These two indicate some of the problems this album has had with more staid commentators and some of the prejudices underpinning those comments.
Hutcherson plays on four tracks and is exemplary—eloquent and graceful but always airily funky. Even the most hostile have (rightly) praised his contribution. The critics see Hutcherson as representing “genuine” jazz and must therefore have very selective memories. This album seems to me to be exactly the type of project Hutcherson engaged in, especially in the early seventies—jazzy but open to soul, funk, and “world” influences. Garrett obviously hero-worships Hutcherson and he is in many ways the ideal role-model for the younger man, their tone, attitude, and goals are very similar.
Whereas Hutcherson still has the official seal of approval, it is doubtful whether Zhane’s “Request Line” or “Hey Mr. DJ” feature in many jazz buffs top tens. Nonetheless Zhane always had a barely suppressed jazz side to them and Jean Norris does a sterling job on the title track, lending an already upbeat tune a really joyful finish. Her contribution to “Song No. 8” is a little middle-of-the-road but then so is the tune, a so-so revamp of “Cherokee”. The opprobrium heaped upon the vocal numbers is unfair and typifies that strange and doomed desire to quarantine jazz from other African-American forms.
Let us hope the opposite takes place and soul fans are drawn by Norris’ name and Miller’s pedigree to check out the set—and maybe shed a few of their own anti-jazz sentiments. They should certainly find the funky “Song for DiFang” to their taste. Taiwanese inspired as it might be, this sounds like classic fusion, with Garrett and Miller getting the meaty most out of the tune. Then they mare care to try the Brubeck-as-done-by-Miles “Tango in 6” which motors along most efficiently and will take them nicely into the gentle “Halima’s Story” and some expert modal stylings (plus a truly exquisite solo from Hutcherson). By this time, if not hooked, they will surely be sufficiently impressed to realise there is more to the music than Kirk Whalum or Najee.
Elsewhere they will find a fine (if completely inexplicable) mid-tempo hard bop tribute to Tiger Woods (“Hole in One”) and a moderate one to Thelonious Monk (“Monk-ing Around”). “Thessalonika” is a wistful, minor key urban soundscape with another dominant statement from Hutcherson, while a confidant “Ain’t Nothing but the Blues” has again a touch of Miles about it. The album closes with the freest track, “Brother B. Harper”, which sees Garrett at his most aggressive. It has fire and much panache but, probably out of sheer perversity (the jazz people exempt this track from their condemnation), I think this is the least interesting segment of the disc.
The Asian theme that bubbles away throughout gets its fullest expression in the tripartite suite, “Asian Medley”. Largely based on Korean melodies it is lovely and serene, smooth in a positive sense. I have to say, speaking from complete ignorance, that the medley has a distinct Irish-Scottish air and if it were called “Hibernian Medley” I would have not raised an eyebrow. If there is a hitherto undiscovered link between the folk forms then Garrett has accidentally brought it to light. Either way, the results are very likeable and allow the group leader particularly to display his full range of skills.
Variety, listener-friendliness, and plenty of fine playing may not appease those after a more jagged or “out there” experience, but a sizeable audience, from whatever branch of the jazz world, should, if they have any fondness at all for melody and line, find something here that accords with their definition of good music. Happy People is unashamedly positive and optimistic music and that in itself can bring problems. Garrett does utilise some of the mannerisms associated with safe soul and smooth jazz—but judiciously and generally to good effect. And if you’re still not sure, there’s always Bobby Hutcherson to clinch the deal.
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