Al Jarreau was going to be as important as Curtis, Marvin, or Stevie. At least that was the way he was talked about briefly in 1975 when his debut album We Got By was released. It didn’t quite turn out like that, and Jarreau, very sensibly, opted instead for a career of slightly less ambition but one of great longevity and industry acceptance. Grammy awards in various categories have come his way and he remains a favourite on adult and smooth radio playlists.
What got journalists and publicists so excited all those years ago was, of course, Jarreau’s formidable vocal technique. Here was the man to fuse jazz singing with post-Marvin soul. From this point of view, Jarreau’s career has been a disappointment. In this reading, he moved from being an innovator to mainstream pop and then to easy listening schmaltz. The “jazz” label still adheres, although now it is seen as a marker of his failure to live up to those initial promises.
Well, I’m not so sure. The ‘80s material has dated badly but that’s hardly unique to Jarreau. As to the jazz/soul thing, Jarreau was always as much Johnny Mathis as Jon Hendricks and he was never a soul man in any conventional sense. I see Jarreau as a vocal stylist, with specific mannerisms and definite jazz influences, whose interests were always in the shaping and crafting of popular songs so that they became his own. Jarreau is in a tradition that includes Billy Eckstein, George Benson, and Walter Jackson. Black vocal performers who had an instantly recognisable sound but who were never 100% jazz, soul, R&B, or whatever. They thus get dismissed as “pop”. Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra are not “jazz” either, but they are celebrated for what they actually do; black artists are judged by what they are deemed to have departed from, they are seen as selling out.
What I’m really saying is that this new La Puma supervised, Paul Brown produced album doesn’t seem to me that different to his early ‘70s work, either in intention or in end results. What has changed is that now we have a pigeonhole (smooth jazz) in which to categorise (and castigate) the singer. Jarreau was smooth jazz before the event. His voice (ageless on this evidence) still does what it always did—he turns and twists around a lyric and melody in a way that captivates many and alienates many more. The tunes themselves are, as ever, well-crafted, contain polite nods to contemporary fashion, and are designed to showcase Jarreau’s distinctive brand of interpretative artistry.
I’m not suggesting that this is mind-blowing in any way. Just that if you used to like Jarreau you’ll like this. If you never cared for his tenor tones and tricks there is nothing here that will win you over. Paul Brown’s current penchant for pushing ‘80s influenced pop-soul towards a more R&B sound is particularly noticeable, Jarreau’s fondness for a Bill Withers-style phrasing is once more evident and the “gentler” side of his talent is perhaps the dominant mood overall. One definite advantage is that a single core unit (his touring band) plays on all tracks, giving the session a consistency that some of his mid-period records lacked.
As to the programme itself, “Random Act of Love” and “Feels Like Heaven to Me” are the best of the pop/R&B numbers. The former is a bright and breezy affair while the latter is a slinky and subtle stepper. Both are co-written by Siedah Garrett and should do well on radio. The title track is a funkier, Withers-influenced dancer that has a good “live” feel to it yet sounds a little too forced for my liking. “Secrets of Love” and “Until You Love Me” are light, slightly syrupy, but efficient ballads. Too safe for some tastes, there is an understated groove to all of them that has its compensatory charm. The outstanding track is probably the lengthy, down tempo “Oasis”. This is superior, post-Mathis, supper-club jazz, sax-soaked and beautifully paced. Vintage Jarreau, in fact.
There are occasional attempts to do something a little different. “Jacaranda Bougainvillea” is South African inspired and a tribute to the post-apartheid nation. The music is completely bogus at one level but the piece is carried off with much aplomb and an agreeable romanticism. I’m not sure we needed the rather pointless, pared-down version of “Route 66” that closes the set. Furthermore, “Lost and Found”, a duet with Joe Cocker that is getting a lot of praise, is in reality horrible. This sub-Dr. John, “Down in Noo Orleans” bar-room tale brings out the worst of Jarreau’s “funky” idiosyncrasies and makes you glad of the constraints that the more “formulaic” arrangements provide.
Within that formula, Brown et al. have provided a solid if not spectacular setting, and Jarreau sounds as at home in it as in any of his previous surroundings. Also, the album has poise and polish to spare. It’s not a major event but within in its own terms of reference things generally work out remarkably well. Fans will love it, detractors may well see it at as further evidence of decline and Jarreau will march happily on to the next studio date.
His voice shows absolutely no signs of wear and tear and that in itself is something to wonder at. Jarreau is, in the end, simply a stylish vocalist in a world not overly blessed with such creatures. That might be good enough reason to check out (or possibly rediscover) a figure who may not have changed the course of music in the way he was supposed to, but who can still make most male singers seem like rank amateurs. He does have his own sound after all and, although that sound may be too MOR or smooth for the high-minded, it is what most artists strive for. Jarreau got there a long time ago and if he has not soared to greater heights, he has certainly not crashed to the ground. All I Got proves that more than adequately.
// Notes from the Road
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