Man, does this guy sound like Al Jarreau.
Back in the Stone Ages, before “Smooth Jazz” radio and before the “Quiet Storm” Urban Contemporary format and before the utter fragmentation of the Billboard Charts into a series of complex acronym-laden sub-charts, each of which tracks the records sales on a single block of each community in America (sorted demographically, of course)—in short, back in the 1970s—this jazz singer named Al Jarreau surfaced.
Wait—Al Jarreau was a jazz singer? Yeah, he was, sort of. Back in the 1970s, he emerged as a soul-fusion balladeer with a feel for injecting jazz into a contemporary setting. On his third LP, a live double called Look to the Rainbow, he recorded the Brubeck Quartet classic “Take Five”, and, man, the cat could scat his ass off and he won a jazz Grammy for that disc. Jarreau had a tight, keening edge to his voice that made it distinctive, even set off against armies of Fender Rhodes electric pianos laying down fusion-lite grooves that were equally good for making out or for, I don’t know, folding the laundry.
So Jarreau, man, he crafted a whole career from this stuff, making hip, soulful versions of songs by Elton John and James Taylor, then nailing the pop charts for a hit in 1981 (“We’re in This Love Together”) and then settling in around the R&B chart or the Soul chart or the Adult Urban Contemporary chart or whatever chart would have a slick ol’ singer like Al. Last year, Al came back full circle and recorded a batch of standards with a jazz rhythm section—no overdubs, thank you. The dude could—make that can—sing.
Now, the CD I’m reviewing here is by this young guy, KEM, who spells his name in ALL CAPS just like that. And this dude can sing too. In fact, he sings with a tight, keening edge to his voice that makes it rather distinctive, even set off against a layer of Rhodes groove and general fusion-lite comping. You pop Album II on the old CD player and, I tell ya, there is the itch for making out or, I don’t know, doing the dishes. Or folding the laundry.
Album II is KEM’s second album (duh!). But I guess that is the thing: KEM is not trying to fool you. Sure, he looks a little like Seal, but he is not Seal. He is Al Jarreau.
I have listened to and enjoyed KEM’s first recording (Kemistry, in fact) and, I have to tell you, he has never sounded more like Al Jarreau than he does here. If you like Al Jarreau, if you wander the aisles of your local record shop (or, I don’t know, scroll through the pages of iTunes) saying, “Where I can find someone who sounds more like Al Jarreau?” or “Why haven’t more singers found ways to successfully imitate the distinctive soul stylings of Mr. Al Jarreau?” then, my friends, Album II is your dream come true. This is the Jarreau-y-est album of 2005. I mean, given that Al Jarreau himself is now recording jazz standards with an acoustic quartet, this disc is more Al Jarreau than Al Jarreau himself.
Fine. But is it any good?
Well, first off, KEM has earned himself a hit. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is a number one on the Urban AC chart, and it’s no surprise. That tune—and most of them here—are slicky-smooth funk-lite tunes with snazzy choruses and tasty licks all around. KEM snakes his vocals through every song like he’s running wire through narrow holes in the groove: precise yet flexible. Though the opener, “Find Your Way (Back in My Life)” starts with some perfunctory spoken lines, this is pre-hip-hop music—stuff that owes its lifeblood to Bill Withers and Donny Hathaway and the softer Stevie Wonder. And, oh yeah, to Al Jarreau.
Speaking of Li’l Stevie, a Motown label-mate, he crops up with the obligatory harmonica solo on “You Might Win”. But the prevailing influence is not the soulful shout of Mr. Wonder. Rather, KEM delights in purring lines like “Mmmm, girl, eeee-aaay, ohhhh, mmmm girl” with that AJ keening edge. And KEM can ride over a closing tag, as he does on “Heaven”, for several minutes. The guy sounds great—pushing and pulling the melody, futzing with the words, twisting his vocal sound inside and out for effect. On “Into You”, the KEMster starts with a wordless percussive bit, followed by a falsetto lead, twisted into the low part of his buzzing tenor which brings to mind—unmistakably, irretrievably and utterly—well, you know who.
I mean, this guy really really sounds like Al Jarreau.
To be fair, I can think of at least one other contemporary artist who is thieving this directly from a well known jazz singer, and that is Madeline Peyroux, whose debt to Billie Holiday is so vast it makes my 110-pound Newfoundland dog look like a hampster. But at least Ms. Peyroux is stealing from a woman who died decades ago and, therefore, is not dining out on a voice still appearing in concert halls in the here and now. That said, when Ms. Peyroux covers Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” with her Billie affectations in full swing, the effect is jarringly awful. KEM, on the other hand, knows what he is doing. He has studied the Jarreau playbook carefully, and Album II demonstrates assurance and market-savvy purpose. The disc delivers the goods with authority, even if the goods are from the microwave rather than the cutting board.
“Set You Free”, for example, is a delicious burrito of a track—Rhodes groove with tasteful drumming and a little ticky-tock guitar line that bounces beneath the vocal with ease. A little flute and subtle organ lead you into an almost endless out-chorus (a KEM favorite move, it seems) that builds some nice heat. “I’m In Love” percolates with easy grace too, four-plus minutes of song, most of which is KEM just milking that out-chorus in High Jarreau splendor. And, really, why deny him the pleasure? “I Get Lifted” sprinkles a goodly amount of up-tempo gospel on the general mood of the disc, but it hardly changes the overall feeling of 1975 fusion mellowness. It’s like Gerald Ford is in office again and John Belushi is not only alive but actually the funniest thing on TV.
If it were 1975 and KEM was a new artist making the scene, you might forgive the soft-underbelly of this music and give it a 7 or 8. This is, after all and despite the hype, a tuneful exercise in funk-lite fusion. But because the album was already made 30 years ago by Mr, Al Jarreau, I have little choice but to plunk a generous fiver on the table. Lower than that and I’d be disrespecting an album of impeccable production and genuine affection. It’s unfortunate that the genuine affection is for Al Jarreau rather than KEM himself.
Phone for you, Mr. KEM. I think it’s one of Mr. Jarreau’s attorneys….
// Notes from the Road
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