Can 'smooth jazz' be particularly bland and mushy? Yes -- yes it can.
I had laid out a lovely meal for my family -- a bed of rice, some teriyaki chicken, a medley of sautéed vegetables, and cold beverages -- and I decided to spin For Her, the latest release from "contemporary jazz" saxophonist and singer Walter Beasley.
My daughter, a 14-year-old with a keen eye for insincerity, said, "You're reviewing this, right? Because no way you bought this." She chewed her food meditatively and listened to the title track. "OK, so", she said, "why are those people singing like background vocalists except there's no lead vocal on the song? What are they doing?"
I tried to explain to her that in this kind of music, this "smooth jazz", sometimes the saxophone was the lead "singer". I pointed out that this music wasn't really "jazz" but a kind of instrumental R&B that might sound more like a Marvin Gaye album than a John Coltrane album.
Then my son, who was just about to celebrate his 11th birthday, asked, "Why do the drums sound fake? Are the other instruments fake too?" No, I explained. All the instruments weren't "fake", but the drum parts on records like this were often created through programming. It allowed the producer to get exactly the sound he wanted -- something with an icy, syncopated groove. Tracks 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 11, I explained, had been written by a "producer" who was also the keyboard player and the guy who "programmed" the fake drums. This guy controlled the whole song, then let Mr. Beasley play the melody on his alto or soprano sax. This was how it was supposed to sound. "Well", my son said, "it sounds fake."
"I think a lot of people will like this music," my wife said. "The guy can certainly play the saxophone. And it's not, you know, too jazzy." She smiled at me, which meant something else entirely. "It's not like that other music you usually listen too," she said, "with the squeaking and the squawking all over the place. You can actually eat while this music is on."
Then the singing started in earnest. "Don't Say Goodnight" is a feature for Mr. Beasley's singing. And there is nothing particularly wrong with his pipes, though I don't think they'd get him into the finals of American Idol. But listen to these lyrics for the first verse: "I sit here waiting / My heart anticipating / For you to call me on the phone / And I know it's early / Not quite 7:30 / And soon you'll be coming home / Tonight is special / I planned this sweet event / We'll have dinner by candlelight / I took my time / Chose the perfect wine / To make this evening of ours so right." The rhyming of "waiting" and "anticipating" may be excused, but the overall rap is one shade short of The Onion's comic seducer, "Smoove B".
"OK," my wife said. "I'm sure there's something here you can like." She's right, kind of. The track "Let's Ride" has an actual drummer, one David Cole, who I dig. Funky and human, he locks into a bass line groove doubled by Mr. Beasley's alto and thus lifts the whole song onto the back of his simple, subtly varied beat. This tune actually sounds like it's being played by band rather than programmed on a Korg, like maybe there was a chart and a rehearsal and some exchange of energy between the players somewhere along the way.
Honestly, our dinner conversation -- the clanks of forks against the plates, the call and response of the conversation, the heat arising from some disagreement and the sync derived from some consonance -- is more the stuff of jazz than For Her.
"Maybe it's not supposed to be jazz," my daughter astutely notes. "Like you said, Dad, this is really an R&B album featuring a sax player. Maybe you're judging it by the wrong criteria."
Smart kid. Good point. But if this is an R&B album, I thought, then I have to compare it to the latest Faith Evans album or maybe Justin Timberlake, the Black-Eyed Peas or even the new Al Green. Does it contain one-tenth the juice of those discs? Or is it just a slew of anonymously synthesized beats with a pleasant but bland saxophonist blowing over them, never daring to hit an interesting or surprising note, absent the human cry of someone like, say, Maceo Parker?
My wife offered ice cream for dessert. I walked over to the CD player and slipped on some James Brown. Spoons happily clinked against bowls.