Al Jarreau – Heart’s Horizon (1988)
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First of all, I love Al Jarreau. Let’s start there. And by “I love Al Jarreau” I mean I love his music, although he gives off such a blissed-out vibe that, if I ever met him, I’m sure I’d love the man. With his sweaters and his kind, reassuring smile, he’s sort of a scatting, Grammy-winning Mister Rogers. What isn’t to love?

Well, okay, there are a few things not to love. For instance, his tenth studio album, Heart’s Horizon. Jarreau had been with Warner Bros. for fifteen years in 1988, and Warners celebrated the anniversary by shunting him off onto their adult-contemporary imprint, the recently reactivated Reprise. There had always been a large AC component to Jarreau’s sound, of course, but the latter-day Reprise was home to acts such as Chicago and Christopher Cross; there’s a big difference between, say, “Mornin'” or “We’re in This Love Together” and “Look Away.” Jarreau was a few years removed from his commercial peak at this point, but the memories were still fresh enough — and Top 40 radio was still omnivorous enough — that a pop comeback didn’t seem out of the question, so when it came time to record Horizon, the requisite concessions were made.

For the purposes of this series, artistic concessions are wonderful; if nobody ever tried to fit in with a trend and failed, listening to these cutouts wouldn’t be nearly as fun. More of them would be good, actually, and their failure to find an audience would just be sad.

Shed no tears for Heart’s Horizon.

Having come this far, I should point out that all this talk of concessions and trends mildly overstates this album’s sound and direction — if you aren’t really familiar with Jarreau’s music, you’re liable not to notice much of a difference — and it also bears mentioning that even if Jarreau hadn’t scored a Top 20 pop album in half a decade, he did receive a Grammy nomination in ’88 for his performance of the theme to Moonlighting, so it really isn’t as though his career was a mess. Still, if you are familiar with Al’s Jarroeuvre, this album’s deficiencies are immediately apparent. This (mostly quite dull) batch of songs allows him to display precious little of his charm.

Not coincidentally, the record didn’t come cheap — it was recorded in no fewer than seven studios, boasts a small army of producers, and includes session work from a cast of dozens. Seriously, the credits on this thing are as long as your arm. Here are a few of the players:

Bobby Caldwell
Bill Champlin
Stanley Clarke
Gardner Cole
Paulinho da Costa (who I think was required by law to play on every album released in 1988, but still counts)
Russell Ferrante
Tommy Funderburk
Randy Goodrum
Jerry Hey
Paul Jackson, Jr.
Bobby Kimball
Earl Klugh
Abraham Laboriel
Michael Landau
John Robinson
David Sanborn
Vonda Shepard
Kirk Whalum

You get the idea. Clearly, Jarreau could still command a decent production budget, which makes it that much more of a shame that the results aren’t more interesting. The songs are partly to blame, but the real culprit, wouldn’t you know, is the production.

Jarreau hired several producers for Heart’s Horizon, but the bulk of the record was supervised by George Duke and Jay Graydon. Duke played with Zappa, and Graydon played with David Foster, a combination which sounds bizarre enough to be awesome on paper; in reality, however, the “David Foster” side of the equation always barfs synths and drum machines all over everything else, so the end result sounds pretty much like a Peter Cetera record with a few extra teaspoons of keyboard-driven funk. An unintentionally hilarious clue as to just how square and over-produced this thing is can be found in the production credits:

* Produced by George Duke for George Duke Enterprises, Inc. and Jay Graydon for New Music, Inc.
+ Produced by Jay Graydon for New Music, Inc. and George Duke for George Duke Enterprises, Inc.

Yeah. This is one of the only times you’ll read a credit like “Album Coordinator: Shirley Klein” in a set of liner notes and think, “I’m sure she completely fucking earned her salary.”

The album’s big “hit” was “So Good” (download), which found a home at R&B (and a few AC) stations, but didn’t cross over, and it’s indicative of Horizon‘s overall blandness that the cut actually stands out here. (The Sanborn solo is nice, but it sounds a lot like everything else he was doing at the time; I’m not totally convinced he was awake when he played it.) At least you can tell the song has real drums, which is more than you can say for most of the rest of the album, which sounds more like the catchy-but-freeze-dried “I Must Have Been a Fool” (download).

The album does contain a couple of quirky numbers, both of which are just suggestive enough of better things to aggravate you. Most intriguing is the brief Jarreau/McFerrin summit, “Yo’ Jeans” (download), but “10K Hi” (download), a collaboration with producer Philippe Saisse built on vocal samples, is also worth hearing. Together, they represent a brief glimmer of what might have been.

Happily, after one more album — 1992’s almost-as-disappointing Heaven & Earth — Jarreau stopped dicking around with the synths and got back to bending the walls between jazz, pop, and R&B. His Warners swan song, 1994’s Tenderness, was a triumphant return to form; as luck would have it, it’s also out of print, so I’m sure we’ll get around to covering it here at some point. You can never have enough Jarreau.