Here’s Something Else!: Grover Washington Jr. That Doesn’t, You Know, Suck
Credit, or discredit, the late Grover Washington Jr. with setting the template for the whole smooth jazz thing. There was always more to him than that. Really. For all of the knocks he’s taken, dig deeper into Washington and you’ll see why he retains the title of Mister Magic for us:
“SAUSALITO” (LIVE AT THE BIJOU, 1977): Grover Washington’s 1970s recording career was in a lot of ways similar to George Benson’s: Both had under the production of the Creed Taylor found the formula for highly listenable jazz that didn’t compromise their integrity (or at least not much). And no amount of orchestration tossed behind them could break down the undeniable funk their tight units were laying down.
Washington’s own Weekend In L.A. came a year earlier than Benson’s, and like Benson’s memorable live document, Washington’s music was harder and tighter because being performed before a live audience, there was no backing orchestration to be found. We also get to hear Washington’s working band of the time and though it wasn’t full of big names, these cats could groove.
With songs titled “Funkfoot,” “Lock It In The Pocket” and “You Make Me Dance” there’s little mystery about this record’s intent to make you groove, and the funk quotient on this record is higher than his other ones. Yet, Live at the Bijou won’t run off anyone who’s afraid of P-Funk. This is the more laid-back feel-good funk. “Saulsalito” is a case in point: a light but tight groove replete with percussion/drums butt-shaking rhythm, jazzy guitar and a relaxed comping electric piano. The vibe is so right, Grover doesn’t even enter with his soprano saxophone until more than four minutes in. And why not? his band already has a good thing going.
Some of his articulations on this song and his other ones from this time might sound kind of old hat today, but really, no one else was playing the sax quite like him in the mid-1970s; the template was being set on performances like this one.
It’s feel-good funk that still feels good today. — S. Victor Aaron
“LULLABY FOR SHANA BLY” (THEN AND NOW, 1988): One of Washington’s more successful late-career side trips into straight-ahead jazz, Then and Now showed that he still had the goods — even well into his heralded smooth-jazz phase.
The album finds him playing alongside either Tommy Flanagan or Herbie Hancock on five of the eight songs. Both also contribute songs, along with Ron Carter (“Blues for D.P.”), Oliver Nelson (“Stolen Moments”) and Duke Ellington (“In a Sentimental Mood”).
But this complex Washington original is by far the most memorable, an episodic experiment in sound that couldn’t be further away from the smooth urbanity of his follow up, 1990’s Time Out of Mind.
Washington, living up to the song title, begins by sweetly soloing with himself, overlapping once, then twice — until there are, eventually, three Grovers weaving inside and outside of one another. But just as you are drifting off with Shana, “Lullaby” cross fades into a rollicking rhythm about three minutes in. Washington squeals with delight, and then charges forward with a furiously layered solo.
Don’t get too comfy. Just like that, at the four minute mark, the Grover Trio returns to smooth out the sheets and tuck you in. — Nick DeRiso
“DOLPHIN DANCE” (A SECRET PLACE, 1976): Somewhere between the radio hits “Mister Magic” and “Just The Two of Us,” Grover Washington, Jr. was still refusing to conform to the radio format in order to get more crossover hits. 1976’s A Secret Place consisted of only four songs, all running between eight and nine minutes, and all have well constructed melodies to go with his lightly rendered funk and some rather tasty playing. But while he covered Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye songs before, he turned to classic Blue Note-era Herbie Hancock for this album’s sole cover and chose a dandy: the lovely, evergreen “Dolphin Dance.”
Although we’ve seen this song recast a million times, Washington’s concept of it stands out from the crowd. The beginning and ending sections float suspended from timekeeping as it’s just electric pianist Dave Grusin and Grover on soprano sax playfully dualling with … Grover on soprano sax. Overdubbing himself to create two lead horns with countering lines wasn’t new for him; he used this trick effectively on a choice rendition of “Where Is The Love” a few years earlier. The middle section kicks into a 4/4 swing as George Mraz sets the pulse with an acoustic bass and Harvey Mason entering the fray, as well; Mason’s subtleties in bop rhythms prove to be just as sublime as his funk ones.
On that foundation, Washington blows with the right amount of nuanced passion. His trademark soulful delivery as pronounced as it is on his more crossover tunes. Which, for this song, is very much appropriate; Hancock’s compositions even at his most artistic retain an element of soul, something that Washington was very much aware of when he chose to record a version of this song. I’ll bet he made more than a few of his fans go back and see what the fuss over Maiden Voyage is all about.
Grover Washington succeeded in striking a balancing act of staying true to the song’s original mysterious beauty while also staying true to himself. — S. Victor Aaron
“TAURIAN MATADOR” (SOUL BOX VOL. 2, 1973): Grover Washington Jr. garnered much of his fame from his more commercial music. So the folks out there who identify Washington with tunes like “Just The Two Of Us” might be surprised to hear what the man was up to earlier in his career. Actually, “surprise” might not be going far enough: how about “shock”? Shock at the mere idea of Washington playing a Billy Cobham composition. Shock that it’s so very good.
The album title (Soul Box, Vol. 2) enhances the shock value of this cover of “Taurian Matador,” as the song’s rather “out” presentation doesn’t go anywhere near Washington’s well-known vibe. Instead we are treated to a swelling horn section, strings that come from angular directions before veering off, a killer electric piano solo by Bob James, and the usual barely contained drumming of Cobham. What shocked me about this version is that I’m so used to hearing the more rock-oriented version that appears on Cobham’s Spectrum. It was a revelation hearing Washington play the parts that I usually associate with late guitarist Tommy Bolin.
And speaking of killer, a little name-dropping is in order: Eric Gale, Airto Moriera, Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Ron Carter. That’s an extremely abbreviated list of the musicians appearing on this record. Washington always put together great bands and this one was no exception.
Taurian Matador made me wonder if there are many listeners who were fans of both eras. Is there an intersection between lovers of that smooth soul vibe and this torqued-up, volcanic weirdness? Wouldn’t that be kind of like being a fan of both Kenny G and The Jeff Lorber fusion?
(Note to self: In the future, it would be best to avoid bringing up Kenny G. The “Kenny G playing Tuarian Matador” earworm you’re now dealing with is entirely your own fault.) — Mark Saleski
“WINELIGHT” (WINELIGHT, 1980): Everybody bought it for the hit with Bill Withers. I got stuck on the opening track, a snug little R&B-jazz number. Everything that made the gone-too-soon Washington such a delight is there: a warm tone, a surprising range and a remarkable dexterity that stardom — Winelight claimed a pair Grammys on the way to platinum certification — somehow obscured.
Grover had this canny ability to play over just about any beat, no matter how uninvolving, and remain both sophisticated and direct. With Winelight‘s title track, winner for best jazz fusion performance, he got perhaps his best contemporary backing track: Eric Gale begins with this clucking guitar signature, before bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Steve Gadd slide in with a lithe groove. Washington’s solo moves from a delectible R&B salaciousness to a swaying church-pew soul, even as he’s joined by Paul Griffith on clavinet.
A nifty blending of jazz, pop and soul. Buy Winelight for “Just the Two Of Us,” but keep it for this perfectly conceived opener. — Nick DeRiso
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