Smooth Sailing: In Defense of Bob James and David Sanborn
If you were reading my stuff way back in the old Jefitoblog days, you know I have a sick fascination for smooth jazz — to the point that I ended up acquiring a bunch of the stuff for the late, lamented series Adventures in Smooth Jazz with Lance Mueller, Office Drone. None of the Lance Mueller entries survived the Jefitoblog crash, but what it basically boiled down to was that a friend of mine had an office mate who claimed to be a huge jazz fan, but who was obviously not interested in anything jazzier than, say, Dave Koz. And since I’ve always wondered what makes “good” or “bad” smooth jazz, or whether a fan of the stuff can even tell the difference, we ended up experimenting on him by playing a bunch of the stuff while he was in the office and gauging his reaction.
It probably sounds awful to you. It certainly did to my friend, who had to play it at his desk and pretend to like it while “Lance Mueller” snapped his fingers and bopped around the office. But I thought it was hilarious, and even a little educational, and the end of the series made me sad. Unfortunately, Lance’s golden ears are beyond my reach now, and although I’ve resisted it for years, I’ve finally accepted the truth: if I want Popdose to publish a series of smooth jazz experiments, I’ll need to be my own guinea pig.
What follows in this series will not be pretty. Well, wait, no — smooth jazz usually isn’t interesting enough to be ugly, so I guess this will be pretty, at least. But it will stand in direct opposition to all that is right and just in the world, and it will include the words of a man who has willingly subjected himself to the works of men with names like Boney and Narada.
But before we start randomly plumbing the smooth jazz depths, we should preface the whole sorry mess with a small tribute to one of the only records in the genre that I’ve listened to, on purpose, multiple times: Bob James and David Sanborn’s 1986 collaboration Double Vision.
In the smooth jazz world of 1986, a collaboration between James and Sanborn was huge. Huge! It was, like, the smooth jazz equivalent of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty deciding to make an album together. James was no stranger to collaborations, having worked with Earl Klugh for 1979′s Grammy-winning One on One and its 1982 follow-up, Two of a Kind; the duo format worked well for him, allowing James to do his thing (mostly shapeless keyboard noodling) while letting the soloist take the spotlight.
I just insulted his work, but there’s no denying that Bob James was one of the most successful musicians of the ’70s and ’80s, as well as one of the most absurdly prolific — between 1974 and 1988, he released an astounding 20 albums. Yes, you read that right: 20. And it isn’t that James is untalented, but it’s truly amazing how well those records sold — they were admirably free of the glitz and fussiness that plagued later smooth jazz records, which is probably why he’s been sampled by everyone from Eric B. and Rakim to N.W.A., but there just isn’t a lot of variation between them. During the ’70s and early ’80s, James liked to noodle on electric keyboard; during the rest of the ’80s and much of the ’90s, he used synths and the occasional piano. The end. So even if you really love James’ noodling, you can get by with two of his albums.
The same can be said of Sanborn, who also quickly crapped out a long string of same-sounding smooth jazz albums during the same time frame. Sanborn is a more talented instrumentalist than James, but as far as their solo records are concerned, it really makes no difference; more often than not, both of them were pandering to the lowest common denominator anyway. From a certain point of view, they were doing jazz a service by helping bring it to a wider audience — but that audience was also more passive, and didn’t really care about the music, per se. It was more about an imagined lifestyle, one involving lots of ferns, velour and white wine. And it said everything it had to say very, very quickly, but refused to go away for many, many years.
Double Vision contains all the same low-nutrient ingredients as James and Sanborn’s previous albums, but this is one case where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, if only barely. Though both artists were edging toward programmed rhythms, for this album, they used a fully live band comprised of session ringers like Marcus Miller and Steve Gadd, and kept them for the duration of the sessions. They also hired Tommy LiPuma, who knew what the fuck he was doing, to produce. The result is an album that, while replete with synths, still sounds warm — and Sanborn, who can play like no one else when the mood strikes him, turned in some of his best solos from the period. Compositionally, it’s about as interesting as this stuff gets. Basically, if you had to listen to smooth jazz in 1986, it was hard to do any better than Double Vision.
The album’s opening track, “Maputo,” is apparently a favorite among aficionados, but for me, that song’s main appeal is its title, which makes me think of profanity-spewing smooth jazz cholos. (“You done fucked up the 12/14 time, Maputo! Start again!”) My favorite track on the album — heck, one of my all-time favorite songs, period — is James and Sanborn’s cover of the Buddy Johnson standard “Since I Fell for You,” with vocals by Al Jarreau.
I know what you’re thinking. If you know the song — and it’s been covered often enough that you probably should — you’re wondering how in the hell I can prefer a smooth jazz cover, recorded in 1986, with vocals from the guy who sang “Mornin’, little Cheerios.” It probably has something to do with the fact that this is the first version of the song I heard (on the Moonlighting soundtrack, no less), but I also happen to think it brings out the best in everyone involved. Observe:
It starts off with 40 seconds or so of pillowy synth noodling from James before leading into a butter-soft opening verse from Jarreau, featuring some truly tasteful electric guitar from Eric Gale. But Sanborn comes in around the 1:45 mark, and from there, the song gets progressively more interesting, building heat; by the time we’re three minutes in, Jarreau has started to testify (a little), and around 3:20, he snaps, “Well, play this!” and Sanborn peels off a torrid (for smooth jazz, anyway) solo that leads into two minutes of elastic vocal runs from Jarreau.
James? He’s just playing chords. But who cares? They didn’t need him, and here’s a live version to prove it:
And what the hell, here’s another one for good measure:
That’s about as good as it gets. From here on out, things are bound to get a whole…lot…smoother. Stay on board, if you dare.