What, you thought we were kidding around with the whole “Al Week” thing? Shame on you. And while we’re at it, shame on you for thinking Al Jarreau is too square for the retrospective treatment. Yes, he’s made his share of dreadful R&B music; yes, he spent most of the ’80s bogged down in adult contemporary hooey. But shit, people, Al’s got bills to pay just like you, and no matter how many sappy ballads he’s released, he has remained a ferocious vocal talent underneath it all. Here, check it out. I’ll show you.
A lot of critics say Jarreau’s first “official” release (not counting 1965, since Jarreau himself doesn’t seem to, and I’m not sure it’s ever been issued on CD) is his best, and while this is sort of a shitty thing to say about someone who’s been making albums for over 30 years, it’s easy to see where these people are coming from. All the missteps he’d make later in his career Á¢€” excessive sentimentality, synthesizer fever, a willingness to record undemanding material Á¢€” are nowhere to be found here. Instead, you hear a vocalist with uncommon range, gleefully running the gamut between pop, jazz, and R&B. He’d shortly reveal a weakness for the pretty stuff, but in the meantime, songs like “Spirit” (download) and “Raggedy Ann” (download) show that Jarreau could throw down with the best of them.
Any album that starts off with a track called “Rainbow in Your Eyes” has to be guilty of erring on the softer side, but even as Al started his long drift toward AC superstardom, he still made room for struts like “Milwaukee” (download) and what I consider to be the definitive take on James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (download). Glow is basically a slightly inferior Xerox of We Got By. Not a bad record by any means Á¢€” and his first to crack the Billboard 200 Á¢€” but it would take a dose of live Jarreau to alert the public to what he was capable of.
Call it Jarreau’s Live at Budokan. Releasing a live album after only two studio recordings is an unusual move, but there’s always been a marked difference between Jarreau as a studio artist and a live performer, and the suits at Warner Bros. must have figured this out quickly. The result, 1977’s Look to the Rainbow, was a Top 50 album, and it remains a highlight of his cat-Al-ogue. (Har!) The overall tempo is slower than either of his first two albums, but it’s easily the jazziest of Jarreau’s Warners releases, and his vaunted scatting is on display during tracks such as “Better Than Anything” (download) and his killer cover of “Take Five” (download). Al picked up the first of his seven Grammys here, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
All Fly Home proves that, while Jarreau was always interested in crossing over to the widest possible audience, he at least took a stab at staying on the good foot. In terms of serving up smooth pop sounds without putting you to sleep, his third studio album just might be his best; he surrounded himself with top-shelf jazz talent, like Freddie Hubbard and Lee Ritenour, and used them to prop up some of the more interesting performances of his early career. (All Fly Home didn’t match the sales of Look to the Rainbow, but it did net him another Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy.) He’s frequently been accused of abandoning jazz in favor of low-grade pop and R&B, but as this album makes clear, Jarreau was never a jazz singer, never a pop singer, never an R&B singer Á¢€” he always occupied his own space. Try “Brite ‘N’ Sunny Babe” (download) and his chutzpah-drenched cover of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (download).
It was easily one of the more artist-friendly labels of the ’70s and ’80s, but even Warner Bros. had its limits; though Jarreau was already building an impressive collection of mantelpiece hardware, his sales weren’t anything to brag about, and if he was going to cross over, he needed to do it soon. Thus This Time, the first of many albums Jarreau would make with David Foster’s buddy Jay Graydon. You know what to expect: tight, easy-to-swallow pop songs; lots of midtempo beats; and s-y-n-t-h-s. Held up against what was to come from Jarreau and Graydon, This Time is actually sort of stripped back, but at the time, people who’d purchased his earlier albums had to wonder what Al was thinking with yawners like “Gimme What You Got.” Pop listeners gobbled up “Never Givin’ Up,” though, and the album isn’t without its high points; the Jarreau-penned “Distracted” (download) is mildly funky, and “(A Rhyme) This Time” (download), featuring some tasty fretwork from Earl Klugh, ends things on a pleasant note.
Jarreau reached his sales peak with Breakin’ Away Á¢€” it made the pop Top 10 Á¢€” and it’s easy to see why; these songs, and this production, fell perfectly in step with the popular sounds of the day. It isn’t his best album, but it’s probably his best of the ’80s Á¢€” the recordings are velvet-smooth, but the tempo does pick up once in awhile, and Jarreau was still making use of a live rhythm section. The big hit was “We’re in This Love Together,” but longtime fans were better served with cuts like the funky “Easy” and “Roof Garden” (download), or the scat-a-licious “Blue Rondo a la Turk” (download). (Of special note to rock nerds: “My Old Friend,” written by future members of Mr. Mister.)
Breakin’ Away earned Jarreau two Grammys Á¢€” for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Male Jazz Vocal Performance Á¢€” but it also kicked off a string of releases that found him pandering (less and less successfully) to radio. This isn’t to say he missed the mark completely for the remainder of the ’80s, but you’ve got to do a fair amount of cherry-picking for the next few albums.
All right, let’s just get this out of the way:
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Laugh it up, fuckers. You only wish you had the balls to look this stupid in front of a worldwide audience Á¢€” and get a Top 40 hit out of it.
Anyway, Jarreau is sort of like Al’s personal Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; it represents the fulcrum upon which pre- and post-synth Jarreau rest uncomfortably. I still find it shocking that “Mornin'” hit #21 while the far-better-than-its-title “Boogie Down” (download) crapped out at #70. (Interesting side note: “Boogie Down” was co-written by Michael Omartian, who wouldn’t know a boogie if it bit him on the neck.) Jarreau and Graydon were clearly following a formula here Á¢€” “I Will Be Here for You (Nitakungodea Milele)” was written by those pesky Mr. Mister dudes Á¢€” but it still had enough gas to keep Jarreau afloat. It’s no This Time or Breakin’ Away, but it still broke the Top 20, and cuts like “Black and Blues” (download) threaten, however briefly, to break a sweat.
Still, this is where Jarreau’s material goes from being occasionally transcendent to frequently ordinary. And the machines were multiplying.
Blech. As a perfectly preserved artifact of everything that went wrong with major label studio recordings in the ’80s, High Crime is totally awesome, but as an Al Jarreau album, it’s the kind of thing that can cause an unsuspecting listener to recoil, slack-jawed with repulsion and dumb shock. It bears mentioning that Graydon and Jarreau seem to have made a concerted effort to keep things uptempo, but goddammit, most of these songs could have been sung by anybody. They aren’t bad Á¢€” someone else might have had a hit with “Imagination” (download) Á¢€” but Al’s just spinning his wheels here. It’s telling that “Murphy’s Law” (download), one of the record’s high points, was a Steve Kipner co-write.
The putrid “After All,” which bears the messy thumbprint of David Foster, came closest to scraping the pop Top 40, but really, aside from R&B stations, radio wasn’t buying what Al was selling anymore Á¢€” quite possibly because Al was no longer identifiably Al.
What a difference a decade makes. His first album took him down to basics, revealing a warm and engaging concert performer; 1985’s Live in London, in contrast, presents Jarreau as a stadium rocker. Get a load of the opening track, “Raging Waters” (download) Á¢€” whatever’s going on here, it has precious little to do with what anybody ever loved about Al Jarreau. The setlist is heavy with cuts from his more recent releases, so London‘s appeal will be severely limited for anyone who isn’t specifically looking for a live version of “We’re in This Love Together” (download).
He wasn’t completely finished with Jay Graydon yet, but for 1986’s L is for Lover, Jarreau hooked up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. The results were not as funky as fans may have hoped, but there’s no denying Al sounded at least a little reinvigorated here. He’d already burned his bridges at pop radio, which is a shame Á¢€” cuts like the title track and “Pleasure” could have been hits, and with “Says” (download) and “Real Tight” (download), he sounds like he’s having fun for the first time in awhile.
When the Moonlighting theme hit the Top 30 in 1987, it gave Jarreau his biggest hit in four years; unfortunately, he was between albums, and wasn’t able to use the unexpected boost to do anything for his career. By the time the messy and completely overproduced Heart’s Horizon came out a year later, all that momentum was gone Á¢€” which was just as well, because the album isn’t exactly loaded with Jarreau’s finer moments. There’s some nifty stuff, like the synthy “10k Hi” and the Bobby McFerrin duet “Yo Jeans,” but it’s overshadowed by songs that teeter between bland rock (“I Must Have Been a Fool” [download]) and paint-by-numbers R&B (the admittedly quite pretty “So Good” [download]).
After Horizon, Jarreau Á¢€” who had never gone more than two years without releasing some type of album Á¢€” took a four-year break.
Toward the end of his time at Warner Bros., Jarreau didn’t seem to know what to do Á¢€” his records were unfocused, spumoni-like blends of mindlessly contemporary pap and scattered reminders of what made him great. 1992’s Heaven and Earth is a fine example of this confusion in action. Produced by Narada Michael Walden, Earth is largely made up of middle-of-the-road R&B tracks, many of them set to canned New Jack beats that were already passÁƒ© when the album was released in June of 1992. Bits of vintage Al flash through here and there Á¢€” the choir of Jarreaus that open “Blue Angel” are great Á¢€” but for all intents and purposes, the “real” Al doesn’t show up until the end of the disc, when he and Walden make an abrupt jazz detour, serving up a two-part cover of Miles Davis and Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green.” These two cuts, “Part 1: The Dedication” (download) and “Part 2: The Dance” (download), serve as a poignant reminder of what was and could have been.
With Heaven and Earth, Jarreau had taken his pursuit of airplay as far as it could go, and with the old guard being slowly (and then, come fall ’95, not so slowly) pushed out at Warner Bros., he probably understood that his tenure at the label was drawing to a close. What better way to celebrate than by stripping back the production, ignoring trends, and practicing his craft in front of a studio audience?
That’s the conceit behind 1994’s Tenderness, and it succeeds brilliantly. Not everything works Á¢€” a duet with Kathleen Battle on “My Favorite Things” is every bit as bizarre as it looks on paper Á¢€” but overall, it’s a triumphant return to form for an artist many assumed had been forever trapped under an AC glaze. He’s at the top of his game here; check out “Try a Little Tenderness” (download) and “You Don’t See Me” (download).
Tendnerness earned critical raves, and almost topped Billboard’s jazz charts, but neither accomplishment had much of an impact on Jarreau’s bottom line, and it ended up being his swan song for Warners. After a six-year layoff, he re-emerged on GRP, reunited with old label boss Tommy LiPuma. Fans hoping for a return to the jazzy overtones of Jarreau’s early Warner Bros. albums quickly found those hopes dashed, however; in the late ’90s and early aughts, faded pop superstars like Michael McDonald were finding surprise inroads on smooth jazz station playlists, and 2000’s Tomorrow Today reflects this. It’s a Quiet Storm album Á¢€” the type of thing that’s fine, I guess, if you’re into white wine and Brian McKnight, but as an Al Jarreau record, it really stinks.
There are some fun moments Á¢€” Jarreau opens the title track (download) with an inexplicable Ricky Ricardo impression Á¢€” but most of it is down to the level of “God’s Gift to the World,” a horrible duet with Vanessa Williams. As is becoming depressingly the norm, Jarreau saves the cut with the most personality, “Puddit (Put It Where You Want It)” (download), for the end of the record.
It isn’t quite a case of “second verse, same as the first,” but Jarreau’s sophomore GRP release hews mostly to the slick formula established with Tomorrow Today. The most interesting track, at least conceptually, is “Lost and Found” (download), a duet with Joe Cocker that Á¢€” even if it arrives a couple of decades too late to matter to most Á¢€” is more intriguing in theory than almost anything else Jarreau had done since leaving Warners. The rest of it is too staid to make much of an impression on any but the most ardent of “urban AC” listeners, but it isn’t without its charms. Once again, the last track Á¢€” a cover of “Route 66” (download), in this case Á¢€” steals the show.
As Jarreau himself told me in our interview, he was utterly convinced there were more than a few people waiting for an album of jazz vocals from him Á¢€” but, as the woeful sales figures for Accentuate the Positive made clear, he misjudged. Still, that doesn’t mean Accentuate is a bad album Á¢€” in fact, it’s the best of the three he recorded for GRP. It’s a little too vanilla for me Á¢€” heavier on the lush ballads than on more uptempo stuff like “Cold Duck” (download) or the title track (download) Á¢€” but Jarreau is in (duh) fine voice, the band is all aces, and Tommy LiPuma’s production is warmly sympathetic. A late-period highlight.
Dear God, can you imagine the piles of vinyl this would have moved if it had been recorded in the early ’80s? Even dropping in ’06, Givin’ It Up managed to attract a fair amount of positive buzz (including a Grammy), offering the two genre-fusing giants an unexpected boost in the autumns of their respective careers. And for good reason Á¢€” this is a fine album, one that underscores the best of both Jarreau and Benson. As always, the ballads are a little too numerous, but they’re undeniably tasteful; check out the duo’s take on Daryl Hall’s “Everytime You Go Away” (download). They sound loose and vibrant throughout, particularly on wafer-thin vamps like “Don’t Start No Schtuff” (download).
That’s where the story ends for now, but Jarreau gathers no moss Á¢€” he’s currently working on his first holiday album, scheduled for a 2008 release, as well as another greatest hits compilation and, of course, his next studio LP. At an age when many of his peers are content to schlep their oldies on the winery circuit, Al Jarreau is still having fun, and still making some of his best music. Long may he