They might make some of the most boring music on Earth, but many of the most well-known smooth jazz artists have pretty fascinating histories, filled with unexpected projects and periodic flashes of the talent that got them into the business in the first place. Spend enough time perusing the liner notes of your favorite albums, and you’re bound to see their names pop up at least a few times; even a guy as resolutely dull as Dave Koz has some surprising session credits on his rÃ©sumÃ©, because these guys are all talented musicians, whether or not they choose to do anything with it on a regular basis.
I think this is why, during this genre’s commercial peak, it was so common for artists to release new albums once a year (or more); these were, for the most part, jazz musicians who understood the craft, but nobody wanted them to practice it — instead, their labels, and their audiences, demanded the equivalent of rough drafts. If you could make more money by showing up at the office and doing a half-assed job on purpose, I’m guessing the temptation would be pretty difficult to resist.
Which brings us to Tom Scott, the saxman whose dulcet tones were inescapable during the ’70s and ’80s, both on TV (Scott wrote the theme songs for Starsky & Hutch and Family Ties) and the radio (that’s Scott’s horn you hear on “Listen to What the Man Said”). He did work for the Dead, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Whitney Houston, Sinatra, and many more — but the smooth chops that made him such an in-demand session player didn’t tell the whole story. He was also capable of playing with grit and fire when the occasion called for it, as evidenced by his tenure with the Blues Brothers band (laugh if you want, but there were some badass mofos in that group).
Scott started his recording career in the late ’60s, marking his solo debut with 1967’s Honeysuckle Breeze — and the same year, he appeared on Don Ellis’ Live at Monterey, thus establishing his instrumental skill, and his willingness to pander to the pop market, from the beginning. That duality served him well with 1973’s Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, a fusion classic that featured future smooth jazz star Larry Carlton alongside the legendary Joe Sample. With the brilliant Max Bennett and John Guerin anchoring the rhythm section, and Carlton and Sample backing him up, Scott was free to roam — and he did, helping create one of the most legitimately interesting (and, not coincidentally, most often sampled) albums in the genre.
But by the ’80s, the boundless artistic vistas that fusion fans once dreamed of had been revealed as a cruel mirage, revealed instead to be the parched musical desert of smooth jazz. It was a barren place, filled with bankrupt, phony-sounding places like Xraxse and Elamar, and lorded over by mulleted sultans with impeccably groomed beards and giant closets full of sports jackets.
Tom Scott was far from the worst offender during this period, and he occasionally took pains to remind people that, all things being equal, he’d rather have been playing interesting music — but by the late ’80s, he’d stopped swimming against the tide as often, and started settling for the unbearable smoothness of stuff like 1987’s Streamlines.
Streamlines was recorded during the dark heart of the synth-crazy ’80s, when otherwise sane musicians were trying to replace perfectly good instruments with digital facsimiles, and this was particularly apparent among the leading smooth jazz artists of the day. Lee Ritenour had just released an album recorded largely with the synthaxe, a goofy, short-lived contraption that made playing guitar about as intuitive as tying your shoelaces with your teeth; meanwhile, brass and reed players like Scott were fooling around with the EWI. Hear it in action on this live version of the Streamlines cut “Say You Love Me”:
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That’s actually one of the better cuts from this album, which typifies the arid sound of the day as well as the ongoing smooth jazz tradition of giving songs silly, fake-exotic titles like “Pipes of Pandora,” “Quadra’s Domain,” and “Outzone” — all of which are actual titles of actual Streamlines songs. Scott announces his intentions right away, with the farting synth solo that kicks off opening track “Feet First,” and reaffirms them with the second song, “Jungle Funk,” which trades out actual funk for synth flutes and gross programmed noise. But the funniest song title is “Amaretto.” Tell me, does this make you think of liqueur?
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A lot of Streamlines is silly, superficial ’80s smooth jazz dreck, and other parts of the album are simply nondescript. But it’s important to note that this is pretty much the worst Tom Scott could do — and even on auto-pilot, he was nowhere near as dull as some of his peers. Aside from the first L.A. Express album, I’m not sure there’s a Scott record I’d whole-heartedly recommend; still, even during the programmed hell of the early ’90s, Scott managed to inject a little heat into his albums. Purists hate him because he can’t be bothered to record straight jazz more than once a decade or so, and they have a valid argument. But it won’t be long before we hear far, far worse.
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