Sunday, April 21, 2013

Still Glowing: Al Jarreau

Back in the mid-seventies the music of choice was jazz. Primarily this meant jazz crossover like Weather Report and George Duke, the jazz funk of The Crusaders, the exclamatory pianism of Keith Jarrett, the mysteriously bleak European soundscapes of Ralph Towner and Jan Garbarek, or the Latin-influenced Chick Corea. This was a time when jazz made its comeback, having been put into the musical shadows by pop, soul and rock in the sixties. There was a critical mass of artists, many of whom were part of a lineage from Miles Davis and some, especially the Europeans, who broke new ground by amalgamating symphonic and folk traditions with a greatly subdued tendency to improvise; it had been over-improvisation, discordant and interminable, that had previously pushed jazz towards the unlistenable.

What was conspicuous by its absence from most of this jazz was singing. And when instrumental groups such as Weather Report eventually got round to using a vocalist, the sound was totally different. The spell was broken and the group was never the same again. Similarly, The Crusaders found Randy Crawford and wandered off into the cabaret twilight, never to recapture the drive that had characterised the group's funk chunk of the earlier 70s. Corea was rare in managing to successfully integrate vocals into the dominant instrumental style of the time, Flora Purim having featured on his first two Return to Forever albums.

Jazz singing was all too easily associated with a smoochy, lounge-lizard, bebop vocalising. It was limp-wristed smoothiness packaged for the less-than-aficionado audience. It was the jazz singer's misfortune that he or she was shepherded into territory marked the variety television show and reduced to having to churn out schlock, shake the head in an infuriatingly smug manner and smile in a way that combined conceitedness with lasciviousness. It was horrible, and it mattered not if it were a male or female singer; both were equally repulsive. Just pause for a moment and realise what Amy Winehouse was like when she sang jazz. This was how it should have been back in the sixties but all too rarely was.

This instrumental jazz world of the seventies was disrupted when a previously unheard of artist suddenly turned up one day, having released an album that wasn't instrumental. The title of the album was "Glow". The artist, the singer was Al Jarreau.

Jarreau slotted into the general crossover of the time, "Glow" featuring, among others, members of The Crusaders. The result was not earth-shattering - it was all pretty laidback and gentle - but it showcased, and this was what was different, a singer, and one, moreover, who didn't have the cabaret objectionableness that had become associated with jazz singers. It was one, despite his also being identifiably "soulful", that didn't do the shouty stuff of, for instance, a Wilson Pickett. There was more of an Al Green or Marvin Gaye subtlety but there was also an astonishing ability to impersonate instruments.

Jarreau could play the flute, and this was just one of the instruments he could ape vocally. His style was unique. He went on a world tour not long after "Glow" came out. Recordings from that tour went into the album "Look To The Rainbow", and he became something of a global star. And one of the recordings may well have come from a concert he gave in London.

I don't remember now which theatre it was; the Coliseum possibly. What I do remember is going along to the box office during the day to collect tickets for the gig. From the lobby I could hear that Jarreau was doing a sound check. I didn't ask anyone. It was probably verboten, but I went into the auditorium, sat down and was treated to half an hour of free concert. I thought about applauding at the end but reckoned that this would have been unwise. I sneaked out, just as I had sneaked in, having sat through an illicit thirty minutes of coital-sound-check-interrupted musical orgasm.

Jarreau and indeed much of the jazz of the time were to pass into my own musical history. Only the Pat Metheny Group, with what can now be described as being almost ambient or trance, survived the onslaught of punk, post-punk, indie, electronica and then club. But Jarreau has survived. Not only musically but in health terms. He has had heart problems and was diagnosed with pneumonia last year. He has recovered, and next Sunday (28 April), he'll be playing the Palma Arena. I don't know if I'll go, but if I'm anywhere in the vicinity earlier in the day, then I might just sneak in for the sound check. 

Any comments to please.

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