Newspaper Articles – Issue 13
JUST BESIDE THE DOOR. . .
by Franc Gavin
You’re at a party. Or perhaps home, listening to a few sides with some friends. Someone puts on Look To The Rainbow, vocalists Al Jarreau’s new live lp. First there is the shimmering, cool-city-breeze feel of keyboardist Tom Canning’s electric piano. Then there’s the voice, and suddenly you realize you’ve been taken in.
The voice takes a note, transforms it into a syllable, turns that phonetic inflection into a repetition of the “burningandburningandburningandburn . . .” and dips off into a key-change that barely precedes the body of the blue-shadowed “Letter Perfect”. The opening track on the most recent Jarreau effort. “Letter Perfect”, the perfect-transcendent Jarreau statement, a careful jazz-soul mosaic full of close-up frames of city sunsets that get “, , , dark like wine . . . ” quiet encounters with pretty ladies, and the image that most singularly recurs throughout his lyrics — blindness. Not the inability to see in the literal sense, but that common affliction from which so many of us suffer, the inability to perceive our surroundings.
In “Letter Perfect” he addresses the lady in question:
“. . . take off them dark sunglasses,
I’m right here in front of you
Would you open up your eyes? . . . ”
Copyright 1975 Aljarreau Music ASCAP
Jarreau is a master of the stark, desperate portrait. His protagonist struggles, seethes, laments, does not take “no” for an answer. In “You Don’t See Me”, reworked (from his first lp) on the live effort, the character laments:
“. . . I’ll beat your mama, I’ll beat your daddy
I’ll go to jail, it don’t make no mothafugging
difference what happens to me . . . ”
Copyright 1975 Aljarreau Music ASCAP
Around that time someone comments, “You know I can’t tell the difference between the instruments and his voice . . .” The old voice-like-an-instrument syndrome. Funny thing is concerning Al Jarreau, it’s more than just a tired cliche. Even to the trained jazz ear, it’s oftentimes difficult to distinguish between Jarreau’s voice and his backup. He has a way of sidestepping it, or dancing in an out between the dimension of audience and those of the group alike. This makes it all especially palatable for those relatively unfamiliar to jazz — his voice can run from samba-cool to red-hot soul without so much as a flinch, creating an almost unprecedented style.
Not that his style does not possess roots. His is a continuation of a path hewn by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald; Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; and more recently Astrud Gilberto and Flora Purim, both in entirely different ways. It is a style that, begun earlier, did in a sense congeal with a Coltrane instrumental, “Naima”, which was basically a tone-poem that defined jazz as instrumental polyglot. It made complete sense out of the experiments of Fitzgerald and Jon Hendricks by breaking down the boundaries between verbal and musical expression, and in doing so took jazz to the brink of a new language.
Jarreau, however, has taken these elements and added a new and distinctly American twist to them. He has in his fashion brought American jazz-vocal back home in an updated package. The difference between Jarreau and someone like Joe Williams is the approach — he tackles jazz time-signatures with all the verve and gut-ferocity of an R&B performer. The arrangements will push-pull with that bottom-heavy R&B quality while his voice skitters across the surface like a flat stone over choppy waters.
“Yeah — Jon was a huge influence on me,” said Jarreau, “but oddly enough, not in the direct sense. I mean I hot to the point to where I could give a fairly passable imitation of his style, just like I could Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis, who are probably the other two biggest influences on my style. Basically, though, it’s been a situation where they’d be jumping-off points for me. I can’t be a musical historian, a preserver, an archivist. I get too many cross-currents going at once for that. My style is just my own for that reason, I would suppose . . . “
While his style does reveal a trace of that late-forties/early-fifties emphasis, Jarreau’s own contribution has been a step away from that “cool” dilettante-ish quality that pervaded much from that era. Rather than a beat, existentialist stance, his songs are filled both melodically and lyrically, with the sincere energy of struggle — the fight to make things work. His songs reassure, rather than attempt to disillusion. They are romantic, in the broadest sweeping sense, capturing a flashy urban dream of the hope that new love brings — a love that saves, triumphant even in its defeat, because it tried.
“I’d have to give the instrumentalists their due, as much if not more than the vocalists for source material,” he said. “I’ve tried to incorporate that kind of a fluid texture, take it further into vocal realms. “Naima’. That song brings back such memories. that and ‘My Favorite Things’ — I was singing those things 15 years ago. I started out singing straight jazz; I guess that much is apparent. the real revelation broke when I was living and working in San Francisco as a social worker in a rehabilitation center. It was between the years of ’64 through ’68, and that was when it all started going down. I’d be driving to work, and hear The Beatles over the radio. They were a major factor helping change my life. I’d go out walking during my lunch break. Sit out in the park, in the sun, and here were all these kids, doing their thing. Making the most out of each moment of their time. They didn’t have to go back to work — they could do whatever they felt like doing. I wanted so badly to join them, to be like them, to break loose. Funny, too, lots of them finally wound up in the center where I worked. But they were an example to me of the uses and abuses of freedom. My one outlet at the time was singing with the George Duke trio at a little club called The Half Note. It became the most important facet of my life, and as it did, I began feeling confined, weighted down by my work at the center. One morning during a staff meeting, I just told everyone how I felt. And I gave notice. It was like walking out of jail. I became a truly free man for the first time in my life. I found out what it was to play hookey. I’d never, ever been able to do it before, to have no obligations — and yet– to know exactly what I wanted to do and pursue it at my own pace. I knew times might get tough, that there might be some lean years. I felt more than willing to take that chance, because I knew I could do it . . .”
The outstanding aspect of Jarreau’s total feel is that of the human spirit, rising up to meet a challenge. Without ever preaching, his songs contain the intensity of that “inner mounting flame” that makes romanticism but another facet of reality. There is an unpointed presence of morality in the whole presentation, the one that is present in all great art. His scat solos are like watching someone paint an abstract masterpiece and then deliberately burn it up all in the span of less than a minute. If his vocal reveals any trace of suffering, it is evident that he has utilized it to its furthest potential as a learning experience.
“After San Francisco I came to L.A. because I wanted to do more than just survive off my music. I gigged back and forth across the country — here, New York for awhile, then Minneapolis, then back here. This was a time when I was really getting into Latin rhythms I really dug samba a lot. ‘Agua De Beber’, off of Glow, is a heavy reminder from that period. I think it’s still very obvious in the undercurrents of many of my own songs, especially the rhythm patterns.
“Whereas before, I had only 45 minutes at the most to do a show, I was pressed to make a statement in a very short time. Thus we had only a little time for branching out on pieces. Just a little trimming. Now my shows can many times go up to an hour and a half or more, and we have time to improvise and create on stage. This has been the style that has always been the essential ‘me’, and now for the most part, I can afford to do it. It’s okay to take a just-so stance with your audience — it really depends in the long run on who you’re playing to, what kind of material you’ve got to work with.
“But I think the biggest mistake an artist can make in his personal development is letting too many industry concerns overshadow the matters of craft. It should always be the craft, above and beyond all. As far as the industry is concerned, the artist needs to know all he can about this lady before he embraces her. The artist needs to know who this lady is. In this business, if you don’t, you can get bled dry fast. I’ve seen it happen oh, so many times. Me I can’t stay the same. I’ve got to change.
Around the time of late ’69/early ’70 I became aware of Elton John. He was probably the biggest single inspiration I had with picking up the pen and writing songs of my own. “Sixty Years On” is very much felt in numbers like ‘Lock All The Gates’, which was part of a mood I was into at the time. ‘We Got By’ came out of that period — a time of hope and despair. Hope, because I felt like I was just starting to realize my potential; despair, because I still didn’t have a contract at the time.” He laughed.
It seems unnecessary to try and categorize the man. He is unique and at the same time historically right, in the long-term way of any true master. His style engages, so it appears as easy as turning around for a second look in the mirror. With all of its reflective quality, it beseeches the listener to look to all directions rather than straight ahead. In “Lock All The Gates” the image of the blind man again crops up.
“Of winter’s love for spring, she kept the vision
Sweet chariots aflame against the sky
He played on the harp sweet melody
Children and emperors came to see
He drove the dragons into the nights
But he was blind . . . “
Copyright 1975 Aljarreau Music ASCAP
Finally, there is the redemption that comes from being touched by another human being:
“Susan wants to take me to a party over yonder
Susan wants to take me to her heart
Tell me Susan do you mind
If I’ve been blind a long time?
Can you wait for me, ’til I get this thing together?”
Copyright 1975 Aljarreau Music ASCAP
“You know, I’m really happy that so many people like that song. I wrote it for my wife, Susan. She’s my saving grace,” he said. Unlike most songs that performers write for their wife or lady love, Jarreau’s “Susan” is not just another prosaic portrait of domestic bless. It is a song that concerns that struggle, that intense, subtle struggle with self and the very nature of love — deep in its admiration. Characteristically, the melody is a quiet, jazzy inflective with warm, friendly Jarreau undertones.
Lately, Al’s shows have been devoted more to improvisation than in the past, his vocals taking on an ever-more instrument-like quality.