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New CDs from Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws
What's not real jazz?
by Mark Anderson

ecent albums by Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws triggered a pair of jazz-related flashbacks.

The first was 1978. I was 20. Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, the Cars and the Clash were defining south-central Minnesota college campuses. The Rolling Stones already seemed old but were still going strong. The same could be said of the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and the individual Beatles. It was the heart of disco.

Al Jarreau: shaking out on the side of jazz. ["Jarreau," by Mary Bergherr]

But during three of my years at college, I hosted the overnight Sunday jazz show at a 10-watt campus FM station.

I took the gig because, after driving the 150-mile round trip to St. Paul for the federal licensing exam (required at the time), well, that was the available shift. Still, the notion of a weekly four-hour jazz show seemed interesting. Why not? I loved the Brubeck and Desmond albums I'd inherited a few years before, and I've always liked Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett.

I also knew enough to play lots of Count Basie, Stan Getz and Ella as I experimented like crazy. With four hours to fill – and access to all the new albums pouring into the station each week – I found plenty, bad and good.

Sometimes I previewed new releases through headphones on one turntable while the on-air song faded out on the other. A guy called to complain when I played a whole side of Leon Redbone as the week's featured jazz album. A few times I offered free tickets to the third caller and the phone never rang. One time somebody requested Neil Young.

It was round midnight every Sunday and next to no one was listening. So discovery became a main part of the fun. And although George Benson had made a few jazz-to-pop breakthroughs as guitar virtuoso-turned-crooner, those dirty words – smooth jazz – had yet to be coined.

It was a cockeyed education, but it was jazz to me. Purists would probably see such transgression as the beginning of the end. I never thought twice. And whatever it was that Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws were doing, it helped open a door.

Accentuate the Positive: one of this year's better albums.

Now, a quarter-century later, Jarreau's Accentuate the Positive is one of this year's better albums.

Jarreau finds life in such potentially stale, slow-moving standards as "Midnight Sun" and "The Nearness of You," while his bossa nova take on "My Foolish Heart" is unusually fine.

But Jarreau, a Milwaukee native who first recorded in 1965, really sparkles on the upbeat material. "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and the title track are somewhere near the neighborhood of genius, while "Cold Duck," the opening track, might be the best song on the album.

All 11 shine in their own way, though, and the roster of players, including Peter Erskine on drums and Christian McBride on bass, ensures jazz credibility. The album feels relaxed and radiates the warmth of a jubilant live performance. And the 64-year-old Jarreau doesn't overdo on the scat vocalese as he mines his cool combination of elegance, musicianship and unfettered fun.

Said to be the only singer to bring home Grammys for jazz, pop and R&B, Jarreau clearly shakes out on the side of jazz this time and everything just feels right.

Everlasting: glimmers of traditional jazz within a jumble of styles.

Where Ronnie Laws shakes out with his saxophones is harder to figure. Laws, from a wildly musical Houston family, played with Earth, Wind & Fire before commencing as a bandleader in 1975. But he's long been scorned or ignored by jazz purists for his blasephemic hybrid of jazz, pop, soul, R&B and funk.

Laws manages thrilling glimmers of jazz, but generally offers a harmlessly pleasing jumble of jazz-related styles.

Everlasting, his latest CD, is typically lilting, upbeat music that could find a home on the dance floor, in the back seat or on a sunny trip to the coast with the volume up and the top down.

"Be Mine (Live Your Life Away)," where Laws wraps his nimble horn around mantra-like female phrasings and a sharp house beat, is a funky standout. "Keep On Moving" is a soulful mid-tempo strut with pleasingly off-kilter vocals. "I'll Be Leavin'" is a lush pop ballad featuring gravity-defying sax runs. The title song is an acrobatic instrumental that resonates like prime mid-'70s Crusaders.

Whether on tenor, soprano, flute or vocals, Laws demonstrates enough chops, ideas and tone to excel at whatever genre he chooses. Problem is, on the whole, there's not a lot to distinguish this new set of songs from the rest of the Ronnie Laws catalog. That said, Everlasting is a solid bet for good, if essentially easy, listening. Better yet, find Flame, his 1979 release.

As for the other flashback, well, after college, the mid-'80s blew by. I stumbled upon (and wore out) a vinyl version of Kind of Blue and spent several years sharing a four-person party house with a drumming bandmate who loved Buddy Rich. But ours was an undistinguished pop cover band and I never really ventured too far into the wild world of jazz.

Seeing for Miles: the 1989 autobiography.

Then, in 1988, I moved to New York and started to grasp the jaw-dropping depth of the idiom and the Charlie Parker effect. Clint Eastwood's "Bird," with Forest Whitaker starring as Parker, came out the year I arrived. Next, I read the Miles Davis autobiography and began to appreciate jazz's endless nooks and crannies. I dug deep into Davis, Coltrane and beyond.

And then, one day at work, they hired a woman named Barbara.

Probably in her late 30s, Barbara was overly confident and oddly attractive. She had a loud, raspy voice and rigid opinions. Coworkers guessed she might have been a man; I could swear I remember an Adam's apple. But mostly, Barbara had a caustic personality and made sure everyone was aware that she knew everything, all of the time.

The office, a Manhattan press-release factory masquerading as a newsroom, featured a dozen desks in close proximity with no dividing walls. Smoking was permitted right at your work station in those days, and Barbara often smoked.

Which all added up to making Barbara the worst possible fit for the job; the boss probably knew it right from the interview. But he hired her because she was black – the job's black predecessor had been fired and the feckless management was covering its ass.

And in a roomful of steadfastly assertive and proudly opinionated young New Yorkers, Barbara nearly took over.

Nearly, but not quite. Day after day, a dozen quick-witted, art-minded, vocationally frustrated souls brought endless passion to marathon discussions. Some days sparks would fly like swordfights – especially when talk turned to womanhood, for example, or politics or race. Or music.

Bird of paradise: Clint Eastwood's 1988 film.

Right or wrong, Barbara won more than her share of debates; you'd have to give her that. Which made her no easier to be around. And though she probably stayed with the company less than a year, it seemed like forever.

Then, for the holidays, Barbara went to Kansas City and came back as God's expert on jazz.

From that point, any jazzer's name that came up but wasn't on her short list of universal truths – such as Ronnie Laws or Al Jarreau – would invariably cause Barbara to bray, "That's not reeeaaal jazz."

Not real jazz? Sorry, Barbara.

This time you'd mostly be wrong.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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