New CDs from Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws
not real jazz?
albums by Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws triggered a pair of jazz-related
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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.