2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Now that Bobby Short has gone to that great piano bar in the sky and Johnny Mathis is content to live out his life on the golf course, we need an easy listening jazz/pop replacement.
Al Jarreau has won seven Grammy’s, and is the only vocalist to win the coveted award in three separate categories: jazz, pop and R & B. If that Al Jarreau, the who sings in the first half of the album was still performing I’d recommend him for another statue; but I’d like to slam the piano lid down on the vocal chords of the Al Jarreau who bee-bops, scats and gurgles his way through the second half of this set. Luckily, the theme song from “Moonlighting” is missing, but so are most of the Grammy award winning songs. It may be a blessing. I haven’t heard a lot of the award winners (“Look to the Rainbow,” Fly Home,” etc…) so they’re probably some insidious form of jazz. No love lost there. I certainly will stay waaaaay clear of Al’s version of “God Bless The Child,” a song I’ve permanently banned from my play list under penalty of human sacrifice. I don’t care if John Lennon, Jim Capaldi, Richard Manuel, Rick Grech, and Jim Morrison all rise from the dead and offer to play it in my living room with Chris Wood flying in on gossamer wings to share the horn section with Marilyn Monroe – I ain’t havin’ it.
Al’s “Love Songs” get off to a loverly start with “We’re In This Love Together,” from 1981’s “Breakin’ Away,” his most successful album. I have to admit I’d forgotten about this one, or should I say I’d tried to put it out of my mind when I first heard it. I was into prog rock at the time and this kind of feel good, chippy Toto stuff seemed silly and syrupy. With age (mine, not the song’s), comes acceptance and understanding of the intended sentiment. “We’re in this love together; we got the kind that last forever. We’re in this love together. Like berries on the vine, it gets sweeter all the time...” And I guess it does!
My father used to play Nancy Wilson’s version of “Teach Me Tonight” almost on a nightly basis. I can still hear him in the basement, sawing away at his latest home improvement project as the song played. I always listened for the moment when the record would skip, but I also loved Nancy’s school of hard knocks approach. Al’s got this down too but in a different manner, with a relaxed delivery, dance floor strings and mellow beeps on sax. The instrumentation is a little archaic, particularly the Fairlight, but his performance isn’t. Al knows when to amp or vamp up his voice. It’s a little scary that I made reference to Johnny Mathis before – in this case he really does remind me of the old duffer with the processed hair.
“So Good,” a #2 on the R &B charts in 1988, is delightful because Al’s phrasing is soooo good. Once again, the arrangement has early 80s all over it with George Duke’s Fairlight and saliva spewing sax solos straight from a Tim Curry send up. Ignore that and listen to the way Al modulates his voice. When the back up singers hook up with the piping sax, all they’re singing is “so good, so good, so good,” yet the ensemble blossoms with good intent and its apparent these folks are enjoying themselves.
“After All” is another forgotten radio favorite from 1984 that Al had a hand in writing with David Foster, who for better or worse salvaged Chicago’s career with a lot of really insipid ballads sung by Peter Cetera, (and when Pete left to count his millions, Jason Scheff hit the mike). Hate the plastic drum heads, but Al’s smooth vocal has a lot of class, and he’s singing this like he’s got a particular lady he wants to remember. If you like Boz Scaggs later day ballads (such as “Sierra”), you’ll like this.
“Wait For the Magic” has a slight Europe by way of Spain flair. The twinkling keyboards are a bit much; there’s gotta be a less cheesy way to indicate magic (how about a real harp?). But that aspect is a product of the time, and it’s live, so that’s a hell of a cost to incur for limited use of a delicate instrument. Gentle, romantic and entrancing, “Wait For The Magic” is a dance floor number, the kind that melts hearts. You play this at a wedding and even a stone hedonist like me would dance with your bucktoothed sister. Al knows how to draw a breath before, during and after he sings, the number one rule in the singer’s handbook – a text that guys like Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler and Brian Johnson apparently never read.
It’s interesting to see how Al fits his laid-back style into a well known standard like Elton John’s “Your Song.” The results are in Al, it’s still Elton’s song, not yours. Al over sings it. He’s too aware he has to change things up, so he tries more vocal tricks than usual, elongating and cannibalizing lines, tossing in some stream of consciousness scatting from the Spike Jones school of vocal sound effects, and getting just a bit too soulful: “This here song’s for you…” Huh? Where are we, Dodge City?
“Heaven and Earth” received a Grammy for best Male R & B Vocal Performance in 1993 – proof the judges have tin ears. “Heaven and Earth” is a honking signpost in the road where Al took the wrong turn and wound up on a street called overkill. Michael Narada Walden’s participation explains it all – he completely wrecked Steve Winwood’s album “Junction Seven” with his string synths and plastic production. I can’t listen to “Junction Seven” anymore because it sounds disingenuous and obsolete. Walden’s cocktail disco touch turns “Heaven and Earth” into a hellish ride.
With “Through It All” Al proves we’ve indeed entered Al’s pseudo jazz period.
A far less engaging version of “After the Love Is Gone,” “Through It All” leaves Al further buried in the mix of a lackluster piano bar bore.
Al and George Benson collaborated several times in the past, and for “Let It Rain” they enlisted Patti Austin’s name but not her talent. There’s a popping electric bass, tooting coronet and brief, distant fills by Benson furnishing Jarreau and co. with an expressive backdrop. But Austin’s nothing special and Al sounds lecherous, and both sound well past their primes. Sometimes whispered vocals are just not enough to provide intimacy. Benson doesn’t take a solo, so we don’t know if he’s got anything left either.
Al channels Edith Piaf in “Not Like This,” a musical funeral procession. This is why I run from jazz like Wesley Snipes from the I.R.S. You get a turtle-paced verse followed by a stumbling, sledgehammer section with rushed lyrics before the melody downshifts back to its original stagnant pace. I do “Not Like This.”
“Brite N’ Sunny Babe” was written by Jarreau, so if anybody should know Al’s strengths and weaknesses, it should be Al himself. He lets the drummer loose on the high hat and adds some buoying percussion, then feels the spirit. Indulgent, but better his later material.
When you tune into those Jazz lite radio stations, “Secrets of Love” will invariably be one of the songs they’ll play. It’s soothing, Sealy Posturpedic vocalizing without a hint of emotion. There’s nothing wrong with it technically, but it’s too slick, too layered, (and I tend to love overproduced stuff). It’s no secret what’s missing is the intimacy and the one-to-one connection between the artist and his audience. What you get sounds pretty, but it’s also snooze inducing.
You listening Bobby Short? “My Foolish Heart” is your brand of safe cocktail lounge music, with a dusting of piano, flamenco guitar, a loosely plucked upright and a little samba percussion. As for the scatting – Al’s flying blind, sounding as if he blowing bubbles in the bathtub through a straw just after the horse tranquilizers have kicked in. “My Foolish Heart” is okay if you get dinner by candlelight, a nice view of the Hudson and valet parking, but otherwise it’s faceless – and endless. You’ll dose off and wake up in your Fettuccini.
Young Al is to be appreciated, he’s more focused before the success went to his voice, before he decided to show off and try and tackle as many vocal challenges per song as possible. Age and over confidence marred his later work. It’s commendable that this collection spans Al’s career, but it doesn’t necessarily do him justice. The weak backend of his material from the 90’s on makes listening to the second half of the CD laborious, but there’s a lot to savor in the first half.