Al Jarreau: Christmas Time At Last
“ Have you pondered what is happening inside this guy's mind and spirit when he knows his instrument well enough to let the moment take him, and he rides that wave, and it just pours out of him, the stuff that he feels at the moment? ”
That's precisely been the case for Al Jarreau, the jazzy soul singer, the soulful jazz singer, the vocal craftsman who has been recording for more than 30 years. Until recently.
"There's probably some version of in-womb singing that I was doing," says Jarreau with a chuckle, from his California home in November. "I certainly sat next to my mother on the piano bench from the time that I was able to sit up straight while she played church music. She was a church organist and pianist and played for choir rehearsals and all performances with the church."
Yet among his immense body of work, his latest recording, Christmas (Rhino, 2008), released in October, is his first-ever holiday album.
"I should have done a Christmas record a long time ago. It was a natural one to do, but there's been other stuff to do in the meantime. So, it came time for us to do this Christmas record just now. It's very exciting," says the singer, whose warm personality and forthright nature puts all around him at ease. He notes half-kidding that, "what was so important that I learn is that there is so much Christmas music that I love and need to be doing that I could probably do another six or eight Christmas projects and maybe cover it all, figuring 13 or 14 pieces of music on a record."
Jarreau covers religious songs like "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Gloria in Excelsis," as well as favorites including "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Christmas Time is Here" (the latter a take from Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965) score) on the disc.
"I didn't get lopsided in the presentation of material because those guys know me and did the work on the record.," says Jarreau. "I wanted to have some Jarreau-ness about it, but I really wanted to pay close attention to the respectan homage to the season. I don't want to do a scat version of 'Silent Night.' [chuckles] That's how we came to four or five of the pieces. There's some vignettes that come out of my teen years and childhood that I just tossed in," including an impromptu solo of "Up on the Housetop" thrown in as unidentified cut number 14.
At age 68, Jarreau's abilities have not slipped from what his many fans have come to know and expect. His tone is round, still supple. The tunes are presented in totally recognizable fashion, but there are arrangements that pleasantly alter the compositions and contain adequate doses of what the singer calls "Jarreau-ness." He sprinkles dashes of that ingredient nicely across the entire holiday plate.
"White Christmas" is a more soulful jaunt than is usually presented on holiday records. "Carol of the Bells" has a underlying propulsion that calls to mind Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," with its driving jazz drum patterns and throbbing bass beneath the melody. The vocals, of course, don't take off on Trane's path, but Jarreau weaves a pleasant trail, playing with the rhythm. It has buildup and release of tension. It's a jazz tune, especially at the piano break.
A nice addition is the ballad, "The Little Christmas Tree," a rarity that Jarreau says Nat Cole did in the 1950s, but has seldom seen the light of day since. On "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the vocal group Take 6 joins, providing background harmonies and bass lines. They get by with no help from instruments. Mel Torme's classic, "The Christmas Song," is a simple stroll through the imagery that has warmed holiday revelers for decades. It's slightly funky, with a sultry sax solo by the album's co-producer and longtime Jarreau sideman Larry Williams It will please those with jazz or pop ears, which is pretty much what Jarreau has been doing all his life.
Says the singer, "There's some really attractive elements about a Christmas record, along with the fact that it's a great season and great tradition that's been really big in my life since I became conscious. I grew up in a musical family. The family was doing Christmas music. The family was a church family. The church was doing Christmas music. To have that kind of musical spirit, I tuned in immediately to Christmas music. I grew up singing 'Silent Night' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' with preciseness since I was four years old. Just a great season for me. A long time coming to it and I'm glad I'm getting there ... I think I have an audience out there that's glad to know that I'm doing this."
Jarreau used musicians that have been with for the last decade or so, including Williams and multi-instrumentalist Joe Turano, who arranged some of the music. "These people know me. And that was wonderful about approaching the project. They all had things they wanted to do an arrangement of. And I just kind of went: go ahead ... But here are guys that know me and know what I do on stage right now. They know what I record right now. So I took advantage of that opportunity ... That may never happen again. Next time I do a record, maybe it should be Quincy Jones who arranges it. But for now, this is the right Christmas record for the right time. My only disappointment is that I didn't get to do 15 more songs," he says, chuckling.
Jarreau says his tour around in the coming weeks will be spiced with holiday selection, but audiences will still hear familiar hits like "Take Five," "We're in This Love Together," "After All" and "Mornin.'" Like always, the music will be mostly pop and R&B. Jarreau is able to improvise and he changes phrasing of familiar songs. He also scats capably. But even though he's been known in jazz circles since his early days, supported by a trio led by pianist George Duke, and from his early recordings on the Reprise/Warner Bros. label, Jarreau eschews the "jazz singer" label.
"I consider myself just a singer and jazz is part of it. A very important part. Because it weaves itself through the pop and R&B, which is 90 percent of the music. Maybe 97 to 98 percent of the music that I do. I'm not a jazz singer like Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen McRae or Joe Williams or Jon Hendricks. Then what am I like? Well, I'm a pop singer and an R&B singer, but I weave enough jazz in and throughout it, that lot's of people claim that I am," he says with his characteristic sparkle. "I've got three or four jazz Grammys. I'm proud of that. As a form, as a genre, I think it deserves a lot more praise than it's gotten and garnered, so I'm proud of that."
He's also enchanted by the art of improvising.
"Have you ever sat and pondered in your mind is happening there inside this guy's mind and spirit when he knows his instrument well enough to let the moment take him on a wave, and he rides that wave and it just pours out of him, the stuff that he feels at the moment? That is a magic. That's a magic created by god we get to experience that is unlike a lot of things. You can plan a sculpture. ... So much art is planned out. You draw this line and measure that. But this improvisational stuff is a special, spiritual mind-body connection that is some deep stuff, man."
Jarreau has been busy recording in recent years, including his 2006 project Givin' It Up (Concord, 2007), with George Benson, "That's as important as anything I've ever done."
Benson's career has also straddled jazz and pop, but the album is largely a pop offering. Benson had just signed with Concord Records. The guitarist and Jarreau were talking separately with John Burke, an executive at Concord, when the idea of teaming up was suggested. "The only disappointing part for me is that George and I haven't taken the opportunity to tour as much as we really should have," Jarreau says. "It won two Grammys, which isn't the end-all and be-all of everything, but it sure means a certain part of the community, your colleagues and fellows, stood up and went, 'yeah!' ... Otherwise, I think it's a terrific project. We were true to our careers. There are probably some people inR&B music with a toe into jazz. I think it's satisfying for a lot of people to hear."
The singer, raised in Milwaukee, has been satisfying audiences, of one fashion or another, since he can remember.
"I did my first little garden recital when I was four years old," says Jarreau, illustrating by singing 'Smile, smile, smile, just keep right on smiling/Smile, smile, smile, and clouds will pass away. Smile, smile, smile, it's better far than pining/ Smile, smile, smile, You'll never mind the shadows on a sunny day.' ... songs like that. The church people were just delighted with this four-year-old who could sing. And he probably raised a buck-fifty for the church and bought some new hymnals or something."
Exposure to music was unavoidable, as talent was on display throughout the Jarreau family and singing in the house was common. "My dad was a brilliant singer. He played musical saw. Classical pieces. [hums a couple bars of classical music]. My older brothers were great singers too. I heard quartet music rehearsed in my living room as a four- and five-year-old. I'd hear music which was jazzy. That was my first introduction to music beyond church music and my first introduction, really, to jazz. That kind of stuck, as well as the church music stuck."
Growing up, Jarreau listened to the popular music of the day, including the likes of Little Richard, Bill Haley and the Comets, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, a young Frank Sinatra. "I could sing you so much of that music, you'd be bored," he says with glee.
Adds the singer, "The guys that really made the difference on my life, and it happened at an age when my appreciation for music was taking another turn, maybe a deeper turn, was when I heard Miles for the first time and Bill Evans for the first time. I sat down and really listened to their music . When I heard Johnny Mathis for the first time. He, for me, was and always will be the extension of the Nat Cole tradition. I was listening to Nat Cole as a kid."
A radio program from out of Chicago, Daddy-O Daly, coved the jazz of the '50s, so "so my influences are many, and they include a very special love for Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. I feel so fortunate to have gone through that, to have that in my life," he says.
Jarreau also came up during a great age of recorded music, from jazz greats and Broadway productions, to the beginning and expansion of the rock n' roll vernacular, and everything in between. In today's formulaic, techno society, he says people have lost something important. Young people today are not exposed to such musical diversity and don't get the full spectrum of what music can offer.
"It's not even possible for a kid these days. A kid has got to go out of his way to find things beyond MTV," which he pointedly stresses should be spelled Empty-V. "He's got to go out of his way. It's become so commercialized. They figured out the formula of what works for a mind between the ages of 11 and 19 or 20, when you're coming into your first allowance and there aren't that many things for you to spend it on. They've got it figured out to a formula and that's all you get a chance to hear. It's a rare kid whose parents say, 'Wait a minute. There's some other things to listen to.' I feel very lucky that I got a chance to have that stuff. I think I'm a different person because of it. Maybe I'm an improved spiritual being because of it."
Expressing nuance, feeling, emotion and special meaning is one of Jarreau's goals on stages across the globe. "I'm not going to wax sentimental and important, but you should read my mail. The people who thank me through the mail, or come backstage, with tears in their eyes. Like 'Air Force Lisa,' who found one of my songs during the time she was over in Desert Storm and got poisoned by some chemicals and wasn't expected to live. She heard a song of mine, listened to it. It got her through. Now that's God's work. And that's the idea, to do things that are pro-survival whatever your craft is, whatever it is that you do, especially you do it in front of an audience or a class. So that people come out of it lifted up."
Jarreau was attracted to music's effect on an audience from the outset, it seemed. As a young man in Milwaukee, he performed casually in public. He wasn't yet bent on a performing career, but it was something on his mind.
"I dreamed about it from the first moments I could put a song together. But the dreams were rather childlike ... That's the way it kind of begins," he says. "Then, as time goes by and you kind of get your footing and a better understanding of the possibilities out there and the possibilities inside of you, the dream begins to have more solid aspects and limbs and branches and trees. Then it becomes a real worked-on creative visualization, which is where it begins. You've got to dream it and see it in your mind in order to build that bridge, in order to put a man on the moon, in order to get out of bed and brush your teeth. If you've done anything in your life, besides veg, it's because you saw it in your head first and you followed that and you kept on seeing it in your head.
"I began seeing it in my head when I was 15 years old. I didn't know how it was going to happen, but I could see it in my head."
Enrolled at Ripon College in Wisconsin, Jarreau sang with a group called the Indigos during weekends and holidays. He graduated with a degree in psychology and moved on to the University of Iowa to earn his master's degree in vocational rehabilitation. But his singing experiences in his hometown, even if casual, "really let me know that I could say something up there with the microphone that made people smile and clap their hands when I was done doing it. That's a kind of breakthrough. That happened very early on in my life."
He moved to San Francisco and worked as a rehab counselor, a field his college education had pointed him to. But music still had a hold on the young man. "I was in a profession I'd have been happy to do for the rest of my life, I thought at the time. I moved to San Francisco to be closer to the music industry, after graduating from a program in rehabilitation counseling, knowing there would be good work for me."
"San Francisco at that time was the hotbed of the recording industry. Los Angeles existed, but so much great music was coming out of Haight-Ashbury and the nearby neighborhood, which extended into Berkley. There was the Grateful Dead, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, the list goes on and on and all these people were San Francisco groups, so there was reason to go there and hope for a breakthrough as a singer. I worked for four years as a rehab counselor," he says, during which time came another big break: meeting George Duke.
Al Jarreau (l) with George Benson (r)
Duke, says Jarreau, "was a genius at that time, greatly evolved as a pianist at age 21 or 22. And I began to swing! [laughs]. I began to swing. George can swing if he can't do anything else. George can do a lot of other things."
The focus on music became sharper and Jarreau moved to Los Angeles, performing at some of the best clubs there in the late 1960s. He also gained national network television exposure on shows with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, David Frost and Mike Douglas. He played clubs in New York City. In 1975, following an engagement in Los Angeles, Warner Bros./Reprise talent scouts signed him to a recording contract. His debut album for the label, We Got By (Reprise, 1975, was well received, followed up by Glow. His reputation grew fast.
In 1978, Jarreau did his first world tour. Selections from it comprised Look To The Rainbow (Warner Bros., 1977), which earned him his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. His next album, All Fly Home (Warner Bros., 1978), won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocalist. Successes didn't stop. The million-selling Breakin' Away (Warner Bros., 1981) pulled in Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocalist and Best Male Jazz Vocalist. Jarreau is the only singer to haveGrammys in jazz, pop and R&B.
For Jarreau, his music is a continuation of the spirita desire to inspirethat was part of the era in which he was raised.
"Anyone near my age came through a music explosion the likes of which the planet has never seen," he says, still to this day maintaining a sense of awe and respect. "There had never been any recorded music until we heard things through a gramophone. I remember records that were slate-like records and you put them on top of a box and set a needle on top that was two pounds heavy, and you cranked the handle and the music came out of a tin horn. That's the first music that we had. We went through this love and this joy about music that heretofore had only been represented by a guitarist in your neighborhood or an occasional run to Carnegie Hall, if you happen to live in New York City; or maybe a jazz club in your neighborhood that was doing some music; or you lived next to a polka club, like me. I lived next to a polka tavern.
"There are some people who would never have found Chick Corea if they weren't listening to me. They found 'Spain' and Chick Corea and their lives were enriched. There are some people who would have never found Dave Brubeck if they hadn't been listening to me ... They heard me do 'Take Five' and went and found Dave Brubeck and their horizons were never the same." Al Jarreau, Christmas (Rhino, 2008)
"Things stuck to me in a way that things just don't stick to a generation of people now who are bored to tears with music. I can sing you most of
"My musical love for different kind of things is really deep," says Jarreau, who deliberately reflects it in his performances. "I think it was a special, precious era to have come through. That era, where you took a record home of your favorite group and you and your friends sat around together with a glass of wine, turned the lights down low, crossed your legs over a couch and laid your head back and listened to Led Zeppelin, or listened to early Stones, or whoever your favorite artist, is gone. That's gone. And it's a sad loss."
He laments that music today doesn't hold that treasured spot in the soul that it did for the previous generation, and ones before that. People don't just sit down to listen to music and perhaps discuss the whys and wherefores of their favorite musicians. Today, "music happens while, for people. While they're doing something else. They can't tell you what the lyric is. And if it's three syllables, forget it. Something very special happened for several years when this explosion of music happened, and folks who came through that had something very special happen to them. A lot of music stuck to their hearts and souls. So when you hear me, you hear a lot of that stuff come out.
Jarreau enjoys the spirit of that era, but doesn't look back. His eyes are on the horizon and his desire to continue spreading his music and message. "Just stay well and healthy and do more music," is his general goal.
Pondering the possibilities, he says a big band record is one thing that interests him at some point down the road. "I worked with NDR Big Band, one of the great big bands in this sector of the universe. We did a program of their music in the first half, and I joined them on a couple classic pieces. Then I came out in the second half and it was all Porgy and Bess' music. That's a program that should get recorded," he says, half fantasizing. "I've been doing a symphony program that is largely my music, but other things. Broadway music and a couple classical pieces. I should do that one too ... There are a bunch of duet that ought to happen along the way.
"The main thing is to stay inspired and refreshed and healthy enough to take advantage of that."
Al Jarreau, Love Songs (Rhino, 2008)
Al Jarreau, Dionne Warwick, R&B Soul: Live (Direct Source, 2007)
Al Jarreau and George Benson, Givin' It Up(Concord, 2006)
Al Jarreau, My Favorite Things (Golden Stars, 2005)
Al Jarreau, Accentuate The Positive (GRP Records, 2004)
Al Jarreau, All I Got (GRP Records, 2002)
Al Jarreau, Tomorrow Today (GRP Records, 2000)
Al Jarreau, Improvisations (Blue Moon Imports, 1998)
Al Jarreau, Living for You (Magnum Collectors, 1996)
Al Jarreau, Tenderness (Warner Bros., 1994)
Al Jarreau, Heaven and Earth (Warner Bros., 1992)
Al Jarreau, Heart's Horizon (Warner Bros., 1988)
Al Jarreau, L is for Lover (Warner Bros., 1986)
Al Jarreau, Live in London (Warner Bros., 1985)
Al Jarreau, High Crime (Warner Bros., 1984)
Al Jarreau, Jarreau (Warner Bros., 1984)
Al Jarreau, Breakin Away (Warner Bros., 1981)
Al Jarreau, This Time (Warner Bros., 1980)
Al Jarreau, All Fly Home (Warner Bros., 1978)
Al Jarreau, Look To The Rainbow (Warner Bros., 1977)
Al Jarreau, Glow (Warner Bros., 1976)
Al Jarreau, We Got By (Reprise, 1975)
"There are some people who would never have found Chick Corea if they weren't listening to me. They found 'Spain' and Chick Corea and their lives were enriched. There are some people who would have never found Dave Brubeck if they hadn't been listening to me ... They heard me do 'Take Five' and went and found Dave Brubeck and their horizons were never the same."
Al Jarreau, Christmas (Rhino, 2008)