The latest addition to the seemingly endless parade of all-star tribute albums is To Grover, With Love.
This one’s another Jason Miles production; he seems to have found a niche for himself in producing these extravaganzas, and has quite a rolodex to call upon.
They say you never fully appreciate someone until they’re gone. This CD lends credence to that adage in two respects. First, throughout Washington’s full but prematurely shortened career, he recorded a lot of really good material, and if a tune wasn’t premiered by him, then when he touched it he usually produced the definitive version. Many of these songs will be instantly recognizable to anybody who’s followed the contemporary jazz/R&B genre. Second, in a densely crowded field of contemporary saxophonists, Washington had his own instantly recognizable voice – a tone quality, a set of licks (he rarely missed an opportunity to land on the blue note of a chord with his signature pitch-bending wail), and his own approach to developing a solo. Most of these saxophonists are great players in their own right, but when they try to approach a Washington classic, their version almost always comes in second.
Gerald Albright starts things off nicely with his take on one of Washington’s most recognizable songs, the title cut from the huge-selling Grammy-winning Winelight. Albright has studied Washington well, and he pulls off a good take on this one. Everette Harp’s rendition of “Black Frost” is equally worthy. Sometimes it’s better not to try to come close to the original, but rather to approach the song from a different angle; guitarists Russ Freeman (“East River Drive”) and Mark Whitfield (“Summer Chill”) succeed by taking this approach. Guitarist Chuck Loeb and Dave Mann on soprano sax team up for a different but satisfying rendition of “Brighton By the Sea” (actually from Bob James’ album H which featured Grover).
Other tunes, while respectable, leave me thinking, “nice, but I’d rather hear Grover play it.” Such is the case with “Mr. Magic”; Herbie Mann’s flute sounds light and pretty where we’re used to hearing Grover dig particularly deep into the soul bag, and the tinkertoy synth effects are no comparison to Eric Gale’s choked guitar. Ditto “Just the Two of Us”; Regina Belle delivers a nice vocal but it doesn’t hit like Bill Withers, nor does Steve Cole quite capture the song’s feeling like Grover did. Dave Koz and Richard Elliot have spent too much time in Smoothsville; their songs turn out a bit too fluffy for my tastes. So does Jay Beckenstein’s “Let It Flow,” although this one is compromised by Jason Miles’ light-weight, clattering programmed background. The inclusion of Chaka Khan’s “Love Me Still” is curious; the liner notes indicate that it was originally performed by Khan and Bruce Hornsby. There’s no obvious Grover Washington connection, and the tune seems out of place.
The CD closes on the strongest note. Randy and Michael Brecker team up with Joe Sample, Joey DeFrancesco and Jeff Mironov on “Loran’s Dance.” The style on this one is a departure from the funky soul/jazz of the rest of the program (Washington’s strong suit, although he was known to dabble in straight-ahead jazz and classical); this one is the jazziest piece. Its laid-back tempo allows the principals to deliver some bluesy, gritty solos.
Well, these are my opinions. Others will probably pick their own favorites based on the musical stylings and the artists they prefer. In any event, this was obviously a labor of love for Jason Miles and all of the participants, as well as a heartfelt tribute to a saxophonist who came to epitomize a genre and who influenced many people. Grover Washington, Jr. left an impressive musical legacy, and we miss him already.