Al Jarreau’s passing on February 12th of this past year has really brought to mind the many conceptions and misconceptions of his artistry from within my own personal lifetime. There really was no reasonable way to ignore the mans unique and astounding vocal artistry. But the songs he wrote and interpreted were just as musically busy and complex as his singing was. When exploring him in an album context, his 1977 live recording Look To The Rainbow was name dropped as superb example of his performance ability. Here’s an Amazon.com review I did of it six years ago.
Speaking for myself this may very well be destined to be one of the premier live jazz fusion albums of it’s era. One of the qualities that makes it so significant is the lack of the direct visual element. True Al Jarreau is,for better or worse depending on your tastes one of the most theatrical performers in jazz this side of Jon Hendricks,his most obvious influence and of course the incomparable Cab Calloway. Al put’s his entire body into the performance like a contortionist. You can see some of that in the photographs of this album.
After the release of his first two albums,1975’s We Got By and the following year’s Glow,he found that both these albums had become enormous critical successes stateside but (stereotypically) wound up enormous COMMERCIAL successes across Europe. Even winning German Grammy’s. It would take some retooling of his approach before he’d get the same treatment in his home country. But Al’s vocal and songwriting talents made such a massive wave during the following European tour that he made this album based on his performances there. The results capture more than great music. But an artist in an important place and time as well.
Recorded with a small group fusion quartet of keyboardist Tom Canning,drummer Joe Correro,bass player Abraham Laboriel and vibraphone player Lynn Blessing this album doesn’t have an enormous instrumental sound.The idea is to focus on Al’s well renowned pipes. Even Al himself said at some times the vocalist side of him got in the way of the singer. Although strongly emphasizing his own excellent compositions the interpretive element of his talent gets the perfect showcase here.
Of course there’s the live rendition of Leon Russell’s “Rainbow In Your Eyes” which here is given the extra vocalese treatment from Jarreau. On “Better Than Anything” and the title song you get much the same quality. His take on the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck standard “Take Five” however is the heart and soul of this album to me,with Al improvising along with the songs already unexpected time changes and charging by songs end into this…well display of sheer vocal improvisation you’d just have to hear to believe. I
t’s intelligent and exciting and the audience can’t help but applaud midway through. I know I’d have been. On “Burst In With The Dawn” and “One Good Turn” he turns up the soulful/gospel flavor in his sound. And is equally at his sophistifunk best with “You Don’t See Me” and the “new” number “Loving You”,concluding everything with a show stopping rendition of the title song of his debut album.
One of the things that makes this such a special album is that is showcases everything that was positive and musically enriching about what Al Jarreau had to offer in the beginning of his professional recording career. You get the vocalese drama and distinctive timbre that’s got him attention then and ever since. You get a good sampling of the best of his songwriting he’d done thus far. You also get his abilities as an interpretive vocalist-from the worlds of pop,jazz and funk.
It’s once been said of the great American composer Duke Ellington that he often seemed to create kind of an all encompassing music that borrowed from many sources but maintain his distinctive sound,in his case referred to as “Ellingtonia”. I tend to think of Al Jarreau that way too. He integrates many of the influences that are meaningful to him into a one sound that you somehow know is very much his own.
And his producers and musicians working close to him are also able to find ways to bring this quality out on record in many different ways. This particular album shows that unique flavor translated just as easily from the album,onto the stage and in this case back onto an album again. Just goes to show how Al Jarreau,especially early in his career could work on so many levels.
Look To The Rainbow represents Al Jarreau as a shining example that the artistry of Jon Hendrix,Johnny Mathis,Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck were not truly lost when jazz went electric,as was the commonly held wisdom for some time. Much as with George Benson, the perception that Al Jarreau made his sound more commercial is misinterpreted. Jarreau began his major label recording career as a funk/soul/pop artist who had a jazzy vocal and writing approach. And took on jazz standards with the same vigor. This album brought out that quality in a significant way.