Al Jarreau’s artistry as a world class vocalist/singer has seldom been disputed. Though there was a time when it was said that,after the mid 70’s,Jarreau abandoned jazz for pop crossover. Its an age old argument. And honestly,it usually derives from ignorance. In Jarreau’s case,his musical and vocal approach always remained squarely rooted in jazz. From the vocalese/scat and tremolo effects of his musical heroes Jon Hendricks and Johnny Mathis to the arrangements of the music itself,Jarreau was one of a handful of jazz vocalists who could bring improvisation to a wider audience with a pop/funk musical twist.
Jarreau’s best known album was 1981’s Breakin Away. It was a Jay Graydon production. Graydon,like Rod Temperton,was a figure who really knows how to deliver soulful and funky music that has a strong jazz flavor to it. This style was extremely well suited for Jarreau’s jazz approach,since it was still required to make the whole thing work. And it was a massive (and in my opinion deserved) crossover triumph. And it spawned his best known hit with the mid tempo ballad “We’re In This Love Together”. While spawning two more big hits,a favorite of mine and many fans of Jarreau on this album is “Roof Garden”.
Its the trio of Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements,Steve Gadd’s impeccable funky shuffle and George Duke’s strutting Fender Rhodes that starts off this song with Jarreau’s spoken word/scat intro. Of course Abraham Laboriel’s stomping bass line is right along for the right. On the choruses,Jarreau is singing like a chocked,muted trumpet alongside Graydon’s liquid guitar. On the refrains,the horns and drums lock themselves into a dramatic big band swing style melodic arrangement. The bridge finds Jarreau scatting with Duke’s Rhodes until the big horn,choral and lead vocal part the fades out the song.
“Roof Garden” is one of my personal favorite Al Jarreau numbers. Its got so much high stepping,high strutting jazz/funk personality. Everything from the bass/guitar interaction to the horns is locked right into place. Jarreau was alternately comical and sassy on this song vocally. Especially singing lines at the beginning like “hang on,what ‘cha mama gonna say if she found you in a spot like this”. Jarreau delivered on every strength he had: improvising complex scales,scatting and vocalese of many sorts. While its still hard to believe he’s no longer with us,jazz funk like this will assure his sound will endure.
It was Henrique who brought to my attention today that Kashif Saleem,born Michael Jones in NYC,passed away this last Sunday. The causes is still unknown as of now,and not that important. What does matter is that while Kashif was well known as a producer for other artists,it all stemmed from lesser sung achievements of his own. He joined the disco funk band B.T Express as a teenager for their third album Energy To Burn in 1976. He began producing for Evelyn King on her 1981 hit “I’m In Love”-beginning a long tradition of him producing funky female talent in the early 80’s. His talent went even further than that.
Alongside Stevie Wonder,Kashif is known as a synthesizer pioneer in funk/soul. He extended on Wonder’s work by creating sounds that became known as the boogie funk sound. That is mixing live rhythm sections with electronic orchestrations and melodies. He was an orphan who managed to get up of a very abusive foster family. While in primary school,he focused strongly on music. Even learning woodwind instruments-pretty rare for even multi instrumentalists. His self titled solo debut came out in 1983. The song that epitomizes his artistry on it for me is an instrumental entitled “The Mood”.
A strong,space heavy Afro Latin snare/hi hat drum starts off the song. The remainder of the song consists primarily of Kashif’s vocals and many layers of synthesizers. There’s a fluttering synth string,a wispy higher tones one in the back round and a brittle bass one accompanying the multi tracked layers of Kashif’s almost operatic,jazzy vocalese. On the refrains of the song,the melody goes into a higher key and a high funky rhythm guitar assists the melody. On the final choruses of the song,Kashif sings vocalese through a Vocoder before the song fades out.
Kashif’s boogie funk production style is generally spare but glistening enough to appeal to 80’s soul singers. But the moment I heard this instrumental 12 years ago,it was entrancing what a sonic marvel this really is. Its basically an Afro Latin jazz/funk number produced in the more electronic boogie style-with some beautiful chordal modulations and…just a general magical quality to the synthesized sounds created. Kashif will be remembered for me as someone able to get the most warmth out of 80’s era synthesizers. And I am hoping that will continue to be his most enduring musical legacy.
George Duke was one of those musical figures that I personally found creatively inspirational. In his lifetime,he was able to fulfill his artistic promise of being able to be a siphon of the musical spirit that lay behind Duke Ellington,P-Funk,Frank Zappa,Earth Wind & Fire and Milton Nachimento-all coming from the source of one musical mind. When he passed away,all too soon,last year? It seemed inevitable that a tribute would come from someone,someday.
And in only a years time for his birthday? Creative collaborator and friend Al Jarreau got some of Duke’s musical compatriots-both vocalists and instrumentalists for the special tribute album My Old Friend. One of the songs presented was an unheard number written collaboratively by Duke and Jarreau called “Churchyheart (Backyard Ritual)”-featuring one of my favorite living bassists in the jazz-funk vein in Mr. Marcus Miller.
Marcus,who plays most of the instruments on this song opens with a cinematic synthesizer orchestration before Jarreau chimes in with a very Afrocentric vocalese chant-after which Marcus’s slap bass comes in with Mike Cottone’s muted,”cool jazz” styled trumped solo-the tone of which Jarreau replicates with his soft,slow vocalizing. On the refrains,Jarreau delivers a deep descending vocal. On the bridge,a beautiful melange of sax,trumpet and electric piano segues out of the song with the same mixture of cinematic orchestration with Jarreau’s chants that began the song.
This is one of those songs that…really quite brilliantly fuses vocal jazz improvisation with a funk rhythmic approach. With its use of blue notes and Marcus’s own knack for expression the late George Duke’s love of instrumental texturization? The imaginative, somewhat mysical orientation of the music goes ideally with the somewhat faintly performed and even obsure lyrical content. From what I can gather of it,this is a song about the complex interpersonal relationship black Americans have with spirituality. And with a song with song a deeply propulsive funk groove and jazz harmonics? It makes that point beautifully.
When someone is living in an age when most female soul artists are presenting themselves largely through the most shallow end of physical sexuality, it can be easily to become cynical that well rounded feminine sensitivity had been lost along with an overall sense of poetry. The same goes for male artists in the same position. Two people who are looking towards the Afrocentric futurism that the jazz-funk era represented in the 1970’s in today’s music world are the bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and Janelle Monae. While recognized by a certain creatively minded musical community,deserved recognition by the masses still evades them. Most still obsessed with sexually profane “contemporary R&B” female artists who are often more photogenic than innovative. Some react to this by assigning blame to past decades political problems,others blame the genre of hip-hop. However at a time when music wasn’t exactly having the usual healing effect on my soul? A song came my way that was a collaborative effort between Spalding and Monae. It’s called “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”.
Instrumentally the song begins with a slow and steady Afro-Cuban conga based percussion line,over which is played a slippery and multi tracked high synthesizer solo-in which each track has the effect of a round echoplex type reverb effect which gave it the glistening glassy effect. After this introduction a live drum sound enters as Janelle begins singing a lyric that describes a very glamorous yet mysterious feminine figure (possibly Janelle’s android doppelganger character Cindy Mayweather) whose has a romantically bewitching persona. At the end of each chorus a high trombone is heard almost like an apparition in the back round of the song. The bassline weaves in and out of the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the song very much in the manner of a thread through a sewing needle,which maintains the jazz oriented flavor of the chord progressions of the song. The bridge is composed entirely of Esperanza engaging in some powerful multi tracked vocalese as the melody of the song entirely changes before going into the refrain-after which Janelle herself presents a romantic spoken word verse before the powerful jazz-rock guitar solo which closes out the song-accompanied by the chorus of “She’s got Dorothy’s eyes”.
Deeply inspired by the vital instrumental and production dynamics of late 70’s Stevie Wonder/Quincy Jones style jazz/funk/soul/rock hybrids,this is the type of somewhat minor chorded funk with a dreamy atmosphere that might fool the listener into believing its a slow jam ballad. But actually its uptempo funk in the vein of a Michael Jackson number such as “Rock With You” and “I Can’t Help It”. On the other hand,what distinguishes this song from them,and almost all contemporary funk/soul music is the heavy jazz elements. I didn’t realize until researching this song that Esperanza and Janelle both shared the vocal refrains throughout this song. Their vocal styles are so close and compatible its often hard to tell when one is singing-especially when their vocals are melded into the others through the production like melted aural caramel. Because of cultural changes in the perception of music production that occurred in the post Prince era, most modern funk in a band context even tends to prefer to keep a live instrumental aestetic with no frills.
This song clearly utilizes live instrumentation but enhances them with the most magical end of studio production. The song openly celebrates not only studiocentric musicality,but also showcases a strong female characterization of someone who is of great physical beauty yet is also astute enough to be able to bring out emotional fantasies in potential suitors as physical ones. There’s a strong sense of adult sensuality in this song-instrumentally and lyrically reflecting the hopes,desires and mysteries of someone secure enough with themselves to view romance beyond simply the physical desire. Not to mention paying tribute to the historically significant movie star who gave the song its title,”Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”-featured as the next to last song on Janelle’s September 10th album release The Electric Lady is not only a beautifully eloquent jazz funk song but an important blueprint for all modern female artists in this musical spectrum who are in all truth in need for a new and more meaningful creative voice.