Seven-time Grammy Winner Al Jarreau will sing for smiles
One of the great joys of interviewing Al Jarreau is that he will sing to you.
Mention any of his songs and you’re suddenly enveloped by the marvelous voice that has mesmerized audiences around the world for decades.
Blessed with a unique voice that has been likened to a caressing breeze on silk, Jarreau defies musical categorization. Loved for favorites like “We’re In This Love Together,” “After All” and “Moonlighting,” Jarreau draws from an eclectic palette that’s not pure jazz or pure pop or strictly soulful.
This seasoned musician – a seven-time Grammy winner and the only vocal artist to have won in the three different categories of pop, jazz and R&B – can transform even an ordinary song into a work of aural art.
“His vocal elasticity and thematic ingenuity were particularly evident on ‘Take Five,’ the Dave Brubeck piece that’s long been a staple of Jarreau’s concerts,” praised a Washington Post review. “Improvising freely with his quintet, he rearranged the tune on the spot, whimsically playing with the meter, melody, harmony and rhythm until the tune took on a fresh vitality and momentum.”
Jarreau’s gift for crafting remarkable vocal renditions of instrumental works includes such jazz classics as “Take Five” and Chick Corea’s “Spain.”
“That music appealed to me,” Jarreau explains. “Both ‘Take Five’ and ‘Spain’ touched my heart. I want to sing that tune. I can sing that. It was a joyful experience to hear those songs, to learn those songs and sing those songs.”
On his latest album, “Al Jarreau & The Metropole Orkest, Live,” he includes his vocal interpretation of the sublime Weather Report classic, “A Remark You Made.”
“I had in mind a lyric moments after I first heard it in the late ’70s,” he says. “The song just washed me out and took me away. It was a real challenge and daunting task to even entertain the notion to write a lyric for music that is so classic.”
And a few years back, for his album, “Accentuate the Positive,” he created a cool vocal version of the Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker tune, “Groovin’ High.”
“What a great piece of music,” the 74-year-old singer enthuses. “That whole trick of writing lyrics to great instrumental solos I learned from Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. He was my serious professor teaching me through the phonograph. It was wonderful to learn that approach.”
Born in 1940, Jarreau as a child sang in his church choir and was exposed to a rainbow of sounds, including polka.
“My bedroom was 15 feet from the polka tavern,” he recalls, laughing. “I know more polkas than Frankie Yankovic. It was part of the cross section of musical things I heard. I heard choir boys sing the liturgy as a kid. I learned Broadway musicals in school. I knew songs in Italian and German.”
Moving from his hometown of Milwaukee to San Francisco after leaving college, Jarreau began exploring a passion for singing, first performing at a small jazz club with a trio headed by jazz legend George Duke. Relocating to Los Angeles, he began his apprenticeship in such famed nightspots as Dino’s, the Troubadour and the Bitter End West.
In 1975, his debut album, “We Got By,” was released to unanimous acclaim. Two years later, the live recording, “Look to the Rainbow,” earned Jarreau his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. His fourth album, “All Fly Home,” was released to further accolades and a second jazz vocal Grammy. It was followed by a string of innovative and original offerings, including 1980’s “This Time” and the million-selling, “Breakin’ Away,” which brought him Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocalist and Best Male Jazz Vocalist. Then in 1992, “Heaven and Earth” earned him Best R&B Vocal Performance.
In 2006, Jarreau teamed with legendary guitarist/singer George Benson for the landmark album, “Givin’ It Up.” With guest artists like Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Jill Scott, Chris Botti and Patti Austin onboard, the double Grammy-winning recording received rave reviews.
“Al Jarreau’s smooth liquid vocals have graced our ears for the past 30 years, and what better way to enhance that experience than to record with an equally talented old friend, George Benson,” praised Pop Matters. And Jazz Review proclaimed, “This one is destined to be a classic.”
“We had a great time doing that,” he says. “The range on the record was so wonderful.”
The album featured Jarreau adding lyrics to and singing Benson’s signature instrumental hit, “Breezin’,” while the guitarist delivered a charming instrumental version of the singer’s “Mornin’.” And it included a rousing version of Sam Cooke’s classic, “Bring It On Home To Me,” with Paul McCartney wailing on its gospel chorus.
“We were at the old A&M studios, and Paul McCartney was there doing his own album,” Jarreau explains. “He heard George Benson was around the corner, and he came to pay respects. They had known each other a while. He had love and respect for George. So George says, ‘Come on, Paul. Sing this song with us.’ Paul came back the next day and sang that song. It was amazing.”
Jarreau has expanded in recent years his concert repertoire by including performances with symphony orchestras. As part of his desire to keep growing, he’s arranged popular pieces, like Bernsteins “West Side Story” and Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and even created an interpretation of Bach’s “Air on a G String.”
His latest live recording, with Holland’s Metropole Orkest, finds this remarkable artist covering 11 songs from his extensive body of work with full orchestral arrangements.
“A lot of people will have heard these songs before, but never in quite this way,” he notes. “This orchestra places them in an entirely new setting. What comes through loud and clear is that you can reinvent and reinvigorate and restore existing music and make it into a completely contemporary experience.”
The concert recording includes his most recognizable hit, “We’re In This Love Together,” enhanced by a string section. “You would think that I’d get tired of singing that song, but I don’t,” he says. “When I look at any audience, I see two or three thousand reasons to sing it differently than I did the night before. If I look at any of those faces, I’m compelled to sing it in some way that’s new for them and for me.”
As for future recording plans, he is currently completing a tribute to his late friend, legendary keyboardist George Duke.
“We’re just finishing up,” he reports. “I want it done so I can make a statement about my connection with George as soon as possible. It’s just the life and times of George Duke that we need to celebrate. We need to celebrate what’s important in our humanity, and George was one of the great exponents of that.”
Realizing his ability to move people of any age, Jarreau places special importance on the material he sings and how it impacts others.
“I was about 4 or 5 years old when I had the recognition that people smile or laugh with me,” he says. “That’s all I needed. It can really hook you if you can make people smile. That means more and more to me as I live this life and do this music.
“If you think about the world and the days we are living, the anxiety people experience about so many things, you become really touched by the fact that for a little while you can make them smile and sing and forget all of that stuff. And maybe leave feeling a little refreshed, hearing a song with a message that stays with them, so tomorrow is a little easier.”
It’s been many years since he last performed in the islands. “I’m so looking forward to performing in Hawaii,” he concludes. “I’m saddened that I haven’t been to Maui and the Hawaiian Islands more throughout my career. But it’s not too late; we can begin the new rest of our lives together and have fun. At 74, I’ve got a whole lot more.”