Al Jarreau is back from a wild-weathered Belarus and talking from his sunny California home about recent gigs with Stanley Clarke and his old musical sparring partner George Duke in Moscow, St Petersburg, Vilnius and Minsk. He and Duke have a week-long residency booked at New York’s Blue Note club in May, and for the only artist other than Michael Jackson to have won Grammies in three categories – jazz, R&B and pop – it seems it’s time to check out his roots.
As a performer, Jarreau is as well-travelled as any, with a truly global audience. Tonight, the singer comes to the UAE for the first time, to perform at the Emirates Palace hotel as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, bringing with him a repertoire that spans jazz, pop, soul and R&B yet is stamped with his unique vocal signature.
“I’ve played north Africa a few times – Morocco and Tunisia,” he says, “but never in the Emirates and I’m looking forward to it. We’ll do a programme that starts at the very beginning. That’s the tack I always take – to generally think of the audience as people who are hearing me for the first time. It’s really fun, for me as a performer, to see the expressions on their faces hearing these songs they’ve never heard. You can’t buy that.”
The launch-pad for Jarreau – the son of a Seventh Day Adventist minister and singer – was a residency in The Half Note, a Haight Ashbury jazz club in San Francisco, just as the hippie revolution was taking off in 1965. His day job was as a social worker; his night work was singing with the George Duke trio. “I found myself at the Duke University graduate school of musical swing studies,” he laughs. “It continues today. The Half Note was a hot little neighbourhood jazz club with music and an audience that lived down the street and around the corner and knew each other and us by name.”
The memories are vivid enough to make him almost burst into song: “People like Cannonball Adderley would stop in there. It glowed and shined like a little pearl in a setting of tie-die, psychedelia, patchouli, lava lamps, bell bottoms, right on, wow man, I have a dream, spirit of the times. What an experience. Right in the middle of that was this little jazz club where people came in from the neighbourhood and George and I were really swimming upstream because down the street was the music of the time. And we were doing this different music and finding a little live audience that is very much like the audience that we still have today.”
The sound of their swimming upstream was captured one night by Duke on a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, and an album of those recordings from 1965 is now available at concerts, giving fans the chance to hear the early work for the first time. A decade passed before Jarreau’s voice made it on to studio tape – his first deal came in 1975 with Warner, and his debut album We Got By launched an illustrious recording career spanning 15 albums.
In the 1980s, he scaled the pop charts with the likes of We’re in this Love Together and the cheerily positive Mornin’. In 1985 he sang on America’s Live Aid single, We Are the World, and after an extended break from the studio in the 1990s, he returned to recording with 2000’s Tomorrow Today on the jazz label Verve.
In 2004, Accentuate the Positive, produced by Tommy LiPuma, who had worked on his first album, was a deeper exploration of Jarreau’s jazz sensibility, while 2006’s pairing with the guitarist George Benson on Givin’ It Up For Love returned him to the top of the Billboard jazz charts with an album of wonderfully assured instrumental and vocal prowess.
He’s ready to return to the studio with his band for an album comprising new songs written by himself alongside contemporary songwriters such as Brenda Russell, due for autumn release. “We’ve demoed about five or six pieces that are nearly ready to go in and turn on the tapes for real and we can hardly contain ourselves – we’re really excited about this new project. It’ll be a record with pop sensibilities but with real depth in the songs, real smart stuff.”
Jarreau has well-earthed faith in his band, some of whom have been with him for more than 20 years. He proudly proclaims them “the finest players on the planet – there’s a musical integrity there. These guys inhale and exhale with me and it’s a nice thing to see. It’s a band that’s really spot-on, so much so that we can improvise stuff at a moment’s notice”.
Indeed, Al Jarreau live is likely to take off into the most unexpected spaces, far from where hit songs usually go. His amazingly athletic scat style is a mouth music that can evoke the sound and rhythms of all manner of instruments – bass, guitar, drums, flute. Decades on, he’s the template for every beatboxer out there. Jarreau roars with laughter at the thought.
“I shouldn’t beat the drum but they did learn that from me,” he says. “I was doing that in 1965, 1970, and on my first records. That’s my stuff – they took it from me. I don’t stand up and make that proclamation very often but that’s the truth. That’s Al Jarreau-ese. Standing in front of a live audience in 1967 or 1968, no one had ever heard anything like that before. It became my signature.”
It was a method he refined while working as a duo in New York with the guitarist Julio Martinez. Setting his voice to Martinez’s sparse accompaniment allowed him the space to develop the unique style that would go on to win him five Grammy awards.
“Suddenly there was all this room. That’s where it really took off and I began to do all of this extra vocal stuff,” he remembers. “That became my trademark. I decided to work with a guitar player because I was especially in love with Brazilian music and wanted to find someone who could play that stuff and R&B in that fashion.”
They played at New York’s Improv club, which launched the careers of Bette Middler and John Belushi, among others. “It was all happening at this little club,” Jarreau recalls. “It was one of the first comedy clubs on the planet. We would come up and play some music two or three times a night. Two or three songs each time. To give people’s ears a little comic relief.”
Whichever way he takes it – pure pop, smooth R&B, funky soul or improvised jazz – Jarreau’s joyful music still draws its strength from the wellspring of so much great American music: gospel – he wasn’t born the son of a singing minister for nothing.
“You begin by exercising that vocal muscle when you’re 12 or 13 years old,” he says. “And that same muscle gets exercised with gospel singers. Those trills and frills. They’re exercising that very same muscle. They start at the same age and all of that stuff is improvised. As you develop that ability, it pops out in an improvised manner in any song. It’s no more or less mysterious than that. You begin to sing gospel trills and frills and before you know it, you’re standing next to Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.”
Al Jarreau – A Jazz Roots Concert is tonight at the Emirates Palace Auditorium at 8pm. Visit the Abu Dhabi Festival website for more details..
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