08/15/10

Al Jarreau: Feelin' Pretty Good

Singer set for performances at Wolf Trap and other venues in U.S. and Japan

Sometimes a story is just too good, or even too bad, to be true. Recently, many jazz fans and insiders were shocked to read reports from Europe that singer Al Jarreau had collapsed on stage and was in critical condition in a hospital in France. To paraphrase Twain, rumors of his demise were slightly exaggerated. "Well, it seemed like a juicy story to folks," Jarreau said, speaking by phone from his home in California. Much of the initial coverage emanated from a French newspaper and was picked up by Reuters and then virally by other outlets (including JT) and words like "collapsed" and "critical condition" virtually jumped out of the articles. "Right, it was in fact neither of those," Jarreau explained. "I heard that Tom Joyner had the story of me falling off the stage," added the singer, laughing in that highly musical way of his. I reminded Jarreau of Sonny Rollins' famous mistimed jump off a stage that landed him with a broken leg (as documented in Bob Mugge's film Saxophone Colossus). "You know, I've never felt the need to jump off of any stage," he responded, chuckling.

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By Ben Johnson
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Al Jarreau performing at 2010 West Oak Lane Jazz Festival in Philadelphia
By Rob Nagy
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Al Jarreau performing at 2010 West Oak Lane Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, Pa.
By Rob Nagy

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Jarreau was in the midst of a European tour, when he found himself short of breath on the day of a performance in the Marseille area of France. He decided to seek medical attention at a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with the relatively common and treatable condition of heart arrhythmia (ironic given his own impeccable sense of time). He was hospitalized for a few days and had to cancel a few shows, which he found perhaps most upsetting of all. "I said to myself, 'Wait a minute, this doesn't feel right.' I never cancel a show but I was short of breath and I thought I should err on the side of caution and get myself checked out." Certainly high altitude didn't help matters. "Right, I need to be careful about doing that. While I was there [at the hospital], I got a new Ten Commandments written just for me, from the doctors. A lot of 'Don't do this, don't do that.' I need to be more conscious of salt intake and other healthy heart things." All in all, he said he's feeling good now, if a little humbled. "I'm doing pretty okay here. I did decide to go in and get myself checked out. I think that was important. There were some things that I didn't know were going on with me."

Perhaps what made the story more amazing and compelling was that Jarreau has always seemed the epitome of good health and fitness, a 70-year old man who looks at least 15-20 years younger, at least from what I've seen. "You've been seeing right!” the singer exclaimed. “I've always felt that if you're physically fit, it helps everything. So I've tried to do that. When I couldn't jog any more because of my knees, I went to power walking. Then when my feet and knees didn't like the power walking, I went to a bicycle Over the years, the fitness that I've done has put me in pretty good shape for performing."

For a singer like Jarreau, taking care of himself is even more vital, because his body is his instrument. How does Jarreau keep those remarkable pipes in shape? "It's the same thing. To try and stay physically fit. A big part of preserving the voice is the work scheduling. The worst thing in the world for a vocalist is to become a professional singer. You become a professional singer and stand on stage and sing for 90 minutes to two hours for four or five nights a week is the worst thing in the world." Any routine or special tricks? "We singers all have our little eccentricities and I have my own. Gargling salt water, for example. I've got my checklist of stuff that I do as a singer and that began years and years ago. The main thing is a sensible work schedule, so that you're healthy when you go to stage and the audience gets a pretty good you for a vocal performance."

This month there are plenty of fans hoping for a pretty good Jarreau, who is in the midst of a mini-tour in the US, with an upcoming date at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts outside Washington, DC, on Wednesday, August 18, when he performs with the George Duke Trio. The two might seem like a natural fit because of their long careers in contemporary jazz, but Jarreau explained that they have a much deeper connection that most people know little about. "George and I played together in the '60s," Jarreau said. "Between 1965 and 1968, we played together at a club called the Half Note in San Francisco. There's a whole repertoire of music he and I share that folks have never heard. He has tapes of that stuff and he's going to make it available to people."

You'd rightly imagine that it could be tough for Jarreau to listen to his nascent self. "It's frightening," he answered, laughing hard. "There's stuff around that people have heard on collections like The Masquerade or Al Jarreau 1965 where I'm doing songs in that trio fashion even before George, when I was in school at the University of Iowa and singing at a club in Cedar Rapids. I've become accustomed to the sound of my voice from that time, but there's no question about it that it's a different me and a different kind of music than what people have heard me do. And it will be that way for people listening to me and George from that period [the '60s]."

When you go back with someone whom you knew when you were both struggling professionally, you often have a very close and unique bond. "You got that right. George and I look at each other with a special fondness and understanding that,zap, we just span the years in a moment. It's really great." Over the years, Duke has gained a reputation as a singer's keyboardist and producer, but Jarreau said that back in the day, it was different. "I was one of the first vocalists he ever accompanied." An auspicious start for both musicians, though neither would achieve commercial success until much later. "Yes, it's been a very interesting run," he said.

"With George, we're working in a new setting with one another. We're finding our way as to what material to do or not do, but it's a new setting for me and George to work together. He's performing in a different setting with a trio that's really personal, where he has an opportunity to communicate more stuff in a different way than he would with, say, his six or seven piece band."

We've done about five or six shows of that sort. It's an interesting listen for people. At least they're responding that way. Right now, we're finding pieces from our separate repertoires that we can do together. In time there will be things that George has written that I'll get familiar with and learn and we'll do in that setting. But right now, it's those songs are real familiar to people that each of us have done, but we'll be doing them in this trio fashion. You will hear "Take Five" and "Teach Me Tonight." There are some new things he's written that I want to sing. There's a great song called 'Movin' on Down the Road' that's so cute and hip. It's really a great thing at this period of our careers to find something that's fresh. And it happens to be based on a long ago history."

Jarreau said that there are no firm plans to record an album with Duke, but is open to the idea, based on how the shows have gone thus far. "I can imagine that it would be a good idea to do that. We're just a little far away from that as a plan at the moment. But I think as we get a solid program together, I can well imagine we should record live."

As far as preparing a set for a concert, Jarreau is never at a loss for material, thanks to 40+ years as a recording and touring artist. How does he balance old vs. new material? Are there songs he just won't do any more? "There are songs that I do almost nightly, but find something nightly in those pieces of music that continues to keep them special and fresh. If you've heard me do 'Morning' or 'Take Five' over the past 15 years, you've heard some different versions of those songs, because we're always looking for a new little wrinkle in that song taht hadn't been explored before and the band and I jump on that and ride that and the audience comes right with us. In any one performance over the years, what I've done is to think that this is a brand new audience and that they've never heard me. I do stuff from the early part of the career, the middle part of the career and later part of the career and include things that were kind of my hits, so to speak. We'll do something of that sort with my band."

Opening the Jarreau & Duke show at Wolf Trap will be Marcus Miller and his Tutu Revisited group, with Christian Scott on trumpet. Jarreau said he felt fortunate to collaborate with Miller on another project. "He helped on the record with George Benson when he and I did 'Tutu' together and found a new wrinkle to do it."

For himself, Jarreau is simply happy to be healthy again and performing for fans. "I'm a real veteran and senior statesman of a sort and still doing it with as serious a commitment and focus of energy as I've always done it," he acknowledged. "I love that aspect that I still have a career and that there are people who want to hear me sing and who leave satisfied."

Here are the rest of the tour dates for Jarreau, in the U.S. and Japan:

8/18: Wolf Trap, Vienna, Va. (with George Duke Trio)
8/20: Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, Calif. (with George Duke Trio)
9/4: Tokyo Jazz Festival, Tokyo, Japan
9/5: Billboard Live Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
9/17: Sound Board at Motor City Casino, Detroit, Mich.
9/18: Indy Jazz Fest, Indianapolis, Ind.
10/1: Sander Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach, Va.
10/2: Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, York, Pa.

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