Marcus Miller Remembers Al Jarreau

Bassist/bandleader/producer pays tribute to influential jazz vocalist (3.12.40 - 2.12.17)

AlJarreau_MarinaChavez

Al Jarreau (photo by Marina Chavez)

In 1979 I was on the road with David Sanborn, and we ended up being the opening band for Al Jarreau. This was during his super-big pop years: He had those big hits, “We’re in This Love Together,” songs like that. So my first exposure to Al was seeing him perform for 5,000 people.

What really struck me at that time is that although he had those big hits, people really weren’t familiar with what Al had done outside of those songs, and he always gave them an education—enriched them in ways they probably didn’t expect to be enriched. He would make sure they got the full Al Jarreau. They always got the hits—but they got a whole lot more.

“Take Five” was the first song I’d ever heard him do on the radio, and I knew the guy was deep just from that one song. I had never heard anybody do anything like that, or even close to that, and most of the musicians I knew felt the same way. Even so, I remember in about 1990 I had a gig in Brazil, and they had asked me to put together an all-star band and have a couple of special guests. I called Lenny White and said, “Hey, man, I got this thing happening down in Brazil; it’s gonna be really nice. Al Jarreau’s gonna be there.” He said, “Aw, man, so we’re gonna be playing ‘We’re in This Love Together’?” I said, “You don’t know much about Al Jarreau, do you?”

Once we got to Brazil, we were at rehearsal and started doing “Take Five.” Eventually we all dropped out except for Al and Lenny. Al is improvising; he’s being the percussion section, being flutes, being bassoons, recreating all these sounds in this odd time signature of 5. Al and Lenny are going at it, man—and Lenny’s sweating! I’ll never forget: After rehearsal, Lenny came up to me and said, “Man … I didn’t know.”

That was the kind of effect that Al Jarreau had. A lot of musicians are skeptical about working with singers, because singers can have a hard time articulating what it is they want and hear, because a lot of them don’t play an instrument and don’t know the terminology. Al was the complete opposite: He was a complete musician. When he was singing a song just to explain it to a musician, he’d sing the melody and throw in the bass notes—sing the bass notes to you just so you knew what the harmony was. Musicians might have walked into a gig thinking they were going to lead him, but by the time they walked out they knew he was the man. He was the leader.

I don’t think people realize how great a lyricist Al Jarreau was as well. He really had a unique perspective. I produced an album for Al called Tenderness; there’s a song on that album called “Dinosaur,” and if you ever get a chance, you should check out the lyrics to that song. It’s really beautiful. I think that because his vocal ability was so outstanding, most people didn’t really get a chance to focus on his songwriting. But he was a great songwriter.

I don’t think I ever met a real night owl before I met Al. He never woke up before about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and when we were on the road, after a gig, he’d be down in the hotel bar and he’d say, “Come on—sit down, man!” We called it Club Al, because if you sat down, you were gonna hang with him until the sun came up.

He was such an individual. The way he expressed himself was so unique but also so clear. He didn’t just improvise when he was scat singing; his whole life was an improvisation.

Read Lee Mergner’s interview with Al Jarreau from the July/August 2016 issue of JazzTimes.