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Al Jarreau: An American Original

The venerable vocalist discusses his career highlights and gives some good advice

Al Jarreau (photo by Tony Adamo)
Al Jarreau (photo by Tony Adamo)

Al Jarreau is a master of rhythms from around the world. His bag of sounds and improvisations is informed by a host of influences—the music of the church and Africa and Brazil, for example—administered with a taste of funk. He can take you on a magic carpet ride, high above the maddening static of tweets, cell phones and digital overload. (Though he’s not above referencing those sounds when he sings.) He thrills me with his spontaneous creativity and his humor, humanity and love. Al’s got a whole lot of it.

I felt this up close in January 2015, at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in Los Angeles. Al was a judge. When we met I began the process of arranging an interview for Voices in Jazz—no small task given his schedule.

We witnessed a special competition that afternoon, won by New Jersey native Jazzmeia Horn. That evening, Al performed a magical rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” It was pure Jarreau, and it continues to echo in my dreams.

Months later, after much back and forth, Al and I connected again. We talked and laughed for over an hour. Wisdom and great stories poured from his lips. I felt like I was in the presence of a sage. I learned about his history and how he developed one of the most original voices in jazz. I am proud to share this conversation with you.

Sadly, on Feb. 7, Al canceled his remaining live dates and announced his retirement from touring via his website. The statement read: “Al Jarreau is in the hospital in Los Angeles, due to exhaustion. He is receiving excellent medical care, responding to treatments, and improving slowly. The medical team has instructed that he cannot perform any of his remaining 2017 concert dates. Therefore, with complete sorrow, Al Jarreau must retire from touring. He is thankful for his 50 years of traveling the world in ministry through music, and for everyone who shared this with him: his faithful audience, the dedicated musicians, and so many others who supported his effort.”

Roseanna Vitro: What’s your earliest memory of music?

Al Jarreau: Sitting on the bench by my mom, singing in church. I could feel my heart’s “echo-grams,” and it proved that music is immediate. I could feel it. I’m always listening to my body. Rhythm and the creative source are put into our lives. Singing is like painting. It’s deep in your core, your message. It starts early.

If it ain’t music, people need to find something they love to do and then do it for free. Something that floats their boat, that completes their life, that makes it right. Even knitting or sewing! Find something that makes you enjoy life.

RV: What touched you? How early did you know you wanted to be a singer?

AJ: Always! As soon as I could remember singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

RV: I know your mom was a pianist and your dad was a Seventh-day Adventist preacher. How much of an influence were your parents on your music?

AJ: Everyone sang in the house. My sisters played piano, but not seriously. I was a baseball guy, but at 19 years old I gave it up. I was a free spirit, but didn’t study music; I sang in doo-wop quartets. I loved singing the basslines. I was always singing. In junior high school, I sang in big choirs with 90 singers, tunes like “Red Sails in the Sunset.” I learned everything by ear.

RV: How did you master your percussive rhythms and original sounds?

AJ:  In 1965 I was a rehab counselor in the Bay Area and I’d sing at night, but I wasn’t good at being a rehab counselor. It was too rigid. I felt like I was an ordinary singer, not original, not like a young Tony Bennett or Diana Krall. In ’64 through ’65 I began delving deep into Afro-Cuban rhythms, the music of Tito Puente and Cal Tjader. But when I heard the music, melodies and rhythms from Brazil—God, I fell in love.

Here’s a story: I was in a shoemaker store to have a new belt made. You’ll never believe a man came over to me—and it was Sergio Mendes! Oh my goodness, one of my heroes. I could never get enough of Brazil ’66—the melodies, changes, the rhythm.

I loved Astrud Gilberto. She was amazing, so beautiful but so simple. As a singer, you have to remember the lesson that it’s in your story. Minimal works.

In 1965 I started singing with the George Duke Trio. I stood up in front of that trio for five years at the Half Note in San Francisco. The music was great and I loved my dear friend, but I decided it was time to go on my own. I wanted to work with only solo guitar. So it was guitar, me, my cabasa shaker, a microphone and a stand. I had decided that a keyboard, drums and bass take up a whole lotta space.

This was my opportunity to sing everything I was hearing, to experiment. This was a very formative and fertile period for my technique. I was listening to music all the time, all the Brazilian percussion.

RV: You were discovered shortly after this period. You performed on Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, many of the popular television shows. What are your favorite memories from those days?

AJ: Some of my favorite memories are working on We Got By, “We’re in This Love Together,” Breakin’ Away, “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Man, there was a lot of overdubbing there.

I was touring and life was good. There was “After All” in 1984; that was a good year. In 1986 I worked with my friend Nile Rodgers who produced L is for Lover in New York at Skyline Studios.

RV: You’ve performed with the greats, and one of my favorites was the late Joe Sample. What are your memories of Joe?

AJ:  Laughter, so much joyous laughter. Joe’s personality and his approach to life, you can hear it in the music. You have to hear Joe’s work on Children of the Sun with the NDR Big Band; it was all about slaves, plantations, the Caribbean, etc. We toured together. I sang some Gershwin, “Porgy and Bess.” I miss Joe Sample.

RV: What was it like when you gigged with Chick Corea?

AJ: Chick has a beautiful spirit. We connected. He’s very serious with spiritual notions. He’s very religious in his own way. The way he applies it, it’s always about the possibility of people doing better. There’s pure brilliance coming out of his hands.

RV: What are your thoughts on Miles Davis?

AJ: I know he listened all the time. He was about knowing the lyric. It’s a message for singers. Find the message and if you’re a writer, use your language. He sang through his horn.

RV: Jon Hendricks is the Godfather of Vocalese. What was it like to sing on Jon’s historic album Freddie Freeloader? [Editor’s note: Godfather of Vocalese is also the title of a 1990 album by vocalist Eddie Jefferson.]

AJ: Jon just called me up and asked, “Will you sing with Bobby McFerrin and George Benson?” I memorized all the lyrics and the Miles solo—yes, I learned it—walked into the studio and we just recorded it. I only had a few fixes. It was all done by ear.

RV: What do you look for in a band?

AJ: First, on piano, I need someone who knows simplicity and complexity, someone who listens well. A musician who can find those delicious additional notes in the chord that bring you to tears or make you jump up and dance. I love sophisticated chords around the melody, and like Bill Evans said, “Listen, always listen.”

On bass, I like an upright bass player, a cat who finds the root and is sensitive to the foundation. Of course his time has to be good and, again, listen, always listen.

The same for the drummer—lots of chops, but they shouldn’t forget they’re accompanying. Feeling the foot tapping on the floor is fine, but we’ve gotten beyond just that. Support!

RV: As a master vocalist with years of service to the cause, do you have any advice for young singers?

AJ: Sit down and shut up and sing your song. Do it because you love it. If you don’t love it, become a doctor. Sing because you love it and you can’t live without it.

I’d advise all jazz singers and students to check out Al’s virtuosity on his recordings and YouTube clips. In particular:

“Agua de Beber” – Glow (1976)
“Take Five,””Better Than Anything”  –  Look to the Rainbow (1977)
“Spain” – This Time (1980)
“(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo à la Turk” – Breakin’ Away (1981)
“Mas Que Nada” – Tenderness (1994)
“Compared to What” – The Best of Al Jarreau (1996)
“Cold Duck” – Accentuate the Positive (2004)

  Originally Published