The trend for a band to revisit a particularly successful album from its past seemed to have started with the curators of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival who asked hip hop and alternative rock artists to perform one of their older albums from start to finish. The phenomenon soon spread to the 60s and 70s generation of rock bands, who found that nostalgic fans were clamoring for them to return to touchstone Classic Rock recordings. It eventually caught on in the jazz world, though it was often younger bands paying tribute to classic discs from jazz legends like Miles or Trane, the original leaders having long since passed. In some cases, bands would do the album in exact order, and for those raised in the vinyl era, you could almost hear the crowd sing or hum the next song, cued involuntarily by a lifetime of playing the album from start to finish. The song order was hard-wired.
For their Aug. 19 performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, featuring the music from their seminal jazz fusion album Double Vision, Bob James and David Sanborn (with Marcus Miller) chose to mix it up and even include two tunes that James had either written or arranged. Their group, which also includes drummer Billy Kilson and vocalist Larry Braggs (taking the place of Steve Gadd and the late Al Jarreau from the original recording), is in the midst of a 20-city tour with nearly every date sold out and attended by adoring fans almost entirely of a certain age. That is, old enough to have initially heard the album on a turntable.
Double Vision, recorded and released in 1986, brought together two giants of the contemporary jazz genre – Sanborn and James – both of whom had already experienced much success both as session players for jazz and pop stars and as leaders of their own groups and albums. They turned to Miller, already an accomplished musician, composer and producer at the age of 27, to oversee the recording as its producer. By that time, Miller had already performed and recorded with Grover Washington, Jr., Miles Davis and Luther Vandross, as well as countless other jazz and pop stars. The result was a commercial success and a Grammy award winner (in the Jazz Fusion category) that also ended up nearly defining a new genre – Smooth Jazz.
During the group’s performance at the Birchmere, James took the mic to, as he described it, “Give a little history lesson.” He drolly explained that in uniting with Sanborn back in 1986 and collaborating on the tune “Moon Tune” on Double Vision, they inadvertently invented a new genre of music. Pausing a beat, he said, “It was called New Age music.” He went on to say that now they were changing the name of the genre to “Old Age music” because they didn’t like what so many musicians did with the New Age genre.
Joking aside, the pairing and album truly set the table for so many albums that followed by keyboardists and saxophonists playing melodic instrumentals with a funk groove and yet retaining the traditional jazz ethos of improvising solos. Smooth Jazz takes a lot of hits from critics and serious jazz fans, but the popularity of festivals and cruises in the genre testifies to both its resonance and its longevity.
For their part, Sanborn, James and Miller didn’t mention the term Smooth Jazz once during the set, not unlike how most New Age artists were disinclined to consider themselves part of the genre. Regardless, it was clear that this band is close-knit personally and musically thanks to a lifetime of shared experiences and influences, evidenced at one point in their performance of Grover Washington, Jr.’s hit “Mister Magic,” which James had originally arranged for the saxophonist back in 1975. James’ current arrangement (or re-arrangement) shifted with slippery tempo changes and more angular phrasing. And coming five songs into the set, it was the first tune that Miller soloed on. Back when he was playing with Grover, Miller was an in-the-pocket bassist who rarely took a solo, preferring to lock in with the drummer and propel the music forward. Now, he’s an experienced bandleader, music director and virtuoso on his instrument. He’s still in the pocket and still seems to lead the band from the rhythm section, but now he’s willing and able to turn heads and bend ears with his incredible chops on the electric bass.
Listen to the entire Double Vision album on Spotify:
The original Double Vision album included one vocal number – “Since I Fell For You” – sung by Al Jarreau, another star of that time, who received a Grammy nomination for R&B Vocal for the song. The singer Larry Braggs, who has performed with Tower of Power and the Temptations, stepped up to sing that tune as well as “You Don’t Know Me,” an instrumental on Double Vision but a song long associated with another R&B legend, Ray Charles. Appropriately, Braggs is more of a soul and R&B singer than a jazz vocalist, but has excellent range and tone. On “Since I Fell For You,” he demonstrated some vocal improvisation, scatting percussion licks in a style originally mastered and popularized by Jarreau some 40 years ago.
The vocal tunes also enabled Sanborn to showcase one of his unique gifts as a saxophonist who can blend his sound with the singer in call-and-response style. It’s something the highly influential saxophonist has done on countless albums with vocalists from every genre – from David Bowie to Stevie Wonder – but always with his very distinctive soulful bent. Despite all the Sanborn imitators, none can capture that crying sound as well as the original model.
Other highlights of the set include renditions of Sanborn’s “It’s You,” Sanborn & James’ “Never Enough,” and perhaps the most well-known of the songs from the original album – Miller’s “Maputo” which he said he had just finished writing when Sanborn called him to produce the album. One of the nice things about the group’s performance is the way that solos are integrated into the composition, so that they don’t have that round-robin quality that can be oddly tedious with mainstream jazz sets. The solos seem to flow in and out of the tunes, also aided by Miller and Kilson’s deft backing of each soloist.
For the encore, Bob James played the theme music he wrote for the hit TV show Taxi, yet another example of his ear for melody. In the spirit of revisiting but also reinventing, the group then segued into an electric cover of CeeLo Green’s “Taxi Cab Confessions (Sign of the Times)” which used James’ famous instrumental theme as backing for Green’s own lyrics about self-exploration or something like that. Their remake of a remake well demonstrated that this is a group that can take the music of the distant past and mix it with present influences to create a sound that seems downright contemporary. I for one look forward to hearing new compositions for and from this band, and hope that this project isn’t a one-off celebration of the music’s past.