Al Jarreau owns one of the more recognizable voices in all of popular music. He swings, he swoons, he can reach the highest of levels and then dive to deepest depths, and this is all in the same song. Jarreau scats and becomes his own one man band capable of backing up the best jazz has to offer and as a soloist, he is outstanding in his field, bar none. This is pretty good for someone whose early training was not really in the direction of music. Jarreau holds a BS in psychology from Ripon College in his native Wisconsin and a Masters degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Illinois--not exactly the normal path to jazz stardom, but then again, Al Jarreau is not your typical jazz musician. Thank goodness!
Jarreau has been singing since the age of four in and around his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He excelled in sports and was an above average student. After graduation, Jarreau moved to San Francisco to begin his career in his chosen field. At the same time, he started working in small jazz clubs in a trio headed up by George Duke. It was during this time that Jarreau knew he had found his life's work.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Jarreau began working in some of the more famous clubs on the west coast such as Dino's, the Troubadour and the Bitter End West. From there it was over to New York City with national exposure on such television programs as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the Merv Griffin Show, as well as appearances with David Frost and Mike Douglas. After teaming up with renowned guitarist Julio Martinez, the two took the stage at the Improv comedy club spelling such up and comers as John Belushi, Bette Midler, Robert Klein and David Brenner.
In 1975, after an extended engagement at the Bla Bla Café, Jarreau was signed to Warner Brothers Records and released his first album We Got By. This album went on to win a German Grammy award for best new international soloist. His follow-up album, Glow, won him his second German Grammy when it was released the following year. Since that time, Jarreau has won a total of five Grammy nominations and is one of the few to win awards in three different categories--Jazz, Pop and R&B. He has become an international star and his concerts and recordings continue to set the benchmark for others to try and match. Jarreau also has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, forever immortalizing him as one of the best singers of his generation.
I spoke to Jarreau recently about his latest project, a duet recording with long time friend and label mate George Benson. The recording Givin It Up has also garnered three Grammy nominations of its own. One for Best Pop Instrumental for the song "Mornin,'" one for best R & B Vocal Recording Duo or Group for "Breezin'" and Best Traditional R & B Vocal for "God Bless the Child" with Jill Scott. After more than twenty years in the recording industry, Al Jarreau remains a powerful musical force.
Jazz Review: So how did you and George Benson first meet?
Jarreau: It was in the early to mid-seventies, right after George...or maybe it was when he was into the record after Breezin'. I was new to the label, just joined the family, and they were looking to showcase some of the new talent they had. You know, present it to the world. So it was at the Ambassador Hotel here in Los Angeles at the Coconut Grove Ballroom that we were presented to the world, George Benson and Al Jarreau.
Jazz Review: That was your first meeting?
Jarreau: That was the first time we met, shook hands, said it is nice to meet you, love your work, etc. I was aware of George before that. He was an idol of mine. He had been working since, like, the age of 8, I think (laughs). He had a radio show and a career spanning years. He had been recording for 17 years at that time. When I went off to college at the age of 18 in 1958, George had gone off to play professionally with Jack McDuff. That is some serious music, you know. He had been at it for some time and I was just starting out. He was everybody's favorite guitarist in 1975, still is.
Jazz Review: He was your idol?
Jarreau: Absolutely. He is one of those people who works on an entirely different level than most people. He is like, oh, who is that genius...um...Wolfgang. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that is the level he is at. He sings so good it makes me mad (laughs).
Jazz Review: Well, you are no slouch yourself.
Jarreau: Well, I am no slouch myself, but George can really challenge you.
Jazz Review: So the new album Givin It Up is your first real recorded collaboration right?
Jazz Review: This was done under some very trying circumstances as well. Well maybe "trying" is the wrong word, but it was a different kind of recording session than you were used to working in. Is that fair to say?
Jarreau: Very much so. When I record, it usually takes about sixteen weeks or so. This [album] was done in five so it was a new way for me to work.
Jazz Review: Why so short a time?
Jarreau: Well, this was to be the first release from a new collaboration between the Concord Music Group and Monster Music. We wanted to get this out to the people as soon as we could so trying to fit it in between our concert schedules and other projects that we had was a real challenge. In fact, I was listening to mixes sent to me by Al Schmitt while I was performing in Europe. I would listen to them while I was traveling around Europe doing concerts. That is how tight this all was.
Jazz Review: I understand that you wound up staying up all night to finish some of the songs you were working on. [Jarreau co-wrote three of the numbers on the album] What does that kind of schedule do to creativity?
Jarreau: We wanted to be the first project in this new co-op between Concord and Monster--Monster Cable, which is everybody's first choice in cable. So we went to the producer John Burke and said, 'OK what do we have to do to get this done?' We had a meeting and tried to map it all out and fit it in with our schedules [There is a legend that at that first meeting there was a lighthearted exchange about a cup of coffee, in which Jarreau advised Benson not to start no stuff! And a song was born, track 12 on the album to be exact].
Jazz Review: So you were under the gun right from the start.
Jarreau: From the first day, we really wanted to do this and we just made our minds. I stayed up all night sometimes, going straight from my workshop at home into the studio. I was not going to let this moment pass. It's a great opportunity for George and me at this point in our careers. We learned to use every single moment we had. You almost try not to think too hard about things. You know, there might be a time where you would say, 'OK, let's try this or that" or "maybe this lyric or that sound, you know, play with it somewhat." There was simply no time. It was boom, there it is! (laughs)
Jazz Review: You would not want to work that way all the time.
Jazz Review: The end result is just wonderful. It sounds as if this was almost predestined. "Mornin'," [one of the three nominated tracks on the album] has you and George doing a sort of duet.
Jarreau: Sort of?
Jazz Review: What I mean is that he is playing his guitar and you are harmonizing behind him with just your voice, but your voice is an instrument of a different sort and the end result is great.
Jarreau: I wanted to find a way to get in on the number and I was thinking, "How can I do this without taking over completely" and that is what I did--sort of filled in behind him.
Jazz Review: So it is not hard to do things this way, just kidding.
Jarreau: Well in a way, it is liberating. You just find what you need--a note, a phrase, a sound, whatever is needed.
Jazz Review:That has got to be hard on you--performing, recording, writing.
Jarreau: All of that, it is all of that.
Jazz Review: Experience must help.
Jarreau: Yes, you build up all this from years of playing and working. Then you just call on it and there it is. So, while it is a new way to work for me, it worked very well. Having some great people around you in George and John Burke and Al and all the musicians, certainly helps. You need good people around you, as well.
Jazz Review: It helps to have people like Jill Scott, Patti Austin and Paul McCartney.
Jarreau: Doesn't hurt.
Jazz Review: Sir Paul was not planned.
Jarreau: No, George talked him into working with us. He was in the building also working on a record when we ran into him. George talked like a southern politician in order to get that young man from Liverpool to sing, but he did. That's God's role as a puppeteer in this whole business.
Jazz Review: This is one of the finest jazz recordings to come along in some time. The pairing of George Benson and Al Jarreau is also a coup for Concord and Monster. Noel Lee, head monster of Monster Music states, "It's extremely exciting for us to have artists of their caliber and we have recorded them better than they have ever been captured before."
John Burke, Executive Vice President and head of A&R, Concord Music Group concludes, "These guys together are like fireworks! No two men have had more success across jazz, pop and soul. We're proud to present them together for the very first time." I could not have said it better myself.