Courtesy of Al Jarreau
CHAT WITH AL JARREAU
The first time I ever heard of Al Jarreau was when I would stay up late
during school nights to tune into ABC and a little known show at the time
called Moonlighting. Al sang the theme song to the television series,
which went on to win a record number of Emmys and catapult its star, Bruce
Willis, into a modern day megastar. The first time I ever met Al Jarreau
was in Burbank on a cold, rainy afternoon more than a handful of years
ago, in the midst of a tussle with his label, Warner Bros., and relocated
to a hotel room during a rebuilding process of his home. Al bought me
coffee at Starbucks, signed an autograph for a fan who exclaimed to Al's
dismay that his mother loved the singer, and invited me for a ride in
his SUV so he could pick up his son and show me his house or the lack
there of it. Through the years, I have grown to appreciate the music behind
the man who helped make Moonlighting a household name. Al is not merely
a "jazz" singer or a "pop" singer. He spans categories,
genres, even Grammys (having won three in three different categories).
His recordings of old, from a promising We Got By, to the charming Breakin'
Away, are anchors, but his last two, Tomorrow Today and All I Got, are
another chapter in a storied life of one of this countries most unappreciated
vocalists. Shame really, but progress is a slow cooker I am told. We caught
up, as always, unedited and in his own words.
AL JARREAU: You're not related to Carl Jung?
FRED JUNG: You asked me that last time. And if I were I wouldn't be doing
AL JARREAU: (Laughing) I bought you a coffee in Burbank.
FJ: The house looked like a bomb had fallen on it.
AL JARREAU: My home here, yeah, one plague or another all the time and
that's the least of it, Fred. I just had a surgery to correct some pressure
on my spinal chord and hope to get my legs back under me. I'm walking
like a guy with cerebral palsy at the moment, well, not that bad, thank
you God. But my legs, shit, I am in rehabilitation just these days. So
always one thing or another, degenerative disc disease in the neck and
pressure on the spine, on the spinal chord that was causing me serious
pain in my shoulders and arms (voices talking). My boss over here in charge
of my interviews is going, "Come on Al, don't talk about that shit."
But this is important to know about. SO I had surgery to correct that.
My problem was that over the summer, I just, my walking just deteriorated.
My legs have been weak, my balance upset and yeah, I am walking like a
guy who is drunk. So I am trying to fix that now. I've taken the next
couple of weeks off and am doing a strengthening program and I will be
out again doing some dates in November for this new record, All I Got.
FJ: You are a marketing department's worst nightmare. Having taken home
Grammys in three categories.
AL JARREAU: In three separate categories, no had ever won in three separate
categories. I would say that it has been difficult, Fred, because there
is a mentality, an audience mentality that has been conditioned to think
that way and it is an incredibly shallow conditioning that doesn't respect
their ability to listen to Willie Nelson and Ray Charles and they do and
are listening more broadly than that. It doesn't serve the audience well
that way and it doesn't serve artist well in that way. It only serves
commercialism so that they can identify a particular kind of person and
appeal to that person's desires of consumer sort and that's the importance
of those niches, all for descriptive purposes. The descriptions for musical
categories are more open, can be and still allow an openness that commercialism
and marketing of music, in fact, the force feeding of music is not interested.
Just labeling things is not interested, the force feeding so that right
behind them, you need to go out and buy a certain kind of beer or go out
and buy a certain kind of laundry detergent. Yeah, that has always mal-served
me. It is right there in the pudding. I could have sold records like Phil
Collins, Stevie Wonder, or Aretha Franklin, but just mentioning those
three guys and you have people who have in fact crossed categories and
proved that audience listening is beyond what categories seem to describe.
FJ: Your life could have taken a different fork in the road because you
do have a masters in vocational rehabilitation counseling.
AL JARREAU: I did pursue it for a while until the dream began to immerge
and manifest. There was enough material that I could satisfy myself with
practicing. The most important elements of the dream is standing and performing
and the writing and all of that until it became the way that I made a
living. I didn't ask a whole lot of the dream, other than if I could make
my living doing this, that would be great. And so I might have continued
as a rehabilitation counselor if I weren't doing this, but I would always
be doing some kind of music because it is just in me that deeply.
FJ: What is the art of the love song?
AL JARREAU: Well, a love song has described its own criteria and the criteria
rests in the ears of the listener so that by this time in our medium,
in our sensibilities as human beings, a love song for human beings on
this planet in the last half century since pop music has been recorded
and since we have known about love songs and ballads, they typically are
soothing pieces of music, in terms of musical structure and not especially
loud or clanging or banging and they tend to settle you and talk and have
a poetry that speaks of the wonders of love. That is just what this animal
called humans and human beings has built into him, those connections and
receptors and receivers that are chemical and biological and all and that
is a love song. That's' what we call sing, from everybody from Luciano
Pavarotti to Johnny Mathis. You are singing a song that we have discovered
that makes people think of love and so there is a lyric and music that
is soothing and warming and makes you feel like being close to somebody.
That's really different than singing the "The Star-Spangled Banner"
in some ways or singing "Boogie Down."
FJ: Your dissatisfaction with Warner Bros. was not subtle. Signing with
GRP and reuniting with Tommy LiPuma (Chairman of The Verve Music Group),
who produced your Look to the Rainbow album, there is a comfort of familiarity.
AL JARREAU: Well, more a feeling of being at home in terms of a company,
headed by some guys, including Ron Goldstein (President and Chief Executive
Officer of The Verve Music Group), who knew me from before back at Warner
Bros., who were all guys who were on the Warner Bros. team. So a real
comfort in that way of being around people who knew me and knew what to
expect of me and knew what they were signing and had some similar goals
in mind for me and my music. So, yeah, that was very comforting to come
to that. The only thing that was a little worrisome for me was whether
or not they truly shared my idea of the kind of numbers in sales that
my music ought to be doing and where it ought to be performing at in terms
of sales. I've had higher hopes and considerations and notions of what
my music ought to be doing over the years and I think maybe than those
around me. I don't know how realistic I am in my views. I just thought,
I do some music that ought to be heard right alongside Barry Manilow.
I can sing a song with Barry Manilow and any of them in the pop areas
of music. I've sung some songs that ought to be right there in terms of
audience appeal and sales if it is given a chance. And that is very important
for me, Fred. It means it gives me a chance to not go on the road every
year since I recorded, stay home and write even better music. It is just
an important indicator for me, that I've sold some, that I'm selling some
records. If, the other thought I had is that I think it is music that
deserves to be in people's homes. I think they need to hear what I'm talking
about. I think so. That is a serious statement. I think people ought to
hear what I'm talking about. I think it is a good news message that I
bring to people. It helps them feel better. So that was a concern of mine,
this attitude that a jazz label takes. Jazz labels are satisfied with
far fewer sales than I am. I was concerned about it and I'm still concerned
about it. I still think that the first record didn't do the kind of sales,
the Tomorrow Today album, and it makes me scared for this record, that
somewhere inside the company, they have a laissez-faire kind of attitude.
Oh, well, a kind of that's OK, just not aggressive enough in terms of
we can sell records.
FJ: And how would you navigate the business of selling records?
AL JARREAU: I'm not sure. This is their dealing with and their ball game.
I don't know what they do to sell. I think, OK, help me here, Fred, the
piano player/singer that's on my label, the blonde lady, what's her name?
FJ: Diana Krall.
AL JARREAU: Diana Krall, yeah, the Diana Krall record sold seven million
or something like that. They should be analyzing what the particulars
were. They've got somebody else in their rooster of people who recently
had sales like that. If they did something, they should know what they
did and know how to duplicate it and replicate it. I'm just afraid that
they had nothing to do with that record having those kind of sales and
it is an unpredictable perhaps that you just can't point at and take details
if I'm to help you the next time out. But, somebody ought to be looking
at that and I and their artists ought to feel that they have done the
best job that they know how to do of figuring out what happened and convincing
me that they know how to do it again. That's how I ought to feel. I deliver
my record to them and they go, "Oh, right, this is some good stuff.
We think we know what to do with that." I ought to be convinced because
of the kind of work that they've done in analyzing the market and all
the other stuff, that they know how to make this record sell seven million.
I am just afraid that their numbers are never like that and I think they
can be. There is an audience out there that is listening to the music
that they produce. Boy, that was a long answer, Fred, sorry.
FJ: Let's touch on All I Got.
AL JARREAU: Urban, pop record, I call it ur-pop. It is an urban record.
A record that has a beat and rhythm, just generally that feels a lot like
contemporary urban music, but at the same time, is broader than that.
It has those elements in it which make it attractive to a young, urban
listener if you can corner him for a moment, but would give him a variety
of music on this record that you would have to call it world in the broad,
not in the narrow sense. They already fucked that word up for its general
meaning. Now it means a group that makes a very particular kind of music.
World music has this other meaning that meant broad music. Anyhow, a lot
of variety in this record, songs that I've written, been a composer on,
six of them, that is more than half. So it is a very personal statement.
FJ: What statement is that?
AL JARREAU: It varies from time to time, but just generally, it is an
inspirational statement that shows that describes a kind of certainty
inside me that things are going to be OK, especially, if you look well.
You will discover that things are OK. You can't lose. No way to lose.
And it means looking beyond.
FJ: Life lessons.
AL JARREAU: That's right. That's right, some of that.
FJ: Do you still get Moonlighting pats on the back?
AL JARREAU: Oh yeah, all the time, people are talking about Moonlighting.
That's cool. It was a fun show for people, a great success, the beginning
of a huge career for Bruce Willis that is still going right now, and I
think we have yet to see the length and depth of Bruce Willis. I think
there's some shit in him that is going to surprise us and what was it?
Sixth Sense, may be a foreshadowing of that other side of the action hero
that we had for a long time. The guy is deepening himself and may start
looking for films like that to be this other person.
FJ: That mirrors your own work.
AL JARREAU: Thank you, Fred. I got that and I'm never going to forget
that you said that.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is master of his domain. Comments?