JAZZSCAM

IT'S SWEET, IT'S SIMLE AND IT SELLS. BUT IT AIN'T JAZZ.

It's no surprise, then, that guitarist Larry Carlton would cite Wes Montgomery as a major influence on his career. Bits of Montgomery's unmistakable style slip through occasionally on Carlton's discs, but the real similarity lies in how both have misrepresented themselves by drastically playing beneath their capabilities. Carlton has always sounded painfully restrained as he carefully nurtures his fluffjazz career, the most recent installment of which is appropriately titled Kid Gloves.

The elementary formula of this project--and all wussjazz--is evident in the title cut: Write an attractive melody of a dozen notes or less, repeat it two to four times. Slip into another key for a chorus or the listeners will catch on to just how nursery-rhyme simple the tune really is. Slink around a bit with some fancy guitar work, but avoid improvising anything adventurous that might spoil the lightness. And always come back to endless repetition of that simple beginning theme.

Carlton knows it also can't hurt to bring aboard a fellow wussjazzer as a guest artist--in this case, the sterile sax of Kirk Whalum for the tune "Oui Oui Si." To give this album a genuine wussjazz pedigree, Carlton even corraled the father of candyjazz, Dave Grusin, as an executive producer.

Yuk. Sure is hard to get a feel for real jazz with Gloves on.
To be fair, there are moments when Carlton shows he can step out of the sugar bowl and play. "Farm Jazz" and "Michele's Whistle" would both make killer tunes if he would add a little more meat to their melodic bones. And Carlton's soloing on "The Preacher" reminds us how hot and clean he can play when the rare mood strikes him.

The really despicable side to wussjazz players is that while Najee, Carlton and their ilk are getting rich making wordless pop pap, they also take great pride in being known as "jazzman." If you don't think this is important to them, check out the obvious wanna-bes in jazz-lite bands like the one that will perform at Desert Sky Pavilion on July 4. Clad in sunglasses and berets Ö la late 50s Sonny Rollins, they'll occasionally let go of a sax screech as a reminder that they "know" about hip, dead junkies like Charlie Parker.

Although they don't get rich, music fans also benefit from the dilution of what's really jazz. Thanks to the record labels and players like Najee and Carlton, becoming a jazz fan no longer requires having to listen to Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington or John Coltrane. Baby boomers with Earl Klugh and Rippingtons CDs can accumulate points with babes at the condo barbecue simply by saying they are "into" that esoteric music known as jazz--which, understandably, works much better than "I like Top 40 stuff with no words in it."

Apart from a few fussy purists who object to the new company they're forced to keep, everybody wins. Right?

Not in the end.
Time does not treat wussjazzers well. Pop music changes and so does pop jazz. As years go by, Kenny G may uncomfortably have to agree with jazz critic Leonard Feather that his 80s music was "beneath criticism." The inevitable rejection of wussjazz can be traced back even further.

Big-band leader Paul Whiteman was catching mucho flak in the 20s for even referring to himself as a jazzman, let alone for the "King of Jazz" moniker he adopted for himself. In 1939, writer Wilder Hobson spoke of Whiteman (and prophetically of progeny like Najee and Carlton) as taking "very little from the jazz language except some of its simpler rhythmic patterns," drowning the soloists in "symphonic orchestrations" and showing "little more than a trace of the personal expression, improvisation, counterpoint, or rhythmic subtlety of natural jazz."

Not many music lovers, then or now, know enough about the guts of jazz to question the inclusion of the Whitemans, Najees and Larry Carltons. Where are music fans going to hear enough jazz to help them tell the difference, let alone decide whether they prefer the real thing?

Maybe as close as the condo barbecue. Next time, bypass the Lee Ritenour versus Larry Carlton debate by the pool and ferret out the fan snarling about how jazz is going to hell. Let him drag you to his apartment to hear some real modern jazz. It might be that after a few sides of the bass rhythms of Charlie Haden, the attack styles of Bill Frisell and John Zorn, the breakneck piano work of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, David Murray's big band or Michel Petrucciani's elegant piano stylings, you'll find Najee and Kenny G sounding like--well, G whiz.

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