Just how far has Al Jarreau descended from his creative peak in the early Eighties? On his latest album, Heart's Horizon, the singer teams up with the one-man-band vocalist Bobby "He's Everywhere!" McFerrin to sing a little a cappella number about those ol' denim blues. Jarreau may have composed "Yo' Jeans," but he can't hide its oh-so-striking similarity to McFerrin's body-striking vocal rap for the Levi's Corporation.
The song leaves you shaking your head in disbelief and wondering why a singer with one of the more versatile voices in the business chooses to waste it on throwaway pop pablum that's designed to capture the attention of the permanently Walkman-ed brain-dead. The slush is pervasive throughout the new album and adds even more fluid to the gradual watering down of Jarreau's once gritty and experimental approach.
For most of his career, the singer's been known as a jazz and R&B stylist, but many refer to him now as "that guy who sang the theme song for Moonlighting." Jarreau's treatment of tunes has been memorable for its blend of his elastic-sound dynamics and biting funk swinging high into dare-you rhythms. He can take and has taken the music dangerously and thrillingly close to the edge without losing his sense of balance and control. Proof of this ability can be found in his numerous awards--Best Jazz Vocalist, Best Male Vocalist, Best R&B Vocalist, et cetera. You can hear his incredible range and depth in songs like Chick Corea's "Spain" and the standard "My Favorite Things." When Jarreau was at his best, he was mightily celebrated in Europe, but often went ignored in the United States.
All that changed in 1982 when he took home a dual Grammy for the jazz/pop Breaking Away. This album and the self-titled 1983 LP Jarreau are to be applauded for experimenting with both styles and grabbing hold of the finer points in each. But instead of maintaining the voice of creative consistency, AJ has been lured by the dollar signs on the pop cash register, and his sights have drifted in that direction. He explains all this away, of course, in recent interviews by suggesting that he likes to sing just about any kind of style and is itching for a mega-pop hit. Why? So it can top the charts today and languish, forgotten, tomorrow? Where are those brassy, screaming arrangements, those thumping bass lines, those dreamy, soul-tearing ballads that were once staples of Jarreau's inimitable style? Now they've been replaced with syrupy synthesizers, an endlessly pounding rhythm section that would please any dance club deejay, and David Sanborn's lazily tossed-off sax runs. Sanborn is a frequent collaborator of Jarreau's, and the two sound so much like each other musically that their imitations run pale. Now that's creativity for ya'--mirror the moneymakers and sell out your soul.
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Gushing press releases tout Jarreau's work as "breathtaking," "polished" and "adventurous," but after a listen to the singer's warblings on Heart's Horizon, "contrived," "formulaic" and "vanilla" spring to mind more immediately.
The sad part about all this hype is that the singer doesn't have to subjugate his individuality in the crossover to pop success. Roberta Flack, for example, effortlessly strolls between the two shores of R&B and pop, without sacrificing her musical integrity. And pop fans have embraced blues guitarist Robert Cray's uncompromising, straightforward approach. Others, like Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder (once in a great while), and Luther Vandross are able to maintain the emotive depth of their work even when they set their sights on the Top 40. Plenty of musicians are able to touch the heart without the shallowness of PriMadonna, Giddy Debson, Tone Loco, ad nauseam.
But it's not Jarreau's ruthlessly commercial ploy of mixing and matching a variety of styles that is the most troublesome part of his new direction. It's the singer's seeming carelessness in failing to realize his potential for becoming a major influence on pop.
For now, the brass ring on the pop merry-go-round seems much too alluring for Jarreau. Too bad it's tarnished his work so easily.