October 19, 2006
Interviewed by Shannon West
Two summers ago at an after-show gathering in Asheville, NC, suspended in mid-air both figuratively from the post Jarreau concert vibe and literally because we were overlooking the mountains from the terrace of the Biltmore Estate, I asked Al Jarreau if he would be willing to do an interview for the launch of a new website. When somebody of that stature is willing to jump, how can you not take the big leap and go for it! He had just released the brilliant Grammy-nominated Accentuate The Positive and spoke of it as being the kickoff to the second half of his career. The much anticipated collaboration with George Benson, Givin’ It Up, proves that this second half is going into even higher gear with lots of adventures to come.
It was pure serendipity that Givin’ It Up was released in time for our second anniversary issue, giving us a chance to talk to one of the artists who was on the inspiration team from the start and continues to inspire and entertain with every new release. He’s done some amazing things since we last talked. He’s toured both here and overseas almost continually, done numerous benefits, received awards and honorary degrees, and been a high profile activist for literacy and education. We talked about music and the other things that matter the most, because when it comes down to it, everything is connected and music connects everything.
SmoothViews (SV): This seems like such an obvious match-up. How did it finally happen?
Al Jarreau (AJ): I got a call from John Burk who’s with Concord. He’s a producer and executive over there. At that point George Benson had signed with Concord, but he hadn’t started his first project. In the meantime I had left GRP early last year and I was looking for a record deal. Some contacts had been made with Concord, which has such vision and some real success while other labels are struggling or getting out of jazz altogether. John Burk said he had an idea and he wanted me to meet with him and George Benson. George was newly signed and I was still not signed to Concord. That’s how fast we went with the notion. We met in late February or March and he asked me what I thought about me and George doing a record. George and I looked at each other and said, “When do you want to do it? Let’s go!” and that’s how it happened. At the next meeting we started talking about songs and the fact that we needed to get it done before George and I started our summer tours. That meant we went in to do the record in April and did it in five weeks, which is really fast! There was still some mixing done in May, but we did the recording in less than 25 days, the days that George and I were in the studio singing and playing music. Unbelievable! It was uncomfortably fast, but we found the beauty in that process where you trust your instincts and you go with your first notions. You don’t second guess yourself, and you work on it. There was so much spontaneity and improvisation in the formation of songs, in the putting together of songs. Larry Williams came in to do some very important arrangements. It was amazing. It felt as though the project was being guided.
SV: You can feel that when you listen to it. There’s this right brain intuitive thing that just takes you away when you listen to these songs.
AJ: That’s what we are hoping for. That’s how we hope people will hear it.
SV: Another thing that is really impressive here is that you have put together this beautiful crazy-quilt of different types of songs and it’s set up in a way where people who come into it for comfort and familiarity are going to be gently lured into some exploration and adventure. Was that done on purpose?
AJ: Absolutely, that was on purpose! A couple of things happened at the first and second meetings. After we said “Let’s go,” John’s first idea was for me to do a song of George’s and for George to do something of mine where his guitar was the lead instrument instead of a vocal. Those two tunes turned out to be “Breezin’,” with lyrics, the very first song on the album, and “Mornin’.” At the same meeting I arrived before George and on the way to the bathroom I passed John’s assistant and asked for a cup of coffee. I came back and George was in the office drinking a cup of coffee. I said “Are you drinking my cup of coffee? Don’t start no stuff!” We fell on the floor laughing and laugh about that even now. That’s how that song happened. George said “Man, we ought to do a song called that. We ought to write that song!” I went home and worked on it and there it is – “Don’t Start No Stuff.” It’s a funny song. George and I went to the studio and it kind of just came out in one piece with the solos and all, and that exchange going on at the end. I took that home and listened 12 or 13 times and I couldn’t get enough of that song and the charm and laughter that was going on in there. I played it in the car, then got home and played it some more. What a feeling that is!
SV: It’s pretty rare to be able to actually listen to one of your own songs and have fun instead of listening to it critically.
AJ: Such a rare thing and a wonderful thing. And, oh God, the contributions of the people who came into the project! What Herbie (Hancock) and George did together on “Tutu” was just amazing. Those solos have got to go down as classic solos for both of them. Herbie looked at George and said “George, I haven’t heard you play like that, man…” I’m listening to that come out of his mouth in the studio. And Jill Scott! I sent her (sings) “let it rain tonight, purify like holy water.” I had written that song a while back with Barry Eastmond and that’s the one I wanted her to sing on. She came to the date and said “I don’t want to sing that.” (Laughs) So, OK…what do you want to do?” she said “I want to do “God Bless The Child.” Before we got to “God Bless The Child” we had the fake book out. We were looking for a song for her to sing on the day that she has arrived at the studio. It was going to be a head arrangement. We were going to make it up on the spot and fly by the seat of our pants right then with whatever song we came up with for Jill. Somewhere in the process she said she wanted to do “God Bless The Child” but she didn’t know it all. So we said, “C’mon sweetie, we’ll teach it to ya!” (Laughs)
Hear Al talk about creating “God Bless The Child”
SV: Well, you certainly did! It’s one of the best vocal performances she’s done and she’s always been an amazing singer! On the video press kit interview George said she is one of the bravest singers out there.
AJ: Definitely one of the bravest, and what a voice! I felt like this had to be something different, so I start thinking and I heard this bass line it in my head. I called Marcus over and started to sing it for him and tell him we’ll put a little groove on it like a funky undercurrent and let her just float. Marcus said, “You have to sing the bass line. That will make it really different. Then I’ll join in and you drop out, George will join Jill, then you’ll come back in later on and sing the bass, and that’s how we’ll go out.” That’s what happened and it happened in about three hours. We built an arrangement. Let spontaneity be!
SV: How did you come up with this group of songs? You’ve got jazz classics like “Four” and progressive ones like “Tutu,” and then you rework some familiar hits and there are these two beautiful contemporary ballads in “All I Am” and “Let It Rain.” How did you guys get that mix going?
AJ: The openness that led the way was what George was saying at our first meeting, before we had decided that we were going to do “Tutu.” George said he’d been thinking about this and there were a couple of songs that if we did them and put our thing on them, we would knock people’s socks off because they are well-loved songs. If we can put our thumbprint on them, we will make some new friends and we’ll sell some records. That’s when he mentioned “Summer Breeze” and “Every Time You Go Away.” That thinking opened the door! We knew we were going to come to some jazzy kind of work like we did on “Tutu” and adding solos like the one in “Summer Breeze.” We knew we’d get to the jazzy things. “Four” was destined to come up because it’s a must for me and George to do something like that, but it’s the other material that opened the thinking. I hauled out this song that hadn’t been finished that Freddie Ravel and I had been working on, the title song, “Givin’ It Up.” I hauled that out and we listened to it and it took wings! So it was George’s open thinking that created the pattern for how we should think about the rest of the record. From there, these other things started coming up. All these wonderful people that came together to make this record happen! And they came so willingly. I mean Chris Botti, Patti Austin, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke. They all said “I’ll be there, just let me know when.”
SV: It’s kind of like so many people who have been really important to fans who have been into this music for a long time are on this project.
AJ: Again, it seemed like it was guided! Paul McCartney is on this record! We were working in the old Charlie Chaplin studios, with it’s own muses and ghosts and history of making people laugh and heal their wounds during a World War…there was all of that vibe there. Then it became A&M studios. We all know about the success of that label and the artists who were there. More recently, Jim Henson bought them and he’s been there for 10 years. They kept the recording studios and that’s where we were. Paul McCartney was recording in the same complex, doing his own record and just walking around like an average guy on the street in that complex, and he walks into the studio where we are working. He and George have been friends for a long time and they are hugging and jumping around like two kids and just reconnecting. This happened at the moment we were starting to work on “Bring It On Home.”
SV: You were already going to do that song?
AJ: We had the song and were wondering how to approach it. We had an arrangement and were just starting to get comfortable when Paul walks in and George says “Paul, you know this song don’t you. C’mon sing on this song.” Two days later he comes back and sings it, does it once and George has the guts to ask him if he’d do it one more time. (Laughs) George was talking like a true diplomat. He convinced Paul to do it one more time and there it is. George and I sang around and danced around Paul’s vocals a little bit and brought in a gospel chorus, we put it together and there it is. It’s classic Paul! Guided…that’s how the whole thing felt. We hope it goes gold, we would love that, but even if it doesn’t just the experience of doing the record and what it’s done to my heart has been so amazing!
SV: You have done a lot in terms of advocacy and support of education in general and, of course, arts education. Could you elaborate on why that is important to you?
AJ: Here’s the deal. We have so much and so many have so little. The whole thing is about helping each other, healing each other. It isn’t about massing great wealth and fortune. It’s about making sure that everybody is okay. You can be of service, be a help, and lift people up. You can let them know how much they can do, and that a lot of it has to do with how you see yourself and how you think. Being able to maximize the opportunities that come to you involves education. It involves reading, writing, literacy, math skills. That’s the story. There’s a chance for us but you have to have these skills. It’s a shame that in the country where public education began we seem to look down our noses at education. Kids coming out of school still can’t read! We’re getting to be a culture where so many people can’t even read what is being asked for on a job application or the instructions on their prescriptions. And if we were reading, Washington would be a lot different, including the White House.
SV: Which is redirecting, to say the least, a lot of funding away from education…
AJ: Yes. It’s deliberate. A dumbed down electorate can be more easily manipulated!
SV: One of my favorite writers, Rita Mae Brown, said in one of her books that it was important to her for people to pursue education, nurture their creativity, and activate their imaginations because we need every thinking person to step forward and contribute to a safe and sane future. What you are saying here is along the same lines. She said it in 1987 and we still haven’t fixed anything.
AJ: Yeah, that’s why that’s important to me. I’m talking about how a kid with a paint brush, dancing shoes, a musical instrument in his hands is not likely to be carrying a gun. This whole business of the arts also has to do with it being this workshop in sensitivity. Practicing joy and sensitivity and learning to convey those emotions in a safe place. Cultivating this very special human sensitivity gives us empathy that makes us conscious of how other people feel. If we can nurture that part of us, we get closer to not going to war, not being violent, to helping each other. A kid who learns to make a horn wail or does a part in a play or sings some great song in a chorus is a different kid. The arts just make you a different person.
SV: You established a scholarship fund at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for students pursuing degrees in education. The person who was awarded this year was a man in his fifties who returned to college to get an education degree because while he was out in the community he saw how deep the need was for educators, especially in minority schools. I thought that was so cool because we emphasize young people so much but we need to encourage adults that it’s never to late to get in there and do their part to change the world. And the young people need the leadership and role models.
AJ: I love it that that happened, and the scholarship is for people who are going to become teachers. That’s so important! We have got to figure out how we are going to get some young men teaching at the grade school level. I don’t know how we can attract them, but we need for that to happen.
SV: Teaching doesn’t pay well and teachers are even ending up having to buy classroom supplies with their own money. With the cost of living, it’s hard to get people to choose that path.
AJ: It’s an ugly situation and we’re to blame. We’ve allowed money and interest to be drained away from education.
SV: Along similar lines, you were involved in a fun and educational project for kids with the Field Museum in Chicago. They are exhibiting the complete skeleton of the most intact T-Rex ever found. Kids love dinosaurs, and there’s a kids CD that tells the story in song. You did a song and narrated it. How did you get involved with that project?
AJ: Mike Himelstein, who wrote “God’s Gift To The World” was brought into that project and he brought me in. He called me and asked me if I wanted to do a song. Somewhere along the way I was talking to him about doing voiceovers and some of the voices I could do and he said there’s got to be a voice doing the narration for the exhibit at the museum. I said I’d love to do something like that and he said, “You’re in!” I did the record, and people who go to the museum to see the exhibit will hear my voice doing the narration when they press the buttons.
SV: Is that still up?
AJ: Yeah, it will be there for a long time.
SV: The whole Legends of Jazz series with Ramsey Lewis was just awesome. Seeing you and Kurt Elling together was like a dream team, and that was the first time I’ve seen you in a small combo setting, which was wonderful!
AJ: Ramsey and I have always had this connection. We’re near the same age, we come from the same area, Milwaukee and Chicago are so close. We’ve known each other forever! He asked me to come be on the show. It’s lovely how it works out as a feature for his show and an extension of a friendship. The Accentuate The Positive record kind of went unnoticed. If it had done really well there might have been the opportunity for me to do a tour with a trio. I do wish there was a situation where I could just go out and do something like that and I’ll continue to try to create that some way, but you have to be really careful because of the way the economics of touring work. Herbie and Chick Corea have made it work, touring in a lot of different settings. I think it’s more difficult for a singer, and when your audience expects to hear what they know well. If the voice was a more durable instrument I could take less money and play more gigs because I love it, then make up for making less money for a date by doing more dates. Physically, that’s just too much. Once I work a trio rate, I can’t get the rate I need for my full band, which is 99% of what I do and what people who come to see me want to hear. I have to be able to pay the musicians in the band.
SV: That’s the reality of being a touring musician, especially now with all the cutbacks. Touring is expensive and can be exhausting, especially if you do it a lot, which you do. You also do a brilliant symphony program. You cover a lot of territory musically in that setting, kind of like the way you and George do on this album.
AJ: My interests in music cover a lot of territory. That program needs to get recorded too! I hope I can figure that into the future. It looks like I might be with a record company that would go for that.
SV: You’ve been doing this for a long time. You’ve been through three record companies, which is not that bad compared to a lot of artists. You have seen a lot of over the years. How has that affected you as a recording artist and a touring artist?
AJ: I’m lucky! I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m still around. But we are in an industry that has lost too many great artists to commercialism. It’s the same argument that anyone with any sensitivity has been making forever, but it’s become a commercial quagmire. Having said that, we are still the “spoiled brat” of the arts. Compared to dancers, theatre companies, visual artists, writers, we have so much. The music industry is immense. The industry is making money but I still think that we suffer because a lot of great artists who have something really important to say don’t have any way to get heard. I am ashamed of where we have come in terms of the kind of music that gets the most attention. There’s no place for four letter words in music that goes out over the airwaves, or graphic sex, or the negative attitude towards women. It’s not pro-survival. It’s denigrating.
SV: It comes down to the fact that if you are an adult-oriented artist doing creative new music it’s very hard to get heard.
AJ:That’s right. You can say I said that! (Laughs)
SV: That’s why I think it was very brave for you and George to come out with this album that was about the music you are making now, not going for the quick nostalgia fix or a lot of less challenging material.
AJ: I don’t think we had a choice. I can’t do that.
SV: I’m glad you didn’t, and I know your fans will be too when they hear the new music. Thank you so much for the conversation and thank you again for being one of the original SmoothViews “Launch Angels”!
Watch George and Al talk about making the CD on the Electronic Press Kit on YouTube:
Hear Al talk and sing about the T-Rex “Sue” and sing “Bones” from the CD on NPR’s “All Things Considered”
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4652919 His part of the interview starts at about 4:00.