Shannon West

visit Al, Dave and Steve at

Five years ago we started an online magazine.  Today that doesn't sound unusual at all, but in 2004 music journalism was still considered credible only if it appeared on a printed page.  A few websites were beginning to establish themselves, but it was such a new thing that the industry was barely watching.  After all we had several strong magazines, radio stations in most big cities, and entertainment writers at the local newspaper.  Websites seemed so transient.  You couldn't pick them up or carry them with you, and there was no guarantee that they would be there in a month.  That's why we call Al Jarreau, Dave Koz, and Steve Oliver our "launch angels."  They were willing to take time from their overwhelming schedules to do interviews for website that didn't even exist yet, and was being run by a group of freelance writers, web designers, and radio exiles who did not have high profile track records. 

I was sitting under the stars at the beautiful Biltmore House in Asheville NC where Jarreau had just done a concert and blurted out, almost as an aside, that we were thinking about starting an online music magazine.  If we did, would he be willing to do an interview?  His reaction was to say "you must do this," and that he would be glad to.  At the same time, Elizabeth contacted the ever-gracious Koz, who was also willing to come to the party.  I then reached out to Steve Oliver, wanting to feature a newer artist whose independent spirit and originality brought a fresh perspective to the genre.  With a lineup like that how could we not be taken seriously and, more to the point, how could we not take ourselves seriously enough to live up to the faith they had in us.

In retrospect it was a serendipitous group because they represented three different viewpoints that would end up reflecting the different ways that musicians could react and relate to the changes that were headed toward us.  They entered the established part of their careers almost an exact decade apart from each other - Jarreau in the late 70s/early80s, Koz in the early 90s, and Oliver at the turn of the century.  They came into three unique phases of the business climate.  Jarreau released his first albums during the progressive era when discovering new music was part of the culture.  Koz came in with a crossover hit when contemporary instrumental music was gaining popularity.  Oliver came in at the turn of the century when the infrastructure that supported Jarreau and Koz during their early years was starting to collapse.  By 2004 we were feeling the first breezes of the winds of change, but things were still going along pretty "smoothly."  People were still going to stores to buy CDs, and the radio format was doing fairly well, if not as well as it had during its mid 90s heyday.  Kids were using the Internet to obtain free music, but most adults were too uncomfortable with the technology to even listen to music on the Internet, much less try to obtain it illegally.  They still bought CDs when they could find them and showed up for concerts, both ticketed and free.

Fast forward five years.  Fast forward?  It feels more like a bungee jump with cords that are beginning to shred.  We wanted to catch up with our first three feature artists and see what the last half-decade has brought them and how they are, as Tim Gun would say on Project Runway, “making it work.”  These are three careers, three visions, and three journeys that reflect the changes that musicians and those who support them are going through now. 

At the time of our first interview Al Jarreau had unknowingly stepped into the perfect storm.  He had taken a creative risk and recorded the album he had always wanted to do - a jazz set with a small group of live musicians that featured both standards and original songs.  Accentuate The Positive was released on the Verve label when they were beginning to dismantle their contemporary jazz roster and the promotional team that kept those artists in the spotlight, and refocus on young alt-pop artists. Radio playlists were getting smaller and programmers were shying away from new music and anything that sounded different.  The album debuted high on the charts and got a Grammy nomination, but did not reach a wide audience simply because without airplay or a strong marketing push a lot of people didn't know about it.  

When I talked to him before the release of Givin' It Up, the Grammy-winning collaboration he did with George Benson, he had expressed some disappointment in the previous album's impact.  "I probably expressed the opinion that I had hoped for a response from my listeners that was an encouragement to go in and do this more eclectic material that has a different kind of beauty than the typical songs I have been doing throughout my career.  I wanted to take my listeners to a place of appreciation for music that has an undying kind of beauty and craftsmanship.  It might not be what people are writing these days, but if you take that basic music and allow it to find its way into a little different kind of setting, a different kind of beat and feel, it is magical." he observed.  Has it made him a little more tentative about veering away from the familiar path again?  

"As the dust kind of settles and the jury begins to trickle in, I am getting it that a lot of the people who would have enjoyed it didn't even get a chance to hear it.  It does affect my thinking, and I'm not sure what I've concluded, because I think we are still in that environment where it is hard for people to find this new music.  Perhaps I'll figure out a way to be confident that I can reach some people who are my potential audiencewith that kind of music and do it again."

Had Jarreau been in his son's generation, he might have taken things into his own hands and headed for the Internet.  But at the time, that was still new territory for mature artists and most of their fans.  He has since realized the importance of having a web presence, but wonders how much the shift towards artist-driven interactivity is going to affect the musicians who didn't grow up in that environment.  "What we have been talking about is a change in the operating procedure in the industry that requires a whole new kind of thinking and expertise that are new to me as an artist.  I'm pretty good at sitting down and crafting a piece of music, and going into the studio and recording it, and standing in front of a group of people and singing it.  Now we are talking about a whole new group of things that I have to include in my business that go beyond that."

"There is a fantastically large group of musicians who are doing great work and trying to adjust to this new world and how they can reach their listeners.  It certainly would be a shame to lose that mature input of seasoned professional players and singers because the new technologies that have come on the scene are different from what's been going on for most of their lives.  These traditional greats are having a hard time trying to find ways to reach their audience."  The solution is something for us all to think about, but Jarreau took the step that artists in that position should consider.  He found people who would oversee the interactive part, welcoming the fans and keeping them updated while he continues to create and perform the music.

Besides the chart-topping, award winning project with Benson, Jarreau did fulfill one of  his musical dreams when he recorded a collection of Christmas music that was released last year.  Rhino records also released two compilations, a collection of love songs in early 2008, and a newly released greatest hits album, An Excellent Adventure: The Very Best of Al Jarreau.  As for the next project, "I think about the things that are important for me to get to at some point, like doing the program I have been doing with symphony orchestras, and wanting to do a big band project.  I think about what is next in view of the jazz world and my place in it.  I'm trying to stay open to new kinds of writing and new kinds of approaches for creating that kind of new Al Jarreau project that has the feel of what I've normally done - an album that has some R&B, a pop kind of approach, and my improvising throughout that kind of setting as I normally have.  I haven't started writing for that kind of record except for that one piece of music, 'Excellent Adventure,' that is on the album that just came out.  That was kind of my notion of an R&B pop-ish song with the kind of sensibilities that might work for me in the future when I do the next studio album"

If Jarreau was the established star standing tentatively on the edge of the pool, Koz was the one who jumped in with a cannonball splash.  He entered the century with an active website in place and has established a presence in interactive communities without having it consume time he needs to devote to his life and his craft. He has an active, well-organized fan club that hosts meet and greets, chats, and other special events for the members.  His social networking pages are uncluttered and updated, and he tweets just enough to update without overkill.  Commenting in a previous SmoothViews feature, he observed that "Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace will become increasingly important in creating the communities previously formed by radio.  Instead of appealing to the aggregate masses, we might find ourselves appealing to a smaller, more passionate and invested audience, and being surprised at how effective that can be."

When the major labels began to trim or eliminate their jazz rosters Koz became proactive.  He joined long-time friends Frank Cody (one of the radio format's founding fathers) and Hyman Katz (a successful label executive) and started a record company.  Rendezvous Entertainment was founded with the intent of giving artists a place where they could create their music in a trusting and supportive environment.  The label had a string of successful releases and top 10 songs, but as the business climate changed, they found themselves in a difficult place.  Catalog sales were keeping record companies afloat, and as a young company, they did not have a deep catalog.  When they found a label that had the same values they did, and was willing to buy them out, they chose to sell the company to Mack Avenue Records, which is in the process of assembling and supporting a strong smooth/contemporary jazz roster.  

Koz has also toured continually, both with his own band and his holiday package tours.  He has hosted a successful Smooth Jazz Cruise for several years, and somehow finds time to be the afternoon drive personality on the nationally syndicated Smooth Jazz Network.  His "At The Movies" CD and DVD reached a wide audience, and he released a Greatest Hits collection with four new songs, two already topping the charts. In his actions and comments over the last few years, he has been both hopeful and visionary. 

He sums it up this way: "It's no doubt time for some serious reflection on where we're all going.  2009 was quite the year for introspection in all things smooth jazz—our culture is completely different than it was just 12 months ago, even 6 months ago!  But if you look at the world as a whole, the same thing is happening in every aspect of life.  The world as we know it has changed and is continuing to evolve at lightning speed.  Frankly, I think all this movement is very good thing as long as one is able to be flexible and adapt to the new world.  As uncomfortable and, at times, scary as it tends to feel, it’s all here for a reason.

"For me, this past year has given me the time and space to reevaluate what I'm doing career-wise, to re-craft the message I'm sending in all aspects of my career, and to make sure that that messaging makes sense within this new paradigm.  This time has thankfully unleashed a new spurt of creativity, and one that's not based on radio spins or record sales, but on focusing on the art, and coming up with new and interesting ways to reach my audience.  The music, nor the great artists making it, aren't going anywhere.  Radio is in flux, as are record companies, but great music will always find its way.  It's time for us artists to dig even deeper, to use the new tools at our disposal, and boldly venture into this next phase — whatever it holds for us.  Flexibility is the key. And of course, great music always helps."

Steve Oliver was, and is, the consummate independent.  He released his first two albums on the indie label Native Language, and his second, Positive Energy, delivered “High Noon,” a chart-topping hit and radio staple.  He moved to Koch, and had just released 3-D in 2004.  That project and his beautiful follow-up, Radiant, did not deliver radio hits of that magnitude, but Oliver's creativity and artistry seem to develop geometrically.  His focus has always been on the live shows. He loves being in front of an audience and loves connecting with them even more.  In 2008 he signed with NuGroove and released One Night Live, a combination CD/DVD. This is a direction he sees as important.  When we caught up with him after that album came out, he talked about wanting to shoot video on all of his future projects.  “I think it’s important for fans to see the artist live, because they get a whole other perspective of the music and the artist as they’re performing.  And, with me, it’s really a 50-50 exchange with the audience and the artist. The audience is such a part of the show as we’re playing.  It doesn’t happen without the audience being there and exchanging, and having a communication between the two of us.”

That communication has been in full effect as he plays theatres and festivals, usually with percussionist Humberto Vela, and has created a lot of excitement with his appearances on several Smooth Jazz Cruises.  He also just got back from performing for U.S. Navy families on the Tiger Cruise on the U.S.S. Ronald Regan.  The two of them sound like a whole band as they jam on all the sounds their instruments can make. Oliver has, in fact, been deeply involved in that process.  He has been involved in guitar design, working with Carvin on the acoustic guitar he uses in concert that allows him to tap into the sounds of a whole orchestra.  Carvin has also created an electric-acoustic version which Steve demos on Carvin's website, playing everything from Michael Hedges influenced finger style acoustic to hard rock. 

Always exploring, his recent releases have included tastes of what could be coming up.  He is a superb singer-songwriter who could hang with the ones who are getting Adult Contemporary/Adult Alternative play, and continues to explore all the sounds a guitar could possibly make, revealing a taste of an even more adventurous approach in “Sojourn” and “Fearless” on One Night Live.  He is working on Global Kiss, which will be released in early 2010, and promises to push the envelope with a more global sensibility.  If the YouTube video of a song he is doing in concert, is any indication, it will be energized, exciting, and have a lot of world music influences.  He too sees these challenges and changes as doors that will open to more excitement and creativity.  “I’m excited about it because it gives artists the chance to be creative again.  Now we can take the shackles off that we’ve been bound to in this genre, which have been a drag.  It’s killed the format in a lot of ways, because everybody’s trying to do whatever just to get heard.  And the fans and the music suffered from the outcome.  Now, we can be creative, and bring that element back into the music.  I think that’s where it’s going.  We’re going to finally see artists being artists again, instead of being controlled.  I think the audience and fans are going to dig it more.”

And so they head for the future, bracing themselves for the bumps in the road, and keeping faith that will allow them to survive and thrive.  As they all mentioned, the fans are more important now than they ever have been. These small, passionate, communities that Koz spoke of are going to be the ones that fill the gaps left  open as the previous structure shifted.  We are thrilled and honored to be a part of this growing and very passionate community.