An Interview with Al Jarreau
by Mark Ruffin.
In his long career, the style of singer Al Jarreau has usually defied description. He has scaled the top of the pop charts, been celebrated as an original jazz stylist, and has even won a Grammy in the R&B category.
“You could add schizophrenic to that,” the singer said with a hearty laugh during a national promtional tour last month. “I’m all that and maybe still some different things tomorrow. I don’t know who I’m going to be.”
After a period of stagnation, Jarreau does know that his career has a jumpstart thanks to the his red-hot new album, Tomorrow Today. The eleven-song disc is his debut for GRP Records, after 20 years and 15 recordings for Warner Brothers, and it is easily his best album in over a decade.
While the 60 year-old Milwaukee native is receiving praise for the record from old fans, radio stations and critics he calls ‘the analytical folks,” Jarreau is deflecting the compliments towards his producer, Paul Brown. Through diligent research and a knowledge of modern rhythms, Brown has pushed the right buttons and delivered music that also finds the singer attracting new fans.
“Paul has an especially sensitive musical acumen and awareness that allows them to do two things very well,” Jarreau explained. “He can find out the detail in his artist that they may not even recognize and see themselves. He then gives them a reflection of it in a little bit different way, so that they can see things with a new pair of eyes and let that effect what they do on the music.
“He also has his pulse on the finger of the music that is happening today, and knows how to give his artist that contemporary canvas,” the singer continued. “That’s what great sensitive producers do today. they help to make your sound one that is comfortable for a listener who listen to (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) Puffy. Not that all Puffy people are going to listen to Tomorrow Today and be comfortable, but they’re some people there listening to the hip-hop urban sound of today, who can pick up some pieces on this Jarreau album and go right there and be comfortable. Paul made that happen.”
Hard core fans of Jarreau will no doubt marvel at how so much of the old classic sound of Jarreau comes through the slick 21st century production on Tomorrow Today. Above all, that seems to be what the producer was aiming for.
Brown, best known for his work his saxophonist Boney James, who plays on one song with Jarreau, studied the singer’s rich history. Then by experimenting and using gentle persuasion, he was able to extract nuances from Jarreau that other producers have overlooked on his other recent recordings.
For instance, one day, in his unique a cappella style, Jarreau was explaining to Brown his concept of a vocal version of the Crusaders classic, Put It Where You Want It. But instead of calling in the band, Brown turned on the tape recorder.
“He said, ‘why don’t you do it just like that. That is so raw and it is so you and the way you perform in a live situation. It’s something you don’t typically do in a studio situation, so let your audience have that moment because it’s so personal.’ And he was so right.”
That song, re-titled Puddit, is one of the songs on the album that go back a number of years with the singer, and was overlooked by his previous producers. Others include a duet with Vanessa Williams called God’s Gift To The World and Something That You Said, a lyric to an old Weather Report tune that Jarreau had been sitting on since 1978.
Most surprising though is the genesis of the hit single and opening track from the album, “Just To Be Loved By You.”
“That song came to me more than twelve or thirteen years ago and has been sitting on the back burner waiting for just this moment,” Jarreau explained. With every album I made, I pulled it out and listened to the song with (past producers) Narada Michael Walden, Marcus Miller, and even as far back as Jay Graydon. But it was only Paul who went ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.’
“It was written all those years ago as a Brazilian samba but I was too close to the song. It took Paul to make it contemporary and it took other people to tell me that it should be the single. The analytical folks tell me that that song sounds real today, but sound as if it could have come from my old days. They say it sounds like an Al Jarreau that we know and recognize and could have come from before.
“That’s Paul,” the singer concluded, “from really studying me and knowing the varied sides of me, he gave me a glance at that reflected in a mirror that he held and said, ‘look at this Al, and look at this Al, let’s let that shine through.”