June 14, 2024

Jeff Lorber

From The Dawn to Midnight
By Mark Ruffin

Ramsey LewisIf Jeff Lorber was a professional athlete, he’d be one of those who’d have a career year every time he signed a new contract. The keyboardist rose to fame from JazzUSA’s hometown, Portland, Oregon, but he grew up in Philadelphia where his father was a team doctor for the Philadelphia 76’ers. Maybe hanging with the pros in his early days rubbed off because his debut with his fifth record company is his best outing since his debut for his fourth record company, maybe his best album since before he departed the Arista team and their coach, Clive Davis back in 1985. In fact the last album Jeff Lorber has recorded that was completely well rounded as Midnight would be “It’s A Fact” in 1982.

Lorber was one of the original second-generation stars of the fusion period in the late 70’s just as the genre was starting to die out. With everything 70’s becoming vogue once again, it was very wise for the keyboard artist to reach back to that time to take advantage of it as he does on “Midnight,” his 13th album.

Back in 1979 when Lorber landed the single “Toad’s Place” (named for an old Portland nightclub) on the Billboard pop charts, his albums were known for exciting crisp funk rhythm with his signature wizardry jazz keyboard style dominating over a stand out sax player. None of his albums on Verve, or Warner Brothers really had that original Jeff Lorber Fusion style. Those records featured more of his compositional and production style rather than his playing and any thing that sounded like a group having fun and jamming. What “Midnight” doesn’t have from that early sound is a killer sax player.

None of that is to take away from the incredible musical energy Lorber and the late Art Porter created in the earlier part of this decade, but frankly, Lorber left all the energy, all the funk, the great solos and every ounce of his production skills for the catchy tunes Porter wrote for his first two albums on Verve. With his impressive record sales and NAC radio in his pocket, Porter’s success led the way for his producer’s entry onto Verve and smooth jazz stations across America.

I saw Lorber live with Art Porter twice and Gary Meek once during this period and there was no doubt that Lorber, despite not touring in close to a decade had improved as both a soloist and had not lost his ability in directing a band over a this tight groove. While this can’t be said for Porter’s records, none of Lorber’s recorded Verve output matched the sound and energy of these two playing live.

1993’s “Worth Waiting For” was Lorber’s first album in seven years and was only aptly titled in that it was refreshing to hear new compositions planted firmly in his early style, while combining all he learned from modern technology when he was a studio rat in the years between releases. What “Worth Waiting For” didn’t have that fans of Lorber have come to expect, was some exciting new young star. Instead sax players Gary Meek, Dave Koz and Porter, along with guitarist Lee Ritenour helped make that record listenable.

What “Worth Waiting For” also did was established Lorber’s radio sound for the 90’s. Indeed, it was probably the first time he ever tailor-made a whole record for a radio format. The subsequent albums “West Side Stories” and the dismal “State Of Grace” played it even safer for NAC radio programmers who learn jazz in elevators and over oatmeal breakfast.

Lorber was stagnant at Verve. It follows a pattern. Moving into the new millenium, the folks at Zebra obviously have the keyboardist at a creative zenith, and by relying on what he did in the 70’s with “Midnight” should keep him peaking for a couple of more releases.

It was 1977 when Irv Kraatka gave Lorber his first chance to record on the now defunct Inner City Record label. Lorber was the darling of the Pacific Northwest music scene. In retrospect, it’s still hard to tell if Portland and Seattle in the late 70’s were behind the time as fusion was dying or ahead of it’s time nurturing smooth jazz radio stars years before the format took off. The list of acts playing then, now staples on contemporary jazz radio is impressive including Lorber, Kenny G, Dan Siegel, Patrick O’Hearn, Oregon, Skywalk, and others.

Lorber didn’t let Kraatka down with the releases “Jeff LorberFusion and Soft Space. Lorber wrote every tune on the albums and featured guest stars flute player Joe Farrell and exciting mini-moog synthesizer duet with Chick Corea. Record sales were so impressive that the then relatively new Arista Records company picked him up. That first album went through the roof with six-figure record sales and guest stars Freddie Hubbard on the classic Rain Dance– which was just sampled on a huge rap hit by Lil’ Kim- and Dennis Springer from the Portland funk group Pleasure, whose soprano sax style dominated the aforementioned hit single and foreshadowed that quasi-circular breathing technique that Kenny G is now famous for.

Kenny G was introduced to the world on Lorber’s subsequent album, 1980’s Wizard Island, another classic that continued to defy disco and the death of fusion with hefty record sales.

I had the rare opportunity to hang with Lorber and see the band three times at three different venues in a ten day span during this period. To say they were loose would be an understatement, and I’m very grateful for this period because, although you wouldn’t know it from the last ten years, I know for a fact that Kenny G. can really play that thing he puts in his mouth.

Up until he started touring extensively, it was his compositions and production skills that put Lorber over on the jazz public. Not that his records didn’t have well crafted soloing, it’s just that even then after seeing him live, you knew he was holding back in the studio. And that was a problem with each subsequent Arista record in the 80’s as his music became predictable and dominated by drum machines.

Despite the help of bassist Stanley Clarke, “Galaxian” in 1981 was the first bad record Lorber made, but he bounced right back with “It’s A Fact.” That record was the first to give Lorber some success with straight r&b and a vocal tune, the title track, and it was the first album not to bear the band name Jeff Lorber Fusion. It seemed for the rest of his tenure at Arista, Lorber unsuccessfully grasped at ways to equal his previous record sales without concentrating on his art and the sound that got him there. His only record for Warner Brothers is memorable only for introducing Karyn White to the world.

When NAC and smooth jazz radio debuted in the late 80’s and grew in the early 90’s, Lorber’s only contribution was just some of his old stuff that featured the artists he is credited with discovering including White, Eric Benet and of course Kenny G. Predictably, NAC only stayed with the safe ballads and/or cover tunes from his catalog. “Worth Waiting For” was his first record in the smooth jazz era, and he became trapped by it quickly.

It was a shame too, because what Lorber was doing in between those years was infinitely more interesting than any music he made at Verve or in his late Arista days. When Manhattan Transfer won the Best Pop Album Grammy in 1987, they should’ve shared it with Lorber, because along with the South Americans, his sound design on their album “Brasil” was as integral a contribution as any other they had on the album. His production work was brilliant. The cover tune is a decent rendition of the Beatles “Dear Prudence” with Lorber returning to the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Like the rest of the album, it profits from not only Lorber’s back to his roots approach, but from the obvious fact that the man has been on the road away from studios and machines and has interjected a much more human feel. It’s obvious from his spirited piano solo on the tune Perugia, dedicated to the great Italian jazz festival, that Lorber has enjoyed live playing more.

Ironically, other than the vocalist, there are no major contributions from others. Lorber plays more keyboards on this album than he has in years. But not programmed machines, but the piano, organ, electric piano, and some synth programmed to get that old mini-moog sound, And it’s nice to have him back in the groove. We had to wait til “Midnight” to get it but this is the Jeff Lorber album that was worth waiting for.

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