No matter if it’s jazz, R&B or pop circles, Al Jarreau is nothing short of a legend, who even at 74-years-old, continues to regularly record and tour (including recent shows as distant as Abu Dhabi, Batumi, Dubai and Minsk). Of course, America still makes up a massive portion of his schedule with the Milwaukee native returning to the region Valentine’s weekend at Hammond’s Venue at Horseshoe Casino (appearing alongside Jeffrey Osborne and Angela Winbush in honor of Black History Month).
In addition to that star-studded combination, the multiple Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter promises selections from his new project “My Old Friend” (Concord), which pays tribute to late great luminary/longtime friend George Duke (Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty and countless other collaborators). But as Jarreau shared during a recent phone conversation, there’s also plenty of time to play past hits, which considering his career dates all the way back to the 1960s San Francisco scene, means a veritable history lesson for fans of any era in his crossover-ripe career.
“I want to wake up tomorrow morning and still feel like I do about this work that I do, which inspires my life, my love, my joy and what I can say to people to bring them joy in their lives…”
CCR: What can we expect from the new show?
Al Jarreau: We’re of course now celebrating the release of the tribute to George Duke, so we’ll feature some things from that record. It was middle of August when that record released and it’s continuing to do really well on the jazz charts. We’ve been in the number ten range, sometimes down around number four or number five, but in the ten range for a half a year now and we’re all real pleased the audience we’re trying to reach is responding. So we’ll do some things from that record, but the main thing for me to do is music from across the board of my career. We’ll do it like you guys never heard me before and everybody is a new listener. “My name is Al, I’m from Milwaukee, I have a wife and a son and two dogs and I went to Lincoln High School.” You’ll hear “We’re In This Love Together,” “Take Five” and stuff that audiences know me for. We probably won’t do “Moonlighting,” but it’s getting a lot of requests these days so we’ll have to get it in the repertoire, but that kind of approach. “After All” will be there and we’ll do a couple things from the new record, certainly “Brazilian Love Affair.”
Jeffery Osborne is going to be there, so I’ve got a call into him to see what he’s up to these days and whether he’s doing anything. He did “Every Reason To Smile” on the new record with me and that was a great moment. He’s had that relationship with George Duke and he was one of the first people I called to sing on the new record. We’re trying to find some special things for our Hammond and Chicago audiences and we’re looking forward to it.
The record has such a remarkable list of guest stars. Did you just go through the Rolodex or did you have a particular cast in mind that were connected to George?
Jarreau: The latter. I think there will be people who didn’t have any great connection to George in time who will do tribute CDs or sections of CDs or songs, but for me, I needed Stanley Clarke, who produced four songs on the record, Diane Reeves, his cousin, Boney James, who came and produced a couple of things, and Marcus Miller. There were some people I wish I had called, but everybody that I called said “yes.” Those are very important people to this project and to George’s life, and you’re right, it was people who had a special connection to George that we were shooting for. They made themselves available and really made great contributions to the record.
What are your fondest memories of knowing and collaborating with George?
Jarreau: George and I kind of began together. We played at this club called The Half Note in San Francisco between 1965 and 1968 before either of us recorded. We were both hopefuls playing right there at the edge of Haight-Ashbury doing this jazzy kind of music swimming upstream against the tide in town with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and all those Bay Area acts headed in a different direction. It was the beginning of the rock universe coming out of America that would change everything- not only the approach to music, but it brought a whole new evolution, philosophy and really revolutionary notions of the time. It was all happening there in the Bay Area and George and I were there…If you were loud and wore flashy clothes, that’s what rock n’ roll wanted to do. But George and I were looking inside the music and trying to find this other stuff that has been the heart and soul of music that’s made you laugh, sing or cry for a thousand years. So to have people coming in listening to what we were doing was a big boost to our hopes and dreams about having a career in music.
George left there and in a few minutes he was with Cannonball Adderley and that wild guitarist Frank Zappa. George was making a huge contribution to that music and finding bits and pieces at that point, even of stuff that we would hear in later George as he became a fusion artist…[After staying friends for decades], we toured some together before his passing trying to promote the [archival] record “Al Jarreau And The George Duke Trio Live At The Half Note 1965″…So when the notion of doing a tribute to George came up, I stood right up from the back of the room and said “I’m doing it.” I’m one of the guys who knows George almost as long as his mother. I knew him when he was 19-years-old, heard him play his first music and it was just obvious there was an immense talent.
You’ve also been known to blur the lines between jazz, R&B and pop over all of these years. Has that been a conscious decision?
Jarreau: Totally unconscious. I became conscious of it because the industry does have these categories, but you know, I was singing doo-wop before it was called doo-wop on the street corner. I was singing Frankie Valli before he was Frankie Valli! All this stuff was inside of me. I didn’t have categories for it. I was singing it. My brothers were singing “Groovin’ High” and that line was Charlie Parker. I wanted to sing it and I didn’t care what it was called. I sang it because it touched me and I wanted to do stuff that touched me and felt good in front of an audience to sing and cause them to smile. Categories were other people’s terms for things. It all fit together for me.
The story to promote to kids is to listen to everything. Don’t decide you are a rap artist when you’re 12-years-old and that’s all you’re going to listen to and all you’re going to do. I know more polkas than Frankie Yankovic and you know I ain’t lying! There will be a record coming up, which I’m thinking of calling “Piano Bar,” and it’s basically me and a piano player and we’ll do Broadway music. I’ve got a Broadway repertoire that’s deep, wide and brilliant. You just wait, that’s going to be so fun.
One of your landmark albums thus far is “Breakin’ Away.” What are your reflections on that project and how did your life change when it shot up the charts?
Jarreau: I came across this new, young producer named Jay Graydon and he basically said- and this is my way of saying it- “I’ve been listening to your work since the beginning and you’re a great R&B singer, you’re a great jazz singer and you’re a great pop singer, but people get everything confused when you turn everything into a platform for a jazz song. What I’d like for you to do is just come sing the pop song like a good pop singer and come sing the R&B song like a good R&B singer. What do you say we write some things and find some things that kind of follow that tradition?” And so along comes the title song, which we wrote together, and “Roof Garden,” which I wrote with George Duke. I also found a song by Dave Brubeck called “(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo A La Turk.” There were people who thought they would never hear that kind of repertoire and that record began something new and fresh. Not only did I find a new audience, but I think in a certain kind of way, I gained acknowledgement and respect from people who enjoyed the idea of that. They were watching an artist grow and broaden his repertoire, so yeah, it was a very special time for me. It’s a landmark moment in my life and my career, and of course, “We’re In This Love Together” is on that record.
You mentioned at the top of the conversation you’ve been getting requests for the “Moonlighting” TV theme song, but haven’t had it in the set list lately. How do you feel about the song and what’s made you hesitant?
Jarreau: Well it just fell out of the repertoire. We did it for a couple seasons early on, but maybe because the show had just come to TV, [I felt like it was] getting a lukewarm response. I sang it and I felt this kind of “okay, next” coming from the audience…Maybe “Moonlighting” is never going to get the same kind of response as “Boogie Down,” so maybe I have to be a little more gentle on it and do it because it’s important to my history…When I did that piece of music, people in Norway and Indonesia found me because it was on for many seasons and got syndicated [all over the world]. A lot of people got attracted to that show and said “that’s a nice song, who’s that singer?” “Oh I know that name. That’s Al Jarreau, but I thought he was a jazz singer?” That’s happened all throughout my career. “I thought he was a jazz guy! Hey, go and get me one of his records.” So I made some new friends.
Walk us through the day in the studio recording your iconic part in “We Are The World.”
Jarreau: Oh my goodness. Well, you know, I think for a lot of us who did that it was our first time being involved in something so immense. It involved so many artists coming together in one evening, in one moment so to speak to do something for this far off in where? Africa? Yeah. Ethiopia? Well tell me about that? So it was a history lesson, a geography lesson, a sociology lesson for all of us who came there. We understood that these people needed some help and it was one of the first times that artists had come together to do this people helping people kind of program.
Any artist that you talk to will tell you about the artist that he stood next to. Somebody’s gonna say “I stood next to Cyndi Lauper,” somebody else is going to say “I stood next to Diana Ross” and somebody else is going to say “I stood next to Harry Belafonte.” All of these huge careers in one room devoting this evening to singing this piece of music written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and be all about “we are the world/we are the children/we are the ones to make a brighter day so let’s start giving.” Man, powerful stuff!
And it was, in a lot of ways, the advent of USA For Africa, so and so for this, and this whole notion that artists coming together could make a difference. It’s going on these days with AIDS, it’s going on these days with Farm Aid, it’s going on these days with any number of people helping people programs. Yes you are your brother’s keeper. So it was just an amazing evening where egos were left at the door and everybody was laughing, smiling and singing their butts off.
Is there anything possible left on your bucket list that you’ve yet to accomplish?
Jarreau: Oh my goodness are you kidding me? I want to sing the spring and the summer! I want to sing tomorrow morning. Those are all on my bucket list. I want to write a new song. I’m in the process of writing a lyric for a new song right now that I’m going to sing with an Italian artist sometime next month. Bucket list? (laughter) I didn’t wake up tomorrow morning yet. I want to wake up tomorrow morning and still feel like I do about this work that I do, which inspires my life, my love, my joy and what I can say to people to bring them joy in their lives…We can go somewhere else and say I need to do a record with Earl Klugh. Bobby McFerrin and I are not done with working together. There’s some things to do of that sort, but just the broad general man is to wake up tomorrow morning feeling like I do about this work and this music and singing tomorrow night at wherever (laughter)- at the Do Drop Inn!
Al Jarreau performs alongside Jeffrey Osborne and Angela Winbush in honor of Black History Month at The Venue at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, IN on Friday, February 13. For additional details, visit www.thevenuechicago.com and www.ticketmaster.com.