Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

For years, Al Jarreau has been the object of both admiration and irritation to jazz lovers. He is one of the pre-eminent jazz singers of the last 30 years, with a vocal palette rivalled only by Bobby McFerrin, and is a gutsy, distinctive improviser. But for a long time he's preferred to spend (waste, some would have it) his talents on overproduced American AOR. There are many who associate Jarreau solely with the theme from Moonlighting and have no idea that this is a singer who is a true heir to the great bebop vocalist Jon Hendricks.

At last, Jarreau has made a record that reveals his jazz colours. Accentuate the Positive, out this week, is his first unambiguously jazz album since 1977's Look to the Rainbow. Others have contained nods in that direction - Tomorrow Today, from 2000, included his arrangement of Weather Report's "Something That You Said" and an excellent a cappella version of The Crusaders' "Put It Where You Want It".

"I've been promising my audience this CD since 1983," Jarreau concedes when we meet at the Grosvenor House Hotel, in central London. "It has always been: 'When are you going to do this jazz album?' It has been on the back burner for years, but I've had to prepare my wider audience for this so that I can show them where I come from." A young Jarreau realised that singing, rather than rehab counselling, would be his life when he moved to San Francisco in the Sixties and began performing with George Duke's trio. Look to the Rainbow, featuring a tour de force in an extended "Take Five", which won him a Grammy for best vocal jazz performance and showcased that side to his art.

Jarreau's true genius has also always lain partly in his ability to take tunes from pop or rock and give them something of a jazz sensibility, as in his early covers of Elton John's "Your Song" and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain". "I must do that too," he says: "it's part of me. Not to do it would be like an amputation. I won't have anyone saying to me, 'You can't sing "She's Leaving Home" because it's not bebop' - put those restrictions on someone else."

He recognises, though, the need to bring audiences back to a music that, he says, "we have thumbed our noses at in America. I hope this new album will inspire people to find Jon Hendricks, Little Jimmy Scott, maybe even Billie Holiday." Selecting standards such as "The Nearness of You" and writing words to instrumentals including Eddie Harris's "Cold Duck Time", Jarreau has stripped his backing group down to a quartet and declares the CD "an exercise in less-is-more". "I haven't learnt the lesson," he jokes. "I'm still as dumb as ever. I was in a club the other night and I sang every note that I know - you name it, I sang it. But I've been getting it from Bill Evans and Miles Davis: less is more."

What has not changed, and is in evidence whatever material Jarreau performs, is his irrepressible humour and bubbling activity. As I enter his hotel room, he proffers his elbow. "I've got an awful cold so I can't shake your hand," he explains. "We can tongue-kiss, though."

Later, he sings for me a version of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" that he has been toying with for years. "You sing tunes like that in the shower, in the car, until they're old friends," he says. "You sing it until you find yourself inside of it." His take, unlikely though it sounds, is a heavy slow funk in two time. "I dare you not to groove to that," he says.

Keeping the groove in all that he does is important to Jarreau. "Those who thought there was something intellectually inferior about wanting to dance drove listeners away," he says. "But people can dance to jazz - it's not all about wearing shades and berets and reading Ginsberg." He has a simple message for anyone who disagrees. "Kiss my grits!"

Al Jarreau performs at Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12, tomorrow