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Al Jarreau: The Passing of a One-Off Musician

Jarreau evolved a style very much his own and specialized in singing the fast but wordless sounds of bebop jazz, earning him the tag, Acrobat of Scat

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Al Jarreau passed away on February 12th in Los Angeles. Photo: Stig Ove Voll/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Alwyn Lopez Jarreau, known to the world as the very popular, versatile vocalist Al Jarreau passed away on February 12th in Los Angeles. He was one month short of 77. Jarreau was a three-in-one vocalist; he was an R&B singer, a jazz singer and also a pop singer. In fact, he has been the only vocalist in history to win a Grammy in each of these categories. In all, he won seven Grammys. That was not all. In 1996, Jarreau acted on Broadway in the stage production of Grease. He was also a fine athlete and had tried out with the pro baseball team, the Milwaukee Braves and also played college basketball. His academic career is noteworthy as well. Jarreau had a Master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation from the University of Iowa in 1964.

Fortunately for his very large musical followers, Jarreau was not lost to professional sport or academics. Strangely, his music career did not take off until a relatively late age of 35. He had learnt his early music in the church choir and through the music of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, all jazz singers.

Jarreau evolved a style very much his own and specialized in singing the fast but wordless sounds of bebop jazz, earning him the tag “Acrobat of Scat”. He was a fine jazz singer. His vocal versions of the famous “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea‘s “Spain” have been hugely popular. His live version of “Spain” with Joe Sample and Steve Gadd in the band is brilliant.

Al Jarreau, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone (son of the legendary John Coltrane) and Adrian D'souza

Al Jarreau, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone (son of the legendary John Coltrane) and drummer Adrian D’souzat at the VH1 Jazz Masters concert in Mumbai. Photo: Adrian D’souza

On the vocalese version of “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis‘s iconic album Kind of Blue, Jarreau teams up with Jon Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin and George Benson. It is a vocalese masterpiece with each of the four singers singing words to the long instrumental solos of Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Wynton Kelly. Jarreau once described himself as a cross between vocalese king Hendricks and balladeer Johnny Mathis. He was that and many more sounds all put together.

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Jarreau’s versatility included using his voice to imitate various instruments – including some electronic ones in the course of singing a song. At another extreme, he even sang with symphony orchestras. While pursuing his academic career and a part time profession of counseling, Jarreau would try and sing in night clubs often to follow his musical passion. It would be fair to say that he was educated in the ‘school of the blues and R&B.’

Al Jarreau, legendary guitarist Earl Klugh and Adrian D'souza

Al Jarreau, guitarist Earl Klugh and drummer Adrian D’souza at the VH1 Jazz Masters concert in Mumbai. Photo: Adrian D’souza

His unique style of vocals saw him release his first major album, Breakin’ Away which had the top 10 winning hit “We’re In This Love Together.” This album won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male in 1982. Within the next two years his Grammy tally increased.  He never looked back from this point on and was in demand as a performer ever since. Jarreau toured widely for live and TV shows with his large band. His unique singing style and stage presence made for a large following. This was at a time when singers like Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder were vying for the same space on center stage within the same genre of sound. It was a tough route for Jarreau.

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Later, in 1992, his album Heaven And Earth won a Grammy in the R&B category. His theme song for the TV series Moonlighting was also recorded in 1987 and did much for the popularity of the show. However, Jarreau’s early inspiration was jazz and in 2004 he recorded his first and only album of jazz standards, Accentuate The Positive where he sang songs by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Mercer among others. This album was well received by jazz followers but Jarreau never recorded another jazz album.

He also toured India in 2006 with an all star group and in Mumbai performed at the VH1 Jazz Masters concert held at the Gateway of India. Since he almost seamlessly straddled the genres of funk, pop, R&B, jazz and to some extent electronica, Jarreau’s loss will be mourned by a very large number of fans worldwide. The loss of a musician is particularly sad as they leave behind a multitude of followers. The silver lining is that the music they have created and left behind will live on forever. Adieu Al Jarreau.

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