5 Reasons You Were Wrong about Smooth Jazz
In the late 1970’s jazz was experiencing a great sea change. Audience numbers were falling, major radio stations were filtering out the complex improvisational works in favour of more rhythmic, dance-friendly forms. Jazz-funk and fusion were adamantly keeping the genre relevant in the US, but it could be argued that the real classic releases from Blue Note, Verve and other labels were drying up.
The experimental heyday of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when it could reasonably be stated that the jazz musician was America’s greatest contribution to art globally, felt like a long time ago.
The general public, in the wake of the 1960’s, had tired of longer, progressive songs that demanded their attention for more than 3 and ½ minutes.
In response, jazz greats began to work more closely with luminaries of the R&B and pop scenes, often covering popular radio material of the time, adding listener friendly strings and woodwind harmonies, with the lead musician playing the melody.
This style was typified by George Benson’s Breezin. The once revered virtuoso of jazz recorded an album using simple R&B rhythms and a light dusting of popped out jazz guitar layered over the top: danceable, inoffensive and wildly successful.
Benson had set the cornerstone of a new musical movement which would later be coined by focus groups as ‘smooth jazz’.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, smooth jazz could not be contained.
Stations sprang up all across the US to cater for the demand. Even here in the UK, Jazz FM got in on the act, devoting more and more programming space to more commercially minded music from artists like Al Jareau, Chuck Mangione and Fourplay.
Music evolves, progresses, whatever the catalyst.
Yet in the annals of music history, smooth jazz has always been presented as the death of a pure art form and the rise of corporate driven, machine music.
This feels a bit incongruous to me. I’m not claiming the period was totally without fault. There are several artists and recordings that came out of this era that I take great exception to (Kenny G, for one, sucks).
But the genre has its delightful, blissful moments.
More and more legitimate artists were moving into the smooth realm, but who can blame them? Artists like Herbie Hancock and Alphonse Mouzon went smooth to prolong their careers and secure financial stability, or to maintain some relevance, and I’d argue, made some of their best music working within the genre.
So despite its contentiousness, and all the puritanical noise surrounding it, I’m going to stick my head above the parapet and present 5 reasons why you were wrong about smooth jazz:
Herb Alpert – Beyond / Kamali
This album makes me smile every time I hear it. Alpert, a veteran composer, arranger, trumpeter and co-founder of A&M records, started out in the 60’s leading his Tijuana brass band. In the late 70’s and 80’s, Herb released Rise, Beyond and Blow Your Own Horn. These albums are some of the best loved examples of the smooth jazz genre and they are all stone cold classics. If you mosey on down to your local Oxfam you’re likely to find at least one of the three. Buy them on sight. I’ve chosen to highlight the track Kamali from Beyond here, but I could have singled out many wonderful moments from these records. Herb mastered the art of selling instrumental music. It’s catchy, dancey, light and unexpected. I love this music. To me it sounds like the soundtrack to an alternate sophistication. One with lots more silk.
Ambiance II Fusion – Colours in Spaces
In recent years, a trend for hypnotic, breathy ambiance has taken prominence in certain circles of music fanaticism. There’s been a glut of Japanese orchestral and experimental minimalism, along with a long awaited acceptance of new age as a viable sub-genre. This has allowed for smooth jazz, in its most serene forms, to piggyback to relevance. Colours in Spaces is a perfect example of this. Dipping their toes in meditative pools, Ambiance II Fusion maintain much of the instrumentation and structures of smooth jazz, creating something uplifting and familiar, kissing the edge of bad taste but just getting away unscathed.
Najee – Najee’s Theme / Betcha Don’t Know
A stone cold Miami classic. An all-time great sax line from Najee, combined with a low slung groove and a hook that’ll have you singing for hours to come, Betcha Don’t Know is as funky and danceable as any 90’s R&B number. It’s pure joy. If you’re willing to look past the percussive chimes (although I don’t know why you would, personally...), this one will have you smiling and sliding for days.
Craig T Cooper Project – I’ll Help You Get There
Mr Cooper is credited with playing percussion, keyboards, bass and piano on this delightful slice of Californian optimism. Relying, as with Najee’s Betcha Don’t Know, on a sultry and upbeat hook, Cooper utilised pre-programmed drum machines for the slow skittering rhythm. Displaying complete antipathy to all the laws of jazz, this record shows how far the genre had wandered. The album cover shows a tempestuous but glistening Pacific ocean lapping at a rocky shore.
Sade – Diamond Life / Smooth Operator
Let’s end with one that we should all agree on. Diamond Life, released in 1984, was both a huge commercial and a critical success, featuring in both the UK and US album charts. It ranked at 200 on Rolling Stones’ 500 greatest albums of all time. It’s an enduringly stylish, sophisticated record from beginning to end, which is perfectly captured by its iconic opening number, Smooth Operator. To be honest, I could have picked almost any of the songs from this record, or from Promise or Love Deluxe. But as the opening track of her first album, it seems a good place to start. The song drips with 80’s high culture. A finger clicking, heel shifting groover of a tune, that sits as happily on the dance floors of your best mate’s wedding as it does in the world’s hippest listening bars. For my money, Sade is one of this country's greatest musical exports.