Cover Story

Al Jarreau

Trusting his instincts garners three Grammy nominations for the spirited singer/songwriter’s new project, Givin’ It Up, with George Benson.

By Melanie Maxwell

Even with five Grammy Awards, scores of international music honors and millions of records sold, Al Jarreau acts as excited about his latest project as though it was his first. With new management guiding him in a different direction and a record deal with Concord Records pairing him with George Benson, the 66-year-old superstar can barely contain his enthusiasm as he bursts into song for parts of the interview.

“Once you think about it, it’s a no-brainer. But the circumstances for it coming together were just extraordinary,” the legendary singer/songwriter, who turns 67 on March 12, said. “George, just having signed (with Concord Records), was thinking about what his first project would be. I was looking around for a new record label and begun these talks with Concord myself, but hadn’t signed yet. John Burk, really the messenger from God, put all of these things together in his head. He said ‘Hey listen, I’ve been to the mountain, and I have this letter from Big G, and I want you guys to come over to the office and let me read it to you.’ That’s exactly what happened. George and I looked at each other and said ‘Shoot, when do we start?’ We can do some music that may bring people back to the table again, where people sit down and listen to a record and enjoy a glass of wine and chill for an hour. We don’t listen like that anymore,” Jarreau added.

It was Jarreau’s hope to “create a record of real listenable music that makes you chill and want to listen and hear music in the way that I think a lot of music deserves to be heard; in more than a passing way as you downshift and park the car. I think records like this invite you to do that, and may bring people back to the living room, to that relaxed place where you’re sittin’ there and hangin’ out with a friend and you go ‘This is the one that I really like.’ It’s not to say that no one else is making that kind of music. This is just a contribution of a couple of guys who have done that before, who’ve teamed up now on this new project and maybe we can double your pleasure in some kind of way and add some impetus to that old direction of bein’ willin’ to be chillin’ and keep you thrillin,’” Jarreau says melodically.

A new CD would also mean thrillin’ fans with another tour, and squeezing those dates into a schedule which already keeps Jarreau on the road all but about 100 days each year. In August, before Givin’ It Up’s October release, Jarreau and Benson hit the road with members from each of their bands for a 12-city tour together. Their agents are currently booking dates for a more extensive tour, which resumes in March. “We’re Going to Australia. And South Africa is in the wind. It will be a whirlwind tour,” Jarreau explains.

“My guys, Chris Walker and company, created this kind of symphony program that begins with a medley of songs of mine that I sing, that which in the ordering of what follows and the tempo changes and all, is just remarkable to listen to and hear and feel as a person in the audience. It’s like an overture. I call it the ‘Jarreau-verture.’ For this tour, Chris put together a medley of mine and George’s songs that people hear before George and I even hit the stage. They begin this medley of songs that people recognize and they start applauding with us not even being there. Out of that medley, Chris says ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome George Benson and Al Jarreau!’” he says enthusiastically as he scats the melody of “Breezin’.”

“People are on their feet already. George and I are out there together, singing and playing, and George just wearin’ that guitar out and me singing right there beside him, urging him on, and us trading things back and forth. It’s a wonderful evening. And we’ll be at a theater near you!”

While there are three original songs on the new CD, Jarreau and Benson cover each other’s hits (“Breezin’,” “Mornin’”), and perform together with some very special guest artists on some of their favorite songs with new arrangements. Chris Botti, Jill Scott, Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock, Marion Meadows, and even Paul McCartney contribute to Givin’ It Up, which garnered three Grammy nominations: “Mornin’” for Best Pop Instrumental, “Breezin’” for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and “God Bless The Child” featuring Jill Scott for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

The complete story can be found in the February edition of Smooth Jazz News. Click here to subscrbe today. Receive an issue monthly, February through December, for $29.

George Benson

The superstar singer/guitarist teams up with Al Jarreau for Givin’ It Up on Concord Records.

By Jonathan Widran & Melanie Maxwell

Forty-three years after making his recording debut, George Benson isn’t satisfied simply settling into one of his three homes when he’s not performing some 80 live dates each year. Sure, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning superstar still enjoys entertaining audiences around the world with his classic interpretation of “On Broadway,” famed R&B hits “Turn Your Love Around” and “Give Me the Night.” And even though his classic instrumental hit “Breezin’” is a major staple of the smooth jazz format three decades after it first hit the pop charts, Benson strives to discover fresh ways to thrill his audiences. It was in this spirit that Benson and fellow contemporary pop/jazz icon Al Jarreau recorded the dual album Givin’ It Up, which marks an exciting, auspicious beginning for each of them at Concord Records after years signed to GRP.

Benson, who says he was dissatisfied with GRP’s efforts to promote his 2004 R&B/hip-hop-oriented album Irreplaceable, was urged to sign with Concord by the label’s longtime house producer John Burk, who knew Benson from their work together on two albums by Hammond B-3 great Jack McDuff in the ’90s.  

Burk, who helmed the multiple-Grammy-winning Genius Loves Company album for Ray Charles, had a cool idea for an immediate hook that Benson and Jarreau quickly warmed up to: having the two riff on new versions of their signature tunes. Jarreau sang fun, newly written lyrics on “Breezin’,” while Benson carried the singer’s hit “Mornin’’’ with his inimitable guitar licks.

The two invited an impressive guest list of smooth jazz friends to help out, including Chris Botti, Patti Austin, longtime Benson guitarist Michael O’Neill, Freddie Ravel and Marion Meadows. Paul McCartney happened to be recording in the room next door at Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles at the same time Benson and Jarreau were there, and they convinced the former Beatle to join them on a spirited cover of the Sam Cooke soul classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”

The handful of originals are balanced by well-rendered versions of familiar pop classics (“Summer Breeze,” “Every Time You Go Away”) and a reworking of well known songs by Miles Davis (“Four”) and Marcus Miller (“’Long Come Tutu”).

“It’s just a fact of contemporary music and particularly today’s smooth jazz format that familiarity will get you a lot of airplay,” says Benson, explaining the trend that record labels and radio stations currently operate from. “Listeners can recognize these songs instantly, and you don’t need to build the audience because they’re already there. I’ve always believed it’s better to record a good version of an old song than a bad original.”

Benson and Jarreau dove into live dates—14 in all––several months before the October, 2006 release date of Givin’ It Up, and according to Benson, they have 16 scheduled so far for 2007. “It’s really exciting for me working with Al,” he says. “He’s an intellectual, very witty…kind of reminds me of Charlie Parker, who had that jovial thing going all the time. Al never stops living, and every day to him is a good day. He also happens to be a great performer who knows what he wants to do and what he needs to accomplish. He’s such a versatile singer, always fresh, with every bar different from the last. I need to listen to more cats like him, who help me incorporate their energy into what I do.”

The complete story can be found in the February edition of Smooth Jazz News.  Click here to subscrbe today. Receive an issue monthly, February through December, for $29.