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Remembering Al Jarreau

TITUS MBUYA
AlJarreau
Renowned jazz vocalist, Alwin Lopez Jarreau, died last Sunday in a Los Angeles hospital at the age of 76. A week earlier he had announced his retirement after cutting short a tour due to exhaustion.

The seven-time Grammy winner died a few hours before this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony kicked off on Sunday.

Al Jarreau was one of the best jazz singers of his generation with regards to improvisation and “scatting” in particular.

“Scatting” is a type of singing in which improvised, meaningless syllables are sung to a melody.

It was popularised by both swing and bebop jazz musicians like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Al Jarreau interwove “scatting” with mimicking many types of instruments through sound and dexterous movement of hands.

Al Jarreau was not just a jazz singer, he crossed over to a variety of music genres including pop, soul and rhythm and blues (R&B). His virtuosity won him Grammys in Jazz, Pop and R&B, which is no mean feat.

One has to listen to his music in order to appreciate Al Jarreau’s versatility.

He wrote his own music, but also performed other people’s songs. Almost always he performed the songs better than the original.

I still maintain that Al Jarreau played Elton John’s piece, Your Song better than Elton John himself during his tour of West Germany in 1976.

He did the same with Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, a song that has been used by many radio stations around the world as a signature tune for a variety of programmes. In modern day parlance, Al Jarreau killed it!

And what of his rendition of Chick Corea’s hit track, Spain!  This is in 1990

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at a live show billed as “Live Under the Sky”.

For the rock fan, Al Jarreau was probably at his best here.

His feistiness and passion evoke in one memories of the late Freddie Mercury of the British rock band, Queen.

During that tour, Al Jarreau was accompanied by other legends. These included Joe Sample, of the Crusaders fame, on piano, and Steve Gadd on drums.

Being the generous man that he was, that evening, he let both Sample and Gadd shine as they performed solos on their instruments much to the acclamation of the audience.

During his career, Al Jarreau played alongside such other jazz greats like Herb Alpert, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Marcus Miller and David Sanbourne.

For me, Al Jarreau was at his peak towards the end of the 1970’s when he broke into stardom.

He released his popular album Breaking Away in 1981 with the hit We’re In This Love Together, which was tops in the charts at the time. Having said that, my favourite Al Jarreau song is Could You Believe.

In 1985 Al Jarreau was part of an all-star lineup of musicians who sang on We Are the World, the hit song that raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Al Jarreau had listened from an early age to such legends as Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.

But his two greatest influences were jazz scat singers, Jon Hendricks and the smooth ballad singer, Johnny Mathis.



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