Lee Mergner: Have you ever done a cruise before?
Al Jarreau: I may have done three others. But not an entire cruise, like I am for this one. That will be new for me. Things are changing all the time on cruises, with all the different groups and bands. It will be an exciting experience.
Lee: Have you talked to any of the other guys like Marcus Miller about what it’s like?
Al: No, but I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. I’ve done them enough to get a sense of the atmosphere. It’s pretty special. You’re right there with the people and you’re in one big room together with them for seven days.
Lee: It’s so true, because as musicians, you’re really ships passing in the night. The musicians on the cruise always talk about how great it is to be together and spend time together.
Al: Yes, yes. And to rub some shoulders with the important people that you do it for. You could do your music in the basement or you can do it with recordings, but we do all that to make our music for the people to hear what we’re doing and thinking and feeling. On a ship for a few days, there’s an opportunity to meet the people and chat.
Lee: Do you enjoy that aspect? Meeting your fans?
Al: I love that part of it. I’ve done it less in recent years, because of my issues with my back and walking. I don’t get around as much as I used to. I’m pretty stationary, but man, that’s the most valuable part of it, that communion with people, that communion that we make together, when we sing together. When I play, you stomp your feet or you dance. When we sing this little chorus together, when we laugh and tell this funny little story together. That’s the [expletive].
Lee: Freddy Cole is the eminence grise of the cruise. He’s the guy that, when he plays late at night, all the singers and pianists and other instrumentalists come out to listen to and hang together. Some of them, like John Pizzarelli, even heckle him a little. It’s very special. He becomes the gathering point as the elder.
Al: The watering hole, as it were. That’s part of the stuff that happens only on a cruise any more. There’s a piano bar sometimes in a hotel around the world, but not with Freddy Cole. I’m about to reintroduce that piano bar concept with Joe Turano. I’m not going to do it in a piano bar, but I could, and that’s the point. Along the way here as we get more and more involved with this way of performing as a duo, it will get more and more piano bar-ish. You know, sitting on a barstool, Joe sitting next to me at his piano, whether it be a Rhodes or an acoustic piano too, and doing this music that has fire and intimacy right there in your face. You can see the color of my eyes or my sweat on your blue suede shoes but with the closeness and intimacy and the heart and spirit in the music, all in what is basically the piano bar situation. I like calling it that. They can take it to a concert hall—to Carnegie or the Berlin Philharmonic—but it will be the same thing, as long as you bring the people close and don’t put them 100 yards away.
Lee: Right, and you can put a tip jar on the piano and make some easy cash, tax-free.
Al: Hello, thank you for reminding me. I’m going to do it.
Lee: You know to put some big bills in there first, right? A few hundreds and some twenties.
Al: Exactly. My wife is just coming in to see me and I gotta tell her what you just said.
Lee: Well, then I think I should get a percentage.
Al: It’s a little scary, because it’s a different concept for me in an environment that people have not seen me in before—just working with one other guy with one instrument. And I [sings long rhythmic percussion section].
Lee: You’re going to be working hard for your money.
Al: But there’s an intimacy that they don’t get in any other kind of way. And a personal statement that can’t be made with five other guys on stage. It might be a new viewpoint of who I am. And the thing is that it’s really not new. It will be new this time in the my life, but this is where, after working four years with the George Duke Trio and doing standards as a jazz singer with a trio, ala Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. There aren’t many that stand there with a trio, but that was an era out of which my jazzy side came. When our job together ended in 1968 at the Half Note—George and I had been there for four years and there’s a record called Al Jarreau and the George Duke Trio Live at the Half Note 1965—[it] ended a certain era and style and approach to music in my life. I found a guitar player who was as in love with Brazilian music as I was and we became a duo. And that’s when I found me. That’s when I found that part of me that’s become my thumbprint, like what I just sang for you. Singing vocal percussion and singing a little bit of guitar-ish sounding stuff. There were just two of us and the sky opened up with all that space. And so a lot of what became my thumbprint that people have come to know me for over the years happened in the duo situation. So we’re going to return to it. It’s not going to be my only way to work. We’re just going to find some scattered opportunities here and there to do this other part of who I am that people haven’t seen.
Lee: The cruise audience will be very receptive to it. The settings are mostly intimate and they’re so knowledgeable and attentive. Heck, they’ve shushed me and many a musician who sit in the back and talk.
Al: “This is my money, would you please shut up?” Like that? [Laughs.]
Lee: Yes, and you’ll feel that attentiveness to your performance.
Al: It’s kind of scary as it is, but I welcome the opportunity to get with Joe and get out there and do this. We’ve done a couple of duo situations, but it won’t be like this with a 75-minute set. We’re going to go for it. That’s a long time for two guys to entertain. I’m going to be doing a dance on the table too. [Laughs.]
Lee: You’re going to have to get Joe to vamp.
Al: That’s right. I’m going to use that too. “Vamp, Joe, Lee said vamp…and, ah, um, I got a little something stuck in my throat here. Cough, cough. Just vamp, Joe.” And that’s one of the beauties of the situation. We can do exactly that. In that small compact unit that we are, it’s possible to do all kinds of stuff and still be very musical. And present music to people in a different kind of way than they typically hear. They haven’t heard that since John Denver with his guitar. Or if you listen to some Brazilian music, you could hear the essence of it, but music these days has become just … Well, you don’t get this kind of music unless you go to a piano bar and listen to a duo there. That’s a wonderful kind of intimate situation in which to hear some music. Maybe my next record will be called “Piano Bar.” I think Joe and I are going to call ourselves JoeReau.
Lee: JoeReau! You’re working it.
Al: Yea, we’re thinking about it. I’m looking forward to it. And then I’ll get a chance to sing with Marcus and his band there on the cruise. It’s a nice thing to get to do from time to time. For me the most challenging part is to sing as often as you need to sing on those cruises, and hang on to your instrument. It’s a lot of work in a short period of time. That’s the challenge for me. I think it’s going to tailor the situation for me and we’ll introduce the JoeReau duo. And see how people respond.
Lee: You’ll do great.
Al: We’re just back from New York City where we did a house party benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America in a three-story house owned by successful people. We raised a bunch of money, man. More than a buck three fifty to help aging musicians who didn’t get the opportunity to sock some money aside or maybe never had any money to sock aside, but who are still around and need a helping hand. So we went in and did that and it was terrific. Joe and I did a couple of songs as a duo and we felt the reception for that and we were encouraged.
Lee: I imagine people must have felt it was a special thing. We haven’t seen you in that setting.
Al: That’s what we hope will be the reaction. That’s why I saw. That’s what Joe saw. That I basically came and sang in their shower. It was that kind of feeling. “Al’s in the living room…he’s just warming up down there with Joe, his piano player, let’s go listen.”
Lee: One of the things that’s nice about the Jazz Cruise for a performer is getting to see other musicians perform. And maybe even discovering musicians you haven’t heard before. How do you discover new artists or new music? Is it through live performance or recordings or Spotify or …?
Al: I am surprised and embarrassed that I don’t go out of my way to find new things to listen to or new performers to hear. I perchance came across this artist named Rhiannon [Giddens] who lives in New York and who is in the “Shuffle Along” show on Broadway. She’s 6’2” and gorgeous with a big powerful voice, and I wouldn’t have known about her had I not happened to be in that situation. There was a time when I went searching for others coming on the scene or who might have been doing what I was doing or were a great piano player or whatever, but I don’t get around much anymore.
Lee: Speaking of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” I understand that you’re doing an Ellington project with the NDR Big Band.
Al: Yes, with the NDR Big Band, which has been around for 70 years, and is a jazz band extraordinaire. These cats play like they’re from Chicago and St. Louis and they got Miles and Diz on the run.
Lee: They’ve done a lot of great work with American jazz musicians over the years.
Al: They listen and they play it. They play it with the best that are around today. I’m going to sing with one of the few existing working big bands in this section of the universe and that’s the NDR Big Band. And we’re going to do Ellington. We’ve been putting the program together, doing some arrangements and that will happen in the late fall or early winter.
Lee: I have some questions that the Jazz Cruise audience sent in to ask you. Some “People’s Choice” questions. Here’s the first one. Is there anyone, either a musician or a fellow vocalist, with whom you wish you could have or would like to be able to perform?
Al: Hmm. [A very long pause.]
Lee: Well, it sounds like you’re struggling to come up with a name, so can I answer it for you?
Lee: Pat Metheny. I think the way that his guitar and your voice would come together would be great. You have a ton of common ground musically. And he’s always been so respectful of other artists when he collaborates.
Al: Well, let’s just say that Al Jarreau gives you an affirmative on who YOU would like to hear me work with.
Lee: Yes, I took over your question.
Al: That work I did with Earl Klugh is a testament to the sound of the voice and the guitar. It’s a wonderful blend.
Lee: Here’s another question from the Jazz Cruise audience. Your style is unique. It has so many components. If you had to name four vocalists whose styles are part of yours, who would you name?
Al: Okay. Let’s begin with Jon Hendricks. Second, Miles Davis, one of the best vocalists there ever was, on the horn. Stevie Wonder, in the rhythmic treatment of stuff. [Long pause.] There are so many possibilities, like the Beatles and Joni Mitchell who have been such a major influence in my life, and from whom I borrowed a lot of [stuff]. You’d have to listen real closely to hear it, but it’s there. I’m just thumbing through what’s important in this context. Let’s leap context and say Bobby McFerrin. I guess that’s not really a leap of context.
Lee: Well, when most of us first heard Bobby we thought, “Wow, he sounds like Al Jarreau.”
Al: He’s from the same kind of school.
Lee: And also because beyond the vocal jazz influences, like you he loved all that music from the 60s and 70s—the Beatles and the singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. That all came through him. Okay, another question from the Jazz Cruise audience. Living or dead, who were your favorite accompanist and your favorite drummer?
Al: My favorite accompanist, I have to say [was] George Duke on keyboards. And then on drums, Steve Gadd.
Lee: Of course, what a touch Steve has.
Al: What a touch. What a dancer. What a listener. He played what the music required. He doesn’t require “Steveness” on it. What the music requires, Steve can play it. That’s a hard lesson to learn.
Lee: Fifty years from now they’ll play that tune of Paul Simon—“Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” and people will go, okay, that’s Steve Gadd there.
Al: Well, I hope they are playing Paul Simon 50 years from now. A very important guy in the last hundred years of performing music.
Lee: One of the questions we often ask of singers and musicians is what songwriters will be performed many years from now in the same way that the Great American Songbook writers have been performed by jazz people. Who will be in that next Great American Songbook?
Al: Let me start in a place where I think is unusual. Perhaps it’s somebody who is a rapper who would be mentioned. As a singer, you have a message and what is that? What are you going to say to people? Someone who is a rapper is going to say some righteous [expletive]. And out of that group of people there is going to be somebody who has a message.
Lee: I meant in our lifetime, not necessarily right now.
Al: Oh, in my lifetime, that would be Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. And certainly the Beatles. It’s pretty powerful stuff that they were talking about and singing inside of a song. Bob Dylan is part of that group.
Lee: And, you know what, it’s been 50 years, since some of those guys came on the scene. So that speaks volumes.
Al: Yes, and their music is still relevant. [Sings:] “Late this morning I heard that screen door slam, a big yellow taxi took away my old man. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Paved paradise and a parking lot. Go Joni. That’s some deep [stuff]. [Sings:] “Hey farmer, farmer, put away the DDT…”
Lee: I recently heard Paul Simon’s “America” on Louis CK’s TV/web series “Horace and Pete” and I swear that tune went right through my bones.
Al: Oh, don’t it hit you right in your mind and then in your bones? That’s the way to write. Responsibility to the message. What are you going to say? You’re a singer and you sing the lyrics. Find the lyrics that you want to sing. It’s okay to sing “Ooh, wooby doo, I love you, the sky is blue and so is my shoe.” But there are times where there’s a responsibility to say something more, like “Going off to look for America.” Man, where is it? We were just talking about it in the Muhammad Ali service today. There it is. There is America. It got tarnished and trampled underfoot for a while, but the spirit of America arose and challenged us to think and to discover who we are. And let us know that we can be the greatest. We are the greatest. We got some problems, but we can fix them.
The complete interview will be published in the September issue of JazzTimes and online at www.jazztimes.com
Editors note: Don't miss out and book now. There is still availability on The Jazz Cruise for 2017!