by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
I typically feature just one album at a time in these pieces, but Al Jarreau’s entire catalog is so easily overlooked by music critics and aficionados that I had a hard time figuring out exactly which album of his was the most underrated. Honestly, they're all underrated, and why Jarreau doesn't command more attention outside the jazz-pop world is beyond me. He's one of the finest and most distinctive vocalists of the last several decades. Jarreau, for those of you unfamiliar with him, typically gets filed under “Jazz” in record stores, but he found favor in the ‘80s on R&B and adult-contemporary radio, largely due to his breakthrough album, 1981’s Breakin’ Away and its lead-off single, the timeless “We’re in This Love Together.” Jarreau would go on to score two more Top 40 crossover hits in the ensuing years, the slick R&B groove of “Mornin’” and the seductive and memorable theme song to the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd television series Moonlighting. While Jarreau has never ceased being a regular fixture of smooth-jazz-station playlists and continues to be a reliable concert draw, he sadly remains little-known among younger music buffs, and even the smooth-jazz stations that play him generally stick most of the time to playing cuts from Breakin’ Away or Jarreau and overlook both his earlier and later albums, which is where you’ll find what may perhaps be the most interesting and inventive cuts in his entire catalog.
We start with 1975’s We Got By, Jarreau’s debut album, recorded for Reprise Records. While it yielded no crossover hits, the album was critically acclaimed and scored Jarreau a memorable appearance as musical guest on the then-brand-new Saturday Night Live. Why jazz stations don’t play this album more today than they do is a bit of a head-scratcher, because this may actually be Jarreau’s most purely-jazz-oriented studio outing. (His live album Look to the Rainbow, featuring a clever vocal rendering of the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five,” is also heavily jazz-influenced and is highly recommended.)
Jarreau’s vocal style on this disc – and its studio successors, Glow and All Fly Home – is noticeably a little bit different from that on his ‘80s albums, Jarreau taking on a playfully syncopated and percussive tone on the disc’s more uptempo moments that makes him sound like something of a forerunner to Bobby McFerrin, but it never sounds out of place and only adds to the disc’s character and charm. The funky “You Don’t Know Me” is the album’s most underrated moment, and “Letter Perfect” and “Susan’s Song” are highlights as well.
The most famous song here is also its best, the emotional epic of the album’s nostalgia-minded title track, which begins on a very subdued note but continues to build intensity, Jarreau and his band playing marvelously off of one another the entire time. It’s one of the finest vocal performances in all of ‘70s jazz, and the obvious craft and confidence in his performance on the song is truly illuminating, particularly considering that this was also only his first record.
Jarreau’s first outing of the ‘80s, This Time, finds him noticeably veering away from the pure jazz of old and moving towards a more adult-contemporary-R&B sound. It’s a commercial play, to be sure, but it’s extremely tastefully done, and the ever-versatile Jarreau works just as well in this setting as he did in the more jazz-oriented ambience of We Got By. (The album also sports a phenomenal array of session talent from both the pop and jazz worlds, including George Duke, Jay Graydon, David Foster, Earl Klugh, Steve Gadd, and Carlos Vega, to name just a few.) Better yet, the set of songs is just as first-rate and instantly catchy as those on Breakin’ Away, the disc that would finally catapult him onto the pop charts the following year, and this album is consequentially every bit as quintessential a purchase as its successor.
The album kicks off with the #26 R&B hit “Never Givin’ Up,” which is the most famous song here, but the album just keeps getting better, and there’s no shortage of must-hear cuts, particularly “Distracted,” “Spain (I Can Recall),” “Gimme What You Got,” and my personal favorite, the danceable and soulful “Love Is Real,” which inexplicably was not a single but is arguably the most addictive song of all on here.
Nile Rodgers, formerly of the disco/funk band Chic, and the producer behind countless hit albums of the ‘80s (David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Diana Ross’ Diana, B-52’s Cosmic Thing), produced Jarreau’s 1986 outing L Is for Lover. The album inexplicably failed to grab the attention of pop radio and sold only modestly, but the production is just as contemporary and tasteful as the Moonlighting theme that followed it (and which Rodgers similarly produced), and the album stands as Jarreau’s most underrated album of the decade.
It’s perhaps less jazz-infused than any of his previous albums, but when the songs are this good, it really doesn’t matter what genre they belong to, and the songs here are absolutely fantastic, and the album’s first side in particular is absolutely flawless. The funky “Pleasure,” the slightly tropical “No Ordinary Romance,” the lovely “Golden Girl,” and the jazzy “Across the Midnight Sky” all rank among Jarreau’s most underrated songs. The two best cuts of all, though, have to be the incessantly catchy and playful title track, penned by Green Gartside and David Gamson, both members of the underrated ‘80s pop band Scritti Politti, and “Says,” an absolutely jawdropping number in which Jarreau effortlessly alternates between English and French against one of the more rhythmically and melodically complicated instrumental tracks to grace an R&B/pop album from the ‘80s. This song would be a nightmare for just about any other vocalist, but Jarreau tackles it with ease and the song floats along with a breeze that defies its complex structure. The song has never graced a Jarreau best-of package, but it may be the most impressive piece of vocal work to be found on any Jarreau album.