Remembering Al Jarreau (1940-2017): His 12 Most Essential Albums

by Jeff Fiedler

Sadly, the music world lost the legendary jazz-pop vocalist Al Jarreau earlier today. A longtime favorite of this columnist and the only vocalist to date to secure Grammy wins in the pop, R&B, and jazz categories (he's received more than twenty Grammy nominations over his career and has claimed the trophy seven times), Jarreau only rarely crossed over to the pop singles charts – he had only three Top 40 hits in all, his most recent being 1987’s theme song to the TV series Moonlighting – but he was the premier male jazz vocalist of the ‘80s and his albums typically sold in remarkably large numbers for an artist of his genre, and his profile was so large at his commercial peak that he was even approached to serve as one of the vocalists on the all-star USA for Africa charity single “We Are the World.” (His is the voice you hear singing the line “And so we all must lend a helping hand …”) Unfortunately, most of his best-of packages don’t even begin to scratch the breadth and depth of his work and tend to overlook a great deal of his best work – namely, his early, more jazz-oriented work from the ‘70s and the wildly underrated Nile Rodgers-produced L Is for Lover – so if you’re a younger listener unfamiliar with his work and are looking for an introduction to the ever-versatile vocalist’s talents, where should you begin? Read on as our own Jeff Fiedler takes you in chronological order through his carefully-chosen selections for the twelve best albums Jarreau’s ever recorded.

We Got By (1975, Reprise)

Jarreau’s earliest work was more heavily jazz-influenced than the more R&B-oriented material that he’d ride to fame with in the early ‘80s and his vocal style here is also noticeably more freeform and percussive than it is on much of his ‘80s work and will likely remind you at times of Bobby McFerrin or, alternatively, the scat-singing that George Benson became famous for doing during his guitar solos on albums like Breezin’ and Weekend in LA. But even if your tastes skirt closer to pop or R&B than to jazz, you should still find plenty here to love – Jarreau always did a fantastic job of straddling genres and appealing to multiple audiences at the same time – and this is a remarkably solid and confident debut disc, one that’s also entirely self-penned (a rare trait for a jazz vocal album), Jarreau tackling every kind of mood with equal skill, be it the soulful funk of “You Don’t See Me,” “Raggedy Ann,” and “Letter Perfect,” or the laid-back jazz balladry of “Susan’s Song” or the show-stopping title cut, which boasts a subtle-yet-dazzling vocal performance and would become one of Jarreau’s signature songs. This album is an absolute must-own for fans of jazz-pop.

Glow (1976, Reprise)

In contrast to Jarreau’s entirely self-written debut, this album consists mostly of covers, but that turns out not to be such a bad thing, as Jarreau demonstrates great taste in material, covering everything from Leon Russell’s “Rainbow in Your Eyes” to the Jobim standard “Aguas de Beber” and breathing some fresh life into Elton John’s “Your Song,” which takes on a jazz twist, and James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” the latter of which is radically re-arranged into a funk number with surprisingly good results. Jarreau’s still in fine form as a writer, too, and the lite funk of “Have You Seen the Child” and “Milwaukee” is just as appealing, while the acapella original “Hold on Me” is a dazzling vocal showcase for Jarreau, who’s multi-tracked here and provides all the voices and percussive effects. The biggest standout, though, is his cover of the relatively obscure Sly & the Family Stone song “Somebody’s Watching You” (an album cut from Stand!), which he makes all his own.

Look to the Rainbow (1977, Warner Bros.)

This live double-disc set was only Jarreau’s third album, but it’s so dynamic and magical that it’s anything but a stopgap release and it might be the single-best representation of his early, pre-Breakin’ Away sound. Only four songs here are repeated from his two studio albums to date (“Letter Perfect,” “You Don’t See Me,” “Rainbow in Your Eyes,” and “We Got By”), but they’re all well-chosen and sound even more incredible in this setting than they did in their studio form, while the other eight songs (mostly self-penned and all quite wonderful, especially the playful “So Long Girl” and the slow-burning “One Good Turn”) are brand-new, one of which is a jaw-dropping vocalese rendition of the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five” that would become a major fan favorite and much-requested item at his concerts. But it’s the final track here, a fiery, dramatic eight-minute-plus version of “We Got By” that is the biggest knockout of all here and truly shows why Jarreau is arguably the finest male jazz vocalist of his era. This disc is an absolute must-own for Al Jarreau fans of all persuasions, pop and jazz fans alike.  

All Fly Home (1978, Warner Bros.)

Only moderately well-received by critics but loved by fans (particularly those who are also audiophiles, this disc having been honored with a fabulous-sounding upgraded reissue as part of the esteemed Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab series of half-speed-mastered vinyl pressings), this disc has the distinction of being Jarreau’s last distinctly jazz-tinged disc before taking a considerable turn towards pop and R&B. Once again, Jarreau gives some jazz or funk makeovers to several recognizable pop tunes, including the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” and Kenny Loggins’ “Wait a Little While,” which are all quite fascinating, but Jarreau’s originals here rival those on We Got By, and cuts like “Thinkin’ About It Too,” “Fly,” “I Do,” and, best of all, “Brite ‘n’ Sunny Babe” are all quite delightful and make you wish there were some more original material here.

This Time (1980, Warner Bros.)

Naturally, jazz purists howled, but Jarreau makes a crossover move here towards the pop-and-R&B field, teaming up for the first time with producer Jay Graydon, a longtime session musician who had co-written Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone.” While it’s certainly got a different – and more distinctly commercial – kind of vibe to it than We Got By or even Glow, Jarreau’s just as effective and sounds just as natural in this setting, and the material is great, especially “Never Givin’ Up,” “Distracted,” the vocalese rendition of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and, best of all, the soulful, danceable “Love Is Real.”

Breakin’ Away (1981, Warner Bros.)

The album that finally broke Jarreau into the mainstream and made him a staple of smooth-jazz stations for decades to come, this album might be a little too meticulously-produced for some jazz fans (it’s much closer in its production stylings to Steely Dan’s Aja than the raw jazz ambience of his earliest albums), but it made great radio fodder, and Jarreau sounds like he’s having an absolute blast on these songs, which helps to give this record a distinct feel-good vibe to it. There’s no shortage of highlights here – the jazzy rendition of the pop standard “Teach Me Tonight” closes the disc on the perfect note, while Jarreau throws his Look to the Rainbow fans a treat with his vocalese rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and grooves to his heart’s delight on “Roof Garden.” But it’s the album’s two crossover pop hits that are the most essential items in his catalog, the bouncy title cut and the even sunnier-sounding “We’re in This Love Together,” which deservedly scaled the charts to become Jarreau’s first-ever Top 40 hit, soaring all the way to #15. Depending whether your tastes lean closer to pop or jazz, this may or may not be his best album and the most ideal introduction (more jazz-inclined fans are encouraged to start with Look to the Rainbow, but pop fans should start here first), but this is undeniably his most iconic album and the one you’re likely to hear on the radio the most often.  

Jarreau (1983, Warner Bros.)

Only ever-so-slightly inferior to Breakin’ Away, Jarreau is in pure pop/R&B mode here – there are no jazz or vocalese excursions here like the previous album’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – but he’s still in fine form as a vocalist, and he and Graydon bring together a great supporting cast featuring everyone from David Foster and Toto’s Jeff and Steve Porcaro to Michael Omartian and future Mr. Mister leaders Richard Page and Steve George (who also contribute the song “I Will Be Here for You.”) There are some awfully catchy songs here, too, especially the sunny pop of “Trouble in Paradise,” the danceable grooves of “Step by Step,” and the effervescent “Mornin’,” a jazzy, bouncy confection co-written with Foster that deservedly gave Jarreau his second Top 40 hit.

L Is for Lover (1986, Warner Bros.)

After the poor commercial response to 1984’s good-but-not-great High Crime, Jarreau decided to shake things up and brought in Chic’s Nile Rodgers to produce. It was an unlikely pairing (Rodgers, after all, first made his name as a disco artist and had since gone on to produce hit albums for the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, and Madonna), but it’s one that works surprisingly well. The production feels more raw than it has in some years, but never to an unappealing degree, and Jarreau’s also got a great batch of songs to work with – the best, in fact, since Breakin’ Away. “No Ordinary Romance,” “Golden Girl,” “Pleasure,” and “Across the Midnight Sky” are all winners, but the catchiest cuts of all are the title cut (penned by Scritti Politti members Green Gartside and David Gamson) and, even better, the show-stopping, bilingual “Says,” in which Jarreau alternates with surprising ease between English and French in rapid-fire fashion to fit the song’s unconventional stuttered rhythms. It’s one of the trickiest songs to sing that you’ll ever encounter, but Jarreau does it almost effortlessly, yet again demonstrating why he is the best in his field. Nothing from this disc ever pops up on Jarreau’s best-of packages, unfortunately, and the album got lackluster reviews at the time, but this disc has become a huge favorite among Jarreau’s devoted fans and remains his most underrated album by far.

Heart’s Horizon (1988, Reprise)

Like L Is for Lover, this album tends to get lukewarm reviews at best from most critics, but bear in mind that Jarreau was also still very much in pop/R&B mode at this time and all of his ‘80s work (with the sole exception of Breakin’ Away) tended to largely be written off by more jazz-minded reviewers. Consequently, this album is rather underrated, and as Jarreau’s last purely-pop-oriented outing, it’s a fun one, one helmed largely by jazz great (and Jeffrey Osborne’s producer) George Duke with Jarreau’s old collaborator Jay Graydon also lending a production hand on most of the cuts. Bobby McFerrin, Stanley Clarke, and Kirk Whalum are just a few of the jazz greats who pop up here, but it’s the material here that most makes this album such a delight, and cuts like “10K Hi” (penned by Phillipp Saisse, the songwriter behind L Is for Lover’s “Says”), the effervescent “All of My Love,” and the bouncy “All or Nothing at All” are every bit as catchy as the best songs from Jarreau or L Is for Lover.

Tenderness (1994, Warner Bros.)

Jarreau’s commercial prime was sadly long past him at this point, but with little hope of a crossover hit, Jarreau seizes the opportunity to return more to his roots, not only dispensing with the R&B-pop that he’d rode to fame in the ‘80s but cutting this album live-in-the-studio, resulting in one of his warmest albums and the most organic-sounding he had made since 1978’s All Fly Home. The disc didn’t fare nearly as well commercially as his ‘80s discs, so it remains one of the more obscure and easily-forgotten releases in his catalog, but it’s a real joy and shouldn’t be overlooked by fans, especially by those who cherish his first four albums. Some of the songs here are repeated from those early albums – including, surprisingly enough, his cover of “Your Song” – but the recordings themselves are new, and there’s also still plenty of new material here, including covers of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “My Favorite Things,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” the Brazilian standard “Mas Que Nada” (popularized by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66), and Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl.” It’s all very well-performed by the great all-star cast of session players, which includes David Sanborn, Neil Larsen, Steve Gadd, and Marcus Miller, and Jarreau himself seems to quite relish in the opportunity to revisit his jazz side and craft the kind of sides he excelled at in the late ‘70s, so there’s a sincerity present here that you don’t usually see in albums of this ilk.

Accentuate the Positive (2004, Verve)

After a string of fine smooth-jazz-tinged affairs for the GRP label, Jarreau throws a bit of a curveball here with this disc, easily his most heavily jazz-flavored album yet, one that finds him largely dispensing with
modern fare and instead immersing his feet into the well of jazz standards such as “The Nearness of You,” “My Foolish Heart,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Midnight Sun,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” and Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” It’s a pleasant experiment and one that makes you question why in the world Jarreau took so long to try something like this.  It’s a world away, of course, from, say, L Is for Lover or even This Time, but the craft here is just as impressive and the ever-versatile Jarreau sounds so natural doing these songs that it’s enough to compensate for the overfamiliarity of some of the selections. [There are certainly already enough covers in existence of, say, “The Nearness of You,” but in the hands of Jarreau, the track not only doesn’t seem overly redundant but rather actually overdue.]

Givin’ It Up (2006, Concord)

Like Jarreau, George Benson crossed over from the jazz world to the pop charts in a very big way in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, beginning with his eye-opening vocal performance of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” on his 1976 album Breezin’ and continuing into the ‘80s with such hits as a cover of the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” “The Greatest Love of All,” the disco classic “Give Me the Night,” and the smooth R&B of “Turn Your Love Around” and the wildly underrated “Lady Love Me (One More Time).” So the mere idea of a full-length collaboration between Jarreau and Benson is the stuff that jazz-pop fans could have only dreamed of – that it actually turns out to be as delightful as it is ices the cake, really. The two legends trot out some very special guests here, including Jill Scott, Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock, and even none other than Paul McCartney (who sits in on a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me”), but the guests are ultimately unnecessary, as Jarreau and Benson create plenty enough magic on their own, and they choose some great material here, revisiting both Jarreau’s “Mornin’” and Benson’s “Breezin’” (the latter cleverly reworked as a vocal number) and expertly working their way through covers of John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” Hall and Oates’ “Everytime You Go Away” and Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” to go along with the fine originals here such as “’Long Came Tutu” and Jarreau’s “Givin’ It Up for Love.” It may not qualify as a classic, but one thing this album certainly is for sure is great fun.