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Al Jarreau owned 'smooth jazz,' but his nimble sound went beyond the quiet storm

Al Jarreau onstage. (Anthony Anex / European Pressphoto Agency)
Al Jarreau onstage. (Anthony Anex / European Pressphoto Agency)

When thinking about Al Jarreau, who died in Los Angeles on Sunday at age 76, one word comes insistently to mind: Smooth.

Much like his longtime friend and kindred spirit George Duke, who died in August 2013, Jarreau owned that free-flowing and often breezy subgenre somewhat derisively known as “smooth jazz.” In reality, it was a cross-pollination of jazz with funk, pop and R&B; that his voice helped establish in the ’70s and ’80s. From the nimble, rounded style that allowed him to glide from note to note in his biggest hit “We’re in This Love Together” to the feeling evoked by the sound of his name itself, Jarreau became synonymous with a bright sort of cool that soared beyond jazz’s often sharp corners.

Also like Duke — who counted Frank Zappa and Miles Davis among his collaborators — Jarreau’s 50-year career defied such simple categorization. A Midwestern native, Jarreau cut his teeth at Bay Area clubs like the Half Note and Gatsby’s before moving to Los Angeles, where he appeared on the city’s club and talk-show circuit.

In the early ’70s, when his career began to take off, Jarreau earned comparisons to jazz greats such as Billy Eckstein, but his breakout 1975 album “We Got By” could evoke soul great Bill Withers, most notably on the album’s bawdy and bluesy title track, in which Jarreau was backed by subtle strings and keyboards. From the same recording, “You Don’t See Me” offered a showcase for Jarreau’s acrobatic scat vocals playing off a spare funk backdrop.

The subsequent live double-album “Look to the Rainbow,” released in 1977, offered a similarly fierce display of vocal invention. His percolating interpretation of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” — a song most commonly associated with Dave Brubeck — is a rapid-fire tour-de-force as Jarreau breathlessly emulates three or four different instruments over the course of seven and a half propulsive, improvisation-rich minutes. Jarreau eventually came to be synonymous with a seeming imperviousness to rough edges, but here, it certainly wasn’t for want of stretching himself in search of them. “Look to the Rainbow” also earned Jarreau his first Grammy for jazz vocal performance.

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