"Sometimes I just need to sing a bebop song," says singer Al Jarreau, his lilting voice breaking into a good-humored chuckle whose infectiousness is not at all diminished by the telephone connection to San Francisco. "But the next number might be a Brazilian samba, and then a real pop sort of thing. Touching all those bases is just part of my musical identity."
Tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre, Jarreau will give a first-hand demonstration of that identity, plus the chart-crossing versatility that has been the hallmark of his 10 record albums and two decades of performing.
"I guess it has something to do with the jazz attitude," he continued, "with the idea of being open to each and every moment as a chance to create something different.
"I try to be receptive, and to be listening, and to not be afraid to try something new. The ideal, of course, is to use everything--from the drum machines and Fairlight synthesizers to the classic songs--with good taste."
That should be no problem for Jarreau, who has been a masterfully mature singer since the release of his first album in 1975. Appropriately, his earliest recognition came from European audiences, who have traditionally demanded a broad range of skills in their pop music favorites.
By the close of 1976, Jarreau had received two German Grammys, been declared vocalist of the year by the French Music Academy, been singled out for awards by Cashbox, Down Beat and Stereo Review magazines and awarded an American Grammy for best jazz vocal performance.
Despite continued steady sales performance by his recordings (1982's "Breakin' Away" hit platinum sales figures in the United States), Jarreau is still hoping to produce what he calls the "really big album."
"I'm not one of those fortunate recording artists who have the luxury of continually producing big-selling albums," he said. "I really have remained alive as a recording artist because I'm out there touring a lot. People come to hear the Al Jarreau live concerts and, fortunately, some of them buy records."
Jarreau's current release, "L Is for Lover," takes a long stride toward the hit he's been looking for. Produced by the well-credentialed Nile Rodgers (producer of Madonna, Duran Duran and Mick Jagger, among others), the album makes a calculated turn toward the singles market with 10 well-crafted MOR songs.
"Nile and I did something that I've never really done before," explained Jarreau, "and that was to go out and canvass for good songs--to put out the word six or seven months before we went into the studio.
"I've always had kind of a precious attitude about my albums, with the feeling that I had either to write everything or somehow be involved in everything. But this time I just loosened up, listened to other people's work and found some songs that satisfy me artistically and which are also attractive--I hope--to radio."
But the articulate, thoughtful Jarreau, holder of a master's degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, was quick to point out that it's live music that's closest to his heart.
"The newer discipline for me is the recording studio," he said. "I've been performing in front of people since I was 4 years old, so I guess you really could say that's my oldest profession.
"Important as recordings are, I'm not someone who can be completely satisfied by the studio experience. And maybe that's the key to my so-called versatility.
"Performing live is like being in the theater. The relationships with the people who are at one night's concert, the feelings that go back and forth, are completely different from the relationships with the next night's audience."
Jarreau chuckled again, his enthusiasm as palpable as that of a ballplayer who is amazed to be paid for doing something he would be happy to do for free.
"When I look down the pike at the future," Jarreau concluded, "I can't imagine doing without that on-the-spot relationship with my listeners. It's the greatest get-off there is."