More Noodling With Jazz

With the decline of soul music in the 70s, those scattered soul-jazz 45s we discussed a while back disappeared from the radio too (except when they were taking us up to news time). There was still some jazz on Top 40 radio in the 1970s, but the nature of it changed.

Thirty-nine years ago this month, Deodato’s funk/fusion version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” began its climb to an eventual spot in the top 10. (I have always been a big fan of it—its electric piano sound helps define 70s cool, and you just don’t hear that anymore.) Jazz fusion made inroads among rock fans who enjoyed the complexity of it—as we’ve mentioned here before, it’s not a particularly daunting leap from prog rock to fusion. But fusion was never going to be a singles medium.  Apart from “2001,” Weather Report’s “Birdland” came the closest. In 1985, fusion veteran Jan Hammer would score a #1 hit with “Miami Vice Theme,” but it’s not remotely jazz.

In the mid 1970s, Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra gave a few jazz players the chance to collect a paycheck (including a young sax man named Kenny Gorelick, about whom we’ll have more to say below), but his soloists didn’t improvise, and the feel of the music was always more R&B than jazz.  Guitarist George Benson, who’d been making jazz records throughout the 1960s, had to become a singer before his commercial breakthrough with Breezin’ (1976). (That album’s instrumental title song did make the Top 40, however.) Thanks to “Feels So Good” (1978) and “Give It All You Got” (1980), veteran horn player Chuck Mangione was the biggest jazz crossover star of both the 70s and 80s, at least until Kenny G came along.

After his time with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Kenny G first got noticed with the Jeff Lorber Fusion around the turn of the 1980s. He made three solo albums before the fourth, Duotones (1986), made him a star, thanks to the #4 single “Songbird.” And ever since, if the average person on the street can name a contemporary jazz player at all—which is doubtful—it’s likely they’ll come up with Kenny G pretty quickly. Every time he releases a record, it speeds to the top of the contemporary jazz charts.

But Kenny G’s detractors (and they are many) will tell you that because he doesn’t improvise much, and because he sticks to sweet, lyrical, utterly conventional melodies, he’s not a jazz player anymore. Pat Metheny is one of the most famous G-detractors, inspired to fabulous rhetorical heights by the decision to dub what he called Kenny G’s “lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing” over the top of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” in 1999.

I remember playing “Songbird,” and another significant instrumental hit, “Silhouette,” on the radio in the late 80s, both of which struck me as inoffensive. But the more Kenny G I heard, the more I found myself annoyed by his tone on the soprano saxophone, which reminds me of this.

With radio formats and record charts so atomized these days, it’s hard to imagine anything remotely like jazz making anything remotely like a broad-based impact on the listening public, as “Songbird” and “Feels So Good” did a generation ago. If there are records or artists I’ve missed discussing here, I trust you’ll let me know.

Top 5: Easy Listening

The other day I was fooling around with some data from Billboard‘s adult contemporary charts. Billboard first published the chart in July 1961, and for much of that time, it was known as the Easy Listening chart. Today it’s called “Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks”—and now that we’re in the Soundscan era, records tend to stay on it forever. For example, “Breakeven” by the Script and “Hey Soul Sister” by Train are at Numbers Three and Four this week, in their 51st and 61st week on the chart respectively. But we’re not concerning ourselves with the new millennium here. Let’s grab five records that hit the top of the chart in mid-March during bygone years.

“Got a Hold on Me”/Christine McVie (1984, four weeks at Number One). I am a big Christine fan, as you may know, but her late-period solo stuff has never done much for me. (Her early solo record, on the other hand—The Legendary Christine Perfect Album—is one I keep returning to again and again.) “Got a Hold on Me” was a great radio song, although some critics have written that her performances can seem passionless. This video won’t disabuse anybody of that notion.

“Give It All You Got”/Chuck Mangione (1980, three weeks). This was ABC’s theme music for the 1980 Winter Olympics, which had just got done consuming most of the media oxygen as winter turned to spring that year. We were hungry for diversion then, tired of the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran—which was about to get worse with the failed rescue attempt in April. (I can still remember my roommate coming back to the dorm with a look on his face I’d never seen before: “They tried to get ’em out, but they couldn’t,” he said.)

“I’ve Been This Way Before”/Neil Diamond (1975, one week). Sometimes a record could top the AC chart (known as Easy Listening in the 1970s) without getting much traction on the pop charts. This was one of them. “I’ve Been This Way Before” spent but a single week in the Top 40 and seven weeks on the Hot 100.

“Danny’s Song”/Anne Murray (1973, two weeks). Murray was huge on this chart throughout the 1970s, of course. For what it’s worth, I have always thought her covers of Loggins and Messina’s songs (this one and “A Love Song”) were better suited to a female singer than they were to Kenny Loggins. Here’s a live performance of “Danny’s Song” from The Midnight Special:

“You Gave Me a Mountain”/Frankie Laine (1969, two weeks). The Easy Listening chart was born, of course, in response to the noisy kids’ music that had taken over the pop charts by 1961. And while pop hits did top the chart in the 60s, so did people like Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, Jack Jones, Al Martino, the Ray Conniff Singers, Perry Como, Ed Ames—and even 50s crooner Frankie Laine as late as 1969. “You Gave Me a Mountain” is a bombastic weeper written by Marty Robbins, which bears an amazing resemblance to his “My Woman My Woman My Wife.”

But  in the spring of 1969, the reign of the crooners was soon to be ended. Blood Sweat and Tears would top the chart with “Spinning Wheel” in August, and they were displaced by by Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” The Adult Contemporary chart was friendlier to the kids’ music after that. The Beatles would manage their lone AC Number One in 1970 with “Let It Be.” It wasn’t a clean break, though. Tom Jones and Perry Como had chart-toppers in 1970; Andy Williams and Engelbert Humperdinck would hit the top in 1971. By 1972, however, the list of adult-contemporary Number One songs looks like a subset of the Hot 100.

Recommended Reading: At Popdose, 20 versions of “Into the Mystic,” some superlative. Get there before Van Morrison finds out they’re up.