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.

Electricity So Fine

In a post last week (on which I am still inviting your comments), I described what goes on inside our heads each day as “a roiling stew of everything we’ve ever seen, heard, and felt, an endless fugue of audio and video playing every waking hour.” But maybe that’s just me, or maybe it’s just bloggers. Sometimes, however, patterns emerge from the noise, like so:

My mental list of potential topics has included for quite a while the sound of the electric piano. I was reminded of this a week or so ago when Larry at Funky16Corners put up a post called “The Piano Electrified,” which featured his own impressions of the sound and some great examples of it. I was reminded of it again later in the week when I came across the 1976 self-titled album by a keyboard player named Tom Ranier. All I knew about Ranier was one song, “Goin’ Home,” which I heard years ago on one of those Warner Brothers Loss Leaders compilations, so I was pleased to find the eponymous album it came from, which is full of the same warm electric piano sounds as “Goin’ Home.”

“Warm” is the adjective I keep coming back to when trying to describe the way the electric piano sounds to me. (I used it not long ago describing the way it sounds on Peter Wolf’s “Five o’Clock Angel.”) But if I allow myself to freely associate for a moment, it occurs to me that the sound can be very cool, too—summoning up a jazz club late at night as the band downshifts into a mellow groove, last call draws nigh, and couples start thinking about heading for the door. Example off the top of my head: Victor Feldman’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” (at the 2:45 mark here). The electric piano can also be funky as hell, when played with the key-pumping abandon of a Brian Auger, on a track such as “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend.” (And is there a cooler band name than Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express?) A lighter but equally funky touch produces the sound Deodato got when soloing on “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Watch now as the blogger’s brain shifts topics like a driver’s ed student shifts a manual transmission.

“Also Sprach Zarathustra” came up in an e-mail I got the other day from a longtime reader, who had just listened to an American Top 40 countdown from February 1973 and noted the number of records on it that have pretty much vanished from memory, or at least from regular rotation on oldies stations. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is surely one of those—although the fact that it became a Number Two hit in the first place remains one of stranger moments of the 1970s.

So let us give up some love for the electric piano in all its incarnations—and oddly out-of-place hit records, cool band names, and the spazzy mental processes that manage to tie them together.

“Goin’ Home”/Tom Ranier (out of print)
“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” (single version)/Deodato (buy full-length version here)