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.

Satin Soul

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I make no apologies for diggin’ the hell out of “Love’s Theme” by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, which I bought on a 45 during its chart run early in 1974. I still had my little portable record player then, with the handle and the lid that snapped on, and I remember being surprised at just how big “Love’s Theme” sounded, even through a single low-fi speaker. Down unto this very day, it remains one of the eminently crankable tunes in my library, rolling out of the speakers like a tidal wave, sweeping away everything that ain’t nailed down and a few things that are. The song came on in the car the other day, and I heard it again this morning thanks to this video, originally put up on Facebook by Chris from Buns o’ Plenty.

There’s a lot to love about this version of the song. It’s from The Midnight Special, presumably the edition hosted by White that aired on November 18, 1974. White’s only other guest that night was Eric Burdon, and what that meant was that the show featured a whole lotta Barry, singing and leading the orchestra. (The number of babies conceived during the show must have been particularly high that night.) The sound on the clip isn’t as rich as the record—it’s good-enough-for-TV mono—the rhythm is less smooth and more pronounced, and the strings aren’t mixed as high, probably because they were less effectively miked than they would have been for a recording session. Nevertheless, you can still hear Barry White’s great achievement—taking instruments that on their own don’t possess an iota of funk, the french horn to name one, and molding them into a giant engine of funk. And as I watch the clip, I’m most intrigued by the musicians themselves, men and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, sawing away behind a rock rhythm section and who were, for four minutes anyhow, the unlikeliest of pop stars.

“Love’s Theme” rose to Number One on the Hot 100 during the week of February 9, 1974. In addition to backing White on his long list of hits, the Love Unlimited Orchestra scored four other instrumental hits on the Hot 100 under its own name. Only one of them made the Top 40: “Satin Soul,” which reached Number 22 in April 1975, is not quite so lush as “Love’s Theme,” but it has a more percussive Philly-soul groove, and is worth the download for the first 20 seconds alone.

Some amongst the readership will remember a late-night college radio production some of us did, a parody broadcast of a golf tournament, that used “Satin Soul” as theme music, just as ABC-TV did for its real golf telecasts in the late 1970s. (I know they used “Love’s Theme,” too.) I wonder whatever happened to that tape.

“Satin Soul”/Love Unlimited Orchestra (buy it here)