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Mostly Harmless

Smooth Jazz leaves no room on the racks or on the airways, except for Dead Legends

Ever since bebop drove a wedge between jazz and its audience, musicians have been tempted to heal the damage. Be it honkers in the '50s, soul jazz in the '60s, or fusion in the '70s, jazz purists have always denounced these efforts as sellouts. Sorting through new releases, I wondered whether today's more popular jazz might be the successor of soul jazz, allowing for the evolution from Otis Redding and Al Green to Babyface and D'Angelo. The most appealing albums were the most r&b: Luther Vandross guitarist Doc Powell's Cool Like That, saxophonist Andre Ward's disco throwback Steppin' Up. Turns out those records were marginal commercially—in effect, they failed to be bland enough. But that's getting ahead of the story.

First, let's define some terms. Smooth Jazz is a radio format that pushes songs rather than albums—predominantly instrumentals with light funk grooves, thick with keyboards, decorated with soprano or alto sax, flute, or the synth equivalent. At concerts, audiences prove well turned out and blacker than at the average jazz club. Contemporary Jazz is a product niche: Smooth Jazz plus vocals and the occasional mainstream album, like Pat Metheny's The Way Up (Nonesuch). Crossover is just a hope. Billboard's Top 200 charts list at most five jazz albums, no matter how inclusively one defines jazz—and those slots are much more likely to go to Pop Vocalists than Smooth Jazzers, even though Smooth Jazz albums invariably include a couple of vocal cuts. Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart is dominated by Smooth Jazz, leaving the non-overlapping Jazz chart in thrall to Pop Vocalists.

The big loser is every other form of jazz. All you can find in chain-store Jazz racks is Smooth Jazz, Pop Vocalists, and Dead Legends—Armstrong, Coltrane, Davis, Holiday, maybe Monk or Ellington. For most of America that's all there is to Jazz, even though there are 10 times as many new jazz releases outside the Smooth/Contemporary/Pop Vocal nexus as inside. Smooth Jazz is a studio concoction, meticulously constructed by producers and session musicians. There is no improvisation in Smooth Jazz, no democratic interaction between musicians; there's little individuality, no unpredictability, and never any risk of chaos. Smooth Jazz isn't the fat end of the Jazz popularity curve; it is the polar opposite of, let's give it a name, Real Jazz.

Luther Vandross guitarist Doc Powell: r&b can be Crossover Jazz, too.
photo: Charlie Pizzarello
Luther Vandross guitarist Doc Powell: r&b can be Crossover Jazz, too.

The incommensurability of the two is why Real Jazzbos so hate Smooth Jazz. This finally dawned on me when I queried trumpeter Jim Cifelli—whose self-released Groove Station was tight, bouncy, and tuneful—about his Smooth Jazz prospects. He wrote back, "I would love to get any track on 'smooth jazz' radio but the promoter said that 'not one track was even close' to the proper format." What Cifelli's album lacks is the layered anonymity of, say, Boney James's Pure (Warner Bros.), which credits a dozen or more musicians per track yet sounds like nothing at all. But other Smooth Jazz artists do show some individuality. Craig Chaquico (Midnight Moon, Higher Octave), who records with a touring band, has some zing to his guitar; Jeff Lorber (Flipside, Narada Jazz) plays acoustic piano on top of the usual synth slush, adding some rhythm and bite. Eric Darius (Night on the Town, Higher Octave) has a feel for disco. Gerald Albright (Kickin' It Up, GRP) has an agreeable tone on alto sax, some chops, and some taste. Mindi Abair (Come as You Are, GRP) has a slack alto sax tone and vocal fragility that evokes Chet Baker. Trumpeter Chris Botti (When I Fall in Love, Columbia) also has a Baker angle, or pose, and his austere hit album departs markedly from Smooth Jazz orthodoxy. David Sanborn (Closer, Verve) has evidently paid enough dues that he can work in some Real Jazz moves.

None of these are great albums. At best they're pleasing background music tailored to radio. More typically, a group like Urban Knights raises the old question, "Is there funk after death?" But mostly Smooth Jazz is harmless. The masses have far more dangerous delusions.

 
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