Despite the obvious differences in their unique approaches to the art of pop-jazz vocalizing, Al Jarreau and Michael Franks for many years traveled a similar road both creatively and commercially. Both signed with Warner Bros. in 1975, an exciting era when radio playlists were more openminded, traditional jazz radio stations still existed and artists with one of a kind styles and visions were given a chance to thrive. The success of Franks’ 1976 debut The Art of Tea — which featured his trademark hit, “Popsicle Toes” — and numerous other recordings helped define a time when clever wordplays sung with ultra gentle, jazzy vocals were beautifully rewarded. Likewise, Jarreau’s We Got By launched a career where pop, jazz and R&B influences could co-exist on a single album, and radio had no trouble playing it all. Jarreau is still the only singer in history to win Grammys in all three categories (he has five total).
Close to 30 years later, both are still alive and kicking, hitting high on the Billboard Contemporary jazz charts, thriving mostly because of intensely loyal fan bases - but finding it increasingly difficult to get new material exposed at radio. As radio has become a more consolidated business, and demographic research and the bottom line have replaced true creativity in programming, new vocalists have been increasingly shut out. The smooth jazz format is more apt to play R&B oldies than anything new. Still, somehow, Al Jarreau sneaks in the cracks and received solid airplay with his last two GRP releases, Tomorrow Today and All I Got.
“I’m tickled to death to be played wherever I can be played, whether it’s on smooth jazz or other stations,” he says. “They can play me on country, next to polka, wherever. I’m lucky because I know it’s hard to be a vocalist in this day and age trying to be heard, unless your name is Norah Jones. I’m saddened that the jazz stations of the 70s and 80s have disappeared, and you can only hear the music of legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock on college stations. Smooth jazz is a necessity for me because I can’t get played on the R&B stations, where hip-hop dominates over pop singers like myself, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. The industry has changed, and guys like me have to find a way to survive it and figure out how to reach new and younger audiences.
“I go to Germany and France, and they still play me alongside hip-hop artists, and that’s the way it should be,” the singer adds. “Teenagers are digging it, and they’re realizing some of the songs on All I Got are as fresh and hip as anything Ja Rule is doing. But they need to be exposed to it. If someone like me came along today in the U.S. with the way radio is, I’d never get a deal.”
Michael Franks strongly agrees, bluntly stating, “The smooth jazz format has changed so drastically that I don’t think it has any viability whatsoever for new vocalists.” For some reason, perhaps because his success is based on literate, poetic songs that are more about subtle panache than the groove, Franks became persona non grata as the genre shifted under the programming auspices of the market research firm of Broadcast Architecture.
This is a far cry from the beginning of the format, when Franks was hailed as one of its posterchildren. From the late 80s through the early 90s, when smooth jazz began under the name “New Adult Contemporary,” Franks’ classics were in heavy rotation, and his new material was added regularly to playlists. His 1993 hit Dragonfly Summer was the last of his recordings to enjoy regular airplay.
“Then all of a sudden, BA comes along and tells me that according to their research, my songs didn’t test well, based on listener responses to maybe 15 seconds of them,” he explains. “So I got shut out, and have had to readjust to the way the record companies can market my work. Fortunately, my sales have not been as affected as I first thought they might be. The genre as it is now doesn’t sell as many records as it did in the early days because it’s programmed more and more as an ambient lifestyle experience, and so many of the instrumental songs that are played are indistinguishable from the next one. Which is unfortunate for the listener and artist.”
Franks doesn’t tour as much as he used to, playing maybe 15 to 20 dates in the U.S. and going to Japan once or twice a year. Ironically, even the stations that seem forbidden to play him will book him for festival and winery dates that they sponsor — he’s still that popular among smooth jazz fans. He’s often the headliner, and a top instrumental artist who gets tons of airplay — he mentions Chris Botti — is billed as the opening act.
“When I’m at these events, I hang out with all the DJs who remember life before Broadcast Architecture, and they all say they’re sorry they don’t play me anymore,” Franks says. “It’s kind of bittersweet to be introduced by them, but I’m grateful that fans still like to buy my records and see me perform. Even with the numbers I’m doing now, I can still debut on the Contemporary Jazz charts in the Top Five. What keeps me going is the appreciation I have for this type of fan loyalty, and knowing that they still want to hear more from me.”
Jarreau is currently in the talking stages with Tommy LiPuma about his next recording for Verve, which we can expect perhaps next year. Franks is enjoying a positive reaction to this past spring’s release of The Michael Franks Anthology: The Art of Love on Warner Special Products. Columbia Records in Japan has signed on to release his upcoming holiday-winter themed disc Watching the Snow, which features all new material. He plans to sell it from his website (michaelfranks.com) while he seeks a U.S. distributor.
PARK CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL: Over the weekend of August 22-24, I had the privilege of attending the 6th Annual Fidelity Investments Park City Jazz Festival in Park City, Utah. Less than an hour ride from Salt Lake City up a beautiful, lush and green mountainous highway to an altitude of approximately 7000 feet, Park City is a hugely popular ski resort in the winter and a picture perfect locale for jazz in the late summer. Main Street, with all its cool Western architecture, gift shops, art galleries and wonderful restaurants, is the centerpiece of the Park City experience.
The festival was created by co-founders Lew and Arlene Fine, Boston natives who relocated later in life to Park City, who saw the festival as a way of giving back to the community. The goal of the festival, they explained, is to integrate entertainment and education, and much of the festival proceeds go to various scholarships aimed at Utah music students. On Friday and Saturday at Park City High School, well known musicians Airto Moreira, Larry Carlton and Rob Mullins conducted clinics for both youngsters and adults interested in learning more about their careers, influences, inspirations, techniques and survival in the industry.
Two unique aspects of the Park City Jazz Festival are the switch between two different venues and the starting times, which were early evening on Friday and Saturday and mid-afternoon on Sunday. Friday evening and Sunday afternoon’s shows were held at the Deer Valley Resort Outdoor Amphitheatre, with the crowd gathered at the base of a huge ski slope to watch Stigers, Brazilian husband and wife legends Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim and BWB (Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown) on Friday, then Jonathan Butler, Greg Adams and straight ahead vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater on Sunday. It rained heavily earlier on both days, but the folks using blankets and chairs on the lawn didn’t seem to mind the wet grass as they grooved to BWB and Adams, who were in particularly funky form.
Saturday’s slate of the always charming Joyce Cooling, Larry Carlton (mixing some edgy fusion with his pop hits) and Gerald Albright (whose show was the most exciting of all nine by far, the perfect Saturday night closer!) was held at the far more intimate and picturesque The Canyons Forum Outdoor Amphitheatre.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) The Peter Malick Group featuring Norah Jones, New York City (Koch) — This delightfully surprising six song set shows us a bluesy, pre-stardom Norah Jones kicking it up with the NYC based guitarist’s group. Jones fans will be tickled by the different approach from her own CD, and I will recommend this one to her non fans who find that effort too slow and mellow. Too bad it’s so short.
2) Rick Braun, Esperanto (Warner Bros.)
3) Alex Bugnon, Southern Living (Narada Jazz)
4) Dave Koz, Saxophonic (Capitol)
5) Candy Dulfer, Sax A Go Go (BMG)