January 13, 2007

Contempo January 2007

In 1994, when Peter White told people he was recording an album of his favorite pop classics from the 60’s and 70’s, he remembers the powers that be at smooth jazz radio telling him he was nuts — an album of reinterpretations, no matter how sincere, just won’t sell. Turns out he was just ahead of his time. Fast-forward 12 years, and “The Closer I Get To You” is still in classic rotation, played more today than it was in its original release.

Only now, it’s competing for airplay with his version of “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” which broke an all-time record recently by spending 16 weeks at #1 on the Radio & Records airplay chart. “At least no one can accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon this time, because this is a sequel I’ve always wanted to make” he says of his latest album, Playing Favorites, one of the many all-cover albums by genre artists that has hit pay dirt over the past year. “If artists are redoing great songs in a fresh and new way, I think there’s always room for that.”

To the delight of some fans that can’t get enough of the old school and the dismay of others who think their favorite artists should be creating standards of their own, that room is getting increasingly crowded. Whether it’s just a passing trend — i.e. musical comfort food during a disquieting post 9/11 period - or a phenomenon that will define smooth jazz for years to come, the cover album craze, for better or worse, was the defining story for the genre in 2006.

Aside from White, artists who have taken a breather from albums of original material over the past year and a half include Eric Marienthal (Got You Covered!), Kirk Whalum (The Babyface Songbook), Rick Braun (Yours Truly), Jason Miles (What’s Going On? The Songs of Marvin Gaye), Philippe Saisse Trio (The Body And Soul Sessions) and Michael Lington (A Song For You). Even core artists like Richard Elliot (“People Make The World Go Round”), Doc Powell (“It’s Too Late”) and Wayman Tisdale (“Get Down On It”) are scoring big radio hits with cover songs on albums of otherwise original material.

So what gives? All indications are that actual disc sales are down these past years despite the overall success of the format and annual all-star tours. Are artists simply taking dictation from their labels that want to score sure-fire commercial hits in mercurial times? Allen Kepler, the President of Broadcast Architecture, the world’s leading researching and consulting firm for the format (having worked with over 60 stations over the last 20 years), certainly hopes not. His firm has helped the format achieve its success by conducting tireless research on what listeners want and sharing its findings with its client stations. But he doesn’t want statistics to supersede passion.

“Frankly, I don’t know what facilitates an artist to want to do cover tunes, but I hope 100% it would have nothing to do with us,” he says. “An artist should create music they have a true love for, like Ramsey Lewis doing his With One Voice gospel album. He did that purely because his soul is in gospel and those are his roots. When an artist records an old song from the heart rather than strictly for commerce’s sake, that translates to an enthusiastic performance listeners will respond to.”

Saxman Michael Lington, who bills his beautifully rendered, orchestra-sweetened A Song For You as “songs from the New Great American Songbook,” says his decision to record his batch of 70s classics was less commercially than artistically motivated. “I’m not just doing cover songs for their own sake, because that would be unimaginative,” he says. “These are songs of inspiration and emotion, and I put a lot of thought into making my performances very compelling and believable. There’s nothing safe about the approach I took, with a live band, strings and newly composed intros. If anything, these elements make it a more challenging album to promote to a smooth jazz audience. My motive was to create a timeless recording and I took that task very seriously.”

Bud Harner, former VP of A&R for Verve who is now A&R consultant for Rendezvous Entertainment, has heard from some radio programmers that they’re starting to tire of the cover craze, even if the familiarity of those songs rings well with listeners. But he’s still a fan of what he calls the “unexpected” covers, like Gerald Albright doing John Mayer’s “Why Georgia” or Jeff Golub and David Benoit recording Smash Mouth tunes on albums released when he was with GRP/Verve. “Before everyone started doing these albums,” he says, “I was always trying to get my artists to consider doing a cover here and there that might raise eyebrows. If it’s unique, there’s a better chance listeners won’t get tired of it.”

One of Harner’s last projects before leaving Verve was Mindi Abair’s Life Less Ordinary, whose infectious hit radio single “True Blue” has the potential to become a genre classic in the tradition of her breakthrough hit “Lucy’s.” Abair includes a vocal of Rickie Lee Jones’ “It Must Be Love” (“because the song speaks to me, not because I was aiming for a radio hit”) but adamantly resisted the label’s strong suggestion (multiple times, she says) that she put some instrumental covers on the collection.

“Maybe this whole cover thing is just smooth jazz’s growing pains, but I think radio stations and record labels are really underestimating their audience,” she says. “It’s clear to me that people want new music, and I think we’re missing the boat and hurting the format by overdoing the covers. I’m afraid we’ve been led astray by all the testing that goes on in terms of figuring out what people want to listen to. If it doesn’t stop, I’m scared that a format built on great original melodies will just become an oldies or muzak format.

“I had to tell Verve that this is not the artist I am, that I’m someone who expresses herself through writing a song as much as playing it,” Abair adds. “I came up through the ranks of musicians who made their living playing covers at clubs and weddings, but when I became an artist, I believed I had the opportunity to rise to a different level of expression. Now I intend to stay there.”

Being both a bestselling artist and a co-owner of Rendezvous (whose roster includes Whalum, Saisse, Lington and Tisdale), Dave Koz has a unique perspective on the issue. The saxophonist, who this month is releasing At The Movies, a collection of beloved film themes produced by Phil Ramone, is not shy about addressing the economic component: “We’re living in a time in this business where even established artists have to do something unique to keep their sales figures strong. In this type of climate, it’s somewhat imperative that we give listeners event records, theme records, projects that our fans feel they must have. Creating that event mentality gives us all a better chance for success.

“Finding ways to interpret beloved songs is an opportunity to be creative in a whole new way, finding liberation in being able to focus solely on the task of playing the tune well,” he adds. “I always say that if you remain true to the songs, they will never let you down. But if you somehow get it wrong, people will criticize that so you have to bring everything you have to that performance. The genre is doing well with covers for the same reason that we love hearing Christmas songs year after year. It’s like putting on an old sweater, or a warm comfortable blanket. A classic song reminds us of another time, stirring memories of the last time or maybe the first time you ever heard it. The feelings you associate with the song have everything to do with how you respond to it.”


Personal Tastes

1) Forever, For Always, For Luther, Vol. II – Legendary soul singer Luther Vandross’ passing in 2005 makes this compelling second volume of heartfelt and funky smooth jazz interpretations of his songs by an eclectic group of inspired genre all-stars even more poignant than the first.
2) Diana Krall, From This Moment On (Verve)
3) Miki Howard, Pillow Talk: Miki Sings The Classics (Shanachie)
4) Elton John, The Captain and The Kid (Interscope Records)
5) John Legend, Once Again (Sony)


New and Noteworthy

1) Jim Brickman, Escape (SLG)
2) George Benson & Al Jarreau, Givin’ It Up (Concord)
3) Alan Hewitt, Metropolis (215 Records)
4) Michael Manson, Just Feelin’ It (215 Records)
5) Steve Cole, True (Narada Jazz)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at January 13, 2007 3:54 PM