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Al Jarreau, Song Salesman

The singer widens his aim while being 'as nervous as a frog on a freeway' about his recording career.


Al Jarreau is feeling betwixt and between.

And with good cause. After living in temporary digs for the last 18 months, he's still waiting for contractors to finish up the work on his earthquake-damaged Encino home.

"But it wasn't just the earthquake," he said in a conversation last week. "We took a pretty good hit, but we also had some basic problems in the house from the very beginning. Practically every major system--except for the plumbing--had to be replaced. In other words, we got a lemon."

To compound the problem, Jarreau is also beginning to see some distinctly lemony qualities in his recording career, which has been in limbo for virtually the same period of time. And the veteran performer is no more happy about that than he is about his housing problems.

"Best of Al Jarreau" (Warner Bros.), his first-ever compilation album, has just been released. It includes a string of his hits--"We're in This Love Together," "Take Five" and "So Good" among them--as well as "Moonlighting," his theme for the hit TV series. But the only new material on the CD is two tracks--the Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic "Compared to What" and a George Duke collaboration, "Goodhands Tonight," recorded specifically for the compilation. They represent Jarreau's only recording as a soloist for the company since his two-decade-long contract with Warner Bros. ran out two years ago (although he also performs as a guest artist on a new album by saxophonist Boney James).

"We've begun to circle each other like jungle lions, and look each other up and down," he explained. "But I don't know if we're going to get together or not."

Matt Pierson, Warners' senior vice president for jazz and the producer of the compilation album, is guardedly optimistic, however. "We want to do a deal, and we've been in negotiation," he said. "But it's one of those things where--let's say you had a relationship with a woman, and it breaks up, then you decide to get back together--there's a lot of baggage to work through. And that's sort of where we are. But we certainly want to work with Al, who is an incredible artist."

But Jarreau, who had a string of gold albums for Warners in the '70s and '80s, continues to be bothered by what he sees as a lack of record company support and interest. Admired by jazz fans for the imaginative, improvisational qualities of his singing, cherished by R&B and pop listeners for the entertaining, rhythmically explosive qualities of his live performances, Jarreau has consistently appealed to a broad-based audience.

Like many mature pop artists, Jarreau sees the record business no longer willing to make long-term commitments to support performers' careers.

"They sit there and throw handfuls of artist mud against the wall. And what sticks they go and build a frame around for a few minutes.And I can tell you it's not a gilded frame in which they've invested a whole lot. What they really want is these still wet-behind-the-ears people who will color their hair a strange color, turn their lives over to some hot producer, be there for five minutes of airplay in a year, get their pictures in a magazine and then be gone. They don't want to deal with someone who understands the mechanism of this madness."

Pierson demurs, noting that artists are frequently unhappy with their record companies.

"Al, and nearly every artist I've ever worked with, has been critical of the record business in general," he said, "and critical of us specifically, from time to time, because that's the nature of the business. You can always look back on any record and say, 'I could have done it differently.' And that's probably true here. But there also are times when you can say, 'I really blew that one.' And I don't think that's the situation with Al Jarreau. I think that Warner Bros. Records feels that it did a very good job with Al when he was on the label."

Jarreau, 57, has been dealing with the music business' "mechanism of madness" since the '60s. After earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Ripon College, near his hometown of Milwaukee, he moved on to the University of Iowa to pick up a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation. But, by the late '60s, when he relocated to Los Angeles and began to sing in clubs such as the Troubadour and the Bitter End West, it was clear that music, not rehabilitation counseling, would be his career.

"And it's been a good career," he said. "Am I concerned about where things now stand with my recordings? Sure. I'm as nervous as a frog on a freeway. I keep waiting for one of the shoes to fall. But I have high hopes, high apple pie in the sky hopes, and I'm still thinking that there's some serious success ahead of me."

Jarreau uses a sports metaphor to describe how he is dealing with his current situation, characterizing it as "halftime in the locker room, putting together some new plans, getting ready to come out smoking for the second half."

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