The term "beyond category" has been reserved for a handful of vocalists whose musical scope, impact and versatility makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accurately label their work. The amazing vocalist Al Jarreau, headed to town for an engagement with the Nashville Symphony, has epitomized that description for the better part of five decades, enjoying multiple Grammy success within the jazz world while reaching a broader audience and exploring a host of other idioms.
Indeed, some would dispute whether Jarreau — despite his origins in the late '60s as a cabaret and supper club singer in Los Angeles and a frequent guest on shows including The Tonight Show, Dinah and The Mike Douglas Show — is a jazz stylist in the strictest sense.
Jarreau is certainly an improviser with exceptional range and rhythmic timing, and his early LPs We Got By, Glow, This Time, All Fly Home and especially the outstanding 1977 live release Look to the Rainbow showed he could not only extend upon and embellish standards, but also imitate instruments, swing with ease and easily execute demanding melodic and harmonic experiments within tunes. He's also done his fair share of classic jazz numbers, from "My Favorite Things" and "Sophisticated Lady" to "Come Rain or Come Shine" and lesser-known fare like "One Note Samba" and "Stockholm Sweetnin'."
As is often the case with those whose roots don't limit their interests or audience — and because Jarreau has never confined himself strictly to pre-rock material, nor his collaborations and associations to solely mainstream or hard-bop musicians — some hardcore types may cry "sellout" at Jarreau and others who don't stick strictly to the established jazz vocal canon. Moreover, it hasn't helped his image in some quarters that Jarreau became a familiar name via his theme for the TV show Moonlighting, or that a number of his LPs (Heart's Horizon and Jarreau, for instance) not only topped the jazz charts but also found their way onto urban radio playlists. Jarreau's fondness for covering Al Green and Bill Withers, plus extensive Broadway touring in the '90s and several appearances with symphonies since 2000 don't make him a favorite with purists.
Yet jazz remains Jarreau's favorite idiom, and as he showed on a startling 2010 version of "Whisper Not" that was featured on Benny Golson's New Time, New Tet, there are few among his contemporaries who better combine a masterful tone with elaborate delivery, nonstop rhythmic energy and exuberance.
Last year's Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orkest: Live features Jarreau's still shimmering and impeccable voice with a 53-piece orchestra from Northern Europe doing a blend of vintage ("Midnight Sun") and modern jazz numbers along with past hits ("We Got By"), a couple of classical pieces and some other oddities, including Russell Ferrante's "Scootcha-Booty," that adeptly fuse a funk/R&B sensibility with a jazz singer's verve.
It's exactly the type of program that characterizes Al Jarreau at his best: beyond category.
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