What is it that makes a great musical artist?  A Bing Crosby, a Paul Robeson, a Frank Sinatra, a Nat “King” Cole?  They were all great singers, great story tellers, great personalities.  But there was something else, as well.  Something that took them above and beyond the level of singers who were similarly successful, well-known and best selling.  Something that made their every performance, their every recording into a memorable experience.

The answers, I’d say, can still be experienced today, in their full creative blossom, whenever Al Jarreau stands in front of a microphone, smiles his engaging smile, and lets the music flow. Like the stellar names I’ve listed above, Al has a golden musical touch.  And, like Crosby defining the holidays with “White Christmas,” Robeson transforming “Ballad For Americans,” like Sinatra vividly bringing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to life, and Nat Cole finding the elusive message of “Nature Boy,” Al doesn’t just sing a song, he inhabits it.

Hearing Al sing over the years – from the ‘70s to the present – has been one of my great pleasures, a very special perk of being a music journalist.  It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, whether it was hearing him gift an ebullient Monterey Jazz Festival crowd with a soaring version of “We’re In This Love Together” and a brilliantly improvisational “Take Five,” or watching him roam the stage at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall, singing a tender, deeply touching reading of Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” followed by a stunning, vocally demanding romp through Chick Corea’s “Spain.”  Al made each song – in each of those rare and special moments in time – his own. 

But it isn’t just the ability to inhabit a song and make it his own that brings Al, along with Crosby, Robeson, Sinatra, Cole and others, to the exalted heights of great musical artistry.  

Add, as well, the almost indefinable element of charisma – the quality that mesmerizes an audience, embracing them within the intimate communicative orbit of a performer.  It’s a quality that produces an almost visible glow of sheer energy when Al finds his groove and takes his listeners on an irresistible rhythmic journey.

Then, in addition, and equally important, there’s the vital element of believability.  Call it the sense of truth, in both the words and music – the feeling that both the story and the atmosphere are real, that the singer is sharing something with his listeners that is as alive and present tense as the evening news.  An old adage says that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  But a song sung by Al Jarreau can – and usually does — create the emotional authenticity of a gallery full of entrancing pictures.

All of these qualities require a delivery system, of course.  And one of the prime attributes that joins Al with Crosby, Robeson, Sinatra, Cole and others is his extraordinary voice.  One could probably make a case, in fact, for Al’s vocal instrument as a combination of many of the attributes in my entire list of great male musical artists.  At times, I’ve heard him sing with the dark baritone timbre of Sinatra, the snappy rhythmic articulation of Cole, the cool balladry of Crosby and the dramatic bravura of Robeson. 

And there’s more, much more.  Depending on his musical mood of the moment, Al can pop out percussion sounds that can rival the layered textures and the upbeat swing of a full drum kit.  He can simulate the sounds of horns and scat sing through complex chord changes and tricky rhythmic meters with an unstoppable flow of ideas.

Like Robeson, Al’s roots are in gospel.  Raised by parents who were deeply involved in spiritual music – his father a minister and a singer, his mother a church pianist — he sang as naturally as he played sports. The inherent aspects of the music, with the rich, melismatic qualities invested in it by African American culture, provided one of the important elements of what would become the Al Jarreau style. 

There were others.  Drawn to jazz early on, he discovered another foundation stone of his style in the improvisational art, with its inspiring combination of creative freedom, blues/gospel structures and the propulsive rhythmic drive we call “swing.” 

Over the course of Al’s remarkable, five decade-plus career, all these attributes coalesced into one of the music world’s most uniquely eclectic  voices, as well as one of the globe’s most universally popular artists.  He is only the second artist – Michael Jackson was the first — to win Grammy Awards in the jazz, pop and r&b categories.  And he has done so because of his unerring ability to bring authenticity to each of those styles.  

Even beyond that admirable quality, Al has been honored for his rare capacity to perform in the recording studio with the same sort of dynamic electricity he brings to his live appearances.  Listening to an Al Jarreau recording can be almost as exciting as experiencing him up close and personal.  That’s a fact that can be attested to by the Recording Academy voters who have selected Al for twelve Grammy nominations, and granted him seven Grammy Awards.  Even more impressively, the Awards and the nominations have taken place over four decades – from the ‘70s to the 2000s – a rare and impressive display of career continuity.

Having made the case for Al as one of the great musical artists, fully worthy of being grouped with the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Paul Robeson and Nat  “King” Cole, among others, I must also add that he would probably be the last to claim such exalted status.  Despite his fully justified inclusion in the ranks of music world royalty, a complete view of Al must also include the modesty that drives his dedication to giving his all, on stage or in the studio – as dependable and productive as a blue collar good guy who knows what it means to work hard to make an honest dollar. One who feels genuine joy in what he does, and communicates that joy to his listeners.

Al Jarreau, in other words, is not just a great musical artist.  He’s the real deal.

– Don Heckman 

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