Kenny Mathieson considers the jazz credentials of groove-master
The Scottish debut ofsaxophonist Grover Washington Jr at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival will attract an audience who ordinarily may not stray within hearing distance ofjazz music. Indeed, it may well be that the vast majority of the audience will come from those who know Grover’s music only through his soul-pop crossovers with the likes of Bill Withers and Patti Labelle.
To say that he lacks genuine jazz credibility would be stretching things a little. but there is no doubt that Washington has built a highly successful career on prettifying the music for mass consumption, and has taken it a long way from jazz in the process. As a kid, he was exposed to his father’s prodigious jazz record collection, and recalls hearing the likes ofJack McDuff and
Harold Vick in clubs, at least when he managed to ‘
evade the doorman’s watchful eye.
‘I still listen to what I consider to be the classic jazz masters, and by that I mean people like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. Their music and the way they play will always be relevant, and they taught me always to strive to tell a story in my own music, and to portray my inner feelings.’
As well as picking up on great jazz players, however, the young Washington also did an apprenticeship on the bandstand. starting in R ‘n‘ B and blues bands, and moving onto the 19th Army Band, where he met drummer Billy Cobham, and gained a route into the New York music scene. His first recording break came with organist Charles Earland in 1970, but it was the success of Johnny Hammond’s Breakout which opened the door to his own recording debut in 1971.
Record producer Creed Taylor heard his work, and offered him a recording contract, although his debut album was originally scheduled as a Hank Crawford session. When Crawford failed to make the date, Grover was given the go-ahead, and laid down the very successful Inner City Blues, on the Kudu label. At the time, the saxophonist was still working in a record shop to augment his income, and had the bizarre experience ofshipping his own record.
‘Yeah, I was in the unique position of unloading records with my own name on them. Ididn’t mind at all, though — I was feeling on top of the world!
The next three records I cut for Kudu helped me to make the transition from playing clubs to
. headlining large concert halls, and at the same
time I was able to work on sessions with a lot of great musicians, guys like Bob James, Randy Weston and Dave Grusin. That was a really
1 productive time for me.‘
Washington’s combination ofa technically impressive playing style rooted in mainstream jazz with a fusion-style concept which owed more to soul, funk and disco, found a willing audience. Sophisticated but highly accessible. his records sold in numbers most jazz musicians wouldn‘t even begin to dream about, peaking with the mega-success of Winelight in 1981, which also contained the huge hit single ‘Just The Two Of Us’, with singer Bill Withers. That success has carried on into the 80s and 903, with a sideways look to his original jazz inspiration in Then and Now (CBS, 1988).
I l l
Grover Washington: the groove goes on
The fact that his first major success was a cover ofa Marvin Gaye tune is neatly emblematic ofhis debt to singers, and he has worked with many over the years. While he acknowledges the importance ofsaxophonists (not to mention pianists, bass players and drummers) in forming his style, he is equally quick to pay his dues to the crucial lesson he absorbed from singers.
‘I can still remember when I was coming up, I was listening to a whole lot ofdifferent music— in fact, anywhere there was music, I was there. I‘m real thankful to all the players who have inspired me over the years, but vocalists were also important, because it was through them that I
i learned how to phrase. When you play a ballad, ; you have to play more than just the notes in the
melody, you have to know how to phrase it into meaning something.’
Grover Washington Jr. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Tue 7, 8pm.
0N FOLLOWING PAGES: CARLA BLEY O DON CHERRY 0 MILES DAVIS
16The List 3— 16July 1992