As something of a late bloomer in the record industry Al Jarreau had matured as a man and musician by the time he made his breakthrough in the mid 1970s. Furthermore the Milwaukee-born singer had an advanced understanding of the vagaries of human nature, having graduated in Psychology before working for many years as a rehabilitation counsellor on the west coast. During his downtime he appeared with a jazz trio headed by the late George Duke and eventually attracted the attention of Warner Brothers scouts.
Son of a minister and a church pianist Jarreau sang with his family during sermons and would retain an emotionally charged, soulful zest in his performance of a wide range of material. Although gospel was his first musical building block, Jarreau constructed a distinctive vocal style marked by a tonal finesse and phrasal skill that placed him in the lineage of jazz pioneers such as Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson. Jarreau's own brand of highly atmospheric wordless vocal saw him fashion intricate rhythmic figures and unique sound effects full of percussive exhalations and whistle-like flourishes in the upper register, which loosely presaged the arrival of Bobby McFerrin years later. Although able to improvise astutely on chord changes, Jarreau was an excellent exponent of folkish melody, and as his career unfolded his eclectic tastes came to the fore.
Causing more conservative critics to raise an eyebrow the singer reprised the music of James Taylor and Elton John as well as Bill Withers and Leon Russell. From the mid 1970s onwards Jarreau had a run of successful albums that included We Got By, Glow and All Fly Home before enjoying pop success in 1981 with Breakin' Away. His stock rose further in the mainstream when he sang the theme tune of Moonlighting, the successful TV show that launched the career of Bruce Willis.
Jarreau never again reached that level of exposure but the Grammy winner was sufficiently established to keep recording and touring for the rest of his career. A warm and witty personality Jarreau held his own in the company of innovators Miles Davis and Chick Corea, whose anthem 'Spain' he memorably covered.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Tim Dickeson