The crowd at the Strand Theater clapped and stomped and whistled as the small, lithe black man entered the stage. He stood in the spotlight, microphone poised in one hand, waiting for the crowd to quiet. Behind his small frame, in an arching array that encircled the singer on the stage was a pianist, a guitarist, drummer, bassist and the all important sax man. Instruments strained in wait. The singer smiled warmly, spread his arms out toward the crowd, palpable with anticipation, and said, “Thank you for coming my friends. We are blessed and tonight we will ride the rainbow together.” Then this man, who radiates with light and humor and contentment, opened his mouth and begin to sing. The sound, the voice that has awed and thrilled listeners for over 4 decades, rang out. Al Jarreau opened his set at the Strand and did not disappoint as he continues to challenge the ways in which people think about singing and the construction of song and the range of possibilities of the human voice.
Of course I knew of Al Jarreau. I listened to him in the 80s and could name a variety of his big hits: We’re in this Love Together, Mornin’, Boogie Down and Breakin‘ Away. But I had never heard him live nor knew of his life-long successes as a jazz vocalist. He’s won 5 Emmys, traveled the world sharing his unique vocals and profound talent, and forged new terrain for how music is performed and received. He is a bundle of energy, a man in his early 70s, who moves with grace and style and – though it sounds trite and cliché – he radiates positive energy. His voice is powerful, flexible and truly individual.
I watched him as he shared his gift of music and song with the intimate audience. So physically small on the stage, he is a man of enormous presence and a deep sense of humility. Often he stopped to chat with the audience, to share a story about his life as an artist, and to give thanks that he is still here, still singing and bringing joy to others.
His band was tight and the players were able to follow and support Jarreau as he improvised and sang in freestyle, spontaneous scats to many of his works and a few covers. Each musician took a few minutes to play solo, too, the highlight for me being a gorgeous rendition of Fire and Rain where Jarreau harmonized with the hugely talented guitarist, and to be introduced to an early work entitled Sweet Potato Pie that popped and danced off the sound stage, making us smile and hunger to taste this rare treat.
Jarreau laughed and smiled his way through a two hour set, rarely even breaking to sip water. He commented on the fortune he has experienced in his lifelong career and that he will always be faithful to the music, the songs, and not rely on profanity or risqué bodily gestures to capture an audience’s attention. But then again, he doesn’t need to. His is a rare gift, a profoundly special voice and style packed into a small, powerful bundle or energy. Hearing him perform live was an experience, a luxury, and far more than simply listening to him sing some renditions of his famous songs. It was a chance to be in the presence of artistic greatness, a man named a “national treasure” and to see an artist at work creating and sharing his talent in a moment that can never be repeated. Thanks, Al, for remaining true to yourself and the music.