Not long ago saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine and Grover Washington Jr. appealed to different segments of the jazz audience.
Rollins' virile improvisations and hard-boiled tone contrasted sharply with Turrentine's seductive soulfulness and Washington's glistening romanticism. But the rising popularity of accessible jazz, with its emphasis on pop, rock, fusion, even dance trends, has occasionally blurred stylistic signatures. Now the recordings of all three of these musicians frequently attract overlapping if not identical audiences, and their latest releases confirm, to varying degrees, the lure of the lucrative pop-jazz market.
In contrast to the lavishly produced albums by Turrentine and Washington, Rollins' "Reel Life" (Milestone M 9108) is a lean quintet session. In some welcome ways, it marks a retreat from the more commercially minded recordings Rollins has issued recently. Joining the tenor saxophonist are guitarists Bobby Broom and Yoshiaki Masuo, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Rollins is notorious for hastily choosing and changing rhythm sections, and this one is almost exclusively distinguished by DeJohnette's relentlessly prodding influence. His insistent performance on side one allows Rollins to alternately display his greatest strengths: muscle, logic, wit and imagination.
While the opening tune, the title track "Reel Life," is the least memorable (it's a rather conventional blues progression equipped with a funky backbeat), it soon proves to be a worthy vehicle for Rollins' restless energies and voluminous tone. It also serves well as a preface to the album's gems: "McGhee," "Rosita's Best Friend" and "My Little Brown Book."
The first two, written by Rollins, display familiar yet distinct sides of his personality. "McGhee" is a hard bopper's delight, full of invigorating exchanges between drums and sax, passages sustained by Rollins' unflagging stamina. "Rosita's Best Friend" is a real Latin charmer--sunny, melodious, a reminder of Rollins' abiding love of calypso music. The last of these, Billy Strayhorn's "Brown Book," is given a sublimely romantic reading by Rollins, but again it's strictly a two-man show with neither Broom nor Cranshaw adding much of interest.
Apart from a probing two-minute Rollins' solo that serves as the album's coda, what remains are a couple of lightweight and largely forgettable tunes, apparently designed to attract a wider audience. Given the overall quality of Rollins' performance on this album, one hopes that these minor concessions will do just that.
If Rollins seems comfortably insulated from popular trends on "Reel Life," Turrentine and Washington seem absolutely immersed in them on their albums. After assisting organist Jimmy Smith on a fine jazz album released last summer, Turrentine has returned to his sleek and often slick synthesis of jazz and soul on "Home Again" (Elektra 60201-1).
Taken individually, any of the tunes on this album are pleasant and smooth. Turrentine's tenor confidently wends its way around sexy, undulating rhythms and brassy punctuations. He's a master at creating a mood, the more romantic the better. But in the end, like so much pop-jazz, "Home Again" keeps drifting into the background like so much Muzak. After repeated listening, only the songs by Irene Cara and the promising newcomer Derald Conway leave a distinct impression on the listener. And even then, those songs are more noteworthy for their polished sound and commercial potential than for any lasting value or merit.
In a sense Turrentine could be considered the poor man's Grover Washington Jr. Washington extends himself on "The Best Is Yet To Come," (Elektra 60215-1) a skillfully produced pop-jazz recording that, like Turrentine's, is best prescribed in small dosages. One can't help but admire Washington's versatility. On side one alone, he constantly creates new textures, alternately playing alto, soprano and tenor saxophone and saxello. Yet no amount of switch hitting, it seems, can prevent a certain blandness from creeping into the arrangements. Washington's work with the usual core of studio musicians--Ralph McDonald, Dexter Wansel, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Marcus Miller et al--may have finally reached the point of diminishing returns on this album.
The good news is that Washington has not lost his ear for selecting accompanying singers. While his latest effort doesn't contain anything quite so ingratiating as "Just the Two of Us" (sung by Bill Withers), or as pleasantly surprising as last year's "Be Mine Tonight" (sung by Grady Tate), the varied yet consistently strong vocals provided by Patti Labelle, Bobby McFerrin and the young Cedric Napoleon (from Pieces of a Dream) are guaranteed to further enhance Washington's popularity and appeal.