ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
Good news: With the release of "Accentuate the Positive," Al Jarreau can finally give Chick Corea's "Spain" and the Dave Brubeck hit "Take Five" a rest.
The Grammy-winning vocalist has performed those tunes so often in concert that they've become faded emblems of his fascination with jazz. His new CD, laced with familiar tunes and fresh arrangements, expands and rejuvenates his songbook. Several top-flight jazz musicians lend a hand, including bassist Christian McBride, guitarist Anthony Wilson and drummer Peter Erskine, who've toured with Diana Krall.
Is this yet another singer's attempt to jump aboard the classic pop bandwagon? Maybe so, but at this stage in Jarreau's career that's certainly not an awkward or unwelcome move. The ballads are refreshingly intimate and subdued. A dreamy take on "The Midnight Sun" and Jarreau's tender salute to Betty Carter, "Betty Bebop's Song," are particularly enjoyable, the latter fitting neatly alongside the Bill Evans perennial charmer "Waltz for Debby." When the tempo picks up a bit on "I'm Beginning to See the Light," Jarreau joins Wilson and organist Larry Goldings in conjuring a casually swinging, after-hours mood.
Of course, asking Jarreau to rein in his seemingly elastic vocal cords is a bit like asking Robin Williams to stick with one-liners. The singer flexes his voice and imagination freely on "Groovin' High," often while matching wits with the rhythm section.
Jarreau and veteran producer Tommy LiPuma also cater to the singer's core R&B and smooth-jazz following. "Scootcha-Booty" recalls Jarreau's party anthem "Boogie Down," and the lyrics he wrote for Eddie Harris's soul jazz theme "Cold Duck" are bound to get a rise out of summer concertgoers. But it's the low-key performances that prove the most surprising and alluring.
-- Mike Joyce
Al Jarreau performs at the Warner Theatre on Aug. 21 and 22.
Progressive rock is not for the squeamish. For the rest of us, though, there's the Umph.
Arguably the most fearsome force on the jam-band scene, this Chicago band sets the ear blender to liquefy on its stellar new album. When they aren't trading blistering riffs on the dazzling six-minute opener "Plunger," galloping guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger go for baroque. Cloud-scraping instrumental shredders such as "Miss Tinkle's Overture" and "JaJunk Pt. II" spew equal parts Dixie Dregs, Allman Brothers and Joe Satriani. The sick-quick Cinninger seems unable to stop doodling on his fret board, ever, and that's a wonderful thing.
Umphrey's McGee scrambles your brain but never quite toasts it. Despite calculus-level song arrangements and thundering, '70s arena-rock guitars, "Anchor Drops" is remarkably easy to digest. The dreamlike "In the Kitchen," the band's most well-rounded song to date, is graceful, dynamic and emotionally stirring. And the male-female folk duet "Bullhead City" (featuring vocals from Bayliss's wife, Elliott) is a welcome respite from all the time-signature testosterone.
Chief singer Bayliss and part-time crooner Cinninger deliver expressive, above-average performances, particularly for this genre. And instrumentally, this sextet's firepower keeps growing: You expect Cinninger and Bayliss to get evil with their axes, but bassist Ryan Stasik also comes into his own.
There's one glaring flub: "Robot World," a droning mistake that's like a bad take on Van Halen's "Sunday Afternoon in the Park." Use that breather to screw your head back on. Because aside from that, Umphrey's McGee has unleashed a prog-rock masterpiece of face-melting beauty.
-- Michael Deeds