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Al Jarreau gives live audiences what he's got

MY EYES are closed, my smile Texas-wide.

I'm on the phone with Al Jarreau, and he's scat-singing. For me. I mention some of my favorite cuts from his classic early albums- We Got By (1975), Glow (1976), Look to the Rainbow (1977) -- and he gives me snippets of each one. You really don't get the full scope on his latest CD, the smooth jazz-pop hybrid All I Got, but Al's voice is still marvelously fluid, un-varnished. He can get down low, soar cloud-high and imitate instruments. One minute, he's a saxo-phone, then a conga drum, a trumpet, a harmonica. A live band swings in his throat.

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The only artist in history to win Grammys in pop, jazz and R&B;, he is infectiously animated. His buoyant, slightly nasal speaking voice belies his 63 years.

"Man, I tell you -- performing, that's what I do," says the Milwaukee-born recording artist, who's calling from his L.A. home. "I've never been the kind of artist to record an album and stay at home. This is what I do -- stand up before an audience and give what I have. For an artist to be in that live situation, it's a whole 'nother experience, the whole new creative opportunity to paint on a canvas that wasn't there yesterday."

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He chuckles. "Look, I plan to do it as long as there's an audience to see me at the Holiday Inn or the Do-Drop Inn. I don't care."

Al, who plays Pier 6 Wednesday night, does care about reaching peo-ple, whether it's through song or in humanitarian work. The singer, who has a master's degree in psychology and was a social worker before music started paying the bills, is the spokesman for Verizon's literacy campaign. About four years ago, the communications company asked Al to champion its literacy outreach program, Verizon Reads, which funds reading labs and training for its coaches throughout the United States. A portion of sales from All I Got goes to the literacy campaign.

"The whole Verizon initiative is a bright light in what's been a very dark room in corporate responsibility," Al says. "I guess the company heard about my involvement with scholarship programs in Milwaukee, and they asked me to be a spokesman. I go out with these programs to promote the need to learn how to read. Literacy is the doorway to get where you need to go, even if it's just across town." For more than 30 years, Al has given us jazz with a decidedly pop twist. (My girl, the late jazz innovator Betty Carter, detested Al's watered-down approach to the art.) But the artist has always sported a unique sound, and you can't deny his technical chops and stylish flourishes -- even if the musical arrangements, at times, fall fiat.

In concert, Al vibrantly displays his musical flexibility, Three years ago, I saw him at a venue outside of Philly on a bill with George Duke and Rachelle Ferrell. The man ripped it, though Rachelle's primal wails and church-splashed ballads blew us all, including Al, into space. I was probably one of the youngest cats in the house, which was packed with older, dressed-to-impress middle-class to upper-mid-dle-class blacks -- folks who probably saw Al when his music was on 8-track. I was in kindergarten, pot-bellied and pie-faced, when I first heard "Mornin'," one of Al's biggest hits. That sunny ditty used to flow out the radio in the morning as Mama got us ready for school: Mornin ' Mr. Radio/Mornin' little Cherrios/Mornin' Sister Oriole/Did I tell you everything was fine/In my mind ...

In college, I came across Glow and dug his take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Agua De Beber," with its lilting, percussion-driven rhythm and Al's multitracked scat vocals interspersed with his Johnny Mathis-influenced crooning: Your love is rain/My heart the flower/l need your kiss or I will die ...

Then I discovered other scat-sprinkled treats: "Take Five," "Spirit" "Spain (I Can Recall)." But in the early '80s, after years on the fringes of the mainstream, Al decided to change up the groove, so to speak. He went pop, waxing albums of sap-encrusted easy-listening ballads and funk-lite uptempo cuts. All of which were tightly produced and sold in the millions. But aesthetically, Al's music didn't bloom. It was too glossy, its parameters too narrow for an artist with such a broad talent.

Now that he doesn't set the air-waves and the charts on fire anymore with his competently executed but no-bite work, Al is thinking about reaching back, stripping down.

He says, "Something is in the works. I was talking to one of my old producers, Tommy LiPurea, about doing something more organic -- maybe with just guitar and some other instruments. But something much more jazz-oriented and real, you know."

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That' Ill be refreshing --'not that there's anything really wrong with All l Got. It's one of those cleaning- the-house-on-a-Saturday-morning CDs: breezy, relaxed, unobtrusive. But as Al gives me a taste of his seat abilities. I know this thin, smiling man is still full of adventurous sounds, music reflecting love and telling the truth.

He says, "If you got a stage, man, you gotta say something that'Il give somebody that little up-lift, that boost that'll make them wanna face that hustle or that hassle of the day. Music, man, oughta say something."

Yes, indeed.


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