Al Jarreau (1940-2017): Our Essential Playlist

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The February 12, 2017 Grammys telecast may have received great attention, but the music community also lost a beloved artist that day. Al Jarreau, the “Acrobat of Scat” and the only singer to win Grammys in the jazz, pop, and R&B categories, passed away at the age of 76.

His distinctive singing style crossed boundaries, encompassing jazz, pop, R&B, funk, gospel, and even world music. In addition, his peerless scatting abilities and skill in turning his voice into a percussive instrument made him a well-respected artist in the industry. Up until his death, Jarreau remained a popular live act, often reworking his songs in concert to the delight of fans. His influence loomed over many singers, including the R&B vocalist Kem. While his voice may have been silenced, his extensive catalog allows his music to be appreciated by various generations.

While difficult to select just a limited number of songs, this playlist includes some of Al Jarreau’s best work, both hits and hidden album tracks. Listen and celebrate his legacy:

“AQUA DE BEBER” (GLOW, 1976): Only a confident artist can tackle the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic, and Al Jarreau succeeds with a sped-up tempo and lightning-fast scatting. The song provides an early glimpse at the singer’s ability to use his voice as a percussive tool.

“TAKE FIVE (live)” (LOOK TO THE RAINBOW, 1977): Jarreau often cited vocalese legend Jon Hendricks as a major influence, and his remarkable reworking of the Dave Brubeck standard illustrates his debt to the jazz vocalist. Jarreau once again transforms his voice into percussion, spitting out words in rapid succession while accenting the song’s distinctive melody. If there was any doubt that a gifted jazz singer had arrived, this was living proof.

“ROOF GARDEN” (BREAKING AWAY, 1981): The vocalist’s breakthrough album may be best known for “We’re in This Love Together,” but this funky, danceable track charms with its lyrics and Jarreau’s infectious joy. When he sings “Do a step with Fred Astaire / Get your top hat,” one can almost hear the smile in the singer’s voice. Sharp horn blasts add soul to his scatting.

“GIRLS KNOW HOW” (NIGHT SHIFT soundtrack, 1982): One of Al Jarreau’s more obscure tunes, this horn-filled, soulful track lets the singer explore his full range. Why the song was never released as a single remains a mystery.

“BOOGIE DOWN” (JARREAU, 1983): A sequel of sorts to “Roof Garden,” “Boogie Down” invites listeners to dance while Jarreau executes some of his most impressive singing and scatting to date. Over the years, the singer became a master of blending jazz and R&B, and this Jarreau track is a textbook example.

“MORNIN'” (JARREAU, 1983): One of Jarreau’s best songs, “Mornin’” contains stunning chord changes and a flawless vocal performance. He dramatizes the story with his vocals, delivering the climatic lines “I know I can, like any man / Reach out my hand and touch the face of God” with naked emotion. Keyboard work by producer David Foster and drumming by Jeff Pocaro tastefully showcase Jarreau’s singing.

“I WILL BE HERE FOR YOU (Nitakungodea Milele)” (JARREAU, 1983): Part of the title phrase may be in Swahili, but the gentle breeziness of the track conjures images of the ocean and swaying palm trees. Featuring beautiful chord changes and an airy horn section, Jarreau sings with great restraint until the end, when he increases his volume and intensity. Quite simply, it is a romantic ballad as only Al Jarreau could deliver.

“TROUBLE IN PARADISE” (JARREAU, 1983): Some Jarreau tracks worked better live than in studio, and “Trouble in Paradise” is a stellar example. The album version sounded low-energy, but the band and Jarreau would inject it with a heavier beats and additional scatting in concert.

“MURPHY’s LAW” (HIGH CRIME, 1984): Horns, an infectious beat, and a catchy chorus merited a single release, yet it remains a hidden and unfairly overlooked album track. Only a brief appearance in an episode of Moonlighting gave it the exposure it deserved.

“AFTER ALL” (HIGH CRIME, 1984): “We’re in This Love Together” may be his most famous love song, but this ballad really tugs at the emotions with Al Jarreau’s no-holds-barred, full-throated delivery. When he sings “After all / I will be the one to hold you in my arms,” the listener believes every word.

“LOVE SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS” (HIGH CRIME, 1984): Yes, the song features synthesizer-heavy ’80s production. However, the chorus will linger in the memory and, as does the beat. Jarreau concludes the track with some funky ad libs and scatting, sounding as if he thoroughly enjoyed recording the song.

“SINCE I FELL FOR YOU” (DOUBLE VISION, 1985): When Jarreau collaborated with David Sanborn and Bob James on this remake, few could have predicted it would become a live staple of Jarreau’s shows. The trio recaptured the unabashed romanticism of the Lenny Welch original, yet effectively modernized it for contemporary audiences. Two years later, the song would gain renewed attention by its inclusion on the Moonlighting soundtrack.

“TELL ME WHAT I GOTTA DO” (L IS FOR LOVER, 1986): In the mid-’80s, Al Jarreau turned to Chic frontman and renowned producer Nile Rodgers to update his sound. Featuring heavier rhythms but never overwhelming Jarreau’s distinctive voice, “Tell Me What I Gotta Do” combines R&B and jazz (including a touch of scatting), resulting in a fun and danceable tune.

MOONLIGHTING THEME” (MOONLIGHTING soundtrack, 1987): The romantic comedy may have been popular due to its stars’ sizzling chemistry, but this original theme became an instant classic. Jarreau’s smooth delivery captures the duo’s slow-burn romance. The lines “Moonlighting strangers /
Who just met on the way” sums up the TV show’s premise, rendering the track one of the all-time best television theme songs.

“BRING IT ON HOME TO ME” (GIVIN’ IT UP, 2006): Take two jazz legends (Jarreau and George Benson) and add rock royalty (Paul McCartney), and what results is a jam session filled with joy and obvious mutual admiration. Stick around for the gospel ending that defies listeners to stay seated.

“BRAZILIAN LOVE AFFAIR / UP FROM THE SEA” (MY OLD FRIEND: CELEBRATING GEORGE DUKE, 2014): As Al Jarreau got his start playing with George Duke in the 1960s, the singer returned the favor with this loving tribute to his old friend. He’s joined here by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, fusing two 1979 Duke tracks into a celebration of Brazilian jazz. The two skilled scatters blend perfectly together; sadly, they never collaborated again.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at
Kit O'Toole
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