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Music Review: Grover Washington Jr. – Grover Live

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I'm not one to quote Wikipedia, but this time around it makes perfect sense: "Smooth jazz is a sub-genre of jazz which is heavily influenced by R&B, funk, rock, and pop music styles (separately, or, in any combination)." This is an interesting definition because it highlights the point of contention: is smooth jazz actually jazz?

For the most part, the question has never really bothered me all that much. Oh sure, I used to be in the SmoothJazzHatersClub™, but after a while I realized that I was wasting my energy. It's no great affront to the universe if somebody thinks that instrumental pop music is jazz. Besides, there was all of that music coming out of the CTI label, "real" jazz musicians who were smoothing off the edges. Hey, if people were interested in some background music with a positive vibe, what was the harm? It's not like they were hurting anyone by picking George Benson over Thelonious Monk.

I do remember when I bought my copy of Grover Washington Jr's Live at the Bijou. My jazz snobbery hadn't even been formed yet, and all I knew is that the album was a lot of fun. Heck, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't even aware of the concept of smooth jazz at the time. I'm pretty sure the album sat on the shelf not too far away from Chuck Mangione's Feels So Good.

Grover Live was recorded back in 1997, not long after Soulful Strut was released. Recorded at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, New York, the sound is is indeed very live, with a lot of room in the mix. Grover's saxophone playing is wide-ranging and full of emotion. On top of that, his band was just killer, with funk-a-licious drums, muscular bass, and soul-drenched keyboards. This music isn't so much influenced by funk as actually steeped in it.

In addition to "Soulful Strut," the record is just chocked-full of Grover signature tunes including "Just The Two Of Us," "Winelight," and "Mr. Magic." My favorite is the ultra-funky take on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." Damnation, but his band could funk out!

But…is it jazz or smooth jazz? Maybe Wikipedia has the answer. Me? I'll just be content to let the funk flow — a bittersweet reminder that Washington's life was cut short all too soon.

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About Mark Saleski

  • I had the pleasure of seeing Grover on this tour, second row at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Pete, Florida. He had such an unassuming command and contagious enthusiasm for music. Just a towering talent.

  • I used to listen to a Grover record around 1985-87, as the word “smooth jazz” probably was not still “coined”. At that time it was “fusion” or “jazz-rock”. I hope in this case “smooth” is not “shallow” as it sometimes sounds.

  • re: #2 – the thing that turned jazz on the smooth side into something unlistenable (for me anyway) was the percussion. you listen to this recording and Grover has this killer band playing behind him with a lot of soul and funk. later on, what we now think of a smooth jazz went to use programmed percussion (or percussion lacking in any sort of syncopation) and that just drained the life out of it. bleah!