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By Tom Murphy
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I think I just offended Gerald Albright.
The saxophonist is behind the wheel of his truck, talking on his cell phone about the artists who influenced him when he was growing up in South Central Los Angeles. He mentions both Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley as early touchstones in shaping his sound. Noting the incongruity of a prominent smooth-jazz figure name-checking more traditional players, I ask Albright how he arrived at the mellower sound he favors -- a sound that most traditionalists dismiss as a watered-down derivation of a sacred art form. Fortunately, Albright is too much of a gentlemen to call me on my obvious myopia.
"I don't like categories too much," he says. "I consider myself a contemporary jazz player who is adaptable to smooth jazz. In addition to the two I mentioned, Cannonball and Maceo, there were an array of others, like Ronnie Laws, Grover Washington Jr., Earl Bostic, Coltrane, Charlie Parker. So what you basically hear in my sound are influences from all of these guys, depending upon the type of music that I'm playing at the time."
To be honest, I hadn't heard much of anything in his playing -- because I'd never really listened to Albright's music outside of a few records at my sister's house during weekend barbecues. While my sister is a die-hard fan, I'd be hard-pressed to pick Albright out in a lineup alongside saxmen like Dave Koz, David Sanborn, Everette Harp, Boney James and Kirk Whalum. Although my tastes in jazz are fairly liberal -- after all, I came of age listening to Spyro Gyra, George Benson and Grover Washington Jr., among others -- at heart, I'm a traditionalist.
Granted, I gravitate more toward Sonny Rollins and peripheral players such as Zoot Sims and Stan Getz than more obvious framers like Coltrane or Parker. But unlike any of those musicians, who each had a distinctive, groundbreaking playing style, most of the smooth-jazz artists seem interchangeable to my ears. The style is soothing, but I find it indistinctive. And I'm not alone in my convictions. Jazz is one of the most polarizing genres in music. You're either a dyed-in-the-wool purist and associate everything else with Kenny G, or you actually dig contemporary jazz.
"You get opinions from people sometimes that there are certain artists within smooth jazz who really aren't proficient enough to be called jazz players, when you compare them to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker," Albright notes. "But you have to respect the person who has been able to find their niche and find a way to be marketable enough to make a living.
"Case in point: Kenny G -- who is a dear friend of mine -- gets a lot of flak," he continues. "Musicians would say, ŒMan, this guy's making all this money, and all his songs are real simple and generic-sounding and linear.' But I know he's a proficient player. When you listen to him back in the days when he was with the Jeff Lorber Fusion, he was really playing some great horn then. And now he's decided to play something that's more palatable to easy listening, and I think that's okay."
Although it's rare to find folks with an affinity for both traditional fare and contemporary jazz, Albright sees no need for such distinctions. "If jazz all sounded the same," he says, "it would be a very boring genre." But then, the multi-faceted Albright can improvise with the best of them, which certainly helps explain this perception.
"I'm known primarily as a soul/jazz player," he points out, "but I also have two traditional records that I put out in '91 and '94 that depict the other side of my passion for the horn, which is strictly traditional jazz. And those efforts were geared toward not pigeonholing me into one art form. I mean, I love all different types of music, and to be deemed just a smooth-jazz artist is kind of limiting to me. Music is infinite. So therefore, my love for it and my passion for it is infinite."
And fans of smooth jazz are equally passionate. People like my sister, who's preparing to embark on her second jazz cruise of the year, are "helping put food on our tables," Albright notes.
"I think people are becoming a little more liberal in their listening of jazz these days," he says. "Of course, we're always going to have the purists who say it's Coltrane or nothing. But as I travel around the country, I'm finding people who appreciate it all, people who are willing to give all the genres of jazz a chance. The fact that I've been able to do contemporary/ smooth/traditional records over my discography, and the fact that my audience has swayed with me, speaks to that."
Not only has his audience swayed, but it stayed with him when he moved from Los Angeles to Castle Rock last year. "I arrived at my sound based on my influences, the Grover Washingtons of the world and people who were doing more of a heavily R&B-based jazz genre," he explains. "Grover -- if I'm not mistaken -- was the first artist to sell platinum in this genre of music. It was a pivotal time because it let record companies know that this was an art form that could make money. At that point, it opened the door for so many other musicians like myself to be considered for that same position that he was in. When Grover came out with Mr. Magic, it just really broke the door open for everybody. We owe so much to him. In fact, I'm currently on a tour called ŒGroovin' for Grover' with Kirk Whalum and Jeff Lorber. For the past three years, we've been lifting up the legacy of Grover's music and keeping it alive.