He's the only vocalist in history to win Grammys in three categories: jazz, pop, and R&B. Indeed, Al Jarreau has successfully blended these three genres since the 1970s, never forgoing his sophisticated scatting skills for commercial gain. He can perform straight-ahead jazz like a vocal version of "Take Five," yet score mainstream hits such as "We're in This Love Together" or the Moonlighting TV theme. This multitalented artist first came to my attention in the early 80s with 1983's Jarreau, a superbly crafted soul album that allowed his talents to shine through accessible tracks. One such song, "Boogie Down," became a concert staple as well as a call to the dance floor.
Despite his considerable skills, Jarreau did not develop his singing through formal training. While he grew up singing in his father's church in Wisconsin, Jarreau went on to earn a master's in psychology. Eventually he abandoned his original plan -- becoming a social worker -- and decided to pursue a music career. After playing in small Los Angeles clubs and recording one album in the mid-60s, he finally gained notice for his next effort, 1975's We Got By. A few more critically acclaimed albums followed until his 1981 album, Breakin' Away, earned him a wider fan base. The title track and the pop hit "We're in This Love Together" highlighted his ability to sing R&B but incorporate scatting. This success continued in 1983 with Jarreau, as the album spawned the singles "Mornin'" and the aforementioned "Boogie Down."
Cowritten by Jarreau and veteran composer/producer Michael Omartian, "Boogie Down" soars thanks to Jarreau's enthusiastic performance and the song's arrangement. Producer Jay Graydon surrounded the singer with a stellar group of professionals such as horn player/arranger Jerry Hey, drummers Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro, bassist Abe Laboriel, etc., and a then lesser-known pianist named David Foster. The horns and strong beat, along with keyboard riffs, propel the song's heavy rhythm. Jarreau's ebullient voice communicates the cheerful "let's party" lyrics, his enthusiasm proving infectious. The chorus lingers:"I can be what I want to / And all I need is to get my boogie down."
Only Jarreau could navigate through wordy lines, his jazz background enabling him to stress the rhythmic quality of the lyrics:
I got my certain and my sure 'nough on
And I'm putting on my really for real
You face that curtain with your best stuff on
You are the winner, and you're gonna feel!
One of the most enjoyable portions of "Boogie Down" occurs during the instrumental break, when the vocalist breaks out in joyful scatting. It serves as Jarreau's statement that while he excels at singing R&B, his love and roots remain in jazz.
The entire Jarreau album is well-worth a listen; despite the usual overuse of synthesizers typical of 1980s music, the mix of soul, jazz, and even a little Latin flavor has aged quite well. "Boogie Down" represents just one outstanding track in a collection of solid, well-performed songs.