Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why Smooth Jazz Is Worse Than The Plague

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Vince Guaraldi-these guys were masters of their instruments. They could take a trumpet, saxophone, or piano and create sounds that no one had ever heard before. They took musical conventions and turned them on their heads.These guys were so unorthodox that their music was the rock n' roll of their day. During the early part of the century, jazz was not only considered rebellious; it was dangerous.

Somewhere along the way, probably in the 1960's on a Wes Montgomery record, jazz began to lose its edge. The complex scales and complicated fingering gave way to poppy arrangements that were designed to make people feel good. Instead of being in your face, jazz receded to the background.

This new genre, dubbed "Smooth Jazz" began to include elements of pop, funk, R&B, and even electronica. It's popularity exploded in the late 1980's and early 90's. Today, its almost impossible to go into a grocery store, or take a ride in an elevator without its watery genericness strangling your ears. What's so wrong with it, you ask?

Smooth Jazz is to jazz what pop is to music. The songs are short, catchy, overproduced, and rarely feature any virtuoso playing. Most pieces are either covers of better songs (mainly Motown or Top 40 fare) or so indistinguishable from each other that it sounds like the same song on repeat.

The main point of the genre seems to be this: take something that could be interesting, remove any sort of soul or passion from it, add synthetic drums, and noodle around for 4 minutes. I can't imagine that these records take longer than a day to record.

What's interesting is that these musicians are so often touted for their abilities. The satellite radio station, Watercolors, refers to Smooth Jazz as "sonic art;" going so far as to featuring their songs on a program called "The Gallery." The DJs seem so enthralled by the performers, and are so astounded when several of them join up for an album.

The thing is, I literally can't tell any of them apart. Every single song on the station sounds exactly the same. The "talent" that is so highly praised is completely absent from anything that I have heard there. My high school jazz band had players with more know-how than the people who are considered giants of Smooth Jazz.

Smooth Jazz is not an art form. It's not a genre that is designed to do anything other than sell records to people who don't understand music and make people feel good about their grocery choices. There is nothing special about what these recording artists are doing. Any real jazz musician of today could play circles around the Dave Kozs, Mindi Abairs, and Gerald Albrights.

Seriously. Compare This:

To This:

Perhaps the most telling thing about Smooth Jazz is that no one associated with it apparently knows what jazz is. On Watercolors, "The art of contemporary jazz," they frequently play Sade (R&B), Stevie Wonder (R&B), Anita Baker (R&B), Chaka Khan (R&B), Kem (R&B)... you get the picture.

I find the whole genre so ridiculous, that I included a few nods to it in my book, The Check Out. I won't give away the scene, but let's just say that two of the characters enjoy the music more than I do.

If you are a fan of Smooth Jazz, well, first of all..I'm sorry. Secondly, it's not the end of the world. Everyone likes what they like, and I frankly don't have the right to tell you what you should listen to. Let's just stop pretending that it's anything more than background music, though. If you just want something on while you are driving, or reading, or grocery shopping, then Smooth Jazz is fine. If you are trying to call it an art form, or suggest that it's the "soundtrack for my life," you are seriously mistaken.


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