Styles & Forms | Smooth Jazz

Slick, ‘radio-friendly’ smooth jazz emerged in the 1970s, and it has continued to evolve ever since. The most artful examples can make for rewarding listening, while blander compositions can be recognized by any combination of musical clichés: light funk grooves, jazz chords, slapped bass lines, corny horn accompaniments and pedicitable solos.

The style has drawn fierce criticism from jazz purists, but its unobtrusiveness has often made it popular with restaurants, wine bars and other public places where sophisticated-sounding background music is required to give clients or customers a chill-out vibe. Many would use the term ‘fusion’ to describe smooth jazz, even though the same word is more commonly used to describe the more exploratory jazz rock scene that emerged out of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew period. This seems rather contradictory, as smooth jazz is normally cool background music while jazz rock is often complex and demanding. But it probably explains why jazz rock fans tend to pour scorn over even the most distinguished smooth jazz acts whenever they are mentioned.

Cool Sounds In The 1970s

The earliest smooth jazz artists were musicians who wanted to make more commercial, accessible music without losing their jazz roots. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 22 March, 1943, George Benson is perhaps the best example of this. His stepfather was a musician who taught him to play the ukulele and guitar, and after being enticed by the jazz sounds of saxophonist Charlie Parker and guitarist Grant Green, he decided to become a jazz guitarist. He emerged as a popular soloist in the style of Wes Montgomery, and played alongside top artists such as Herbie Hancock, Jack McDuff and Ron Carter during the 1960s. In the 1970s, he switched over to a more commercial, jazz funk style, and was rewarded with serious album sales. Breezin’ (1976) sold more than two million units and was the first of several Grammy-winning recordings with Warner Brothers, while In Flight (1976) was a polished album that featured Benson – an accomplished vocalist – ‘scat’ singing in unison with his trademark cool solos. He switched to a more overtly pop vocal sound during the 1980s, to the disgust of some jazz purists, but he later compensated by recording with Count Basie’s old band in 1990.

Benson’s popularity inspired other jazz guitarists to go ‘smooth’ during the 1970s. Earl Klugh appeared with acoustic guitar albums, including the acclaimed Earl Klugh (1976) and Finger Painting (1977), while Lee Ritenour produced Latin-influenced recordings such as Guitar Player (1976) and Captain Fingers (1977), and Larry Carlton delighted listeners with his excellent soloing on Larry Carlton (1977). Keyboard players were at it too, with Herbie Hancock using electronically synthesized vocals on Sunlight (1977), Ramsey Lewis producing slick recordings such as Tequila Mockingbird (1978) and George Duke recording many albums, including his critically acclaimed Solo Keyboard Album (1976). On the band side, Spyro Gyra delivered the infectious Morning Dance (1979) and even...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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