OK, I’ll admit it. From time to time, I’ll stop my radio dial at 94.7 The Wave, that oft-derided Southern California radio station that was a pioneer in popularizing smooth jazz at the end of the 1980s. And why not? If Kevin and Bean are in a commercial, JACK FM is playing some obscure rock song that should have remained in obscurity and that whiny bitch Jamie from 98.7 is, well, whining, I can sometimes count on 94.7 to play something good—and not just smooth elevator jazz featuring a slinky saxophone.
There is one radio station and one radio station only that will play some of the most amazing songs Sting has ever created, like ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘Sister Moon.’ That same radio station, 94.7, also plays a good deal of Motown, including the best Motown song ever, Marvin Gaye’s cover of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine.’ Brian McKnight’s ‘Anytime,’ Anita Baker and plenty of Seal are also featured on the station. Then there is Simply Red’s ‘Holding Back the Years,’ an absolutely stunning song which you will only hear on this station.
The above musical selections serve to balance the soulless and lifeless nature of what results when a smooth jazz saxophonist decides to do a cover version of a popular rock or R&B song. The crushingly disastrous results which sometimes ensue draw me to the radio like wandering eyes to fresh road kill.
A key example of this would be Eric Darius’ version of Alicia Keys’ ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’ Despite his best efforts, Darius fails miserably in trying to duplicate the soul and passion of an accomplished singer with a mere musical instrument. There is simply a unique quality about the human voice that no instrument and no impossibly large ego can overcome.
Which brings me to Kenny G. For years, Kenny G. has been one of the most well-known smooth jazz artists. For worse and not for better, Kenny G. decided in 1999 to overdub his saxophone with Louis Armstrong in ‘What a Wonderful World.’ Like Joan Rivers and an awards show red carpet, Kenny G. and any legendary singer’s music should never be paired together.
In spite of his inexcusable musical sacrilege, even someone as oblivious to musical goodness as Kenny G. every now and then makes amends for musical sins. Recently, Kenny G. teamed with famous pianist David Benoit to redo Norah Jones’ ‘Don’t Know Why’ to produce a refreshed song which is surprisingly adequate. With significant help from Benoit’s piano and drums with a fuzzy edge, Kenny G. has created a novel alternative to the original which actually manages to produce a distinctive character.
Similarly, Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Oh Happy Day’ is delightfully free of a dragging saxophone. Instead, Lewis’ piano gives ‘Oh Happy Day’ a bluesy edge which is brought to life by a small choir. The lack of a lead singer invites the listener to use his or her own vocal chords with full force, and with Lewis’ piano and choir as supporting musicians, you might just scare the car next to you on the 405. Although a quality song, it is no ‘Sister Act 2,’ but then, I don’t expect to ever hear any ‘Oh Happy Day’ that makes me smile as widely as does that in ‘Sister Act 2.’
Even if you remain unconvinced that the smooth jazz saxophone has its occasional moments, it is undeniable that that instrument can be musically satisfying if you are in the right mood. When you don’t want music that is too catchy or bold (something you can sing along to), go for the smooth jazz. When you are looking for music that just fades into the background the way Ryan Seacrest should on ‘American Idol,’ smooth jazz can be the way to go. But the music is most certainly never going to be a suitable substitute for other, more energetic genres such as alternative rock and hip-hop.
We’ll know the Apocalypse is here when you see the driver of a pimped-out Honda with his right hand safely placed at nine ‘o clock, instead of blasting Usher or that ridiculous song about sweat dropping down your balls, utilizing his upgraded stereo to share smooth jazz.
Still, 94.7-style music can be enjoyed in different ways. Just don’t forget to change the station back to KROQ after a while.