It’s not difficult to debate that the best smooth jazz is early smooth jazz, before radio stations with the moniker became saturated with easy-listening “light rock” vocals and trite melodies over sampled urban beats. Feel free to disagree with me; however, in chronological order, this is my list of the five songs that defined the genre.
Breezin’, George Benson. The triple Platinum album, Breezin’, marked the beginning of Benson’s most commercially successful period. The album garnered multiple prizes in the 1976 Grammy Awards, winning Best Pop Instrumental Performance for Benson and Best Engineered Album for Al Schmitt. Bobby Womack composed the song, Breezin’, which propelled Benson out of the jazz world and into the popular music charts. Breezin’ topped Billboard’s Pop, Jazz, and R&B album charts, and spun off two hit singles – the classic title song and This Masquerade, which was a top ten pop and R&B hit. With a career spanning five decades, more than 30 solo recordings, and ten Grammy Awards, it’s safe to say his music is standing the test of time.
Angela, Bob James. Everyone over the age of 35 who has watched TV undoubtedly knows this song as the opening theme music to the popular sitcom, Taxi. The poignant flute (Hubert Laws) and James’ warm electric Rhodes piano serve as musical counterpoint to the show’s gritty urban setting in New York City. The song remains one of the greatest TV themes ever produced, as well as a smooth jazz classic. Angela was released on the album Touchdown (1978), which was a commercial breakout album for James. The song was named after the guest character in the third episode of Taxi’s first season; however, upon hearing the song, the producers made this the show’s main theme.
Winelight, Grover Washington Jr. The 1970s landed the late Grover Washington Jr. a string of highly praised recordings. In 1980, he released the album, Winelight, on Elektra Records, owned by Warner Music group. The title song became what many consider to be his signature song – it was smooth, fused with R&B and jazz, and had an easy pop feel. The album went platinum in 1981, and also won Grammy Awards in 1982 for Best R&B Song (Just the Two of Us, featuring Bill Withers), and Best Jazz Fusion Performance (Winelight). The album and its title song were nominated for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Winelight continues to be popular on radio, and sounds as fresh today as it did over 30 years ago.
Songbird, Kenny G. According to a personal source who used to play with Kenny in his early days as a Seattle session man, Gorelick was quite capable in other styles before becoming the smooth jazz legend now known as Kenny G. Yes, he’s the sugary-sweet soprano saxophonist that jazz purists love to hate. Kenny G has had numerous hits since breaking through in the mid ’80s; however, none of them have been as big as Songbird, off his 1985 Duotones album. The song and album shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B, contemporary jazz, jazz, and pop charts upon release. Songbird has memorable melody, soulfully played by Kenny, and has been heard countless times over the years on TV, film, and smooth jazz radio.
Maputo, David Sanborn and Bob James. David Sanborn has been a regarded session musician since the 1960s, playing with an array of artists that reads like a who’s who of pop, jazz, and rock and roll. Teamed up with Bob James, the prolific composer/keyboardist and one of the progenitors of smooth jazz, the duo recorded the platinum album, Double Vision, which not only won a Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Jazz Fusion Performance, but spent 63 weeks on the Billboard charts. Marcus Miller wrote Maputo, which is easily the most beautiful song from the album. Maputo shows off Sanborn’s greatest contributions to the music world: his passionate sound, and his expressive melodic interpretation. Despite countless imitators, Sanborn is immediately recognizable within the first few notes of any tune he plays.
As if we needed yet another list, now we have one of the very best smooth jazz songs of all time. Of course this is all tainted by my very biased viewpoint. Please leave me your opinions, which are likely to be very different than mine. No “Kenny bashing” though…please!
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