I recently read a piece by the son of one of the most famous Jazz musicians of all time where he seemed to want to round on everyone from up-town restaurants to TV, and Rock and Roll for the loss of ‘fun’ in Jazz. Jazz, you see, was originally all about dance and the gentrification of it meant that this was lost somewhere over time. Europeans turned it into a simpler product that could be ‘understood’ by more ordinary people – and then they played it at dinnertime. The true Jazz men went off to Rock and Roll and Blues music where they could express themselves.
What I think our disgruntled Jazz-man is missing is that the term, Smooth Jazz, although seemingly a put-down by his and his father’s generation, has developed into a highly skilled art form that requires musicians of the highest calibre and sensitivity. In essence, it is a form that grew out of jazz fusion blended with easy listening pop music. In today’s world, with music download services available to all, listeners want to be able to dictate the type and quality of their music in the form of a playlist of their choosing. Sometimes we like to chill, and Smooth Jazz is the perfect solution.
Smooth Jazz first appeared in the 1970’s and 80’s and even then, it wasn’t appreciated by the traditionalists. However, with huge artists such as George Benson, Spyo Gyra, Al Jarreau and many others producing worldwide hits, the genre grew in popularity.
Today the form is more often than not referred to as Dinner Jazz. But don’t let this put you off. It requires a special artist to produce the ‘smooth’ sounds required to pull it off. All this preamble has come about because this week I was sent an EP by a young singer I’d never heard of before and who sung in a way I never expected. Theo Lee – that’s her name – is young. Very young.
Her age is not the only unexpected thing about Theo – originally from Taiwan, she came to the US in 2015 to pursue her passion for music. She studied Jazz, Bossa, Folk, R&B and Pop and has developed a beautifully smooth vocal style that belies her years.
The EP contains three standard tracks – one of which is repeated (more of that in a minute) – and was made at a studio in LA. While the sound is determinedly ‘Smooth’ in style, the first track appeared on the original BossaNova album by Antonio Carlos Jobim in the late 1950’s. Chega De Saudade (No More Blues) is, however, most popularly known by Joao Gilberto’s breathless vocal version from 1959. In Theo’s English version, the beat is a little more up and probably all the better for it. A delightful piece.
The first track is repeated at the end of the EP – but this time she sings it in the original Portuguese. Theo’s talents are many; she confidently performs in any of six or seven languages. Theo says that South American friends have commented favourably on her pronunciation – she certainly has the right ‘type’ of voice for the Bossa sound.
The second track is another standard originally written in 1932 by Harry Warren and which then turned up in the musical film 42nd Street of 1933. Subsequently recorded by Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Perry Como, and well, plenty more performers up to Diana Krall in 1998. The song is light in both sound and content, and Theo thankfully doesn’t try to over sing it. At this point, I should make a point about the unknown musicians backing her and who have been balanced superbly through all the tracks; always there, but never too big. Like Theo, they’re as subtle and smooth as the tracks dictate.
The final track is from Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk album Thrust from 1974. Deemed a masterpiece of the 1970’s jazz-funk era it was my least liked of Theo’s collection. It wasn’t that she didn’t sing it perfectly and with her trademark smoothness, but somehow I didn’t feel she connected with it in the way she did with the first two tracks. But this could be me – once again the musicians are spot on and the arrangement works well – the muted flugel/trumpet is as restrained as expected and the arrangement hangs together. I just didn’t quite buy it.
There is no way that I am ending this piece with a negative – Theo is a special artist who possesses one of those crystal clear voices that sits comfortably wherever she is in the range; the slight huskiness to her tone is more than enough to pull you in close. Dinner Jazz? Not at all. Listening to Theo is more like drinking a fresh new wine that is beautifully smooth and has enough depth and mystique to want you demanding that second glass. In fact, could I order a bottle of it?
Simon Bever (April 2018)