*The godfather of today’s urban contemporary jazz scene, Grover Washington Jr., was one of the most popular and influential saxophonists of the ’70s and ’80s.
And while he may have paved the way for such easy-listening artists as Kenny G, Najee, George Howard and Gerald Albright, none of those popular saxophonists play with the chops and sheer intensity that Grover demonstrated on the bandstand from night to night throughout his career, which spanned three decades.
And as the newly discovered Grover Live demonstrates, the man was clearly on top of his game well in to the ’90s. Recorded on June 7, 1997 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, New York, Grover Live, produced by Jason Miles (Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, Sting), captures the consummate pro in concert and at the peak of his powers, blowing with unbridled conviction and a sense of risk-taking on a collection of his tunes spanning three decades.
From familiar hits like “Winelight” and “Mr. Magic” to a medley of early numbers like “Inner City Blues,” “Black Frost” and “Just the Two of Us” to more recent offerings like “Mystical Force,” the hip-hop flavored “Uptown” and a contemporary spin on the old school groover, “Soulful Strut,” Grover and his crew – Adam Holzman and Donald Robinson on keyboards and synthesizers, Gerald Veasley on electric bass, Richard Lee on guitar, Pablo Batista on percussion and Steven Wolf on drums – stretch out in dynamic fashion on this exhilarating live CD.
Washington sets the tone for the evening on the engaging opener, “Winelight,” which showcases his wonderfully relaxed style and big, beautiful tone on the tenor sax. This tune, and several others on Grover Live, instantly reveals Washington to be, as Gil Evans once said of Miles Davis, “a great singer of songs.” And while his mellow approach to melodic material established a school of playing that ultimately led to the smooth jazz movement, Grover can be heard wailing in pure spontaneous and aggressive fashion on a stirring cadenza, full of upper register squealing and virtuosic scalar runs that elicit wild shouts from the Peekskill crowd.
“Take Another Five” from the 1992 release Next Exit is a funkified take on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” the jazz anthem debuted by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on 1959’s Time Out and showcases the individual band members stretching out with abandon. Again, Grover’s delivery is relaxed and imbued with soul before he unleashes his mighty chops at the 3:15 mark. “Soulful Strut,” the title track of Washington’s current Columbia CD at the time of this concert, is a contemporary remake of the instrumental hit by Young Holt Unlimited from 1969. The atmospheric “Mystical Force,” co-penned by Grover and his musical director Donald Robinson, is a smooth jazz offering with a funky edge while the slamming “Uptown,” which has Grover switching nimbly from soprano to tenor sax, features sampled rappers, churning conga from Batista and some warm, Wes Montgomery-inspired octaves work from Lee. “Sassy Stew” is a slow grooving lyrical number from 1984’s Inside Moves that gradually builds to a passionate crescendo that Washington wails over with signature abandon.
The Peekskill audience is next taken on a nostalgic trip by Grover in a well-crafted medley that travels from old school numbers like “Black Frost” (from 1974’s Mister Magic) and an instrumental version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” (title track of Washington’s 1971 debut on Kudu) to the romantic “Strawberry Moon” (title track from his 1987 album on Columbia) and the Afro-Cuban flavored “Inside Moves” (title track of his 1984 album on Elektra). The funky “Jamaica” (from 1989’s Time Out of Mind) is a showcase for Washington’s robust baritone sax playing while the beautiful ballad “East River Drive” (A Grover original from 1980’s Come Morning) has him playing soulfully on soprano sax. The extensive medley concludes with the chart-topper “Just the Two of Us” (sans Bill Withers on vocals), and the upbeat “Sausalito,” which features a heated timbales solo by Batista over a percolating son montuno section. They close out the set with the funky “Let it Flow” (a paean to basketball superstar Julius “Dr. J” Erving which appeared his 1980 album Winelight) that showcases Veasley on a monstrous electric bass solo. And they encore with Grover’s signature tune, “Mr. Magic,” a ’70s staple that has guitarist Lee wailing in Hendrix-like fashion and also features Washington erupting with visceral power on tenor sax.
Washington’s only other concert recording was Live at the Bijou, which documented a 1977 performance at a Philadelphia showcase venue, the Bijou Cafe. Twenty years later, he brought the same kind of intensity, improvisational daring and big-hearted soulfulness to the stage on the exciting Grover Live.
Born on December 12, 1943 in Buffalo, New York, Grover Washington was the son of a tenor sax-playing father who introduced him to the instrument when he was 10. While attending high school, he took evening classes at the Wurlitzer School of Music and for two years played baritone sax with the All City High School band. By age 14, he was sitting in at a local Buffalo nightspot called the Pine Grill. Two years later, he joined the quartet called the Four Clefs and with the full approval of his parents, left Buffalo to go on the road with the band.
In 1965, Washington was drafted into the Army. He was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey in the 19th Army Band where he met drummer Billy Cobham. Together they spent their free time moonlighting in Philadelphia and New York jazz clubs. After being discharged from the service in 1967, Grover settled in Philadelphia with his new wife Christine and took a day job with a local record wholesaler while continuing to play in the clubs at night. One important gig he landed was with organist Charles Earland, who showcased the young tenor player on his 1970 Prestige album, Living Black. Washington appeared as a sideman that year on several more sessions, including Johnny Hammond Smith’s Breakout on CTI. That album quickly became a bestseller, establishing the saxophonist’s reputation within musician circles as a major new voice on the instrument. It also caught the attention of CTI producer Creed Taylor, who offered Grover a contract to record as a group leader on the CTI subsidiary label Kudu. His debut, Inner City Blues, garnered much critical acclaim in 1971, though at the time of its release, he was still working in the record wholesaler’s warehouse. As he recalled, “I was in the unique position of unloading records with my own name on them, but I didn’t mind. I was 28 and feeling on top of the world.”
After the release of 1974’s Mister Magic, a churning soul-jazz offering with swaggering funk overtones, Grover was well on his way to international stardom. The title track garnered huge radio play that summer of ’75 and ultimately became Washington’s theme song throughout the rest of his career.
Grover earned his first Grammy Award for Winelight (1980), an album that eventually attained double platinum status on the strength of the popular single “Just The Two of Us” featuring singer Bill Withers. Washington subsequently signed with CBS Records in 1987 and debuted with Strawberry Moon, his 19th album as a leader. His second Columbia album, Then and Now (1988), was a return to straight ahead jazz featuring an all-star cast including pianists Tommy Flanagan and Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummers Grady Tate and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. For his follow-up with the label, he did an about-face in 1992 by releasing the hip-hop/jazz project Next Exit, asserting his interest in keeping a finger on the pulse of the streets. He followed that release with the jazz outing, All My Tomorrows in 1994. After (1997), a soothing collection of Christmas-related songs, he released Breath of Heaven: A Holiday CollectionPrime Cuts, a greatest hits compilation of his Columbia years with two new cuts.
Grover died of a sudden heart attack at age 56 on December 17, 1999 while taping an appearance on CBS TV’s “The Saturday Early Show.” The posthumous Aria, an album of classic opera pieces recorded in May of 1999 with bassist Ron Carter, pianist Billy Childs and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, was issued the following year.
At the time of this recording, Grover was promoting his release, Soulful Strut (1996).