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I know what you’re thinking, so let me stop you right there.
First, let’s acknowledge your bravery in even attempting to read about one of the most maligned and ridiculed subgenres of music north of juggalo-core. You’re exceptionally brave for heading down this seemingly forbidding road paved with the fetid sputum of Dave Koz’s spit valves. Brave… and handsome. My, you’re looking handsome—or beautiful, if that’s what you prefer. How about toothsome? Do people still say that? Did they ever?
Anyway, now that I’ve sufficiently buttered you up, it’s time to blow your mind. Because like so many pervasive musical myths, including the one about Yoko Ono malevolently breaking up the Beatles or the drowning victim behind Phil Collins’ angsty hit “In The Air Tonight,” the inherent awfulness ascribed to smooth jazz is too a lie, another urban legend told too many times through misguided lips.
Whatever your exposure to this music, be it via your parents’ obsessive love of Kenny G or that time you got stuck in an elevator for seven hours, now is a great time to make some new positive memories. Straight outta the very same fusion scene that yielded now-iconic records like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, many of the artists who would pioneer this relaxing, sensual offshoot arrived at it quite naturally. Explore the soul sounds of the 1970s for long enough and you’re bound to stumble into its jazzier corners, expressed in a number of the latter genre’s splintering trends during the decade.
Beginning the mid-1970s, American radio stations recognized the broader appeal of certain fusion records and began experimenting with what would ultimately become the smooth jazz format, one that enjoyed significant success in the 1990s. (Though the industry definition has since changed to instead reflect a soft rock sound, the consensus term “adult alternative” was used throughout the 1980s and into the early part of the subsequent decade.) Stations adherent to this template played a selection of instrumental and vocal cuts, with saccharine pop and even new age making it into the mix. Though much of what came of this shift perhaps belongs in the bargain bin if not the trash bin, smooth jazz became the prevailing sound of vocal-oriented adult contemporary and easy listening. This, perhaps, is why people are more likely to associate this music with a sexless goon like John Tesh than, say, a talented jazzman like George Duke.
Consider, instead, the other legacies of smooth jazz: its twin statuses as the unmistakable sound of late night rendezvous and the bountiful sample source for some of hip-hop’s most important recordings. Do so, and you’ll reveal an aural history (forgive the pun) that connects trailblazers like John Klemmer and Lonnie Liston Smith to contemporaries like Thundercat and Terrace Martin.
Like many other installments in this 10 Best series, this list shouldn’t be considered a categorically definitive one, but rather a collection of entry points for those looking to explore this style of music. Indeed, with my deepest apologies to Chuck Mangione, some of smooth jazz’s biggest commercial successes do not appear below, as a matter of personal taste but also in the service of shining light on less heralded records. These selections deliberately represent work within a particular timeframe, with the aim of showcasing the beauty behind a broadly appealing subgenre as it emerged and began to flourish. While things may have gone awry further along in its decades-long history, these albums promise satisfying listening sessions for those willing to approach with an open mind and a laid-back attitude.
Having previously recorded for Cadet and Impulse, tenor saxophonist John Klemmer already had plenty of experience as a leader prior to recording this landmark smooth jazz record. Backed by solid session players like bassist Chuck Domanico and drummer John Guerin, he wove soul fusion into something unmistakably silken. Klemmer lays out a veritable archetype for the form with the title track. Despite its pervasive softness, the album never drifts into banality. Throughout, Klemmer openly if delicately experiments so as not to disrupt the proceedings, letting loose on “Free Fall Lover” without ever losing his cool. Keyboardist Dave Grusin luxuriates at the Fender Rhodes for “Body Pulse” and his sumptuous “Sleeping Eyes” solo. Reaching No. 90 on the Billboard 200, Touch would be joined on the charts in the immediately succeeding years by like-minded records for ABC including Arabesque and Lifestyle (Living & Loving).
The jazz guitarist’s creative partnership with producer Creed Taylor formally began with 1969’s The Shape Of Things To Come, subsequently yielding largely instrumental records like Bad Benson and The Other Side Of Abbey Road. Yet it was only after parting ways with Taylor’s CTI for Warner Bros. that George Benson came into his own. His version of the Bobby Womack-penned title track proved a radically relaxed signature, one that exemplified the sound of so many smooth records to come. With Tommy LiPuma at the boards, the remaining songs on this seminal record present a variety of moods and grooves. Benson’s sole songwriting contribution, “So This Is Love,” swirls with strings and keys caught up in his rapturous guitar playing. His gorgeous take on Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” earned a Grammy, while the album topped multiple Billboard charts and ultimately secured RIAA triple-platinum certification.
A composer scoring motion pictures like 3 Days Of The Condor and The Graduate, most people exposed to Grusin’s work in the 1970s never learned his name. Those who did explore beyond his Hollywood pedigree likely stumbled upon this. Though his five songs here are not exclusively smooth, the pianist/keyboardist demonstrates why so many who did operate in the burgeoning subgenre utilized him on their records. While many smooth jazz practitioners that followed seemed too at ease making music for the boudoir, Grusin drew out complex, fluid feelings on “Modaji” and the pensive “Playera.” With a cinematic flair, “Catavento” glides along, buoyed by his electric piano while flecked with the flair of flautist Dave Valentin and percussionist Ralph MacDonald’s São Paulo rhythms. A callback to his soundtrack for the film, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter surges with emotion while it saunters through the space.
Another former CTI act like Benson, keyboardist James was already quite firmly established by the time he dropped this, his second solo record since transitioning to his own Tappan Zee vanity imprint with Columbia. Andy Kaufman fans will instantly recognize the warm tones of “Angela,” which served as the theme song for the sitcom Taxi. Tied in with that show’s popularity, Touchdown spent 29 weeks on the Billboard 200 album charts, peaking at No. 37, and it officially went gold in 1980, his first record to do so. The title track had originally been selected for the Taxi title credits, and separated from that initial intent its comparatively uptempo bombast still seem to herald something worth getting excited about. The variable rhythm section boasts notable figures Idris Muhammad and Mongo Santamaria in its ranks, the latter of these bringing an Afro-Cuban presence to the sprawling “Caribbean Nights.”
A Blue Note veteran and erstwhile collaborator with the aforementioned Benson and James, this contemporary jazz guitarist had a great run in the 1970s as both a lead and a sideman. While a good amount of his 1980s output will remind you of telephone hold music, there’s something liberating in just taking it in and appreciating Earl Klugh’s stylish skill on this 1979 outing for the legendary label. With musicians like percussionist Ralph MacDonald and Michael Jackson keyboard fixture Greg Phillinganes in tow, his acoustic prowess shines over these laidback arrangements. Of the lengthier cuts, “I’ll See You Again” swings like fine funk and the two-part “Acoustic Lady” simply blisses out. Traces of disco pepper the lively “Pretty World,” while the briefest track “Waiting For Cathy” drifts along softly without much fuss.
The line between funk/soul and smooth jazz found itself blurred constantly in this particular period. Beginning with his time on Sonny Fortune’s 1978 crossover endeavor Infinity Is, this trumpeter freely played both sides to his advantage. Striking out on his own, Tom Browne scored jazz-pop label GRP Records a win with the single “Funkin’ For Jamaica,” a dancefloor-friendly R&B chart-topping homage to his native Queens. Those who picked up Love Approach expecting something in a Parliament vein got treated to velvety numbers like “Dreams Of Lovin’ You” and “Her Silent Smile” instead. The frantic pace and erratic instrumental shifts of “Nocturne” contrast with the tranquility of the more sedate “Moon Rise.” With his subsequent records, Browne’s would shift to boogie and, like Herbie Hancock, the nascent hip-hop style known as electro.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, this saxophonist landed multiple albums in the Billboard 200’s upper reaches, including back-to-back Top 10 entries with 1975’s Mister Magic and Feels So Good. A prominent star both inside and outside of jazz, Grover Washington, Jr., outdid himself with Winelight. The seductive title track illustrates a more restrained version of the boisterous funk fusion he’d made his name with. Romance blooms on catchy cuts like “Take Me There” and the relatively subdued “In The Name Of Love.” With Bill Eaton and Richard Tee on keys and transfixing lead vocals by soul singer Bill Withers, “Just The Two Of Us” rightfully went supernova, scoring a Grammy for Best R&B Song after reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Primarily an instrumental affair apart from its massive single, Winelight won the Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance.
Following the Crusaders 1979 disco crossover Street Life and his own well-received late 1970s’ solo albums Rainbow Seeker and Carmel, this electric piano maestro ushered in the new decade with a touch of class. With the artist positioned at the helm of a Steinway concert grand piano, the album’s cover art promises more of the mesmeric style he’d displayed on those prior releases. Operating in peak condition, Joe Sample commands the keys on no fewer than three different instruments. All of its seven tracks are originals, with vocal number “Burnin’ Up The Carnival” co-credited with his then-frequent collaborator Will Jennings. Apart from that boogie opportunity, Voices In The Rain favors mellow moments, from the midtempo splendor of “Greener Grass” to the luxe surrealism of “Shadows.”
The Cosmic Echoes were one of the finest ensembles of the 1970s, making the dazzling duo Expansions and Visions Of A New World. Recorded nearly a decade after those for Bob Thiele’s Doctor Jazz imprint, the group’s bandleader Lonnie Liston Smith teamed with up-and-comer Marcus Miller for a engaging half-vocal, half-instrumental set befitting the decade’s slick production qualities. Jazz and R&B had obviously been commingling for some time, yet Dreams Of Tomorrow captures their intertwined pop potential in a way that sets an exemplary standard for the decade. With acoustic and electric pianos at his disposal, Liston Smith plays his heart out on “Rainbows Of Love” and the supremely chilled “A Garden Of Peace.” Known for his work on a number of Cosmic Echoes’ classics, Donald Smith lends his pipes to four debonair tracks.
All the melody, groove and wonderment of the preceding 10 years of innovation and improvisation found its way into the breathtaking Diamond Life. With the core of Paul Denman, Andrew Hale, and Stuart Matthewman, singer Helen Folasade Adu constructed a musical masterpiece of sultry, mature pop that stark contrasted with the bubblegum mush clogging the mainstream. Smash hit “Smooth Operator” gave a much-needed countervailing narrative, thwarting the glorified womanizers that intrinsically occupied this male-dominated subgenre. Elsewhere, the group takes to the discotheque for “Hang On To Your Love,” sways the afterparty with “Your Love Is King,” and humanizes Timmy Thomas’ metronomic “Why Can’t We Live Together” with a swing. A multi-platinum success throughout the English and French speaking world, Diamond Life remains a crossover classic for damn good reason.
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.