There is hardly a genre of music I can't say something good about. Every style of music has its resident genius. Maybe all the imitators, the ones cashing in, are terrible. But somewhere, either at the root of a style, or off on an eccentric branch, I think a music fan can find performances and compositions that can change your ears, and the stuff between them.
That said, I can barely tolerate the style now known as "smooth jazz." The term itself strikes me as obscene. Jazz is a provocative art form. You listen to Louis Armstrong even now, you hear someone chasing the limits of freedom, unfettered and unruly. Everyone who followed from Armstrong — Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, dozens of others — sure, they could be cool, but they were never smooth.
Jazz is meant to be noticed. "Smooth jazz" is meant not to be. It has more in common with the Wyndham Hill style — soundscapes for relaxation and meditation, with no edges to snag your coat.
You don't often run into well-written essays in defense of "smooth jazz," so when I ran across this link on ArtsJournal, I figured I should give the writer, respected music critic J.D. Considine, a chance to enlighten me:
Nearly everyone knows the cliché version of the smooth sound. There's a soprano sax playing a melody line, a synthesized electric piano filling in the harmony, and a gently funky groove laid down by six-string bass guitar and drums. It's a formula familiar to anyone who has ever been put on hold, ridden in an elevator or tuned into the Weather Network for the local forecast.
Saxophonist Kenny G — who doesn't, by the way, consider his music jazz –is generally credited with having established that template, but radio stations and record companies generally get the blame for its having come to define the genre.
"Even if one is thinking about elevator music, or Weather Channel music, there isn't any necessity for that music to be bad music," says Bob James. "I remind people all the time that Mozart would probably sound great in an elevator. A lot of Mozart is very smooth to our ears, but that doesn't mean there isn't an amazing amount of subtlety there for the listener who digs deeper."
The problem, as he sees it, is that marketers and business people have tried to reduce the creative process to a commercial formula, which gets imposed on music and musicians. "The best example in our genre is when the guidelines given for what would be a commercially viable smooth-jazz recording — one they could guarantee would get played on smooth-jazz radio –would be a recording that doesn't have any solos in it," he says. "They've either been edited out or cut back so far that it's what the formula has demanded, a melody that repeats over and over again, with a funky rhythm in the background.
Hmm. Mozart would sound good in an elevator. But that doesn't mean all elevator music merits comparison to Mozart. And it sounds like Bob James is aware that his chosen genre has been contaminated by the crassest of commercial considerations. I'd like to see what would've happened if a music consultant tried to give "guidelines" to Miles Davis. A broken nose would have been the likely outcome.
As much as Considine's piece is worth reading, I do object to some of the artists he associates with "smooth jazz." There's a lot more going on in Norah Jones' music than would fit any specific genre, least of all "smooth jazz." Pat Matheny developed a weirdly narcotized tone for his guitar, but he's a thrilling soloist, and was a pioneer.
Considine avoids one obvious word: Sex. Let's face it, for most fans, "smooth jazz" is optimal music for trysts. But then…so is Mozart.