IOWA CITY - Al Jarreau has all the smooth moves.
More than 2,000 got their boogie down Friday night (9/19/14) with the scat master for a free Hancher concert on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. The weather was perfect for opening night of the Iowa Soul Festival, which also brought two African bands from Legion Arts' Landfall Festival in Cedar Rapids to the downtown Iowa City stage.
Such collaborations are the perfect way to unite the amazing arts offerings and organizations from both ends of the Corridor.
It's impossible to sit still when Jarreau hits the stage. He just exudes joy.
He never stopped smiling during his nearly 90-minute set. By the end of the evening, he said his "grin muscles" hurt. That's because he was loving every minute basking in his alma mater's glow.
Jarreau earned a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation from the UI College of Education in 1964. But on the side, the Milwaukee native lit up Corridor jazz clubs with the sophisticated stylings that would take him around the world and back again, with seven Grammys wins in jazz, pop and R&B categories.
I had been waiting 32 years to see the legend in action. It was worth the wait, from the opening bounce of "Tell Me What I Gotta Do" to the party encore of "Roof Garden." He has funk in his pocket to spare. We would go waltzing with him anywhere.
He just has that "it" quality. He's generous with his fans, with the media and with his concert organizers. Representatives of all three groups were gushing after the concert. That's fairly rare and so special.
At 74, he's the epitome of a casual hip that never goes out of style. Clad in black from beret to toe, he pushed his tux jacket sleeves up to his elbows and added little pops of color with a red satin pocket square and small gold medallion.
The brightest accent was his smile, wrapped around so many classic lyrics and meticulous scat that seamlessly blends vocal acrobatics with rapid-fire syllables while he plays the stem of his microphone like a saxophone. It's all punctuated with elegant hand gestures and sexy little hip swivels as he gets his groove on.
The lyrics of his second song, "Mornin'," capture his essence so perfectly: "'Scuse me if I sing, my heart has found its wings."
He adds some Swahili - which he tried to teach us - for "I Will Be Here For You (Nitakungodea Milele)." That was the first of two songs he said were penned by "a couple of blond-haired, blue-eyed Valley Boys" from the '80s pop rock band, Mr. Mister. Part promise, part prayer, this was the song that first melted Friday's dance-party gathering.
"Did you bring a lunch? We're going to be here a while," he said, sending up a roaring cheer from the crowd.
His new music is an impeccable as his standards, and we were treated to a couple cuts off his new album celebrating the music of his old friend George Duke, who died Aug. 5, 2013.
Jarreau surrounds himself with marvelous musicians, who each get a turn in the spotlight. Gorgeous Spanish guitar from John Calderon sets the stage for Duke's "Brazilian Love Affair" while Joe Turano's sublime alto sax mirrors Jarreau's lovely falsetto on "My Old Friend," the other tune he said was written by the Mr. Mister bandmates, and serves as the title track to the Duke tribute.
The breakout star from the band is bass player Chris Walker, who stepped up to the mic to lay down some swoon-worthy, velvety tenor on his own tune, "How Do You Heal a Broken Heart," followed by amazing scat call and answer with Jarreau on "Random Act of Love."
The musical highlight of the evening came with a completely unexpected twist to Dave Brubeck's seminal "Take Five." This is such a cool cat song, made even cooler by Jarreau's quiet, whispery interpretation. Just when you expect him to cut loose and fling the sound skyward, he brings it down even softer, letting the notes shimmer, suspended in the beautiful night air while Turano vocalizes a "ya-ya" counterpoint.
It's that kind of counterpoint, so smart and elegant, that breathes such a captivating experimental sass into Jarreau's jazz for the masses. That's a lesson Jarreau said he and Duke learned in the '60s, while honing their craft alongside the rock and protest songs of the day. To reach broadly and not be afraid of emerging styles. It gives us every reason to smile.
The Iowa Soul Festival continues through Sunday in downtown Iowa City. For details, go to Summerofthearts.org