ALTHOUGH on odd occasions they have varied their musical direction — notably into Country & Western for a minute and via the Rare Earth Rock-Pop label — Motown has never made a serious attempt to garner any percentage of the now lucrative jazz market.
Actually, that is not the entire truth since something like eight or nine years ago, Motown distributed the Chisa label and had some measure of success via the Crusaders (then known as the Jazz Crusaders) and Hugh Masekela. But that was at a time when jazz had reached a new low and the occasional success that did spring from that area of music was simply lumped in with the other R&B of the day.
However, as every reader of B&S is acutely aware, the prolonged legal battles between Motown and CTI/Kudu have now come to a head and the result is that 'The Sound of Young America' has inherited one of the brightest lights in creative jazz-fusion — namely Grover Washington Jr.
The prolonged litigation naturally caused Grover a good deal of temporary harm but once you get a listen to his Motown debut album, "Reed Seed", you'll realise that no permanent damage has been done. In fact, my personal opinion is that Grover is about to gain his first Platinum album award — and it'll look particularly nice surrounded by the three Gold awards that currently adorn his study wall at his spacious home in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Apart from the obvious reasons, this album has several other significant implications and Grover went to great lengths to make us aware of them. For example, there is the fact that this is the first time he has completely produced an album on himself; or the fact that it's the first time he has recorded in Philadelphia, his adopted home.
"I had always recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey but I was looking for somewhere nearer home but that had the same warmth," Grover begins. "I came up with Ridge Sound and I have to credit the engineers for a great job. They had enough experience and, above all, they made us feel comfortable. The whole album was cut during a four month spell and took up all of our time in between touring."
Of course, the legal difficulties caused an enforced delay. "But we always felt that a settlement of some kind would take place so we were completely ready to record once it was resolved," Grover points out. "That was in July and what it meant was that I signed a mutual agreement with both CTI and Kudu and then a separate side contract with Motown. It means that I have to supply Motown with two completely new albums — one of which is "Reed Seed" and the other which will be cut before the end of the year. Then, since they also acquired the back catalogue on Kudu, they also have the right to package a 'best of' album. It broke my heart that they got the old material because I really tried to buy them myself. I asked and they simply said 'no'. There was no negotiating on the subject."
The obvious question is whether or not Motown are ready to leap full length into the jazz market and Grover (rightly!) assumes that they are. "They really won't ever get a better chance to prove themselves in the jazz market, will they?" Grover modestly smiles. "This is their chance and I believe they will get behind "Reed Seed". My own opinion is that this is my best album to date and I want to thank the people at Motown for giving me total creative freedom. They gave me the opportunity to present my product in the form I believed was best. CTI? Well, I wish Creed the very best of luck because we genuinely like the guy. He is a very nice man, a gentleman and I am sure he'll get over."
Has the lack of recorded product slowed down Grover's work ratio any? "Happily, no" he asserts. "But it did mean that I was able to take a whole month of vacation this year with my family. But, no — it hasn't stopped me getting bookings and it hasn't affected my money. But I still feel I am in the building process and the results of this album will possibly carry me higher. Last year, for example, we tended to play the smaller markets because we didn't have any product to promote; this year, this fall, we expect to play the major cities to work behind this album and so that is the only real negative effect that the delay has had. With a co-ordinated effort by all concerned, this could well be the most important stage of my career."
One of the obvious facts that has emerged from the "Reed Seed" album is the lack of disco tracks and in the past Grover ahs won many fans on the strength of his more uptempo, danceable material. "This album shows more flexibility and versatility and I feel that it is a fuller spectrum of music to satisfy both the audience and myself. You see, I can't play funk all night and I can't play contemporary jazz all night — I like to present a good cross-section and that is what this album represents, I feel. I think that "Do Dat" is likely to satisfy the disco people and I imagine that this will be the single because it's the most commercial track, don't you agree?"
Another of the important facets of this album is that Grover has, for the very first time, been able to use his own musicians for the album. Collectively known as Locksmith, they were in support on the "Live At The Bijou" album but this is their first time in the studio with their leader. Individually, they are: John Blake Jr., electric violin, all keyboards and various synthesisers; Tyrone Brown, bass; Leonard 'Doc' Gibbs, percussion; James 'Sid' Simmons, keyboards; Richard L. Steacker, guitar; and Milard 'Pete' Vinson, drums. "I prefer to use my own guys wherever possible," Grover explains. "But every now and then I still intend to introduce guest musicians to try new ideas."
Of course, one of the interesting side lights of past Grover Washington Jr. albums has always been the list of guest players and I asked Grover to suggest his perfect support band. "Lord, that's a hard one," he smiles. "I'd have to go for Herbie Hancock on keyboards and either Jan Hammer or George Duke on synthesiser. Violin would have to be Jean-Luc Ponty or Michael White and obviously it would have to be Ralph (McDonald) on percussion. Drums — I'd go for Elvin Jones. Bass is really hard but I think I would settle for either Anthony Jackson or Cecil McBee. On guitar it would have to be Eric Gale but I am also a great admirer of Wilbert Longmire, too." An impressive outfit!
In his efforts to go for something new, Grover stresses that he is still open to offers for guest spots on other albums. "I'd love to see if I could blend with McCoy Tyner," he enthuses. "And I'd love to have the opportunity to play on a Stevie Wonder session. I am looking right now to start work on new and interesting special projects. For example, I am going to produce an album on Locksmith and hope that eventually we can start our own label — but with the backing of a major company, of course. The eventual goal is our own identity but it can take its own time. Another project that I would really like to get involved in is doing a movie score. In the past, I have been under consideration but that is something I really would like to do."
All of which might seem a little ambitious but Grover is a sensible man and he has learned his lessons well. "I have learned a great deal about the business end and for this I must thank people such as Bob James, Creed Taylor and Rudy Van Gelder," he adds. "But most of all, I have learned from my wife, Chris."
Back to the subject of "Reed Seed" and one of the notable omissions from the musical side of it is the orchestra — one of the hallmarks of Bob James' productions. "It was deliberately done that way," Grover asserts. "In fact, we only used strings on two tunes — and on "Just The Way You Are", we found we didn't need them. On the second, "Could This Be True", we simply didn't have room to include the track on this album and so it means we've got one down for the second album for Motown."
Did being with Motown make Grover any more conscious of the singles market? "Yes, it did," he laughs gently. "I really haven't had a hit single since "Mr. Magic" so we feel that "Do Dat" could solve that problem."
Anyway, the "Reed Seed" is well and truly planted and methinks that the fruit that will bear forth from the tree will bring most of Grover's dreams to fruition.