In a career spanning three decades, Grammy-winning saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. recorded roughly 25 albums, earned a No. 2 Pop single with Bill Withers, supported countless other vocalists, and recorded music of genres from funk to opera. (Yes, opera!) Washington passed away in 1999 at the age of 56, but not before having made his mark on the worlds of jazz and pop alike. His legacy has recently been celebrated by Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label on the new 2-CD Definitive Collection. This 24-track set draws on his recordings for CTI/Kudu, Motown, Elektra, Blue Note, and Columbia Records, as both a leader and a guest artist.
Good luck guided Washington to his debut. The versatile musician (capable of playing alto, soprano, baritone, and tenor saxophones, all with equal aplomb) was playing a session for alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, his labelmate at Creed Taylor’s CTI label, when Crawford became indisposed. Taylor had already spotted star potential in the session player, so the producer made the decision to turn the session over to him rather than send the musicians home. Though Washington had only brought his tenor sax with him, an alto horn was located, and the rest was history – the recordings, arranged by Bob James, formed the basis of Inner City Blues, Grover’s debut on Kudu Records, CTI’s “soul jazz” imprint. Its title song, a cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On track, kicks off Robinsongs’ collection. Inner City Blues was a quick success, peaking at No. 4 on the U.S. Jazz chart, No. 8 on the R&B survey, and a none-too-shabby No. 62 on the Billboard 200. “Inner City Blues” even charted as a single, narrowly missing the R&B top 40 and “bubbling under” the Hot 100.
Washington stayed with Creed Taylor’s operation through 1977, recording six albums (including the R&B and Jazz chart-topper Mister Magic in 1975, which also went top 10 Pop) and joining a number of the label’s other artists including Crawford, Urbie Green, Randy Weston, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Don Sebesky, and Idris Muhammad. Washington’s appearance on the latter’s “Loran’s Dance” is included here. By 1977, Creed Taylor was eager to extricate Kudu from a distribution deal with Motown Records that had been in place since 1974. As part of the deal, he turned over Washington’s contract and the saxophonist’s entire Kudu catalogue to Motown. Also in 1977, Washington guested on Eric Gale’s Columbia album Multiplication, helmed by frequent collaborator Bob James. “Morning Glory” is reprised here from that LP.
Grover’s tenure at Motown was short-lived, yielding just one original album (1978’s Reed Seed) and one collection of outtakes (1980’s Skylarkin’, released after his departure from the label). Neither album is represented here. Elektra Records snapped him up in 1979, and while Elektra debut Paradise made a No. 2 placement on the Billboard Jazz chart, his sophomore set fared even better. 1980’s Winelight yielded a massive hit single in the form of the Bill Withers duet “Just the Two of Us” (No. 2 Pop & AC, No. 3 R&B), and itself went to No. 1 Jazz, No. 2 R&B and No. 5 Pop. Even as he was basking in the glow of Winelight, Washington appeared on Bob James’ solo album H, from which “Brighton by the Sea” has been culled. Vocalist Patti LaBelle guested on the Dexter Wansel/Cynthia Biggs-penned “The Best is Yet to Come” from Grover’s fourth Elektra LP, and he earned a Top 20 R&B hit with the track. Following a one-off collaboration with Kenny Burrell on Blue Note Records (the straight-ahead jazz of “Asphalt Canyon Blues”), the artist signed to Columbia Records.
At Columbia, the progenitor of smooth jazz (itself an extension of the crossover jazz fusion sound preferred by Creed Taylor) experimented with 1980s production textures on tracks like the Marcus Miller-produced “Summer Nights.” The title track of Washington’s 1996 album Soulful Strut, a cover of the Young-Holt Unlimited hit, closes out this set. It didn’t quite close out his career, though; he followed it with a holiday set (1997’s Breath of Heaven) and a posthumously released labor of love, Aria, which found him tackling opera classics.
In his short 56 years, Grover Washington Jr. left behind a remarkable and varied legacy of song. The Definitive Collection has six pages of liner notes by Charles Waring and full credits, though it unfortunately lacks any discographical annotation for each track. Alan Wilson has remastered. You can order this anthology at the links below!
- Inner City Blues
- No Tears in the End
- Loran’s Dance – Idris Muhammad featuring Grover Washington, Jr.
- Mister Magic
- Black Frost
- The Sea Lion
- It Feels So Good
- A Secret Place
- Morning Glory – Eric Gale featuring Grover Washington, Jr.
- Summer Song (Live)
- Just the Two of Us – featuring Bill Withers
- Let It Flow (For Dr. J)
- Brighton by the Sea – Bob James featuring Grover Washington, Jr.
- East River Drive
- Come Morning
- The Best is Yet to Come – with Patti LaBelle
- Asphalt Canyon Blues – Kenny Burrell and Grover Washington, Jr.
- Strawberry Moon
- Summer Nights
- Time Out of Mind
- Soulful Strut
CD 1, Track 1 from Inner City Blues, Kudu, 1971
CD 1, Track 2 from All the King’s Horses, Kudu, 1972
CD 1, Track 3 from Idris Muhammad, Power of Soul, Kudu, 1974
CD 1, Tracks 4-5 from Mister Magic, Kudu, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 6-8 from Feels So Good, Kudu, 1975
CD 1, Track 9 from A Secret Place, Kudu, 1976
CD 1, Track 10 from Eric Gale, Multiplication, Columbia, 1977
CD 2, Track 1 from Live at the Bijou, Kudu, 1977
CD 2, Tracks 2-4 from Winelight, Elektra, 1980
CD 2, Track 5 from Bob James, H, Tappan Zee, 1980
CD 2, Tracks 6-8 from Come Morning, Elektra, 1981
CD 2, Track 9 from The Best is Yet to Come, Elektra, 1982
CD 2, Track 10 from Kenny Burrell and Grover Washington Jr., Togethering, Blue Note, 1984
CD 2, Tracks 11-12 from Strawberry Moon, Columbia, 1987
CD 2, Track 13 from Time Out of Mind, Columbia, 1989
CD 2, Track 14 from Soulful Strut, Columbia, 1996