During the '70s, '80s and '90s, there were few jazz musicians as popular and influential as Grover Washington, Jr. The talented reed-man's skilled saxophone work (he could bring the funk on soprano, alto, baritone, tenor, and even flute) was matched by a pop sensibility that made him an instrumental figure in jazz-fusion as it morphed into smooth-jazz. His music was funky, danceable, accessible, and always smooth. His groundbreaking work in the '70s and early '89s has been well-documented -- from his beginnings on Kudu/CTI and his genre-defining crossover Mister Magic, to his career peak on the million-seller Winelight (featuring the timeless smash "Just the Two of Us," sung by Bill Withers) - but his later nine-year tenure at Columbia infrequently receives the same attention.
Last month, SoulMusic Records (a division of Cherry Red) released Sacred Kind of Love: The Columbia Recordings. The 5-CD box set presents the majority of Washington's Columbia-era albums chronologically, along with key bonus tracks that prove that Grover Washington's talents and versatility never faltered over the years. Washington delivered six albums for Columbia, not counting his soundtrack work and holiday recordings, which are not included on the box. (To hear those, seek out the Legacy release of The Complete Columbia Albums Collection.) Each of those core albums reached the upper end of the Top Jazz Albums chart. Four of them - Strawberry Moon (1987), Time Out of Mind (1989), Next Exit (1992), and Soulful Strut (1996) - crossed over to Billboard's Top R&B album charts, as well. As he'd been known to do in the past, Washington continued to surround himself with the best talents while recording for Columbia. From B.B. King, Jean Carne, The Four Tops, and Lalah Hathaway, to Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Nancy Wilson, there's no shortage of talented guests on the five discs.
Purists may question SoulMusic's choice to split six albums between five CDs, but the result is that more music is packed onto each disc and the collection is more affordable for fans. The set opens with Strawberry Moon, Washington's 1987 album. Though its nine tracks were not Grover Washington's first recordings for Columbia (that spot went to The Cosby Show companion album A House Full of Love), they did make up his first concerted artistic statement for the label. The songs show the breadth of Washington's influences and talents, as blues ("Caught a Touch of Your Love," featuring B.B. King), Latin-tinged balladry ("The Look of Love," supported by the elastic vocals of Jean Carne), and a heavy dose of breezy, smooth jazz-funk co-mingle. The album's lead single, an edit of the Marcus Miller-produced "Summer Nights" reached No. 35 on the Jazz singles chart, while the album peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, No. 66 on the Pop Albums chart, and No. 35 on R&B.
For his next effort, Then and Now, Washington elected to strip away the pop sound and get back to basics. Providing support is a fantastic band of jazz heavyweights, including former Kudu labelmate Ron Carter on bass, and legendary pianists Herbie Hancock and Tommy Flanagan. The organic sound they bring to tracks like "Just Enough" and "Lullaby for Shana Bly" (both featuring Carter and Hancock), or the standard "In a Sentimental Mood" (with understated accompaniment by Flanagan) is a breath of fresh air. With the flashiness of Washington's prior pop efforts stripped away, the focus remains squarely on the deft skills of each performer. This was a brave move for a Washington that may have divided his audience. The unadorned, intimate recording was the polar opposite of the funky pop his fans had come to expect, and it also surprised the jazz purists by proving that Washington transcended the smooth jazz fad and had the chops to perform with the legends. In the end, the risk paid off as Then and Now peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart .
Time Out of Mind, the 1990 album named after the Steely Dan tune that Washington covers here to fine effect, saw the reedman return to the pop and soul-tinged stylings that had brought him crossover success in the past. SoulMusic bolsters the album with "Protect the Dream," a mid-tempo ballad that originally appeared as a bonus track on the first CD edition. The smooth, synth-sprinkled formula proved successful once again, as its lead single "Sacred Kind of Love" (featuring beautiful soulful vocals by Phyllis Hyman) reached No. 21 on the R&B Singles chart. The album reached the top spot on the Jazz Album charts and peaked at No. 60 on Billboard's R&B Albums ranking.
The trend continued with Next Exit, which arrived in 1992. It was his second consecutive No. 1 on the Jazz Albums chart, aided by the lead single "Love Like This," which featured Lalah Hathaway's sultry vocals. Other guests include the late Nancy Wilson, who provides a gripping lead on "Your Love," and The Four Tops, who support on "Till You Return." Levi Stubbs' powerful lead vocal remains undiminished, while his phrasing allows Washington space to weave slick sax lines throughout. While much of the album remains in Washington's familiar jazz-pop territory, there are a few novel head-scratchers. There's a synthesized, electric drum-led reimagining of Paul Desmond's "Take Five" called "Another Take Five," and "Check Out Grover," a hip-hop track that tries to blend contemporary and classic in a head-scratching way. The song's foundation is a common '90s hip-hop backing, and the song comes complete with beat-boxing from Doug E. Fresh and a rap from Man Slaughter, who extolls the importance of Washington's musical contributions, all while the saxman weaves impressive soprano lines. Though the cross-generational tribute is well-meaning, the result is a track that seems to be trying too hard to be contemporary, as if a hip-hop beat and rap figureheads were the key to getting Grover's name out there. Elsewhere, Grover lets his instrument be his hype-man, as on the 1994 LP, All My Tomorrows.
All My Tomorrows was something of a return to form for Washington. As he did on Then and Now, Grover delivers a stripped-down collection of standards, backed by a small acoustic ensemble. But for All My Tomorrows, Washington imposed a new challenge upon himself: to record the album in spontaneous and raw sessions. He gathered a talented group of the jazz elite - Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bobby Watson on alto sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Billy Hart on drums, and Hank Jones on piano - to back him up on a collection of standards, which they recorded over three days at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. From the breezy bossa nova opener "E Preciso Perodar" and the gentle dynamics of "When I Fall in Love," to the stripped-down retelling of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" (with vocals by Freddy Cole, brother of Nat), All My Tomorrows is an uncluttered, immediate, and raw set of standards old and new that allows the talented performers ample room to shine. SoulMusic has added one bonus track to All My Tomorrows: a bouncy take on Sondheim's A Little Night Music song "Every Day a Little Death," originally released on a 1995 tribute CD called Color and Light: Jazz Sketches on Sondheim. Though it features a larger ensemble, it fits nicely among the other standards on All My Tomorrows.
The fifth and final disc of Sacred Kind of Love features Washington's Soulful Strut. Though the collection was not his last on Columbia - it was succeeded by a collection of holiday music in 1997 and a posthumous album of reimagined classical pieces in 2000 - it's his final pop-leaning album and a return to the soulful smooth jazz that he helped pioneer. Here, he and the ensemble strike a balance between his emotive horn work and electronic backing, especially on the opening cover of sixties hit "Soulful Strut," the asymmetrical "Headman's Haunt," and the atmospheric protest song "Poacher Man" (featuring Catherine Russell on vocals). The album is supplemented by two bonus tracks taken from the 1999 compilation Prime Cuts: "Heat Index" and "The Night Fantastic." "Heat Index" is a sultry, keyboard-led slow-groove, while "The Night Fantastic" is a funkier, dance-floor ready slice of soul. These two bonus tracks were released a few months before Washington's tragic death in December 1999, brought on by a heart attack while waiting to appear on a U.S. TV program.
Though it's been two decades since his untimely passing, Washington's influence on jazz and funk is everlasting. With Sacred Kind of Love: The Columbia Recordings, SoulMusic Records proves that Washington remained groundbreaking and creative until the end, embracing influences from soul, pop, hip-hop, and straight-ahead jazz to create a synthesis that was entirely fresh. If the 61 tracks on Sacred Kind of Love weren't enough to satisfy, the collection also includes a hefty, 24-page booklet with a new, comprehensive essay by Charles Waring and a personal tribute from compilation producer David Nathan, housed alongside the five discs in a sturdy clamshell case. The discs themselves are placed in admittedly rather flimsy individual sleeves, but what matters most is the great music within.
In all, Sacred Kind of Love: The Columbia Recordings is a well-curated, thoroughly researched, and handsomely designed collection of the sax master's later works, including key albums and hard-to-find bonus tracks. Any fan of Grover Washington, Jr. or that particular strand of soulful smooth jazz will want to bolster their collection with this fine box set. It's available now at Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada!