“Winelight” Was Grover’s Greatest Groove

When jazz musicians pass away there’s an unfortunate tendency to put them in one of two categories, the never to be forgotten giants and then there’s everyone else. For the few artists who enjoyed a degree of mainstream success, if not always critical acclaim, they are forgotten fastest. This is not right.

When Grover Washington, Jr. passed away in 1999 the jazz world lost one of its most successful and talented creators, and in his wake a slew of saxophonists have stepped up to fill the void. None have. Philadelphia jazz deejay Bob Perkins said, of Washington, a native of the City of Brotherly Love, “He was the originator of smooth jazz, and all the rest—Najee, Kenny G—followed him.”

It is absolutely true that Washington was, along with George Benson, one of the founding fathers of smooth jazz and after the monster hit that was the Grammy-winning Winelight it wasn’t long before the saxophone became, along with the electric guitar, the two most preeminent instruments in the genre. For better or worse (and there’s an argument to be made for either side), Washington blazed a trail many others have followed, with varying degrees of success.

Within the crowed group of smooth jazz saxophonists there are a few originals following their own muse and blazing their trails of their own. Regretfully, the majority of bland cookie cutter clones slavishly hacking out infinite versions of the R&B/jazz fusion of “Mister Magic” and “Just the Two of Us” without bringing anything fresh to the table. Smooth jazz is stuck in a rut of safe sax where nothing is risked and nobody wants to step out of their comfort zone. Real jazz is all about taking risks, not playing it safe.

Washington was not so much a daring innovator as much as he was a solid musician who had paid his dues as part of Creed Taylor’s CTI and Kudu record labels, where the music was glossy and the album jackets were distinctive. Washington was labelmates with Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Bob James, Hubert Laws and Esther Phillips to name but a few of the artists on the CTI roster.

With his move to Elektra Records, in 1980 Washington uncorked Winelight. Predictably, it reached number one on Billboard’s Top Jazz, but then it crossed over to other charts. The album went to number five on Billboard’s Pop Albums, number two Top Soul Albums and “Just the Two of Us” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed there for three weeks. The album would go on to win two Grammy awards.

The quiet greatness of Winelight has not faded 35 years after its release. It’s far and away the best album of Washington’s long career. The slip n’ slide funk of “Mister Magic” put Washington on the map, but Winelight was the evidence he could flat out play.

Washington would go on to record 11 more albums before his horn fell silent, but none approached the all-time high of Winelight. Not much of Washington’s extensive catalog garners much airplay beyond “Mister Magic,” “Let It Flow” and “Just the Two of Us,” and that’s a shame because he continued to make some interesting albums at Columbia which deserve to be heard. Perhaps this new reissued and limited edition multichannel 5.1 SACD release will rekindle a discovery of the extensive Washington discography.

The Surround Sound remix was produced by Ralph MacDonald, the renowned percussionist who also co-wrote “Just the Two of Us” and shared production duties on Winelight with Washington. MacDonald died in 2011. Other notable musicians include drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Eric Gale and a 21-year-old wizard on bass by name of Marcus Miller.

The only complaint with the remastered release is the absence of any bonus tracks or new liner notes. It is a missed opportunity not to offer some details and insights into the recording process or how Washington and McDonald convinced the reclusive Withers to provide the vocals for “Just the Two of Us.”

When most lists of the Top 25 Jazz Albums of All Time are compiled, Winelight is nowhere to be seen. It likely wouldn’t make the top 100 for the truly hardcore fan who likes their music with a rougher edge than smooth jazz provides. No way does it knock a Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Time Out or Blue Trane off the list, but when the list includes the 25 most influential jazz albums, Winelight belongs in there as much as Head Hunters or Breezin’ for taking jazz into a brand new direction even if everybody wasn’t happy with where it went.

Track Listing: Winelight; Let It Flow (for “Dr. J”); In the Name of Love; Take Me There; Just the Two of Us; Make Me A Memory (Sad Samba).

Personnel: Grover Washington, Jr.: soprano, alto, tenor saxophone; Bill Withers: vocals (5); Ralph McDonald: congas, percussion; syndrums; Steve Gadd: drums; Marcus Miller: bass; Eric Gale: guitar; Paul Griffin: Fender Rhodes (2, 4), clavinet (1); Richard Tee: Fender Rhodes: (3, 5); Bill Eaton: synthesizer (5); Ed Walsh: Oberheim 8-voice synthesizer; Raymond Chew: clavinet (1); Robert Greenidge: steel drums (tuned by Rudolph Charles); Hilda Harris, Yvonne Lewis, Ullanda McCullough: background vocals.

Record Label: Audio Fidelity

Style: Contemporary/Smooth

This review originally published in a different form at All About Jazz.

 

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“Peter White” Does Not Like My Review of Peter White

“Jeff Winbush, at one of MY shows? Cheeky bugger.”

I’m of the mind that anyone who creates something for public consumption is subject to have whatever that something is critiqued.  Not every artist agrees with the assessment, but most don’t take the compliments or the criticism to heart.

Most, but not all as my recent review of the new Peter White album seems to demonstrate:  

Make no mistake about it: Peter White is a technically proficient guitarist who blends impeccable taste and admirable fluidity in his playing. He is standing on the top of the smooth jazz food chain and Here We Go will do nothing to lessen his dominance as one of the most popular artists working today. White is a pro’s pro who knows what he can do and he does it quite successfully.

But there’s a tad too much polish and far too much restraint to make any lasting impression At its heart, Here We Go feels like just another in a series of pleasant-sounding Peter White recording that breaks no new ground, places no demands and commands little (if any) attention.

This isn’t a bad album so much as it isn’t a compelling one. The saxophones solos by David Sanborn on the horn-heavy title track and Kirk Whalum on “Our Dance” are as effective as they are routine. Sanborn and Whalum can play this kind of stuff in their sleep. Philippe Saisse‘s piano is a standout, and Ramon Yslas’ Latin percussion livens up the three tracks he appears on, but he isn’t enough to lift the album up from the humdrum and ho-hum.

White can’t be faulted for being a bad musician because he clearly is not. He excels at what he does, but what he does is play exactly the right amount of notes in exactly the correct sequence to make precisely the kind of pretty sounding music that doesn’t stray from his formula. Some artists swim against the tide; others prefer to float along with it. White excels at the latter.

There’s nothing wrong with courting commercial success, and who can blame White for staying in his lane and making what is essentially nice-sounding, but never compelling music. This album was never meant to appeal to jazzheads wanting their guitarists to have a harder edge, get a little nasty and put some blood, sweat and tears into their playing.

That is not Peter White’s style, it never will be, and he’s probably okay with that. Everybody else will learn to be too.

Track Listing: Night After Night, Time Never Sleeps, Here We Go, If Ever, Our Dance, Desert Night, Joyride, Costa Rica, My Lucky Day, Requiem For A Princess, Reunion

Personnel: Peter White: guitars, accordion, unspecified instruments; D.C.: unspecified instruments; Nate Phillips: bass (1, 2,); Phillipe Saisse: piano, keyboards, drum programming, orchestration (1-5, 7, 10); David Sanborn: saxophone solo (3); Andrew Neu: background sax, soprano sax, saxophones, flute (3, 4, 7, 8); Gabriel the Gun: flugelhorn, trumpet (3, 7, 8); Mel Scott: baritone sax (3); Kiki Ebsen: vocals (4); Charlotte White: violin (4); Ramon Yslas: congas, timbales, percussion (4, 7, 8); Roberto Vally: upright bass (5, 11).

The review received a comment.  Apparently, from Mr. White himself.  He wasn’t happy either.

Thanks for the comments, Jeff.

I was amused by your line- “This album was never meant to appeal to jazzheads wanting their guitarists to have a harder edge, get a little nasty and put some blood, sweat and tears into their playing”.

I am not a jazz player, I have never tried to appeal to jazz heads, never tried to break new ground or place any demands as you say and most of all, never tried to court commercial success as you imply. I welcome criticism of my music but draw the line when writers such as yourself start questioning my motives. You do not know me and have not a clue as to what my motives are for making music. Let me help you-

I play and record music that I like and turns me on. I hope other people will like it but that is not what drives me. Please reserve your criticism for what I do, not for what you thought I should have done. You may become a better writer in the process.

All my best…..Peter White
email@peterwhite.com

P.S. As to your snide comment that my music “commands little (if any) attention”, my current single and the title track “Here We Go” currently stands at number 1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart. Maybe more research is needed here, Jeff.

Billboard Smooth Jazz chart:   1 – 1 (3rd week @ #1)

I have doubts Peter White trolls the Internet looking for middling-to-negative reviews of his albums so he can take the writer to task.  I would hope he has better things to do.   However, a Peter White fan has plenty of time to take exception to such a review.  Perhaps so much so they would respond to it by claiming they are Peter White.    That’s equal parts ballsy and stupid, but I had a few minutes to waste so I replied to “Peter.”

Hi, “Peter.”

If this really is  Peter White, the guy who says he never tried to court commercial success (but boasts his album is Number One on Billboard’s Jazz Chart), I’d say despite the claim ou welcome criticism of your music, aren’t you too busy enjoying that commercial success you say don’t care about?

It’s great your album is doing so well, “Peter,” but I don’t write my reviews based upon whether you’ve sold 500,000 copies or five. Nobody on All About Jazz does.

You are right “Peter” that I don’t know or your motives, but I do own enough of your music and that qualifies me to express an opinion. My opinion is I don’t care for Here We Go. It’s safe. It has no edge. It breaks no new ground.  That’s my opinion.  I never said it had to accepted as fact.

I listen to and review music that artists make and when I do, I write reviews that honestly reflect my assessment of the music. If you feel I’ve attacked you personally and in an unprofessional manner, I’d urge you to bring it to the attention of the editors at All About Jazz.

What I will promise you when you make an album I like, I’ll say I’ll like it, but when you make an album I dislike, I’ll say that I dislike it.

I will also promise I won’t tell you how to become a better musician if you don’t tell me how to become a better writer.

Have a good day.  That was also a better album than Here We Go.

Jeff Winbush

Peter White in the process of making sure he’s not playing jazz.