Monday, July 8, 2013

Smooth Jazz

Here's a genre I haven't heard of before, though I have certainly heard the music. The New York Times just put up an article on it. Here's how they describe it:
Twenty years ago, of course, smooth jazz wasn’t a code to be cracked so much as a wave to be caught. Like most species of pop, it felt ubiquitous and maybe a little insidious, asking nothing more (or less) of you than surrender. During the summer of 1993, Kenny G had a Top 40 single, his second such hit from the inescapable album “Breathless.” Smooth jazz had an enviable infrastructure then; even a small American city was likely to have a dedicated radio station.
What it didn’t have was cachet, critical regard or any trace of cool. (Kenny G has recently taken pains to show that he’sin on the joke.)  This was a music forged by market considerations, less a coherent genre than a commercial format. Its native habitats were the office cubicle, the minivan and the five-day forecast. “The Weather Channel Presents: The Best of Smooth Jazz” was a compilation album that actually saw release, in 2007; it was so successful that a sequel appeared the following year.
I think a clip is worth a thousand words when it comes to music so let's listen to one of the tunes the article cites, BWB's recording of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson:

OK, now I know what they are talking about: "easy listening" in a new, smoother and more accomplished version. It's very nice, sure, a bit jazzy, very smooth, very crisp playing, nothing excessive. My coffee shop plays this sort of thing all the time even though I have begged them not to, especially before 9 am.

But that description in the NYT is just absurd, isn't it? "Asking nothing more (or less) of you than surrender"? I'm sorry, I don't surrender my ears to anything like this. This is unengaged pop schlock, is it not? Call it what you want, but this is basically Mantovani with a backbeat:

Of course, this is probably what most people want to listen to most of the time: it's charming, relaxing and undemanding. Prozac for the ears. But the NYT seems to think they have discovered something musically interesting here. I think the subhead gets the causality precisely wrong:

Smooth Jazz Finds New Ways to Reach Its Audience

Isn't commercial music like this crafted in response to a perceived audience need? Don't you identify your market and then craft the product? The NYT talks as if there is this dedicated cadre of "smooth jazz" practitioners that figured out how to reach their natural audience after the evil radio people banned them. Is that really how it works?

Another group cited by the article to show the diversity of the genre is Daft Punk, a French electronic duo. Here is their hit "Get Lucky" which sounds just as innocuous and formulaic as it could be:

These articles about pop music in the NYT and the Wall Street Journal always make it sound so interesting, but on only very rare occasions have I ever been directed toward something that actually had a shred of musical interest. Pop music for quite a while now has gotten by on regurgitating formulas with more and more elaborate posturing. Apparently that's what the majority want.

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