Breakin’ Away – Al Jarreau (1981)

Breakin' Away album cover
Breakin’ Away album cover

What we know call adult contemporary was the first music format I remember liking. Back then it was called soft rock it included some of the first songs I liked from artist like Elton John and James Taylor. My soft rock era ended when I graduated from a Sounddesign clock AM radio to a FM stereo bombox with a cassette recorder. I remember it having line in inputs that I had jerry rigged an old turntable to. From that point it on I began to explore new musical options.

The days were numbered for my soft rock preferences, but the medium itself would change with the times. Al Jarreau for me had become the initial instrument of that change. Jarreau had always been a jazz influenced singer songwriter whose music was somewhere between jazz, r&b and pop. His third album Breakin’ Away was where he refined this fusion to create the ’80s template for the modern adult contemporary (AC) sound.

It was also his biggest selling album, topping the Billboard jazz and R&B chart while reaching the top 10 Albums chart in 1981-’82. The smooth west coast style he developed was light with a strong emphasis on melody and harmony. Produced by the versatile Jay Graydon (of Air Supply, George Benson and Dionne Warwick fame), Breakin’ Away contained elements of jazz, soul and funk – all with the hard edges removed in a slick production. It was noteworthy enough to win a Grammy Award in 1982 for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

At least two of the albums singles (We’re in This Love Together and Breakin’ Away) have become AC format standards. Other songs feature a touch of funk like “Roof garden” and “Easy” with its scatting/rap styled intro. Jarreau had experimented with the style on his previous album with a song called “Love is Real”.

“Easy” reminds audiences that Jarreau’s music was still rooted in R&B, but his classical music training rears its head in the playful “Round, Round, Round”. Jarreau like Narada Michael Walden or George Benson was highly respected as a musician, but I always got the feeling that his initial core audience could not appreciate the classical and jazz derived aspects of his music.

One thing was for certain Breakin’ Away was enormously successful and carried him along until 4 years later when he pinned the theme song for the popular TV show Moonlighting. By that time Al Jarreau became one of the few AC artists that a younger me could tolerate even as I had long move on from AC. A good melody and harmony gets me every time.

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