Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2009: Jimmy Cobb

Al Green:
Soul Serenade

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If you are hesitating for even a second about grabbing a ticket for the Al Green concert at this year’s Groove-FM Jazz Winnipeg Festival, you’re crazy! This might be your only chance to catch somebody who’s right at the center of the soul-gospel-R&B movement. If there was a Mount Rushmore for soul, this guy’s face would be on it!

Al Green was the son of a sharecropper, and sang as a child with his family. As a teenager, he was developing his own act, and by his mid-twenties, he was putting out albums like Al Green Gets Next to You (1970) which had four gold singles, and Let’s Stay Together (1972), with its amazing title song. Even when sung poorly by people who don’t get it, this piece knocks you out—and Al Green sings it like a prince. He’s one of the most soulful, most charismatic singers you’ll ever hear. He can sing the ingredients on a package of cereal and get you truly inspired—it’s amazing to witness that!

Al Green presides at the apex of this music along with a select few—Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin. Otis Redding is cut from that cloth; Smoky Robinson and Curtis Mayfield are as well. I’d go so far as to say that Al Green and Aretha Franklin killed soul—once we got to that height, there was no place you could take it. To this day, we have not produced anything near the work of these guys, and up to that point, nothing was ever like that either. In that strange little transitional era in the 60s and early 1970s, we were breaking away from our old consciousness and these guys emerged and caught the spirit of that transition. It’s pure power.

For most of the 80s, Green concentrated on his other calling—he is The Reverend Al Green—but he continued to record primarily gospel music, and won eight Grammys in the “soul gospel performance” category in this period. One of his first forays back into secular music was a 1994 recording with Lyle Lovett, which gained him another Grammy, this time in the pop music category. In 2002 he was recognized with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, but he’s far from stopping. A 2008 Blue Note recording, Lay It Down, was made in collaboration with The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and features John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton.

I’m excited that Al Green is featured at a jazz festival because at the very core of what jazz is trying to convey is blues, gospel and rhythm. Al Green has stripped all else away, and lays it bare naked for you. If you get a little tincture of this in your music as a jazz musician, you’re gold. This is a guy who can sing a long tone and you feel the rhythm of it—it makes you bounce. His voice is not a traditional “wonderful voice” but when he sings, it’s like a plaintive moan that resonates in your spine and cuts all else away. It’s amazing…

Steve Kirby is the Director of Jazz Studies at the U of M. He grew up on Al Green.

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