The late Al Jarreau is sometimes thought of as a jazz singer who went pop, but his commercial breakthrough LP, Breakin' Away, defines him as a jazz singer who brought elements of the revered form back to pop. Breakin' Away, released in the relatively dormant early eighties, is a bright, energetic album that shows Jarreau's deft handling of heartfelt ballads, bebop-influenced stylings, and some effervescent, breezy soul. It more than makes the case for Jarreau's popularity and his place in jazz overall.
The worst thing that can be said about Breakin' Away is its clean, almost antiseptic sound. Producer Jay Graydon delivered an overall polish to the music that not only typified MOR of the late seventies and early eighties but portended what would later be derived as "smooth jazz," and smooth is exactly how Breakin' Away goes down. But this is Al Jarreau we're talking about; with anyone else at the mic, Graydon (who co-wrote many of the songs on Breakin' Away with Jarreau and Tom Canning) could have produced a pleasant but bland MOR album, but Jarreau was a singer who could enliven the most mannered and the most homogenized sound possible. Thanks to his backing musicians on Breakin' Away - who included guitarist Dean Parks, bassist Abraham Laboriel, drummer Steve Gadd, and George Duke on Fender Rhodes organ - the music was much more engaging, whether on a pulsating song like "Closer To Your Love" or the LP's big hit pop ballad "We're In this Love Together." These session men brought to this album as much dedication to jazz and fusion as the precision and virtuosity they also brought.
Jarreau revels in the center of it all here, delivering a strong, commanding voice on the funkier numbers on this record - from the aforementioned "Closer To Your Love" to the wonderful scat improvisations on "Easy" and the somewhat urbane but fun "Roof Garden," a masterpiece hybrid of traditional jazz and straight funk. On this record, he makes the effort to find the romance and the warmth in even the slightest song, such as "Our Love," which would be forgettable if not for Jarreau's solid delivery, and his falsetto on the transcendent title track is breathtaking.
Jarreau's best moments on Breakin' Away are on the last two tracks. He shows his obvious love for the possibilities of jazz on a sharp, funky take on Dave Brubeck's "(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo à la Turk" with a manic wave of scatting that, to quote critic Mikal Gilmore, swings "with the dexterity of a lumberjack" (part of Jarreau's charm, actually). But it's his velvety, deeply intense vocal on the album's closer, a cover of the 1953 standard "Teach Me Tonight," that firmly settles the argument for Jarreau's jazz sensibilities. He captures the essence and the feel of jazz balladeering associated with greats like Nat King Cole and Joe Williams, and it's the definitive version of the song, hands-down. And that's precisely how the greatness of a singer like Jarreau is established - when he makes a familiar song his very own.