Grover Washington Jr. – Winelight (1980)

I don’t recall how Washington came to mind, but I looked him up, along with some top recommended albums. I ended up adding to my list everything he was band leader for, from his debut to 1980. This, from the final year in that range, was one of the two big recommendations. 

Listening to the “master quality” version on Tidal, the main sensation I am experiencing from this is blandness. Given how early in the decade this is, Winelight certainly does a good job of predicting the sound for the decade, at least in museum, art gallery and dinner party circles. 

“Let it Flow (for Dr. J)” starts off interestingly, with a sparse but not empty arrangement and some interesting rhythms. It’s after the intro, when Washington’s own lead sax takes over, that the interest levels wane. Based on the title, I assume it’s a tribute to the great basketballer, at that time, playing in Philadephia. And I can hear the pattern of the game in the backing, bassline skittering about like a crafty dribble. “In the Name of Love” starts less promisingly, but is still dragged down by Washington’s anodyne lead lines. Googling him now, I see he was one of the founders of the “smooth jazz” genre, so caveat emptor I guess.

It’s not all bad. “Take Me There” is a touch more energised. Obviously, the production and playing are top notch, if not very flashy. While listening, I did get the occasional twang of nostalgia, as feelings and images entered my head. Some were experienced, such as visiting department stores in the run up to Christmas, as a child in the 80s. Aramis meets Athena; illumination, hair and shoulderpads everywhere. Others were concocted by my subconscious, like a Sunday walk in Central Park: wrapped up, walking among the skeletal trees in the pale, fading light of a winter afternoon. Again in the 80s – there’s no escaping that element of the experience. 

I suppose in that sense, that’s the charm of this music? It’s like a cardigan or a mulled wine. It’s comforting: the sax melodies will only ever remind us of the 80s – experienced or not – and the electric piano (Rhodes?) played by Richard Tee, sparkles around the mix like fairy dust. Then you’ve got “Just the Two of Us”, featuring the excellent Bill Withers, complete with (synth?) steel drum accompaniment from Ralph MacDonald. Now that is a classic.

While perfectly competent, this isn’t the sound I seek at the moment. I’ll persist with Washington; maybe his 70s work will be more to my taste. I can’t see myself listening to this too much in the future, except perhaps as accompaniment to an American Psycho reading session. That said, if you introduce an element of irony to proceedings, it’s shocking how similar some of this is to the currently lauded (not least by me) Thundercat. I may have to investigate that link… Less exciting, he apparently brought Kenny G to public attention. I think that sums this up.

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