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The jazz dalliance on Adele's '30' runs deeper than a sampled groove

A close listen to Adele's new album, <em>30</em>, reveals a wealth of jazz connections.
AFP via Getty Images
A close listen to Adele's new album, 30, reveals a wealth of jazz connections.

Early in the going on 30, the juggernaut of a pop confessional that happens to be Adele's most surefooted album thus far, we get a curated glimpse of familial intimacy. On a song called "My Little Love," a series of interpolated voice memos intensifies the guilt and vulnerability that Adele carried into her post-divorce life. "Mommy's been having a lot of big feelings recently," she says in one such exchange, speaking with her grade-school son, Angelo, who naturally asks for some elaboration. Touchingly, Adele responds with full candor, admitting to her own confusion.

This morning I played "My Little Love" for the first time while serving breakfast to one of my own kids, a lifelong Adele fan. The exchange we had was a lot less emotionally charged than the one in the song, but it began with a line worth remembering. "Wow, this is really jazzy-ish," said my daughter, cocking her head as she listened.

That assessment felt spot-on to me, even if the stylistic legacy of the song — down to the gently tripping melisma that concludes each line in the verse — points clearly in the direction of Marvin Gaye. "Jazzy-ish" has just the right degree of blurriness as a descriptor, while acknowledging the subtle connections in the song, which was produced by erstwhile jazz pianist and repeat Adele-whisperer Greg Kurstin. The drummer on the track is Chris Dave, a rhythm genius who rose to prominence in the Robert Glasper Experiment, and with D'Angelo and The Vanguard. (He also played on Adele's 21, propelling the smash single "Rolling in the Deep.") More than most other tracks on 30, "My Little Love" harnesses harmonic intrigue and rhythmic undulation in a way that sounds... jazz-adjacent, at a minimum. Jazzy-ish.

Anyone familiar with Adele's superhero origin story will know that she received her share of jazz training in the early-to-mid 2000s at the BRIT School, the elite performing arts magnet that graduated Amy Winehouse just before her, and Jade Bird and King Krule since. There are moments on 30, notably during the reggae bounce of "Cry Your Heart Out," when I hear traces of the frisky phrasing that Adele favored in the pre-blockbuster phase of her career — a time when her musical instinct still drew comparisons to her peers, and her sound had yet to harden into a style. Adele was never as enamored of jazz singing as Winehouse, whose first album, Frank, used the affinity as a springboard. But she knows the field.

Near the midpoint of 30, we arrive at "All Night Parking (with Erroll Garner) Interlude," the only song on the album with a feature credit. The catch, of course, is that Garner— a jazz pianist and composer known for his impish genius — died in 1977, at 55. So what prompted Adele and her producers, Kurstin and Joey Pecoraro, to give him full-blown collaborator status? A close listen tells the tale.

"All Night Parking" marks a pivot point on 30, from guilt-ridden heartache to some form of spiritual and sensual release. Adele's lyrics, flirtatious and yearning, make it clear what the song's title is meant to evoke. As for the music: The song incorporates a long sample bed from "No More Shadows," a Garner ballad that sparkles with his trademark elaborative filigree. To be more specific, the sample — which Pecoraro previously used in his own track, "Finding Parking" — comes from a 1964 Garner performance in a London television studio, for the BBC program Jazz 625.

One month after this taping, which has long circulated on YouTube, Garner and his trio finessed the song again in Amsterdam, on a concert that first saw release just a few years ago, as the album Nightconcert. (Full disclosure: I contributed liner notes.) In both live versions, the performance is soulful but stately, and as unabashedly romantic as a flickering votive beside a rose bouquet.

Adele accesses this source material in classic hip-hop fashion, phrasing across Garner's pianism, and against some understated drum programming. At times, Pecoraro shadows the song's melody on Herb Alpert-esque trumpet. And Adele has an answering background chorus in her own multi-tracked vocals, recalling not only Motown conventions but also their reconfiguration in turn-of-the-century hip-hop, by acts like The Fugees. Again: Jazzy-ish.

For many Adele fans, "All Night Parking" will be a curio, a deep cut on an album that rewards immersive commitment. The jazz evangelist in me dares to hope that a few listeners from that camp will take the time to pursue Garner further. As we recently explored in an episode of Jazz Night in America, his music and legacy have continued to yield new treasures: One of this year's splurge-worthy releases is a boxed set, Liberation in Swing: The Octave Records Story & Complete Symphony Hall Concert, from the same folks who brought us Nightconcert.

But as we note Garner's small contribution to the latest pop behemoth, let's not forget that he's been here before. His 1955 album Concert By the Sea was one of the best-selling instrumental albums of its time, the definition of a crossover hit. And Garner's composition "Misty," outfitted with lyrics by Johnny Burke, delivered a defining hit for crooner Johnny Mathis, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart, and then becoming a pop standard. Like "No More Shadows," it suggests floating reverie, with a melody both elegant and easeful. Mathis knew then, as Adele does now, what a winning combination that could be.

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