You can tell by the dirt on the cover that I’ve played this one a lot since it arrived in 1981. I’d just moved to Denver as a big-shot reporter, disco was dead, and computers, synths and other machines were taking over music. I’d fallen in love with the Fender Rhodes piano almost ten years earlier and owned my second one at that point: the 76-key Stage model with built-in amp and speakers. But when I heard this album, I was totally gassed.
Al Jarreau’s keyboardist and collaborator Tom Canning had received the “Dyno-my-Rhodes” treatment which Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, Russell Ferrante of the Yellow Jackets and a few other West Coast boardmen had gotten a little earlier. It gave the instrument a highly-compressed, hard, trebly sound compared to the soft, watery and bassy sound that made it famous (Ray Manzarek of the Doors’ “Rider on the Storm” comes to mind). Dyno-my-Rhodes defines the sound of “Breakin’ Away” and Canning’s mastery of it with Jarreau’s renditions and tasteful song selection, made it a runaway hit reaching Number One on both the jazz and R&B charts.
Detractors sneer at the heavily-electrified Rhodes sound for “Breakin’ Away” as just more 1980s artifice. But the way it’s incorporated into both the new songs and the covers of old ones- “Blue Rondo a la Turk” for which Jarreau won a Grammy and “Teach Me Tonight” which is featured on this blog below- work spectacularly.
Beyond the sound, the songs remind me of the spectacularly good and bad times I experienced in Denver- getting out of reporting, moving into management, the beginning of the end of my first marriage, my disillusion with TV and exploration into computerization, and a crazy 30-year ride which landed me where I am now.
“Breakin’ Away” is the second album I’ve recorded digitally with Adobe Audition so I can improve the sound quality and throw the old, chewed up plastic one out. It’s a terribly difficult process: akin to killing your friends at gunpoint or telling your mother you no longer have use for her. I chose “Teach Me Tonight” because of Billy Byers’ incredible string arrangement, that it’s a paean to the sad demise of romance in contemporary music, and because it made me smile during a very dark time and made me believe that romance is not just a reaction between people but a feeling that art, unlike most people, can inspire forever.