Songblog: Al Jarreau / Mornin'

May 11, 2011

Today we’re going to take a look at Grammy-winning pop/jazz vocalist Al Jarreau‘s hit “Mornin'” which first appeared on his 1983 album Jarreau. The song was written by Jarreau with David Foster and Jay Graydon.

Let’s dive into the song, which you can listen to via the YouTube player above. Right at the beginning, a shuffle groove in D begins. Actually it’s a D major 7th, which gives it a bit of added flavor. The first thing that jumps out to me is the smoothness of the drum groove, played by the legendary Jeff Porcaro (Toto, Boz Skaggs, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, etc.) He is most famous for his Rosanna shuffle (see his clinic on how he created that groove to the right). Jeff’s shuffle pocket is unmatched, and that’s why he is one of the most revered pop and rock drummers of this era.

Also note Jay Graydon’s guitar, playing a rhythmic pattern in thirds. That augments the percussiveness and groove of the drums. It’s very Paul Jackson Jr.-esque (reminds me of Paul’s parts on the Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney song “The Girl Is Mine”).

As the verse kicks off, it’s a syncopated melody performed staccato, giving it a wonderfully bouncy feel. The words chosen are short and economical:

Mornin’ mister radio
Mornin’ little Cheerios
Mornin’ sister oriole
Did I tell you everything is fine?

In the space of a few seconds, and a dozen or so words, the first verse is behind us and the setting has been painted. It goes by so quickly, though, that a second verse is required:

Mornin’ mister shoeshine man
Shine ’em bright in white and tan
Baby said she loves me and
Need I tell you everything is fine in my mind?

Despite the economy of the words, watch the vividness of the imagery that’s conjured up. These aren’t run-of-the-mill predictable lyrics; the personification of Mister Radio, little Cheerios, and sister oriole paints a unique picture of a man waking up and greeting his morning routine with cheer and optimism.

Chordally, to this point, it’s pretty simple too. The D major 7th continues with only a brief jump to A minor 7th, then back to D major 7th. The fact that this opening stays so static will become more important later in the song, because our ear will be yearning for a contrasting change after we’ve heard the double verse of this simple groove.

The chorus is an unusual one. It begins at about 0:54 in the YouTube clip. Most choruses contain the hook of the song, and feel like an arrival point or the pinnacle. In this song, not so. The power in this chorus is that it contrasts with the verse, which has been relatively static. That introductory ascending vocal line of “Excuse me if I sing” leads to a harmonically rich chorus that begins with the unexpected B flat major 7th chord (the flat 6th of the D root). Yet the chorus doesn’t feel like a destination; it feels more like a passthrough to lead us back to the verse. The B flat major 7th lasts for only two measures before we go back, again, to D major 7th.  On the whole, there’s nothing particularly memorable about the chorus, yet it’s beautiful in its flow and simplicity. Its main function is to contrast with the verse, not to complete the meaning of the verse (as it is in most songs).

Another verse follows: “Mornin mister Golden Gate…” and this time it’s just a single verse. It doesn’t need a double verse (as happened at the beginning of the song with the first verse) because these motifs are already very well established. But what happens next is a demonstration of the difference between good and great. A simpler song might have repeated the chorus (an oft-used formula) at this point. But in this song, the listener doesn’t need a second chorus; instead it jumps straight to a soaring bridge that takes us to an entirely new place.

The bridge (1:46 in the YouTube video above) is the most harmonically rich section of all, and lyrically it contains the apex of the song, moving around by 4ths and 5ths to give us a real feeling of going on a musical journey, and brilliantly constructed to climax on the lyric line “and touch the face of God” and bring us back to the D major home key. The arranging and instrumentation is immaculately done, with lots of rich passing chords and string lines that add color and provide added tension and relief as they resolve (often by slight chromatic changes).

If you don’t already own it, let me encourage you to buy Al’s version of this song (iTunes/Amazon) and here’s a link to the full Jarreau album (iTunes/Amazon) too.

To wrap up this songblog, I’ll finish up with one of my favorite cover versions of this song: Brian McKnight singing it live with David Foster’s band (available on David Foster’s Hit Man CD and DVD) featuring David on piano, Nathan East on bass, and John Robinson on drums. It’s medleyed with Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love is Gone,” which is another great song, hugely deserving of a future songblog.

There is much more that could be said about a song as rich as this, and I’ll leave it to the comment area below for you to come up with some additional thoughts. I’m off to go see if I can write a song as great as this!

This post is part of the Songblog series, a series of essays dissecting a selection of popular songs from a songwriting and production perspective. Please contribute to the discussion by leaving comments below. Keep up with future Songblogs by following me on Twitter.