Tuesday, May 19, 2009

West Coast Fusion

While there was much great jazz fusion that came out of both coasts during this period, some of the most definitive - and least known - came from productions helmed by Esmond Edwards (1927-2007) for the ABC-Impulse label during what is often considered its "declining" years.

Edwards, a photographer who became a producer for many jazz labels during his career including Prestige, Verve, Cadet/Chess, ABC/Impulse, JAM and other labels, had already committed a number of significant classics to wax by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson, Gene Ammons and many others when the ABC people transplanted him to L.A. in 1975.

At about this time, jazz was defined by fusion music and the biggest and best proponent of the genre, CTI Records, had more or less dried up on inspiration, talent and just plain hits. Many other labels - especially the majors - tried doing their own version of this sound, sadly to little or no avail.

Yes, there was the occasional hit. "Birdland" by Weather Report. "Theme From Rocky" by Maynard Ferguson. "Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James. But no significant "sound" - other than, perhaps, Bob James' slightly later Tappan Zee productions - was making an indentation like the West Coast sound producer Esmond Edwards was now overseeing at ABC Impulse during the label's waning years.

Certainly, this music bears no resemblance to anything the label issued in its preceding 13 or 14 years. Indeed, the jazz music industry was nothing like it was when CTI overlord Creed Taylor founded the Impulse label in 1961. Nor was the industry like the many varying and definitive Bob Thiele productions the label spawned during its best years (1961-69) - even Thiele's Flying Dutchman label was confounded by the changing interests in jazz by this point.

When Impulse hired veteran producer Esmond Edwards in 1975, they were looking for cash-money hits. The execs didn't care about the artistic integrity the label was founded on or the wacky artistry that Thiele lent the label. They wanted hits. Not classics like A Love Supreme. They wanted stuff that sold - whatever that meant.

Quite the challenge Edwards faced. But he did it with aplomb, producing music that was probably a bit out of his comfort zone - but never fouling afield of his artistic instincts. He showcased some of the West Coast's best - and most neglected - talents, coupling them with some of L.A.'s best musicians, admittedly mostly from the studios, but when you read the line-ups, you'll bristle at the who's-who of talent assembled on each of these albums.

This isn't a complete list by any means. But my intention is to showcase several albums whose work typifies the sound that makes "West Coast Fusion" of the mid-1970s as wonderful as it remains to this day.

Brass Fever - Brass Fever (ABC Impulse, 1975): Among the first of the real West Coast Fusion sets producer Esmond Edwards brought out, this "trombone choir" featuring Kai Winding, George Bohanon, Charlie Loper and Garnett Brown, isn't really the exciting jazz-meets-fusion thing a listener would hope for. Wade Marcus provides the arrangements. But the tunes (Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Donovan's odd-choice "Sunshine Superman" and Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack") and the settings just aren't that memorable. Good solos are heard from the trombones, Jerome Richardson, Lee Ritenour and Sonny Burke. But the settings just don't bring it home. The hardly brassy "Bach Bone" is as good as it gets here.

Warm & Sonny - Sonny Criss (ABC Impulse, 1976): The West Coast Charlie Parker, Sonny Criss (1927-77), turned to fusion at the very end of his career and with his last two albums, turned out some marvelous work that's all but forgotten today. This tremendous album features Criss at his best playing with L.A.'s best session musicians, backed by Wade Marcus' perfectly swinging arrangements. Wade Marcus gives this set more soul than one would expect - particularly on the string-driven pop covers of "The Way We Were" (with harpist Dorothy Ashby, who is notable in several other instances), "That's The Way of the World" and "Bumpin'" (which sounds nothing like Sebesky's original prototype for Wes Montgomery). Lee Ritenour has never sounded better than he does here - almost completely diving into his always interesting Wes bag ("Cool Struttin'," "Bumpin'," "Sweet Summer Breeze" and "Blues for Willie"). Sonny Burke also contributes hugely to the success of the album on electric piano. But Criss sounds simply magnificent throughout, particularly on such showcases as "Memories" and "Blues for Willie." Highlights: "Cool Struttin'," "Bumpin'" and "Sweet Summer Breeze".

Hard Work - John Handy (ABC Impulse, 1976): This album brought John Handy (b. 1933), the former Mingus alto saxist and a bit of a free-form thinker in his earlier life, back from academia to records after an eight-year absence. The title track turned out to be the Impulse label's first hit since Ray Charles' 1961 single "One Mint Julep." The fusion-styled record was conceived between Handy and producer Esmond Edwards, who both fought against the avant-garde artistry of Handy's previous records in favor of something that would reach more people, similar to the way Grover Washington, Jr. was hitting at the time with Mister Magic (Kudu, 1975). The funky "Hard Work" hit with many radio stations, propelling John Handy into a spotlight he'd never known before, allowing him to take a million-dollar contract with Warner Bros. in 1978. It isn't the typical West Coast Fusion set, with Handy getting support from a tremendously talented small group featuring South African keyboardist Hotep Cecil Barnard (aka Hotep Idris Galeta), guitarist Mike Hoffmann, bassist and former New Yorker Chuck Rainey, drummer James Gadson, percussionist Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Zakir Hussain on tabla (three tracks only). Handy takes several vocals too ("Blues for Louis Jordan," "Didn't I Tell You" and "You Don't Know"). Highlights: the "Caravan"-esque "Young Enough to Dream," "Love For Brother Jack" and the funky "Afro Wiggle."

Metamorphosis - Wade Marcus (ABC Impulse, 1976): This extraordinarily fine album is one of the few that was issued under prolific arranger Wade Marcus' name. It is a treasure and among the best albums featured in this lot. Cleveland native Marcus, who has arranged an amazing amount of work you probably didn't even know he had a hand in like Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life," Yvonne Elliman's brilliant - yes, brilliant - cover of the Bee Gees' "If I Can't Have You" and Peaches and Herb's "Reunited," has created an intoxicating program here that is brought to life with the cream of L.A.'s session players, highlighted by some of the best rhythm and string work ever laid down. The two-part "Metamorphosis" features Lee Ritenour and Joe Sample on the "funk" part and Jerome Richardson and Red Holloway on the "swing" part. Producer Esmond Edwards' well-conceived "Sugar Loaf Mountain" is a feature for the guitarist Lee Ritenour (who had a band at the time called Sugar Loaf Express) on acoustic guitar. Marcus' own "Journey To Morocco" features Jerome Richardson and Joe Sample. "Poinciana" features former Blue Note-r Fred Jackson (who became a West Coast session player in the 70s) and Joe Sample. And there's a slightly reggae take on Elton John's "Daniel," beautifully helmed by the unbelievably little-known Dorothy Ashby on harp and Buddy Collette's wondrous but too little-featured flute work. The mysterious session guitarist Marlo Henderson - who is not listed here as a musical contributor - contributes two fairly worthy jazz-funk tracks, "Would You Like To Ride" and "Funk Machine." The string sections Marcus adds throughout are miraculously beautiful - some of the best string work you'll ever hear over funk or disco beats. This obscure album, which will likely never see the light of day on CD, is absolutely worth every penny on LP.

Time Is Running Out - Brass Fever (ABC Impulse, 1976): Despite replacing boners Kai Winding and Charlie Loper with Maurice Spears and the great Jimmy Cleveland as well as adding a number of trumpeters, the second of the two Brass Fever albums is less concerned with the brass and more on the groove. This is a good thing. Time Is Running Out is a significantly more interesting album than the first Brass Fever album. Arranger Wade Marcus is replaced here with McKinley T. Jackson, who had been instrumental in many of the soul hits by The Dramatics, Lamont Dozier, Angelo Bond and his own group, McKinley Jackson and the Politicians. Soloists here include (former James Brown man) Pee Wee Ellis on tenor sax, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Oscar Brashear on trumpet and George Bohanon on trombone. The covers here - the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' it to the Streets," Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman," Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" (!) and the Jackson Five's "Dancing Machine" - are far funkier and seemingly less labored than the covers Marcus helmed on the previous release. Highlights include covers of Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" (later covered by The Clash and The Specials, here with a splendid solo by Lee Ritenour), a gorgeous disco take of Gershwin's "Summertime" (done up like Grusin's Baretta theme) and, well, yes, golly, Esmond Edwards' own "Funky Carnival" (like on "Dancing Machine," great strings).

Carnival - John Handy (ABC Impulse, 1977): Some of the recording for alto saxist John Handy's second and final ABC Impulse album was done in New York, though it's hard to tell what was done where. It's still a very good example of late 1970s West Coast Fusion. Most of the musicians (and soloists) listed, including Lee Ritenour ("Carnaval," "Make Her Mine" and "Christina's Little Song" only), Larry Carlton ("Love's Rejoicing" only), Sonny Burke, James Gadson and Paulo DaCosta (Paulinho Da Costa) are all West Coast fixtures. Carnival carries through the ideas saxist Handy and producer Esmond Edwards laid out on the equally successful Hard Work. Handy ratchets down the vocals here a bit from his previous effort, with verses and singing on "I Will Leave You" and "Make Her Mine" (the b-side to the 45 of the album's track) only. Guitarist Mike Hoffmann is probably the most notable soloist here apart from Handy, who sounds just wonderful throughout. Highlights: The African-esque title cut, the bluesy "Watch Your Money Go," the funky "Love's Rejoicing" (good solos from Larry Carlton and Sonny Burke here too).

The Joy Of Sax - Sonny Criss (ABC Impulse, 1977): The great alto saxist Sonny Criss released this wonderful album shortly before he committed suicide after contracting painful and debilitating stomach cancer. None of the saxist's pain is evident here in these beautiful sides, which almost prefigure the unfortunate smooth jazz thing that happened at least five years after the saxist's November 1977 death. For, as always, he sounds sax-ually sensual and flawlessly swinging throughout. It is amazing this guy isn't better known - even among jazzers. It's also amazing how striking he sounds here. Arranged and conducted to near perfection by Wade Marcus, The Joy Of Sax features two seemingly requisite Stevie Wonder covers ("Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" and "Have A Talk With God"), above average pop covers of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "You Are So Beautiful," the jazz-connected cover of Oliver Nelson's timeless "Stolen Moments," a dance-floor hopeful, "Turn Me Loose" and Criss' own "Midnight Mellow." Marcus adds strings rather gloriously to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "You Are So Beautiful," "Stolen Moments" and Criss' own "Midnight Mellow" with horn sections he arranged for the remaining tracks. Highlights: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (of all things!), "Turn Me Loose" (with Bill King on electric piano and Lee Ritenour on rhythm guitar), "Stolen Moments" (with Blue Mitchell, Lee Ritenour and Patrice Rushen) and "Midnight Mellow" (featuring Lee Ritenour).

African Violet - Blue Mitchell (ABC Impulse, 1977): After serving tenures at Riverside (1958-61), Blue Note (1963-69), Mainstream (1971-74) and RCA (1975-76), the great trumpeter Blue Mitchell (1930-79) joined the ranks of the all-but dying Impulse label for his final two albums. The first of these, African Violet, finds the underrated trumpet player in excellent form, surrounded by a fairly small group of L.A.'s finest including Sonny Burke on keyboards, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Scott Edwards on bass and either James Gadson or Harold (sic: Harvey) Mason on two tracks on drums. Mitchell trades fours with the always wonderful tenor saxist Harold Land (1928-2001) on five of the album's seven tracks and Herman Riley (1933-2007) on the other two tracks ("Mississippi Jump" and "African Violet"). The rousing program, arranged by McKinley Mitchell (no relation), kicks into gear on side two, with an electrifying cover of Stevie Wonder's ubiquitous "As." There's also a wonderful cover of Don Sebesky's "Forget," which dates back to a 1968 Dot album by trumpeter Jack Sheldon called The Warm World Of Jack Sheldon (as an aside, Mitchell and Sebesky have only been recorded together on two 1971 pieces featured on Stanley Turrentine's CTI compilation The Sugar Man). Mitchell, Ritenour and Land are positively entrancing here. There are also two tunes presented by the great composer and pianist Cedar Walton: the ultra-funky and otherwise unknown "Square Business" - with great solos from Lee Ritenour and Harold Land - and the almost unrecognizably delivered "Ojos de Rojo." Walton figures largely in the trumpeter's career, with the two first working together in New York back in 1962 and the pianist featuring Mitchell on many of his solo records between 1968 and 1975. Blue Mitchell's playing on this album is positively flawless - and, really, a sound that should be much better known than it is today. This album also makes a case for how good fusion was for jazz. Yes, it's electric. But even electric playing can generate its own kind of electricity.

Summer Soft - Blue Mitchell (ABC Impulse, 1978): Trumpeter Blue Mitchell's final album is this wonderful fusion concoction, featuring arrangements by Phil Wright and, on three cuts, Cedar Walton. It's Blue Mitchell at his finest, mixing good straight-ahead playing with soulful wit and verve. This album is similar in many ways to Mitchell's previous album, with two Cedar Walton tracks ("Try Not To Forget" and "30° to the Wind," which also figures on the pianist's 1981 album Piano Solos and his 2001 album The Promise Land) and another Stevie Wonder cover originally featured on the composer's magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life - in this case it's "Summer Soft," which originally featured Ronnie Foster's organ. The same group backs Mitchell as before - which suggests that some, if not all, of this material dates from the earlier session - with tenor saxist Harold Land on three tracks ("Try Not To Forget," "Summer Soft," "30° to the Wind"), Herman Riley on one track (Mitchell's "A Day At The Mint," a song that actually recalls Riley's own "Yeah Ya Right," that Mitchell performed with Riley on the 1973 Mainstream album Graffiti Blues) and the addition of Eddie Harris on his own "Funkthesizer" (Harris also solos rather unremarkably on this rather too-unremarkable song). Pianist Walton is also featured on three tracks here, but only solos on "A Day At The Mint," while Richard Tee is, oddly and most distinctively showcased on "Love Has Made Me A Dreamer." Ritenour solos magnificently - but only - on "Love Has Made Me A Dreamer." Despite its many good points, Summer Soft isn't the best Blue Mitchell album by far - but it is a very good way to hear Blue Mitchell doing what Blue Mitchell does best: provide entertaining fare with artistic flair.

Where Go The Boats - John Handy (Warner Bros., 1978): This mixed-bag affair follows the dissolution of Impulse and saxophonist Handy's acceptance of a million-dollar contract with the mighty Warner Bros. (home at the time to power-sellers like George Benson and Al Jarreau). But it's definitely worth sampling and, at least sound-wise, very much part of the West Coast Fusion movement that Handy was part of when he was with ABC Impulse. Like so many other formerly individualistic producers as Joel Dorn (Atlantic), Tommy LiPuma (Blue Thumb) and Bob Porter (Prestige), Esmond Edwards became a producer for hire. But he helmed this effort, Handy's first of two albums for the huge Warner Bros. empire, giving it that distinctive nod which ties it into the previously-noted Impulse titles. Many of the characteristic players are on board here, notably Lee Ritenour on guitar, James Gadson on drums and Abraham Laboriel on bass. The title track has an appropriately "Breezin" vibe, with Handy singing and Ritenour providing attractive fills. Of note here is the funky jazz of "Moogie Woogie" (with a great synth solo, probably by Ian Underwood), the fusion-y ballad that should have been more of a hit, "Erica" (also again, presumably, showcasing Underwood and a beautiful, near-unrecognizable Ritenour on acoustic guitar) and "Go For Yourself" (great soloing by Handy himself). Handy also solos magnificently on the otherwise negligible "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the goofy "She Just Won't Boogie with Me" (on saxello) and "Salud to Sonny" (probably a tribute to fellow alto saxist Sonny Criss, who, like Handy, was part of this West Coast Fusion movement, and had died shortly before this album was recorded).

There are certainly many other albums to include in this list. But the few productions Esmond Edwards helmed during this time certainly attracted the A-list cadre of West Coast fusioneers - and many first-rate performances to boot.

These albums all had first-class casts performing first-class fusion at a first-class level that was almost unheard of anywhere else.

Sure, there was David Rubinson plugging the always perfect (but hardly West Coast specific) and prolific Herbie Hancock production. There was also former Crusader Wayne Henderson, who brought out any number of B-list West Coasters with his At Home Productions. There was also The Crusaders themselves, not to mention the high-and-mighty Quincy Jones who, again, made whatever project he touched sound universal.

But none were as definitive in whatever could be deemed as "West Coast Fusion" as these far too few recordings helmed by photographer, producer, songwriter and egalitarian East Coaster, Esmond Edwards.


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