Monday, June 29, 2009

Houston Person on Mercury

In between his little-known Eastbound/Westbound years (1973-75) and the prolific Muse years (1976-94), tenor saxophonist Houston Person recorded his only two albums for a major label, Mercury Records, home to many a pop hit since being founded by Irving Green, Berle Adams and Arthur Talmadge in Chicago, Illinois, in 1945.

The company, now owned by Universal Music, the largest record concern in the recording industry, was home at the time to hugely popular rock acts like Bachman Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, the Ohio Players, who like Person came to Mercury from Westbound, and, for a brief period between 1976 and 1978, jazz acts like Gabor Szabo, Jimmy Smith, Chico Hamilton, Bennie Maupin and Houston Person.

Houston Person (b. 1934) is one of those tenor giants who is always compared to the bebop-meets-R&B sax of Gene Ammons (1925-74), or is said to carry on Ammons' "big horn" sound of softly swinging, growly blues. Because he tackles so much popular fare and has a fondness for overplayed standards, Person is also often compared to Sonny Stitt (1924-82).

But even from his earliest records, Person has maintained an easily recognizable signature sound on tenor sax that's all his own, regardless of the format or context he appears within. His sound was "Person-alized."

He has since become something of an "acid jazz" icon - a term he's actually said to dislike - but I don't think it's appropriate to him. The vast majority of his music is as far away from "acid jazz," "funk" or "groove music" as you can get. There was a time, from say 1969 to 1973, when he fooled around with more soulful forms of jazz like R&B and funk that probably helped him gain a certain type of commercial acceptance.

And then for a little while, starting in about 1974 when jazz-with-a-dance-beat hits such as Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)" and Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" made it big, Person was willing to jump into the fire more and embrace the emergence of disco.

In 1973, after seven years and 11 albums for the jazz-bound Prestige Records, Houston Person switched over to Detroit's Westbound Records, home at the time to George Clinton's Funkadelic and the Ohio Players, whose hit "Pain" became a part of Person's repertoire. The tenor sax great opted here to incorporate more funk into his groove and over three albums for the label, increasingly introduced disco rhythms to his musical vocabulary.

Houston Person was offered more money than he'd ever been offered by Mercury Records in 1976 - and significantly wider exposure due to Mercury's amazing distribution network (as a result, it's much easier to find old copies of Houston Person's two Mercury albums than any of his albums for the Prestige or Muse labels, who printed much smaller quantities of albums than the majors like Mercury did) - so he continued his disco experiments over only two albums the label issued by the leader in 1976 and 1977. While much of Person's disco work is neither terribly revolutionary nor ultimately convincing, his ability to deliver a sincerely soulful performance with a groove always merits attention, which is why I am covering these albums here.

Neither of Houston Person's Mercury albums have ever appeared anywhere on CD.

Pure Pleasure (Mercury, 1976): Houston Person recorded Stolen Sweets and The Big Horn for the Muse label before waxing Pure Pleasure. But this was the album that was issued right after the tenor saxophonist's little-known 1975 Westbound album, Get Out'a My Way. Pure Pleasure was intended as a quick follow-up to the previous album's semi-hit "Disco Sax." Like the Westbound album, which was also arranged by Detroiter and former Motown house arranger Jimmy Roach (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Four Tops, David Ruffin, etc.), this disco-oriented album was an overt attempt to cross over into commercial heights that few jazz horn men ever succeeded in attaining. Nothing caught on here either. The disco is a bit slicker here than the rather more funky stuff Roach portioned out on Get Out'a My Way, with ten string players and three background vocalists including Patti Austin, Vivian Cherry and Gwen Guthrie spicing up Houston's still undeniably soulful groove.

Out in front with Person here is trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who was previously heard on Houston's 1971 Prestige album Houston Express, and Paul Griffin (King Curtis, Aretha Franklin and on different tracks of Houston Express than Bridgewater). Also in the rhythm section are guitarist Bruce Nazarian, like Jimmy Roach, a Detroit native who probably also appeared uncredited on Person's two Detroit-recorded Westbound albums, bassist and Motown Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, New York studio drummer Allan (nee Alan) Schwartzberg and percussionist Lawrence Killian in his first appearance with Person (there's also Wildflower and The Nearness of You, plus a number of other Person productions on Muse). In the main, the program is rather disappointing. The hard funk of some of Houston's Westbound collaborations with Jimmy Roach is completely watered down here to a sort of "disco light," almost like a Muzak version of someone else's disco.

The string section and the vocalists are used unimaginatively and the songs never really pop enough to stick in the memory. It's salvaged, however, by Houston's typically robust playing. But even so, the tenor great never really claims any of these songs as his own. With the exception of his take on Natalie Cole's "Inseparable," a ballad that sounds tailor-made for Houston, Person seems out of his element here, more or less just noodling over the groove. If there are any stand-out tracks, the long title track, "Dancing Feet," featuring Houston's echoplexed solo and Ann Roach's interesting "Déjà vu" would rank somewhere in there. But these are just average strolls that seem to be missing something interesting to sweep a dancer on their feet or even get a jazz listener to pay attention. Surprisingly, Person even sounds misplaced on his honking yet rather too pedestrian cover of King Curtis' 1964 hit "Soul Serenade" (keyboardist Paul Griffin probably also factored on Curtis' original).

Mercury issued both a 3:35 edit of "Dancing Feet" and "Soul Serenade" as singles. Neither took off. Apparently, Person also covered Lou Rawls' 1976 hit "You'll Never Find another Love like Mine" during the recording of Pure Pleasure but it has yet to be issued. Jimmy Roach later reunited with Houston Person on Always On My Mind (Muse, 1985), where he contributed the funky little "Cutie Pie," one of the album's best tracks. Smooth has Pure Pleasure available for download on his incredible My Jazz World blog.

Harmony (Mercury, 1977): Despite the addition of high-priced session players, a horn section, more strings and more vocals, the second of Houston Person's two major-label albums was even less commercially successful than the first. That may explain why the tenor sax giant was never offered another shot at the big time. But Harmony is far more artistically satisfying to Houston's fans and beat heads combing Person's catalog for funky nuggets than many other Houston Person albums of the period.

Horace Ott, who first worked with Houston Person on Houston Express (Prestige, 1971 - and contributed "Nemo" from that session to Person's 1997-issued Island Episode) returns here as arranger, conductor and keyboardist (no doubt the one who gets the few keyboard solos heard here) to add a professional polish to what was clearly intended to be a commercial endeavor. From the album's opener, "Harmony, Perfect Harmony," one of The Four Seasons songs from the hit 1975 album Who Loves You, disco seems to be playing much more of a minor role here than what prevailed on the preceding Jimmy Roach productions. Keyboardist Paul Griffin and percussionist Lawrence Killian return from Pure Pleasure, aided by guitarists John Tropea and Jerry Friedman and the fantastic bassist Wilbur Bascomb, who was also on Person's funkier later albums Suspicions, Heavy Juice, Always On My Mind and We Owe It All To Love. Strangely, no drummer is credited here.

The album's odd opener, "Harmony, Perfect Harmony," isn't a great song or even a significantly harmonic one. But in Houston Person's hands, it turns into a reflective ballad that he ruminates ever so effectively upon. The man was born for ballads and, as he does elsewhere, makes this song his own. George Devens accompanies Person here on vibes - a sound the tenor player hasn't often featured in much of his own work - and even gets a welcome shot at a swinging solo. Barry Manilow's corny "I Write the Songs," a huge hit in 1975, even sounds almost meaningful in Houston's hands, despite the fact that neither Person nor Manilow, for that matter, wrote the song. Horace Ott contributes the little disco to be heard here with his easy-breezy "Do It While You Can" and funky-lite "Love Is All We Need," lifting Person up in his tradition of upbeat positivity.

Person's cover of influential Nigerian musician, composer and political activist Fela Ransome Kuti's "I No Get Eye For Back," which first appeared on Fela's 1975 album Alagbon Close, is not only this album's key moment (or 11 and a half glorious minutes, to be exact), but it is probably the single-most highlight of all of Houston Person's funk recordings. This rare groove - which was probably introduced to most of the CD generation on the generously sampled Move To Groove: The Best Of 1970s Jazz-Funk (Verve, 1995) - is a tour-de-force performance. Kudos to Person for covering it in the first place and props to the man for delivering it with the same emotionally philosophical fervor as Fela did in the original. Both Ott and Person are outstanding here and this performance is one to savor for all time.

Oddly, no singles resulted from this album. But the highly charged funk of "I No Get Eye For Back" has become a worthy cult hit - and probably an argument to get this album on CD somehow. While Houston Person did not dabble in disco after this, he wasn't ready to abandon the groove, as the excellent "Preachin' and Teachin'" from his next album, Wildflower (Muse, 1978), beautifully illuminated. Several funky forays followed before Person completely went over to the ballads he is known for today.

Person would later reunite with Ott, who, believe it or not, went on to craft the arrangements on all of the Village People albums and many of VP producer Jacques Morali's successful Can't Stop disco productions, on The Gospel Soul Of Houston Person (Savoy, 1978), a predictable album in the gospel tradition which boasts Ott's nice "Enjoy," Suspicions (Muse, 1980) and the little-known and hard-to-find We Owe It All To Love (Baseline, 1988). The two can also be heard together on The Leon Thomas Blues Band (Portrait, 1988) and Etta Jones' Sugar (Muse, 1989). Smooth has Harmony available for download on his incredible My Jazz World blog.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Houston Person Discography

…Cuz I really haven't seen a very good one anywhere.

There must be very few musicians as frequently recorded as Houston Person (b. 1934) who are as misunderstood, maligned or just plain ignored. The jazz crowd thinks he's just a funkster. And the funk lovers write him off as a balladeer or standards-bearer.

Of course, he's all this and more. He's also an accomplished be-bopper, one heck of a bluesmith, a passionate gospel player, a sensitive accompanist, a thoughtful improviser and in addition to being quite the talent scout and seasoned producer, he's really turned into a first-rate ballads player.

He's always maintained his own sound (right out of the Book of Jug) but he's never really had the audience he's deserved. I've noted the players here to show just the sort of talent Houston Person attracts - again and again:

- Underground Soul! (Prestige, 1966 - not on CD): Mark Levine, Charles Boston, Frankie Jones.
- Chocomotive (Prestige, 1967 - all tracks except "Up, Up and Away" and "Girl Talk" on CD as part of Trust In Me): Virgil Jones, Cedar Walton, Bob Cranshaw, Alan Dawson.
- Trust In Me (Prestige, 1967 - on CD as part of Trust In Me)" Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers, Lennie McBrowne, Ralph Dorsey.
- Blue Odyssey (Prestige, 1968): Curtis Fuller, Pepper Adams, Cedar Walton, Bob Cranshaw, Frankie Jones.
- Soul Dance! (Prestige, 1968 - on CD as part of Truth!): Billy Gardner, Boogaloo Joe Jones, Frankie Jones.

- Goodness! (Prestige, 1969): Sonny Phillips, Billy Butler, Bob Bushnell, Frankie Jones, Buddy Caldwell.
- Truth! (Prestige, 1970 - all tracks except "If I Ruled The World" on CD as part of Truth!): Sonny Phillips, Billy Butler, Bob Bushnell, Frankie Jones, Buddy Caldwell.
- Person to Person! (Prestige, 1970 - on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Houston Person): Virgil Jones, Sonny Phillips, Grant Green, Jimmy Lewis, Idris Muhammad, Buddy Caldwell.
- Houston Express (Prestige, 1971 - on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Houston Person): Jimmy Watson, Paul Griffin, Billy Butler, Jerry Jemmott, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Buddy Caldwell with horns arranged by Horace Ott and Cecil Bridgewater, Arthur "Babe" Clarke, Ernie Hayes, Jimmy Watson, Billy Butler, Jerry Jemmott, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Buddy Caldwell.
- Island Episode (Prestige, includes "Nemo" from 1971 Houston Express sessions plus eight tracks from 1973 session, issued in 1997): Cecil Bridgewater, Arthur "Babe" Clarke, Ernie Hayes, Jimmy Watson, Billy Butler, Jerry Jemmott, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Buddy Caldwell and Victor Paz, Hank Jones, Jimmy Ponder, Andy Gonzalez, Jerry Gonzalez, Nicky Marrero.

- Broken Windows, Empty Hallways (Prestige, 1972 - on CD as part of Broken Windows, Empty Hallways): Cedar Walton, Ernie Hayes, Jimmy Watson, Grady Tate with horns arranged by Billy VerPlanck.
- Sweet Buns & Barbeque (Prestige, 1972 - on CD as part of Broken Windows, Empty Hallways): Richard Tee, Jimmy Watson, Joe Beck, Hugh McCracken, Ron Carter, George Duvivier, Grady Tate, Buddy Caldwell and horns arranged by Billy VerPlanck.
- The Real Thing (Eastbound, 1973 - six tracks including "Kittitian Carnival" on CD as part of Personality): Marcus Belgrave, Donald Townes, Eli Fountain, Wild Bill Moore, Jack McDuff, Sonny Phillips, Jimmy Watson, Grant Green, Robert Lowe, James Jamerson Sr., Idris Muhammad, Hank Brown, Buddy Caldwell, Etta Jones and Spanky Wilson.
- Houston Person '75 (Westbound, 1974 - six tracks on CD as part of Personality) unknown musicians including Etta Jones arranged by Eddie Nuccilli and Jimmy Roach.
- Get Out'a My Way! (Westbound, 1975 - not on CD): unknown musicians including Sonny Phillips arranged by Jimmy Roach.

- Stolen Sweets (Muse, 1976 - not on CD): Sonny Phillips, Jimmy Ponder, Frankie Jones, Buddy Caldwell.
- The Big Horn (Muse, 1976 - issued in 1979, not on CD): Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, Grady Tate, Buddy Caldwell.
- Pure Pleasure (Mercury, 1976 - not on CD): Cecil Bridgewater, Bruce Nazarian, Pail Griffin, Bob Babbitt, Alan Schwartzberg and Lawrence Killian with horns, strings and voices arranged by Jimmy Roach.
- Harmony (Mercury, 1977 - not on CD): Jon Faddis, Arthur "Babe" Clarke, Paul Griffin, Horace Ott, John Tropea, Jerry Friedman, Wilbur "Dud" Bascomb, Lawrence Killian, George Devens, Henry Gibson and orchestra arranged by Horace Ott. - Wildflower (Muse, 1977 - issued on CD as part of Lost & Found): Bill Hardman, Sonny Phillips, Jimmy Ponder, Idris Muhammad, Lawrence Killian.

- The Nearness of You (Muse, 1977 - not on CD): Virgil Jones, Sonny Phillips, Charles Earland, Melvin Sparks, Mervin Bronson, Grady Tate, Lawrence Killian, Etta Jones.
- The Gospel Soul of Houston Person (Savoy, 1978 - not on CD): The Ogletree Brothers and The Atlanta Philharmonic Chorale, arranged by Horace Ott.
- Suspicions (Muse, 1980 - not on CD): Virgil Jones, Ernie Hayes, Sonny Phillips, Horace Ott, Jack Cavari, Melvin Sparks, Wilbur "Dud" Bascomb, Idris Muhammad, Ralph Dorsey.
- Very Personal (Muse, 1980 - not on CD): Virgil Jones, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, Vernell Fournier.
- Don't Misunderstand - Live In New York with Etta Jones (HighNote, 1980 - issued in 2007): Sonny Phillips, Frankie Jones.
- Heavy Juice (Muse, 1982 - not on CD): David Braham, Jon Logan, Melvin Sparks, Wilbur "Dud" Bascomb, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Billy James, Ralph Dorsey.

- Suffield Gothic - with Ran Blake (Soul Note, 1984)
- Road Warriors with Les McCann (Greenestreet/CTI, 1984 - not on CD): Bobby Bryant, Lou Volpe, Gary King, Buddy Williams, Richard Malcolm, musical director Peter Drake.
- Creation with Roger Kellaway (Greenestreet/CTI, 1984 - not on CD): Ted Brancato, Gary King, Kent Heckman, Eek-A-Mouse.
- Always On My Mind (Muse, 1985 - not on CD): David Braham, Ted Brancato, Wilbur "Dud Bascomb, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Ralph Dorsey, arranged by Jimmy Roach.
- The Talk of the Town (Muse, 1987): Cecil Bridgewater, Stan Hope, Buster Williams, Grady Tate, Ralph Dorsey.

- Basics (Muse, 1987): Stan Hope, Peter Martin Weiss, Cecil Brooks III, Ralph Dorsey.
- We Owe It All To Love (Baseline, 1988): Cecil Bridgewater, Ron Bridgewater, Jon Weiss, Horace Ott, Melvin Sparks, Wilbur "Dud" Bascomb, Cecil Brooks III, Sammy Figueroa, Ralph Dorsey.
- Something In Common - with Ron Carter (Muse, 1989 - also part of The Complete Muse Sessions)
- The Party (Muse, 1989): Joey DeFrancesco, Randy Johnston, Bertell Knox, Sammy Figueroa.
- Now's The Time - with Ron Carter (Muse, 1990 - also part of The Complete Muse Sessions)

- Just Friends - The Tenors of Buddy Tate, Nat Simkins & Houston Person (Muse, 1990 - reissued by Bluejay as Texas Tenors - Blowing Session in 2006): Stan Hope, Major Holley, Grady Tate.
- A Night In Roppongi - with Etta Jones (All Art, 1990 - issued 2004): Stan Hope, Peter Weiss, Cecil Brooks III.
- Why Not! (Muse, 1990): Philip Harper, Joey DeFrancesco, Randy Johnston, Winard Harper, Sammy Figueora.
- The Lion And His Pride (Muse, 1991): Philip Harper, Benny Green, Christian McBride, Winard Harper, Sammy Figueroa.
- Christmas with Houston Person and Friends (Muse, 1994 - reissued as Santa Baby on Savoy, 2003): Stan Hope, Bennie Green, Mike Renzi, Melvin Sparks, Randy Johnston, Cameron Brown, Peter Martin Weiss, Jay Leonhart, Alan Chip White, Winard Harper, Grady Tate, Etta Jones, Della Griffin.

- Horn To Horn - with Teddy Edwards (Muse, 1994 - reissued on 32 Jazz in 1999): Richard Wyands, Peter Washington, Kenny Washington.
- Close Encounters - with Teddy Edwards (HighNote, 1996): Stan Hope, Ray Drummond, Kenny Washington.
- Person-ified (HighNote, 1996): Richard Wyands, Ray Drummond, Kenny Washington.
- The Opening Round (Savant, 1997): Joey DeFrancesco, Rodney Jones, Tracy Wormworth, Bernard Purdie.
- My Romance (HighNote, 1998): Russell Malone, Richard Wyands, Ray Drummond, Kenny Washington.

- Soft Lights (HighNote, 1999): Russell Malone, Richard Wyands, Ray Drummond, Grady Tate.
- In A Sentimental Mood (HighNote, 2000): Stan Hope, George Kaye, Chip White.
- Together at Christmas - with Etta Jones (HighNote, 2000): Stan Hope, George Kaye, Chip White.
- Dialogues - with Ron Carter (HighNote, 2000)
- Blue Velvet (HighNote, 2001): Richard Wyands, Ray Drummond, Grady Tate.

- Sentimental Journey (HighNote, 2002): Richard Wyands, Russell Malone, Peter Washington, Grady Tate.
- Social Call (HighNote, 2003): Stan Hope, Paul Bollenback, Per-Ola Gadd, Chip White.
- To Etta With Love (HighNote, 2004): Stan Hope, Paul Bollenback, Per-Ola Gadd, Chip White.
- You Taught My Heart To Sing - with Bill Charlap (HighNote, 2004 - issued 2006)
- All Soul (HighNote, 2005): Stan Hope, Randy Johnston, Per-Ola Gadd, Chip White.

- Just Between Friends - with Ron Carter (HighNote, 2005 - issued 2008)
- Thinking Of You (HighNote, 2007): Eddie Allen, John di Martino, James Chirillo, Ray Drummond, Willie Jones III.

Houston Person Compilations:

- The Best of Houston Person (Prestige, 1970)
- Personality (Beat Goes Public, 1993)
- Legends of Acid Jazz - Houston Person (Prestige, 1996)
- The Complete Muse Sessions - with Ron Carter (32 Jazz, 1997)
- Lost & Found (32 Jazz, 1997 - include unissued 1991 album Sweet Slumber)

- Christmas with Houston Person and Etta Jones (32 Jazz, 1997)
- Truth! (Prestige, 1999)
- A Little Houston On The Side (32 Jazz, 1999 - a compilation of Houston Person's sideman appearances on Muse, reissued by Savoy Jazz, 2003)
- Trust In Me (Prestige, 2001)
- Broken Windows, Empty Hallways (Prestige, 2004)

- The Art And Soul Of Houston Person (HighNote, 2008 - includes four tracks recorded in 2008 not available on previous recordings)

Houston Person also appeared as a sideman in the 1960s and early 1970s on many albums by Johnny "Hammond" Smith (1963-70), Byrdie Green, Don Patterson, Billy Butler, Sonny Phillips, Gene Ammons, Charles Earland (on the hit "More Today Than Yesterday"), Charles Kynard, Horace Silver, Melvin Sparks, Ceasar Frazier, Tiny Grimes and Reuben Wilson.

Person also began a musical relationship with singer Etta Jones in 1968 that began on records in 1975 and continued until her death in 2001. By the late 1970s, Person also began producing records for the Muse label, nearly singlehandedly resurrecting or launching the recording careers of many musicians such as Richard "Groove" Holmes, Charles Earland, Johnny Lytle, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Dakota Staton, Buck Hill, Cecil Brooks III, Della Griffin, Lorez Alexander, Michael Logan, Jimmy Ponder, Larry O'Neillm Randy Johnston, Ernie Andrews, Michael Carvin, Freddie Cole, Antoine Roney, Joyce DiCamillo, Sofia Laiti, Everette Greene, Effie Jansen, Peter Martin Weiss, David "Fathead" Newman, Santi Debriano, Stan Hope, Norman Simmons, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Richard Wyands, Frank Morgan and Jeff Hackworth.

Houston Person can also be heard on records by Mike Mandel, Hank Crawford, Eric Gale, Leon Thomas, Lena Horne, Joey DeFrancesco, Judy Blair, Rhoda Scott, Ronnie Wells, Lorenzo, Lou Rawls, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Vanessa Rubin, Rodney Kendrick, The 3 Bs, Warren Vache, Miki Kohno, Carrie Smith, Judy Argo, Johnny Adams, Tony Zamangi, Doris Spears, Hisayo Tominaga, Joyce DiCamillo, Julie Divine, Denise Perrier. ESPM, Junior Mance, Johnny Adams, Paul Brown, Ron Carter, Doris Spears, Marty Elkins, Kenny Colman, Ronnie Wells, Cyndra Fyore, Daryl Sherman, Steve Kroon, Janis Siegel, Pearl Williams, James Williams, Vic Seneri, Carol Slone, Mocean Worker, Mike Torsone, Statesmen of Jazz, Roy Meriwether, Barbara Morrison, Nancy Kelly, Chip White, Martirio, Aaron Weinstein, Rebecca Parris, Pamela Luss, Diana Marino and Pamela Luss and, recently, The Peter Hand Big Band.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson

The news screaming across the mastheads of all the online news and entertainment sources like the saddened wail of millions of fans worldwide right now is that popular icon Michael Jackson suffered a heart attack and has died at the age of 50.

This sad and stunning news brings a surprising end to what has been a life of not too many years filled with many very high highs and several lowly lows that must have taken an emotional and physical toll on the man dubbed "the King of Pop." Unfortunately, Jackson's death comes about on the same day as the death of another icon from the 1970s, Farrah Fawcett, who died at 62, having lost a long and painful fight to cancer.

Like many others around the world, I have always had a very special place in my heart and soul for Michael Jackson. The Jackson 5's Greatest Hits was the first non-childrens record I ever got. It was Christmas Day in 1973 when I came downstairs and saw that record in my pile of stuff (mostly clothes) from Santa Claus. I couldn't have been more excited. I didn't even know the album was already two years old.

The music seemed timeless to this ten year old. Reflecting on it now, it's amazing how well all that high-class bubblegum music stands up (from the ironic "it just goes to show" department, I'm listening to tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons' 1973 cover of Jackson's 1972 hit "Ben" right now - Ammons' label, Prestige, also had Boogaloo Joe Jones cover the J5's "I'll Be There" and the great pianist Harold Mabern do a groovy take on "I Want You Back").

I will always remember the photo of the Jacksons on the cover of the album, with handsome Michael proudly standing out in front, staring back at you like you were looking out of your front door's peephole, ready to answer the door as if they just stopped by to visit you. The picture was framed in blue, just like a family portrait would be. I had a huge thing for Michael - probably my first-ever crush - and remember loving the Saturday morning cartoon Jackson 5ive that his little cartoon likeness was featured in.

Of course, the voices in the cartoon weren't really the Jackson 5's. I didn't know that then. But the songs were. Wow. What songs. "ABC." "I Want You Back." "Stop (The Love You Save May Be Your Own)." "Sugar Daddy." "Mama's Pearl." And one of my favorites at the time, "Goin' Back To Indiana." All those grooves - all lit up by that beautiful voice of Michael as a child. That sold me. I had to have this music.

Watching them dance was a gas too. They were all over TV at the time. I recall a guest shot the Jackson 5 did on The Carol Burnett Show in the mid 1970s wherein they played students who convinced their square teacher, played by the hilarious Ms. Burnett, to get hip, getting down to "ABC." At this point, Michael's voice had changed - and so did the Motown sound of their music. I also remember Michael appearing on the Sonny & Cher show a few times. One of the memorable appearances was when Sonny Bono asked the still young Michael what he wanted to be when he grew up. Michael responded with something like "I don't know. Maybe an astronaut. What do you want to be when you grow up?"

The Jackson 5's 1974 hit "Dancing Machine" was fun - the first time disco seeped into their sound - but it didn't seem like the Jackson 5 anymore. And I guess my interests began going somewhere else. I sort of liked 1976's "Enjoy Yourself" - their first record after they left Motown - but I don't think people paid much attention to it or to them at this point.

That all changed in 1978 when the group now calling themselves The Jacksons released the incredible Destiny (Epic, 1978). I seem to recall "Blame It on the Boogie" was the first single. But we never heard anything like that album's dance-floor classic "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)." It still mesmerizes me today.

This was a new Michael Jackson, fronting what was clearly his own show. Finally grown into adulthood and seemingly comfortable and in command of his new voice, Michael honed his songwriting skills to perfection and knew exactly how to craft the look, the sound and the feel he wanted. He reconfigured his whole act from cute kid who imitated big people to an adult fully in charge of the music. What he did set trends for years to come.

He confirmed his place in history with Off The Wall (Epic, 1979), one of the most amazing pop albums of all time, featuring the hits "Rock With You," "She's Out Of My Life" and the incredible "Don't Stop (Til You Get Enough)." The album paired Jackson with svengali Quincy Jones, who helped Jackson create a sound that no one had ever heard before (Jones had previously worked with Jackson on the 1978 soundtrack to the movie version of The Wiz, which featured Jackson's take on "Ease On Down The Road" - Jackson starred as the scarecrow along with Diana Ross in the movie). It's hard to believe that this sound just wasn't around before Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones brought it to life in 1979.

Then came Thriller. This 1982 album changed everything. It had a life of its own. I think it still remains the best-selling album of all time. Practically every song on the album was a hit. All huge hits. The stuff was beyond good. The videos revolutionized music videos and were newsworthy themselves. Michael Jackson earned his crown as The King of Pop.

Anything after Thriller would be a let down and while his follow-up, Bad (Epic, 1987) had its moments (including the title hit and its Martin Scorcese-directed video), it was probably unreasonable for anyone to expect Thriller II or something better or greater than Thriller. Thriller is better than anyone could ever have expected. It always will be one of the greatest albums of all time.

After that, Michael Jackson's life came to be less about the music and more about his personal quirks, overly extravagant lifestyle, the unusual changes to his face and his body as he got older, the embarrassing legal troubles and, recently, the tremendous financial troubles. It was a sad end to a life that was so remarkable once upon a time. Jackson was planning performances in London next month and was looking for opportunities to get his recording career back on track. Sadly, it isn't to be.

But, fortunately, as with all great artists - and he was certainly one of the greatest artists of all time, who gave much great entertainment to at least two generations of music lovers - Michael Jackson will be remembered for his great artistry and not the other kinks in the chain of life.

You will be missed, Michael Jackson.

The Forgotten Five of Tappan Zee

Of the two dozen or so albums issued by Bob James' Tappan Zee label between 1977 and 1984, the majority were by James himself. He retained ownership of his own Tappan Zee albums and has supervised CD reissues of them on the Warner Bros. label when he was under contract there between 1986 and 2002 and, more recently, on Koch Records.

James has also supervised reissues of his own Tappan Zee and CTI recordings in Europe and Japan. In Japan, these releases also feature bonus tracks that were previously unreleased - except H which includes the Japan-only "Sparkling New York" and Hands Down which includes James' excellent 1979 45-only release of "Theme from Star Trek" - but, for the most part, these never-heard-before songs are not matched to the albums they did not appear on.

The Japanese CD releases usually look and sound much better than the American and European versions and are all handled through Victor recordings. The Japanese Tappan Zee recordings have now been issued on CD on four separate occasions and on at least two of these occasions have also included other such Tappan Zee recordings as Wilbert Longmire's Sunny Side Up, Richard Tee's Strokin' and Natural Ingredients and Mongo Santamaria's Red Hot. These five Tappan Zee recordings have never been available on CD in the United States or Europe and may once have been fairly accessible from online merchants specializing in Japanese CDs (they're out of print at the moment).

The trouble is that the five best Tappan Zee records not led by Bob James have never, ever appeared on CD in Japan or anywhere else and have since become a forgotten part of a largely forgotten period where the only jazz that is recalled today is often the bigger names. I don't know whether Bob James even owns these recordings (which I think he likely may, at least in Japan, where the others have shown up) or whether he simply feels there's not enough of a market to investigate these treasures.

I hope the following words might convince whoever the powers that be are otherwise. Alongside Bob James' Tappan Zee classics (Heads, Touchdown, One On One, H and Hands Down spring immediately to mind), these five albums rank among the very best that came from the label between 1977 and 1980, when others were recording for the label.

Serpentine Fire - Mark Colby (Tappan Zee, 1978): Bob James first encountered tenor saxophonist Mark Colby (b. 1949) when the pianist was producing trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's Primal Scream (Columbia, 1976 - also the first time James worked with Tappan Zee's house arranger, Jay Chattaway). Colby had recently joined Ferguson's band and quickly became a featured soloist and, later, the trumpeter's musical director. After James and Colby worked together again on Maynard Ferguson's hit album Conquistador (Columbia, 1977 - Colby solos on James' "Soar Like An Eagle" from the album), James offered Colby an exclusive contract with Tappan Zee records and Colby left Ferguson's band to become the second artist signed to the label. Serpentine Fire, Colby's first of two Tappan Zee albums, is among the label's very best albums due to the significant participation and strong influence of James himself. Like the keyboardist/arranger/producer's first three Tappan Zee albums, Colby's solo debut is the prototypical Tappan Zee album and, indeed, sounds very much like a Bob James album with a bit more sax. James is heard on keyboards on each one of the album's six tracks and solos magnificently on the tremendously arranged "Serpentine Fire" (piano) and the otherwise dreary "On And On" (Fender Rhodes). Additionally, Bob James composed and arranged the album's "King Tut" (which finds guitarist Steve Khan lending his fusion signature to the lead) and brings his posse of studio aces including Eric Gale (featured on "Daydream"), Hiram Bullock (featured on "Renegade"), the outstanding electric bassist Gary King and Steve Gadd to the party. Colby alternates between tenor and soprano saxes in pretty equally measure. His tone and technique on tenor are commanding, suggesting something not far afield of Stan Getz, but he tends to be reminiscent of frequent James associate Grover Washington, Jr. on soprano. Still, Serpentine Fire is a convincing document and most worthy debut. Highlights: EW&F's terrific "Serpentine Fire," Jay Chattaway's excellent "Daydream," Bob James' "King Tut" and Steve Khan's interesting "Rainbow Wings."

One Good Turn - Mark Colby (Tappan Zee, 1979): Mark Colby's second and final Tappan Zee album is a superlative effort and, even back in 1979 when it was first released, it was probably one of fusion's best kept secrets. There is much great musical artistry here from a small group of studio aces including Bob James (on "Macbeth (For Folon)" and "Song For My Daughter" only), the great and under-sung Barry Miles on keyboards for the album's other four tracks (he solos only on "Capativa"), Randy Bernsen on two tracks, Mike Mainieri on one track and the mighty Gary King and Steve Gadd, each on five of the album's six tracks. Colby - or possibly producer Jay Chattaway - leavens out the program with varying groups, giving each song a different feel than the one before it. There is, however, a unity to the program that probably comes from Colby himself, who seems to have had more of a hand in the artistic direction of this album than his previous Serpentine Fire. His playing on both tenor and soprano seems to have grown more character in the year since the last album too. He does some of the horn talking he briefly displayed on "Serpentine Fire" on "Skat Talk" and "Village Zoo" here - the titles describing the effect rather well. James' contributes the pretty "Song for My Daughter," which is little more than a blatant variation of his famed "Angela (Theme From Taxi)," but benefits especially well by the muscular, yet pretty Brecker-like passion that Colby brings to it. While Mark Colby continued recording and touring with Bob James (All Around The Town, Hands Down), Chuck Mangione and others after waxing One Good Turn, he didn't record again under his own name until 1987's Mango Tango (with Frank Caruso). Today, he seems to be recording more frequently for the Hallway and Origin labels, which seems to be an argument in favor of sharing his first two excellent albums with the CD generation. Highlights: Gary King's (who deserved his own Tappan Zee album) "Skat Talk," Steve Khan's "Macbeth (For Folon)," Mike Mainieri's "Peace of Mind," Bob James' redundant "Song for My Daughter" (it's still pretty and a good performance) and Colby and Bernsen's "Village Zoo."

Champagne - Wilbert Longmire (Tappan Zee, 1979): George Benson - a CTI veteran like Bob James - was, also like Bob James, one of the featured soloists on Maynard Ferguson's 1977 album Conquistador and suggested that James sign his friend, Cincinnati-based guitarist Wilbert Longmire, to the Tappan Zee label. James did and Longmire recorded three albums for Tappan Zee and almost became famous in his own right for blending an elegantly supple melodicism on guitar not terribly dissimilar to Benson's with a warm, romantic voice that brought out the soul of any ballad. Champagne is the second and most successful overall of these three albums. The material here feels more compatible to Longmire than either the previous Sunny Side Up (1978) or the overtly commercial With All My Love (1980). That is probably due to, first, the consistent presence of a first-tier fusion rhythm section consisting of James on keyboards, Richard Tee on piano (on three tracks), Eric Gale on guitar, Gary King on bass, Harvey Mason or Idris Muhammad on drums and Jimmy Maelen on percussion and, second, a preponderance of Longmire's beautiful guitar playing, even on the vocal piece, "Love's Holiday," and the Benson-like smoothness of "Pleasure Island." Longmire's guitar is the star here and he sounds particularly inspired and utterly unique on his own "Funshine" (recalling those heavy jams he recorded with Rusty Bryant in the early 1970s) and engaged and engaging on "Diane's Dilemma." Champagne, Longmire's fifth album as a leader, is hands down his finest effort and should have made him at least a jazz guitar star. Highlights: Bob James' lightly funky "Diane's Dilemma" and oddly jazzy "Ragtown" (both featuring Michael Brecker), Jay Chattaway's very smooth "Pleasure Island" and Longmire's own funky "Funshine" (featuring a playful horn arrangement by Randy Brecker).

Keyed In - JoAnne Brackeen (Tappan Zee, 1979): It's hard to say what drove Bob James first, to sign the great and innovative pianist JoAnne Brackeen (b. 1938) to Tappan Zee and, second, go outside of the Tappan Zee formula altogether to allow her to record in the context she preferred. James apparently loved her music enough to let her do things her own way. Perhaps it was frequent Bob James associate Michael Brecker who introduced James to Brackeen's work. Brecker had appeared on Brackeen's album Tring-A-Ling (Choice, 1977) and probably heard the utterly unique approach this former pianist for Art Blakey and Stan Getz brought to jazz. She is like no other. Brackeen is uncompromisingly aggressive, yet always emotive, tuneful and strikingly approachable and she never, ever went for the hit recording or the easy bucks (i.e., no fusion for Ms. Brackeen - she doesn't seem to smile much in many of her photos from around this time either). James afforded the pianist an opportunity to work with whomever she wanted and for both of her Tappan Zee records - and her first post-TZ record Special Identity (Antilles, 1981) - she chose bassist Eddie Gomez, who featured on Prism (Choice, 1978), a duo album with Ms. Brackeen, and the great polyrhythmist, Jack DeJohnette, who had worked and toured with James in the 1970s as part of the CTI All Stars and is now well known for his significant role in Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio. This is an amazingly good record from start to finish and the epitome of the jazz piano trio of the 1970s. Outside of Bill Evans, hardly anyone was making music like this at the time and Ms. Brackeen's command of the unit is simply mind boggling. She is a democratic leader overflowing with more ideas than can possibly be captured well in one album and Gomez and DeJohnette are superb associates, leading as much as following - just like the namesake leader. Highlights? Every note is a highlight. "Let Me Know," "Twin Dreams" and the driving "El Mayorazgo" stand out but "Off Glimpse," "Always and Always," "Carmel Tea" and the ironically free "The Grant" are all worth investigating repeatedly.

Ancient Dynasty - JoAnne Brackeen (Tappan Zee, 1979): One of the few single-pocket releases on Tappan Zee, Ancient Dynasty improves on Keyed In's astounding vibrancy brilliantly by adding tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to the group. It's an inspired addition. Brackeen and Henderson had never worked together before - or after for that matter - which is hard to believe as their temperaments seem so similar and completely compatible (for the record, producer Bob James had recorded with Henderson on only one occasion before, on Johnny Hammond's excellent 1973 Kudu album Higher Ground). Ancient Dynasty is a superb record from the first note to the last. Brackeen's compositions are notably dramatic and leap and lope like a good story would, her phrases exploring the unpredictable at every turn. Henderson blends in beautifully here, caught in an especially creative environment that wasn't really present on his own recordings of the time (he's also in his element and especially notable on Woody Shaw's 1977 album Rosewood). As before, Gomez and DeJohnette are essential to the quartet, navigating the rhythm as much as driving the music. The funky "Beagle's Boogie" reminds us that Ms. Brackeen started her recording career in funky vibist Freddie McCoy's group. But this isn't your father's funk. This is creative improvised music that just happens to have a groove to it. What Brackeen is doing is not adding funky accents. She is like a mad scientist here, whipping out brilliant counterpoints and firing off a hard-driving solo that takes funk right back into the jazz stratosphere that launched it in the first place. Highlights? Everything here is a highlight. "Beagle's Boogie" has always been my favorite, from the day I bought the album in 1980. But "Ancient Dynasty," "Remembering," "Pin Drum Song - Celebration" are all long, varied and interesting explorations of a quartet of first-rate jazz musicians at the height of their power. Brackeen reteamed with Gomez and DeJohnette for her next album, Special Identity (Antilles, 1981), and the three reunited again for Where Legends Dwell (Ken Music, 1991), nearly a decade into Jack DeJohnette's run in another extremely popular piano trio. Ancient Dynasty is creative, straight-ahead jazz at its very best - which was hardly the norm in the fusion-dominated climate of 1980 - and it's odd that Ms. Brackeen lists neither this nor her previous Tappan Zee album, Keyed In in the discography section of her own web site.

For more on Tappan Zee, you can check out my discography here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whatever happened to Leon Spencer?

Perhaps one of the least known helmsmen of the Hammond B-3 organ, Leon Spencer, who is also known as Leon Spencer, Jr., is one of the finer practitioners of organ groove music that's now referred to as acid jazz.

Call it jazz funk, groove jazz, what have you, Spencer was one of the art's best contributors and while people dance, tap their feet or bob their heads to his music all these years later, hardly anyone knows his name today.

His recording career was mercilessly brief (roughly 1968-76), concentrated most heavily in 1970 and 1971, when producer Bob Porter was helping birth that confluence of jazz, r&b and rock that yielded a new kind of funk that wouldn't be appreciated until the 1990s when it was revived and revered as what became known as "rare groove" and "acid jazz." Spencer was part of the appreciation society, but - oddly - his career never recovered when admiration of his music did.

Leon Spencer was born in Houston, Texas, on November 1, 1945, and started piano lessons early, studying the instrument for more than 10 years. He gigged around Texas with David Newman then attended Texas Southern University to study engineering. He later attended the University of Houston. After getting out of the army, Spencer heard Jimmy Smith in person and decided to take up the organ and backed Houston visitors like Peggy Lee and Lou Rawls when they came through town.

He also gigged around Texas with fellow Houston native, guitarist Melvin Sparks, whom he first met while the two were in school together. In 1969, Spencer spent three months in Los Angeles, where he made his recording debut with guitarist Wilbert Longmire, who he'd work with again over the years. He came to New York in 1970 and immediately found opportunities working with his friend, Melvin Sparks, who'd already established a journeyman reputation in New York and over the years has recorded with practically every jazz organ player except, strangely enough, Jimmy Smith.

"As a player," wrote Bob Porter in his 1997 notes to Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer, "Spencer was all Jimmy Smith on top, but his use of organ bass was most unusual. He would use the lower manual much more than most players and develop bass lines that had considerably more than average range. It is fortunate that master engineer Rudy Van Gelder was aboard for these dates because he brings out the very best in Spencer's organ sound."

Spencer is too often unfairly or inaccurately compared to Jimmy Smith when he's considered at all, or marginalized as a mere imitator not worthy of further merit. But this does not do justice to what Spencer brings of himself to the Hammond B-3.

Spencer may use "The Boss" as a launching pad of inspiration. But he goes places that Smith would have never dared, mixing the cosmic funk of Larry Young and Lonnie Smith with the spacey soul of rockers Greg Rolie, Brian Auger, Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. Young R&B-3ers like Billy Preston and Booker T. Jones seemed to have had something to say to Spencer as well.

As a composer, Leon Spencer contributed a number of strong funky originals to most of the sessions he participated in. But, oddly enough, the tunes themselves weren't that memorable as melodies. You listened to them for their rhythmic foundation and remained transfixed by what the improvisers did to enhance the groove.

The melody of Spencer's tunes seemed to be derived from little more than vampy highlights or accents to the exotic rhythms he laid out with his bass pedals. The structure was based on the blues; simple ideas that could be expressed in one, two or three chords (no complicated changes) and the delivery was a hook that could grab any listener's attention in a few short seconds.

There is something of a signature to many of Spencer's tunes that render them almost meaningless in anyone else's hands, which may explain why his music is never covered by other players. For this reason, most of Spencer's few compositions stand out in the boogaloo crowd and sound different than most other organ combo grooves.

Surprisingly, when the "acid jazz" renaissance of the 1990s re-launched many an old funkster's career, Leon Spencer was left out of the equation and all inherent retro celebrations. Several of Spencer's old recordings began to appear on CD - one under his own name - but Spencer, undoubtedly rooted back in Houston, was neither asked nor resurrected to claim what was, at least in part, certainly his due.

So, what happened to Leon Spencer?

Was he unable or unwilling to stay in New York for the sake of plying a low-pay trade on a heavy instrument which began falling out of favor almost completely in 1973, the year he disappeared from records? Did he refuse to do session work? Was he too forthright a personality to do sessions that pleased producers or other leaders? Was he too headstrong to commit to backing other leaders and possibly get stuck in their fake book of outdated standards? Was he too unyielding to adapt his groove to the changing tastes and the onslaught of disco? Is it, simply and sadly, that no one ever asked him to come back?

Who knows? While I, for one, would like to know and hear more of Leon Spencer, it's time now to consider the groovy evidence he left behind for us to enjoy and remember him by.

Revolution - Wilbert Longmire (World Pacific, 1969): After gigging around Ohio with Hank Marr and recording an album with Trudy Pitts in New York, guitarist Wilbert Longmire went out to California, where he met Houston native Leon Spencer. This album resulted and ended up as a first for both players: Longmire's first record as a leader and Spencer's first official recording. The whole thing was arranged by Jazz Crusader and fellow Houston native Joe Sample and also featured Wilton Felder, also a Jazz Crusader and fellow Houston native. The album is a collection of jazzed up covers of pop hits of the day, caressed by what liner notes writer Philip Elwood refers to as Longmire's "elegant" and "melodic" lines. Spencer gets several spots and tears up the super-charged "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "Galveston," and Longmire's bluesy "Movin' On" on organ and takes a nice solo on the "Bewitched" theme on piano.

Pretty Things - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1970): Leon Spencer, who was no doubt introduced to Lou Donaldson by the alto saxist's guitarist at the time, Melvin Sparks, appears on all but one of this album's six songs (the opener, "Tennessee Waltz") and contributes the funky great "Curtis' Song" to the program. Donaldson's group on these tracks consists of Leon Spencer with Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Ted Dunbar on guitar and Idris Muhammad on drums. Odd that Melvin Sparks wasn't at this session, but he did appear three days later on Rusty Bryant's Soul Liberation, where he as good as burns down the title track.

Sparks! - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1970): This marks the first occasion that "The Mod Squad," producer Bob Porter's name for the hip triumvirate of organist Leon Spencer, guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad, recorded together. Sparks' covers here - Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You," The Coasters' "Charlie Brown" and, most notably, Eric Burdon and War's "Spill the Wine" - are well known, well sampled, well compiled and well worth every second to hear how tight this unit was. Spencer contributes the driving funk of "The Stinker" to the program. Issued on CD as part of Sparks!/Akilah! (BGP, 1993) and Legends of Acid Jazz - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1996).

The Scorpion - Live at the Cadillac Club - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1970): First issued in 1995, this formerly unissued live performance was recorded on the same day as another unissued studio album Donaldson recorded with the same group that included two takes of this CD's title song (one of which was issued on the 1995 Blue Note compilation The Lost Grooves) and the excellent "Turn It On," which Spencer ended up recording and releasing under Sonny Stitt's name. Spencer contributes the first-rate title song and jams rather interestingly on Lonnie Smith's excellent "Peepin'."

Sneak Preview - Leon Spencer Jr. (Prestige, 1970): Leon Spencer couldn't have started out any better than he did here, as part of what was dubbed Prestige's "Mod Squad," with Virgil Jones on trumpet, then-unknown Grover Washington, Jr. on tenor sax and Buddy Caldwell on conga. The players are strong, the playing is strong and the program is strong too. Spencer contributes three interesting originals ("The Slide," "First Gravy" and "Sneak Preview), takes on a jazz standard ("Someday My Prince Will Come") and chooses two R&B hits of the day (The Meters' "Message from the Meters" and The Presidents' "5-10-15-20 (25-30 Years of Love)"). Spencer is authoritative throughout, a commanding and inviting presence on the B-3 and inspiring equally well-done performances from the other musicians. The well-sampled "Message from the Meters" is unquestionably the album's highlight. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1997).

Turn It On! - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1971): Jazz sax legend Sonny Stitt recorded prolifically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often showing up and blowing over whatever they made him play, collecting his paycheck and playing the standards he preferred in the clubs at night. Here, producer Bob Porter assembled "The Mod Squad" of Leon Spencer, Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad with Virgil Jones to back Stitt on a program of three Spencer originals (the excellent "Turn It On," "Bar-B-Que Man" and "Miss Riverside") and two older numbers or, er, semi-standards ("Cry Me A River" and "There Are Such Things"). The playing here is uniformly top-shelf, but weakened somewhat by someone's insistence that Stitt electrify his tenor with a Gibson Maestro Attachment, which gave his otherwise beautiful sound the quality of a farting duck. There is no reprieve. He's electrified the whole time. So it's a pleasure to hear anyone else but him play. Still, all concerned blow the roof off the house. The long "Turn It On" is a classic and it, along with the equally sinister funk of "Miss Riverside," overcome any weaknesses otherwise present and makes this album an essential acid jazz purchase. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1996).

You Talk That Talk! - Ammons & Stitt! (Prestige, 1971): Probably the most traditionally jazz-oriented date Leon Spencer ever participated in, You Talk That Talk! is dominated by the dueling saxes of co-leaders Gene Ammons on tenor and Sonny Stitt on tenor and the creepy Varitone. As a consequence, it's difficult to hear Spencer's personality here - even on his perfunctory blues, "You Talk That Talk." It sounds as if Spencer was brought to the session by Bob Porter and both Ammons and Stitt wholly disapproved. Spencer doesn't solo much and seems far more restrained than usual. Ammons' guitarist at the time, the great George Freeman, replaced Melvin Sparks in Porter's "Mod Squad" and brings a very different sound to the Spencer/Muhammad groove. One would guess that the sax legends were dissatisfied with Porter in all of this too. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Gene Ammons (Prestige, 1997).

Akilah! - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1971): In which Spencer's reign of participating in albums titled with exclamation points ends. Hard to see why an Arabic word that means bright or intelligent needs exclamation. Be that as it may, the "Mod Squad" collaborates to produce another notable effort here. Sparks starts it off with the cover of Kool and the Gang's "Love the Life You Live" which, fine as it is, sounds completely out of place here. Even at its brisk tempo, it leaps and lopes too strangely for your average funkster. The album kicks into gear on "On the Up," the first and best of Sparks' four compositions here. Spencer solos distinctively on "On the Up" and "Blues for J.B.," switches to piano for "Akilah" and contributes the mid-tempo ballad "The Image of Love" (a feature for the guitarist and flutist Hubert Laws). Issued on CD as part of Sparks!/Akilah! (BGP, 1993).

Fire-Eater - Rusty Bryant (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer reunites with guitarist Wilbert Longmire on only two of this excellent album's four tracks, "The Hooker" and "Mister S," both Spencer compositions. While they're good, they can't hold a candle to the album's other two tracks ("Fire-Eater" and "Free at Last") with Spencer replaced by even less well-known organist Bill Mason. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Rusty Bryant, Volume 2 (Prestige, 1998).

Spark Plug - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer appears only on one of this album's five tracks, the heavily sampled cover of Kool and the Gang's "Who's Gonna Take the Weight," featuring great solos by both Sparks and Spencer. Sparks also recorded the album's title track with Spencer, but this version went unissued in favor of one featuring organist Reggie Roberts, who mans the B-3 on the album's best track, "Conjunction Mars," and throughout the rest of the disc. Issued on the CD titled as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Melvin Sparks (Prestige, 1996).

Louisiana Slim - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1971): Leon Spencer's (no Jr. this time) second album reassembles The Mod Squad with Grover Washington, Jr., Virgil Jones and Buddy Caldwell and gets even better results. Spencer contributes four originals to the program (the excellent "Louisiana Slim," the light and breezy mid-tempo "Our Love Will Never Die," showcasing one of Grover Washington's only performances on flute, and the near-gospel swing of "The Trouble With Love") and covers "Mercy, Mercy Me" (featuring a beautiful spotlight for Grover Washington, Jr., recorded two months before his own famous version for Kudu) and "(They Long To Be) Close To You." Louisiana Slim is a fine showcase for Spencer's writing and playing abilities and while Sparks hovers more in the background than usual here, Grover Washington, Jr. steps to the fore, showing his genuine talent and genius soulfulness. Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1997).

Black Vibrations - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1971): Some sort of tension between Stitt and Spencer seems to have erupted on this album as Stitt insisted on replacing Spencer with longtime associate Don Patterson on two of this album's six tracks. Spencer contributes three tracks to the program, the expertly moody "Black Vibrations," "Them Funky Changes" and the album's best and best-known track, "Goin' to D.C." Issued on CD as part of Legends of Acid Jazz - Sonny Stitt (Prestige, 1996).

Cosmos - Lou Donaldson (Blue Note, 1971): The Mod Squad is still featured on this album, but it's the first of alto sax player Lou Donaldson's overly commercialized albums of the 1970s, and as such adds unnecessary vocals and additional musicians to the brew, including the great electric bassist, Jerry Jemmott. The addition of an electric bassist almost wipes out any personality Leon Spencer could bring to the occasion. But he solos well on the album's two best and funkiest tracks, Donaldson's "The Caterpillar" and Curtis Mayfield's "If There's a Hell Below (We're All Going To Go)."

Bad Walking Woman - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1972): I don't know this album, so here is what the redoubtable Dusty Groove has to say: Supremely heavy work from organist Leon Spencer -- one of his classic jazz funk sessions for Prestige Records, and a record that shows him opening up his sound a bit more than before! The album has Spencer working in a few different lineups -- some with small groups that feature Melvin Sparks on guitar and Idris Muhammad on drums -- others with some slightly larger instrumentation and even a bit of strings, used in a sophisticatedly soulful style that reminds us a bit of CTI or Kudu backings of the time! Billy Ver Planck handles the larger arrangements, but even on these Leon's organ is right out front in the mix -- really dominating the tunes, and soaring over the top with a newly fluid style that reminds us of Charles Earland at his own best during this time. Titles include the killer funky title cut -- "Bad Walking Woman" -- plus "When My Love Has Gone", "In Search Of Love", "Down On Dowling Street", "Hip Shaker", and "Bad Walking Woman". Cool cover, too, with a huge collage of photos of the backsides of exactly 99 "bad walking women"! (Reissued recently on vinyl only).

Where I'm Coming From - Leon Spencer (Prestige, 1973): Another good one from Leon Spencer and, regrettably, his recorded swan song as a solo artist. For the most part, the group is a bit larger than usual and arrangements are handled by keyboardist Ed Bogas, who worked at the time with Cal Tjader. appropriately locates this album "somewhere between Blaxploitation funk and some of the grooves from the CTI/Kudu camp." I couldn't have put it better myself. The covers are well chosen and include intense workouts of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" (from Super Fly), The Four Tops' "Keeper of the Castle" and Marvin Gaye's scintillating "Trouble Man" (recorded some two months before Grover Washington, Jr.'s excellent version). A notable change here is that Melvin Sparks and Idris Muhammad are not present on five of the album's six tracks, replaced by Joe Beck and Grady Tate; fine accompanists indeed, but the "Mod Squad" had clearly disbanded and times were a-changing. Bassist George Duvivier adds bottom to the four cover tunes, negating the need for Spencer to work his pedals into the heated groove one would expect from his records. Still, things click back into place on the Leon Spencer-Joe Beck-Grady Tate trio take of Spencer's "The Price A Po' Man's Got To Pay" and on Spencer's title cut, "Where I'm Coming From," the album's highlight. This last track, recorded at the February 1972 Bad Walking Woman sessions, is a classic and spots a nice feature for flutist Hubert Laws. Reissued recently on vinyl only.

This Side of Heaven - Wilbert Longmire (J&M, 1976): The album's jacket lists no credits outside of the leader on what sounds like a guitar quartet minimally highlighted by a few string instruments. Tom Lord's The Jazz Discography credits Leon Spencer as keyboardist and vibes player here and it is probably guitarist Wilbert Longmire's third solo album, cut right before he made his three better known records for Tappan Zee (Sunny Side Up, the tremendous Champagne and With All My Love). If indeed it is Spencer heard here, he helms the electric piano - no organ - for five of the obscure and brief album's six tracks, overdubbing vibes on "Barbara." It's really Longmire's show, though, and he sounds beautiful throughout, if not a little reminiscent of George Benson, who is friends with the Ohio-based guitarist. The ever reliable Smooth has this one available for download on his incredible My Jazz World blog.

Dance Lesson #2 - Karl Denson (Blue Note, 2001): After what appears to be a quarter century absence from records, organist Leon Spencer, Jr. (as he's billed here again) pops up on former Greyboy Allstar Karl Denson's funky Blue Note debut. Spencer teams with old pal Melvin Sparks, MMW bassist Chris Wood and the unnecessary sound effects of DJ Logic on five of the album's nine tracks, including Spencer's own middling "I Want the Funk." Denson's "Flute Talk" and "A Shorter Path #2," are the disc's high points but Spencer is also on hand for "Dance Lesson #2" and "Who Are You." As before, Spencer gets his personality trounced somewhat by the presence of a bassist. More locomotion for the machine is ok. But not when it cancels out one of the more prominent drivers. As it stands, Spencer just kind of vanishes into the music like he disappeared again from the music after this and has not been heard on records since.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stanley Turrentine on Elektra

Even before leaving Blue Note in 1969, Pittsburgh native Stanley Turrentine (1934-2000) was often accused of being too commercial. It wasn't an uncommon barb to lurch at any talented jazz instrumentalist who successfully crossed-over and sold some records to non-jazz audiences.

But Turrentine was then accused of scandalously cottoning to popularity once he moved over to CTI Records in 1970. Finally, all jazz purists, critics and naysayers wrote the soulful saxist off completely once he left the CTI label in 1974, scoring his biggest hit ever with "Pieces of Dreams" - which Turrentine had earlier recorded for CTI but which the label opted not to release, causing his departure to the Fantasy label (after Turrentine's Page-arranged version hit, CTI rush released their Bob James-arranged version in 1975).

Despite any number of revisionist straight-ahead records in his discography during the last two decades of his recording career, Stanley Turrentine's jazz credibility shamefully never recovered until after he'd died. It seems Turrentine could never make whatever kind of record the elite all expected of him. Even the late period jazz recordings in his catalog were ignored or dismissed as "crossover" or "cross-back" attempts by the so-called jazz cognoscenti.

The truth is, from his very earliest recordings, Stanley Turrentine consistently followed his instincts toward soulful melodies. It may be a jazz standard, it may be a blues - which many of Turrentine's originals were - it may be an R&B tune, it may even be a Top 40 pop tune (Turrentine was one of the first jazz guys to "stoop" to covering The Beatles in 1964, with performances of "Can't Buy Me Love" from his Mr. Natural album and his wife at the time, Shirley Scott's Queen of the Organ album).

Turrentine's warm and immediately distinctive tone and soulful swing always unified it all. You could go from listening to Turrentine in 1962 to Turrentine in 1972 to Turrentine in 1982 to Turrentine in 1992 and only the amount of electricity would change - not Turrentine's style or groove.

Mister T moved over to the Elektra label in 1979 like several other jazzers who were crossing over to the dance floor and onto Top 40 radio such as fellow Blue Note veteran Donald Byrd, Lee Ritenour - who also featured on several of Turrentine's recordings - and Patrice Rushen. Turrentine recorded four albums of varying exception for the label between 1979 and 1982, and their outright commercialism have wrongly forced them to the fringe of remembrance.

Fortunately, all four albums have been issued on CD and, as it turns out, are worth some measure of revisionist attention. There's a lot of good music here, though, clearly, this is not the best Stanley Turrentine ever did or the place to start if you want to discover the many joys of Stanley Turrentine's music. You'll have to go back to any number of the Blue Note, Impulse or CTI records he made between 1960 and 1973 for that.

What Turrentine's four Elektra albums prove, in all of their commercialized glory, is that the Sugar Man was doing his thing the way he liked, like he always had. It amounts to about two and half hours of solid, soulful music that always swings and communicates to far more people than the few dozen who might want to hear some "real jazz" - whatever that is - at a two-drink-minimum nightclub.

Betcha (1979): Gene Page arranged Stanley Turrentine's first three Fantasy albums during 1974-75 (Pieces of Dreams, Have You Ever Seen The Rain and In The Pocket), so it must have seemed logical that the two should pair up again for Turrentine's Elektra debut. On their fourth and final collaboration together, Turrentine and Page set out a "disco light" groove, getting off to a rocky start with the regrettable covers of Cher's first disco foray, "Take Me Home" (one of the album's single releases), and Todd Rundgren's "Love Is The Answer," made popular the year before by England Dan and John Ford Coley. From there, the vibe never gets out of its easy-listening disco rut: un-funky stuff with a mechanical beat. Things pick up on the lesser known music, notably on the album's otherwise unknown title track, which probably deserved some airplay, L.T.D.'s "Concentrate on You" (another of the album's singles and not the Cole Porter standard everyone mistakes it for). Turrentine contributes a smoochy after-hours ballad called "Hamlet (So Peaceful)" that would be indistinct were it not for the leader's signature sound fronting the emotion that doesn't get whipped up. Frequent Turrentine collaborator Sonny Henry provides three tunes here ("You," "Long Time Gone" and "Together Again") but each comes across as little more than pleasant disco muzak that not even Turrentine is able to salvage. Swathing the tic-tock rhythms with swirling strings, Page has perfected this sort of thing to a gossamer polish and it seems to evaporate into the ether right before your ears, taking Turrentine right out with it. This is not to say it's not worth hearing, even, rather enjoyable. It's just hard remembering any of it once it's done. Issued on CD in 2005 by the Wounded Bird label.

Inflation (1980): Turrentine's second Elektra album is also the saxist's second album with Wade Marcus (1975's Everybody Come On Out was the first). Turrentine and Marcus work surprisingly well together and the two produce an above-average program that appears to be pop-oriented but offers enough soulful melodies and Stanley's expert swing to make it appealing to most jazz listeners. One of the album's key advantages is the two Turrentine originals, the title track and the old-fashioned sounding blues of the saxist's "Is It You." "Inflation" is a particularly good mellow funk track that finds Turrentine swinging hard, sharpened by Marcus' perfectly-chiseled horn section and nice harp accents courtesy of Gene Bianco (a Marcus trademark, also evident throughout "Don't Misunderstand"). Turrentine covers two Isaac Hayes tunes here, the famous - and, at this point, seemingly dated - "Shaft" and the pretty "Déjà Vu," made famous that year by Dionne Warwick. Frequent Turrentine contributor, Sonny Henry (the guitarist in Willie Bobo's band that probably retired on what he earned for writing "Evil Ways"), provides the elegant and straight-ahead "Ghana" here, eliciting a nice solo from pianist Cedar Walton, the only solo on the record other than Turrentine's. Highlights: "Inflation" (the album's first of two single releases, "Déjà Vu" was the other one), "Closer" and the gorgeous cover of Gordon Parks' luscious ballad "Don't Misunderstand" (from Shaft's Big Score - more Shaft!). Marcus would shortly thereafter arrange Turrentine's next album, Use The Stairs, a quieter, jazz ballads-oriented program that seemed to close out the saxist's Fantasy contract. Inflation was issued on CD in 2006 by the Collectables label.

Tender Togetherness (1981): In addition to distinguishing himself as Earth, Wind & Fire's musical director and keyboardist from 1972 to 1983, Larry Dunn helmed a number of successful soulful jazz productions for Ronnie Laws, Caldera, Ramsey Lewis and Twennynine with Lenny White by the time of Tender Togetherness - including one side of my favorite Ramsey Lewis album, Routes (Columbia, 1980). Bringing Dunn on board clearly signaled the need for a new direction and there's no denying this is the most commercial Stanley Turrentine ever got. As EW&F's strongest instrumental components - the Phoenix Horns (on "I'll Give You My Love" and "Tamarac") and Dunn's distinctively agile keyboards - are present here, Tender Togetherness plays like an EW&F album circa 1981, featuring Stanley Turrentine. Pop overrides much jazz here, particularly on the vocal pieces, "I'll Give You My Love," "Cherubim," "Havin' Fun With Mr. T" and "Only You and Me," an early feature for Dianne Reeves. But while it's all pleasant background material, nothing much shouts out past the P-funk-like "Havin' Fun With Mr. T.," the second of the album's two single releases (predictably, the overly-familiar cover of EW&F's 1979 hit, "After The Love Is Gone" was the album's first 45 release). Turrentine is front and center on Dunn's "Hermanos," "Tamarac" and "World Chimes," but none of these tunes are memorable enough to matter much. Turrentine is co-credited as writer on only two tracks, "I'll Give You My Love" and as one of three writers on the all-too-brief duo track "Pure Love (Interlude)," but neither are characteristic or, frankly, all that memorable. Issued on CD in 2005 by the Wounded Bird label.

Home Again (1980): Stanley Turrentine's final Elektra album was more or less helmed by songwriter/producer Chuck Jackson, who along with Marvin Yancy co-wrote and co-produced much of Natalie Cole's hit 1970s output. It's hard to say whether Jackson, who by this time had partnered with jazz sax player Azar Lawrence and songwriter Patryce "Chocolate" Banks, was trying to turn his attentions to jazz, but Home Again is Jackson's sole foray into the genre. It's a typical "jazz" album of the day, with lots of electronics and period dance rhythms. But despite it being his first trip down this road, Stanley drives it well and stands tall after all is said and done. The program is slight at best, only enlivened by Turrentine's typically magnificent playing in and around and on top of the groove. Suspiciously, a lot of hands are credited for the arrangements on this confusingly titled album: Tony Coleman, Peter Brown and Tom James arranged the rhythms, keyboardist Todd Cochran, who appeared on Betcha, arranged the synthesizers, and Chuck Jackson arranges the few background vocals that are heard ("I'll Be There"). For the first time in a long time - maybe since the CTI days - there is a notable lack of pop hit covers here, not counting the hardly-known take on Niteflyte's 1981 song "I Knew It Couldn’t Happen" (a vocal feature for Derald Conway). The disco-y instrumental "I'll Be There" was the album's single release, but it's surprising that the better and funkier "You Can't Take My Love," featuring vocals by Irene Cara, didn't get the nod here. It would have done well on the dance floor. Highlights: Turrentine's co-written "Conception," featuring the album's only other solo, presumably by guitarist Bobby Broom, and "You Can't Take My Love." "Paradise," "Blow," "At the Club" and "Gemini" are worth hearing to sample Stanley's beautiful blowing, but as songs they seem to be missing that something memorable and without Turrentine on top, well, just kind of blow. Issued on CD in 2006 by the Collectables label.