Wednesday, April 27, 2011

“Children’s Song” by Roberta Flack

This song has always been one of my very favorites. “Children’s Song” is a little-known tune from Roberta Flack’s little-known soundtrack to the little-known Richard Pryor/Cicely Tyson film Bustin’ Loose (1981).

This touching film, suggested by a story from Richard Pryor himself, finds ex-con and parole violator Joe Braxton (Pryor) hired by a school teacher, Vivian Perry (Tyson), to drive a group of special-needs kids from the Philadelphia shelter they’re housed in and due to be shut down to Ms. Perry’s Washington farm. Of course, Braxton hates the job and Ms. Perry’s lover tries his best to get Braxton back to prison – and get the kids back to Philadelphia. But Joe and Vivian learn to work together to provide the kids with some sort of hope and a future filled with people who care about them.

It doesn’t sound feasible at all. But the pairing of Richard Pryor and Cicely Tyson is inspired. The two have a remarkable chemistry as polar opposites.

And Roberta Flack provides a particularly dynamic set of songs (composer Mark Davis is credited with providing the film’s score), which found an album release on MCA Records in 1981, the year before Flack scored her huge – and great – movie hit “Making Love” (which was actually written by Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts).

“Children’s Song” is a beautiful piece of the funky Gospel-like ephemera that Roberta Flack is so adept at. The tune is as catchy and simple as are the lyrics:

Open your eyes to your feelings
Show me that you care
Just like the stars in the heavens
God is everywhere

Open your eyes to your feelings
Your heart will let you see
And let me say that I love you
God bless you and me

Participating musicians are unknown, but it’s a good guess that co-writer Barry Miles helms the predominant synthesizer and the great Dom Um Romão mans much of the exciting percussion fills that make this song so fun. Also Tisha Campbell, Judson Dean, Michelle Lewis and Jamie Murphy are on vocals.

Otherwise, the LP credits the following: Roberta Flack (keyboards), Barry Miles (keyboards, synthesizer, marimba, strings), Clark Spangler, Ed Walsh (synthesizer), Marcus Miller (synthesizer, electric bass), Allen Wenta (lyricon), Jeff Mironov, George Wadenius (guitar), Gary King, Dwight Watkins (electric bass), Buddy Williams (drums, percussion), Dom Um Romão, Carol Steele (percussion) and Jay Hoggard (marimba).

There’s plenty of good music on this soundtrack including the poppy “Just When I Needed You,” Luther Vandross’ “You Stopped Loving Me,” Robert Flack’s instrumentals “Qual e Malindrinho” and the funky Prince-like “Rollin’ On” and Marcus Miller’s should-have-been-a-hit “Lovin’ You (Is Such an Easy Thing to Do.)”

But my favorite is and always will be “Children’s Song” (anybody else hear where Prince might have copped "Sign 'o the Times"?).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Peter Herbolzheimer "Soul Puppets"

The great composer, arranger and trombonist Peter Herbolzheimer (1935-2010) probably ranks as one of Germany’s best-known bandleaders, having helmed not only his popular Rhythm Combination & Brass (RC&B) but leading many big band orchestras on stage, TV and radio.

The RC&B made for a unique sound in the seventies, mixing jazz with fresh rock, funk, Gospel and Latin elements and coming up with a sound that made typical big bands of the day sound old and tired by comparison.

Herbholzheimer staffed the RC&B most uniquely with a brass front line, only one saxophone, electric keyboards, electric bass and lots of percussion and peopled it with an international panoply of jazz greats including Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich, Ack van Rooyen and Palle Mikkelborg (trumpets), Herb Geller (reeds), Dieter Reith (piano, organ, electric piano), Siegfried Schwab and Philip Catherine (guitar), Peter Trunk and Günter Lenz (bass), Jiggs Whigham, Rudi Fuesers and Otto Bredl (trombones), Tony Inzalaco (drums & percussion) and Horst Mühlbradt (piano & percussion).

The result was an electrifying sound that swung and got down more than most jazz ever has.

While the RC&B is probably Herbolzheimer’s best-known work outside of Germany, the composer/arranger also led many other groups including Certain Lions and Tigers and The Galactic Light Orchestra, the Jazz Gala Big Band Orchestra( featuring such jazz luminaries as Stan Getz, Mark Murphy, Nat Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Toots Thielemans and Gary Burton), the traditional big-band sound of the Peter Herbolzheimer Orchestra, Bundesjazzorchester (BuJazzO) and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as well as leading the WDR, HR and P.O.L.D.I. big bands.

During his prolific RC&B days in the early 1970s, Herbolzheimer and company recorded a number of titles for the German sound library publishers Altaxon and Edition Panther. This music was primarily intended for use as background music in films, television and advertising and was not usually made available to the general public.

Library music thrived in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s (American unions have generally prohibited these sorts of recordings) and some of music’s greatest composers and performers have made much of the music heard in so many backgrounds – usually without any credit of any kind.

Nowadays, “sound library” recordings are plentiful on CD, revealing the authors to be some of music’s heaviest heavyweights, including some from the world of jazz. These musicians probably supplemented their jazz expeditions both financially and artistically by providing this anonymous library music to publishers.

Turns out Peter Herbolzheimer is one of those guys and his RC&B provided the musicianship to many a library track.

Soul Puppets collects 14 of these, previously unknown and never-before officially released library tracks recorded by Peter Herbolzheimer between 1970 and 1975 in Cologne and Munich with the legendary musicians of his exciting Rhythm Combination & Brass.

Library music does not typically identify individual players, but the explosive RC&B signature is much in evidence throughout this disc, surely suggesting the participation of such artists of the magnitude of Herbolzheimer himself as well as Art Farmer, Dieter Reith, Herb Geller, Dusko Goykovich, Ack van Rooyen, Palle Mikkelborg, Siegfried Schwab, Tony Inzalaco, Philip Catherine, Peter Trunk and others.

By definition, library music is designed to either establish/enhance a mood or suggest something by hinting at something more familiar. The familiar is fertile here in the “Mas Que Nada”-like opener “Latin Groove,” the “Spooky”-like “Count Down,” “The ‘In’ Crowd”-like “Botafogo,” (Lee Morgan’s) “The Sidewinder”-like “Groovy Spider” and “The Girl From Ipanema” meets “The Gentle Rain” bossa “Windy Corner” – all groovy riffs that are new enough to merely hint at their well-known cousins.

The predominant mood of Soul Puppets - like so many library-music compilations - is funk and no one injected funk into a big band as expertly as Peter Herbolzheimer did – unless it was another jazz composer who also dabbled in the form, like those jazz players who also wrote film music.

Here, Herbolzheimer seems to pay tribute to some of these idols with musical ideas that derive from the work of Quincy Jones (Horst Mühlbradt’s “Knock Rock”), Dave Grusin (Ingfried Hoffmann’s “Walking Tiger”), Herbie Hancock (Herbolzheimer’s fantastic “Orange Faces”) and Lalo Schifrin (“Smiling Lips” with a beautiful sax solo, presumably from Herb Geller).

The jazz of the day gets a fair hearing too with the classy CTI spin of “Orange Faces,” the Prestige organ groove of “Count Down,” the elegant “Why Is The Sun Never Crying,” which hints at Gil Evans’ 1973 classic Svengali (with a dash of Diamonds Are Forever-era John Barry thrown in for good measure) and the Mainstream-era Blue Mitchell-like funky blues “Hot Spot.”

This particularly well-programmed set is good from start to finish, but several highlights stand out, including “Why Is The Sun Never Crying,” “Walking Tiger,” “Orange Faces” and “Smiling Lips.” These titles alone, while intentionally derivative, merit attention as superb originals and ably withstand scrutiny on their own terms, due mostly to the powerful performance provided by the predictably tight and swinging RC&B. Herbolzheimer’s group injects a solid and creative jazz quotient to keep the music from ever getting as backgrounded or boring as so much of this kind of music often is.

Soul Puppets is an excellent and essential addition to the discography of Peter Herbolzheimer’s Rhythm Combination & Brass discography.

Monday, April 25, 2011

George Shearing “Bossa Nova”

The Japanese branch of EMI Toshiba has just issued 50 budget-priced CDs as part of its “Jazz 999 Best & More” series, including the tremendous George Shearing Bossa Nova, the late pianist’s lovely 1963 album, his first such experiment in the Brazilian fad that swept the Western world in the early half of the 1960s.

Caught up in the Bossa Nova craze that swept through jazz and popular music in the early 1960s, pianist George Shearing makes – perhaps – the first of his 1960s records that marks itself of its time.

Released in May 1963, George Shearing Bossa Nova finds Shearing’s piano set off rather remarkably by sensitively deployed woodwinds and “Brazilian rhythm,” all arranged to immaculate perfection by the great Clare Fischer, who had already arranged quite a number of Cal Tjader albums as well as several Bossa Nova albums on Pacific Jazz for the great saxophonist Bud Shank, who is surely one of the unnamed reed players heard here.

The well-tempered program mixes such cleverly considered Bossa Nova standards as “One Note Samba,” “Desafinado” and “Manha de Carnaval (Morning of the Carnival)” with jazz standards “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Blue Prelude,” done up in a refreshingly Bossa Nova style that sounds entirely compatible with the Latin styles Shearing popularized in the past.

Also included here is Ralph Melendez’s pretty “Nevermore,” bassist on the session Ralph Peña’s “Algo Novo,” Shearing’s “Black Satin” (the title track to his 1957 album), guitarist Laurindo Almeida’s “Amazona’s Legend,” Clare Fischer’s “Samba da Borboleta (Butterfly Samba)” and the now standard “Pensativa,” here in its second recorded performance following its first appearance on a Bud Shank record.

Shearing sounds absolutely at home here, which prompts one to ask why he didn’t further explore either more Bossa Nova music or albums coated in Brazilian rhythms? Perhaps it just wasn’t his bag. Or maybe Capitol didn’t want him to veer too far from the lucratively lush loveliness of the orchestrated Quintet sound.

Guitarist Laurindo Almeida is no doubt another of the unnamed musicians featured here – prominently on “Desafinado,” “Nevermore,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Algo Novo,” “Black Satin” and his own “Amazona’s Legend” (which has not been recorded elsewhere) – as he is distinctively featured (though mysteriously unnamed) and considered one of the first musicians who introduced Bossa Nova to the United States.

Additionally, Almeida was under contract to Capitol at the time and the company was all about pairing Shearing with Capitol recording artists like Nat King Cole and Nancy Wilson. Almeida had waxed Viva Bossa Nova! for Capitol a few months earlier, an album that also featured “One Note Samba” and “Desafinado” covered on George Shearing Bossa Nova, as well as the April 1963 release of Ole! Bossa Nova! that precedes George Shearing Bossa Nova by one catalog number.

It’s a shame – and a shock! – that the company didn’t see fit to name Laurindo Almeida on the record. This would have made a notable duo record for both the pianist and the guitarist.

The George Shearing Bossa Nova album has been newly re-mastered as part of the limited-edition “Jazz 999 Best & More” series (and sounds spectacularly lovely) from EMI Toshiba, exclusively available in Japan from the Capital, Jubilee, Colpix, United Artists, Pacific Jazz, World Pacific, Roost, Roulette and even Sue (!) archives – most of which is available for the first time on CD and all of which will probably go very fast. Here is what else is available in the series:

●TOCJ 50102 LAURINDO ALMEIDA / A Man And A Woman (1967)
●TOCJ 50103 LAURINDO ALMEIDA / The Look Of Love (1968)
●TOCJ 50104 KEN HANNA AND HIS ORCHESTRA / Jazz For Dancers (1955)
●TOCJ 50105 THE JONAH JONES QUARTET / Swingin’ on Broadway (1957)
●TOCJ 50106 STAN KENTON / Kenton’s West Side Story (1961)
●TOCJ 50107 JUNIOR MANCE / Straight Ahead! (1964)
●TOCJ 50108 MANHATTAN TRANSFER / Jukin' (1971)
●TOCJ 50109 HOWARD ROBERTS QUARTET / Something’s Cookin’ (1964)
●TOCJ 50110 FRANK ROSOLINO / Kenton Presents Jazz (1954)
●TOCJ 50111 GEORGE SHEARING / Bossa Nova (1962)
●TOCJ 50112 PAUL SMITH / Delicate Jazz (1957)
●TOCJ 50113 SUPERSAX / Supersax Plays Bird With Strings (1973)
●TOCJ 50114 Clark Terry / Coleman Hawkins / Sonny Clark / Eddie Costa Memorial Concert (1962)
●TOCJ 50115 RANDY WESTON / Highlife (1963)
●TOCJ 50116 JOE MORELLO / Collections (1957)
●TOCJ 50117 EDDIE COSTA / VINNIE BURKE / Trio (1956)
●TOCJ 50118 JOE PUMA / Jazz (1957 – with Bill Evans, Eddie Costa, Oscar Pettiford and Paul Motian)
●TOCJ 50119 ETHEL AZAMA / Cool Heat (1960 – with Marty Paich’s Orchestra featuring Art Pepper)
●TOCJ 50120 HOWARD RUMSEY’S LIGHTHOUSE ALL STARS / Double of Nothin’ (1957)
●TOCJ 50121 ROY AYERS / West Coast Vibes (1963 – his debut with Jack Wilson, Curtis Amy and Bill Plummer)
●TOCJ 50122 COUNT BASIE / Basie Meets Bond (1965)
●TOCJ 50123 ART BLAKEY/JAZZ MESSENGERS / 3 Blind Mice (1962)
●TOCJ 50125 BENNY GOLSON / Benny Golson & the Philadelphians (1958)
●TOCJ 50126 BILLIE HOLIDAY / Lady Love (1954)
●TOCJ 50127 BOOKER LITTLE / Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (1958)
●TOCJ 50128 PAUL QUINICHETTE / Like Basie! (1959)
●TOCJ 50129 JEROME RICHARDSON / Going to the Movies (1962)
●TOCJ 50130 RANDY WESTON / Live at the Five Spot (1959)
●TOCJ 50131 BOOKER ERVIN / Structurally Sound (1966)
●TOCJ 50132 BOOKER ERVIN / Booker ‘n’ Brass (1967)
●TOCJ 50133 GIL EVANS / New Bottle, Old Wine (1958)
●TOCJ 50134 CLARE FISCHER / First Time Out (1962)
●TOCJ 50135 CLARE FISCHER / Surging Ahead (1963)
●TOCJ 50136 RICHARD “GROOVE” HOLMES / Groove (1961 – his debut, with Ben Webster)
●TOCJ 50137 THE MASTERSOUNDS / The Mastersounds Play Horace Silver (c. 1960)
●TOCJ 50138 LES McCANN & THE JAZZ CRUSADERS / Jazz Waltz (1963)
●TOCJ 50139 THE MODEST JAZZ TRIO / Good Friday Blues (1960 – with Red Mitchell, Jim Hall and Red Kelly)
●TOCJ 50140 THE BUDDY RICH BIG BAND / Mercy, Mercy (1968)
●TOCJ 50141 BUD SHANK / Barefoot Adventure (1961 Soundtrack)
●TOCJ 50142 BUD SHANK/MICHEL LEGRAND / Windmills of Your Mind (1969)
●TOCJ 50143 RAVI SHANKAR / Improvisations (1961)
●TOCJ 50144 TONI ALESS / Long Island Suite (1955)
●TOCJ 50145 SELDON POWELL / Seldon Powell Sextet (1956)
●TOCJ 50146 SPECS POWELL & CO. / Movin’ In (1957)
●TOCJ 50147 SONNY STITT / The Saxophones of Sonny Stitt (1958)
●TOCJ 50148 ART BLAKEY/CHARLIE PERSIP/ELVIN JONES/”PHILLY” JOE JONES / Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland (1960)
●TOCJ 50149 JOHN HANDY / No Coast Jazz (1960)
●TOCJ 50150 RAY BRYANT / Cold Turkey (1964)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Manu DiBango “Africadelic”

It’s hard to believe there is a musician anywhere on this earth that could mix great jazz chops with a soulful outlook and a worldly attitude and still make it so fun and funky that it doesn’t matter what allegiance you address. This stuff rocks. And, amazingly, it’s just as timely now as it was back then.

The following tunes come from Manu Dibango’s Africadelic album, the tremendous 1973 French-only follow-up of sorts to the worldwide smash that was “Soul Makossa.” Copies of this LP, which was briefly issued on CD about a decade ago, can still be found (and, surprisingly, the LP is actually easier and cheaper to get a hold of than the CD).

Several folks have posted samples of the music from this album on YouTube, which I am only too pleased to share here.

I’ve been a big fan of Cameroon’s greatest living musician since Manu Dibango’s classic “Soul Makossa” in 1972 – which surely everybody in the free world knows by now (it’s influenced much music, including, most notably, Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”).

But I was convinced by Electric Africa (1985) and fully converted by Wakafrika (1994). Africadelic is just one of the hidden gems in Manu DiBango’s capacious catalog. Here are examples of why it’s so good:

The terrific “The Panther”:

“Soul Fiesta”:

The great “African Battle”:

“African Carnival”:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Impulse Records

Legendary producer Creed Taylor launched the legendary Impulse label 50 years ago, wrapping his roster in a definitive look and an instantly iconic logo. First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection, an exciting 4-disc collection from Verve Select, includes all six albums produced by Taylor for the label that proudly wore its signature colors of orange and black on its spines – plus rare tracks including unreleased John Coltrane rehearsals. The included 84-page hardbound book features essays by Mr. Taylor and associate producer Ashley Kahn, author of the best-selling book on Impulse, The House That Trane Built, as well as session photos and reproductions of the original LP artwork.

The six Taylor-produced albums in the set: Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011; John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, the label debut of the great artist, who would have been 85 in September this year; Gil Evans’ Out Of The Cool; Oliver Nelson’s Blues and The Abstract Truth; along with two albums by trombonist Kai Winding, The Great Kai & J.J. (with J.J. Johnson) and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones, both on U.S. CD for the first time [sic]. The set includes such radio hits and jazz anthems as Charles’ “One Mint Julep” – the rare mono single version is also included at Mr. Taylor’s request – Coltrane’s “Africa,” Evans’ “La Nevada” and Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” plus rare alternate takes and unused performances, that offer a comprehensive look at the diverse range of music recorded during the label’s first six months.

First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection also features a remarkable discovery: never before available performances by John Coltrane, originally recorded in a demo session 50 years ago for Africa/Brass. The three performances include the standard “Laura” and two original compositions by Cal Massey, who arranged the session: “The Damned Don’t Cry” (later recorded at the Africa/Brass sessions) and “Nakatini Serenade” – a slower version than the one Coltrane recorded for Prestige in 1958.

From 1961 through ’76, Impulse was an important part of a pivotal, fertile period in jazz history. Through the exciting and rapid changes of the ’60s and ’70s, Impulse Records was arguably the most effective label bringing the exciting world of jazz to a new generation of listeners.

Check out the official Impulse Records 50th Anniversary site - here! - with release news, updates and special concert events!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Marcin Wasilewski Trio “Faithful”

Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his trio, featuring bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz, continue to impress and astound, but never more so than on the group’s newest ECM disc Faithful, a most remarkable feat of collective creativity and improvised music.

After waxing some of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s more memorable recent outings (2002’s notable Soul of Things, 2004’s Suspended Night and 2006’s splendid Lontano), the trio – minus drummer Miskiewicz – made drummer/percussionist Manu Katché’s ECM discs (2005’s Neighbourhood and 2007’s Playground) the strikingly lovely outings they turned out to be.

The Marcin Wasilewski Trio began life back in the early 1990s as the Simple Acoustic Trio (S.A.T.), when all three were still in high school. Wasilewski (b. 1975), Kurkiewicz (b. 1975) and Miskiewicz (b. 1977) made their performing debut in 1991. The group started winning all sorts of awards and issued its first recording, Komeda (later retitled Lullaby for Rosemary’s), in 1995, inspired by a successful live performance dedicated to the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda, best known now for his soundtracks to early Roman Polanski films.

S.A.T. issued several more recordings in Poland, including When Will The Blues Leave (Polonia, 1995), Live in Getxo (Hillargi, 1996), Habanera (Not Two, 1999) and Lyrics (2001), with Polish saxophonist Henryk Miskiewicz, S.A.T. drummer Michal’s father.

After the trio’s internationally renowned success recording and touring with Tomasz Stanko, the German ECM label issued Trio in 2005. By the time the trio issued its second ECM disc, January in 2008, it had officially become known as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, deferring to the traditional leadership role placed by so many on the pianist in a jazz piano trio.

For its latest endeavor, the Wasilewski Trio has made one of its most significant statements thus far. It’s a tribute to this band’s longevity and familial fortitude. Each knows where the other is going and each leads and follows in equal measure. It is one of the more musical piano trios currently operating, serving up a bevy of interesting originals and unusual covers, in a style that is all its own.

Quite simply Faithful is one of the loveliest and most stirring piano-trio recordings I’ve heard in some time. Things often get as dazzling as all the hype suggests, but never more so than on the rhythmically-charged and dynamically intoxicating “Night Train to You,” suggesting not only the crossroads of the Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett trios but also the emotive motivation and the moody sensibilities that is something of a calling card for this trio.

Indeed, I’ve never heard this group spring to life the way they do on the pianist’s terrific original while still maintaining the reflective undercurrent of hope and melancholy they blend together so well. The mix of time signatures and musical styles is made with such ease as to be effortless, proving this band is a communicative force to be reckoned with.

The trio accord commendably to their accommodations, in something that sounds very much like a signature style, on other such Wasilewski originals as the long and lovely “Mosaic” (a terrific showcase for all three trio members, especially Kurkiewicz), the elegantly ruminative “Song for Świrek” (another of the disc’s highlights), the lusciously contemplative “Woke Up in the Desert” and the soulfully picturesque “Lugano Lake,” undoubtedly a reflection of the area where Faithful was recorded.

The group also covers the beautiful and fascinating “Faithful,” a surprisingly little-known ballad from Ornette Coleman’s 1967 Blue Note album The Empty Foxhole. It’s a sumptuous performance that one of Paul Bley’s trios might have thought of at some point but didn’t.

Wasilewski does, however, cover Bley’s own “Big Foot,” a tune the composer included on his first ECM record (the third disc in the company’s history) and has recorded on several other ECM discs for some reason as “Fig Foot.” Here Wasilewski only hints at Bley’s melody, allowing the jagged-edge funk of the melody to be an inventive springboard for the trio’s creative compatibility and energizing fusion of melodic ideas.

The Wasilewski trio also reflects upon “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” which has been surprisingly avoided by most piano trios (although the Jarrett trio is heard performing the song on its 1990 ECM disc Tribute), Brazilian composer/percussionist Hermeto Pascoal’s “Oz Guizos (The Bells)” (brought to the session by bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, a fan of Brazilian music, and originally heard on the composer’s 1971 American album Hermeto), and the uber-theatrical “An den kleinen Radioapparat,” turning it into something warm and romantic that would make any Bill Evans fan coo with joy.

Faithful is, by definition, being true to one’s word. Nothing could describe this trio’s musical mission better. Faithful certainly restores my faith in the jazz piano trio.

Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Miskiewicz have a synergy that is fresh and contagious, occasionally brushing past touch points of the familiar on the way to something new. The Marcin Wasilewski Trio represents a breathtaking fusion that Faithful makes worth hearing and exploring time and again.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Colin Vallon Trio "Rruga"

French jazz pianist Colin Vallon’s ECM debut is the third disc under his own name, following Les Ombres in 2004 and a disc on the Hatology label, Ailleurs in 2007. Needless to say, an appearance on ECM gives this trio a certain credibility – or cache (more on that later) – and an international presence the previous discs have not offered.

The album’s ECM-ish title is Albanian for ‘path,’ ‘road’ or ‘journey,’ an absolutely apt description of the trek this trio takes, despite however many other ECM titles have used or deserved this particular appellation in English or other languages. The trio, comprised of the pianist, bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Samuel Rohrer, certainly embarks upon some sort of a journey here. But it’s hard to say whether the program or the trio goes anywhere.

This is exactly the sort of highly personalized and seductively contemplative musicianship so amply evident elsewhere in hundreds of records in the ECM catalog. But while it has points of interest along the way, too much of it all seems so stridently serious.

The cover photograph, another one of ECM’s lovely photos taken from a moving vehicle, shows a bicyclist in the rain, while jacket photos show children at play (predictably in black and white). This sort of uninhibited joy and enjoyment – even the cover’s necessity of getting somewhere despite the means and the prevailing conditions, perfectly illustrating the album’s “rruga” – isn’t really felt in the music.

The young and handsome Vallon and his trio are a wee bit too earnest throughout, “challenging conventions of the modern jazz piano trio,” as the ECM publicity proclaims. Commendably, theirs is not the exploration of the song form or melodic convention of the cliché-ridden jazz piano trio plying Tin Pan Alley tunes and meaningless originals so much in evidence in countless recordings and any hotel lounge.

Theirs is more of the organic cycle of introspective moods and unexpected colorations that yield to music that is more emotive, expressive and as personalized as so much ECM music often is. Just because they’re operating in a piano trio doesn’t make them jazz.

And while it’s certainly creative, it hardly ever conforms to standard jazz strictures. Like jazz, you either get it or you don’t. Unlike so much jazz, though, it will baffle you if you expect it to act as background music. It forces you to pay attention – or ignore it.

This is not to say this particular cache is without interest. Moret’s opening “Telepathy” perfectly encapsulates the synergy this trio has together, despite the fact that it was inspired by the phrasing of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke.

Rruga annotator Steve Lake (yes, an ECM album with notes!) likens this particular track to a cross between Scott La Faro’s “Jade Warrior” and Annette Peacock’s “Mr. Joy” (best known in its interpretation by Paul Bley). But my guess is that Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus are much more relevant points of inspiration and motivation for the Vallon trio than the old-schoolers – many of whom have made their mark on ECM – that made this sort of trioism possible today.

The album’s best moments come when all three musicians seem most engaged, especially on drummer Rohrer’s dynamically ambiguous “Polygonia,” Vallon’s fascinating “Meral,” the strikingly melodic “Noreira” and “Rruga, var.,” a much livelier take of the disc’s title song. At moments like these, the group almost tends toward the soulful, something they either shun for the most part for whatever reason or avoid altogether because they think they’re supposed to.

For better or worse, Rruga is the prototypical ECM recording: eloquently crafted and elegantly performed by iconoclastic musicians doing exactly what they want. But sadly, it's not as memorable as it could or should be.

Live, on the other hand, the Colin Vallon Trio is a different story altogether. Where is this warmth and passion on Rruga?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rediscovery: Brick

I was 13 years old when I first heard “Dazz” and I knew from the very first moment I heard this song on the radio that this was one of the very best songs I’d ever heard in my life.

I seem to remember my wonderful grandmother (babysitting us at the time) taking me and the rest of my siblings to Northway Mall in Pittsburgh’s North Hills one day. Our first stop in the mall allowed me to get this 45 and, if I recall correctly, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s Part III. Then we went to Mamma Lucia’s for a delicious pizza dinner. I still remember eating pizza with my brother and sisters, thinking how happy I was to have “Dazz” in my possession. The flute solo is pure manna to me.

“Dazz,” whose title, like the song itself, is meant to merge the styles of disco and jazz, has always stayed with me. I still think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I ended up getting the group’s follow-up singles “Dusic” (1977 – again merging “disco” with “music”) and the totally righteous “Raise Your Hands” (1979). I think I was the only one I knew in my small world who ever knew these songs existed and, unfortunately, Brick disappeared very shortly thereafter.

A listing on Wikipedia has this to say: Brick was formed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972 from members of two bands - one disco and the other jazz. They coined their own term for disco-jazz, "dazz". They released their first single "Music Matic" on Main Street Records in 1976, before signing to the independently-distributed Bang Records. Their next single, "Dazz", (#3 Pop, #1 R&B) was released in 1976. The band continued to record for Bang records until 1982. Other hits followed: "That's What It's All About" (R&B #48) and "Dusic" (#18 Pop, #2 R&B) in 1977, and "Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody" (#92 Pop, #7 R&B) in 1978. Their last Top Ten R&B hit was "Sweat (Til You Get Wet)" in 1981.

Bang Records was eventually acquired by Columbia Records in 1979, around the time Brick issued its Stoneheart record (which included “Raise Your Hands”), assuring wide distribution and increased radio play. But, unfortunately Brick (which possessed many of the same qualities of the era’s other chart-toppers, B.T. Express and the Ohio Players) never found this sort of success.

Brick more or less disintegrated after their final Bang album After 5 in 1982 (although an album called Too Tuff was issued several years later). Columbia, now Sony, which owns the bulk of Brick’s recorded output of six albums, has issued two Brick compilations – but neither, inexplicably, features the full five minute and 15 second version of “Dazz.” How anybody thinks that the edited version of “Dazz” qualifies as a disco classic isn’t getting the point of the song or the reason why it’s become the dance great it is.

The major label has also not bothered to issue Brick’s original albums, especially the excellent 1976 debut album Good High, which features “Music Matic” and the full-length version of “Dazz” as well as other such greats as “Here We Come,” “Southern Sunset,” “Good High,” “Brick City” and “Sister Twister.” The group’s musicianship is most apparent here – a mix of R&B and soul melding into disco and jazz. The amazing Jimmy “Lord” Brown” features prominently throughout on vocals, saxophone, flute, trombone and trumpet. Brown alone makes the album as appealing for jazzers as those looking for something a bit more funky.

Fortunately, the always great Wounded Bird label has rescued not only the great Good High for CD but other Brick albums such as Brick (1977) and Stoneheart (1979). (The group’s fourth album, Waiting on You (1980), was recently issued on CD by Funky Town Grooves, leaving the group’s nearly unknown last two Bang albums, Summer Heat and After 5 (1982) to remain in perpetual obscurity.)

The long-awaited Good High CD adds a single edit of “Dazz” (called “Dazz Disco Mix”) and “That’s What It’s All About (Single Version).” Brick adds to its program “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody (Single Version)” and “Dusic (Short Version)” – which trims about two minutes off the album version. StoneHeart adds “Raise Your Hands (Single Version),” a four-minute edit of the five-minute LP version.

The point is that we’ve finally got Brick back in the musical foundation, where they belong. I’ve already ordered my CDs. And if you like great R&B funk and jazz, you’ll be all over these too. “Dazz” rules!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Billy Bang – R.I.P.

The great jazz violinist and composer Billy Bang, born William Vincent Walker on September 20, 1947, in Mobile, Alabama, died at his home in Harlem on April 11. The cause of death was complications due to lung cancer.

Billy Bang moved with his family to Harlem, New York while still an infant. He studied violin in school and took up drums and flute independently. He briefly attended the exclusive Stockbridge prep school in Massachusetts with no music curriculum, then dropped out, moved to the Bronx and was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam.

After struggling with alcohol and drugs on his return to America in the late 1960s, Bang drifted from schools, meaningless jobs and political action groups before taking up the violin again. He studied with the prominent avant-garde jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins and became immersed in the 1970s downtown loft-jazz scene – the celebrated locus of avant garde jazz that all the major record labels avoided at the time due to the proliferation of jazz fusion – and even briefly joined Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

In 1977, Bang founded the String Trio of New York, a group that wedded chamber-music intimacy and rigor to free-jazz gusto in a manner few other bands had achieved. Over time he honed a signature sound: grainy and penetrating, but more lyrical than strident. Even at his most exploratory, Mr. Bang pledged allegiance to swing-era violin forebears like Stuff Smith and Ray Nance.

Billy Bang’s first album was 1978’s New York Collage, a concert recording of poetry and percussion featuring free-jazz bassist William Parker. Bang then featured on several notable albums that set the foundation for the “downtown” sound of the 1980s such as Kip Hanrahan’s Coup de Tete and Material’s Memory Serves before jettisoning off onto a slew of recordings for mostly small European labels.

Bang reunited with Sun Ra late in the decade, recording the bracing quartet album Tribute to Stuff Smith with the pianist, shortly before his death, in 1992.

In 2001, Billy Bang was asked by Jean-Pierre Leduc of Justin Time Records, the violinist’s Montreal-based label, if he’d consider doing an album about his experience in Vietnam. “My entire body and mind came to an immediate halt,” Bang related. “My inability to bravely confront my personal demons, my experience in Vietnam, has been a continuous struggle. For decades, I’ve lived constantly with my unwillingness to deliberately conjure up the pain of these experiences.”

Eventually he found himself able to express himself and in collaboration with fellow vets Frank Lowe (tenor sax), Ted Daniel (trumpet) and Michael Carvin (drums) as well as creative greats like Sonny Fortune (flute), the late John Hicks (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass), Ron Brown (percussion) and Butch Morris (conductor), Billy Bang conceived the brilliant and beautiful Vietnam: The Aftermath, a stunning collection of impassioned jazz coalescing with (note, not combatting against) traditional Vietnamese musical forms.

So much of this music, which comes out of great pain and suffering, is so joyful, moving, rewarding and enriching all at once. The pieces I love and can never get enough of include “Yo! Ho Chi Minh is in the House,” “Tunnel Rat (Flashlight and a 45),” ”Bien Hoa Blues,” “Fire in the Hole” and the unbelievably intoxicating “Saigon Phunk.”

Billy Bang continued his reflections on this period of his life in the equally tremendous Vietnam: Reflections from 2005, with Daniel, Hicks, Lundy, Carvin, Brown and Morris returning and the addition of James Spaulding (alto sax, flute), Henry Threadgill (flute), Co Boi Nguyen (vocals) and Nhan Thanh Ngo (dan tranh) to the program (Frank Lowe had died in the interim and Bang dedicates this album to him).

Another remarkable performance that stands the test of time, Vietnam: Aftermath is a moving piece of emotional artistry that features truly great performances in “Reflections,” “Lock & Load,” “Doi Moi,” “Reconciliation,” “Waltz of the Water Puppets” and “Reconciliation 2.”

The loss of Billy Bang at the comparably young age of 63 is sad enough for his family, friends, musical associates and loved ones. But the fact that he left a legacy of remarkably beautiful music that came out of great sadness and suffering is painful to consider too.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Celebrating CTI Records’ 40th Anniversary – Part Three

Masterworks Jazz continues the 40th anniversary celebration of the legendary CTI Records legacy that began last October with an additional four titles issued this week: George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, Freddie Hubbard’s First Light, Don Sebesky’s all-star Giant Box and Stanley Turrentine’s Salt Song.

While each of the releases have had previous American CD issues, most have been out of print for a number of years and each are important – and significant – milestones in the CTI tradition.

The celebration of CTI’s 40th anniversary began last October with remastered CD reissues of Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Chet Baker’s She Was Too Good To Me, Kenny Burrell’s God Bless The Child, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower, the first-ever CD release of Hubert Laws’ terrific Morning Star and the classic issue of the nearly complete CTI All-Stars’ California Concert – The Hollywood Palladium.

The series continued with January’s release of Deodato’s Prelude, George Benson’s White Rabbit, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, Jim Hall’s Concierto, Paul Desmond’s Pure Desmond and Ron Carter’s All Blues. And I’ve been assured more CTI titles are on the way – including some very rare titles that have not been readily available on CD before.

Each of these discs, supervised by producer Richard Seidel and beautifully mastered by Mark Wilder and Maria Triana, is packaged to look like the original LP, even getting the gatefold treatment the original LPs were given and, in most cases, maintaining the original logo and catalog number placement of the original LP for the CD cover.

Unfortunately, Masterworks Jazz continues to issue these CTI titles in flat matte, thin card stock and allegedly “eco-friendly” packages which denude the zip and zing of the original covers’ colorful and exciting photographs and deny the weighty significance the LP packages once provided.

This particular batch of releases even messes with the cover art more than usual. For example, a large black border is added to the cover of First Light, significantly reducing the size of the cover photo. The black border of Giant Box, which was less a border than the color of the box set the cover art was affixed to, is replaced altogether with an all-white perimeter (it’s worth noting that this package commendably contains the entire text of the Don Sebesky interview included in the original LP, but only two of the photos from the album’s specially-enclosed booklet). Also, both Beyond the Blue Horizon and Salt Song seem more to replicate the look of their 1997 CD releases, with a yellow CTI logo that was not part of the original LP covers (the George Benson CD also matches its 1997 CD release by not providing the oversized “B” of the title).

Still, it’s the music that matters. So that’s what we’ll focus on from hereon in.

Beyond the Blue Horizon - George Benson: Guitarist George Benson had already waxed three records for Creed Taylor, including the iconic The Other Side of Abbey Road, a jazz take on the famed album by The Beatles’, and made significant contributions to such early CTI classics as Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar and Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life when he recorded Beyond the Blue Horizon, the guitarist’s first CTI album, in February 1971.

It is not only one of the guitarist’s most full-bodied jazz records – before or since – it is also probably the single best document of Benson’s technically fluid facility and his musically inventive lyricism at any tempo.

Supporting the guitarist in this endeavor are fellow CTI all-stars Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, all of whom were in the rhythm section for Straight Life, recorded only ten weeks earlier. Of curious note here, however, is the addition of Clarence Palmer, on organ. Palmer, who was then in guitarist Grant Green’s band and featured, with Green, on Jimmy McGriff saxophonist Fats Theus’ little-known CTI album Black Out, adds a backwards-glance nod to Benson’s organ-combo past. Benson had, in fact, not recorded in an organ-combo format under his own name since his very first group recorded for Columbia some half decade before.

But any thought that Beyond the Blue Horizon - which surprisingly does not include the popular song of the same title that Lou Christie performed on his 1973 CTI album – is some organ combo grinding out some forgettable soul jazz is quickly allayed by the fantastically vibrant take on Miles Davis’ “So What,” which opens the album. It’s so audibly logical and rhythmically sensible that it’s hard to believe the song wasn’t written this way in the first place.

The special affinity Benson, Carter and DeJohnette display on this showpiece performance is due to the fact that all were veterans of various Miles Davis aggregates (DeJohnette was still Davis’ drummer when this was made, but the trumpeter no longer featured this tune in his repertoire). While Palmer accompanies and solos with an exotic yet subtle flair, Carter and DeJohnette engage in an exciting dialogue throughout, getting a feature all to themselves in the middle of the song. Benson provides not one but two energetic guitar work-outs that put this particular performance at the forefront as one of CTI’s essential performances.

Luiz Bonfá’s lovely “The Gentle Rain” follows in a heavily percussive timbre that elicits one of Benson’s more angular and metallic commentaries, suggesting something more of a gathering storm. Benson seems to be providing an electric counterpoint here to Bonfá’s acoustic original. The song, from the 1966 film of the same name, was previously recorded by producer Creed Taylor for Astrud Gilberto’s album The Shadow of Your Smile with the composer/guitarist in attendance. But Benson’s take, which was edited to three minutes for a 45 single release, must have reached the composer’s ears for Luiz Bonfá re-cast the song in a very CTI-like manner on his 1973 album Jacarandá.

The remainder of the album is taken up by the presence of three (!) strong Benson originals, “All Clear,” “Ode to a Kudu” and “Somewhere in the East.” All three offer some of Benson’s most beautiful playing and Carter and DeJohnette’s deftly sensitive support.

Benson’s guitar on “All Clear” sounds like a cross between Gabor Szabo (who would begin recording for CTI the following year) and Wes Montgomery while the deliberately rough-edged “Somewhere in the East” crosses Szabo with the sound James Blood Ulmer would make his own several years later. The lyrical ballad “Ode to a Kudu” remained in Benson’s repertoire throughout the 1970s and can be heard in a live version on the guitarist’s well-known hit album Weekend in L.A. (1978).

The three Benson originals are also presented in alternative versions, which have been added to the CD release (and were also included in the previous two CD issues of Beyond the Blue Horizon). If possible, these are even better than the originals, especially since the distracting string work of the original “All Clear” is cleared away for some truly magnificent swinging by Benson, Carter and DeJohnette.

Beyond the Blue Horizon’s cover features Pete Turner’s dramatic “Flames,” shot in 1964 in Libya as part of a series the photographer produced for Standard Oil (the same series yielded the cover for Walter Wanderley’s Moondreams). The photo’s iconography perfectly captures Benson’s fiery and hypnotically transfixing performance throughout the record.

First Light -Freddie Hubbard: Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s third CTI album was issued in January 1972 to sparse critical fanfare. The little critical attention the album did receive was mostly negative, particularly from the jazz cognoscenti, who saw Hubbard’s step onto this slippery slope of pop super-stardom start with his previous CTI albums. First Light was the last straw. Freddie Hubbard’s reputation with jazz critics never really recovered.

Despite the presence of some of jazz’s best – and most influential – artists, including guitarist George Benson, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, First Light was slammed for Don Sebesky’s always critically-attacked sweetening and the presence of a huge pop-hit cover of the day (the million-selling number 1 hit “Uncle Albert Admiral Halsey” by Paul and Linda McCartney).

Even Hubbard’s superb title song was derided as a riff-based jam tune that didn’t require the chops or the talent of a soloist who factored on some of the era’s most important jazz recordings by otherwise-celebrated jazz heroes Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock.

Still, First Light proved not only to be one of CTI’s very best sellers at the time, it also won the trumpeter his first and only Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Jazz Performance over and above other such CTI competition as George Benson’s White Rabbit (also arranged by Don Sebesky) and Joe Farrell’s Outback. The trumpeter himself was often heard to claim First Light as his personal favorite of his own records.

Hubbard’s title track is a truly inspired composition that seemingly yields more than its 11 minutes suggests. Freddie Hubbard wails with impassioned desire. George Benson plays one of his most deliciously intricate, yet achingly lyrical solos. Carter comps (if that doesn’t sound too derogatory) in a way that suggests melody and counter-melody all at once. Sebesky lays back quite a bit, only adding spare commentary from properly placed strings, vibes (playing accentuating whole tones, a Sebesky trait) and a flute section led by Hubert Laws, who solos occasionally.

“First Light” became something of a hit (it was issued as the album’s single) and a signature song for the trumpeter. Freddie Hubbard often played the song live and it was captured as part of the same 1973 concert that yielded the two In Concert albums CTI released several years later. That performance of “First Light,” which was not issued on the In Concert records, was included on this and the previous CD of First Light, featuring (a strangely uncredited) Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Eric Gale on guitar as well as Carter and DeJohnette (a 1972 performance of the tune was issued on the 1977 album CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl – Live One).

Like so many of Don Sebesky’s previous Beatles arrangements, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is a lot better than it sounds like it would be. It’s more imaginative than listeners of the McCartneys’ song would expect, matching a Stravinsky-styled arrangement with a funk rhythm which makes for creative jazz and provides sparklingly terrific solos from Hubbard, Benson, Carter and Laws.

“Moment to Moment,” Henry Mancini’s surprisingly little-known theme from the 1965 film of the same name, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” (from On the Town) both get terrifically orchestral readings here that focus purely on Freddie’s melodicism and Sebesky’s impressionistic backdrop.

Sebesky’s absolutely ravishing “Yesterday’s Dreams” started life as “Yesterday’s Dream” on Dizzy Gillespie’s Sebesky-arranged album Cornucopia (1969). Sebesky adds more strings to this variation and Hubbard mutes his horn here (Dizzy’s was open). But while Sebesky’s arrangement of the tune is much more subtle and preferable in the Gillespie version, it’s hard to deny the improved beauty that Hubbard, Carter and the chameleonic Jack DeJohnette bring to this particularly lovely variation of “Yesterday’s Dreams.”

Also recorded at these sessions is Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy in D” (first heard under that title on the 1973 Art Blakey album Anthenagin). Composer and pianist Cedar Walton was a longtime friend and associate of Hubbard’s, dating back to their time together in the Jazz Messengers and surely provided Hubbard with this song, even before recording it with Art Blakey, though the LP’s limited playing restrictions at the time prevented Walton’s song from being included on the First Light LP. Several years after Freddie Hubbard departed CTI for Columbia Records, producer Creed Taylor dug out the song (complete with a finished Sebesky string arrangement and lovely solos from both Freddie Hubbard and Hubert Laws) and called it, for whatever reason, “Polar AC.” It became the title track to that 1975 LP, which was recently issued on CD by Wounded Bird Records. The song is also featured here, under the title that Cedar Walton gave it on the album where it really belongs.

Like Hubbard’s previous album, Straight Life, First Light benefits by not one but two Pete Turner photographs, one on the front cover and a different one on the back cover. The front cover, one of the few CTI releases of the period that actually showed the artist, was especially shot for the album to show Hubbard and his horns. The back cover photo, “Hong Kong Rolls” (1963), was juxtaposed by the photographer himself to reflect the front cover’s golden horns, presumably both reflecting the golden glow of “first light.”

Giant Box - Don Sebesky: Don Sebesky had been arranging albums for producer Creed Taylor since the composer/arranger got a call from the producer out of the clear blue sky in 1965 to arrange guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Verve classic Bumpin’. Sebesky arranged four more of Wes Montgomery’s albums as well as Verve records for Astrud Gilberto and Kai Winding and A&M records for Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson, Soul Flutes, George Benson, Paul Desmond and Walter Wanderley – all produced by Creed Taylor.

It’s little wonder that Creed Taylor invited Don Sebesky to CTI in 1970 to become the in-house arranger for some of the label’s premier recording artists, almost single-handedly setting the musical direction for the label on such albums by Hubert Laws, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford, Esther Phillips, Jackie & Roy, Milt Jackson and Airto.

Indeed, Sebesky’s role helped secure Grammy nominations for George Benson’s CTI album White Rabbit, Esther Phillips’ “From A Whisper To A Scream” and a Grammy Award for Freddie Hubbard’s First Light (all 1972) as well as 1973 Grammy nominations for Freddie Hubbard’s “In A Mist” (from Sky Dive), Esther Phillips’ Alone Again, Naturally and Hubert Laws’ Morning Star.

Creed Taylor had shortly thereafter offered Sebesky the opportunity to record his own album for the label (the arranger had already recorded two jazz-rock albums for Verve in the late 1960s), utilizing the incredible star power of the CTI All Stars, many of whose newfound success was directly attributable to both Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky.

Following CTI’s success of Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” the producer offered Sebesky the opportunity to do a double album – the very first (and only one of three) in CTI’s history – and the arranger quickly took up the challenge.

Giant Box, originally issued in real box packaging, like so many classical records of the day, not only felt significant, it contained a heavy roster of the day’s biggest and best jazz players, all part of the CTI family and all reflecting on a program of Sebesky charts that make for some of the label’s most potent listening.

First and foremost is the extraordinarily inspired pairing of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” with the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” remarkably balancing horns and strings and features for Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Don Sebesky and Billy Cobham. Joni Mitchell’s lovely “Song to a Seagull,” originally from her 1968 debut, is a soaring feature here for Paul Desmond, Don Sebesky and Ron Carter.

Sebesky’s dynamic “Free as a Bird” (catching all the bird references here?) is one of the album’s highlights and is a feature for Freddie Hubbard’s jaunty flugelhorn, Bob James’ fantastically sparkling piano, Sebesky’s scintillating electric-piano commentary, Grover Washington, Jr.’s meaty soprano sax and the rhythmic interactions of Ron Carter and, of course, Jack DeJohnette.

Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150,” previously waxed by Sebesky with Doc Severinsen on the trumpeter’s 1971 album Brass Roots, marvelously highlights the vocal talents of Jackie & Roy (and Sebesky himself) in a sumptuously funked-out arrangement that features Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Bob James (on organ!). Rachmaninoff’s 1912 piece “Vocalise” gets a melodic treatment here – but surprisingly no vocals - with leads provided by alto saxist Paul Desmond and vibist Milt Jackson, who’d previously been paired together for the first time at a December 1971 Modern Jazz Quartet concert.

Sebesky’s own “Fly” leads off with a vocal by the composer himself, performing very much like Chet Baker (who he would go onto work with very shortly hereafter), and lifted bodily by echoplexed flourishes from Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette that lead into the lovely jazz of “Circles,” another of the album’s greatest moments, featuring Joe Farrell on soprano sax, Bob James (beautiful again) on piano, Ron Carter (again – the bassist single-handedly guides much of the album into beautiful territories much of the time) and Hubert Laws on flute.

The obligatory funk tune, “Semi-Tough,” which was surprisingly never exploited for its radio potential, is aided by Sebesky’s Gospel piano and clavinet, Carter’s ultra-funky electric bass and Billy Cobham’s grooviest groove, and closes out the album with George Benson’s fun but surprisingly undistinguished modified electric guitar solo, Grover Washington, Jr.’s tough tenor and Bob James providing some funky organ. It’s at this point that the absence of Esther Phillips becomes notably apparent. But she’s not missed.

According to Didier Deutsch’s interview with Don Sebesky, the recording took six months and about 150 hours in the studio, though only several days of recording in April 1973 are listed in the credits as being the recording time. Sebesky’s recollection is probably more accurate. There was obviously a lot of work that went into this record. And it’s truly surprising that it’s not a better known part of CTI’s legacy than it is. This beautifully remastered CD release should finally change all that, giving Giant Box the place it deserves in CTI’s legacy.

Don Sebesky went onto work with CTI for another couple years (Paul Desmond, Jackie & Roy, George Benson, Esther Phillips, Chet Baker, Joe Beck, Jim Hall), recording another album under his own name for the label (The Rape of El Morro) and returning for several albums late in CTI’s legacy (Roland Hanna, the perfect Studio Trieste and Larry Coryell). But this magnum opus, Creed Taylor’s “thank you note” to the composer/arranger, recorded during CTI’s halcyon days, has not been bettered anywhere in Don Sebesky’s solo discography.

Pete Turner’s garish cover photo, “USA Car,” is part of an Americana series the photographer conceived that includes photos found on the covers of Ron Carter’s Blues Farm (CTI 6027) and the all-star In Concert Volume Two (CTI 6049). “USA Car,” photographed in Nevada in 1970, oddly seems to contradict the gravity of the project and the classy music found within but designer Bob Ciano probably picked up on the car’s stars for this “all-star” album.

Salt Song -Stanley Turrentine: This 1971 recording is the second of four CTI albums issued under tenor sax great Stanley Turrentine’s name. There are also two Stanley Turrentine LP compilations on CTI (with previously unissued tracks), one paired with singer Astrud Gilberto, two live sets with Freddie Hubbard and several discs issued under the CTI All Stars banner prominently featuring the saxophonist.

Billboard aptly summarized this album in its original, albeit brief review of November 1971 when it said “Stanley Turrentine, one of the most exciting tenor saxophonists to emerge in the 1960s comes up with what will prove to be his biggest albums (sic) to date. The title song and ‘I Told Jesus’ offer good programming potential. Great production job.” Absolutely.

Stanley Turrentine had already made a name for himself on a series of fairly successful recordings issued on the Blue Note label between 1960 and 1969, as well as recordings with organists Jimmy Smith (on Blue Note) and Shirley Scott (his wife, until 1971, on Prestige, Impulse and Atlantic). When he waxed Sugar for CTI in 1970, Stanley Turrentine created not only one of his most memorable recordings - and a theme song that gave the saxist one of his two beloved nicknames – but one of the label’s best-known and most loved recordings.

Sugar was surely a tough act to follow. But Salt Song more than compensates. Opening with Freddie Hubbard’s bracing “Gibraltar,” Salt Song makes a case for one of Stanley Turrentine’s strongest jazz efforts of the 1970s. The opening song was originally composed by Hubbard for Turrentine’s album Sugar several months earlier. For whatever reason, the song – recorded with Hubbard and often performed by the saxophonist with the trumpeter during this period - was left off of Turrentine’s CTI debut, although this recording appeared on both the 1987 and 2010 CD releases of Sugar.

The Salt Song version of “Gibraltar,” the first to be heard back in the day but one of five Turrentine waxed for the CTI label, is with little doubt one of the very best. This is due in no small part to the presence and influence of guitarist Eric Gale, who seems to act as the saxophonist’s foil here and takes Turrentine and this song to a whole new level: soul rock at its best.

The Deodato-arranged “I Told Jesus” is one of CTI’s classic gospel blues, offering up especially inspired solos by Turrentine and Gale as well as remarkably simpatico support from bassist Ron Carter, organist Richard Tee and a briefly heard Gospel choir. Producer Creed Taylor clearly favored this performance as the song appeared on the label’s first commercially-available LP compilation, Fire Into Music (1975), as well as a 1982 Gospel compilation of CTI music called The Power and the Glory and the Music.

The album’s lovely and lilting title song, also known as “Cançao Do Sol,” comes from a performance featured on Milton Nascimento’s Creed Taylor-produced debut Courage (1969). Nascimento’s original also featured percussionists Airto Moreira and João Palma as well as arranger Eumir Deodato – all heard on Stanley Turrentine’s extremely delightful cover.

The album’s bonus track, Nascimento’s well-known “Vera Cruz,” was also originally part of the composer’s original 1969 album and comes from a performance that was originally recorded for Astrud Gilberto’s 1971 Gilberto with Turrentine but issued, in the slight variation heard here, on the 1975 Stanley Turrentine compilation LP The Sugar Man.

“I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do” comes from the little-known 1967 Sandra Dee film Doctor, You’ve Got To Be Kidding!. Its first notable jazz performance came from Carmen McRae on Atlantic in 1967. Astrud Gilberto covered the tune in 1969 (before coming to CTI) and pianist Harold Mabern recorded it in 1970, with flautist Hubert Laws, who appears elsewhere on Salt Song (the pianist later recorded the song with tenor great Eric Alexander). Here, Turrentine provides a sumptuous performance of the charming ballad, aided by Carter’s emotive bass work and Deodato’s pitch-perfect string accompaniment. Creed Taylor would again record the song in a David Matthews arrangement under the auspices of Esther Phillips on the singer’s 1976 Kudu album Capricorn Princess and Stanley Turrentine would record the song again for his 1995 album T Time.

Turrentine’s own samba “Storm” wraps up the original album with a cleverness that is as sensual as it is soulful and as dedicated as it is delicious. Guided by Gale’s guitar, which is heard in a typically marvelous solo, Turrentine glides over Carter’s bass and Billy Cobham’s terrifically rhythmic interchange (by the way, this “Storm” has nothing to do with Cobham’s own “Storm” of a few years later), “Storm” is one of Turrentine’s patented gems, little known but much loved from beginning to end.

It should be mentioned that fellow Pittsburgher Horace Parlan makes a brief yet inexact appearance on these sessions (and none of the other CTI sessions for that matter) for the first – and last! – time with Stanley Turrentine since their earlier appearances together on Turrentine’s Look Out! (1960), Jubilee Shouts! (1961), the great Up at Minton’s (1961), Parlan’s Speakin’ My Piece (1960) and On The Spur of the Moment (1961) and the absolutely terrific album Tommy Turrentine (1960). Parlan left the United States very shortly after this recording and has not yet, as of this writing, returned.

It’s also interesting to note that producer Creed Taylor found Turrentine’s previous two recordings of “Gibraltar” – both of which were later issued - “too monotonous” to issue before settling on the dynamic version heard here. This may explain why the producer found the initial sessions for Don’t Mess With Mister T., recorded nearly two years after the Salt Song sessions, inadequate as well. Reuniting the Salt Song rhythm section of Eric Gale, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham to back Stanley Turrentine may just have sounded like more of the same thing to a producer that was always looking for a new, more inspired sound. He certainly achieved the inspiration on Don’t Mess With Mister T., as different as it is from the beautiful statement that remains Salt Song.

This album also features one of my favorite Pete Turner photos, “The Old Man and The Sea,” taken just before a storm (another title the album references) in Portugal in 1966.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Philipp van Endert Trio "Rosebud"

Cinema has long since rendered the word “rosebud” as something elusive and enigmatic that cannot possibly sum up what others want it to. From the moment that Orson Welles whispers the word in the film Citizen Kane, we embark on a mysterious journey of the purely unknowable. But what a journey.

Titling his latest recording Rosebud, the remarkably inspired German guitarist Philipp van Endert properly gives light to the inability of properly discussing creative music. Much in the same way that writer Whitney Ballliett once poetically called jazz “the sound of surprise,” truly creative music really can’t be labeled or defined, formulaic or repeatable.

This melodic guitarist, overflowing with inventive lyricism, is a Kane-like player in the sense that he forges his own direction, regardless of convention. As the leader of his own successful label, van Endert is also like Welles’ Kane in the sense that he gets to dictate the terms of his own creativity: the only terms one knows, to paraphrase Kane himself. It’s certainly a direction worth following.

Rosebud reunites the guitarist’s trio consisting of bassist Andre Nendza and drummer Kurt Billker with such special guests as American saxist Rick Margitza and percussionist Christoph Hillmann. Each was part of the guitarist’s 2006 album Khilebor and the chemistry is intoxicating enough to warrant the additional exploration Rosebud presents.

The soundscape and interchange sometimes recalls saxophonist Joe Henderson’s superb 1993 So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) with guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Al Foster (all, like Margitza, associated with Miles during his electric years).

Miles isn’t on the program here, though. Philipp van Endert and company expound startlingly well upon Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and formidably on Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring,” best known through its interpretation by former Miles sideman Bill Evans (all without Margitza) as well as a fascinating program of the guitarist’s sinewy originals including “Phily Ray and the Notfinders” and the title track (with the leader on acoustic guitar).

There’s something remarkably sage about Philipp van Endert’s musicianship and leadership throughout. It suggests a more seasoned, well-travelled player who has fashioned all the fads and a career’s worth of ups and downs. Only active since the mid-nineties, the guitarist has gone the distance to arrive at a place that’s all his own. His playing has a strong personality that not only escapes comparison to better-known jazz guitar heroes but fires up his associates to perform with complimentary magnificence.

Even Margitza sounds more intimately personal here than he has on other recordings, even those under his own name. He shines particularly well on the cool funk of “Landing Grounds” and Nendza’s terrific “Overheated.” Margitza and the guitarist make for an especially heady brew, notably on the set’s opening “Reguengo” and closing “Savina.”

Joy that it is, Rosebud, like its probable namesake, is summed up better in appreciation than understanding. It’s meant to be experienced and enjoyed and it succeeds.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Warm World of Jack Sheldon

One of the finest yet least known albums of the sixties is The Warm World of Jack Sheldon (Dot, 1968), an elegant and groovy piece of lighter-than-air jazz that holds up much better than its title or its time period might suggest.

Trumpeter Jack Sheldon was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 30, 1931, and has lived in Los Angeles since 1947. Early on, he established himself as a resourceful trumpeter on the West Coast, gigging with Jimmy Giuffre, Curtis Counce, Dave Pell, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne, Marty Paich and Benny Goodman and waxing many of his own dates for the Pacific Jazz, GNP, Reprise and Capitol labels.

He was active in the Hollywood studio scene throughout the sixties and seventies and can be heard on untold numbers of film and TV soundtracks including Henry Mancini’s Charade (1963), Johnny Mandel’s The Sandpiper (1965 – and the film’s hit “The Shadow of Your Smile”), Michael Small’s Klute (1971), John Williams’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Mandel’s Freaky Friday (1976, in which Sheldon also appeared with one of his sons), Tom Waits’s One From The Heart (1982) and Dave Grusin’s For The Boys (1991).

Sheldon also began acting in the mid-sixties, starting with Gilligan’s Island and garnering a major role on The Cara Williams Show. He is best known as Merv Griffin’s sidekick in the 1970s but is probably even more famous as the voice behind Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” (parodied by the man himself in the 1996 The Simpsons episode “The Day The Violence Died”) and “Conjunction Junction” (parodied again along with “I’m Just A Bill” by Sheldon on separate Family Guy episodes).

While critic Leonard Feather considered Sheldon’s “admirable trumpet in a style sometimes reminiscent of Miles Davis,” it’s hard to hear any of that at all here. Certainly none of the East Coasters like Miles (at the time) would have had much impact on Jack Sheldon. Pete or Conte Candoli possibly. Chet Baker maybe. I hear more of Sheldon’s inflections and stylizations in the playing of Don Ellis (1934-78), certainly a contemporary of Sheldon’s and another West Coast based trumpeter whose music went from jazz to TV and film.

”Nature Boy” as performed by Jack Sheldon on The Warm World of Jack Sheldon, arrangement by Don Sebesky and sitar by Don Robertson, who – like other musicians including bassist Don Payne – are not credited on the album.

For his first of two Dot albums, trumpeter Jack Sheldon is paired with arranger and producer Don Sebesky for a typical program of in-vogue pop covers (Bee Gees’ “Holiday,” Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass,” The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s “More and More Amor”), film themes (Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love,” Neal Hefti’s “The Odd Couple,” Johnny Mandel’s “Emily”), pop-jazz standards (Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”) and Sebesky originals (“Forget,” “Sweet Talk”) that is anything but typical.

By this time, Sebesky, the former trombonist in the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson orchestras and later one of the primary architects of “the CTI sound,” had already developed an authorial voice as an arranger, crafting some of the most elegant settings for singers like Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn and Astrud Gilberto to jazz soloists Wes Montgomery and Toots Thielemans.

Here, Sebesky crafts one of his finest signature settings for Jack Sheldon, a player perfectly attuned to the arranger’s sensibilities for both jazz and rock music and an especially underrated and underappreciated sensitivity to spotlighting a good soloist.

The mood is intended to be smoochy candlelight fare. But the heat is a little more substantial than low-burn exoticism or passive easy listening. Even the album’s cover, featuring the handsome, then-svelte trumpeter lost in a golden field of summer’s burnt grass, hinting at a warm wind and an afternoon’s glow of romanticism, suggests something a little soppier and less substantial than the actual musical document. On the other hand, the cover’s serenity advocates the difference between something like this and the novelty hit-parade of albums that Al Hirt was producing at the time. This is some beautiful music which deserves to be far better known - not only for its inspiration but its sheer creativity.

There are many highlights throughout. The now well-known “The Look of Love” kicks the album off in a lush style that is stirred with Sebesky’s trademark use of vibes, harp, harpsichord and flutes to enhance the background string washes (Sebesky also arranged the song for pianist Craig Hundley in 1970). It is a lovely performance that fades at two minutes and 38 seconds, long before everybody has said all they have to say.

Sebesky’s own “Forget” is, pardon the pun, a remarkably memorable tune that evinces the composer/arranger’s delight with the Flamenco flourishes and viola and oboe wails that surface over and over again in his work (“White Rabbit,” “El Morro,” “Lament for a Fallen Matador” etc.). “Forget,” an instantly notable composition, has also been covered by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on his 1969 album Electric Connection. But a really beautiful version of “Forget” was also recorded by fellow West Coast trumpeter Blue Mitchell in 1977 on the trumpeter’s Impulse album African Violet.

The other Sebesky original, “Sweet Talk,” is a catchy little number that is tremendously similar to “Up And At It,” a song credited to Wes Montgomery on the guitarist’s Down Here On The Ground (A&M, 1968), also arranged by Sebesky. “Sweet Talk” was paired with “More and More Amor” on a 45 RPM single, though which side was intended as the “play” side is unknown to me.

Jack Sheldon's biggest hit, "Conjunction Junction."

Together, Sheldon and Sebesky provide one of the warmest and most delicious takes of Neal Hefti’s “The Odd Couple” theme ever heard. This one is magical, with both the trumpeter and arranger pulling out their very best tricks to conjure a performance of true joy. One suspects that Sebesky was as well versed in Neal Hefti’s compositional approach (as well as the equally lush work Hefti provided to a handful of Hollywood films of the period) as Jack Sheldon was well aware of the work Hefti – who started in music as a trumpeter himself – did for Woody Herman, Harry James and, especially, Count Basie.

“With A Little Help from My Friends” is another of Sebesky’s ruminations on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the other being his brilliant take on “A Day in the Life,” the title track to Wes Montgomery’s 1967 CTI debut). “A Little Help” captures Sheldon’s single most dazzling performance on the record. Sebesky jazzes up the basic pop tune, originally a vehicle for Ringo Starr, to sound like one of the big-band swingers of yore (hinting at the renaissance style he would adopt for Wes Montgomery’s Road Song the following year), licensing Sheldon to make the most of it with his finely honed chops and characteristically swinging playing.

Interestingly, Sebesky often finds an instrumental counterpoint on The Warm World of Jack Sheldon for the trumpeter. On the after-hours rendition of “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (which Sebesky later arranged for Hank Crawford’s 1972 Kudu debut Help Me Make it Through the Night), Sheldon is balanced by a roadhouse (!) organ which seems out of context – but is perfect for the after-hours feel of the song. On “Nature Boy,” it is – surprisingly and uniquely – a sitar, expertly deployed by an uncredited Don Robertson, balancing a fascinating arrangement that certainly sounds like it gave Gary McFarland ideas of his own.

Interestingly, the album was recorded not on the West Coast but rather in New York City, the very first (and one of the only) under Jack Sheldon’s name to be recorded on the East Coast. Pairing this West Coast studio veteran with (unnamed) East Coast studio musicians is inspired. And the trumpeter himself seems inspired to yield to some of his loveliest work, playing around with some of Sebesky’s most engaging settings.

Sheldon and Sebesky teamed up again the following year for The Cool World of Jack Sheldon (Dot, 1969), an album notable for the debut of Sheldon’s singularly distinctive vocal stylings. But both Jack Sheldon and Don Sebesky went on to bigger and better things without The Warm World of Jack Sheldon - which has yet to see the light of day on CD - getting the proper attention it deserves as one of the finer jazz albums of its day.

Trailer for the documentary film Trying To Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon.