Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Easy-Listening Acid Trip…Goes Jazz!

Joseph Lanza’s delightfully entertaining Easy-Listening Acid Trip (2020) superbly chronicles the psychedelic transformation of the mid to late-sixties pop of Beatles, Donovan, the Beach Boys and others into the easy-listening other-worlds of such long-forgotten mood makers Ferrante & Teicher, the 101 Strings, the Hollyridge Strings, Mariano and the Unbelievables and the anonymous artisans behind the reviled system of music known as Muzak.

Considering the former list of names is likely better known than the latter (which also includes the slightly better-remembered Percy Faith, Ray Conniff and Bert Kaempfert), it is amazing the sheer volume of easy records made in the sixties and seventies – and their genuine popularity back in the day.

Lanza makes a solid case for the defense in the lasting value of these musical transformations, even going so far as to provide evidence that some of the same people behind the hip hits (H.B. Barnum, Beatles producer George Martin and Galt Mac Dermot, to name a few) ingeniously crafted their own easy-listening variations.

The same could be said of jazz players. Many of the folks who played on the pop hits of the day – most notably, the Wrecking Crew in L.A., the Memphis Boys in Memphis and New York session players like Eric Gale and Richard Tee – were also featured on the jazz covers of the hit songs.

Additionally, players in the orchestras of Henry Mancini and Bert Kaempfert effortlessly switched between jazz and the easy world, often without a second thought or judgment against either.

Even though it was never his mission, Lanza skims the surface of jazzers who lightened up their load with the melodically intoxicating psychedelic pop of the day. That hardly reflects badly on the author’s entertaining and informative celebration of psychedelic music, but it helps avoid the uncomfortable discussion of how this music began to change jazz and the way it was perceived.

Another book could be written about all that. Unfortunately, most histories revel in the “transformation” by Betty Mabry’s turning on Miles Davis to Sly Stone. But the shift happened well before that. Miles – or his fans or his publicity machine – just made it sound cooler.

Miles’s fellow Birth of the Cool ”innovator” and, later, cool-jazz icon Gerry Mulligan named his 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!, acknowledging that the rise of rock was out-popularizing the art of jazz, be-bop, cool, modal or otherwise. There, Mulligan covered “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” among others, suggesting, however reluctantly, that he might be open to the new sounds commanding the attention of the record-buying public.

He didn’t stay here for long, though; trying to accommodate, he tiptoed through the new sound, never really finding any sort of footing.

The year before, Hammond B-3 player Shirley Scott and arranger/vibraphonist Gary McFarland (separately) were among the earliest jazzers who realized the Beatles had something to offer to jazz. Around the same time, out of fashion or necessity, West Coasters Bud Shank and Chet Baker opened their minds to the new wave of rock overtaking their otherwise staid retreads of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes.

While Joseph Lanza never set out to consider jazz in any way, his excellent book inspired me to chronicle those in jazz who mined much of the same material. There were many.

The final 30-some pages of Lanza’s book examine the “50 Psychedelic Favorites Refurbished.” It is a collection of the fifty most prominent mod pop in Lanza’s estimation (some like “Paint it Black,” that had jazz or easy transformations, are missing) that were covered by the mood maestros and easy orchestras. Lanza’s text and his breezy wit makes you want to track these easy covers down.

The occasional jazz guy, like Gabor Szabo or Kai Winding, get an easy nod from Lanza. But it’s not nearly enough. Guitarist Joe Pass waxed the all-Rolling Stones program The Stones Jazz in 1967 (David Matthews’s Manhattan Jazz Orchestra issued its all-Stones disc, Paint it Black, in 1996). Producer Creed Taylor had guitarist George Benson pay tribute to just one Beatles album with The Other Side of Abbey Road (1969).

Band leader Count Basie put out a Beatles tribute album in 1970 (with endorsements from no less than George Harrison and Ringo Starr) while Sarah Vaughan waxed her Beatles tribute in 1981 (backed by Toto, of all people).

As recently as 2020, the Impulse! label put out A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper (pictured above), a remarkable set that finds a new generation of jazzers like Antonio Sanchez, Mary Halvorson, Makaya McCraven and Brandee Younger reimagining the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a new generation of Pepper poppers.

Oddly, though, while Lanza’s psychedelia favors the Beatles and the Beach Boys, both of whom are well-represented in the easy and jazz fields, the extraordinarily melodic Donovan gets surprisingly short-shrift in jazz.

A while back, I went through a phase where I discovered the appeal of Donovan’s imaginative, nearly folksy music and determined to locate the best Donovan covers in jazz. All I really found was “There is a Mountain” by Herbie Mann or Joe Jones and Gabor Szabo’s “Sunshine Superman,” “Three King Fishers” and the extraordinary take on the too-little known “Ferris Wheel.”

Lanza’s Psych 50 takes in a good deal of Donovan’s body of work, but could have gone further (what, no “Barabajagal”?). But jazz doesn’t even go this far; so you won’t find any notable jazz covers of Donovan’s Lanza’s-listed “Catch the Wind” (#5), “Colours” (#6 – excepting Shake Keane), “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (#18), “Jennifer Juniper” (#21) or “Lalena” (#22) – except on the 1968 Vic Lewis album Donovan My Way.

On the other hand, arranger Don Sebesky dipped his technicolored pen into the psychedelic-pop ink pool on a number of exciting occasions. Even though he was chided for his “sweetening,” he often did the music proud.

From Lanza’s list, you’ll hear Sebesky waxing eloquent on covers of “Aquarius” for Cal Tjader (1968), “California Dreaming” for Wes Montgomery (1966) and George Benson (1971), (the brilliant) “A Day in the Life” for Wes Montgomery (1967), “Eleanor Rigby” for Wes Montgomery (1967), “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Never My Love” for himself (1968), “Scarborough Fair” for Wes Montgomery (1968), Soul Flutes (1968), Kenny Burrell (1968 – unissued) and Paul Desmond (1970) and “With a Little Help From My Friends” for Jack Sheldon (1968).

That said, here are the rest of Joseph Lanza’s “50 Psychedelic Favorites Refurbished” as heard by those in jazz who decided to “join ‘em” as they skip the light fandango through the marmalade skies:

1. “All You Need is Love” by Don Costa (1967), Wayne Henderson (1968).

2. “Aquarius” by Barney Kessel (1968), Bobby Bryant (1969), Dizzy Gillespie (1969), Eddie Higgins (1969), Charlie Byrd (1969), Stan Kenton (1969), Gerald Wilson (1969), Rob McConnell (1969), Tom Scott (1969), Woody Herman (1969), Benny Goodman (1970), Doc Severinsen (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1970), Charles Earland (1970), Dick Schory (1971), Maynard Ferguson (1971), Freddie McCoy (1971), George Shearing (1975), Ramsey Lewis (1978).

3. “As Tears Go By” by Bud Shank (1966), Joe Pass (1966), Shake Keane (1966 and 1968).

4. “California Dreamin’” by Bud Shank (1966), Hugh Masekela (1966), Rune Gustafsson (1969), Lionel Hampton (1971), Doc Severinsen (1973), David Matthews (1975).

7. “A Day in the Life” by Gabor Szabo (1967 – discussed in Lanza), Nobua Hara (1968), Brian Auger (1968), Wolfgang Dauner (1969), Les De Merle (1969), Grant Green (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1977), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

9. “Eleanor Rigby” by Warren Kime (1967 – not listed in Lanza), Joe Torres (1967), Dick Hyman (1967), Kai Winding (1967), Trudy Pitts (1967), Maynard Ferguson (ca. 1967-73, issued 2007), The Crusaders (1968 and 1975), Pat Williams (1968), Ray Charles (1968), The Young-Holt Unlimited (1968), Craig Hundley (1968), Sonny Criss (1969), Mike Melvoin (1969 – listed in Lanza), Lonnie Smith (1969), Oscar Peterson (1969), Vince Guaraldi (1969), The Third Wave (1970), Count Basie (1970), Gene Harris and the Three Sounds (1970), Mal Waldron (1970), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), the riveting Don “Sugarcane” Harris (1971), Bucky Pizzarelli (1971), Klaus Weiss Orchestra (1972), Pure Food and Drug Act (1972), Les Strand (1972), George Shearing (1974), Frank Cunimondo (1976), Elliott Fisher (1976), Gene Bertoncini and Michael Moore (1977), Sarah Vaughan (1981).

10. “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” by Nina Simone (1969).

11. “Fool on the Hill” by Bud Shank (1968), Barney Wilen (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1969), Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 (1968), George Shearing (1969), Maynard Ferguson (1969), Rob Franken (1969), Harry South (1969), Joe Morello (1969 and 1977), the studio band Living Jazz (1969), Rune Gustafsson (1969). Dorothy Ashby (1969), Jonny Teupen (1969), Count Basie (1969), Lena Horne & Gabor Szabo (1970), Frank Wess (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1971).

12. “Good Morning, Starshine” by Galt Mac Dermot (1968 and 1970), Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Barney Kessel (1969), Bobby Bryant (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Stan Kenton (1969), Benny Goodman (1970 – listed in Lanza), Doc Severinsen (1970).

13. “Good Vibrations” by The Young-Holt Unlimited (1967), Gordon Beck Quartet (1968).

14. “Green Tambourine” by Steve Allen with Oliver Nelson (1968), Les Brown (1968 – not listed in Lanza).

15. “Hair” by Galt Mac Dermot (1968), Sandy Brown and his Gentlemen Friends (1969), Bobby Bryant (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Tom Scott (1969).

16. “Hello Goodbye” by Bud Shank (1968), James Moody (1970).

17. "Here, There, and Everywhere" by Mike Melvoin (1966), Chet Baker (1966), Hugh Masekela (1967), Doc Severinsen (1967), Charles Lloyd (1967), Kai Winding (1967 – listed in Lanza), Jackie Gleason (1968 – not listed in Lanza), Gary McFarland (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1968), Sadao Watanabe (1969), Tubby Hayes (1969), Gene Bertoncini (1969), George Shearing (1971 and 1976), Bucky Pizzarelli (1971), Mal Waldron (1972), Bobby Pierce (1972), Sarah Vaughan (1981).

19. "I Am the Walrus" by Bud Shank (1968).

23. "Let the Sun Shine In" by Bobby Bryant (1969), Dizzy Gillespie (1969), Galt Mac Dermot (1969), Charlie Byrd (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Rob McConnell (1969), Yusef Lateef (1970 – unissued), Ramsey Lewis (1978).

24. “Light My Fire” by Bob Thiele with Gabor Szabo and Tom Scott (1967), Wynton Kelly (1968 – issued 1979), Joe Jones (1968), Johnny Smith (1968), Gerald Wilson (1969), Woody Herman (1969), Stanley Turrentine (1969), Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger & The Trinity (1969), Billy Larkin (1969), Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Young-Holt Unlimited (1969), Paul Horn (1970), Toots Thielemans (1970), Friedrich Gulda (1970), Lionel Hampton (1971), Freddie McCoy (1971).

25. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by Gabor Szabo (1967 – discussed in Lanza – and 1968), Terumasa Hino (1968), John Blair (1977).

26. “Lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby (‘Sleep Safe and Warm’)” by Krzysztof Komeda (1968), Stan Kenton (1968), Rob McConnell (1968), Charlie Byrd (1968 45-rpm), Gerald Wilson (1969), Michal Urbaniak (1973), Zoot Sims (1973 and 1974), Michael Naura (1977), Ran Blake (1984). Later recordings include Komeda tributes by Simple Acoustic Trio (1995, with Marcin Wasilewski) and Tomasz Stanko (1997).

27. "MacArthur Park" by Doc Severinsen (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1968), Freddie McCoy (1968 45-rpm and 1970), Monk Higgins (1968), Woody Herman (1969), Brooks Arthur Ensemble with Vinnie Bell (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Kurt Edelhagen arranged by Quincy Jones and J.J. Johnson (1970), Sonny Stitt (1970), Maynard Ferguson (1970).

28. "Mellow Yellow" by Don Randi Trio (1967), Young-Holt Unlimited (1967), Odell Brown and the Organ-izers (1967), Tom Scott (1967), Steve Marcus (1968), Herbie Mann (1974).

29. "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Gerry Mulligan (1965 on the aptly titled album (i>If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!), Shake Keane (1966), Brass Fever (1976).

30. “Never My Love” by Tom Scott (1967), Bud Shank (1968) by K & JJ (1968), Cal Tjader (1968), George Shearing (1968), Trudy Pitts (1968), Harold Betters (1968), Brooks Arthur Ensemble featuring Vinnie Bell (1969), Grant Green (1971), Henry Mancini and Doc Severinsen (1972 – listed in Lanza).

31. “Nights in White Satin” by Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Tim Weisberg (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1972), Deodato (1973).

32. "Norwegian Wood” by Gene Russell Trio (1966), Charlie Byrd (1966 and 1974), Bud Shank (1966), Terry Gibbs (1966), Gary Burton (1966), Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo (1966), Paul Horn arranged by Oliver Nelson (1966), Hugh Masekela (1966), Henry Mancini (1967 – not listed in Lanza), Trombones Unlimited (1967), Buddy Rich Big Band (1967), Ira Sullivan (1967), Herbie Mann (1967), Gordon Beck (1968), Volker Kriegel (1968), Roy Meriwether Trio (1969), Vic Lewis (1969 – surprisingly not listed in Lanza), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), Count Basie (1970), Ted Heath (1970 – not listed in Lanza), Dave McKenna (1973), Clark Terry (1974), Horst Jankowski (1974), Don Randi (1979). Later recordings include those by L.A. Workshop (with Tom Scott) (1988), Allan Holdsworth (with Gordon Beck) (1996), Herbie Hancock (1996), Joe Beck (1996), Milcho Leviev (with Herbie Mann) (1998).

33. “Penny Lane” by Kai Winding (1967), Electronic Concept Orchestra (Eddie Higgins) (1969), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), Count Basie (1970).

35. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Wilbert Longmire (1968), Gap Mangione (1968 and 1976), Steve Marcus (1968), Harry South (1968 – not listed in Lanza), Jack Wilson (1969 – unissued), Klaus Doldinger (1969), Ray Bryant (1969), Roy Ayers Quartet (1969), Jean Luc Ponty (1969), Dick Schory (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1970), Oliver Nelson with Nobuo Hara (1970), Ack van Rooyen (1971), Henry Mancini (1971 – not listed in Lanza), Eric Kloss (1975). Later recordings include those by Herbie Hancock (1996), Hubert Laws (2002) and Don Friedman (2005).

36. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by Brian Browne (1969), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

37. “She’s Leaving Home” by Tom Scott (1967), Cal Tjader (1971), Jun Fukamachi (1977). A surprising number of later recordings of “She’s Leaving Home” include those by Jaco Pastorius (ca. 1982 issued 1993), McCoy Tyner (1995), Larry Coryell (2002), Brad Mehldau (2005), David Benoit (2007), David Liebman (2012).

39. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by Stardrive with Robert Mason (1973).

40. “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Gary McFarland (1968) and George Benson (1968 unissued).

41. “Sunshine Superman” by Harold Betters (1966), Les McCann (1966), Willie Bobo (1966), Victor Feldman (1967), Brian Bennett (1967), Lionel Hampton (1967), Gabor Szabo (1968), Lonnie Smith (1970 and again on his 2021 album Breathe, with Iggy Pop), Moe Koffman (1970), Eric Kloss (1970), Jerry Hahn (1973), Brass Fever (1975).

42. “There is a Mountain” by Herbie Mann (1967 and 1968) and Boogaloo Joe Jones (1968).

43. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” by Cal Tjader (1971).

45. “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Hugh Masekela (1967), Trudy Pitts (1967), Freddie McCoy (1968), Pat Williams (1969), King Curtis (1969 and 1971), Herbie Mann (1974), The Gadd Gang (1988).

46. “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Herb Alpert (1967), Jean-Luc Ponty (1968), Volker Kriegel (1968), Wilton Felder (1969), Count Basie (1970), René Urtreger (1970), David T. Walker (1973), Dom Minasi (1974), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

47. “Within You, Without You” by The Soulful Strings (Richard Evans) (1967), David Liebman (1975).

48. “Woodstock” by Barry Miles (1971), Tom Scott (1972).

49. “Yellow Submarine” by The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (1967), Franco Ambrosetti (1987).

50. “Your Mother Should Know” by Bud Shank (1968), Kenny Ball (1970).

Years after the acid-trip hangover yielded to Watergate, Reagan, Thatcher and other such bonfires of vanity – not to mention the unlikely morphing of easy listening and jazz into the Stay-Puft monster that is Smooth Jazz – a new generation of jazzers tuned out Tin Pan Alley and turned on to The Beatles.

Jazzy Beatles tributes appeared by the L.A. Workshop (with Tom Scott) on two volumes of Norwegian Wood (1988 and 1989), the GRP set (I Got No Kick Against) Modern Jazz, Bob Belden Presents Strawberry Fields (1996), two volumes of “Beatle Jazz” (with David Kikoski, Charles Fambrough and Brian Melvin) (2000-01), the David Matthews band Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s Come Together (2005), Al Di Meola’s All Your Life (2013) and Bill Frisell’s John Lennon tribute All We Are Saying… (2011).

There are also such revisionist compilations as Blue Note Plays The Beatles (2004), Ramsey Lewis Plays The Beatles Songbook (2010), the German Beatles vs. Stones: British Pop Hits Go Groovy (2010) and the French The Beatles in Jazz (2017).

Won’t you, won’t you, won’t you bring a little psych pop, bring a little jazz. Put it all together, you’ll like what you have. You know that you want to. And I know that you do. Come in here and love with me.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Easy-Listening Acid Trip

Whether you like it or not, easy-listening music can be fairly considered the soundtrack of life for Americans who grew up in the sixties and seventies. As soon as you left the house, it was everywhere: in the mall, grocery stores, department stores, five-and-tens (remember those?), restaurants, the doctor’s office and in the one place that earned the music – or Muzak – its often-derogatory name, the elevator.

Suburban parents even spun such “background music” at home, a habit that was popular among the better-off in the fifties with what is now regarded as “bachelor pad” or “lounge” music. Back in the seventies, I had relatives likely living well beyond their means who played these easy records day and night; it was a sign of class, sophistication and good taste to a certain generation.

American listeners could skip the light fandango to the orchestras of Ray Conniff, TV star Jackie Gleason, Andre Kostelanetz, 101 Strings, Mantovani, Mystic Moods Orchestra, Lawrence Welk (another TV star), Enoch Light and the Light Brigade and Ferrante & Teicher. The best of this bunch were easily the records of Henry Mancini, who was churning out many memorable film scores at the same time, and Percy Faith.

But America had no special claim on easy listening. Indeed, the music was even more popular in other countries. The soft parade marched through the British orchestras of Frank Chacksfield, Ronnie Aldrich and Cyril Stapelton. France gave us Francis Lai, another renowned film composer, Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel. But it was Germany that surely produced the two greatest practitioners of the art of easy with Bert Kaempfert and James Last.

To some, such orchestras spun silk out of the classics, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway numbers and film themes. For others, it turned good music to aural mush. In either case, these mood maestros smoothed whatever edges popular music possessed and spread a kind of hush over any memorable melody.

With the influx of rock and roll in the early sixties, prompted, of course, by the rise of the Beatles, popular and profitable tastes began to change. All of a sudden, orchestra leaders heard what was “happening” and hipped up quick.

Once everyone from Dylan and Donovan to the Stones and the Beach Boys started steering things down trippier roads, the easy fellows were close behind, ready to make bread out of the electrical banana.

This is where Easy-Listening Acid Trip: An Elevator Ride Through ‘60s Psychedelic Pop (Feral House), Joseph Lanza’s intoxicating journey through the mellow yellow of, well, “Mellow Yellow” and other strange trips, begins.

Lanza emerged as a specialist in easy-listening music during the last decade of the previous century when forgotten fifties easy favorites from the likes of Esquivel, Les Baxter, Martin Denny and so many others were repackaged and repurposed as mad-mod “space age,” “exotica” and “bachelor pad” music.

He wrote enthusiastic notes for CD compilations of mood makers like Ferrante & Teicher, Nelson Riddle, John Barry (who he calls a “master of moods”), Gunther Kalman Choir and Andy Williams’s wife, Claudine Longet while supervising easy compilations of his own for Time Life Music. One of those sets, Spirit of the ‘60s: Pop Troubadours (2000), a collection of songs by the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and Donovan, of course, tiptoes through these tulips.

Lanza also authored the well-regarded, yet little-known Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong (2004). That book earned plaudits from no less authorities than author J.G. Ballard, composer Wendy Carlos and documentarian Errol Morris, who hailed Elevator Music as “the definitive history of twentieth century music.”

It was in Elevator Music where Lanza turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor for what he called “metarock,” the art of reinterpreting rock songs into dreamlike, string-laden, easy-listening alternatives.

That is the seed that flowered into the fascinating and engaging Easy-Listening Acid Trip. Joesph Lanza looks back at the major psychedelic pop and rock hits that emerged during the fluorescent fever dream of the mid to late sixties, then considers the magical mystery makeovers of those songs the mood maestros offered up.

While Lanza has always been especially adroit with words, particularly in describing the mood or a feeling a song or a cover means to evoke, he’s at his very best in this battle of the batons. The number of thoughtful ruminations and clever turns of phrase Lanza offers on nearly every page make this book a true page turner.

Consider this Hair-raising consideration: “the ‘hippie musical’ ended up at the split-end of a counter-cultural mindset that had been growing for years.” Before you exhort a chuckle or a groan, you realize the clever wordplay makes perfect sense.

“Easy Listening,” writes Lanza, is “a musical terrain that has been ignored or belittled for so long that reappraising it often calls for aesthetic refocusing or perceptual cleansing.” Lanza not only has a gift for reappraisal but a flair for refocusing listeners’ attention on the marvel of good songcraft and even expert “softcraft.”

Deeply thoughtful and particularly well informed, Lanza effortlessly places the music in its historic context, noting not only the origin of a lyric but what else was “happening” in the world outside the song. He approaches his subject as an academic but reports on it with the love, respect and joy only a fan can bring to the music.

Lanza’s key insight in Easy-Listening Acid Trip is that for all the scary new-thing bluster that psychedelic pop initially proposed, much of it was often inspired or informed by the easy-listening music of the past, from the vaudeville, American Tin Pan Alley and British Musical Hall traditions. That, in turn, made songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and “Penny Lane” so easy – and appropropriate – to easy-fy.

Lavishly illustrated in Milton Glaser-styled swirls and pop art sign posts, E-LAT also features a good number of the covers of those records discussed in the book, including such favorites as Paul Mauriat’s painted lady on Blooming Hits (one of the first record covers I ever saw), Billy Vaughn’s sci-fi scape on The Windmills of Your Mind and the Johnny Arthey Orchestra’s oddly wicked-looking Donovan kaleidoscope on The Golden Songs of Donovan.

The book deserves an equally colorful soundtrack. I lost count of the number of times I went online to check out the easy variations Lanza discusses so vividly – and often right on point. (I was also enticed to track down several long out-of-print LPs Lanza reviews that more than piqued my curiosity, including the Alan Lorber Orchestra’s delirious 1967 Verve record The Lotus Palace, which features Colin Walcott and Vinnie Bell and was surprisingly reissued on vinyl not too long ago by Modern Harmonic.)

While Lanza makes a compelling case that “Easy-Listening should not be confused with lazy playing,” he doesn’t make much of how easily many of these tunes seeped into the jazz repertoire. Jazz players like Bud Shank, Kai Winding, Woody Herman and George Shearing were all busy taking acid trips of their own at the time, much to derision of fans and critics alike. Indeed, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan devoted full albums to the Beatles.

Surprisingly, though, the Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo gets some Lanzafaction for the “breezier elevator ride” of his 1967 album Wind Sky and Diamonds. Lanza reflects and refracts on the album’s genuine jazz-lite takes of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life” and “White Rabbit,” of which he writes so marvelously:

”Gabor Szabo, on Wind, Sky, and Diamonds, harnessed the wonky proportions of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” with [Bill Plummer’s] sitar accompaniment. This time, his California Dreamers chime a wordless chorus. Grace Slick’s defiant anthem, favoring hipper pills over mother’s little helpers, was not the most inviting to elevator-ready adaptations, but Szabo draws on the song’s bit of Ravel’s Bolero and other influences, while the sitar opening seduces listeners to fall deeper into the rabbit hole’s escalating rhythm."

This is a fine example of the wit and wisdom Lanza brings to the party; it’s all that a high is supposed to be with none of the hangover such excess often brings. While the focus on this one Szabo album is as far into jazz Lanza is willing to go, I can’t help but wish he waxed as poetically on Light My Fire, another of Szabo’s “easy-listening jazz-id trips” with Bob Thiele and the New Happy Times Orchestra.

Sometime in the mid-seventies it seemed like easy-listening music just disappeared. The records vanished from the record stores’ shelves while the malls, stores and offices began playing the whispery soft-rock hits of the day and mellow anthems that used to get covered by the orchestras of yore.

Lanza chalks it up to younger editors deleting the “uncool” easy-listening charts from the magazines, while insisting easy-listening continued to sell well. I’m not so sure. Tastes changed – again – and when all is said and done, how much easier can you make a song like “How Deep is Your Love”? (Both Conniff and Kostelanetz gave it a shot.)

A generation that can produce such treacle as Barry Manilow or Air Supply needs no help from the easy riders. But just as the older listeners out there began dying off – their vinyl collections landing at the Goodwill and musty old used-record shops – we started losing those orchestral behemoths, too: Percy Faith passed away in 1976 while Andre Kostelonetz and Bert Kaempfert both died in 1980.

Ray Conniff recorded up to his death in 2002, though Columbia stopped issuing his records in the United States in 1980, a sign that there was no longer a market for his brand of music. At least here. The Spanish arm of CBS issued scores of Conniff aperitifs for fans throughout the rest of the world.

James Last moved to the U.S. in the early eighties, shortly after scoring his sole American hit, “Seduction” (1980), while Polydor continued issuing countless records under Last’s name (including truly cool mash-ups with hip-hop groups like Fettes Brott) until his death in 2015 – everywhere but in his adopted home country, the United States.

Lanza reasonably argues that easy-listening didn’t disappear so much as transform itself. Much the same could be said of jazz by its stauncher defenders. But he didn’t set out to chronicle the easy-fication of everything pop.

Here, Lanza focuses his sights on the multi-hued colors of psychedelic pop, which he successfully argues has the lyrical and melodic fortitude of all great music worthy of such genre transformation.

His respect and admiration for the multitudes of easy variations – and his keen sense to suss out and defend some of the craftiest and most obscure adaptions (Johnny Arthey’s Donovan set is as worthy as Lanza makes it out to be and he nails the Brass Ring’s strange yet captivating cover of “Rosemary’s Baby”) – is positively contagious.

Sorting through vinyl’s trash bins, Joseph Lanza finds a trove of trippy treasures, restoring a much-deserved respect to an inexplicably maligned genre that once was known as beautiful music. Easy-Listening Acid Trip makes for an enlightening and equally beautiful reading.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio “I Told You So”

What’d he say? This, from

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio—or as it is sometimes referred to, DLO3—specialize in the lost art of “feel good music.” The ingredients of this intoxicating cocktail include a big helping of the 1960s organ jazz stylings of Jimmy Smith and Baby Face Willette; a pinch of the snappy soul strut of Booker T. & The M.G.’s and The Meters; and sprinkles Motown, Stax Records, blues, and cosmic Jimi Hendrix-style guitar.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Consider me told. Consider me sold.

To this list of influencers, you could also add Trudy Pitts, Odell Brown and the Organizers, Leon Spencer, Sue-era Jimmy McGriff and the J.B.’s, as well as the more recent Danish trio Ibrahim Electric.

There simply aren’t that many organ combos left out there anymore. The electrification of other keyboards – pianos and synthesizers – really pushed the organ out of favor in the late sixties. What Jimmy Smith did for the acceptance of jazz organ left everyone hearing Bill Doggett honky-tonking or Dave “Baby” Cortez rinky-dinking at some point in time.

From Larry Young onward, dedicated purveyors of the demanding Hammond B-3 seemed to go out of their way to sieve the grease out of the meat and make the organ more subtle, more serious and, well, more negligible. The others plied their trade till they met their maker – and most, now, are gone.

So when an organ combo like the DLO3 come along, boldly reclaiming its funky roots, you had me at “I told you so,” despite my initial and regrettable pass on 2018’s ironically-titled Close but No Cigar.

This Seattle-based trio winningly sticks to the basics, with Delvon Lamarr (Dumas) on organ, Jimmy James (Williams – you need to know these names for the songwriting credits) on guitar and Grant Schroff on drums. Seattle-based funk guitarist Ben Bloom (from the Polyrhythmics, also featuring DLO3 drummer Grant Schroff) gets a rather too brief guest shot on “Right Place, Right Time.”

They weigh in on a set of mainly originals that speak to a time possibly two generations before their own and declare its relevance in this no-fun age of lockdowns, social distancing, viral extremism and scary politics.

Delvon Lamarr is a terrific stylist who sautés all his aforementioned influences – with a dash of Bernie Worrell – into one exceptionally funk-tional devotee of great organ groove.

His compositions have the funky flair that blend the standard-bearing with the barrier-breaking. I hear the Argo-era of the woefully under-appreciated “Baby Face” Willette, but suspect others will hear any number of Lamarr’s other influences as well. His solos are as notably inventive as they are laced with any number of crowd-pleasing highs (DLO3 is at its best live) – and all suit the mood this trio is aiming for.

Of all the players, though, it is Jimmy James who cuts the widest swath. He coaxes a galaxy of sounds out of his guitar: from the gut-bucket and fuzzy to the spacey and lyrical, reminding this listener in many ways of the late, great Eddie Hazel, particularly in those heady early Funkadelic days.

James seems to lead the trio as much, if not more than, Lamarr. It is in his solos where he consistently commands the most attention – not necessarily for dazzling proficiency but, rather, pitch-perfect adherence to the groove and a spot-on, if not altogether uncanny, sense of a tune’s modality.

Only the bright and snappy recording reveals this 2021 disc as something “new.” The moves and the grooves are old-fashioned and fun, the way this sort of music used to be. In a blindfold test, you’d be hard pressed to believe any of this music was captured after 1969.

I Told You So is the DLO3’s third album for the Cincinnati-based Colemine Records and it’s a real joy. Clocking in at a breezy forty-one minutes, it has the vibe an old LP and despite its studio trappings, sounds and feels like an intimate and animated club date – with none of the phony audience sounds grafted onto those Ramsey Lewis or Cannonball Adderley studio records of yore.

The disc kicks off with “Hole in One,” perhaps a reference to the renown the DLO3 has achieved since they first came together in 2015. The wordplay may also suggest the palpable synergy the trio shares, a “whole in one.” This classic Chicago soul is straight out of the far too little-known Odell Brown playbook and is absolutely worth being revived.

“Call Your Mom” follows on, confirming this trio’s affinity to both Booker T. & the M.G.’s and The Meters: Memphis meets New Orleans. Could “Mom” be “M.G.’s or Meters”? Me thinks so.

The dark “From the Streets” grinds like of one of Isaac Hayes’s Blaxploitation film themes; just the sort of thing Angelo Badalamenti would recycle for the spookier scenes in his David Lynch film scores.

”Fo Sho,” released on 45 in 2020 (Colemine specializes in soulful singles), is the disc’s dominant and most appealing track. Deeply informed by the rock organ of Santana’s Gregg Rolie, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord or Traffic’s Steve Winwood, “Fo Sho” presents Lamarr and James at their psychedelic best, infusing their roiling rock with edgy jazz and trippy soul.

Covering George Michael’s 1984 hit “Careless Whisper” is a shrewd move. The original had a terrific melody and a sensibility that lent itself well to jazz. While the song is a natural for its many smooth-jazz covers, the DLO3 give it a backbone that Charles Earland might have done back in the day (surprisingly, he did not). The trio injects a grit and gristle that Earland would have likely never attempted, but James caresses the song’s familiar alto sax wail, while offering a tasty solo all his own.

A personal favorite here is the album’s closer, “I Don’t Know.” Perhaps that’s because it’s the closest thing the DLO3 come to claiming a personal anthem. Listen to Lamarr work those pedals – there’s no letting go.

Indeed, they do know – and they want you to know, too. If these guys made album after album of “I Don’t Know” variations, I do know that I would continue investing in them. Seems to me this is the group’s set closer from now on.

Kudos, finally, to Leroi Conroy for his beautiful photography and the marvelously distinctive design for the I Told You So package.

Conroy mixes Blue Note’s iconic Reid Miles artistry with Columbia’s John Berg’s classicism, to come up with a new standard that’s as attractive and appropriate as it is timely and timeless. Like the old days, Conroy’s cover convinced me I had to hear this record – something I do not regret.

Conroy has also recorded several notable singles of his own for the Colemine label, including the marvelous “Remember When?” (b/w “La Gran Mesa”) (2014) and the Daptone-like “Tiger Trot” (b/w “Enter”) (2017) – all worth your attention if you dig the DLO3.

You have to admire these guys. They know their history and they lean in to it to forge their own. I love this disc and hope more music – and news – like this can come out of 2021. They told us so. Are we ready to hear what they have to say? Yes.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Jonas Gwangwa R.I.P.

Tuning into Seton Hawkins’s South African Jazz show on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz on Monday, I was saddened to learn that the great trombonist and composer Jonas Mosa Gwangwa passed away on January 23. He was 83. According to the BBC, the cause of death was cardiac complications.

Jonas Gwangwa was among South Africa’s greatest treasures. Suffering a long and protracted exile, Gwangwa was one of South Africa’s most steadfast defenders and among one of its finest, if mostly uncelebrated, musical artists.

While not as well-known as he deserves to be, Gwangwa was a fantastic songwriter who contributed a number of memorable songs to the legacies of Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – and one of the best trombonists who ever played the instrument.

He was never as well recorded or regarded as such compatriots as Makeba or Masekela or even Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) or Letta Mbulu – all of whom he worked with. And he never got his due on trombone as Americans J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding or Steve Turre.

Gwangwa got his start in the pioneering South African jazz band the Jazz Epistles, which also featured Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi. The musical King Kong (1960) helped Gwangwa get out of South Africa during the reign of Apartheid and he eventually found his way to the United States. There, he was able to hook up with such ex-pats as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

Thanks to these connections, Gwangwa contributed “Kwedini,” to The World of Miriam Makeba (1963), arranged, adapted and conducted the great 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (featuring his incredibly beautiful “Show Me the Way, My Brother”) and (amazingly) “Going to Grandma’s House” for Les and Larry Elgart’s Sound of the Times (1966).

During this period, he also participated in the December 15, 1965, concert “The Sound of Africa 1965” at New York’s Carnegie Hall, presented by Harry Belafonte and headlining Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Letta Mbulu, benefitting the African American Institute.

As a player, he also appeared on Makeba’s Makeba Sings! (1965) and Hugh Masekela’s tremendous Grrr (1966), the latter of which includes Gwangwa’s marvelous “Kwa Blaney.” Gwangwa likely appeared on other dates, without credit, but it’s hard to know if that's true and even harder to determine how difficult his life here was at the time.

In 1966, Gwangwa co-wrote (with producer Stewart Levine) the single “Walkin’ Around,” the debut single for Letta (Mbulu) and the Safaris, a group that also featured his wife at the time, Mamsie. As good as it was, even with the backing of a major label (Columbia), the single failed to chart.

Masekela (having divorced Miriam Makeba) and Mbulu (and her husband Caiphus Semenya) soon headed to the West Coast, while Gwangwa stayed out East. In 1968, as the Jonas Gwangwa African Explosion, he waxed the tremendous Decca single “Goin’ Home (Bum Didi Sunshine),” backed with an all-too brief signature piece of Gwangwa gold beautifully titled “Afradellic.”

The following year, Gwangwa issued a full-fledged album of his own on Ahmad Jamal’s short-lived Jamal label, Who (Ngubani)?. The album, featuring Mamsie and South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, is a tremendous example of his potential. Yet hardly anyone even knew about it.

Songs like “Switch #2” and the album’s “Grazing in the Grass” copycat single “African Sausage” make the album worth hearing. But the record’s glorious “Dark City” makes it something worth having: Gwangwa is and was an incredible purveyor of his country’s music and one whose compositions consistently demand attention and affection.

In 1971, Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya partnered with Hugh Masekela for the short-lived Hugh Masekela & the Union of South Africa. The group’s sole album – among the best fusions of South African Jazz and American R&B at the time – is Gwangwa’s highest-profile gig.

The record also yielded two of Gwangwa’s best-known compositions, “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive” (covered later by Masekela as “Johannesburg” on his 1982 album Home) and “Shebeen” (also featured on the 1978 Hugh Masekela/Herb Alpert album Main Event Live, also with Gwangwa).

That same year Gwangwa co-edited the music book The World of African Song, credited to Miriam Makeba. The book presents the music and lyrics to a selection of traditional South African tunes Makeba recorded on six of her earliest RCA and Kapp albums.

Confoundingly, while Gwangwa’s star never ascended in America the way Makeba or Masekela’s did, it seems his opportunities – or options – were few. He appeared on two songs on Robin Kenyatta’s 1973 album Terra Nova and five years later for the aforementioned Main Event Live. Two Gwangwa singles (“Yeba” and “African Butterfly”) were issued on small labels in the late seventies, but seemingly nothing else under his name appeared.

By the eighties, Gwangwa assumed duties as musical-director for an African vocal group called Amandla that issued four albums on a curiously Russian-oriented label. By 1987, Gwangwa, along with George Fenton, contributed to Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed film Cry, Freedom, about the meeting of journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) with activist Stephen Biko (Denzil Washington). The film was nominated for three Academy awards, including Best Musical Score and Best Song.

Gwangwa contributed lackluster solos to an odd 1988 remix of the Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela.” But by 1991, Jonas Gwangwa made it back home to Johannesburg, where he later recorded three albums that showcased his ingenuity and allegiance to South African jazz: the terrific Flowers of the Nation (1990 – recorded in London), Sounds from Exile and A Temporary Inconvenience (1999).

Why nothing else came is unknown – or, perhaps, unknown to me. Jonas Gwangwa was very active on the music scene in South Africa in his later years, but he never attained the recognition or stature here, or anywhere else, he so richly deserved.

Jonas Gwangwa died in Johannesburg, but lives on in so many of jubilant recordings and compositions he left to us to revere and enjoy.

Nkosi sikelel Jonas Gwangwa. (A previous post of Jonas Gwangwa can be seen here.)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Dizzy Gillespie "Cornucopia"

This far too little-known album was not bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie’s first – or last – attempt at reaching out and crossing over to a generation of listeners not inclined toward jazz. But as pure product, it’s most assuredly among his best.

Cornucopia, released in March 1970, follows a previous set on Solid State called It’s My Way (1969), where the great trumpeter looks like someone’s grandfatherly college professor, rather than the hipster he was trying to be.

You could even go a little further back to The Melody Lingers On (1966) or the desperately-titled Dizzy Goes Hollywood (1965) for evidence that someone knew he was losing market share.

Even so, Gillespie was making albums the way he wanted. Indeed, there is the fine (yet also desperately titled) Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac (1967) on Impulse. That there was only one record on Impulse, however, suggests those sorts of records just weren’t selling.

When guitarist Gabor Szabo famously declared in 1967 that “jazz as we know it is dead,” Dizzy Gillespie, the ever-vigilant jazz ambassador, responded with a certain derision: “What’s that? Maybe it’s because he (meaning Szabo) isn’t playing jazz as we know it.”

Nevertheless, Dizzy wasn’t beyond joining ‘em when beating ‘em wasn’t an option.

The success of Cornucopia is due in no small part to arranger Don Sebesky. At the time, Sebesky was primarily known as “in-house” arranger at Creed Taylor’s CTI Records, where he helped craft the artistic and financial success of Wes Montgomery’s last few records.

By the late sixties, Sebesky – or the Sebesky sound, which mixed elegant takes on pop songs with splashes of jazz – became popular enough to score the arranger two of his own albums for Verve, The Distant Galaxy and Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome (both 1968).

Recorded over two days in August 1969, Cornucopia delivers the Taylor-derived template of foxy chart toppers and catchy originals that boosted (or, as some believe, brought down) the Montgomery-Sebesky records waxed between 1965 and 1968. But that’s about the end of the CTI similarities.

(For the record, Creed Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie are known to have a very limited connection to one another. One of Taylor’s first productions at Verve was Gillespie’s Perceptions (1961), while the first of the briefly-revived CTI releases, Rhythmstick (1990), was named for Dizzy’s walking stick and featured the trumpeter on only two tracks [some reissues of the disc bill it as a Dizzy Gillespie set]. The most prominent producers of Gillespie’s work in the sixties were Norman Granz, Quincy Jones and Hal Mooney.)

I’m willing to bet that Richard Carpenter’s production credit here, as on It’s My Way, is, to be as kind as possible, largely honorific. It’s reasonable to believe that Sebesky himself is in charge, as the record maintains the sound and, likely, the core group that make up the Esmond Edwards-produced Sebesky records on Verve.

That core group includes Chuck Rainey instead of Ron Carter on bass and, most likely, Don MacDonald instead of Grady Tate on drums. (Tom Lord also lists Richard Davis on bass and Ed Shaughnessy and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums – all of whom are very likely to be here).

Likewise, guitarists, including Billy Butler, were much more likely to appear on Prestige dates than on any CTI date – distancing Cornucopia further from CTI. But there are signs (particularly “Oh Happy Day”) that Richard Tee is also on board. These musicians give Cornucopia a gruffer sound than one is likely to hear on CTI, but one that pairs much better with Gillespie himself.

Where Creed Taylor wanted players whose storytelling had adventure, drama and happy endings, Gillespie aspired to something a little rougher and much less mellifluous: suspense, artistry, and madcap flights of fancy that made total musical sense. That Sebesky can open a book for both says a little more than something of his gift for invention.

Opening with a swirl of strings and harps, “Windmills of Your Mind” (the album’s only single release) seems to confirm jazz critics’ greatest fear of Sebesky: something soft, sweet and not delicious. Then the song gallops into a jaunty proto-disco pace that recalls Sebesky’s “Big Mama Cass” – and at a clip that Creed Taylor would likely never abide.

Sebesky tilts at this particular “Windmill” not by accommodating composer Michel Legrand (who is often too sentimental for some tastes) but by hinting at Lalo Schifrin, who got his start in Gillespie’s band, composing the trumpeter’s “Gillespiana” and The New Continent, later crafting Gillespie’s fusion classic Free Ride - and, horror of horrors, writing film soundtracks.

Nina Rota’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” is this set’s other film theme. Henry Mancini’s cover of the song knocked The Beatles’ “Get Back” (also covered here) from the number one spot on the charts several weeks before this version of the ballad was recorded. Here, Sebesky underscores the romance of the piece with a Spanish guitar, as he would on so many of his later more classically-oriented efforts.

Sebesky himself provides the album’s genuine highlight. “Yesterday’s Dream” is one of Sebesky’s finest compositions and Gillespie gives it all the love and graciousness it deserves. It’s a beautiful tune – vibing with the moody, exciting and melancholy that inform such New York soundtracks of the time as Rosemary’s Baby and Midnight Cowboy.

The song later reappeared as “Yesterday’s Dreams” in a different, but no less stirring arrangement on Freddie Hubbard’s Sebesky-arranged and Grammy-winning CTI album First Light, while the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band conguero Francisco Aguabella later recorded the tune for his 2002 disc Cubacan.

Gillespie reprises his own “Lorraine,” first heard on the 1959 The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie, and the rather silly “Tango-rine,” first heard on 1957’s Birks’ Works. “Lorraine” has never rocked this hard, with Rainey and Purdie’s funky forces aligned with a roiling Blaxploitation guitar. Here, as elsewhere, Sebesky’s horns are a bit more Vegas show-y than usual, something another producer might have reigned in. But “Lorraine” also offers Gillespie’s own finest moment on the record.

Of all the pop covers here, this writer’s favorite is probably Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” made famous in late 1968 by Judy Collins. The unfailingly lovely tune gets a spunky arrangement by Sebesky, while Gillespie has no issue with giving it his all.

“Get Back” comes in a close second here, but Joni Mitchell created something that both Gillespie and Sebesky could really work with here. (Curiously, Sebesky arranged both “Both Sides Now” and “Windmills of Your Mind” – very similarly – for Terry Baxter and His Orchestra for his album The Best of ‘69, but that “Windmills” might be a bit better.)

“Ann,” or “Ann, Wonderful One” as it’s known here, is an Earl Hines tune dating back to 1944 (in an arrangement by Jimmy Mundy, who arranged Gillespie’s prior Solid State album, It’s My Way). The song is rarely covered (Chet Baker did it in 1964 and Stanley Turrentine in 1978), but Sebesky gives it a decidedly contemporary spin that’s light years from its stride origins. Gillespie is just superb.

(Don Sebesky arranged several albums for little-known singer Lon Ritchie during 1969-70 featuring several tunes noted here, such as “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet,” from The Lon Ritchie Album, and “Yesterday’s Dreams,” [note the extra “s”] from Language of the Heart, which also features songs Sebesky would arrange for later CTI albums, such as “Here’s That Rainy Day,” from Freddie Hubbard’s aforementioned First Light and “She Was Too Good to Me,” by Chet Baker).

Recognizing its crossover potential, Billboard said of Cornucopia, “The impeccable trumpet of Gillespie darts and flurries through familiar chart items…arranged tastefully for a wider market than the out-and-out jazz fan by conductor Don Sebesky,” concluding that it is “an album that illuminates the horn of plenty.”

This tremendously unappreciated record was issued by Solid State, with a cover design courtesy of Frank Gauna, who was working primarily at Blue Note at the time. Gauna, who had done journeyman work for Candid, United Artists, Cadence and Solid State to this point, designed a cheesy and gimmicky “horn of plenty of Dizzys” cover for the American release of Cornucopia.

But, whoever took charge of the entirely different release of Dizzy’s second Solid State album in Japan, recognized its connection to the far more successful and profitable A&M/CTI albums Creed Taylor was putting out, deciding to mimic that label’s Sam Antupit design and Pete Turner photography. The Japanese release of Cornucopia, therefore, fits more into the CTI legacy, a fitting tribute to Don Sebesky’s role here and a link to Dizzy into the CTI stratosphere.

Later in the year, Gillespie would put out a terrifically fun and funky soul-jazz set, written and arranged by Ed Bland, called, Souled Out (and also known in various iterations as Sweet Soul, Soul Time and Soul & Salvation).

He then moved on to the innovative Perception label, where he waxed the superior The Real Thing (1970) and Portrait of Jenny (1971), the latter of which features Gillespie’s spellbinding “Olinga,” the title track to Milt Jackson’s 1974 album on CTI.

Remarkably, Cornucopia has never found its way onto CD. For the most part, Sonny Lester’s Solid State catalog wound up being owned by EMI, which was folded into Universal Music several years ago. It’s possible UMe doesn’t even know that this is their property. Here’s hoping someone is listening.

Here’s hoping, too, that somebody can rescue Dizzy Gillespie and Don Sebesky’s highly underrated and terribly forgotten masterpiece from fifty years ago, Cornucopia.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Magic of the Soulful Strings

I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas albums. Outside of a very select few that have earned and achieved unqualified timelessness – say, Johnny Mathis’s 1958 album Merry Christmas (gorgeously backed by the ever-underrated Percy Faith), Vince Guaraldi, The Carpenters (!) and George Winston – most seem like gimmicky novelty records designed for easy sales (and they do sell).

Most are downright silly or just plain boring.

Growing up, I was always partial to my mother’s album The Joy of Christmas, the 1963 classic by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Their mesmerizing take on “Carol of the Bells” is the first Christmas tune that ever piqued my interest in holiday music. Otherwise, this scene just wasn’t my thing.

My Christmas discs are admittedly few, but the ones I have skew mostly toward jazz (I also lump the elegant Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Nutcracker in here) or Bert Kaempfert and the lovely John Zorn album A Dreamer’s Christmas.

For obvious reasons, they rarely get a spin outside of the holidays. Honestly, who wants to hear Christmas music in July? Well, sure, lots of people. Bah humbug, not me.

There is one exception: The magisterial The Magic of Christmas, the 1968 album by The Soulful Strings, a holiday mainstay and one that, like all good music, transcends temporal boundaries with genuinely original – and joyous – musicianship.

The Magic of Christmas is the fourth of seven albums the studio group The Soulful Strings recorded between 1966 and 1970 for the Chicago-based Cadet label. The Soulful Strings was evidently the brainchild of Argo/Cadet producer Esmond Edwards, who, disliking the sound of violins, thought the combination of violas and cellos would make a good jazz noise.

Edwards knew that Argo/Cadet’s house arranger, Richard Evans (who, in a 2009 interview, credited the Soulful Strings concept to the Chess label co-founder Leonard Chess) could make it happen. Evans leavened the groove with flute and guitar and something unique was born.

Richard Evans (1932-2014) was the classic musician’s musician – and someone who never got the accolades he richly deserved. The Alabama-born Evans grew up in Chicago, where he got his start as a bassist in the Sun Ra band (he wrote the band’s “Lullaby for Realville”).

He went on to play in the bands of Dinah Washington, Maynard Ferguson, Paul Winter and Eddie Higgins, releasing his solo debut, Richard’s Almanac, in 1959 (with the woefully underappreciated pianist Jack Wilson). Evans later arranged successful albums for Ahmad Jamal, Gene Shaw and Ramsey Lewis, each revealing more of his gifts as an identifiable composer and a substantially unique arranger.

The first Soulful Strings album, Paint it Black, served up a platter of rock and pop hits of the day, with Evans’s genuinely soulful approach taking the familiar tunes in totally new directions. The concept was as far from Mantovani as you could get: these strings swing. “The result is a surprise,” said Billboard. “Instead of harming the feel of the music, a new dimension is added.”

The album became something of a hit, generating further recordings and such hits as Evans’s “Burning Spear” (from the second Strings album, Groovin’ With The Soulful Strings, and covered by Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Joe Pass and S.O.U.L.) and the equally brilliant Evans collaboration with Donny Hathaway, “Zambezi” (from the sixth Strings album, String Fever, and covered by Eddy Senay and the Salsoul Orchestra).

(By the way, a month after waxing Paint it Black, Evans arranged Kenny Burrell’s intoxicating holiday classic, Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, which is nearly as definitive a Christmas listening experience as any jazz lover could hope for.)

Recorded in Chicago during the balmy month of August 1968 and released just in time for Christmas in November of that year, The Magic of Christmas balances a dazzling program of traditional holiday favorites with well-considered plums, such as Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall.”

The album opens with an unusually and mercifully upbeat “Little Drummer Boy.” Evans’s distinctive strings carry the tune (and funky counterpoint), while Len Druss solos on flute. It’s also the first of harpist Dorothy Ashby’s turns in the album’s spotlight.

Even though Evans was working on Ashby’s worthy Cadet albums of the period, her appearance here is especially inspired. Ashby’s melodic phrasing and sensitive approach suggest nothing less than the combination of, umm, snowfall and twinkling lights. Appropriately, both Ashby and Druss feature again on Evans’s sublimely seasonal “Snowfall.”

For a hippy, trippy Christmas, Evans gives “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” a sort of soulful “Paint it Black” suit, abetted by Druss on oboe or bassoon (!), Ron Steele on sitar (!) and Bobby Christian on vibes. It works, too, even if it sounds all wrong on paper.

Evans decks “Deck the Halls” in the album’s most traditional of holiday apparel, yet it comes off as a moody musical montage from “A Christmas Carol,” traversing both the story’s light and darker moments. Not sure if the average listener would go for this, but I think it’s a magical bit of scoring.

Likewise, Mel Torme’s chestnut “The Christmas Song” gets a traditional jazz reading that works to its benefit. Christian mans the tune by himself in a way that suggests the Modern Jazz Quartet, but Evans’s touches make it seem more like Milt Jackson swinging warmly with Quincy Jones.

We’re back on the polar express with the terrifically funky “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Evans scores the melody as though it were a chant and Ramsey Lewis Trio bassist Cleveland Eaton serves up one of his deliciously distinctive scat solos in the key of Santa Claus is getting on down.

Evans funks “Jingle Bells” up, too, with an arrangement that turns the earworm into a butterfly, if such a thing is possible. The legendary Phil Upchurch rocks it up a notch, too. The miracle of Evans’s musical transformations is even evident on the strange “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” where Leon Jessel’s holiday march swings into a soulful shuffle straight out of the Motor city.

Surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” is the best, if not the hottest, cookie on the plate here, with Dorothy Ashby delivering a smoldering performance while Evans stokes the fire with a sexy string arrangement (that nods, to these ears, again to Quincy Jones). If those mixed metaphors don’t put you off, “Merry Christmas Baby” is a worthy addition to a playlist that gets attention all year long.

The Magic of Christmas, which was issued by Real Gone Music on CD in 2015 (and, thus far, the only official release of a Soulful Strings album on CD), is a delightfully diverse program that offers the covers and colors as well as the flavors and feelings of the season, while avoiding the contrivances and cliches – like sleighbells, triangles and icky children’s choirs – that lock it into an annual guilty-pleasure listening experience.

“Christmas strikes some warm chords,” said Billboard, “on the Soulful Strings’ seasonal tribute to the magic of holiday music.” But The Magic of Christmas is so much more – and better – than that. It finds the magic of the season in the soul of swing.

Your holidays – and your collection – will be happier with this joyful release.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Deadly Trap

This gem may require a bit more patience than your average thriller, but its charms are plentiful and more often subtle than not. While subtlety is rarely an appetizing ingredient in a thriller dish, director René Clément (1913-96) delivers a smart, stylish and entrancing melodrama that earns its fair share of thrills and even a worthy giallo vibe.

Clément was known for such classics as Battle of the Rails (1946) and Forbidden Games (1952) and, later, the all-star flop Is Paris Burning? (1965). He also directed such better-than-average thrillers as Purple Noon (1960), with Alain Delon, Joyhouse (1964), with Delon and Jane Fonda (featuring one of Lalo Schifrin’s earliest scores), and Rider on the Rain (1970), with Charles Bronson.

The Deadly Trap (1971) features American actors Faye Dunaway, as Jill, and Frank Langella, as Philippe, together as a married couple unaccountably residing in Paris, with their two young children, Cathy and Patrick.

Philippe seems to be writing a book, escaping from a secret past as someone who apparently dabbles in “industrial espionage.” Jill is a flighty, come-what-may mother, who shares a special bond with her son – who has no past or inner life that we know of. The enigmatic Cathy seems to be more of a daddy’s girl, at least in her mind.

All is well until the children disappear. Well, not quite. Jill and Philippe are not at all happy with each other, acting likes strangers in a strange land of their own marriage. Philippe is obsessed with whatever work he does (like Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now) and is disturbed by Jill’s lapses of time and commitment.

Jill, who seems to overly estimate her “brilliant” husband, unaccountably doesn’t seem to want any part of a physical relationship with him (like almost no one else in a 1971 film – or anyone else attached to Frank Langella at this time). The kids get nothing but babysitters and strange vibrations from their parents. Little wonder why they are eventually – and nearly tediously – lured away from their parents.

The film is highlighted by the ever-beautiful Faye Dunaway, who gives a tremendous performance as a mother in peril. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better presentation of such a classic (or cliched) trope: Dunaway mixes her caught-in-the-middle Evelyn of Chinatown (1974) with the plucky Kathy of Three Days of the Condor (1975) – but as a mom, she excels.

It’s unusual to see the actor portrayed as a loving mother (one exception being the great 1988 film Burning Secret), but her scenes with young Patrick are very believable (at the expense of so many other scenes – especially those with the enigmatic daughter Cathy). Even that little apartment the family occupies is very realistic too. They move around the place like they really live there.

Clément shows us a beautiful, but decidedly un-touristy side of Paris. The film, shot by Andréas Winding, who lensed Clément’s previous Rider on the Rain and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), looks beautiful: soft focuses throughout, with Dunaway looking lovely, fading into dark, hazy, almost hallucinogenic settings.

It’s unclear why this family is in Paris in the first place, but these outsiders inhabit their semi-giallo with all the baggage that comes with strangers in a strange place. This film never quite goes giallo – despite its Italian title – but it comes close. The elliptical script was written by the actor/writer Daniel Boulanger (a writer of two segments of the terrific 1967 Edgar Allan Poe omnibus film Spirits of the Dead), with the apparently uncredited Ring Lardner, Jr., who had previously scripted Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. (1970) and was probably responsible for the convincing English dialog heard here (his credits in film noir are especially notable here).

It is a classic Hitchcockian situation, where a MacGuffin (in this case, a vague threat of “industrial espionage”) drives the action. That action, the kidnapping of the children – which the script threatens mercilessly before the film’s halfway point, when the kids finally disappear – comes, of course, from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

But it’s hard to see Faye Dunaway as a helpless Hitchcock blonde or any one of the Master’s female leads (only Marnie comes close). She comes from a generation of women Hitchcock could probably not have realistically directed or, really, even properly understood.

There are, however, a number of other film classics referenced here, notably Gaslight (both 1940 and 1944 versions) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). These two references alone make Philippe extremely suspect. But there are also echoes of other Polanski films, from The Tenant (1976), where an aggrieved outsider must adjust to unusual customs, to Frantic (1988), where an American must navigate the unfamiliar Parisian backstreets to find a loved one.

The jolt, however, is in watching Clément’s film nearly five decades later and seeing Jill take the moral, public and legal blame for her children’s disappearance. It’s truly painful to watch. Philippe knows he’s to blame for his children’s abduction, but it is Jill who is blamed and shamed for her negligence.

The film seems to go to unusually great lengths to address the painful wrongs society does to women in general and mothers in particular. Once the kids are gone, Jill enters a Kafka nightmare that this film appropriately evokes in Wellesian images from the fantastic 1963 film adaptation of The Trial.

Philippe’s confusing involvement with “The Organization” also recalls Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game,” which is odd as that novel wasn’t written for another three years (Wim Wenders filmed the 1974 book as The American Friend in 1977 and Liliana Cavani filmed it, beautifully again, in 2002).

It’s notable that Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, was filmed by Hitchcock in 1951 while the novelist’s celebrated “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was first filmed by Clément in 1960 as Plein Soleil (a.k.a. Purple Noon – also with Maurice Ronet, who gets one brief scene here). It’s not inconceivable that the talented Ms. Highsmith was inspired by this film to craft her terrific (and more logically worked out) “Ripley’s Game.”

The sheer number of beautiful staircases Clément shoots here also suggests the classic woman-in-peril noir The Spiral Staircase (1946): Jill’s loving mother is “muted” here by her pre-figured criminality and her gaslighted weak and imperfect motherhood make her an absolutely perfect potential victim. She can neither satisfy her husband (!) nor successfully protect her children. Well, it is early 70s French provincial, after all. One staircase in particular here prefigures another famous staircase seen two years later in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

The lush orchestral score is by the renowned French singer Gilbert Bécaud (1927-2001), best known today as the writer of “What Now My Love” (covered by both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra), “Let it Be Me” and co-writer of Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” and “September Morn.” Bécaud’s main theme is a melodic piece that traffics appropriately in both playful childlike wistfulness and melancholy adult malaise. The tension cue that plays over the children’s abduction is an eerie Morricone-esque minimalist piece that perfectly reflects a mind on the brink.

This French film appears as though it was scripted and spoken in English. But the English dub of the film features Faye Dunaway doing her own voice. On the other hand, all of the male voices, notably Langella’s Philippe, seem to be the work of none other than Gene Wilder, who made a name for himself as Willy Wonka the same year this film was released. I have no proof of that, of course, but I don’t know how to prove or disprove this in any way. All the guys sure sound Wilder.

Oddly, this movie is known under many titles, few of which make much sense. Only the source novel’s boring title seems reasonable, “The Children Are Gone.” Not exactly thrilling, though, is it? So, how about the American title, “The Deadly Trap?” What was the trap? Phillipe’s unexplained web of whatever?

The French title, “The House by the Trees,” sounds exciting – but it only makes sense toward the very end and only for a few brief moments. Then there’s the Italian title, “The only clue: a yellow scarf,” which is, umm, true but not as exciting as something like “The Amazon with the Scarf of Fire” or something baroquely giallo like that.

Still, the film is a worthy and intoxicating European thriller. It follows a classic dream/nightmare logic that makes it a earnest contender among such kidnap classics as High and Low (1963), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and goes some way to informing the giallo classic Who Saw Her Die (1972).

There are great subtle touches here, notably Barbara Parkins’ lovely performance as the significantly named “Cyn,” the odd Michele Lourie playing the utterly inscrutable Cathy and the strange ending, where a child’s drawing is either malevolent or the happy ending that seems intended. And the feeling throughout is that no one is quite who you think they might be.