Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Forgotten Five of Tappan Zee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Alain said...

Champagne - Wilbert Longmire

Bonjour Mr Doug Payne,

The title : "Pleasure Island" is the same music that "Pleasure Island" on BJ4 (Bob James CTI) ?


Douglas Payne said...

Hi Alain -'s two different songs: "Pleasure Island" on Champagne is by Jay Chattaway and "Treasure Island" on BJ4 is by Bob James. Doug

mulholand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mulholand said...

Thanks for a well-written piece on this music, of which a.) I have read almost nothing before and b.) on which I agree to most things you say. The two Colby albums are truly oustanding. Through the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the musicians involved here (Khan, Bernsen and the late great Hiram Bullock) and they all have reacted the same way when being reminded of the Colby sessions: a.) they can't believe anyone remembers these albums, b.) they are immensely proud of their contributions here.

Quick question on Joanne Brackeen: was "Keyed In" ever out in an edition called "Keyed Up"? I seem to recall my long-lost copy being named such. Or did I dream it?

Keep up the splendid work.

Douglas Payne said...

Hi Mulholand - Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad to know that these albums have some of the recognition I think they well deserve. As far as "Keyed In" - I've had my copy since day one and it's "Keyed In" throughout. I can't say I've ever seen "Keyed Up" anywhere. Doug

Anonymous said...

Does Richard Tee's "Natural Ingredients" fall under the category of "forgotten"? I don't own another record with as much fun in it.

Joselino said...

Funny, but here is a reference to "Keyed Up":
but when you check the photo, the title's last word is cropped!

mulholand said...

Well, look here - "Keyed Up":

I wonder what the story is behind these two titles?

Jesper Munck said...

My 1979 Dutch version (CBS 83868)is entitled Keyed Up on the front cover (sleeve printed in Holland. But the Dutch printed record label says Keyed In.
The story? Someone got it wrong?

mulholand said...

Finally! (summer 2015) Expansion Records have issued a twofer cd with "Serpentine Fire" and "One Good Turn". They still sound great.
So. Now we're waiting for Joanne Brackeen, plus that Allen Harris album...

Anonymous said...

I was always curious about what is on the Tappan Zee label? Are they supposed to be the three Tappan Zee bridges?