During the 1960s, reed player Joe Farrell (born Joseph Carl Firrantello) had logged many hours and waxed many sides with Maynard Ferguson, Charles Mingus, Jaki Byard, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Elvin Jones, with whom he had the greatest opportunity to prove his mettle as a fine soloist. Still, despite these notable associations, hardly anyone outside of New York music circles knew who he was.
Farrell (1937-86) had also made the rounds as a New York studio musician in the sixties, playing on sessions for jazz stars like Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith, James Moody and Herbie Hancock and even on many popular albums by Santana, the Rascals, The Band and Aretha Franklin.
The legendary producer Creed Taylor had already recorded albums by George Benson (Tell It Like It Is, I Got A Woman (And Some Blues)) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Tide, Stone Flower) that featured Joe Farrell in the section and must have heard something special that no other producer or record company had before. My guess is twofold. Perhaps Taylor heard not only a “sleeping giant” of a saxophonist in Joe Farrell but recognized a fluent flexibility in the reed player to adapt his style – and his instrumentation – to the musical needs at hand.
Creed Taylor produced Joe Farrell’s debut solo album, Joe Farrell Quartet (aka Song of the Wind, Super Session) for CTI Records in 1970 and produced something unique and very special. Coming off the failure of launching the careers of Kathy McCord, Flow and Fats Theus, Taylor launched into Joe Farrell Quartet at the same time he waxed the classic CTI debuts of both Freddie Hubbard (Red Clay) and Stanley Turrentine (Sugar).
Notable for pairing the nearly unknown Farrell with four avatars of Miles Davis’ contemporaneous and controversial electric group – pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette - Joe Farrell Quartet is an excellent example of surprisingly straight-ahead jazz that showcased Creed Taylor’s belief in the reed player to hold his own as a leader among distinguished personnel, all of whom were or would be prominent leaders in their own right.
“Mr. Farrell,” wrote critic John S. Wilson, “builds broiling, jabbing solos that flow in an essentially melodic fashion despite a steady interjection of startling turns and quirks. At times, his lines pile up in such quicksilver fashion that he sounds like an entire band in himself.”
While Farrell never became the jazz star he deserved to be, he went on to record six more albums as a leader for CTI records including Outback (1971), Moon Germs (1972) and Benson & Farrell (1976, with George Benson), all of which have been issued at one time or another on CD, and features on 21 other CTI titles including Airto’s Free (1972), a template for Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, of which Farrell was an early member, while continuing a steady stream of session work throughout the early 1970s.
But three of Joe Farrell’s consistently excellent CTI albums have somehow been forgotten about, completely eluding release on CD, even in Japan, and considered lost to the saxophonist’s fans. Until now.
Wounded Bird, the great cult CD reissue label that has issued Freddie Hubbard’s forgotten CTI albums Polar AC (1974) and The Baddest Hubbard (1975) as well as Joe Farrell’s two post-CTI albums for Warner Bros., La Catedral Y El Toro (1977) and Night Dancing (1978), has announced that in late January it will release on CD for the very first time Joe Farrell’s CTI classics Penny Arcade (1974), Upon This Rock (1974) and Canned Funk (1975). All three albums, licensed from Sony Music, owners of the 1970-80 CTI catalog, are superb examples of first-class small-group jazz in the seventies, expertly recorded by legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder and each cover featuring one of photographer Pete Turner’s striking images.
Penny Arcade showcases Joe Farrell with Herbie Hancock, who featured on Farrell’s previous CTI album Moon Germs and would come back for two numbers on Farrell’s 1978 album Night Dancing, on piano and electric piano, Joe Beck on guitar, Herb Bushler on bass and Steve Gadd, who first played with Farrell on several Gap Magione dates and would go onto play with the saxist on several Chick Corea albums and on Farrell’s La Catedral Y El Toro, on drums . The five-song program includes Joe Beck’s frenetic title song, which was edited for issue as a promotional single, Farrell’s “Hurricane Jane” and “Geo Blue” (all with Farrell on tenor sax), Farrell’s lovely Latinate “Cloud Cream” (with Farrell on flute and Don Alias added on percussion) and the album’s signature piece, a wondrous and definitive 13-minute reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High” (featuring Farrell on soprano sax). With great solos by Farrell, Hancock on electric piano and Bushler, “Too High” is not only one of the very best covers of this well-covered gem, it surely ranks as one of CTI’s finest moments. Hancock also solos magnificently on acoustic piano for “Cloud Cream” and on the “Maiden Voyage”-like derivation “Geo Blue.” Beck takes a rockish solo on “Penny Arcade” and beautifully trims “Geo Blue” with a lush solo that is jazzier than anything the guitarist was known to do at the time. Joe Farrell’s playing throughout is superb and reveals, yet again, that he could construct very interesting jazz compositions that inspire notable improvisation. “I Won’t Be Back,” a terrific Joe Beck bossa fusion that features Joe Farrell on flute (quoting “A Love Supreme”!), was recorded during these October 1973 sessions, but appears on Farrell’s next CTI recording, Upon This Rock.
Upon This Rock captures Joe Farrell on record with his own 1974-75 quartet, featuring guitarist Joe Beck, bassist Herb Bushler and drummer Jim Madison. The piano-less assemblage is considerably more rock oriented than previous Farrell outings, no doubt inspiring the album’s title, and driven home by Joe Beck’s consistently rock-edged guitar attack. Still, it’s a quartet that not only sounds comfortable mixing good rock ideas with solid jazz figures, but one that coalesces especially well together. Assembling at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in March 1974, the quartet waxes three numbers included here, the leader’s “Weathervane” (featuring Farrell on soprano sax), the 12-minute funk-rock opus “Upon This Rock” (featuring Farrell on tenor sax and Beck, channeling Jimi Hendrix, overdubbing guitar parts) and Beck’s boogaloo “Seven Seas” (again with Farrell on tenor sax). The album’s title track in particular allows all four of the quartet’s members to contribute interesting commentary and is probably a highlight on an album brimming over with highlights. Upon This Rock is rounded out by Beck’s excellent 10-minute bossa fusion, “I Won’t Be Back,” recorded during the Penny Arcade sessions and nicely featuring Farrell on flute, Hancock sublime on piano and Beck, splendid on guitar.
Canned Funk finds Joe Farrell and his quartet, enhanced by Ray Mantilla’s percussion, providing the funk-rock sequel to Upon This Rock. While the “funk” in the title is as apt as the “rock” in the previous title was, the groove here is a bit more forced, or “canned” than it was before too. Whether by choice or by force, Farrell and company still lean heavily toward the rock side of things here. But the music, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s during November and December 1974, is a little less imaginative than it was before. Curiously, too, it is Farrell’s first full album of Farrell originals. But the rock back-beat takes over here and renders the music into near total dullness until the soloists come in to liven things up with a little interesting improvisation. The oft-sampled title track is probably familiar to anyone who knows anything about Joe Farrell or even CTI. The tune itself is not much, but the improvisations provided by Farrell (on tenor sax) and Joe Beck (on guitar) are worthy enough. “Animal” too has a clunky riff-based melody that the leader plays on tenor and overdubbed baritone sax that eventually yields to decent solos. Farrell, who never got the recognition he deserved as one of jazz’s finest and most distinctive flautists (check out Benson & Farrell and George Benson’s own CTI classic Good King Bad for further proof), doubles up flute parts for the looping “Suite Martinique,” but here again the overpowering backbeat nearly completely overwhelms the flautist’s fine solo. Things take a slight turn toward the “Midnight at the Oasis” pop-disco of the day with the album’s closer, “Spoken Silence.” Farrell returns here to tenor sax, very strongly suggesting another Farrell, Pharoah Sanders, in full spiritual regalia. That is until Beck and company chime in with a regrettably dated wakka-wakka rhythm guitar part and lots of stick work on the high hat. Beck does get inspired to provide his own spiritually beautiful solo here, though; something that brings him – and Canned Funk - back to the jazz these guys could do so well.
In all fairness, jazz music was experiencing a major shift in May 1975, when Canned Funk was released. Rock based jazz fusion had said just about all it was going to say – to be sure, Joe Farrell didn’t record this way again – and disco was then driving the market. Sure enough, the Joe Farrell quartet disbanded and Joe Beck successfully (or popularly) helped CTI go in that direction. Farrell himself would go this way when he accepted a million-dollar contract with Warner Bros. in 1977, recording disco and covering pop tunes by the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart, something he’d never done before. Canned Funk surely marks the end of an era.