If you’ve bought more than one jazz CD in the past thirty years or so, chances are you have at least one that was made possible courtesy of producer Richard Seidel.
During his two plus decades at the Verve label, Seidel was responsible for rescuing some of jazz’s greatest recordings for the digital age and promoting some of the music’s best and most promising talent including Shirley Horn, Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield and Jimmy Smith.
Indeed, Richard Seidel is behind some of the most prominent jazz releases and reissues of the last two dozen years or so – almost single-handedly keeping the jazz spirit alive in a music industry that really doesn’t care much about jazz and a fan base that has changed considerably during this period.
Since leaving Verve, Richard Seidel has kept especially busy with an even more remarkable array of projects. He co-produced Eddie Palmieri’s Listen Here! album for Concord in 2005, for which both he and Palmieri won Grammy Awards. He is also especially proud of Wise One, the album he produced for Bobby Hutcherson in 2009.
On the reissue front, Richard Seidel has recently supervised the To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (Sony Legacy) boxed set, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2008, the overwhelming 70-disc Miles Davis set The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Sony Legacy) in 2009 and the amazing Ella Fitzgerald box set Twelve Nights In Hollywood (Verve), which won both the 2010 Down Beat Jazz Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists’ Association awards as Best Historical Album.
Somehow during all of this, Richard Seidel has found time to supervise and produce the magnificent set of releases that compromise the 40th anniversary of CTI Records, the beloved jazz label founded in 1970 by producer Creed Taylor.
The celebration started in October of last year with the release of six classic CTI titles, re-mastered to sparkling effect, and CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, a deluxe 4-CD multi-artist box set retrospective. Soon thereafter, a double-CD restoration of the masterful California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium (1971) followed with 90 minutes of music rarely heard and never before available as well as four collectible vinyl LPs (CTI hasn’t been officially available on vinyl for over a quarter of a century). Six additional CTI classics were issued on CD several weeks ago and another four CTI titles have been scheduled for April.
Refreshingly, unlike most producers, Richard Seidel often steers clear of the limelight – usually letting the music speak for itself or, more, accurately, the artist speak for him or herself. But he talked with me recently about music and his involvement with the 40th anniversary celebration of CTI Records.
Doug Payne: Let’s start with a little bit about you. How did you get started in the music business?
Richard Seidel: In 1972 I took a leave of absence from the Institute Of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, where I had been Curator since 1970, after having graduated from Rutgers that same year. I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music and also took courses at New England Conservatory and worked for Gunther Schuller as a research assistant.
In 1974 I was offered a position as the Jazz and Popular Music Editor of the Schwann Catalog. In the course of my work at Schwann I got to know Scott Billington, then the manager of one of the key retail stores in Boston, who in turn went to work as a sales rep for Rounder Records Distribution, where he asked me to join him. One of my main accounts was the Strawberries chain where, among other things, I got to meet its infamous owner, Morris Levy.
Although Rounder was primarily a distributor of folk and bluegrass labels, we also handled labels like Concord Jazz and Xanadu, the Italian Black Saint/Soul Note labels, and even Sun Ra’s extremely hard to find El Saturn label. Through my position at Rounder I got to know John Koenig, the head of the venerable Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, which had recently been reactivated and which Rounder was distributing.
John brought me in to be the National Sales Manager and to help rebuild what was then a very limited distribution network for the label. One thing led to another and by 1982 I moved back to the New York area to work for PolyGram Classics and Jazz where Verve became the jazz imprint. I ended up first running the label, then headed up its A&R activities, and stayed with the company for twenty years through all of the many changes in the record business between 1982 and 2002.
DP: Your most recent project is supervising the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the CTI record label for Sony’s Masterworks Jazz. What brought you to the project?
RS: I have been doing freelance work for Sony Legacy since 2003, having done dozens of reissues, compilations and boxes sets on artists like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Jaco Pastorius, George Benson, and many, many others.
When it was determined that Sony Masterworks would begin to handle some of the jazz product that had been previously handled by Legacy, David Foil, the Senior Director of Product Development for Masterworks, asked me to get involved with CTI.
DP: What did you think of CTI back in the day?
RS: I have always been a fan of the label, from the very beginning. When I started working at the Institute of Jazz Studies they were not on any mailing lists to receive new records. So I made several trips to New York City to meet with labels and on one of those trips I went to CTI.
If memory serves me correctly I believe they were located on E. 57th St. at the time and I recall meeting Vic Chirumbalo, who was I think then the head of sales for the company. We immediately started receiving records at the Institute and I was struck by both the excellent music and audio, and the captivating covers.
The label caught on very quickly and I remember going into record stores in NY and NJ and later in Boston where you could actually feel how “hot” the label was just by being in the stores. And I specifically remember going into little record stores in Times Square when Kudu began and hearing them blasting the first Johnny Hammond album which was also hot as blazes.
DP: How do you think the music of CTI compares to the jazz of today?
RS: While I continue to follow current jazz to some degree, although nowhere near as much as I did when I was at Verve, I have to say that there are no more Freddie Hubbards or Stanley Turrentines around today and they are sorely missed. I heard Hubert Laws play twice recently and he sounded great but by and large there’s not a lot of this type of music around anymore.
DP: What are your favorite CTI albums?
RS: I like so many of them - of course, [Freddie Hubbard’s] Red Clay and [Stanley Turrentine’s] Sugar and some of the others by Freddie and Stanley, especially [Stanley’s] Don’t Mess With Mister T., which I think is definitely underappreciated and probably didn’t sell as well as it should have since it was Stanley’s last album for the label. I also particularly like the Jim Hall [Concierto], [George Benson’s] White Rabbit, Grover’s Soul Box, [Milt Jackson’s] Sunflower, and surprisingly the Randy Weston [Blue Moses].
I remember when it first came out, hearing Randy play electric piano seemed like sacrilege. But after all these years I love it: great tunes and great playing by Freddie and Grover, and some of Sebesky’s best arrangements. And, of course, California Concert, the reissue of which I did last year. That to me is one of the great live jazz concerts of all time.
DP: How do you think CTI fits into jazz history or, more specifically, what makes CTI worth celebrating four decades after its inception?
RS: It was/is a unique combination of music and marketing that enabled jazz to reach a much larger audience. It also captured many of the artists at the peak of their careers as leaders, especially Freddie and Stanley.
DP: How did you decide which of the baker’s dozen of recordings were chosen to be part of the 40th anniversary re-launch of CTI Records?
RS: We tried to represent both the most famous and the most important musically, covering a wide a stylistic ground. Even artists who only made one or two records for the label like Jim Hall and Paul Desmond created classics so they needed to be in there. We haven’t done any Kudu yet - except a few tracks in the boxed set - but hope to do some of the rarer titles later this year.
DP: What makes any of these different or better than previous CD issues of CTI records? In other words, why would anybody want to replace their copy of Red Clay with the new one?
RS: We feel that by going back to the original 1/4” 2-track analog masters, with Mark Wilder helming the mastering, we have delivered the best-sounding versions of these titles yet on CD. And the replica mini-jacket packaging has, as far as I know, not been done anywhere else in the world.
DP: Surely, the pinnacle of your work here is the fantastic California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium. What can you say about this?
RS: I have been very fortunate over the last 25 plus years to be able to dig into the vaults of several of the major jazz catalogs including Verve, the Atlantic/Warner/Elektra group and, of course, Sony. I consider myself a kind of audio archaeologist and just love the thrill of coming up with “new” material that hasn’t been heard by anyone in forty or fifty years.
That was particularly true of California Concert. I think the previously unreleased version of “Straight Life” is one for the ages, as is most of the rest of the album. I am a big Stanley Turrentine fan and feel strongly that he has never played better than on this record.
We went back to the original 8-track masters and remixed everything from scratch. Comparing what we did to the original LP and earlier CD I think we have made significant improvements that are very audible. Hats off to Dave Darlington, a terrific engineer and a big CTI fan, who did the mixing. Dave was recommended to me by Mark Wilder at Sony, who in my opinion is the dean of jazz mastering engineers.
Mark’s latest protégé, the extremely talented Maria Triana, another Sony engineer who happens to hail from Colombia, S.A., did a fantastic job on the mastering, including cleaning up some serious distortion. We did our best to remove as much of the jive-sounding disc jockey who was the M.C. of the show. But unfortunately we were stuck with some of what he had to say, when he stepped all over the music, as he did several times.
DP: Is there anything about any of the other releases in the CTI Records 40th anniversary series that you would like to share?
RS: I must say a few words about Creed and Rudy. To me Creed Taylor is not only one of the greatest jazz producers but one of the most underrated. I feel he is often unfairly judged for his commercial successes. From his early days at Bethlehem, ABC-Paramount and Impulse he made many terrific jazz records with brilliantly creative concepts including classics like John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.
And at Verve there were many others like Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself and Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Forms. Creed did more to expose the fusion of Brazilian music and jazz around the world than any other producer. The Stan Getz Bossa Nova albums on Verve and the Antonio Carlos Jobim records on Verve, A&M and CTI are all phenomenal artistic achievements.
The fact that they were also almost all big commercial successes is to their credit, not the reverse. As for Rudy, what can you say about the single individual involved in the creation of by far the largest number of great-sounding jazz records made from the 1950s through the 1970s. He engineered virtually all, if not most, of the albums made by Prestige, Blue Note, Savoy, Impulse, Verve and CTI – not to mention doing sessions for countless other labels in the last forty years. And he’s still making records!
One more thing about Rudy that has always blown me away: he knows how to make records that sound great on the radio. They jump out at you and grab your attention immediately. You know it’s a Rudy record in the first few bars. I’m certain that given how important radio has always been to selling jazz records that this gave Rudy’s records an edge. And so when you put Creed and Rudy together you had one helluva team. I am truly honored to have had the privilege to work for so many years – both at Verve, and now at Sony – with the extraordinary recordings in which both Creed and Rudy played such an important part.
DP: Everybody has their own favorite CTI record and usually wants to know whether it will turn up on CD, particularly given the tremendous re-mastering sound of the 40th anniversary editions. What do you think will make Sony put out more of CTI’s back catalog?
RS: Sales, of course. And I am pleased to tell you that the first releases have done well enough that there are plans to do several more titles this year. First up for an April 5 release are [Freddie Hubbard’s] First Light, [Stanley Turrentine’s] Salt Song, [George Benson’s] Beyond the Blue Horizon, and [Don Sebesky’s] Giant Box. I know that Don Sebesky is particularly happy about Giant Box coming out again.
DP: How did the four-disc box set, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, come together?
RS: It seemed like it made total sense to celebrate the label’s 40th Anniversary with a historical retrospective/overview. David Foil from Masterworks asked me to come up with themes for each disc which is how we ended up with the four different themed sets of music.
DP: How did you decide which songs belonged on the box set?
RS: I tried to pick both the most famous artistically and the most successful commercially. It’s kind of impossible to please everyone in a situation like this since any one of us would come up with different track lists, so to a certain extent the choices represent my personal taste, as well. And even in five hours of music there were many songs I had to leave out I would have liked to include.
DP: Can you explain the title?
RS: Masterworks came up with the title. I wasn’t so sure about it at first but I think most importantly it’s a grabber and captures your attention immediately – which I guess is what a title is supposed to do. And it seems to have worked.
DP: What are you working on now?
RS: The four April titles mentioned above plus several projects for Sony Legacy in their new D2C (Direct To Consumer) series.