Don Sebesky (b. 1937) got his start playing trombone in the big bands of Warren Covington, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Bill Russo and, most notably, Maynard Ferguson. It was Ferguson who let Sebesky try his hand at arranging, a skill to which he brought a wide range of musical knowledge and, more notably, an emotional depth and subtlety that was unusual in jazz at the time (and a real feat in Ferguson’s band).
One of Sebesky’s first jobs outside the Ferguson band – arranging A Jazz Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963) – attracted the attention of producer Creed Taylor…and history was made. Their first project together was guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (1965), an artistic and commercial success that has stood the test of time for over half a century.
Sebesky would collaborate with the producer on four of the guitarist’s following records: California Dreaming on Verve and all three of Montgomery’s A&M records. Taylor and Sebesky would go on to craft many records together over the next four decades or so for Verve, A&M and, most notably, CTI Records.
What made Sebesky’s work with Taylor particularly impressive is that the arranger never got in the way of the soloist. Take Wes Montgomery: Sebesky never talked over the guitarist. Rather, he listened. Sebesky’s interjections were not statements so much as another side of a conversation, responses rather than declarations.
Furthermore, Sebesky proved especially adept at not only honing in on the sophistication of pop music but eliciting the simple melodic core of complicated classical pieces without ever losing sight that what he was doing was jazz.
Sebesky would go on to work for other producers at other labels, but his first opportunity for solo success came from the post-Creed Taylor Verve Records. Sebesky had already arranged Verve recordings for Astrud Gilberto, Kai Winding, Kenny Burrell and Willie Bobo when Verve offered him the opportunity to guide two albums of his own – one under his own name and another that was his in all but name.
Both records - Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome and The Distant Galaxy - were recorded and released in 1968 and, at first glance, seem identical in intent: crossover jazz. Although Sebesky had found commercial success at the expense of critical ire with the crossover jazz albums he made with Wes Montgomery, his approach on both these records differs quite a bit from what’s heard on the guitarist’s Sebesky-helmed records.
While one record here might miss the mark, the other deserves to be much better known. Both, however, are worth consideration and reevaluation.
The album ultimately issued as Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome was recorded during January and June 1968 sessions (and not “June 1967,” as the LP indicates) and issued in September of that year. The promotion for this record started fairly early in 1968 and indicates that sessions that became part of The Distant Galaxy might well have been intended for this record. Obviously, Verve didn’t know what to make out of any of this. Maybe even Sebesky had little clue what was expected of him here.
”The sound is big band,” noted Billboard at the time, “but the feeling is the kind of blues rock put down by groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears.” Obviously, the quiet part here is “for those who want that sort of thing.” Come on, how else can you read “put down”? But the description is pretty spot on even so. Sebesky himself said his goal here was to combine “Holman-influenced Basie” – more than a little disambiguation going on there – with the “light, groovy approach” of the Mamas and the Papas.
Indeed, Sebesky covers two M&P hits here (“Dancing in the Streets,” co-credited here to “Gayle” [!], not [Marvin] Gaye, and “Somebody Groovy”) and offers a tribute to the group’s “Big Mama Cass.”
Pop covers, however, were the point. Producer Creed Taylor had long had success – particularly with Wes Montgomery – at Verve and CTI marrying top-tier jazz players with AM-radio hits. But the poorly titled DS & TJ-RS would never be mistaken for any kind of Creed Taylor production.
The elegance of CTI – much of which was crafted with Sebesky’s assistance – is altogether absent here. Ruling the day are brash horn charts, rushed tempos, (what had to be even then hokey) quarter-note guitar jabs, electric bass and entirely unimaginative percussion – none of which producer Creed Taylor would have ever signed off on.
Other pop covers include The Association’s otherwise lovely “Never My Love” (which Sebesky later arranged, more compellingly, for Astrud Gilberto on Windy ); Peter, Paul & Mary’s “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” [sic]; “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” a hit for both the Fortunes and Nancy Wilson (and previously covered by Sebesky on Kai Winding’s 1965 album The In Instrumentals); and, perhaps most memorably, the Beatles’ catchy but little-known “The Word.”
”The Word” was this album’s single and one of two songs here notably featuring then up-and-coming guitarist Larry Coryell – really trampling all over the jaunty little tune (“Dancing in the Streets” is, surprisingly, his only other appearance here). The little-known saxophonist Richard (or “Dick”) Spencer – who, like a number of other musicians on DS & TJ-RS, came out of Maynard Ferguson’s band – takes several considerable, though brief, solos while an echoplexed Hubert Laws takes a very brief feature on “Never My Love.”
Throughout, much of the album adds ingratiating party sounds right out of the (years-past) hit playbooks of Ramsey Lewis and Cannonball Adderley and even German band leader James Last’s Non Stop Dancing albums of the time. Indeed, the Non Stop Dancing albums could well be the model for what Sebesky and company are serving up here.
Surely, Sebesky’s originals are what make this album worth hearing. There is, of course, the aforementioned “Big Mama Cass,” written for Cass Elliot, a breakbeat classic which should have been much better known. Riffing off “Got My Mojo Workin,” “Big Mama Cass” was also arranged by Sebesky for the Buddy Rich Big Band’s 1968 album Mercy, Mercy.
“Meet a Cheetah” – which mistakenly appears as “Meet a Cheeta” on the record’s inside sleeve – was written for Sebesky’s old boss Maynard Ferguson for his 1968 album Ridin’ High. Riffing off Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” “Meet a Cheetah” would get a slinky and far more nuanced presentation by the writer/arranger for the second of trumpeter/vocalist Jack Sheldon’s two albums arranged by Sebesky, The Cool World of Jack Sheldon (1969).
Perhaps the album’s hidden treasure is also its least known track, Sebesky’s lovely “Banana Flower.” This sensuous slice of bossa baroque, probably based on “Love is Blue,” is seemingly informed by the baroque touches Sebesky added to Wes Montgomery’s final album Road Song, recorded only a month earlier.
The fetching “Banana Flower” tends to make the rest of the album sound positively ham-handed in comparison and may explain why the label chose to issue the song as the flip side to “The Word” single: flipping the record may well have given Sebesky a hit here. It is not only strongly reminiscent of one of those glorious Italian film themes of the period helmed by singer Edda Del’Orso, it is the most characteristic piece on the album of Sebesky’s genius for melodic invention and his gift for crafting sublime sweetening.
(The cover photograph of Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome, like The Distant Galaxy, was shot by Joel Brodsky, who had also shot several notable covers for The Doors, Van Morrison’s iconic Astral Weeks and Funkadelic’s unforgettable Maggot Brain a short while later. Brodsky’s striking photo here seems to have provided a bit of inspiration to Maurice Binder for his main-title sequence for the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill.)
Like DS & TJ-RS, the point of The Distant Galaxy is the parade of pop covers. But The Distant Galaxy is an altogether different sort of affair. Here, Sebesky seems to be crafting a hip easy-listening experience: as though Perrey and Kingsley joined forces with the Mystic Moods Orchestra or even something approximating a David Axelrod production.
There are similarities here, too, to the lovely CTI album Trust in Me that Sebesky arranged around this time for the mysterious Soul Flutes. That group allegedly featured Hubert Laws, who offers several solos spots here – on flute and soprano sax – including a feature on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was also recorded for but not issued on Trust in Me.
The Distant Galaxy is a Don Sebesky album in all but name and a far more satisfying listening experience than DS & TJ-RS. Recorded over various sessions between March and October 1968 and released in December of that year, The Distant Galaxy is a real feather in Sebesky’s cap.
The song choices are more interesting – covering Cream, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, The Temptations and, of course, The Beatles – and the overall presentation is more in line with what one might expect from a Sebesky-helmed project.
Even with strings added, the jazz quotient is higher here, too. Much higher. Reprising their guest spots from DS & TJ_RS are guitarist Larry Coryell and saxophonist Richard Spencer; the former on “Lady Madonna” and “Guru-vin” (on electric sitar!) and the latter on “The Blue Scimitar” and “Elvira Madigan/Honey.”
Laws is front-lined on “[The] Sounds of Silence” (on flute) and “Dance the Night Away” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (both on soprano sax). Pianist Dick Hyman, who was helming his own hip electronic records at the time, features here on “Soul Lady,” “Elvira Madigan/Honey,” and “I Wish it Would Rain” while trumpeter Marvin Stamm (who is also present on the aforementioned Charlie Mariano record) takes several nice turns on “The Blue Scimitar,” “Lady Madonna” and possibly even “Elvira Madigan/Honey.”
That last piece – a mash-up that mixes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No, 21, then the hit theme to the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, with the Bobby Goldsboro hit “Honey” in a way that recalls Kai Winding’s 1963 hit “More” – was recorded during one of the album’s April 1968 sessions and rush-released as a single in June of that year. The Distant Galaxy had a modest hit right out of the gate: “Elvira Madigan/Honey” reached number 39 on Billboard’s Easy Listening (now called “Adult Contemporary”) chart.
Later, when the full album was issued, a promotional single of the Simon & Garfunkel cover – there as “The Sound of Silence” – was issued, backed with the baroque funk of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” Neither side of the single managed to generate enough interest to justify a full release and, surprisingly, no other song from the record broke out or appeared as a single.
Interestingly, Sebesky never tapped “The Sounds of Silence” for the 1969 album of Paul Simon songs he produced and arranged for Paul Desmond, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Also, “Lady Madonna” was recorded only a couple weeks after The Beatles’ release of the song and a mere two months before the very similar baroque arrangements Sebesky crafted for guitarist Wes Montgomery’s final album Road Song (both Coryell and Stamm excel with aplomb here).
Since the pop covers aren’t as obvious here – kudos to Sebesky and/or producer Esmond Edwards for going with Cream’s “Dance the Night Away” and the Temptations’ marvelous “I Wish It Would Rain” (this listener adores any cover of anything by Norman Whitfield) – one might suspect the originals aren’t worth the effort. Not so.
Esmond Edwards (1927-2007), the album’s producer, contributes the riveting “The Blue Scimitar.” First featured on pianist Ray Bryant’s Edwards-produced album Lonesome Traveler (1966), Sebesky frames the tune much as Sound Pieces-era Oliver Nelson might (with Sebesky’s signature string embellishments on top). Spencer, on soprano sax, nicely picks up Nelson’s mantle as well.
Sebesky’s “Soul Lady” could be as much a tribute to Aretha Franlkin (“Respect”) as the “queen of the organ,” Shirley Scott (the uncredited organist here is likely Dick Hyman, who is, however, credited on the unheard piano) and possibly even Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots Were Made for Walkin”). This groover is a little funkier and less forced than the horn-heavy arrangement of “Soul Lady” Sebesky provided to the Buddy Rich Big Band for its album Buddy & Soul - there featuring little-known guitarist David Dana in full-on Coryell mode.
The infectious ”Water Brother” is driven by a compelling combination of Warren Bernhardt on clavinet, Hubert Laws on flute (both of whom solo wonderfully) and Sebesky on the Moog synthesizer. The melody here is reminiscent of Richard Evans’ fiery “Burning Spear,” which Sebesky had arranged a few months before for Kenny Burrell’s album Blues – The Common Ground, while Sebesky’s string charts here practically soundcheck Evans’ under-appreciated Soulful Strings – all suggesting that Sebesky’s brother here is Richard Evans.
If anyone accepts the Evans connection here, then Bernhardt (who sadly passed away last August at the age of 83) is performing an ode to Odell Brown while Laws is referencing the legendary Lenard Druss. (Laws’ solo section here also reminds this listener of the flautist’s performance on Patrick Williams’ funky “Down River” from the 1980 soundtrack to How to Beat the High Cost of Living.)
Guitarist George Benson covered “Water Brother” on his 1969 A&M album Tell it Like It Is, an album Sebesky surprisingly did not arrange (he had arranged the A&M Benson albums before and after this one). There, arranger Marty Scheller gives “Water Brother” a spin that would not sound out of place on a Mongo Santamaria record of the period. Benson fires through the melody as only he could do – breathlessly, breathtakingly and beautifully.
“Guru-vin” may well be Sebesky’s single best-known composition. This particular song seems to find its way in to many DJ sets and appears – credited to Don Sebesky alone – on a number of funk compilations. The song cleverly works Larry Coryell’s electric sitar overtop a conundrum of keyboards (piano, electric harpsichord) and a synthesizer-vocal line and funky string counterpoint. Coryell may get the well-deserved spotlight here, but Sebesky’s dynamic string work on the song’s outro is worth paying attention to as well.
At the last minute, someone decided to add brief electronic effects in between songs, credited to “Rick Horton of MGM,” that give a sort of sci-fi effect to the appropriately sci-fi sounding “Distant Galaxy.” While likely inspired by the success of that year’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a bit of cheese that the album doesn’t need. But it’s not a necessarily terrible addition.
The mostly Moog-y pieces (“Reflectivity” samples – years ahead of its time – a bit of the intro for “Mr. Tambourine Man”) are harmless enough but seem to influence some interesting Teo Macero-like editing on the full-song fade-outs – nicely on “Water Brother” and “Lady Madonna,” but bizarrely on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
These little breaks (and their possible 2001 origins) likely inspired J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding’s classical interludes on the trombone duo’s Creed Taylor-produced Betwixt and Between - an album recorded during the same month as The Distant Galaxy but also notably missing Sebesky’s overt presence.
”Combine some exotic instruments (electric sitar, clavinet, Moog Synthesizer),” wrote Billboard about The Distant Galaxy upon its December 1968 release, “with more conventional ones, add a sometime chorus of celestial voices and unusual arrangements by Don Sebesky and out come [sic] the way-out sounds of the Distant Galaxy. ‘Elvira Madigan /Honey’ was a successful single and is happily included here along with other instrumentals of recent hits and some new space-age material. Interesting are some electronic intros which reinforce the out-of-this-world mood.”
Oddly, but maybe even predictably, The Distant Galaxy never found much of an audience. Don Sebesky would go on to help craft the “CTI Sound” of the seventies, the apex of which would be on the next record of his, under his own name: the stellar 1973 CTI classic Giant Box - surprisingly an album which Sebesky himself is said to disregard.
Sebesky continues to work with jazz artists and vocalists of every stripe, but albums under his own name are sparse. He recorded albums of his own for such smaller labels as Gryphon, GNP Crescendo and Doctor Jazz and two for the-then major RCA Victor, which released Joyful Noise – A Tribute to Duke Ellington in 1999, the most recent album by Sebesky under his own name.
While The Distant Galaxy has yet to appear on CD, the album was reissued on vinyl in 2020 by the Italian label Pleasure for Music, a label that has also issued vinyl reissues of several Dick Hyman records and Tamiko Jones’ 1968 album I’ll Be Anything for You, which was also partially arranged by Sebesky.
“Originally released on Verve in 1968,” as Pleasure for Music so aptly put it, “The Distant Galaxy is quite a hybrid of soul jazz and space-age music, an influential cornerstone fully sampled by a who’s who of hip-hop and superstar [sic] like Rakim, Madlib, and Buck 65. Such an obscure and terrific album that features a blend of jazz, psych and good old ‘60s light pop with brief ‘cosmic’ audio tidbits inserted between most of the main tracks.”
A real gem and one that would make a perfect two-fer CD with Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome. Anyone?