The composer, arranger, author, orchestrator and conductor Don Sebesky passed away on Saturday, April 29, 2023, after “a struggle with post-stroke Parkinsonism.” He was 85.
Don Sebesky orchestrated many Broadway musicals, scored several films and arranged some of the most elegant discs by such pop vocalists as Christina Aguilera, Michael Bublé, Carly Simon, Barbara Streisand, Michael Feinstein, Rod Stewart, Liza Minelli and Barry Manilow.
But it is Sebesky’s work as an arranger for such jazz greats as Wes Montgomery, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, George Benson and Paul Desmond that he is best known and, for most, highly revered. Those who don’t like any sweetening in their jazz, however, likely would not appreciate the genuine artistry and the collaborative innovations Sebesky brought to jazz – some of the greatest music of its time.
Sebesky started his multi-varied music career in the late fifties playing trombone in the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. Ferguson encouraged Sebesky to write and arrange for the band and it turned out he had an innate gift for subtle orchestration and swinging big-band writing. (This is the guy who wrote “In the Mod” – yes, you read that right – for The Glenn Miller Orchestra in the sixties!)
One of Sebesky’s first jobs outside of the Ferguson band was arranging and producing the wonderful A Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963) for saxophonist Charlie Mariano, himself a veteran of the Kenton band. The album became a calling card for Sebesky as it attracted the attention of jazz producer Creed Taylor.
Taylor hired Sebesky to arrange guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 album Bumpin’. The guitarist initially had difficulty fitting his sound in to the orchestra. Taylor solved the problem by proposing that Montgomery and the rhythm section do their thing first. Sebesky could, after the fact, build his charts around the guitarist’s solos.
“It worked,” Sebesky later said. “We then used this approach for all of Wes’s albums, we used it for most of the albums Creed and I did for other artists as well. It became the basis for the ‘CTI sound.’” Indeed, Sebesky and Taylor worked together on dozens of albums over the next three decades.
“The musicians came up with licks that I then adopt as motifs or use as segues between sections. Writing this way makes me feel like I am part of the rhythm section, part of the nucleus of the ensemble.”
Jazz listeners know Don Sebesky best for the records he arranged for Creed Taylor during the sixties and seventies on the Verve, A&M and CTI labels. That’s partly because most of these records were very popular and also because they are some of the best and classiest jazz discs of its time.
Sebesky’s touch, particularly on the records he did with Taylor, is consistently more supportive than sweetening, more counterpoint than point-making and more collaborative than commanding. He always knew how to make great players sound either great or greater.
Sebesky’s most memorable work with Taylor includes Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (1965), A Day in the Life (1967 – the title track is among Sebesky’s finest writing) and Road Song (1968 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this album’s “Scarborough Fair” was nominated for a Grammy); Freddie Hubbard’s Grammy Award winning First Light (1971 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this disc’s “Lonely Town” was also Grammy-nominated); Hubert Laws’ Afro-Classic (1971), The Rite of Spring (1973 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this album’s title track was Grammy-nominated) and the Grammy-nominated Morning Star (1973); George Benson’s Grammy-nominated White Rabbit (1972); Jackie & Roy’s Time & Love (1972 – Sebesky’s arrangements of “Day by Day” and “Lazy Afternoon” here were Grammy-nominated); Milt Jackson’s Sunflower (1973); Chet Baker’s She Was Too Good to Me (1974); Jim Hall’s Grammy-nominated Concierto (1975) and the magnificent Studio Trieste, a 1982 all-star date headlined by Chet Baker, Jim Hall and Hubert Laws.
Don Sebesky’s own CTI double-disc set Giant Box, from 1973, is an ambitious and amazingly peopled all-star date that was Grammy-nominated (as was the album’s signature piece, “Firebird/Birds of Fire”) and is likely Sebesky’s best and best-known recorded document.
Soloists on Giant Box are a virtual who’s-who of jazz (all signed to CTI at the time) and include George Benson, Paul Desmond, Joe Farrell, Jackie & Roy, Milt Jackson, Milt Jackson, Bob James, Hubert Laws, and Grover Washington, Jr. The double-disc box set also features bassist Ron Carter, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham, percussionists Airto Moreira, Rubens Bassini and Ralph MacDonald as well as a bevy of famed New York studio musiicians.
Sebesky put out a handful of records under his own name between 1969 and 1999 – sometimes featuring his work on a variety of keyboards and most all Grammy-nominated – for the Verve, CTI, Gryphon, GNP, Doctor Jazz and Angel labels as well as the Grammy Award-winning discs I Remember Bill – A Tribute to Bill Evans (1998) and Joyful Noise – A Tribute to Duke Ellington (1999), both for RCA.
As arranger, Sebesky also worked on a number of fine albums outside of Creed Taylor’s orbit (many of which Sebesky also produced himself) for Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Eddie Daniels, Franco Ambrosetti, Ron Carter, Chris Hunter and Stanley Turrentine – all well worth hearing.
My most recent encounter with Don Sebesky was on guitarist Rordrigo Lima’s “Flying Waltz,” a lovely track from his exceptional disc Saga (2014), produced by Arnaldo DeSouteiro, with Hubert Laws and Hugo Fattoruso. Sebesky’s writing for strings here is – and always was – sublime and exceptional.
”By drawing on both his jazz and classical knowledge,” wrote Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s, “Sebesky has placed these featured artists in orchestral settings that reflect many hues and timbres, thereby making their music readily accessible to a wider ranging audience.”
Sebesky literally wrote the book on his art, The Contemporary Arranger, first published in 1975 and updated a decade later. Aside from composing many terrific originals (“Guru-vin,” “Water Brother,” “El Morro,” “I Remember Bill,” etc.), Sebesky has also brilliantly arranged and adapted a myriad of classical themes in jazz contexts by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gabriel Fauŕe, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Henry Purcell, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
I’ve written enthusiastically over the years about Sebesky’s work with CTI artists as well as those recordings he did on his own and those Sebesky did with Jack Sheldon, Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, Doc Severinsen and Larry Coryell, among others.
While his is hardly a household name, Don Sebesky – like all the great arrangers – is the man behind the curtain. He brought magic to other’s music. His musical signature is, as he correctly notes, a key factor in the now legendary “CTI sound.” This makes Don Sebesky one of the greatest contributors to jazz in the last half of the twentieth century.