Thursday, June 17, 2021

Gabor Szabo Sounds Out Burt Bacharach

Recently, I was asked to consider Gabor Szabo’s covers of Burt Bacharach. Oddly, it was something I had not thought much about. I had to admit the subject seemed compelling. I learned a lot along the way.

Burt Bacharach Before the Legend

During the late fifties and early sixties, the prolific composer Burt Bacharach wrote dozens and dozens of songs for a vast array of singers. He was behind top hits for Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and many others.

Often partnered with lyricist Hal David (or his brother Mack), Bacharach had a special way with a tune. His changes were unusual, coupled with David’s curious turns of phrase. As a result, his music was far more complex than the average repetitive three-chord pop tune. Bacharach’s songs also required especially skilled interpreters, to breathe with the music’s emotional topography.

History was made when Bacharach discovered singer Dionne Warwick. Their first record together, “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, became a huge hit. For the next two decades the Bacharach-David-Warwick team racked up an astonishing number of hits, including “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Meanwhile, Bacharach wrote for many other singers, contributed songs to a wide range of films (The Blob!) and, as early as 1962, was even composing scores for film.

Jazz Discovers Burt Bacharach

It took a little while for jazz to catch up with Burt Bacharach. One possible reason for this is that Bacharach’s music has always been considered “easy listening.” Indeed, most of the singers and instrumentalists who covered Bacharach’s songs were considered “easy listening.” Jazz snobs usually shied away from such blatantly popular fare.

But by the mid-sixties, things were changing. The rise of rock and roll, brought on by the Beatles and the British invasion, forced jazz players to appeal more to younger listeners – the ones buying the records.

Another reason may well be that the jazz players, steeped in be-bop and the big bands and coming to terms with the “new thing” avant-garde, just didn’t “get” Bacharach’s music. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim, another prolific composer of beautiful, though, complex melodies, Bacharach composed music that seemed foreign to jazz.

Bacharach himself said in a 2004 interview, “I’ve sometimes felt that my songs are restrictive for a jazz artist.” But “I was excited when [Stan] Getz did a whole album of my music,” referring to the 1968 album What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach and David.

Strangely, Bacharach’s entrée into jazz came from the song “Wives and Lovers.” A Top 20 hit for singer Jack Jones in 1963, the song was written to promote the film of the same name, though, oddly, was not a part of the film’s soundtrack, nor heard anywhere in the film.

Still, somehow, “Wives and Lovers” attracted the attention of saxophonist Red Holloway, organist Jimmy Smith, harmonica player/whistler Toots Thielemans and vocalist Billy Eckstine – all of whom recorded versions of the song in 1964. Meanwhile, the Chicago-based 3 Souls featuring Sonny Cox covered Bacharach’s “Walk on By” and “A House is Not a Home” for their 1965 album Soul Sounds.

Jazz players started welcoming Bacharach’s material in to their programs and records. Even jazz tribute albums to Bacharach began to appear by vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1968), saxophonist Sadao Watanabe (1969), flautist Chris Hinze (1971) and pianist Ellis Larkins (1973). Remarkably, there were more jazz tributes to Burt Bacharach during this period than those for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or even Jobim.

Latter-day all-Bacharach discs could also be sampled by guitarist David T. Walker (1995), pianist McCoy Tyner (1997), a John Zorn collective (1997), Bill Frisell (1999 – separately, Frisell has also recorded a few of his own versions of Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) and pianist David Hazeltine (2007). Blue Note even put out multi-artist Bacharach-cover compilations in 1997 and 2004.

Gabor Szabo Weighs In

It’s difficult to say just how much Gabor Szabo appreciated or enjoyed Bacharach’s music.

Whether by choice or commerce, the Beatles accounted for significantly more real estate on the guitarist’s records. Szabo covered only five Bacharach numbers between 1965 and 1970, compared to the three Donovan numbers he covered during the same period.

The mix is a curious one of the unfamiliar and well-known, with more inspiration and sincerity in the earlier covers than the later ones. However subjective it may be to say, none of the songs noted here rank among their albums’ highlights.

Indeed, listeners attracted to Szabo for the fireworks of, say, “Gypsy Queen,” the lyricism of “Breezin” or the exoticism of just about any of his own originals will find little satisfaction in his Bacharach covers. And nothing here comes close to Szabo’s takes on the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or Donovan’s “Ferris Wheel” or John Sebastian’s “Magical Connection.”

With few exceptions, much of the Bacharach material Szabo covered (and, in one case, didn’t) rarely rises above “easy listening.” However, all six songs under review here were considered easy listening to begin with. There is very little that sounds much like jazz and, indeed, improvisation is either brief or absent.

Covered here: “Here I Am,” from Gary McFarland’s The In Sound (1965); “The Last to be Loved” and “Walk on By” from Gypsy ’66 (1966); “The Look of Love” from Bacchanal (1968); “Message to Michael” from Lena & Gabor (1970); and “(They Long to be) Close to You” from Magical Connection (1970).

Here I Am: While Gabor Szabo is prominent on much of Gary McFarland’s album The In Sound, he is not at all audible here. In fact, the other songs from this session (“I Concentrate on You” and “Satisfaction”) do not feature Szabo’s obvious sound. But it is worth considering even so.

“Here I Am” is likely included on McFarland’s record due to its appearance, as performed by Dionne Warwick, on the soundtrack to the Bacharach-scored film What’s New Pussycat (1965). Verve, owned by the film studio MGM at the time, often featured film themes on its albums, mostly to promote crossover appeal.

McFarland’s take on “Here I Am,” one of the only jazz covers of the song apart from Steve Kuhn’s 1968 version, is beautiful. He offers up the bah-bah-bah vocalizing he patented to great success on his previous album, Soft Samba, and greatly improves on Warwick’s soapy version.

Given that McFarland participated in four of the five Bacharach tunes Szabo covered elsewhere – also producing and arranging the all-Bacharach program Cal Tjader Sounds Out Burt Bacharach – it seemed as though he might be responsible for the guitarist covering the composer’s music. Now I’m not so sure. As a recording artist, McFarland never recorded another Bacharach song again.

His performance here, however, suggests, he could have made real hay with the Bacharach songbook.

The Last One to be Loved: First recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1964, “The Last One to be Loved” is among Bacharach’s lesser-known compositions. Indeed, Szabo’s cover here is the only known jazz version of the song. But it is a curiously beguiling song. Bacharach seemed to think so too. He produced another version for Lou Johnson (which failed to chart) and then recorded a lovely instrumental version for his own 1965 album Hit Maker!

There is an altogether strong possibility that Bacharach’s is the version Szabo – or Gary McFarland – sampled in consideration of covering the tune. The tune’s unusual melody sounds like a concerto in Bacharach’s hands, tempered by a more subtle arrangement than he offers Ms. Warwick. It is precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to Szabo and, especially, McFarland.

Casting the melody in a sort of soft samba, Szabo and McFarland avail themselves especially well here. From the chorus, Szabo launches into a melodic statement that is both lyrical and haunting. Szabo may well have been served better if instead of “Yesterday,” “The Last One to be Loved” was issued as the album’s single release: it’s unfamiliar, yet catchy and shows off Gabor’s guitaring to good, if unthreatening effect.

Question: is this listener the only one who hears the same dramatic musical device on the line “to be blessed from above” as used for the “I break down and cry” line in “Walk on By”?

Walk on By: A Top 10 hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964, “Walk on By” launched more than a few covers in jazz, including one by Roland Kirk (who seemed to have a genuine affinity for Bacharach) around the same time as Szabo’s version. The song was also later covered by George Benson (who’d recorded it earlier with Jack McDuff) and Grant Green, who played on versions of the song by Stanley Turrentine and Don Patterson.

By all accounts, it’s a well-known song. But Szabo’s cover would likely not have pleased his jazz fans. Everything about “Walk on by” (softly) screamed “easy listening” or what a later critic called Szabo: a performer of pop tunes.

On the other hand, it is an especially elegant performance. McFarland and company give this “Walk” a south-of-the-border stroll that could just as easily have been served up by the Baja Marimba Band.

In a 1967 Blindfold Test, fellow guitarist Wes Montgomery (who covered Bacharach’s “What the World Need Now is Love,” “Wives and Lovers” and “I Say a Little Prayer”) said of Szabo’s cover of “Walk on By”:

"That's…Gabor Szabo...He's got a unique style. It's different…Of course, I didn't think that particular number was too exciting. I've heard him a lot more exciting. The rhythm section didn't have enough bottom in it, and it seemed like there was drive missing. For the soloist, Gabor, I would give him three stars, or maybe 3 1/2, but I would put down two for this particular side. The tune? Yeah! Walk On By."

The Look of Love: Along with “Alfie,” “The Look of Love” is one of the most covered of Burt Bacharach’s songs in jazz, with over 200 entries in Tom Lord’s “Jazz Discography.” And there is good reason: it is one of the sexiest songs ever written – parodied to perfection in the first Austin Powers movie, which also features an appearance of the album Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits and a lovely spot for the man himself.

Another reason is that “The Look of Love” has its origins in jazz. Bacharach’s melody is inspired by the bossa nova records of Stan Getz and its first recording, in December 1966, was by none other than Getz himself (for a Bacharach tribute album that was first issued in 1968).

“The Look of Love” was written as a vehicle for Dusty Springfield as part of Bacharach’s soundtrack to the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. Ms. Springfield’s breathy performance of the tune mimics those Getz bossa nova records with Astrud Gilberto and features a tenor solo that matches Getz’s distinctive style (British saxophonist Teddy Springer is on the 45 version while Teddy Wilson plays sax on the soundtrack version).

When Szabo’s group got together to plan this album, guitarist Jimmy Stewart suggested an album of cover tunes in the quintet’s cohesive and distinctive style. Stewart proposed tunes he wanted to do. Szabo proposed tunes he wanted to do. “We all wanted to record ‘The Look of Love’,” enthused Stewart.

Szabo and company offer a “Look” that starts in much the same bossa nova groove as Dusty Springfield’s version. But once Szabo begins weaving his spell, the mood transforms into more of a raga. At least until Stewart’s solo works in a flash of flamenco. It says much about how the song arouses the players’ passions. But the song’s last 30 seconds make for an unusual way to round-out an otherwise perfect song for this quintet in general and this guitarist in particular. (The individual who proposed this review to me considers Szabo’s “The Look of Love” “astonishing.”)

“The Look of Love” was also recorded by fellow Hungarian guitarist Atilla Zoller in 1970 and Earl Klugh in 1984.

Message to Michael: This song began life as “Message to Martha” in a 1962 recording by Jerry Butler. Bacharach tried to revive the song as “Kentucky Bluebird” for Lou Johnson in 1964, but the song still didn’t hit. It was Dionne Warwick, after failing to persuade Sasha Distel to perform the song in Paris, who decided to record the song herself.

Both Bacharach and the song’s lyricist, Hal David, were against Warwick singing “a man’s song.” David supplied the only alternative Warwick could use, Michael, a name he apparently hated. Warwick took it as a suggestion and a hit was born. It’s fair to say that both men must have regretted not giving Ms. Warwick her due. She made this song what it is.

I consider “Message to Michael” not only one of the finest of all of Bacharach’s melodies but also one of the few I can listen to anyone do. My first experience with “Michael” was on Earl Klugh’s 1980 magisterial version (arranged by David Matthews) on Dream Come True, the best song on an otherwise very good album. (Interestingly, “Michael” was also recorded by Les McCann in 1966, with a group including vibist Lynn Blessing, who was shortly hereafter to join Szabo’s band.)

As lovely as Lena & Gabor’s take is on “Michael,” this version marginalizes the guitarist to little more than an afterthought. The combination of Richard Tee’s organ and the Howard Roberts Chorale with the trademark drawl of Ms. Horne’s vocal give the song the unique quality of a spiritual.

But whether that was sheer luck or Gary McFarland’s design (he’d arranged a very easy version of “Michael” the year before for Cal Tjader), it’s difficult to understand why Szabo’s role was reduced to little more than a rhythm guitarist. Such is the case for much of Lena & Gabor: it is a happier Horne listen than a Szabo one. Ms. Horne, though, is simply wonderful.

(They Long to be) Close to You: First recorded as a single by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 (in a style that riffs on Percy Faith’s hit “A Summer Place”), “They Long to be Close to You” ended up forfeiting hit status to the record’s flip side, “Blue Guitar.” Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield recorded covers of the song. But it wasn’t until 1970 when “(They Long to be) Close to You” became the breakout hit for the brother-sister duo, the Carpenters.

Curiously, the Carpenters’ version of the song had not yet cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 when Szabo recorded it. The song broke in at number 56 the week after Szabo’s June 15 recording, hitting number one in July.

This suggests that it was likely producer Tommy LiPuma who brought the tune to the session. Before he co-founded the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow in 1969, LiPuma served as staff producer for Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, where he produced hit records for the Sandpipers, Chris Montez and Claudine Longet, among others. Bacharach offered Alpert “They Long to be Close to You” after the trumpeter’s success with “This Guy’s in Love with You.” But the trumpeter was unhappy with his recording of “Close to You” and proposed it to his new signees, the Carpenters. It’s highly likely that Alpert discussed this with LiPuma and easy to imagine LiPuma considered “Close to You” ideally suited to Gabor Szabo, his new signee.

Indeed, Szabo has always had a way with a ballad. But here he seems hemmed in by the song’s all-too-easy earworm of a melody. It’s only toward the end of the song (on Karen’s “Whahahahahah” part) that he flirts a little with improvisation – the minimal way Herb Alpert might. But it’s not very imaginative.

Szabo’s group does well by the guitarist, particularly when Lynn Blessing’s vibes mimic the guitar (recalling the easy-listening jazz style of the George Shearing Quintet). And Nick DeCaro, who often worked with Tommy LiPuma at A&M, adds subtle strings washes in one of the first instances of Szabo backed by strings.

“Close to You” likely pleased few of Gabor Szabo’s fans – for all of the above reasons. The guitarist’s version of the song was the album’s sole single release and it never came close to charting. For his part, Tommy Lipuma returned to “Close to You” years later when he produced McCoy Tyner’s version on the Bacharach tribute album, What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach.

While Gabor Szabo never again covered any of Burt Bacharach songs, his choice (?) of pop covers thereafter stayed pretty much in the mellow zone – with covers of songs by Carole King, Seals & Croft and Phoebe Snow.

Again, these weren’t among their albums’ highlights but they represent a curious shift for the firebrand guitarist who once declared “jazz is dead.” If so, covers like these helped kill it.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Gary McFarland in New La-Z-Boy Ad?

This La-Z-Boy Summer Savings Event ad caught my attention the other day when I recognized the catchy tune in the background. It sounds like a lovely reworking of Gary McFarland's "Can't Help Dancing (Libra)" from the 1968 album Scorpio and Other Signs.

Click above to hear the ad, click below to hear the original. I would love to get hold of the full version of the new version of the tune. Anybody know anything about it?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Lena & Gabor

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I.

The 1970 album Lena & Gabor is something of a conundrum. It’s a great Lena Horne album, among the first of the legendary singer’s historic “comebacks” and one that finds her successfully tackling a more contemporary program in a jazz-like setting.

But it’s a disappointing Gabor Szabo album. As Cash Box rightly pointed out, “Szabo’s fans should be glad to hear him too, although there probably isn’t as much of him as they’d like on the set.”

The program, too, must have deflated the guitarist. At this point, Szabo was becoming typecast as a Beatles and AM radio hits cover artist – something that worked for Wes Montgomery, but was likely beginning to wear on Szabo’s fans. His renown as well as his record sales were all-too-sadly beginning to recede at this point.

Producer and arranger Gary McFarland is probably the architect who put together the bulk of Lena & Gabor’s program – and it’s superb for Ms. Horne. It’s not the program, however, that sets this album apart for the singer. She was grazing through the pop grass for years. Here, it’s the instrumentation.

Instead of the lush orchestras of yore, Ms. Horne couches herself in a hip small group similar to those that would accompany her on a typical club date. For the sessions, McFarland rounds up Eric Gale (as “Gayle” here) and Cornell Dupree on guitars and Richard Tee on organ (the house band on many Atlantic dates at the time) with the Skye all-stars Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Grady Tate on drums.

It’s easily the combination of Szabo with the electrified Tee and Rainey who rev Ms. Horne up to what Record World magazine called “the freest, youngest, most personal singing she’s done in years.”

Lena Horne (1917-2010) had long been considered a legend, finding instant fame with the song “Stormy Weather,” from the 1943 film of the same name. Her sultry voice and striking good looks – both of which aged exceptionally well – allowed her to remarkably transcend decades and generations practically agelessly.

That “legendary” pendulum swings both ways, though. It’s usually the sort of moniker applied to a has-been, once-was or what Joe Gillis says of Norma Desmond: “you used to be big.” Despite a string of albums on RCA, 20th Century and United Artists, Ms. Horne hadn’t had a hit since 1963’s “Now!” and hadn’t had an album out since 1967’s My Name is Lena.

II.

Gabor Szabo (1936-82) had performed with Ms. Horne infrequently since 1964 when the Chico Hamilton group backed the singer at London’s Talk of the Town club. The guitarist was also part of a small group that backed Ms. Horne at Las Vegas’s The Sands hotel in October 1966 and, later, at Caesar’s Palace for three weeks in September 1969.

The guitarist was among the starry guests featured on the September 12, 1969, NBC-TV special “Monsanto Night Presents Lena Horne.” It was on this particular occasion that Szabo was talking with Ms. Horne’s manager, Ralph Harris, about how good and happy Lena sounded in such an intimate situation. The two discussed how great it would be if she could record that way.

“But the major record companies,” according to Record World, “were still thinking of Lena in terms of a big band, show tune sound. Gabor mentioned that he was a partner in Skye Recording Co. and said he thought they might be interested in recording Lena with a small group, if she was. She was. So was Skye.”

III.

Here, Ms. Horne swings on no less than four Beatles numbers – “In My Life” and “Fool on the Hill” stand out – and covers the Nilsson hit from Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’” (the original coincidentally featured drummer and frequent Szabo associate Jim Gordon), Roy Clark’s 1969 hit “Yesterday When I Was Young” and Dionne Warwick’s 1966 hit “Message to Michael” (another of the album’s highlights).

The singer’s trademark languid phrasing suits the program perfectly, particularly on “The Fool on the Hill” and Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” from the soundtrack to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and now something of a jazz standard.

Bobby Scott’s “Nightwind” is a curious choice, but Ms. Horne acquits herself remarkably well here, giving the song a feeling of a haunted gospel blues. The original is from the 1969 film Slaves (starring Dionne Warwick), whose soundtrack was issued on Skye, and performed by Grady Tate – who, like Gabor Szabo, is strangely absent on this version of the tune.

The album’s sole highlight for me is the far too-little known “My Mood is You.” Written by famed songwriter Carl Sigman (writer of “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Ebb Tide,” “Crazy He Calls Me” and later in the year, the hit theme to the film Love Story, “Where Do I Begin”) and first recorded by Jack Jones in 1963, this moody, poetic little gem is perfectly Lena and Gabor.

“My Mood is You” is also Szabo’s single best moment on the record, catching him in more of an apt collaboration with the singer than many of the album’s other pieces. Szabo’s reputation as a soloist is far better known, but one listen to “My Mood is You” reveals how sensitive and intuitive an accompanist he could be.

That’s the problem for Szabo fans with much of Lena & Gabor. Too much of the record casts Szabo as a sideman and occasional guest soloist. One senses Szabo himself wasn’t pleased by the marginalization he gets on his own record for his own label: Szabo abruptly left Skye for Blue Thumb and never again worked with longtime associate Gary McFarland.

Here – and “In My Life” as well – Lena and Gabor weave a potent musical web and cast their unique spell in a performance that is as engaging and entrancing as it is meaningful and memorable.

Gary McFarland’s magnificent outro on “Mood” comes out of nowhere to spellbinding effect - reminding this listener of another striking exit line in Paul Buckmaster’s magisterial outro to Carly Simon’s “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” Throughout, McFarland’s elegant, clever and minimal string and horn additions have the effect of emotive echoes or warm breezes of night air.

IV.

Lena & Gabor was released in March 1970, the same month as Ms. Horne appeared in a TV special with Harry Belafonte called “Harry & Lena,” which, too, featured Ms. Horne covering “In My Life.”

“Rocky Raccoon” was the album’s lone single, but it was the flipside, “Watch What Happens,” that got the airplay. “Watch What Happens” reached #119 on the charts and stayed in Ms. Horne’s repertoire for the remainder of her career. The song’s success likely inspired producer Norman Schwartz to pair the singer with composer Michel Legrand for 1975’s Lena & Michel (also featuring Lena & Gabor’s Cornell Dupree and Richard Tee). “Watch” also turned out to be one of the highlights of Ms. Horne’s 1981 Broadway hit Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.

Lena & Gabor peaked on the Billboard 200 at number 162 in July 1970 (only one of five of Ms. Horne’s albums to crack the Top 200) and reached number 11 on the Jazz charts, likely because of Szabo’s participation. But even though the album was welcomed by fans of the singer and the guitarist alike, who sensed the natural chemistry between the two players, there were signs that something was amiss.

V.

For an album by one of the most beautiful women in the world, blessed with one of the most iconic of all faces, it is astounding that Ms. Horne’s visage appears nowhere on the album. It must be the only Lena Horne album ever issued without her famous face. Indeed, the only “artwork” on the two-color sleeve is typographical. It is elegant but it’s odd.

This is also the only single-sleeve album by a Skye principle, lavished elsewhere with four-color gatefold sleeves throughout their Skye discographies.

Early reports indicated that fashion photographer Richard Avedon, who shot Ms. Horne for Vogue during her Caesar’s Palace run, was tapped to photograph her for the album’s cover and liner sleeve. None of that happened – but if it did, perhaps the Avedon photo on the cover of the 1976 record Lena, A New Album was the result.

Even stranger, an initial test pressing of the record featured artwork and design by Peter Smith, who provided artwork to other Skye releases like Gabor Szabo 1969 (1969), Gary McFarland’s Today (1970) and the album he did with Gary McFarland, Butterscotch Rum (1971). Cool as the cover is in Smith’s typically Yellow Submarine way, though, it seems totally inappropriate to Ms. Horne and what she is doing here. Seems someone else thought so, too.

There is a sense, however, that the money just wasn’t there. And indeed, Skye was very quickly falling apart. Szabo, the label’s only moneymaker, left soon after this record came out while Cal Tjader seems to have withdrawn as well.

The label was able to issue two more records (and had to pass on issuing the soundtrack to Brian DePalma’s early film Hi Mom!), before securing a distribution deal with Buddah Records in late 1970 to keep it afloat.

Lena & Gabor was reissued as Watch What Happens in November of that year with a Buddah number, a mere three places up in the Skye numerology. This time, at least, Ms. Horne’s face could be seen on the cover, though in a cheesy drawing that made the album appear cheap or bootlegged.

In fact, there have been relatively few times in the album’s half-century history when it has been out of print. Ironically, that makes it the only one of Gabor Szabo’s albums to remain consistently available and in print in one form or another.

Lena and Gabor would reunite once again in 1973 for an episode of The Flip Wilson Show, where they performed Kris Kristofferson’s lovely “I’ve Got to Have You.” But their paths didn’t seem to cross much after that.

If Lena & Gabor, the pair’s one and only recording together, doesn’t always rise to meet a certain set of expectations, experiencing Ms. Horne’s luxurious vocalizing dance with Mr. Szabo’s jangled melodicism is a pleasure well worth savoring over and over again.

Afterword

While Lena & Gabor is admittedly not among my favorites, the ecstasy and joy of my Gabor Szabo experience would be incomplete without this album’s “In My Life,” “Message to Michael” and, most especially, the magnificent “My Mood is You.”

I had the great honor and pleasure to talk with Ms. Horne in 1995. It was she who called me, one day out of the blue – while I was at work! – responding to a letter I sent her asking if she’d talk with me about Gabor Szabo.

Never was there a lovelier lady. I was amazed by just how friendly and genuinely down to earth this superstar was. Hearing that familiar voice talking to me – me! - in that gorgeous Southern Belle (which she was anything but) drawl was such a rush.

She had very little recollection of the album Lena & Gabor – probably because she identified “Watch What Happens” with her Lena & Michel album. But, wow, did she recall Gabor Szabo. Ms. Horne had such great respect, admiration and love for the guitarist.

“He had such a way,” she told me over and over again. One of the world’s most distinctive, celebrated and well-loved vocalists of all time told me that Gabor Szabo “always made me sound better.”

Our brief conversation was less interview and more reminisce, but more pleasurable than a back-and-forth information exchange could ever be. God bless Lena Horne.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Easy-Listening Acid Trip…Goes Jazz!

Joseph Lanza’s delightfully entertaining Easy-Listening Acid Trip (2020) superbly chronicles the psychedelic transformation of the mid to late-sixties pop of Beatles, Donovan, the Beach Boys and others into the easy-listening other-worlds of such long-forgotten mood makers Ferrante & Teicher, the 101 Strings, the Hollyridge Strings, Mariano and the Unbelievables and the anonymous artisans behind the reviled system of music known as Muzak.

Considering the former list of names is likely better known than the latter (which also includes the slightly better-remembered Percy Faith, Ray Conniff and Bert Kaempfert), it is amazing the sheer volume of easy records made in the sixties and seventies – and their genuine popularity back in the day.

Lanza makes a solid case for the defense in the lasting value of these musical transformations, even going so far as to provide evidence that some of the same people behind the hip hits (H.B. Barnum, Beatles producer George Martin and Galt Mac Dermot, to name a few) ingeniously crafted their own easy-listening variations.

The same could be said of jazz players. Many of the folks who played on the pop hits of the day – most notably, the Wrecking Crew in L.A., the Memphis Boys in Memphis and New York session players like Eric Gale and Richard Tee – were also featured on the jazz covers of the hit songs.

Additionally, players in the orchestras of Henry Mancini and Bert Kaempfert effortlessly switched between jazz and the easy world, often without a second thought or judgment against either.

Even though it was never his mission, Lanza skims the surface of jazzers who lightened up their load with the melodically intoxicating psychedelic pop of the day. That hardly reflects badly on the author’s entertaining and informative celebration of psychedelic music, but it helps avoid the uncomfortable discussion of how this music began to change jazz and the way it was perceived.

Another book could be written about all that. Unfortunately, most histories revel in the “transformation” by Betty Mabry’s turning on Miles Davis to Sly Stone. But the shift happened well before that. Miles – or his fans or his publicity machine – just made it sound cooler.

Miles’s fellow Birth of the Cool ”innovator” and, later, cool-jazz icon Gerry Mulligan named his 1965 album If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!, acknowledging that the rise of rock was out-popularizing the art of jazz, be-bop, cool, modal or otherwise. There, Mulligan covered “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” among others, suggesting, however reluctantly, that he might be open to the new sounds commanding the attention of the record-buying public.

He didn’t stay here for long, though; trying to accommodate, he tiptoed through the new sound, never really finding any sort of footing.

The year before, Hammond B-3 player Shirley Scott and arranger/vibraphonist Gary McFarland (separately) were among the earliest jazzers who realized the Beatles had something to offer to jazz. Around the same time, out of fashion or necessity, West Coasters Bud Shank and Chet Baker opened their minds to the new wave of rock overtaking their otherwise staid retreads of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes.

While Joseph Lanza never set out to consider jazz in any way, his excellent book inspired me to chronicle those in jazz who mined much of the same material. There were many.

The final 30-some pages of Lanza’s book examine the “50 Psychedelic Favorites Refurbished.” It is a collection of the fifty most prominent mod pop in Lanza’s estimation (some like “Paint it Black,” that had jazz or easy transformations, are missing) that were covered by the mood maestros and easy orchestras. Lanza’s text and his breezy wit makes you want to track these easy covers down.

The occasional jazz guy, like Gabor Szabo or Kai Winding, get an easy nod from Lanza. But it’s not nearly enough. Guitarist Joe Pass waxed the all-Rolling Stones program The Stones Jazz in 1967 (David Matthews’s Manhattan Jazz Orchestra issued its all-Stones disc, Paint it Black, in 1996). Producer Creed Taylor had guitarist George Benson pay tribute to just one Beatles album with The Other Side of Abbey Road (1969).

Band leader Count Basie put out a Beatles tribute album in 1970 (with endorsements from no less than George Harrison and Ringo Starr) while Sarah Vaughan waxed her Beatles tribute in 1981 (backed by Toto, of all people).

As recently as 2020, the Impulse! label put out A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper (pictured above), a remarkable set that finds a new generation of jazzers like Antonio Sanchez, Mary Halvorson, Makaya McCraven and Brandee Younger reimagining the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a new generation of Pepper poppers.

Oddly, though, while Lanza’s psychedelia favors the Beatles and the Beach Boys, both of whom are well-represented in the easy and jazz fields, the extraordinarily melodic Donovan gets surprisingly short-shrift in jazz.

A while back, I went through a phase where I discovered the appeal of Donovan’s imaginative, nearly folksy music and determined to locate the best Donovan covers in jazz. All I really found was “There is a Mountain” by Herbie Mann or Joe Jones and Gabor Szabo’s “Sunshine Superman,” “Three King Fishers” and the extraordinary take on the too-little known “Ferris Wheel.”

Lanza’s Psych 50 takes in a good deal of Donovan’s body of work, but could have gone further (what, no “Barabajagal”?). But jazz doesn’t even go this far; so you won’t find any notable jazz covers of Donovan’s Lanza’s-listed “Catch the Wind” (#5), “Colours” (#6 – excepting Shake Keane), “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (#18), “Jennifer Juniper” (#21) or “Lalena” (#22) – except on the 1968 Vic Lewis album Donovan My Way.

On the other hand, arranger Don Sebesky dipped his technicolored pen into the psychedelic-pop ink pool on a number of exciting occasions. Even though he was chided for his “sweetening,” he often did the music proud.

From Lanza’s list, you’ll hear Sebesky waxing eloquent on covers of “Aquarius” for Cal Tjader (1968), “California Dreaming” for Wes Montgomery (1966) and George Benson (1971), (the brilliant) “A Day in the Life” for Wes Montgomery (1967), “Eleanor Rigby” for Wes Montgomery (1967), “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Never My Love” for himself (1968), “Scarborough Fair” for Wes Montgomery (1968), Soul Flutes (1968), Kenny Burrell (1968 – unissued) and Paul Desmond (1970) and “With a Little Help From My Friends” for Jack Sheldon (1968).

That said, here are the rest of Joseph Lanza’s “50 Psychedelic Favorites Refurbished” as heard by those in jazz who decided to “join ‘em” as they skip the light fandango through the marmalade skies:

1. “All You Need is Love” by Don Costa (1967), Wayne Henderson (1968).

2. “Aquarius” by Barney Kessel (1968), Bobby Bryant (1969), Dizzy Gillespie (1969), Eddie Higgins (1969), Charlie Byrd (1969), Stan Kenton (1969), Gerald Wilson (1969), Rob McConnell (1969), Tom Scott (1969), Woody Herman (1969), Benny Goodman (1970), Doc Severinsen (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1970), Charles Earland (1970), Dick Schory (1971), Maynard Ferguson (1971), Freddie McCoy (1971), George Shearing (1975), Ramsey Lewis (1978).

3. “As Tears Go By” by Bud Shank (1966), Joe Pass (1966), Shake Keane (1966 and 1968).

4. “California Dreamin’” by Bud Shank (1966), Hugh Masekela (1966), Rune Gustafsson (1969), Lionel Hampton (1971), Doc Severinsen (1973), David Matthews (1975).

7. “A Day in the Life” by Gabor Szabo (1967 – discussed in Lanza), Nobua Hara (1968), Brian Auger (1968), Wolfgang Dauner (1969), Les De Merle (1969), Grant Green (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1977), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

9. “Eleanor Rigby” by Warren Kime (1967 – not listed in Lanza), Joe Torres (1967), Dick Hyman (1967), Kai Winding (1967), Trudy Pitts (1967), Maynard Ferguson (ca. 1967-73, issued 2007), The Crusaders (1968 and 1975), Pat Williams (1968), Ray Charles (1968), The Young-Holt Unlimited (1968), Craig Hundley (1968), Sonny Criss (1969), Mike Melvoin (1969 – listed in Lanza), Lonnie Smith (1969), Oscar Peterson (1969), Vince Guaraldi (1969), The Third Wave (1970), Count Basie (1970), Gene Harris and the Three Sounds (1970), Mal Waldron (1970), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), the riveting Don “Sugarcane” Harris (1971), Bucky Pizzarelli (1971), Klaus Weiss Orchestra (1972), Pure Food and Drug Act (1972), Les Strand (1972), George Shearing (1974), Frank Cunimondo (1976), Elliott Fisher (1976), Gene Bertoncini and Michael Moore (1977), Sarah Vaughan (1981).

10. “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” by Nina Simone (1969).

11. “Fool on the Hill” by Bud Shank (1968), Barney Wilen (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1969), Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 (1968), George Shearing (1969), Maynard Ferguson (1969), Rob Franken (1969), Harry South (1969), Joe Morello (1969 and 1977), the studio band Living Jazz (1969), Rune Gustafsson (1969). Dorothy Ashby (1969), Jonny Teupen (1969), Count Basie (1969), Lena Horne & Gabor Szabo (1970), Frank Wess (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1971).

12. “Good Morning, Starshine” by Galt Mac Dermot (1968 and 1970), Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Barney Kessel (1969), Bobby Bryant (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Stan Kenton (1969), Benny Goodman (1970 – listed in Lanza), Doc Severinsen (1970).

13. “Good Vibrations” by The Young-Holt Unlimited (1967), Gordon Beck Quartet (1968).

14. “Green Tambourine” by Steve Allen with Oliver Nelson (1968), Les Brown (1968 – not listed in Lanza).

15. “Hair” by Galt Mac Dermot (1968), Sandy Brown and his Gentlemen Friends (1969), Bobby Bryant (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Tom Scott (1969).

16. “Hello Goodbye” by Bud Shank (1968), James Moody (1970).

17. "Here, There, and Everywhere" by Mike Melvoin (1966), Chet Baker (1966), Hugh Masekela (1967), Doc Severinsen (1967), Charles Lloyd (1967), Kai Winding (1967 – listed in Lanza), Jackie Gleason (1968 – not listed in Lanza), Gary McFarland (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1968), Sadao Watanabe (1969), Tubby Hayes (1969), Gene Bertoncini (1969), George Shearing (1971 and 1976), Bucky Pizzarelli (1971), Mal Waldron (1972), Bobby Pierce (1972), Sarah Vaughan (1981).

19. "I Am the Walrus" by Bud Shank (1968).

23. "Let the Sun Shine In" by Bobby Bryant (1969), Dizzy Gillespie (1969), Galt Mac Dermot (1969), Charlie Byrd (1969), the studio band The Terminal Barbershop (1969), Rob McConnell (1969), Yusef Lateef (1970 – unissued), Ramsey Lewis (1978).

24. “Light My Fire” by Bob Thiele with Gabor Szabo and Tom Scott (1967), Wynton Kelly (1968 – issued 1979), Joe Jones (1968), Johnny Smith (1968), Gerald Wilson (1969), Woody Herman (1969), Stanley Turrentine (1969), Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger & The Trinity (1969), Billy Larkin (1969), Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Young-Holt Unlimited (1969), Paul Horn (1970), Toots Thielemans (1970), Friedrich Gulda (1970), Lionel Hampton (1971), Freddie McCoy (1971).

25. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by Gabor Szabo (1967 – discussed in Lanza – and 1968), Terumasa Hino (1968), John Blair (1977).

26. “Lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby (‘Sleep Safe and Warm’)” by Krzysztof Komeda (1968), Stan Kenton (1968), Rob McConnell (1968), Charlie Byrd (1968 45-rpm), Gerald Wilson (1969), Michal Urbaniak (1973), Zoot Sims (1973 and 1974), Michael Naura (1977), Ran Blake (1984). Later recordings include Komeda tributes by Simple Acoustic Trio (1995, with Marcin Wasilewski) and Tomasz Stanko (1997).

27. "MacArthur Park" by Doc Severinsen (1968), Stanley Turrentine (1968), Freddie McCoy (1968 45-rpm and 1970), Monk Higgins (1968), Woody Herman (1969), Brooks Arthur Ensemble with Vinnie Bell (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Kurt Edelhagen arranged by Quincy Jones and J.J. Johnson (1970), Sonny Stitt (1970), Maynard Ferguson (1970).

28. "Mellow Yellow" by Don Randi Trio (1967), Young-Holt Unlimited (1967), Odell Brown and the Organ-izers (1967), Tom Scott (1967), Steve Marcus (1968), Herbie Mann (1974).

29. "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Gerry Mulligan (1965 on the aptly titled album (i>If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em!), Shake Keane (1966), Brass Fever (1976).

30. “Never My Love” by Tom Scott (1967), Bud Shank (1968) by K & JJ (1968), Cal Tjader (1968), George Shearing (1968), Trudy Pitts (1968), Harold Betters (1968), Brooks Arthur Ensemble featuring Vinnie Bell (1969), Grant Green (1971), Henry Mancini and Doc Severinsen (1972 – listed in Lanza).

31. “Nights in White Satin” by Ted Heath (1969 – not listed in Lanza), Tim Weisberg (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1972), Deodato (1973).

32. "Norwegian Wood” by Gene Russell Trio (1966), Charlie Byrd (1966 and 1974), Bud Shank (1966), Terry Gibbs (1966), Gary Burton (1966), Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo (1966), Paul Horn arranged by Oliver Nelson (1966), Hugh Masekela (1966), Henry Mancini (1967 – not listed in Lanza), Trombones Unlimited (1967), Buddy Rich Big Band (1967), Ira Sullivan (1967), Herbie Mann (1967), Gordon Beck (1968), Volker Kriegel (1968), Roy Meriwether Trio (1969), Vic Lewis (1969 – surprisingly not listed in Lanza), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), Count Basie (1970), Ted Heath (1970 – not listed in Lanza), Dave McKenna (1973), Clark Terry (1974), Horst Jankowski (1974), Don Randi (1979). Later recordings include those by L.A. Workshop (with Tom Scott) (1988), Allan Holdsworth (with Gordon Beck) (1996), Herbie Hancock (1996), Joe Beck (1996), Milcho Leviev (with Herbie Mann) (1998).

33. “Penny Lane” by Kai Winding (1967), Electronic Concept Orchestra (Eddie Higgins) (1969), Collins/Shepley Galaxy (1970), Count Basie (1970).

35. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Wilbert Longmire (1968), Gap Mangione (1968 and 1976), Steve Marcus (1968), Harry South (1968 – not listed in Lanza), Jack Wilson (1969 – unissued), Klaus Doldinger (1969), Ray Bryant (1969), Roy Ayers Quartet (1969), Jean Luc Ponty (1969), Dick Schory (1970), Peter Herbolzheimer (1970), Oliver Nelson with Nobuo Hara (1970), Ack van Rooyen (1971), Henry Mancini (1971 – not listed in Lanza), Eric Kloss (1975). Later recordings include those by Herbie Hancock (1996), Hubert Laws (2002) and Don Friedman (2005).

36. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by Brian Browne (1969), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

37. “She’s Leaving Home” by Tom Scott (1967), Cal Tjader (1971), Jun Fukamachi (1977). A surprising number of later recordings of “She’s Leaving Home” include those by Jaco Pastorius (ca. 1982 issued 1993), McCoy Tyner (1995), Larry Coryell (2002), Brad Mehldau (2005), David Benoit (2007), David Liebman (2012).

39. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by Stardrive with Robert Mason (1973).

40. “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Gary McFarland (1968) and George Benson (1968 unissued).

41. “Sunshine Superman” by Harold Betters (1966), Les McCann (1966), Willie Bobo (1966), Victor Feldman (1967), Brian Bennett (1967), Lionel Hampton (1967), Gabor Szabo (1968), Lonnie Smith (1970 and again on his 2021 album Breathe, with Iggy Pop), Moe Koffman (1970), Eric Kloss (1970), Jerry Hahn (1973), Brass Fever (1975).

42. “There is a Mountain” by Herbie Mann (1967 and 1968) and Boogaloo Joe Jones (1968).

43. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” by Cal Tjader (1971).

45. “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Hugh Masekela (1967), Trudy Pitts (1967), Freddie McCoy (1968), Pat Williams (1969), King Curtis (1969 and 1971), Herbie Mann (1974), The Gadd Gang (1988).

46. “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Herb Alpert (1967), Jean-Luc Ponty (1968), Volker Kriegel (1968), Wilton Felder (1969), Count Basie (1970), René Urtreger (1970), David T. Walker (1973), Dom Minasi (1974), Jun Fukamachi (1977).

47. “Within You, Without You” by The Soulful Strings (Richard Evans) (1967), David Liebman (1975).

48. “Woodstock” by Barry Miles (1971), Tom Scott (1972).

49. “Yellow Submarine” by The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (1967), Franco Ambrosetti (1987).

50. “Your Mother Should Know” by Bud Shank (1968), Kenny Ball (1970).

Years after the acid-trip hangover yielded to Watergate, Reagan, Thatcher and other such bonfires of vanity – not to mention the unlikely morphing of easy listening and jazz into the Stay-Puft monster that is Smooth Jazz – a new generation of jazzers tuned out Tin Pan Alley and turned on to The Beatles.

Jazzy Beatles tributes appeared by the L.A. Workshop (with Tom Scott) on two volumes of Norwegian Wood (1988 and 1989), the GRP set (I Got No Kick Against) Modern Jazz, Bob Belden Presents Strawberry Fields (1996), two volumes of “Beatle Jazz” (with David Kikoski, Charles Fambrough and Brian Melvin) (2000-01), the David Matthews band Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s Come Together (2005), Al Di Meola’s All Your Life (2013) and Bill Frisell’s John Lennon tribute All We Are Saying… (2011).

There are also such revisionist compilations as Blue Note Plays The Beatles (2004), Ramsey Lewis Plays The Beatles Songbook (2010), the German Beatles vs. Stones: British Pop Hits Go Groovy (2010) and the French The Beatles in Jazz (2017).

Won’t you, won’t you, won’t you bring a little psych pop, bring a little jazz. Put it all together, you’ll like what you have. You know that you want to. And I know that you do. Come in here and love with me.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Easy-Listening Acid Trip

Whether you like it or not, easy-listening music can be fairly considered the soundtrack of life for Americans who grew up in the sixties and seventies. As soon as you left the house, it was everywhere: in the mall, grocery stores, department stores, five-and-tens (remember those?), restaurants, the doctor’s office and in the one place that earned the music – or Muzak – its often-derogatory name, the elevator.

Suburban parents even spun such “background music” at home, a habit that was popular among the better-off in the fifties with what is now regarded as “bachelor pad” or “lounge” music. Back in the seventies, I had relatives likely living well beyond their means who played these easy records day and night; it was a sign of class, sophistication and good taste to a certain generation.

American listeners could skip the light fandango to the orchestras of Ray Conniff, TV star Jackie Gleason, Andre Kostelanetz, 101 Strings, Mantovani, Mystic Moods Orchestra, Lawrence Welk (another TV star), Enoch Light and the Light Brigade and Ferrante & Teicher. The best of this bunch were easily the records of Henry Mancini, who was churning out many memorable film scores at the same time, and Percy Faith.

But America had no special claim on easy listening. Indeed, the music was even more popular in other countries. The soft parade marched through the British orchestras of Frank Chacksfield, Ronnie Aldrich and Cyril Stapelton. France gave us Francis Lai, another renowned film composer, Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel. But it was Germany that surely produced the two greatest practitioners of the art of easy with Bert Kaempfert and James Last.

To some, such orchestras spun silk out of the classics, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway numbers and film themes. For others, it turned good music to aural mush. In either case, these mood maestros smoothed whatever edges popular music possessed and spread a kind of hush over any memorable melody.

With the influx of rock and roll in the early sixties, prompted, of course, by the rise of the Beatles, popular and profitable tastes began to change. All of a sudden, orchestra leaders heard what was “happening” and hipped up quick.

Once everyone from Dylan and Donovan to the Stones and the Beach Boys started steering things down trippier roads, the easy fellows were close behind, ready to make bread out of the electrical banana.

This is where Easy-Listening Acid Trip: An Elevator Ride Through ‘60s Psychedelic Pop (Feral House), Joseph Lanza’s intoxicating journey through the mellow yellow of, well, “Mellow Yellow” and other strange trips, begins.

Lanza emerged as a specialist in easy-listening music during the last decade of the previous century when forgotten fifties easy favorites from the likes of Esquivel, Les Baxter, Martin Denny and so many others were repackaged and repurposed as mad-mod “space age,” “exotica” and “bachelor pad” music.

He wrote enthusiastic notes for CD compilations of mood makers like Ferrante & Teicher, Nelson Riddle, John Barry (who he calls a “master of moods”), Gunther Kalman Choir and Andy Williams’s wife, Claudine Longet while supervising easy compilations of his own for Time Life Music. One of those sets, Spirit of the ‘60s: Pop Troubadours (2000), a collection of songs by the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas and Donovan, of course, tiptoes through these tulips.

Lanza also authored the well-regarded, yet little-known Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong (2004). That book earned plaudits from no less authorities than author J.G. Ballard, composer Wendy Carlos and documentarian Errol Morris, who hailed Elevator Music as “the definitive history of twentieth century music.”

It was in Elevator Music where Lanza turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor for what he called “metarock,” the art of reinterpreting rock songs into dreamlike, string-laden, easy-listening alternatives.

That is the seed that flowered into the fascinating and engaging Easy-Listening Acid Trip. Joesph Lanza looks back at the major psychedelic pop and rock hits that emerged during the fluorescent fever dream of the mid to late sixties, then considers the magical mystery makeovers of those songs the mood maestros offered up.

While Lanza has always been especially adroit with words, particularly in describing the mood or a feeling a song or a cover means to evoke, he’s at his very best in this battle of the batons. The number of thoughtful ruminations and clever turns of phrase Lanza offers on nearly every page make this book a true page turner.

Consider this Hair-raising consideration: “the ‘hippie musical’ ended up at the split-end of a counter-cultural mindset that had been growing for years.” Before you exhort a chuckle or a groan, you realize the clever wordplay makes perfect sense.

“Easy Listening,” writes Lanza, is “a musical terrain that has been ignored or belittled for so long that reappraising it often calls for aesthetic refocusing or perceptual cleansing.” Lanza not only has a gift for reappraisal but a flair for refocusing listeners’ attention on the marvel of good songcraft and even expert “softcraft.”

Deeply thoughtful and particularly well informed, Lanza effortlessly places the music in its historic context, noting not only the origin of a lyric but what else was “happening” in the world outside the song. He approaches his subject as an academic but reports on it with the love, respect and joy only a fan can bring to the music.

Lanza’s key insight in Easy-Listening Acid Trip is that for all the scary new-thing bluster that psychedelic pop initially proposed, much of it was often inspired or informed by the easy-listening music of the past, from the vaudeville, American Tin Pan Alley and British Musical Hall traditions. That, in turn, made songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and “Penny Lane” so easy – and appropropriate – to easy-fy.

Lavishly illustrated in Milton Glaser-styled swirls and pop art sign posts, E-LAT also features a good number of the covers of those records discussed in the book, including such favorites as Paul Mauriat’s painted lady on Blooming Hits (one of the first record covers I ever saw), Billy Vaughn’s sci-fi scape on The Windmills of Your Mind and the Johnny Arthey Orchestra’s oddly wicked-looking Donovan kaleidoscope on The Golden Songs of Donovan.

The book deserves an equally colorful soundtrack. I lost count of the number of times I went online to check out the easy variations Lanza discusses so vividly – and often right on point. (I was also enticed to track down several long out-of-print LPs Lanza reviews that more than piqued my curiosity, including the Alan Lorber Orchestra’s delirious 1967 Verve record The Lotus Palace, which features Colin Walcott and Vinnie Bell and was surprisingly reissued on vinyl not too long ago by Modern Harmonic.)

While Lanza makes a compelling case that “Easy-Listening should not be confused with lazy playing,” he doesn’t make much of how easily many of these tunes seeped into the jazz repertoire. Jazz players like Bud Shank, Kai Winding, Woody Herman and George Shearing were all busy taking acid trips of their own at the time, much to derision of fans and critics alike. Indeed, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan devoted full albums to the Beatles.

Surprisingly, though, the Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo gets some Lanzafaction for the “breezier elevator ride” of his 1967 album Wind Sky and Diamonds. Lanza reflects and refracts on the album’s genuine jazz-lite takes of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life” and “White Rabbit,” of which he writes so marvelously:

”Gabor Szabo, on Wind, Sky, and Diamonds, harnessed the wonky proportions of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” with [Bill Plummer’s] sitar accompaniment. This time, his California Dreamers chime a wordless chorus. Grace Slick’s defiant anthem, favoring hipper pills over mother’s little helpers, was not the most inviting to elevator-ready adaptations, but Szabo draws on the song’s bit of Ravel’s Bolero and other influences, while the sitar opening seduces listeners to fall deeper into the rabbit hole’s escalating rhythm."

This is a fine example of the wit and wisdom Lanza brings to the party; it’s all that a high is supposed to be with none of the hangover such excess often brings. While the focus on this one Szabo album is as far into jazz Lanza is willing to go, I can’t help but wish he waxed as poetically on Light My Fire, another of Szabo’s “easy-listening jazz-id trips” with Bob Thiele and the New Happy Times Orchestra.

Sometime in the mid-seventies it seemed like easy-listening music just disappeared. The records vanished from the record stores’ shelves while the malls, stores and offices began playing the whispery soft-rock hits of the day and mellow anthems that used to get covered by the orchestras of yore.

Lanza chalks it up to younger editors deleting the “uncool” easy-listening charts from the magazines, while insisting easy-listening continued to sell well. I’m not so sure. Tastes changed – again – and when all is said and done, how much easier can you make a song like “How Deep is Your Love”? (Both Conniff and Kostelanetz gave it a shot.)

A generation that can produce such treacle as Barry Manilow or Air Supply needs no help from the easy riders. But just as the older listeners out there began dying off – their vinyl collections landing at the Goodwill and musty old used-record shops – we started losing those orchestral behemoths, too: Percy Faith passed away in 1976 while Andre Kostelonetz and Bert Kaempfert both died in 1980.

Ray Conniff recorded up to his death in 2002, though Columbia stopped issuing his records in the United States in 1980, a sign that there was no longer a market for his brand of music. At least here. The Spanish arm of CBS issued scores of Conniff aperitifs for fans throughout the rest of the world.

James Last moved to the U.S. in the early eighties, shortly after scoring his sole American hit, “Seduction” (1980), while Polydor continued issuing countless records under Last’s name (including truly cool mash-ups with hip-hop groups like Fettes Brott) until his death in 2015 – everywhere but in his adopted home country, the United States.

Lanza reasonably argues that easy-listening didn’t disappear so much as transform itself. Much the same could be said of jazz by its stauncher defenders. But he didn’t set out to chronicle the easy-fication of everything pop.

Here, Lanza focuses his sights on the multi-hued colors of psychedelic pop, which he successfully argues has the lyrical and melodic fortitude of all great music worthy of such genre transformation.

His respect and admiration for the multitudes of easy variations – and his keen sense to suss out and defend some of the craftiest and most obscure adaptions (Johnny Arthey’s Donovan set is as worthy as Lanza makes it out to be and he nails the Brass Ring’s strange yet captivating cover of “Rosemary’s Baby”) – is positively contagious.

Sorting through vinyl’s trash bins, Joseph Lanza finds a trove of trippy treasures, restoring a much-deserved respect to an inexplicably maligned genre that once was known as beautiful music. Easy-Listening Acid Trip makes for an enlightening and equally beautiful reading.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio “I Told You So”

What’d he say? This, from delvonlamarrorgantrio.com:

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio—or as it is sometimes referred to, DLO3—specialize in the lost art of “feel good music.” The ingredients of this intoxicating cocktail include a big helping of the 1960s organ jazz stylings of Jimmy Smith and Baby Face Willette; a pinch of the snappy soul strut of Booker T. & The M.G.’s and The Meters; and sprinkles Motown, Stax Records, blues, and cosmic Jimi Hendrix-style guitar.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Consider me told. Consider me sold.

To this list of influencers, you could also add Trudy Pitts, Odell Brown and the Organizers, Leon Spencer, Sue-era Jimmy McGriff and the J.B.’s, as well as the more recent Danish trio Ibrahim Electric.

There simply aren’t that many organ combos left out there anymore. The electrification of other keyboards – pianos and synthesizers – really pushed the organ out of favor in the late sixties. What Jimmy Smith did for the acceptance of jazz organ left everyone hearing Bill Doggett honky-tonking or Dave “Baby” Cortez rinky-dinking at some point in time.

From Larry Young onward, dedicated purveyors of the demanding Hammond B-3 seemed to go out of their way to sieve the grease out of the meat and make the organ more subtle, more serious and, well, more negligible. The others plied their trade till they met their maker – and most, now, are gone.

So when an organ combo like the DLO3 come along, boldly reclaiming its funky roots, you had me at “I told you so,” despite my initial and regrettable pass on 2018’s ironically-titled Close but No Cigar.

This Seattle-based trio winningly sticks to the basics, with Delvon Lamarr (Dumas) on organ, Jimmy James (Williams – you need to know these names for the songwriting credits) on guitar and Grant Schroff on drums. Seattle-based funk guitarist Ben Bloom (from the Polyrhythmics, also featuring DLO3 drummer Grant Schroff) gets a rather too brief guest shot on “Right Place, Right Time.”

They weigh in on a set of mainly originals that speak to a time possibly two generations before their own and declare its relevance in this no-fun age of lockdowns, social distancing, viral extremism and scary politics.

Delvon Lamarr is a terrific stylist who sautés all his aforementioned influences – with a dash of Bernie Worrell – into one exceptionally funk-tional devotee of great organ groove.

His compositions have the funky flair that blend the standard-bearing with the barrier-breaking. I hear the Argo-era of the woefully under-appreciated “Baby Face” Willette, but suspect others will hear any number of Lamarr’s other influences as well. His solos are as notably inventive as they are laced with any number of crowd-pleasing highs (DLO3 is at its best live) – and all suit the mood this trio is aiming for.

Of all the players, though, it is Jimmy James who cuts the widest swath. He coaxes a galaxy of sounds out of his guitar: from the gut-bucket and fuzzy to the spacey and lyrical, reminding this listener in many ways of the late, great Eddie Hazel, particularly in those heady early Funkadelic days.

James seems to lead the trio as much, if not more than, Lamarr. It is in his solos where he consistently commands the most attention – not necessarily for dazzling proficiency but, rather, pitch-perfect adherence to the groove and a spot-on, if not altogether uncanny, sense of a tune’s modality.

Only the bright and snappy recording reveals this 2021 disc as something “new.” The moves and the grooves are old-fashioned and fun, the way this sort of music used to be. In a blindfold test, you’d be hard pressed to believe any of this music was captured after 1969.

I Told You So is the DLO3’s third album for the Cincinnati-based Colemine Records and it’s a real joy. Clocking in at a breezy forty-one minutes, it has the vibe an old LP and despite its studio trappings, sounds and feels like an intimate and animated club date – with none of the phony audience sounds grafted onto those Ramsey Lewis or Cannonball Adderley studio records of yore.

The disc kicks off with “Hole in One,” perhaps a reference to the renown the DLO3 has achieved since they first came together in 2015. The wordplay may also suggest the palpable synergy the trio shares, a “whole in one.” This classic Chicago soul is straight out of the far too little-known Odell Brown playbook and is absolutely worth being revived.

“Call Your Mom” follows on, confirming this trio’s affinity to both Booker T. & the M.G.’s and The Meters: Memphis meets New Orleans. Could “Mom” be “M.G.’s or Meters”? Me thinks so.

The dark “From the Streets” grinds like of one of Isaac Hayes’s Blaxploitation film themes; just the sort of thing Angelo Badalamenti would recycle for the spookier scenes in his David Lynch film scores.

”Fo Sho,” released on 45 in 2020 (Colemine specializes in soulful singles), is the disc’s dominant and most appealing track. Deeply informed by the rock organ of Santana’s Gregg Rolie, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord or Traffic’s Steve Winwood, “Fo Sho” presents Lamarr and James at their psychedelic best, infusing their roiling rock with edgy jazz and trippy soul.

Covering George Michael’s 1984 hit “Careless Whisper” is a shrewd move. The original had a terrific melody and a sensibility that lent itself well to jazz. While the song is a natural for its many smooth-jazz covers, the DLO3 give it a backbone that Charles Earland might have done back in the day (surprisingly, he did not). The trio injects a grit and gristle that Earland would have likely never attempted, but James caresses the song’s familiar alto sax wail, while offering a tasty solo all his own.

A personal favorite here is the album’s closer, “I Don’t Know.” Perhaps that’s because it’s the closest thing the DLO3 come to claiming a personal anthem. Listen to Lamarr work those pedals – there’s no letting go.

Indeed, they do know – and they want you to know, too. If these guys made album after album of “I Don’t Know” variations, I do know that I would continue investing in them. Seems to me this is the group’s set closer from now on.

Kudos, finally, to Leroi Conroy for his beautiful photography and the marvelously distinctive design for the I Told You So package.

Conroy mixes Blue Note’s iconic Reid Miles artistry with Columbia’s John Berg’s classicism, to come up with a new standard that’s as attractive and appropriate as it is timely and timeless. Like the old days, Conroy’s cover convinced me I had to hear this record – something I do not regret.

Conroy has also recorded several notable singles of his own for the Colemine label, including the marvelous “Remember When?” (b/w “La Gran Mesa”) (2014) and the Daptone-like “Tiger Trot” (b/w “Enter”) (2017) – all worth your attention if you dig the DLO3.

You have to admire these guys. They know their history and they lean in to it to forge their own. I love this disc and hope more music – and news – like this can come out of 2021. They told us so. Are we ready to hear what they have to say? Yes.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Jonas Gwangwa R.I.P.

Tuning into Seton Hawkins’s South African Jazz show on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz on Monday, I was saddened to learn that the great trombonist and composer Jonas Mosa Gwangwa passed away on January 23. He was 83. According to the BBC, the cause of death was cardiac complications.

Jonas Gwangwa was among South Africa’s greatest treasures. Suffering a long and protracted exile, Gwangwa was one of South Africa’s most steadfast defenders and among one of its finest, if mostly uncelebrated, musical artists.

While not as well-known as he deserves to be, Gwangwa was a fantastic songwriter who contributed a number of memorable songs to the legacies of Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – and one of the best trombonists who ever played the instrument.

He was never as well recorded or regarded as such compatriots as Makeba or Masekela or even Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) or Letta Mbulu – all of whom he worked with. And he never got his due on trombone as Americans J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding or Steve Turre.

Gwangwa got his start in the pioneering South African jazz band the Jazz Epistles, which also featured Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi. The musical King Kong (1960) helped Gwangwa get out of South Africa during the reign of Apartheid and he eventually found his way to the United States. There, he was able to hook up with such ex-pats as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

Thanks to these connections, Gwangwa contributed “Kwedini,” to The World of Miriam Makeba (1963), arranged, adapted and conducted the great 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba (featuring his incredibly beautiful “Show Me the Way, My Brother”) and (amazingly) “Going to Grandma’s House” for Les and Larry Elgart’s Sound of the Times (1966).

During this period, he also participated in the December 15, 1965, concert “The Sound of Africa 1965” at New York’s Carnegie Hall, presented by Harry Belafonte and headlining Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Letta Mbulu, benefitting the African American Institute.

As a player, he also appeared on Makeba’s Makeba Sings! (1965) and Hugh Masekela’s tremendous Grrr (1966), the latter of which includes Gwangwa’s marvelous “Kwa Blaney.” Gwangwa likely appeared on other dates, without credit, but it’s hard to know if that's true and even harder to determine how difficult his life here was at the time.

In 1966, Gwangwa co-wrote (with producer Stewart Levine) the single “Walkin’ Around,” the debut single for Letta (Mbulu) and the Safaris, a group that also featured his wife at the time, Mamsie. As good as it was, even with the backing of a major label (Columbia), the single failed to chart.

Masekela (having divorced Miriam Makeba) and Mbulu (and her husband Caiphus Semenya) soon headed to the West Coast, while Gwangwa stayed out East. In 1968, as the Jonas Gwangwa African Explosion, he waxed the tremendous Decca single “Goin’ Home (Bum Didi Sunshine),” backed with an all-too brief signature piece of Gwangwa gold beautifully titled “Afradellic.”

The following year, Gwangwa issued a full-fledged album of his own on Ahmad Jamal’s short-lived Jamal label, Who (Ngubani)?. The album, featuring Mamsie and South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, is a tremendous example of his potential. Yet hardly anyone even knew about it.

Songs like “Switch #2” and the album’s “Grazing in the Grass” copycat single “African Sausage” make the album worth hearing. But the record’s glorious “Dark City” makes it something worth having: Gwangwa is and was an incredible purveyor of his country’s music and one whose compositions consistently demand attention and affection.

In 1971, Jonas Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya partnered with Hugh Masekela for the short-lived Hugh Masekela & the Union of South Africa. The group’s sole album – among the best fusions of South African Jazz and American R&B at the time – is Gwangwa’s highest-profile gig.

The record also yielded two of Gwangwa’s best-known compositions, “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive” (covered later by Masekela as “Johannesburg” on his 1982 album Home) and “Shebeen” (also featured on the 1978 Hugh Masekela/Herb Alpert album Main Event Live, also with Gwangwa).

That same year Gwangwa co-edited the music book The World of African Song, credited to Miriam Makeba. The book presents the music and lyrics to a selection of traditional South African tunes Makeba recorded on six of her earliest RCA and Kapp albums.

Confoundingly, while Gwangwa’s star never ascended in America the way Makeba or Masekela’s did, it seems his opportunities – or options – were few. He appeared on two songs on Robin Kenyatta’s 1973 album Terra Nova and five years later for the aforementioned Main Event Live. Two Gwangwa singles (“Yeba” and “African Butterfly”) were issued on small labels in the late seventies, but seemingly nothing else under his name appeared.

By the eighties, Gwangwa assumed duties as musical-director for an African vocal group called Amandla that issued four albums on a curiously Russian-oriented label. By 1987, Gwangwa, along with George Fenton, contributed to Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed film Cry, Freedom, about the meeting of journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) with activist Stephen Biko (Denzil Washington). The film was nominated for three Academy awards, including Best Musical Score and Best Song.

Gwangwa contributed lackluster solos to an odd 1988 remix of the Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela.” But by 1991, Jonas Gwangwa made it back home to Johannesburg, where he later recorded three albums that showcased his ingenuity and allegiance to South African jazz: the terrific Flowers of the Nation (1990 – recorded in London), Sounds from Exile and A Temporary Inconvenience (1999).

Why nothing else came is unknown – or, perhaps, unknown to me. Jonas Gwangwa was very active on the music scene in South Africa in his later years, but he never attained the recognition or stature here, or anywhere else, he so richly deserved.

Jonas Gwangwa died in Johannesburg, but lives on in so many of jubilant recordings and compositions he left to us to revere and enjoy.

Nkosi sikelel Jonas Gwangwa. (A previous post of Jonas Gwangwa can be seen here.)