Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Essential Don Sebesky

The composer, arranger, conductor and record producer Don Sebesky wrote film and TV scores, orchestrated Broadway productions and worked on the classier albums by such pop vocalists as Barry Manilow, Christina Aguilera, Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, Seal and John Pizzarelli.

But Sebesky, who passed away on April 29 at age 85, was – by most accounts – best known for some of the most important and memorable jazz records of the sixties and seventies. Many of these were produced by Creed Taylor for the Verve, A&M and CTI labels by such artists as Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws and others.

This was a period when jazz was in flux, notably from the rise of pop music and finally, rock and roll. Sebesky rode the wave, adapting many pop and rock hits – notably Beatles covers – and wound up finding his voice on jazz-inflected covers of classical tunes. When the whole fusion thing devolved into the “smooth jazz” of the early eighties, Sebesky completely opted out.

Many think Sebesky cheapened jazz with his arrangements. But either they weren’t listening or they just were plain wrong. Rather than superimposing his charts on soloists, Sebesky would often consider his additions as part of the group. Just like jazz. This made Sebesky stand out from the crowd. His work helped craft what became the “CTI sound” – often replicated but never matched.

Like a film that doesn’t call attention to its direction, Sebesky’s charts only made great (and often legendary) soloists sound even better.

In the spirit of the New York Times, my original intention here was to spotlight the “ten essentials” associated with Don Sebesky’s vast body of work – over sixty years’ worth of recordings. The recordings run the gamut of big band, jazz, crossover and fusion to pop, cabaret, Broadway and light classics.

But I could only pare the list down to 15 songs, the majority of which originally appeared on Creed Taylor productions from the mid-sixties to the early eighties. Many of these pieces are jazz classics and some are forgotten gems. But if I’ve missed anything you think is important, please feel free to leave a message below.

”Bumpin’” – Wes Montgomery (1965)

The first pairing of guitarist Wes Montgomery with arranger Don Sebesky was initially met with much hostility. But more than half a century later, “Bumpin’” has withstood the test of time. It’s neither as florid as some thought nor as dated as much other material from this period turned out to be. Montgomery’s haunting melody (not to be confused with the more popular “Bumpin’ on Sunset”) is perfected by Sebesky’s subtle string and pizzicato harp counterpoints. The arranger ramps up the drama for a brief but stirring string crescendo (04:18-04:58) that allows the guitarist to go out with the embers of lovely harp arpeggios. It’s the epitome of economy and elegance.

”A Day in the Life” – Wes Montgomery (1967)

The Beatles’ intriguing, complex and trippy “A Day in the Life” receives a positively dazzling reading here. It’s often considered the Fab Four’s greatest song and Wes Montgomery’s cover is among the finest jazz cover of any Beatles song. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Grady Tate lay down a swampy blues groove that propels Montgomery on a signature course. The guitarist positively owns the melody here and solos off it beautifully. For the first four minutes of this “Day,” Sebesky only hints at what’s to come: single-note vibes counterpoints, strings and harps rumbles, bass flute riffs leading to impending doom string flourishes. Sebesky wisely opts not to orchestrate George Martin’s “end of the world” bridge to the song’s “middle eight” section (“Woke up, fell out of bed…”), perhaps sensing it wasn’t easily copied or bettered. He goes full-on orchestral during McCartney’s “ahh ahh ahhh” interlude in a blend of strings and horns that surely made Martin proud. (McCartney supposedly told producer Creed Taylor that he particularly admired Montgomery’s cover of “A Day in the Life.”) Sebesky’s dreamy (druggy?) fade-out is an atonal, though melodic, wash that finds Montgomery gamely contributing avant-garde chords of his own. For earlier evidence of Sebesky’s talent with strings, check out saxophonist Charlie Mariano’s cover of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” on A Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963), a magnificent recording.

”Up and At It” – Wes Montgomery (1968)

This might seem an unusual choice of “essential” Don Sebesky as there’s so little Don Sebesky to be heard here. But that’s the point. “Up and At It” is Wes at his funky best, with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Grady Tate driving the guitarist along. It hardly needed any sweetening and, indeed, it doesn’t get much. What Sebesky does contribute are brief counterpoints: one-note vibes chords (reacting to Carter’s bass), a small string section (first echoing Montgomery’s melody, then later riffing off his solo) and three barely audible flutes. “Up and At It” is the pinnacle of poetry in Montgomery and Sebesky’s musical relationship. Like the best of Sebesky’s work, it’s subtle and effective in crossing a good performance over the finish line to great. Sebesky would apply a similar approach to Montgomery’s “Goin’ on to Detroit” (also from Down Here on the Ground), George Benson’s “Footin’ It” and Paul Desmond’s ethereal take on “El Condor Pasa.”

”Forget” – Jack Sheldon (1968)

In the late sixties, Don Sebesky produced and arranged two little-known albums for trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon (best known today forSchoolhouse Rock!’s “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill”). Both sets mix pop hits of the day – Sebesky’s Wes-like take on “The Look of Love” is especially notable – with Sebesky originals. This one, the Spanish-tinged “Forget,” is one of Sebesky’s very best compositions. Sheldon’s beautifully mournful trumpet imbues Sebesky’s signature melody with the haunted romanticism of its title. It’s a torch song in the best tradition. “Forget” was later covered by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, trumpeter Blue Mitchell (with Lee Ritenour and Harold Land) and Brazilian organist Walter Wanderley. Surprisingly, “Forget” was never covered on a CTI album, which may be why the song isn’t much better known. It’s a beauty, though.

”Guru-vin” – Don Sebesky with Larry Coryell (1969)

Before Don Sebesky shifted to more serious work, adapting classical composers to jazz and devoting tributes to the canonical (Sondheim, Ellington, Bill Evans), he adopted scores of pop, rock, Beatles and charting R&B of the day to jazz. He also composed terrifically engaging pieces of crossover work. The cleverly-titled “Guru-vin,” from Sebesky’s all but forgotten 1969 master patchwork The Distant Galaxy (often considered the artist billing as well as the album title), is one such piece. “Guru-vin” taps as much into the psychedelic music of the day as well as seemingly poking fun of it. Guitarist Larry Coryell mans the electric sitar here while studio vocalist Lois Winter pairs with a high horn section for a melodic counterpoint. The funky “Guru-vin” was never issued as a single and didn’t find an audience until decades later when it was revived as part of the acid jazz movement. Sebesky’s “Beatles strings” (toward the end) add just the right spice to this East-meets-West mash-up that knows how to get down. Coryell, who also guested on Sebesky’s Beatles covers “Lady Madonna” (from The Distant Galaxy) and the earlier “The Word” (from the 1969 album Don Sebesky & The Jazz Rock Syndrome) would reunite with Sebesky many years later on the guitarist’s 1993 disc Fallen Angel and the arranger’s 1998 disc I Remember Bill – A Tribute to Bill Evans.

”The Court of the Crimson King” – Doc Severinsen (1970)

This bravura piece of writing is based on the only hit British prog rockers King Crimson ever had. By all accounts, Sebesky was a fan. Sebesky’s brilliant and complex makeover is fusion of the highest order, worthy of any CTI record (Sebesky also produced here). The arranger pairs six horn men off in remarkable fashion: the trumpets of Doc Severinsen and John Frosk, the trombones of Rod Levitt and Paul Faulise, and Stan Webb on flute and Tommy Newsome on tenor sax. Mention should be made of the terrific support work of Joe Beck on acoustic guitar (giving those sections the Spanish flair Sebesky would later patent), the Fender Rhodes of either Derek Smith or Ross Tompkins and the flawless drums of longtime Severinsen ally Ed Shaughnessy. This “Court of the Crimson King” is what a James Bond soundtrack might sound like if it had more jazz.

”Scarborough Fair/Canticle” – Paul Desmond (1970)

This traditional English ballad was adapted by Paul Simon for Simon & Garfunkel, whose version was featured on the hit soundtrack to The Graduate. Sebesky had already arranged the song for the Soul Flutes and was Grammy-nominated for his uniquely Baroque arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” for Wes Montgomery (both 1968). But this is the version to hear. It comes from an album Sebesky produced and arranged for alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, Bridge Over Troubled Water, a set devoted to songs written or adapted by Paul Simon (the two Pauls shared the same agent). Considering Desmond wasn’t especially familiar or comfortable with Simon’s music, the album is a triumph. Credit Sebesky not only for the record’s artistic success but its considerable pleasures. Sebesky is not often celebrated for his commendable ability with traditional and contemporary folk music, but “Scarborough Fair” is among his best. Also of note here are Sebesky’s take on “Mrs. Robinson,” also from The Graduate, and the breathtaking album opener “El Condor Pasa.”

”The Rite of Spring” – Hubert Laws (1971)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” caused quite an uproar when it debuted in Paris in 1913. Experimenting with tonality, meter, rhythm and dissonance, Stravinsky’s piece was considered scandalously avant-garde by the French audience at the time. It’s all grist for Sebesky’s mill. In his variation, Sebesky weaves several of the ballet’s themes together – notably, the ballet’s signature solo bassoon opening (Part 1 – Adoration of the Earth: “Introduction”) and the first dance, “Augurs of Spring” – as a nine-minute feature for flautist Hubert Laws. Sebesky and Laws had collaborated on classical themes by Bach, Debussy and Fauré – all of which likely pleased the collaborators more than jazz fans. None of those other classics swung as well as “The Rite of Spring” does here. Especially notable here are David Friedman on vibes, Ron Carter on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Bob James on keyboards. Sebesky would revisit “The Rite of Spring” on his 1979 album Three Works for Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra (a.k.a. Compositional Jazz): it’s a bit more orchestral than this but offers a wide array of great jazz soloists. This is the one to dig.

”White Rabbit” – George Benson (1972)

While it’s not certain whose idea it was for guitarist George Benson to cover this 1967 hit by the Jefferson Airplane, it was Sebesky who opted to cast Grace Slick’s original in a Spanish mode. Curiously, Slick based the song’s text on Alice in Wonderland, while the music she composed was informed by Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain, particularly that album’s centerpiece “Concierto de Aranjuez” – a piece we’ll come back to here. Sebesky uses Jay Berliner’s acoustic guitar and John Frosk’s trumpet to set the Spanish mood. Benson, Herbie Hancock and Hubert Laws solo. Surprisingly, this sort of thing may have seemed passe by 1971. But, like “The Court of the Crimson King,” Sebesky imbues the whole affair with an air of timelessness.

Sidebar: Some of George Benson’s most enjoyable – read: guitar-oriented – music during his CTI years is courtesy of Don Sebesky. These include “Footin’ It” (1968 – a song co-written with Benson and later sampled for Faith Evans’s “Mesmerized”), “Water Brother” (1969), “I Remember Wes” (1973) and “Serbian Blue” (1974).

“Firebird/Birds of Fire” – Don Sebesky (1973)

Don Sebesky’s 1973 album Giant Box is surely the composer and arranger’s magnum opus. It is one of the few double-disc sets on CTI and has more stars than a late-night sky. It also contains some of Sebesky’s best writing. The album’s opener, “Firebird/Birds of Fire,” originally took up the whole of the record’s first side. This mash up of Igor Stravinsky and the Mahavishnu Orchestra may not even be the album’s finest moment – there are many here – but it is a striking and successful blend of jazz with the classics. Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard solo and Margaret Ross is on harp.

“Psalm 150” – Don Sebesky (1973)

This curious, though clever, Jimmy Webb anthem seems to have been championed by Don Sebesky. He first arranged the piece – whose lyrics are derived from the final Psalm of the Bible – for trumpeter Doc Severinsen’s 1971 album Brass Roots. The little-known song appears to have been written for the British group Revelation for its eponymous (and only) 1970 album. Shortly thereafter, the song’s composer featured “Psalm 150” on his own album Words and Music. Coming out of the period that brought “Spirit in the Sky” (1969), not to mention Godspell (1970) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), “Psalm 150,” a.k.a. “Psalm One-Five-O,” seemed poised to make something of itself. (For the record, Sebesky lifted the Beatles’ appropriation, “He loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” directly from Webb’s original.) To these ears, the appeal of “Psalm 150” to Sebesky was Webb’s unusual and provocative melody. It is also one of the highlights of Sebesky’s Giant Box. Jackie & Roy sing the lead (after Sebesky himself offers an acapella Latin incantation), with (probably) Sebesky on Fender Rhodes, Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums. Outstanding soloists here include Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass and Bob James on organ. Sebesky’s charts throughout are magnificent and recall Lalo Schifrin’s work on Rock Requiem (1971).

”Footprints of the Giant” – Don Sebesky (1975)

“[M]y favorite composer is [Hungarian composer Béla] Bartók,” said Don Sebesky in his Giant Box interview with Didier Deutsch. “I think he’s probably the premier composer of the 20th century.” Sebesky’s earliest reflection on the themes of Bartók is the magisterial “Footprints of the Giant.” Originally written by Sebesky for the 1970 album Doc Severinsen’s Closet, this “Giant” – from Sebesky’s second CTI album, The Rape of El Morro, amps up the rock on this slice of jazz-meets-the-classics ephemera. It features Michael Brecker (and brother Randy in the piece’s intentionally avant-garde intro), a Hendrix-ized Joe Beck on guitar, the electric violin of David Rose and supersonic drummer Steve Gadd. It is noteworthy that Beck also soloed on the Severinsen version of “Footprints” as well. Sebesky would reconsider the Hungarian composer on his “Bird and Bela in B flat,” from the 1979 album Three Works for Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra, what the composer dubbed as a “musical account of an imaginary meeting of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Bela Bartok.”

”Concierto de Aranjuez” – Jim Hall (1975)

Guitarist Jim Hall’s performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” is surely among CTI’s greatest artistic triumphs. Gorgeously arranged in a remarkably minimalist fashion (no strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic) by Don Sebesky, “Concierto de Aranjuez” features a stunning performance by not only the guitarist but offers lush solos from Chet Baker on trumpet and Paul Desmond on alto sax. The rhythm section is helmed beautifully by Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Like the 1960 presentation of the tune by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Hall and Sebesky wax poetic on only the second of the 1939 composition’s three movements. But what is conveyed here is truly outstanding. Each and every second of this nearly 20-minute performance is well worth savoring. Don Sebesky would provide Hall with a sequel of sorts in “Lament for a Fallen Matador,” an adaptation of Tomaso Albioni’s well-known Adagio in G minor, for the guitarist’s 1977 album Commitment. The guitarist would again record “Concierto de Aranjuez,” this time with David Matthews – the man who succeeded Sebesky as CTI’s in-house arranger – on the 1981 Japanese album Concierto de Aranjuez (issued on CD in America in 1992). This version of the Rodrigo classic was considerably more orchestral and featured Hall, rather less distinctively, on acoustic guitar.

”El Morro” – Chet Baker (1977)

Sebesky originally conceived this Spanish-hued piece as the title track to his 1975 CTI album The Rape of El Morro, where, according to the album’s liner notes, its working title was “Spanish Blood.” There it was a feature for Michael Brecker, Roland Hanna and explorative vocalist Joan La Barbara. Brecker returns to Sebesky’s epic original to share the spotlight here with trumpeter Chet Baker for this more polished version, now simply titled “El Morro,” from Baker’s 1977 album You Can’t Go Home Again. The album, produced, arranged and conducted by Sebesky, is a mix of old and new, with “El Morro” successfully falling somewhere in between. Indeed, it’s the album’s centerpiece and not inaptly described by Baker biographer James Gavin as “a cross between Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain and a Hollywood bullfighting scene.” With John Scofield adding the appropriate flamenco touch on acoustic guitar, Baker serves up one of the most muscular, dynamic and hypnotic performances of his entire career. He seems very much to be staking his claim on “El Morro” as his own “Aranjuez.” Driving him on are Hubert Laws on flute and piccolo, Richie Bierach on electric piano (who is denied a much-deserved solo), Ron Carter – who is high up in the mix here and who also played on the original – and Tony Williams, low in the mix, on drums. When outtakes from these 1977 sessions were issued in 1989 on the Baker album The Best Thing for You, a 17-minute “alternative composite take” of “El Morro” appeared that added an electric guitar solo from Scofield and the percussion and (Airto-like) vocals of Arto Tunchboyachi. Both versions of “El Morro,” as well as a 13-minute “incomplete take” of the tune, are included on the two-disc CD of You Can’t Go Home Again issued in 2000.

”Malagueña” – Chet Baker/Jim Hall/Hubert Laws (1982)

Don Sebesky likely encountered Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s most famous piece, “Malagueña,” in Stan Kenton’s band in the late fifties. Kenton recorded his own arrangement of the song several years before Sebesky joined the band, but it was likely still in the band’s book at the time. This 1982 performance comes from one of CTI’s last great albums, Studio Trieste, a forum nominally led by trumpeter Chet Baker, guitarist Jim Hall and flautist Hubert Laws (though often credited solely to Hall). Like Sebesky’s arrangement for Jim Hall’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” (and the whole of the album Concierto), ”Malagueña” is scored for the soloists with a small group of supporters. At the risk of repeating myself: No strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic. Baker, Hall and Laws are substantially supported only by Kenny Barron (who solos) on electric piano, George Mraz on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Mraz, who isn’t as high in the mix as Ron Carter so often is on his CTI discs, acts as the matador to the soloists. A close listen reveals that everyone here is listening to everyone else. It is a performance that positively dances, absolutely swings. Each moment of the all-too brief Studio Trieste is magical. But ”Malagueña” is undoubtedly the album’s greatest moment.

In 1992, producer Creed Taylor edited this recording of ”Malagueña” as a feature for Jim Hall and overdubbed an “additional” arrangement by Jim Pugh for Youkali, a set of updated takes on previous recordings the guitarist made for the CTI label. Sebesky, for his part, would later record ”Malagueña” – in a very similar arrangement but with equally compelling soloists, including Eddie Daniels, Jim Pugh (!), Alex Foster and son Ken Sebesky – on his 1985 album Moving Lines, whose 1989 CD release cops – without credit – Alen MacWeeney’s liner photo from The Rape of El Morro. Hubert Laws also recorded a compelling Sebesky arrangement of ”Malagueña” (which also reunited Sebesky with vocalist Joan La Barbara) on the 1993 disc My Time Will Come.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Don Sebesky

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.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Airto Moreira and Flora Purim Need Our Help

The Brazilian jazz icons Airto Moreira and Flora Purim have had more than their fair share of challenges over the past few years. After many years in the United States, Airto and Flora are now back in their native Brazil, where both are facing worsening health and housing conditions.

"Airto and Flora's living situation is rapidly becoming unsustainable,” says daughter Diana Moreira Booker, “with no health insurance and a large increase in rent at their current location. Doctors tell us that a large part of Airto's recovery depends on an immediate change of their living environment so a move is imminent. The family is currently working toward making this happen but we cannot do this alone."

Airto Moreira (b. 1941) and Flora Purim (b. 1942) are Brazilian jazz royalty. Both came to America in 1967 (they were married several years later) and each went on to stellar careers, making significant contributions to American jazz and fusion/crossover as well as pop and world music.

Airto, a particularly persuasive percussionist, vocalist and songwriter, recorded and toured with Miles Davis for nearly two (extensively recorded) years, was a founding member of two of jazz fusion’s greatest groups (Weather Report and Return to Forever) and waxed four albums for the CTI label while contributing to some three dozen CTI albums by such artists as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson and Deodato’s monster hit “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).” Airto is also known for such exceptional compositions of his own as “Xibaba,” “Tombo in 7/4” and the great “Misturada.”

There’s no doubt I have heard Airto since I started listening to music. But the first time Airto rivetted me and my attention was on Bob James’ exquisite “Snowbird Fantasy,” from the keyboardist’s 1980 album ”H”. The earliest disc I have featuring Airto is the 1965 album À vontade mesmo by trombonist Raulzinho (a.k.a. Raul de Souza), who kindly autographed my copy of the 2001 CD (Raul and Airto reunited in the late seventies on many recordings made on the West Coast). Airto is incredible here (on drums), then came back years later to me with 1979’s “Amajour” (with incredible solos from Herb Alpert and Joe Farrell!) and, later, on the terrific all-star date Killer Bees in 1993.

Airto’s lovely appearance in Kristian St. Clair’s documentary This is Gary McFarland (2006) always stands out in my mind as one of his most beautiful performances (McFarland co-produced Airto’s 1970 solo debut, Natural Feelings). This is Airto Moreira, to me.

Flora, the iconic and immediately recognizable vocalist and songwriter, released her first album, the wonderful Flora é M.P.M., in 1964 (produced for CD in 2001 by my good friend Arnaldo DeSouteiro – who worked often with Flora and Airto). Flora toured Europe with Stan Getz and Gil Evans in the late sixties and put out her critically-lauded American record, Butterfly Dreams, in 1973 on the Milestone label.

Many of Flora’s Milestone records (1973-78) paired her beautifully with Joe Henderson – much of which is included on the saxophonist’s glorious 1994 box set The Milestone Years. After a series of crossover records for Warner Bros., Flora spent many years touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and, with Airto, the Fourth World band.

It has always impressed me that author Len Lyons considered Flora’s 1976 album 500 Miles High one of the The 101 Best Jazz Albums: A History of Jazz on Records, the influential 1980 book that considered the entire history of jazz to that point.

Airto Moreira's terrific "Misturada" performed LIVE at Jazz Is Dead for the Airto Moreira Benefit Concert, October 25, 2022. More can be found at https://www.jazzisdead.com/uploadevents/airto-moreira?rq=airto - with daughter Diana on lead vocals.

Airto and Flora have continued recording and touring, up to Flora’s 2022 disc If You Will, for the great British Strut label. But, according to daughter Diana, “Airto has suffered many ailments over the past few years. He has been unable to continue with his therapist.

”Flora is also now experiencing her own health challenges. Having been separated for a while, Flora is back in Brazil with Airto but they really could use some home help, a therapist and a move.”

The family is asking for help. Anything we could do to help is much appreciated. If you can do anything to help Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, please go here:


Saturday, April 29, 2023

Alternative Guitar Summit – “Honoring Pat Martino, Volume 1” (2022)

The guitarist, composer, educator and author Joel Harrison (b. 1957) founded the Alternative Guitar Summit (AGS) in 2010 as an annual jazz guitar collective of “daring, inventive players who emphasize new and unusual approaches to the guitar.”

The collective features an ever-changing cast of jazz guitarists, from the well-known and well-recorded to new talent coming up through the ranks. (I’m frankly amazed by how many terrifically distinctive guitarists from multiple generations there are these days – so many of whom work with Joel Harrison as part of the AGS.)

To date, this Pat Martino tribute disc is the AGS’s sole release under that moniker.

While AGS traditionally does its thing live in front of an audience in the New York club scene, all such facilities were effectively shuttered in March 2021 when the AGS assembled for this tribute, due to the Covid pandemic lockdowns. Harrison therefore booked a Brooklyn studio, gathered some of New York’s finest guitarists and set up video cameras to capture it all.

Much of the nine tracks on Honoring Pat Martino were caught at that gig, which the honoree himself, who was ill at the time, was able to Zoom in to. Pat Martino would be gone eight months later.

While this superb tribute disc claims to celebrate Pat Martino the guitarist – surely a noble effort in its own right – my sense is that it goes a lot further in honoring Pat Martino the composer. Both aspects of Martino’s character are well worth noting. Eight of the nine tunes featured here are Martino compositions, but – oddly – none are from the guitarist’s productive Prestige years (1967-70).

Harrison, however, curates an impressive range of Martino originals here, including “Willow” and Martino’s fairly well-known “On The Stairs,” originally from the guitarist’s album Consciousness (1974); the splendid “Line Games” and “Joyous Lake,” from the fusion album Joyous Lake (1976); “Black Glass” from Interchange (1994); “Noshufuru,” from The Maker (1995); “Country Road,” from Nexus (c. mid 90s); and “Inside Out,” from Undeniable (2011). The only cover here is J.J. Johnson’s classic “Lament,” originally appearing on Martino’s We’ll Be Together Again (1976).

Somewhat surprisingly, there are no outright nods – at least here – to Wes Montgomery, one of Martino’s greatest influences, or Martino’s own memorable Montgomery tribute, “The Visit.”

A whopping baker’s dozen of guitarists weigh in here, beautifully paying tribute to Martino’s keen sense of melody, singing and swinging tone and singular dexterity.

The guitarists on the March date are nicely paired on each tune and include Adam Rogers and Peter Bernstein on “Inside Out,” Sheryl Bailey and Ed Cherry on “Willow,” Rez Abbasi and Jeff Miles on “Noshufuru,” Dave Stryker and Paul Bollenback for “On the Stairs,” and Nir Felder and Oz Noy on “Joyous Lake” – all backed by Dezron Douglas on bass and Allan Mednard on drums.

Other guitarists include Kurt Rosenwinkel (“Black Glass”), Russell Malone (the solo “Lament”), Harrison himself (“Country Road,” also solo), and a guitarist I’m sorry to say I completely lost track of over the years, Fareed Haque, who plays “Line Games” on his 1974 Ramirez flamenco guitar – the album’s lone acoustic guitar. (“Line Games” also appears on a 2022 disc-length Pat Martino tribute by Fareed Haque titled Return to the Joyous Lake that is available after a bit of digging from fareed.com.)

Honoring Pat Martino coalesces nicely and is especially well programmed. There is a terrific balance of each of the guitarists’ individual personalities with the style and sound of the guitarist they’re honoring.

With nary a dud in the bunch, highlights for this listener include Fareed Haque’s take on “Line Games” (with Kevin Kozol neatly riffing off Gil Goldstein), Sheryl Bailey and the underrated Ed Cherry on the beautifully Wes-ish “Willow” and the inspired pairing of Dave Stryker and Paul Bollenback on the fiery “On the Stairs.” The disc reaches a high mark on “Joyous Lake,” an underrated Martino tune from a critically neglected period in the guitarist’s career, helmed by the magnificent fret work of Nir Felder and Oz Noy.

It’s worth noting that Honoring Pat Martino’s associate producer is Philadelphia violinist Joe Donofrio, who contributed to Martino’s 1976 album Starbright and produced several of the guitarist’s albums, including Formidable (2017), Martino’s final recording.

Here’s hoping there’s a second volume of Honoring Pat Martino on the way. And here’s hoping that HighNote, one of America’s last great jazz labels, might consider putting out more discs by Joel Harrison’s Alternative Guitar Summit.

According to AGS’s web site, the collective’s next scheduled event is August 21 to 25, 2023, at the Full Moon Resort in the Catskills, with Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Rodney Jones, Camila Meza, Kurt Rosenwinkel (who mans “Black Glass” here), Gilad Hekselman, Wayne Krantz, Joel Harrison and others.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Organic Pat Martino

“…probing, imaginatively controlled musical clarity and coherence – fleet as the wind when required but always easy, fluid, full of gracefully virtuosic touches (to remind you of the control behind the ease) – imperturbable, supremely cool, and quietly intense.” - Pete Welding on Pat Martino as quoted by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s

Guitarist Pat Martino (1944-2021) was one of the finest guitarists of late twentieth-century jazz. His dexterity was matched only by his sensitivity. No matter how fast his fingers flew across the fretboard, it was never at the expense of the melody. He could have easily shown off or loaded up his solos with lots of notes, but his gymnastics were always in the beautiful employ of the song or the groove.

But Martino was inexplicably one of the least celebrated of the jazz guitarists of his generation. Born Patrick Carmen Azzara, Martino’s renown was eclipsed by such predecessors as Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith (like Wes Montgomery, an influence) and Jim Hall; contemporaries George Benson, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin; and such later guitar heroes as Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

Whereas jazz guitarists of a certain generation were locked out of the pantheon for attempts at “crossing over,” one of the castigating reasons that likely doomed Martino to cult status is his career-length attempt at “crossing back in.”

Martino came up – by choice – in organ combos and soul jazz, and it was held against him right from the start. Virtually all of the above-named guitarists – with the possible exception of Grant Green – loaded up their discographies with enough critically-accepted “straight ahead” jazz to forgive their wayward journeys into music that was considered more fun or funky than serious or straight-laced.

Although the bulk of Pat Martino’s discography includes no organ – and little of it bows to what is often derisively referred to as “soul jazz” (pianist/organist Mike LeDonne has said that all jazz is soul jazz – the guitarist is sidelined from the pantheon by the organ-combo records he did do on his own and with others.But this careless disregard ignores some especially fine records Pat Martino waxed in organ-based groups.

Today, perhaps only guitarist Peter Bernstein (b. 1967) can best Pat Martino for the sheer number of unapologetic organ combos he finds himself in (his long association with Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart is especially notable). Like Martino, Bernstein often shines brightest in organic company.

What follows are the organists that recorded with Pat Martino over the guitarist’s formidable half-century career. While the volume of such recordings is notable, it is curious that the great bulk of these recordings are not under the guitarist’s own name:

Pat Bianchi (b. 1975): Born in Rochester, New York and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music (where he now teaches), Pat Bianchi is one of the more notable B-3 bombers in contemporary jazz. He’s recorded in the 21st century organ combos of Ed Cherry, Ralph Peterson, Chuck Loeb and Tim Warfield (including a tribute album to Philadelphia native Shirley Scott, who surprisingly never recorded with Martino).

Bianchi also hosts the weekly Sirius XM show Organized, devoted exclusively to the art of organ jazz. Bianchi is the last in a long line of organ players to work with Pat Martino: In The Moment - Pat Bianchi (2018 – “Mr. PC” only); Formidable - Pat Martino (2017 – Martino’s final [known] recording).

Joey DeFrancesco (1971-2022): At the turn of the century, Joey DeFrancesco had single handedly brought the organ back to jazz. Not yet thirty, he had built a sizeable discography with many jazz legends and an impressive catalog under his own name. DeFrancesco’s magic came from absorbing and mastering the art of his predecessors while delivering a signature all his own.

It was Joey DeFrancesco who brought Martino back into the organ-combo format after several decades grooving in other bags. Sadly, their collaboration is limited to a mere handful of releases:

Live at Yoshi’s - Pat Martino (2001 – Martino’s first organ-based disc since his 1967 solo debut); Keepers of the Flame - Charles Earland Tribute Band (2002 – “What Love Has Joined,” “On the Stairs” and a superb cover of “Pick Up the Pieces” only); Ballads and Blues - Joey DeFrancesco (2002 – “These Are Soulful Days, which Martino performed in 1974 with Don Patterson,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” only); Falling in Love Again - Joey DeFrancesco featuring Joe Doggs (2003); 6 String Theory - Lee Ritenour (2010 – the sublime “L.P. [For Les Paul]” only).

Charles Earland (1941-99): Pat Martino’s first-ever road gig was with fellow Philadelphian Charles Earland. Known as “The Mighty Burner,” Earland was also a high-school friend of Martino’s. Surprisingly, the two never factored on any of each other’s own records, but did reunite for a pair of saxophonist Willis Jackson’s records. Both are well worth hearing: Bar Wars - Willis Jackson (1978) and Nothin’ Butt - Willis Jackson (1983).

Richard “Groove” Holmes (1931-91): Born in Camden, New Jersey, Groove Holmes was a prodigious player who recorded many records for many labels during his all-too short life. Unfortunately, Martino and Holmes collaborated just once. But while Groove worked with some great guitarists in the sixties (George Freeman, Boogaloo Joe Jones, Gene Edwards), you tend not to notice the plectrum spectrum on a Groove Holmes record: Get Up & Get It! - Richard “Groove” Holmes (1967).

Jermaine Landsberger (b. 1973): The German keyboard player Jermaine Landsberger entered the music industry as a pianist, but briefly dabbled as an organist (an early such album is cleverly – or ridiculously – dubbed Hammond Eggs). Pat Martino appears on three tracks of this all organ-jazz disc, recorded in Hollywood (with Harvey Mason): Martino considered Landsberger “a formidable artist, a master of the flame.”: Gettin’ Blazed - Jermaine Landsberger (2009).

Gene Ludwig (1937-2010): Pittsburgh-based Gene Ludwig was first drawn to the organ when he heard a Jimmy Smith record in 1956. He started putting out records under his own name in 1963 and recorded and toured the East Coast as well as the Ohio-Western Pennsylvania corridor – often holding court at Pittsburgh’s storied Crawford Grill). Ludwig came to some minimal national attention when he replaced Don Patterson in Sonny Stitt’s band in 1969: Night Letter - Sonny Stitt (1969); Young Guns - Gene Ludwig – Pat Martino Trio (rec. c. 1969, rel. 2014).

Brother Jack McDuff (1926-2001): According to George Benson’s autobiography, when the guitarist was hired by Jack McDuff, neither he nor the organist were entirely happy with each other. McDuff wanted Benson to hear Pat Martino as an example of what Brother Jack was looking for. Surprisingly, Benson was overwhelmed, considering Martino “twice the guitarist” as Benson.

Still, Benson got the gig, even bringing McDuff’s band a whole new level of renown. It would appear that McDuff brought in Martino to replace Benson when John Hammond gave the latter an opportunity to form his own band. Martino seems to appear on quite a few of McDuff’s Prestige albums of the late sixties, but only a song or two on each album feature the guitarist. Martino was with McDuff very briefly and the songs were the result of a few sessions recorded in late 1965 and early 1966:

Walk on By - Brother Jack McDuff (1966 – as Pat Azzara); Hallelujah Time! - Brother Jack McDuff (1967 – “Almost Like Being in Love” and “The Live People” only); The Midnight Sun - Brother Jack McDuff (1968 – “Misconstrued” only);Soul Circle - Brother Jack McDuff (1968 – “More” only);I Got A Woman - Brother Jack McDuff (1969 – Side A only); Steppin’ Out - Brother Jack McDuff (1969 – “Chicken Feet” only); Brotherly Love - Brother Jack McDuff (2001); Bronx Tale (1994 – as “The Kid”).

Tony Monaco (b. 1959): Like Hank Marr and Don Patterson, Tony Monaco hails from Columbus, Ohio. Monaco’s 2001 debut disc, Burnin’ Grooves was sponsored and produced by Joey DeFrancesco. Martino and Monaco collaborated on one disc – a live recording captured at Blues Alley in Washington, DC, in 2009 with Eric Alexander and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There must be more in the archives somewhere: Undeniable - Pat Martino Quartet (2011).

Don Patterson (1936-88): Originally from Columbus, Ohio, the great Don Patterson resided in Harlem in the early sixties (and Gary, Indiana, in the early seventies) but spent much of his life in Pat Martino’s hometown, Philadelphia. Patterson’s name does not often come up when talking about the royalty of the Hammond B-3 – but it should. He was a self-taught pianist but switched to organ in 1959 after hearing Jimmy Smith: “When I heard Jimmy Smith, that was it!” Indeed, Jimmy Smith himself considered Patterson one of the greatest on organ.

Hooking up with guitarist Paul Weeden’s trio, Patterson spent much of the sixties backing Booker Ervin, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and, notably, Sonny Stitt. The organist waxed his first solo record with the Weeden trio on Goin’ Down Home (recorded 1963, released 1967) but put out a series of fine but forgotten records on Prestige. Patterson recorded four terrific discs for the Muse label in the seventies, including These Are Soulful Days (1974 – reissued on CD as Steady Comin’ At ‘Ya), the first time this listener ever heard Pat Martino. Patterson seemed to vanish from records a full decade before his all too early death at age 52 in 1988.

Unfortunately, very little of Don Patterson’s recorded output is available on CD or streaming. But Martino factored on some of the organist’s best records, including the 1966 debut recording of Pittsburgh saxophonist Eric Kloss – who was 16 at the time (Kloss also played on Martino’s “Blackjack,” from the 1970 album Desperado): Holiday Soul - Don Patterson (1965); Introducing Eric Kloss with Don Patterson - Eric Kloss (1966); Four Dimensions - Don Patterson (1968); Boppin’ & Burnin’ - Don Patterson (1968); Opus de Don - Don Patterson (1968); Funk You! - Don Patterson (1969); These Are Soulful Days - Don Patterson (1974).

Bobby Pierce (b. 1942): The tremendously soulful organist and vocalist Bobby Pierce had the grave misfortune of kicking off his recording career precisely when the Hammond B-3 began falling out of favor. Born in Columbus, Ohio, and heavily influenced by native son Don Patterson, Pierce had the drive and energy of Bill Mason or Leon Spencer and an appealing blue-eyed soulful growl that seemed amenable to crossover success that never came. Pierce recorded only two albums in the early seventies, including his debut with Pat Martino, before returning to Columbus. He returned to recording briefly in 2008 for his third disc on Doodlin’, The Long Road Back. With Martino: Introducing Bobby Pierce - Bobby Pierce (1972).

Trudy Pitts (1932-2010): Like Pat Martino, Trudy Pitts hails from Philadelphia. The two came up through the ranks together. Martino recorded his 1967 solo debut with Pitts while the guitarist was on a break touring with John Handy’s group – one of his earliest non-organ combos. Ms. Pitts, often heard in the company of her husband, drummer Bill Carney, a.k.a. “Mr. C.,” is a terrific and terribly under-appreciated B-3 bomber. The organist’s two albums here were reissued on a single CD set called Legends of Acid Jazz: Trudy Pitts With Pat Martino (1998):

Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts - Trudy Pitts (1967); El Hombre - Pat Martino (1967 – Martino’s solo debut); These Blues of Mine - Trudy Pitts (1968).

Mickey Tucker (b. 1941): At this time, pianist Mickey Tucker was part of a group known as The New Heritage Keyboard Quartet with Roland Hanna that issued one album on Blue Note in 1973. Pat Martino’s sole foray with Tucker found the keyboardist helming electric piano and organ too. It’s not an easy album to find these days and has never turned up on CD or streaming services: Headed and Gutted - Willis Jackson (1975)

Carl Wilson: Almost nothing is known about organist Carl Wilson except that he isn’t the one that’s in the Beach Boys. Between 1963 and 1978, Wilson recorded a handful of records – all under Willis Jackson’s name. Strangely, Wilson doesn’t factor on anyone else’s records and has seemingly never waxed any of his own. Wilson reportedly hailed from Cleveland, but was likely based in New York City during this period. To critics, he had the chops to suggest Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff (neither known to be an accompanist). But to Gator fans, he was the perfect foil. Wilson’s tenure in Jackson’s group seems, strangely enough, to parallel Pat Martino’s, at least on record:

Grease ‘n’ Gravy - Willis Jackson (1963 – Martino’s recording debut, as Pat Azzara); The Good Life - Willis Jackson (1963 – as Pat Azzara); More Gravy - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Boss Shoutin’ - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Jackson’s Action - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Live! Action - Willis Jackson (1965 – as Pat Azzara)Soul Night/Live! - Willis Jackson (1966 – as Pat Azzara); Tell It… - Willis Jackson (1967 – as Pat Azzara); Single Action - Willis Jackson with Pat Martino (1980).

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ahmad Jamal

The legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal died at his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, on Sunday, April 16, 2023. He was 92. Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1930, Jamal stormed the jazz world with his 1958 trio album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing – But Not For Me, notably for his dazzling, hypnotic performance of “Poinciana.”

Ahmad Jamal actively toured throughout the remainder of his life (except during a brief “retirement” in the late sixties) – well into his late eighties. He also recorded many records for the Argo/Cadet, Impulse, 20th Century Fox, Atlantic, Telarc Jazz, Birdology, Dreyfus Jazz and Jazz Village labels.

His most recent releases found the reluctant-to-revisit-the-past pianist agree to issue two sets of previously-unreleased live performances, recorded in the mid-sixties at Seattle’s historic jazz spot, The Penthouse. More is said to be forthcoming from Jamal’s Seattle sets and will be welcome by those of us who savor everything Ahmad Jamal has ever played.

Ahmad Jamal first came to my attention via Digital Works, his 1985 “comeback” recording. At that point, the pianist’s previous studio record came a whole five years before and in that brief time the music had gone through quite a bit of change.

The disc, which included newly-recorded versions of Jamal favorites like “Poinciana,” “Wave,” “Theme from M.A.S.H.,” and my personal obsession, “One” (originally from a 1978 Jamal album), was mesmerizing. Another favorite, a version of Natalie Cole’s “La Costa,” makes this an incredible listening experience. To these ears, Digital Works remains one of the greatest jazz records of the eighties, despite its frosty reception among critics.

Jamal’s follow-ups, Rossiter Road (1986) and Crystal (1987), are equally wonderful. Ahmad Jamal came back in to my life during his masterful series of discs dubbed “The Essence,” where the pianist paired with such surprising co-conspirators as Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and Othello Molineaux.

Thereafter, I dug deep into Ahmad Jamal’s back catalog. There was the Richard Evans-arranged gem Macanudo (1963), the Bob Thiele-produced Tranquility (1968) and, more notably, the brilliantly electrified Ahmad Jamal ‘73 - which a memorable trade ad billed as “Ahmad Jamal Trips Out.” The 1973 album features the classic break “Peace at Last,” surely one of the greatest grooves ever waxed.

This led to an obsession with Ahmad Jamal’s little-known albums on the 20th Century label (hardly a jazz label), issued between 1973 and 1980. This is an awesome – and slightly unusual – chunk of the pianist’s recording career. Embarking on a campaign to get these albums reissued on CD – or at least pull together a compilation of the material – proved to be an effort in futility. Indeed, Jamal’s 20th Century records remain unavailable on CD and streaming services as of this writing.

Mr. Jamal strenuously resisted revisiting his past and only relented at the very end with the Emerald City Nights sets captured at The Penthouse.

While Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 classic The Awakening (Impulse) is surely among the pianist’s very best discs, I consider it a “desert island disc” and a pitch-perfect document of Ahmad Jamal’s singular artistry.

This is where the magic is: in the spaces and the notes for which he is duly celebrated. Jamal honed his conception and craft very early on, refining it throughout his career. I believe he reached his apex here, a plateau that was more of a long line than a mere point. In my 1997 review of The Awakening, I am more than a little excited by what I heard but awestruck by what Jamal achieves:

Ahmad Jamal’s third of five excellent Impulse! recordings between 1969 and 1972 finds the pianist in a conservative transitional period. He was recorded at Argo /Cadet from 1955 through 1968 in trio, with orchestras and even vocal choirs. Subsequently, he’d explore more popular material and electronic sounds on the 20th Century Fox records made throughout the balance of the 1970s. The Awakening, from February 1970, is, like his other Impulse! sessions, one of those classic trio sessions that stands out as among the pianist’s best. Featuring Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums, The Awakening is highlighted by two superb Jamal covers in Oliver Nelson’s "Stolen Moments" and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "Wave." The pianist’s trademark simplicity pays tribute to these oft-covered tunes like nothing you’ve ever heard. Jamal, like Chopin (to these ears), can simplify and beautify the most complex and demanding pieces imaginable while losing none of the emotional or compositional complexity. He beautifully integrates his right and left-hand playing, and never once betrays a tendency toward barrel-housing in either. This leads nay-sayers to conclude he is simply nothing greater than a 'lounge pianist.' But it’s that beauty (evident on his Tatum-esque approach to Herbie Hancock’s "Dolphin Dance" or his Debussy-like handling of "I Love Music") that deserves further aural exploration. Jamal’s is a sound to be savored. Other compositions of note here include Jamal’s "The Awakening" and "Patterns," both which explore now-familiar (and wonderful) Jamal territory of alternating mood, tempo, rhythm and a delicious sense of spacing. Those familiar with Jamal’s famed live recordings of the 50s (at the Pershing and the Spotlight clubs) and the recently-issued gems on Atlantic and Verve (Live in Paris '92, The Essence and the newly-issued Big Byrd) will most heartily devour this beautiful music. Highly recommended.

Ahmad Jamal continued recording well into the previous decade, waxing a number of elegant late-period discs for the European Jazz Village label. One of those final studio recordings, the mostly solo Ballades (2019), even features one last swing through “Poinciana.” Ahmad Jamal owns it.

As I post this, I am listening again to Pittsburgh, the 1989 album Ahmad Jamal dedicated to the memory of his mother and his “beloved Pittsburgh.” It’s an exceptionally personal and heartfelt album – with an orchestra arranged by the great Richard Evans – that connects with me, my mother and my Pittsburgh heritage.

I am still here. So is Ahmad Jamal.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

The Mysterious Flying Orchestra (1977)

The "Mysterious Flying Orchestra" is a bold new force of unusual musical potential. Producer Bob Thiele has once again formulated the perfect chemistry to activate yet another dimension of hand blended, highly creative contemporary crossover music. – Promotional advertisement appearing in Record World on May 21, 1977

I. The Dutchman Having Flown

After the quiet fall of the iconic Flying Dutchman label in 1976, Bob Thiele (1922-96) – producer of the once forward-looking music of John Coltrane – found himself out in the cold. Although Thiele launched the careers of Gato Barbieri, Leon Thomas, Gil Scott-Heron and Lonnie Liston Smith on the label in the seventies, none were enough to keep the Flying Dutchman afloat.

Thiele also recorded some four albums under his own name for the label, from Head Start (1969) to I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood (1975). More often than not, these records captured star soloists and/or studio musicians mixing – often uncomfortably – what was in at the moment with older styles of jazz that Thiele loved or favored. Unfortunately, none of these found much favor with the public.

So, Bob Thiele found he had something to prove: his own relevancy.

Still attached to RCA, which had distributed Flying Dutchman since 1974, Thiele formed a production company called “Doctor Jazz Music” and conceived an all-star project that wisely kept his name out of the credits.

Although the group was dubbed “The Mysterious Flying Orchestra” (TMFO), however, it was pretty clear who was in charge: Bob Thiele, illustrated in full on WWI-era aviator gear, shown on the album cover giving a prominent thumbs up.

The same image was later used to craft the logo for Thiele’s Red Baron label, which operated between 1991 and 1994.

TMFO likely gets its name from the original Red Baron himself, Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918), the German pilot who, during World War I, led the Jagdgeschwader I, otherwise known as “The Flying Circus.” According to Wikipedia, the Flying Circus got its name “because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and perhaps also because of the way the unit…moved like a traveling circus, frequently setting up tents on improvised airfields.”

Like the Flying Dutchman myth in days past, this legend likely provides Thiele with his musical strategy here as well. The whole war-time theme even shows how seriously he took it all. Maybe it was a bit too much.

TMFO’s gatefold cover – illustrated by David Plourde, who also did several RCA releases around this time, including the cover art for the Lonnie Liston Smith album Renaissance (co-produced by Thiele) – also shows musicians as, umm, vampire-bats (!) storming a mountain-top fortress during a night storm. Not sure what to make of that.

But the illustration seems to mix a bunch of metaphors that somehow suggests music brings light to the dark and calm to the storm.

II. The Doctor Is In

The mystery of The Mysterious Flying Orchestra is not who this collective is but what it was hoping to achieve. While the goal here seems to be “crossover jazz” – or “fusion,” for those who liked it – it seems Thiele didn’t understand the audience he was trying to crossover to.

TMFO is one of the more consistent – and, for at least half of the time, compelling – of the scattershot albums led by producer Bob Thiele. It’s is also one of Thiele’s hippest outings and most of it holds up well all these many years later.

Released with little fanfare in February 1977, TMFO gathers an impressive cast of soloists, including fusion pioneers Larry Coryell (for one track only) and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith (again, one track only) as well as saxophonists Steve Marcus and Charlie Mariano. Other soloists include Eddie Daniels and Donald Smith on flutes, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff on trumpets.

The album immediately impresses with its opening salvo, the fiery funk of ”Improvisational Rondo for Saxophone and Guitar.” As the title suggests, the seven-minute piece is a showcase for saxophonist Steve Marcus (1939-2005) and guitarist Larry Coryell (1943-2017). The two had previously worked together on Coryell’s 1971 Flying Dutchman outing, Barefoot Boy, which seems worlds away from what they’re doing here. “Rondo” is far less edgy and a lot more fun.

Composer and arranger Horace Ott’s superb “disco strings” act as the third voice in this riveting “Rondo.” Ott, who worked with Don Covay, Gladys Knight and Nina Simone as well as Jimmy McGriff, Lou Donaldson, Houston Person, had arranged previous Flying Dutchman albums by Gil Scott-Heron, Bernard Purdie, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Lonnie Liston Smith. He’d also recently arranged Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.’s No. 1 hit “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” and would go on to arrange the Village People hits “Macho Man” and “In the Navy.” What he does here is magical.

”Rondo” is mesmerizing but lacks enough of a melody line – like, say, “Birdland” or “Feels So Good,” both hits in 1977 – that doomed it from getting much radio play. Still, there was enough interest in the tune that RCA oddly issued a promotional one-sided version of the tune that ran a full 17 minutes! As Record World said in April 1977, “Radio stations or other individuals interested in obtaining a copy should contact local RCA promotional people.” At least one person did: the disc is listed on Discogs. Good luck finding it anywhere else.

The real secret of “Rondo”’s success may well be due as much to bassist Wlbur Bascomb as to any of the principals. Wilbur Bascomb – also known as Bad Bascomb and Dud Bascomb and likely brought to the sessions by Horace Ott – impresses here and throughout the remainder of TMFO. He grooves even when little else moves.

Of the two songs composer and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith (b. 1940) contributed to TMFO – both covers from Smith’s 1975 Flying Dutchman album Expansions - the exquisite “Shadows” is surely the best and most notable. Without a doubt, “Shadows” makes TMFO worth hearing.

Here, horns carry the melody, buoyed by Ott’s ethereal strings (synth washes punctuated the original). Smith delivers a signature Rhodes solo – replete with nice echo effects – that easily bests the one on his original recording. Bascomb doesn’t overshadow Cecil McBee’s acoustic work on the original, but delivers a drive that is all his own. Steve Marcus returns on tenor to solo us to the cosmos.

(Whenever listening to “Shadows,” I find myself, as the song finishes, getting up to lift the needle and put it right back to the beginning of the song. Many times in a row.)

Not surprisingly, “Shadows” became TMFO’s best-known piece. The song has been sampled several times, notably by Gang Starr for “Skills” in 2003. “Shadows” has also appeared on several DJ mixes, including Oneman Discovers Fresh Blood (2004) and DJ Premier’s These Are the Breaks (2008). And last year, “Shadows” appeared on a 45-rpm single, oddly backed with two unrelated songs by Cal Tjader.

III. Et Al.

The remainder of TMFO is, frankly, not much to write about. None of it has the fire or the feeling of the record’s first two tracks. Indeed, some of it borders on easy listening. But there is enough in the compositions and the soloists worth a little commentary.

The wistful quiet storm of ”A Dream Deferred” is an otherwise lovely tune dedicated to the late, great composer, arranger and saxophonist Oliver Nelson (1932-75). Thiele had produced many Nelson sessions on Impulse in the sixties and Flying Dutchman in the seventies.

The tune’s title – also the title of a 1976 Nelson compilation on Flying Dutchman that does not include this song – dates back to a Langston Hughes poem that critic, associate and Nelson’s friend Leonard Feather cited in remembrance of Nelson’s all-too short but remarkably prodigious life.

In scoring “Dream”’s melody for strings, arranger and co-composer Glenn Osser seems to nod more toward Nelson’s melodic compositional style – outside of jazz. As a waltz, “A Dream Deferred” riffs off Nelson’s “John Kennedy Memorial Waltz,” yet the song is missing something – notably a saxophone (and Phil Woods, Nelson’s old sax stand-in on many records, was even recording for RCA at the time).

A blindfold test of “Dream” would hardly suggest Oliver Nelson to anyone. Soloists include Don Grolnick on electric piano, Eddie Daniels on flute and Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff on dueling trumpets, apparently a thing on this album.

Smith’s “Summer Days” likely slides more into proto-smooth jazz, at least for those who are unwilling to call “Shadows” proto-smooth jazz. Still, that makes this piece notable, some half decade before smooth jazz became a thing. Donald Smith, often the vocalist on his brother’s records, essays nicely on flute here while Charlie Mariano solos beautifully on alto saxophone.

The cringey ”There Once Was a Man Named John,” also arranged by Osser, is Thiele’s seemingly sincere, though terribly misguided, ode to John Coltrane.

Co-written by Thiele with George Davis Weiss, who, with Thiele, wrote the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World.”

This is a song that did not need lyrics – sung by Teresa Brewer, a.k.a. Mrs. Thiele – or strings. It would have made so much more musical and emotional sense to have Mrs. Coltrane rather than Mrs. Thiele take this tribute on. It would have been more meaningful too.

To the song’s credit, American ex-pat Charlie Mariano (1923-2009) came home briefly to offer some love here on soprano sax. Mariano appeared on earlier Thiele productions by Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Chico Hamilton and Elvin Jones (notably on the album Dear John C).

TMFO wraps up with Ott’s surprisingly bland “Nice ‘n Spicy,” a generic bit of soundtrack disco that sounds like it came right out of a scene on TV’s The Love Boat. Okay, maybe it’s a bit better. But it’s not as relevant as the great disco-jazz funk of Brick’s 1976 hit “Dazz,” a likely inspiration for “Spicy.”

If there’s any “spice” here, it comes from the soloists, including Eddie Daniels – who never worked with Thiele before or since – on flute (reinforcing the “Dazz” connection), the dueling saxes of Steve Marcus and Bob Mintzer and then, on top of it all, the dueling trumpets of Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff.

V. Afterlife

RCA seemingly didn’t know what to make of The Mysterious Flying Orchestra. To be fair, Thiele probably didn’t really get – or get in to – what he was going for here (he was 54 years old at the time of TMFO). He probably didn’t even understand the audience he was aiming for. The record was likely pressed in very low quantities: there are more “demo” copies floating around in used record stores than actual issues.

Very few critics weighed in on the record; another sign this disc had an extremely limited release. In March 12, 1977, Record World wrote, rather opaquely, “Bob Thiele has assembled quite a crew, including Larry Coryell, Charlie Mariano and Lonnie Liston Smith, to create a soul-filled big band that is jazz, rock and engaging. Each cut has its own personality, from traditional (‘A Dream Deferred’) to funky (‘Improvisational Rondo for Saxophone and Guitar’).”

The radio insider one-sheet Walrus wrote on March 16, 1977, in its appropriately-named “Fringe Albums” column that TMFO was “[a]n attempt to inject fine soloing into an MOR jazz rock fusion. With featured players like Coryell, Steve Marcus, Charlie Mariano, John [sic] Faddis and Lonnie Liston Smith the plan is fulfilled. The opening track is the last usable track in progressive terms.” Ouch.

Thiele went on to produce one more album for Lonnie Liston Smith at RCA. Shortly thereafter, Thiele’s friend Ken Glancy left his post as president of RCA. Thiele himself left RCA not too long after that.

The following year, Thiele announced an ambitious new plan called the “Signature-Gramophone” family of labels. Subsidiary labels were said to include Doctor Jazz (which put out a couple Teresa Brewer records) as well as – apparently with a straight face – the “Dracula” label for “rock-related issues” and “Frankenstein” for “contemporary fusion.” A sequel to The Mysterious Flying Orchestra was also said to be part of the plan.

Of course, nothing much came of any of it. There was never any TMFO sequel.

Thiele went on to usher Lonnie Liston Smith to Columbia (where he scored a minor disco hit with a very young Marcus Miller, “Space Princess”) and produced the first two Columbia releases by saxophonist Arthur Blythe (who first appeared on the 1969 Flying Dutchman album Thiele produced by Horace Tapscott, The Giant is Awakened), both 1979.

Thiele eventually launched his Doctor Jazz label – in a distribution deal with Columbia – in 1983, reuniting with artists the producer helped launch earlier like Pharoah Sanders and Lonnie Liston Smith. Even that only lasted through 1987.

Glancy and Thiele reunited in 1988 to produce an all-star Impulse album Blues for John Coltrane while Thiele’s Red Baron label (1991-95) would end up reissuing CD versions of several of Glancy’s Finesse albums recorded in the early eighties.

It wasn’t until Red Baron – like Doctor Jazz, also owned and distributed by Columbia (1991-94) – that Thiele again put out all-star albums under his own name: Sunrise Sunset (1991), Louis Satchmo (1992) and lion-hearted (1993) – likely Thiele’s better-known albums to this day.

Thiele’s son, Bob Thiele, Jr. (b. 1955), who has, among other things, served as music supervisor on the cable TV series Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), has since revived the Flying Dutchman label. The label’s initial release is veteran vocalist Billy Valentine’s Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth (2023). Dad would be proud.