Sunday, August 29, 2021

Lee Morgan - The Complete Live at the Lighthouse

Half a century ago, the great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan put out the only live album he’d see under his own name during his all-too short life. The legendary Live at the Lighthouse was also the only double-disc set the trumpeter would see released during his lifetime; his eponymous double-disc studio set, later titled The Last Session, was issued three months after his February 1972 death.

Morgan recorded a steady stream of consistently good-to-great studio albums during the sixties for Blue Note. Indeed, Morgan was waxing records faster than the label could release them. Many showed up on LP and CD years later – and none of them could be considered a dud or what they once called a “weak sister.”

Blue Note certainly indulged the trumpeter after his 1964 hit “The Sidewinder” reversed the label’s fortunes. “The Sidewinder” also changed the way Blue Note programmed all its releases, each kicking off with a candidly up-tempo funk tune. One could say that Lee Morgan was at this time to Blue Note as the recently-departed John Coltrane was to Impulse or Miles Davis was (at the time) to Columbia.

That Blue Note didn’t give one of jazz’s busiest, best and most popular in-person performers more live recordings seems like something of a slight. But Live at the Lighthouse goes a long way to make up for all that.

Live at the Lighthouse finds Lee Morgan at his very best, with a great band and a terrific program that, surprisingly, features few Morgan originals (or fan favorites). The spotlight is on the compositions of bandmates Bennie Maupin, Harold Mabern and Jymie Merritt.

Recorded over three days in July 1970, Lee Morgan is featured on trumpet and (interestingly) flugelhorn, and is accompanied here on a West Coast swing by an absolutely incredible group: Benny Maupin on tenor sax, flute and (not enough on) bass clarinet, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums.

The original album was released in April 1971 to mostly positive reviews. Cash Box called it a “knockout,” saying “Lee has always been an exciting in-person performer and this double decker sparkles with the electricity he generates.”

The legend of the album is that, despite a double-disc offering, only four songs were issued from a weekend-long stay the Morgan quintet held at the Hermosa Beach club. Morgan and producer Francis Wolff had what Michael Cuscuna rightly calls “the unenviable task” of choosing only four tracks for LP release. Here is the detail from the original album released at the time:

Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note BST 89906):

Side One: Absolutions – Saturday, July 11, 1970, Set Four.

Side Two: The Beehive – Sunday, July 12, 1970, Set Three (“Speedball” from Saturday, July 11, Set Two, edited into this track uncredited).

Side Three: Neophilia – Sunday, July 12, 1970, Set Three.

Side Four: Nommo – Saturday, July 11, 1970, Set Three.

But everybody knew there was so much more.

Purporting to present the complete Lighthouse sessions, the Spanish label Fresh Sound issued in 1991 a two-disc Lee Morgan set titled Live at the Lighthouse ‘70. It turns out that these recordings were radio broadcasts from the Morgan quintet taped June 16-28, 1970, at San Francisco’s Both/And club – and nothing from the Lighthouse sets at all. The Hi Hat label reissued these recordings as Lee Morgan – Both/And Club, San Francisco, 1970 in 2015.

In 1996, Cuscuna, fascinated with these recordings, tasked producers Bob Belden and David Weiss with choosing one version of each of the twelve songs performed over the course of the three-day stay. The result was the following three-disc set:

Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 35228 2 8):

Disc One:

1. Introduction by Lee Morgan – Friday, July 10, Set One.

2. The Beehive [from Blue Note BST 89906].

3. Absolutions [from Blue Note BST 89906].

4. Peyote – Sunday, July 12, 1970, Set Four.

5. Speedball – Friday, July 10, 1970, Set Four (with Jack DeJohnette on drums).

Disc Two:

1. Nommo [from Blue Note BST 89906].

2. Neophilia [from Blue Note BST 89906].

3. Something Like This – Friday, July 10, 1970, Set One.

4. I Remember Britt – Saturday, July 11, 1970, Set Two.

Disc Three:

1. Aon – Saturday, July 11, 1970, Set One.

2. Yunjanna [as “Yanjana” on B0031953-02] – Sunday, July 12, 1970, Set One.

3. 416 East 10th Street – Friday, July 10, 1970, Set Three.

4. The Sidewinder – Friday, July 10, Set Three.

The Japanese arm of Blue Note edited the above program on to a single-disc set (TOCJ-6039) in 1996 with the following program: (1) Introduction by Lee Morgan, (2) Beehive, (3) Something Like This, (4) Speedball, (5) Nommo, (6) The Sidewinder. This version was also reissued in 2017 on Super High Material CD (SHM-CD) as Blue Note UCCQ-3009.

Now, we are finally blessed with The Complete Live at the Lighthouse (B0031953-02). And what a treasure-trove it is. While the program is unique and the playing is exceptional, it is amazing all of the original tape recordings have survived. Kudos to Blue Note president Don Was - who calls Morgan "the greatest trumpeter to come along since Clifford Brown and, to this day, ranks among the titans of the instrument" - and producers Zev Feldman and David Weiss for making all of this material available for the first time ever.

Morgan’s “Speedball” (a.k.a. “Speed Ball”), which served as the band’s theme (recorded in 1965 with Harold Mabern in tow), and “The Sidewinder” are, of course, featured here. But neither of these tunes are the focus of the program.

Harold Mabern contributes three compositions to the program, including the bracing “The Beehive.” Named for the Chicago club the pianist first caught Charlie Parker in 1955, “The Beehive” also factored on Mabern’s posthumously-released Mabern Plays Mabern (2020). Mabern’s memorably melancholy “I Remember Britt” – also performed by Mabern on record with Walt Bolden (1978) and Eric Alexander (1998) – rivals another distinctive composition, “Aon” (for “as of now”). “Aon” was also on Mabern’s second album as a leader, the 1968 recording Rakin’ and Scrapin, though it dates back to Mabern’s MJT+3 days.

Bassist Jymie Merritt contributes two fascinating modal workouts in “Nommo” (first recorded with Max Roach in 1966) and the dramatic “Absolutions” (also waxed with Max Roach in 1968).

The bulk of the originals, however, come from Bennie Maupin, who contributes “Something Like This,” “Yunjana” (a.k.a. “Yunjanna” and “Yunyanna”), “416 East 10th Street” and the wonderful “Neophilia” (which Maupin recorded several months earlier with Jack DeJohnette on the drummer’s Have You Heard? album and again years later on his own Penumbra).

According to Michael Cuscuna, producer Francis Wolff was so struck by Maupin’s compositions that he wanted the reed player to record for Blue Note. Unfortunately, Wolff passed away before anything could come of it. Bennie Maupin soon thereafter became part of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi (and Headhunters) band, eventually releasing his first solo record, The Jewel in the Lotus, on ECM in 1974.

While I have a long history of buying box sets I never listen to, Live at the Lighthouse has great merit and long-standing listening appeal. This is a great group, working well to make magic each of the twelve sets over three nights captured here (one of which was Lee Morgan’s 32nd birthday).

At this writing, only Bennie Maupin is still with us. Most others have left us now: producer Francis Wolff died in 1971 (shortly before the release of this album), Lee Morgan in 1972, Mickey Roker in 2017, Harold Mabern in 2019 and Jymie Merritt in 2020. Documents like The Complete Live at the Lighthouse keep the magic of great music alive – and are true gifts to those of us who marvel at any of these musicians, particularly the late, great Lee Morgan.

Live at the Lighthouse is jazz at its very best and The Complete Live at the Lighthouse may well be Lee Morgan’s masterpiece.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

High Contrast at 50

In photography, “high contrast” exhibits a full range of tones; from black to white, with dark shadows and bright highlights. In other words, the lightest colors are almost white while the darkest colors are almost black. The beautiful photo on this album’s cover is a perfect example of this: the out-of-focus flora and the Hacienda frame add texture and strong color to highlight Gabor Szabo’s haunting (or haunted?) yet inscrutable visage.

Photography aside, the album’s title is actually meant to reference the distinct contrast in musical styles of its two leaders, Gabor Szabo and the unbilled Bobby Womack. Szabo, the Hungarian jazz guitarist, was strikingly paired here with Womack, a R&B songwriter, singer and guitarist, for one of the most unique albums in either’s discography.

That the album is billed to Szabo alone isn’t surprising: Womack was hired by the label to support Szabo, its contracted artist. But given Womack’s contributions to the record, it’s odd. In May 1971, a month before the release of High Contrast, Billboard’s Ed Ochs wrote that “Blue Thumb will turn the soul spotlight on Bobby Womack, now working on an LP,” without ever mentioning Szabo.

In contrast to its parent album, however, the 45-rpm single release of “Breezin” was credited equally to both Szabo and Womack. The addition of Womack’s name is likely what landed the song, however briefly, on Billboard’s Soul chart. And when High Contrast was reissued by the British Affinity label in 1981, Bobby Womack’s name was as prominent as Gabor Szabo’s on the revised cover – but that’s probably because Womack had scored his own “comeback” hit that year with The Poet.

When I first heard High Contrast in the mid-eighties, I wasn’t particularly impressed: Womack the guitarist offers Szabo neither the ignition or engagement guitarist Jimmy Stewart provided previously nor the support and simpatico of Bob James’s keyboards later. And Womack’s brand of soul – not unlike what Isaac Hayes was doing at the time – was, to me, a peculiar match for Szabo’s brand of jazz.

”If, by the title,” wrote DownBeat’s Harvey Siders, “a two-guitar front line was the intention, then the contrast was too high. Womack is not the ideal pace-setter for Gabor and the resulting gap finds Womack’s contributions buried in the over-percussive background.” Guilty, as charged. But Womack’s contributions were far more significant than his subtle, yet seductively effective guitar playing.

Following as it does a decidedly disappointing string of Szabo records, though, High Contrast is what today would be called “high concept.” Matching an up-and-comer with a down-and-outer, however odd the coupling, wasn’t that unusual – even then. But as crazy as a Szabo-Womack pairing seems on paper, there is something about this record that works – even if it wasn’t recognized or acknowledged at the time.

Fifty years on, High Contrast is, surprisingly, among the least dated of all Gabor Szabo albums. Credit both Womack and producer Tommy LiPuma for that. What’s more, Szabo – finally freed from cranking out familiar radio hits – plays thoughtfully throughout, offering some of his finest playing on record. But the shotgun quality that birthed much of the program results in the players doing little more memorable than riffing off basic chord changes – with one notable exception.

Come On Bobby, Light My Fire

The question that looms largest over High Contrast is this: why Bobby Womack? Not only had Womack never expressed any interest in jazz – or previously (or subsequently) worked with any jazz artist (“they don’t sell a lot of records,” he once said) – Gabor Szabo had never previously assayed much curiosity or fondness for R&B or soul jazz.

There seemed to be no obvious connection between the two: neither had a musical style or approach or even a record label in common.

For Szabo, Womack may have been an appealing collaborator as the writer of “It’s All Over Now,” the Rolling Stones’ first number-one hit in the UK (also a then-recent hit for Rod Stewart). For producer Tommy LiPuma, Womack’s appeal is likely the great body of session work he did for Memphis producer Chips Moman.

For Blue Thumb co-founder Bob Krasnow, Womack scored any number of hits for Sam Cooke, Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett. And Szabo needed a hit. Szabo’s previous Blue Thumb album, the misguided misfire that was Magical Connection flopped. So, in Blue Thumb’s typically eclectic thinking, Bobby Womack was somehow deemed to be the man to deliver for Szabo.

“This was 1971 and I was hot,” wrote Womack in his autobiography Bobby Womack: Midnight Mover. “And what do people do when you’re hot? They hook you up with someone else. [T]hey paired me up with Szabo and told me to give him some of my songs. So I did.”

Given High Contrast’s strange provenance, however, one has to wonder who Womack’s “they” might be.

“Gabor was a real sweetheart of a guy,” Womack continued, “a Hungarian who’d been around since the 1960s playing jazz. Had his own little sextets and quintets, but he was fucked on heroin. Lots of talent but mad on smack.” Womack himself was mad on coke, so drugs gave Womack at least one thing in common with Szabo.

When Blue Thumb selected Bobby Womack for this project, only a handful of the singer’s singles had cracked Billboard’s Top 100. However, even those releases lingered at the lower end of the spectrum, making Womack an especially odd consideration for enhancing Szabo’s commercialization.

Ironically, though, for such a prolific songwriter, Womack’s earliest solo successes were soulful covers of other people’s songs, like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “California Dreamin.” As Szabo had become known by then for covering pop songs, perhaps the covers angle was the magical connection Blue Thumb envisioned with Womack. Oddly, though, no such covers were ultimately a part of High Contrast.

Strange as it seems, the coupling of Szabo with Womack may not be all that unusual after all. Indeed, Szabo was later paired with Philadelphia soul man Bunny Sigler for the ups and downs of Nightflight (1976). And between 1968 and 1972, R&B composer and arranger Monk Higgins scored several notable albums for Gene Harris and the Three Sounds. Higgins waxed soul-jazz albums with Blue Mitchell, Stanley Turrentine and guitarist Freddie Robinson during this period as well.

Both Womack and Higgins, interestingly enough, did records for the Minit label in the late sixties, working with some of the same players and writers. But if the producers had elected Higgins instead of Womack, High Contrast may or may not have been a more of a commercial success (my guess is no). But a Higgins album would surely be a far less memorable or elegant musical statement than the one Womack crafted with Szabo.

Coming Back to High Contrast

In 1971, Gabor Szabo found himself flush with cash – due to Santana’s hit cover of Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” – more cash than he’d ever had. But heroin had taken over much of his life. He performed erratically, sometimes falling asleep on stage, and was, by this time, unable to keep a proper band together for any length of time.

Szabo’s records of late leaned heavily toward apathetic covers of pop tunes, betraying much of the fire and brimstone promise of his early releases. Worse, Szabo hadn’t had anything near a hit or listener/critic favorite since The Sorcerer (1967) and nothing as artistically satisfying as Dreams since 1968.

Blue Thumb, a struggling independent that had recently received an influx of its own from Gulf & Western’s Famous Music group (which eventually bought the label in 1972), realized that Gabor Szabo needed more structure and guidance and was probably not the best architect of his own records. This is why Blue Thumb brought in someone else; in this case, Bobby Womack.

The recording of High Contrast began over several sessions in late October 1970. These sessions yielded Womack’s “Just a Little Communication” and “If You Don’t Want My Love,” along with Szabo’s “Amazon” and “Fingers” (with Wolfgang Melz) and an unreleased jam called “J-K Jive” (likely named for drummer Jim Keltner, on the last of five albums he recorded with Szabo). Womack almost immediately lost interest – or inspiration – and completely checked out, though there was hardly enough material for a whole album.

“I had taken a big advance from Blue Thumb,” wrote Womack, “so they called a lot, trying to catch me. They wanted to know when I had some songs for Gabor. Tomorrow, I told them. They would try the next day and I told them the same thing.

”Then Gabor would ask. I told him what I told LiPuma, said I’d be ready for the studio the next week.

”Finally, I got a call. There were to be no more excuses. They wanted me in the studio right away. I said ‘Fine, I was just about to call you. I got all the material.’ I didn’t have one song.”

Szabo and Womack reconvened in the studio in February 1971 and the rest of the album was recorded. (Notably, during this break between sessions, High Contrast engineer Bruce Botnick recorded and co-produced The Doors's L.A. Woman.) The remaining sessions (with Phil Upchurch’s electric bass added to the group) yielded Szabo’s “Azure Blue,” the unissued and curiously-titled “Junk” (slang for heroin), Womack’s “I Remember When” and, finally, the eleventh-hour revelation, “Breezin.”

The Breezin’ High

”Breezin” so memorably commences High Contrast that it deserves a discussion all its own. The song was among the last tunes recorded, but it struck everyone as the album’s signature moment. ”’Breezin’ was the thing that caught the eye real fast,” wrote Womack. “Everyone thought it would be a classic. I laughed. I had just made it up.”

Womack’s “just made it up” claim is probably not as apocryphal as it sounds. Szabo himself was known to make stuff up in the studio and call it all a song; in fact, he did it three times for this particular album (“Amazon,” “Azure Blue” and “Fingers”). This capacity for melodic invention, however, is one trait, or talent, that Womack surely shared with Szabo.

That “Breezin” opens the album – gently propelled by Upchurch’s winsome bass – and not something more up-tempo like “Fingers” or “Communication,” speaks to the spell the song cast over its makers. It casts a spell over the rest of the album as well. “Breezin” is bewilderingly beautiful and captures the appeal of a breeze in both senses of the word, much the way Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” so beautifully expresses sailing in its iteration.

The song was a natural choice for single release, but it only reached no. 43 on Billboard’s Soul chart in October 1971. The song’s startling lack of success suggests that much of Gabor Szabo’s early fan base had wholly abandoned him, likely displeased with the guitarist’s relentless reliance on pop covers. And while the success of “Gypsy Queen” had earned Szabo lots of money, it didn’t profit him much in the way of new listeners.

Carlos Santana, the man who made “Gypsy Queen” a hit, however, was himself immediately enchanted by “Breezin.” So enamored of the song was he that he wove several threads of it into the fabric of “Song of the Wind” (get it?), from his band’s fourth album, the largely instrumental Caravanserai (1972). (“Breezin” later rounded out a medley Santana included on Sacred Fire: Live in South America [1993].)

Several years later, when producer Tommy LiPuma was putting together guitarist George Benson’s first Warner Bros. album, “Breezin” struck him as a good fit for this particular guitarist. By this time, rhythm guitarist Phil Upchurch, who played bass on the original, was then part of Benson’s band – a magical connection to be sure.

For “Breezin,” Upchurch got right back on bass. This time out, though, he transformed Szabo’s legato Latinate into more of a soulful strut, thus providing the song’s now well-known rhythmic signature. The apparently reluctant Bobby Womack was invited back to provide rhythm guitar, but his “out-of-tune” part wound up being overdubbed by Upchurch in the end. Benson himself delivers a truly memorable performance, aided nicely by Claus Ogerman’s pitch-perfect sweetening.

The song gave Benson’s multi-million selling album its title and wound up as the record’s second hit single, landing at an amazing (for an instrumental) no. 63 on Billboard’s Top 100 in November 1976. (Benson’s “Breezin” was later sampled by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince for “Time to Chill” [1988] while Szabo’s “Breezin” was sampled by 2Pac for “Only Fear of Death” [1997].)

By this point, Gabor Szabo was signed to Mercury, where he was pushing his latest single, the dreadful “Keep Smilin,” Szabo’s first non-promotional 45 release since “Breezin,” five years before. Benson’s success with “Breezin” prompted the nonplussed Szabo to reintroduce “his song” back into his repertoire – to the grateful approval of his audiences.

Indeed, the Hungarian guitarist began claiming credit or co-credit for this latest “hit” in his book of tunes. There wasn’t much harm in co-opting the song’s conception, but it was entirely without legal merit – something Szabo probably knew just as well. While it is certainly possible that Szabo contributed more to the song than is known, “Breezin” will always be Womack’s and Womack’s alone.

Szabo performed “Breezin” with Benson in May 1977 as part of a Benson-oriented “guitar bash” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sadly, the two guitarists – who, ironically, were both signed to CTI Records at the same time a few years earlier – never worked together again: Benson soared (for a few more years) while Szabo continued his freefall.

Szabo’s Womack

Hardly anything that follows “Breezin” is as striking as High Contrast’s opening track. Szabo and his confederates play well on a fairly consistent program and producer Tommy LiPuma captures a beautifully crisp sound. But the distinct lack of melodies throughout subverts everyone’s best – or, at best, middling – efforts.

Szabo contributes two originals and a striking piece co-credited to Wolfgang Melz, the most he’d gifted one of his own albums with since Jazz Raga in 1966. Sadly, though, little here is as memorable as the earlier album.

The moody bolero “Amazon” adheres to what Billy Preston sang the following year: “I’ve got a song, I ain’t got no melody.” Szabo goes round in circles here, reflecting – as beautifully as ever – over a set of chord changes that could have easily been laid down for any number of minor-key pop songs. The missing melody, however, renders the otherwise appealing “Amazon” as more of a concept than a journey.

The gripping “Fingers” is, on the other hand, among the album’s highlights. Here, and on “Breezin,” Szabo – who is heard here and elsewhere discreetly overdubbing himself – is inspired to some of his strongest playing on the record.

While obviously just a jam tune, “Fingers” has a solid groove, driven by the astonishing fleet fingers of electric bassist Wolfgang Melz. Indeed, the far-too under-appreciated Melz, not Womack, offers Szabo much of the instrumental “contrast” in the album’s title; something that would not become apparent until Szabo’s underrated Rambler several years later.

Szabo strolls along nicely, propelled forward by Melz and the percussionists (listen specifically to what Jim Keltner is doing here), when suddenly out of nowhere Mark Levine’s piano thunders through. Levine, who appears nowhere else on the record, offers up one hell of a fiery montuno that makes one wish Szabo had recorded with pianists more often.

The brooding “Azure Blue,” like the earlier “Divided City” and “Somewhere I Belong,” is one of those mesmerizing sketches that Szabo could reel off in his sleep. Like its predecessors, “Azure Blue” – likely a reference to painting, Szabo’s first love – seems like the start of something great that never comes: it’s over just as soon as it gets going.

The song’s alluring mystery is aided generously by Rene Hall’s elegant strings. Hall, a guitarist himself, and Womack had worked together as far back as their Sam Cooke days. He would go on to provide orchestrations for several more Womack albums and, most memorably, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On (1973).

Here, Szabo’s painterly strings cut steely blue swaths over the white crest of Hall’s gently breaking waves: an aural canvas that’s more miniature than the masterpiece it could have been.

Womack’s Szabo

The remainder of High Contrast is given over to Womack’s “songs.” “(Just a Little) Communication” is a heady slice of R&B deeply rooted in the Memphis soul-stew tradition. Womack’s guitar sets the groove, while Szabo riffs over Womack’s sinewy lines. The melody itself is little more than a riff – it plays like a horn chart – but Szabo knows how to make it cook. The chant-like lick and Szabo’s talent for sparking off such lines make it reasonable to think they could have had a hit with an edited version of this.

Womack’s solo version of “Communication,” which gave his 1971 album its name, sounds like an altogether different song. Even though the lyric kicks off with the words “Just a little communication,” Womack bathes this message anthem in a hot Sly Stone-funk groove (anticipating the Temptations’ later hit “Shakey Ground”) that cooks with more determination than the Szabo version.

“If You Don’t Want My Love” is the album’s closest thing to a cover tune. Womack would flesh it out with lyrics, a choir and Tippy Armstrong’s acidic guitar for the version included on his Communication album. (Womack re-recorded the song to even better effect for the Across 110th Street [1972] soundtrack.) The simple, almost sing-song melody gets a lush Latin lull in Szabo’s hands, with surprising Wes-like octaves. The soloing, on the other hand, is pure Szabo: rife with pet licks that riff harmoniously over Melz’s ever-nimble bass and Flaco’s animated congas.

The album’s concluding “I Remember When” is something of a jolt – for both Szabo and Womack. Hearing it for the first time now, one might assume it’s a slice of Bill Frisell’s signature Americana. This surprisingly fully formed, though melancholic melody seemed to engage both guitarists to a degree unmatched on nearly all the rest of the record.

Womack had always been interested in country music, waxing BW Goes C&W five years after High Contrast - surprisingly without this tune or any other Womack original. Szabo had never before expressed any interest in this sort of style himself, but unleashes his creativity in the jazzier improvisational section, which also features some of Womack’s most daring rhythm accompaniment on the entire record.

Interestingly, after wrapping up High Contrast, Womack went on to play guitar on Sly and the Family Stone’s landmark album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. He would also accompany Janis Joplin on his song “Trust Me,” covered by the singer on her posthumously-released album Pearl - whose iconic cover was photographed and designed by Barry Feinstein and Tom Wilkes, the very same team behind the High Contrast cover.

Womack’s own Communication, released four months after High Contrast, became his break-out hit, reaching no. 83 on the Billboard 200 in early 1972. The album’s single, “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” was a no. 2 Soul single and reached no. 27 on the Top 100.

The Blue Finger

High Contrast was released in June 1971 to modest, almost perfunctory, fanfare.

Record World said with more than a little irony that the “[a]lbum has all the simmer of previous Szabo, but now has a new electricity” while Cashbox put it more directly: “The accent is pretty much on gently rocking jazz, but as with most Szabo disks, there is strong MOR appeal here.” DownBeat’s Harvey Siders concurred: “the end result has precious little jazz, but generous servings of Latin and soft rock.”

Listeners ignored it altogether. The album never charted and sales probably didn’t even recoup what they paid Bobby Womack for his contributions. Blue Thumb, which had captured Szabo live in early 1972 for an abbreviated album that wasn’t issued for another two years, had pretty much abandoned him too.

Szabo’s by-now apparent lack of drive and direction doomed High Contrast. Heroin had robbed him of his early ambition and the prodigious promise he once displayed. While High Contrast nevertheless contains plenty of evidence that Szabo’s brand of guitaring was still remarkably high, fewer and fewer wanted to hear him in the settings he continued to put himself in.

After several years-worth of unremarkable albums and steadily declining sales, the guitarist suddenly decided he was bored with his music. “It didn’t excite me like it used to,” Szabo told Dennis Hunt in a 1972 interview for the San Francisco Examiner. “I felt that it was time for a change.”

While in the San Francisco area for his appearance at the Concord Jazz Festival, Szabo found himself as house guest of Carlos Santana. “I lived there for about two weeks,” Szabo said. “I knew then that I wanted to play that music. I got a great feeling with them, but when I tried playing the same music with my own group, I just got an imitation feeling.”

Szabo apparently “fired” his band of “laggards” and hired more “rock-oriented” musicians, including guitarist Tom Bryant, keyboardist Tom Coster, bassist Doug Rauch and drummer Ken “Spider” Rice. “I can teach my new group my old material,” claimed Szabo, “but I couldn’t teach rock to my old group.”

This group, however – not unlike Szabo’s new-found devotion to rock – was very short-lived. Coster and Rauch soon left to join Santana, both making their first appearance on the band’s aforementioned Caravanserai. Bryant and Rice didn’t stick around either.

Gabor Szabo went on to record a very good record in Sweden that year, but few record buyers outside of that country knew anything about it at the time. The guitarist waxed the notable Mizrab for CTI later in the year, but it would not appear in stores until nearly two years after the release of High Contrast.

The Low Spark of High Contrast

Three decades later, the All Music Guide to Jazz book (2002, Backbeat Books) published my (apparent) five-star review of High Contrast, where I rightly called the record an “unusually successful pairing of Gabor Szabo with R&B legend Bobby Womack.” I also said of the overly-starred album that “Szabo digs deep into a soulful groove, inspired by Womack’s silky-smooth originals.”

High Contrast isn’t so much a study in contrasts, but a document of some of Gabor Szabo’s finest playing on record. With nary a nod to jazz warhorses or hits of the day, High Contrast shines the light on the guitarist doing what he always did best: playing his ass off.

Bobby Womack deserves credit for providing the canvas that gave Szabo the unfettered free reign to express himself so beautifully. Even if the bulk of High Contrast is lacking in strong melodies, Szabo’s abundant gift for musical storytelling more than makes up for that deficit.

If Womack’s only contribution to the album were its genuine soulfulness – the real contrast of the album’s title – it is a welcome and much-needed injection into Szabo’s by-then robotic adherence to covers of, let’s face it, too-white pop tunes.

Here, Szabo and Womack lock into a groove that the Hungarian guitarist hadn’t experienced since his 1967-68 quartet with Jimmy Stewart and Louis Kabok. But even then, Szabo hadn’t sounded this fun or funky since Jazz Raga, which was propelled if not jettisoned by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.

But Bobby Womack’s most notable – and justly celebrated – contribution to High Contrast is, of course, “Breezin.” Even if Gabor Szabo was unjustly robbed of a hit with the song, he did originate it and, in his hands, it remains among his greatest recorded performances.

After George Benson turned “Breezin” into a hit in 1976, the song became something of low-key jazz standard – especially for guitarists. “Breezin” was later covered by Hank Crawford and Calvin Newborne (1980), Alfonzo Blackwell (1996), again by Hank Crawford (1996 – with Benson’s Breezin’ bassist Stanley Banks), Szabo friend and associate Jimmy Stewart (issued in 1997, but likely recorded in 1982 at a Szabo tribute concert), Doc Powell (2003), Bradley Leighton (2005), George Benson with Al Jarreau (2006 – with new lyrics written by Jarreau), Melvin Sparks (2010) and guitarists Joscho Stephan and Bireli Lagrene (2015).

High Contrast was finally issued on CD in March 2003, unfortunately without any extras or the sessions’ previously unissued tracks (Higher Plane also reissued the album on LP and CD in 2013). AllMusic eventually replaced my review with a fine and thoughtful write-up by Thom Jurek, who called High Contrast “a truly wonderful early exercise in highly polished, funky jazz.” While this record is hardly what Jurek deemed as Szabo’s “very best work,” it is something to be cherished and a record that can please listeners of any facet of Gabor Szabo’s recording career.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 4

Along Comes Cal: This album is something of a turning point for Cal Tjader. Released in July 1967, Along Comes Cal reflects the pressure jazz artists at the time were under for “crossing over” and appealing to a younger audience – the ones buying the records. Concessions to rock and pop started infecting many jazz records, many of the best and most popular proffered by producer Creed Taylor (who was about to leave Verve for A&M). Here, you have Cal Tjader gamely covering “Trick or Treat,” “Yellow Days,” “Our Day Will Come,” “Along Comes Mary” and the Herb Alpert hit “Green Peppers.” Truth be told, they all come off pretty well – effortlessly transformed by Tjader’s gift for taking just about any melody and making it his own.

The album was initially intended to be a live recording, capturing the Tjader quintet at San Francisco’s El Matador in January 1967. A lack of commercial viability in the live set likely caused the producers to book Tjader a studio date several months later. Only Tjader’s “Los Bandidos” – featuring a nice spot for conguero Armando Peraza – survives the club date, with the remainder of the record beautifully helmed by Cuban arranger Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001). Together, Tjader and O’Farrill make the most of the material, even offering a tongue-in-cheek take on “Round Midnight.” The highlights are, as always, the Tjader originals, “Los Bandidos” and “Samba Do Sueño,” the latter prominently featuring Chick Corea.

A personal favorite here is the Afro-Cuban exotica classic “Similau (See Me Lo).” First waxed by Gene Krupa in 1949, “Similau” – which translates as “I like it” or “I liked it” in the Basque language – was covered by Dezi Arnez, Peggy Lee (whose version was used in a 2017 Samsung Galaxy Note8 ad), lounge lizards Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman and had its most recent airing in Bobby Darin’s 1964 recording. Tjader and O’Farrill fortunately forgo the jungle effects this song too often gets and delivers here an especially haunting and most Tjaderesque bolero. (To date, Along Comes Cal has yet to appear on CD; however, “Los Bandidos,” “Yellow Days” and “Along Comes Mary” were included on the 1993 CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

The Best of Cal Tjader:: Even though Cal Tjader had two more Verve albums in him, the label put out this single-disk “best of” collection. Essentially an overview of Tjader’s Creed Taylor productions, this December 1967 release is a fair – if inconsistent – summary of Tjader’s vibrant Verve output. Appearing here are “Soul Sauce,” the set’s sole hit, from Soul Sauce; “China Nights” and “The Fakir” from Several Shades of Jade; “The Whiffenpoof Song” and “Sonny Boy” from Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof; “The Way You Look Tonight” from Warm Wave; “Cuchy Frito Man” from Soul Burst; “Hip Walk” from Soña Libré; “Triste” from In a Latin Bag; and, surprisingly, “Sake and Greens” from Breeze from the East. About half of these songs were released as singles, which makes the appearance of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Triste” a special treat. No sign here of the other Tjader singles on Verve: “Weeping Bossa Nova” (the single title for “Choro e Batuque”), “People,” “Guajira en Azul” or “Trick or Treat.”

Later Cal Tjader Verve CD compilations would improve on program consistency, even if the titles were awkwardly designed to fit into one of the label’s serial themes. They include Cal Tjader: Compact Jazz (1989), Cal Tjader: Jazz Masters 39 (1994), the funky Cal Tjader: Talkin’ Verve – Roots of Acid Jazz (1996), the semi-ballads set Cal Tjader: Jazz ‘Round Midnight (1996), the notable Ultimate Cal Tjader – Selected by Eddie Palmieri (1999) and my contribution to the Cal-ebration, Soulful Vibes (2008).

Hip Vibrations: In March 1968, Cash Box called this otherwise “bright, gently swinging, highly imaginative” album – get this – Hip Vibrators. Either someone thought Tjader’s record stimulated their hips or the album was just a cool way to get off. You gotta wonder if Cal Tjader ever saw this review. My sense is that he would have laughed as, umm, hard as I did. Unfortunately, it’s just not that great a record. This wholly under-regarded and overly-arranged album splits its time between notable jazz standards, decent pop covers and the occasional bossa nova. Tjader seemed to consider this Esmond Edwards production as a positive thing. But this sort of record – and not Along Comes Cal - is exactly what the vibist began reeling against: not necessarily the requirement of dealing with pop music (which Tjader was very good at) but the phony way of “souping up” the music to supposedly make it more palatable to a wider range of listeners. Most of the record was arranged by Benny Golson – whose standard “Blues March” opens the record – while West Coaster Bobby Bryant helms a further three tracks (the title tune, “A Waltz for Diane” and “Moanin’”). The Brazilian numbers – Luiz Henrique’s Brubeck-ish bossa “Diane” and “Canto de Ossanha” – were likely included due to pressure from the label (these tunes cross-reference Verve albums at the time by Henrique and Walter Wanderley). The too-arranged “Hip Vibrations,” by Tjader, “Diane” and Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’” are among the album’s highlights – but only because of the way Tjader handles them. Herbie Hancock appears on a number of tracks, but makes his presence felt only on “Blues March” and “Django.” Jerome Richardson takes several notable solos, especially on “Blues March,” “Diane” and “Windy,” a personal favorite that favors Tjader nicely too. It’s an album that could have been better if Tjader was left to his own devices and not subject to the whims of whomever it was calling the shots to sweeten the thing. (To date, Hip Vibrations has yet to appear on CD.)

The Prophet: Cal Tjader’s final Verve record was his penultimate Verve recording. The Prophet was waxed in September 1967, three months before the bulk of Hip Vibrations but not released until March 1969, after the vibist put out two albums on his own Skye label. The delay is likely due to the program’s merciful lack of commercial or cross-over fare; on this occasion, Tjader was having none of it. The exceptional quality of the music and the performance on tap here certainly necessitated the album’s eventual release.

Even writer Herb Wong opened his liner remarks by stating simply, “This is an ecstatically beautiful album.” Indeed, it is.

Tjader’s group – here featuring Brazilian composer and pianist Joāo Donato sensitively swinging on organ – was recorded for the first time since early 1963 in Los Angeles. Don Sebesky in New York was later sent the tapes and overdubbed exquisitely tasteful strings, horns, flutes and voices (to far better effect than his occasional touches to Kenny Burrell’s Night Song, from the same period).

The album is effectively Tjader’s first of only two projects with producer Esmond Edwards, who the musician credits for this album’s success: “Working with Es was great. He understood how I felt about playing and was very receptive to the concept. I did not want any pressure on current tunes, and I did not receive such pressure.” Tjader was additionally fulsome with praise for Donato and Sebesky for contributing to the high quality and enduring enjoyment the record provides.

The especially well-programmed set of cookers and ballads is comprised of Tjader and Donato originals with one nod to Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love” (now a jazz standard, from the long-forgotten film An American Dream [1966]).

Donato – whose marvelous “It Didn’t End” Tjader covered in 1966 – delivers three tunes, more jazz than MPB: “Warm Song” (chosen by Wong as the theme to his KJAZ show), “Aquarius,” and the especially cinematic “Temo Teimoso.” Tjader’s originals, however, are the album’s highlights and include the superbly tongue-in-cheek “Souled Out,” “The Prophet” (previously heard on Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof), “Cal’s Bluedo” and “The Loner” (which the Tjader group can be seen and heard playing in another long-forgotten film, For Singles Only [1968]).

Despite professing an aversion to covering pop crap like “Trick or Treat” or “Along Comes Mary,” Tjader departed Verve to make the even-more pop-infused Solar Heat for his own label, Skye Recordings – also with Joāo Donato on board. Whatever anyone else says, everything about Solar Heat is tremendously good. I think the ironically-titled Solar Heat is a fantastic record, and surely among my Tjader favorites. It is a worthy follow-up to The Prophet and one that should be heard as, perhaps, a more pop-oriented companion to The Prophet, one of Tjader’s very best for Verve. (The Prophet was released on Japanese CD in 2015.)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 3

Soul Sauce: This iconic album was Cal Tjader’s single biggest hit and pretty much the best record he ever waxed. This, from a man who put out many fine records in his three-decade career. Soul Sauce was among the first Cal Tjader records I heard back in the mid-eighties; my affection sealed by Armando Peraza’s entrancing and infectious “Maramoor” (as “Maramoor Mambo” on the CD). But the rest of the album is similarly as captivating.

Like Warm Wave before it, there is a sense here of the producer collaborating more with the artist to capture music that has sales potential rather than merely churning out product. And it worked.

The title track is an example of such collaboration. Tjader had been performing Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s 1949 song “Guarachi Guro” since the mid-fifties. His first recording of the song was as “Wachi Wara” (1954 – later appearing on the record Tjader Plays Mambo). It quickly became a concert favorite and a Tjader staple. When Tjader came to record a decidedly greasier version of the song a decade later for Verve, it was Creed Taylor who suggested that radio DJs might struggle with pronouncing “Guarachi Guaro.” “How about ‘Soul Sauce’?” – and a hit was born.

“Soul Sauce” became Tjader’s only hit record, reaching Billboard’s Hot 100 in July 1965, while the album even cracked Billboard’s Top 100 that same year.

Mongo Santamaria’s classic “Afro Blue” was first recorded by Cal Tjader (with the composer in attendance) in 1959 – but not issued until 1962. Santamaria’s version (recorded later in 1959) had already been released, so it’s hard to say which version inspired John Coltrane’s mercurial version in 1964. But it was Coltrane’s version of the song, released earlier in the year on that turned “Afro Blue” into a Latin-jazz standard and, likely, the reason it appears on Tjader’s Soul Sauce. Tjader’s latest version, dominated to perfection by percussionists Armando Peraza and Alberto Valdes, boasts particularly nice spots for guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Donald Byrd and, of course, Tjader himself (it’s Burrell and Byrd’s only appearances on the original record).

Tjader’s working group at the time is heard throughout the remainder of the album. Even pianist, Lonnie Hewitt had returned to the fold and is heard to great advantage throughout, notably on “Maramoor,” “Tanya” and Clare Fischer’s “Joāo” (first heard on a 1962 Fischer record with Bud Shank). Hewitt, a terribly underrated composer and musician, also contributes “Pantano” and “Tanya” to the program, while sharing writer credit on the moody “Leyte” (previously heard on the unfortunate Breeze from the East).

As beautifully as Tjader & co. present the standards (“Somewhere in the Night,” “Spring is Here”), they simply don’t stand out in a program this dynamic. But they’re given a loving Latin lilt that make them fit in just as nicely even so.

(Released on CD in 1994 with four formerly unissued tracks including a rough mix of “Soul Sauce” and a hypersonic take on Tjader’s 1955 winner “Mamblues.” Also included are two songs from a session with Gary McFarland, recorded around the same time as the Soul Sauce sessions: “Monkey Beams,” known elsewhere as “Over Easy,” and “Ming,” a blues with Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Heath and Donald Byrd.)

Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof: Released in December 1965, this album takes half its title from renaming yet another Dizzy Gillespie classic, this time “Tin Tin Deo” as “Soul Bird” – also the album’s single. The awkwardly-titled Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof derives the other half of its title from the album’s opener, the strangely anachronistic “The Whiffenpoof Song.” The familiar-sounding song Is a college song long associated with Yale that likely appears at the behest of producer Creed Taylor, who recorded versions of it by the Empire City Six and the Blazers (both 1957) as well as Artie Butler in 1968. Like many movie sequels, this album doesn’t hit as many of the highs as the original slice of Soul. But it does have its moments. The first is surely Lonnie Hewitt’s tremendous “Soul Motion” and others would include the Tjader originals, “The Prophet” and “Daddy Wong Legs” (named for Herb Wong). Hewitt, who was about to leave Tjader’s employ again, is superb on piano – particularly on “Soul Motion” (a better title for the album) and on Sonny Rollins’s “Doxy.” Throughout, there is an obvious, but not quite successful attempt here to merge Tjader’s jazz, Latin and bossa tendencies into a cohesive whole. Sometimes it works – as on “Reza” and “Samba de Orfeu” – and sometimes it doesn’t. Still, this strange bird is worth a listen for those all-too brief moments mentioned above. (Reissued on CD in 2002.)

Soul Burst: The third and final album in Cal Tjader’s Soul series is an improvement over the previous set and nearly as successful as the first. Released in May 1966, Soul Burst boasts a strong program, great players – including former Mongo Santamaria accompanist and up-and-coming pianist Chick Corea – and the subtle input of arranger Oliver Nelson on several tracks. Tjader, as always, fires throughout on all cylinders.

Like its predecessors, Soul Burst anchors itself on a Dizzy Gillespie tune; in this case, it’s “Manteca” – which, this time out, does not get a “Soul” title makeover. It’s among the album’s best tracks, with incredible work by conguero (and vocalist) Carlos “Potato” Valdez, making the song over, and notable solos by the flautist, the great Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller (!), pianist Chick Corea and Tjader himself.

The album’s sole single, the catchy “Cuchy Frito Man,” likely appears here courtesy of Tjader’s Warm Wave arranger, Claus Ogerman. The song, previously performed by Ray Terrace, was published at the time by Ogerman’s music company and Ogerman himself would later cover it on his own terrific 1967 album Latin Rock and, later, arrange the tune for composer Ray Rivera’s 1968 album Latin Workout (the song was also neatly recorded by Billy Larkin and the Delegates).

The album’s highlight for me is Joāo Donato’s “It Didn’t End (Nāo se Acabou),” originally heard on the composer’s tremendous 1965 album The New Sound of Brazil - also conspicuously arranged by the aforementioned Claus Ogerman. (Makes you wonder just how much input Ogerman had on this record.)

Now a jazz standard, “Morning,” by frequent Tjader associate Clare Fischer (who first performed the song on his 1965 album Manteca!), is lovingly delivered by Tjader. Chick Corea’s terrific and far-too little-known “Oran” (originally called “Modbo Mambo”) is absolutely perfect for Tjader and elicits, perhaps, the vibist’s best solo on the record – not to mention one of the pianist’s best features.

Tjader’s originals, “Soul Burst (Guajera)” and “Curaçao,” are, of course, among the album’s many highlights. Again, the standards, in this case two Kurt Weill tunes (“The Bilbao Song” and “My Ship”), get lost in the shuffle. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth savoring; particularly given Nelson’s sensitivity and Tjader’s love for a classic melody. Soul Burst is a worthy successor to Soul Sauce; if not better, than certainly as interesting. (Released on CD in 1998.)

El Sonido Nuevo: The New Soul Sound: With Eddie Palmieri. In 1965, Cal Tjader saw Eddie Palmieri and his band, La Perfecta, perform in New York. After the show, Tjader approached Palmieri about recording with both him and his band, with four trombones and flute replacing the traditional trumpet section. Eight tunes were chosen – “Guajira en Azul,” “El Sonido Neuvo” and “Unidos” are listed as Palmieri-Tjader collaborations – and arrangements were divvied up between Palmieri and Claus Ogerman. Years later, however, Palmieri admitted the pianist and his group recorded the tracks, while Tjader overdubbed his parts later. It’s a mystery why this was done, particularly when the album’s uncredited notes quote Palmieri saying “We just got together and took off.” In truth, the record does capture an inspired collaboration that sounds more seamless than it actually is. Like the Schifrin-Tjader collaboration before it, it is best thought of as an Eddie Palmieri album with special guest soloist Cal Tjader. Their best moments together are on Tito Puente’s descarga “Picadillo” and the intoxicating “head arrangement” of the tune they call “El Sonido Nuevo.” The two movie themes may seem unusual for an album that some consider the birth of “salsa,” but they, too, are highlights – particularly for how cleverly they are jury-rigged to suit the occasion: Ogerman’s mambo-fied “Modesty” (my personal favorite tune here) and Palmieri’s inspired mozambique modification of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” (Released on CD in 1993 with three tracks each from Breeze from the East and Along Comes Cal. CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

A sequel to El Sonido Neuvo was recorded several months later for Eddie Palmieri’s label at the time, Tico. For a Tjader fan, Bamboleate (later reissued as Palmieri & T’jader) is possibly the better of the two recordings. Highlights are many, suggesting this was more of a true “collaboration” than the previous set. The leaders score their best moments on Palmieri’s terrific “Resemblance,” a Tyner-meets-Brubeck pas de deux on which both leaders shine (Palmieri re-recorded the song in 1975 with Eddie Martinez, Jeremy Steig, Mike Lawrence, Ronnie Cuber, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd) and Tjader’s beguiling “Samba Do Suenho” (covered again on Along Comes Cal). Other high points include Henry Mancini’s “We’ve Loved Before” (from Arabesque), Palmieri and Bobby Rodríguez’s persuasive “Mi Montuno,” Palmieri’s entrancing “Pancho’s Seis por Ocho,” named for producer Pancho Cristal, and the boogaloo “Come an’ Get It” (where, surprisingly, Palmieri seems to disappear altogether). (Reissued on CD in 2002).

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 2

Soña Libré: Released in May 1963, the wonderful Soña Libré is among Cal Tjader’s least known but better recordings of the sixties. “Here,” noted Cash Box magazine, “is a very pleasant amalgam of jazz, bossa nova and diverse Latin rhythms.” Indeed, the program is a smart set that balances its various genres seamlessly. It speaks to Tjader’s expert success with choosing players who can glide as effortlessly as he does along his chosen musical path. One notices instantly Cal in a new context, beautifully buttressed by the silky-smooth organ work of Clare Fischer. Fischer – inspired by Brazilian organist Walter Wanderley – doesn’t blow hot like Jimmy Smith. His is a warm breeze that complements Tjader perfectly. (Fischer returns to the piano for “El Muchacho,” “Azul” “Insight” and “Alonzo.”). Tjader reflects on Henry Mancini (“Sally’s Tomato”) and Debussy (“My Reverie”), two sources that should have appeared more often in Tjader’s repertoire. But the band originals remain the album’s highlights: Tjader’s intoxicating “Hip Walk” and “Azul,” conguero Bill Fitch’s marvelous “Insight” (which later Tjader associate Poncho Sanchez covered himself in 1991) and former Tjader pianist Lonnie Hewitt’s “Alonzo” (later heard on Cal Tjader Plugs In). (Soña Libré was among the earliest jazz CD reissues, having coming out in 1984. While it’s long been out of print, used copies are still easy enough to find.)

Several Shades of Jade: Cal Tjader goes East – and Eastern. This is the first of Tjader’s New York studio recordings and it’s got Creed Taylor’s fingerprints all over it: star soloist surrounded by a large group of studio musicians in a highly-arranged setting. Why it took this long for Taylor to assert his authority over Tjader is a mystery, but the suits at MGM likely wanted to see Tjader produce more paper jade. Bringing Tjader East to go Eastern was a canny, if not risky move. Taylor’s ace-in-the-hole was Lalo Schifrin, the young Argentinian pianist and composer who brought the world Dizzy Gillespie’s “Gillespiana” several years before.

By 1963, there was nothing new about East-Meets-West jazz. John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Mann, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and, most notably, Yusef Lateef had all covered this ground. Indeed, Joe Goldberg said in his notes to Lateef’s 1961 album Eastern Sounds that “there is a close relationship between American and Near-Eastern improvisational music.” If Creed Taylor had sought to commodify it, there was no one better suited than Lalo Schifrin to bring it about. He fashioned an elegant program that feels more authentic a fusion than such cliched kitsch as, say, Tjader’s sequel, Breeze from the East (or the Asiatic accents in Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”). Tjader just showed up and made it all sound magical.

Released in August 1963, Several Shades of Jade was called “a radical departure” by Cash Box and “[o]ne of the best disks that [Tjader] has cut in quite a while.” That may or not be, but if it is no one’s idea of a typical Cal Tjader album, it is easily one of Tjader’s finer recordings. Schifrin’s charts are tremendous and Tjader’s spots complement the music beautifully.

The album’s stand-out tracks include “China Nights,” “Sahib” and Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues” especially. Schifrin contributes “The Fakir,” “Borneo” (aka “The Ape Woman” by Jimmy Smith), “Song of the Yellow River” and “Almond Tree” – all of which are good, but more soundtrack-y than usual for Cal Tjader (who did several soundtracks of his own). Quincy Jones’s too-little known “Hot Sake,” first heard on his 1961 album Around the World, is another highlight and ends the record on a high-note (Schifrin later retooled the tune as “A Taste of Bamboo” for his 1964 soundtrack for the surfing movie Gone with the Wave).

Perhaps Several Shades of Jade is best appreciated as a Schifrin album with special guest soloist Cal Tjader. While both fare well together, it is Schifrin's fans who are likelier to find this shade of (T)Jade(r) satisfying. Indeed, Schifrin fans can consider Several Shades of Jade a dry-run for the later and widely-admired score to the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, as it too references Eastern modes and Asian scales. (Released with the album below on CD in 1997.)

Breeze from the East: Or, as Cal Tjader told Herb Wong in 1964, “[a]s far as I’m concerned, it’s Breeze from the Men’s Room. The project stinks, man.” Tjader claimed the album – hilariously billed as “the new far out Far East sound!” – is what “the powers that be” wanted. But it’s difficult to conceive how a perfectionist like Creed Taylor would willingly put out what writer Paul de Barros justly called a “ridiculous” record. Numbers such as “Cha,” “Shoji,” ”Theme from Burke’s Law,” and “Stardust” are just dumb-headed wanna-be non-starters (oriental jazz? mock rock? novelle novelty?) and all wrong, wrong, wrong for Cal Tjader. If anyone is to blame for this misadventure, it is likely to be composer and arranger Stan Applebaum. Applebaum, best known for arranging hits by the Drifters (“This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me”), Connie Francis (“Where the Boys Are”) and Ben E. King (“Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me”), was best at meshing rock-beat touches with easy-listening flourishes; an ill-advised brew for Tjader. As a sequel to Several Shades of Jade, Breeze, originally released in February 1964, is a failure of almost operatic proportions – especially as the two records are heard together on one CD. Simply listen to this album’s take on “China Nights” compared to the vastly superior take on Jade: it’s as day-for-night is to night in film or a child’s drawing is to a masterpiece. Tjader’s originals, “Leyte” (revisited on Tjader’s Soul Sauce), “Black Orchid” (1959) and “Fuji” (a retitling of the earlier “Triste”) and Tjader’s take on “Poinciana” (which goes some way to informing Gary McFarland’s 1965 take on “Bloop Bleep”) are the only respites in this barren musical desert. (Released with the album above on CD in 1997. “Fuji,” “Black Orchid” and “Poinciana” are also included on the 1993 CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

Warm Wave: After the misfire of Breeze from the East, Cal Tjader beautifully presents a ballads set here that finds him much more in his own element. Six years after his previous “with strings” record, Latin for Lovers, the program presented on Warm Wave is (surprisingly) mostly of Tjader’s own choosing. The tunes are some of Tjader’s favorites from the forties, sweetened ever so subtly by Claus Ogerman’s always lush and lovely strings. The one exception being the contemporaneous “People,” which notes writer Herb Wong correctly predicted would become a standard itself. I used to dismiss this record as a boring “easy listening” experience that contains none of the fiery or funky Latin tunes Tjader is famed for. But that ignores how beautifully and exceptionally Tjader handles a ballad. “Violets for Your Furs,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Passe” – the album’s jazziest tunes, all notably buoyed by pianist Hank Jones – are especially lovely. But the soft sambas (supported by guitarists Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney) – “Where or When” and “This Time the Dream’s on Me” – are equally as enjoyable as well. Ogerman’s “Sunset Blvd.” is surely the album’s high point and one that pianist and later Tjader collaborator Eddie Palmieri claims as being one of his favorite-ever Tjader tracks. The uncredited French vocal group The Double Six of Paris adds Ogerman-drafted vocal touches to “Poor Butterfly,” “Just Friends” and “Sunset Blvd,” laying the ground for Ogerman’s sensuous additions to Stan Getz’s 1967 album Voices. Turns out that Warm Wave, released in September 1964, was one of Tjader’s personal favorites of his own records. He considered it a template for later all-ballads records: “He would say,” notes Wong in Reid’s biography, “’Let’s do another Warm Wave’.” Finally, it should be noted that the album’s cover ranks among Tjader’s nicest presentations on Verve: from the layout and the warm colors (on heavy, glossy stock) to the italicized, lower-case font and Alan Fontaine’s beautifully-lit photograph of what appears to be a wavy sculpture. (To date, Warm Wave has yet to appear on CD.)

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 1

Cal Tjader came into my life when I discovered the 1965 Verve album Soul Sauce in the mid-eighties. I was particularly entranced by “Maramoor,” but the whole album was an aural revelation. Sampling then-recent reissues of Tjader Plays Mambo (with the great “party girl” cover) and Mambo with Tjader (both 1955) ignited my attention to and affection for Cal Tjader.

Further exploring Tjader’s Verve albums – released in the midpoint of Tjader’s recording career, between 1961 and 1969 – made me realize, though, there was a lot more to Cal Tjader than those Latin Jazz classics revealed – and for which he is justly revered.

S. Duncan Reid confirms such suspicions in his commanding biography, Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland & Co., 2013). It is a deeply researched and lovingly detailed account of Tjader’s career that, like the best in music writing, often sends the reader back to the music.

Reading Cal Tjader with verve inspired me to relisten to Cal Tjader on Verve. Tjader recorded fifteen records for the label, working with producers Creed Taylor (1961-67) and Esmond Edwards (1967-69) and many of the period’s finest arrangers: Clare Fischer, Lalo Schifrin, Claus Ogerman, Oliver Nelson, Chico O’Farrill, Benny Golson and Don Sebesky.

Here, I sound out the Latin kicks and the Tjazz-y shades of Cal Tjader’s rich and varied Verve period…

In a Latin Bag: Tjader switched from Fantasy to Verve in 1961, shortly after Norman Granz sold the label to MGM. His first album for the label, In a Latin Bag was recorded – surprisingly, given most Creed Taylor productions – in Los Angeles with Tjader’s working group featuring Paul Horn on flute and alto sax (on his terrific “Half and Half” only) and Lonnie Hewitt on piano. Armando Peraza, who was still in George Shearing’s group at the time, added bongos and the stirring “Mambo in Miami.” Released in November 1961, Latin Bag doesn’t differ much from Tjader’s Fantasy albums of the fifties. But the audio quality is significantly better than those albums (no engineer is credited). Tjader originals here include “Davito” (reprised on the 1972 album Live at the Funky Quarters), “Pauneto’s Point” and the entrancing and exotic “Triste.” Pete Turner’s cover photo makes for the classiest-looking Cal Tjader album to this point. (Released with the album below on CD in 2014.)

Saturday Night/Sunday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco: This quartet outing presents Tjader live (over two performances), this time in a jazz bag. Released in May 1962, Saturday Night/Sunday Night, whose title takes its cue from a Miles Davis record released the previous year, is one of the stronger albums in Tjader’s discography. For those who dismissed him for his Latin forays, this record proves he had real jazz chops and a genuinely exciting musical imagination. Tjader’s sole original here is the sassy and swinging “222 Time,” written as Reid says, “for the bar adjacent to the Blackhawk that housed Verve’s recording equipment.” The magnificent take on “Summertime,” “Stablemates,” Gary McFarland’s “Weep” (which never sounded more like the MJQ than it does here) and Lonnie Hewitt’s Milt Jackson-esque “Noonie’s Groove” are among the album’s highlights. Again, Pete Turner’s cover photo is a classic – and Verve’s elegant typography raises Tjader’s cachet several notches above the earlier Fantasy packages. (Released with the album above on CD in 2014.)

Time for 2: With Anita O’Day. This unlikely pairing from 1962 is likely modeled on Beauty and the Beat!, Peggy Lee’s 1959 hit album with George Shearing. Oddly, though, it works – surprisingly well – likely due to what Reid calls “O’Day’s hip phrasing and Tjader’s slick tailoring.” Ms. O’Day fronts Tjader’s group as though she was belting it out with a big band, while Tjader proves a most swinging and sensitive second-fiddle accompanist. The album boasts two genuine classics in Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape” (theirs is the original) and “I Believe in You,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (which was also covered by Peggy Lee at about the same time). The title Time for 2 probably references the two leads as much as the record’s style: the program is evenly split between the Latin kick (“Thanks for the Memory,” “Under a Blanket of Blue,” “That’s Your Red Wagon,” “An Occasional Man,” “The Party’s Over” and “Mr. Sandman”) and the jazz both leaders could do entertainingly without effort. O’Day and Tjader pair especially well throughout (a pairing Tjader matched on his final record with Carmen McRae in 1982) but the album also features other such stand-outs as “Just in Time,” with a great Tjader solo, and the torchy “I’m Not Supposed to be Blue Blues,” with Cal on (stripper) drums and pianist Lonnie Hewitt blowing blue smoke all over those keys. (Reissued on CD in 1999.)

Cal Tjader Plays the Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil: Surprisingly, for a Creed Taylor production, the impetus for this record came mostly from the multi-talented composer, arranger and pianist Clare Fischer (1928-2012). Taylor was likely influenced by Fischer’s domination because the album kind of cashes in on the bossa-nova fad that Verve was exploiting at the time. Fischer, writer of such jazz standards as “Morning” and “Pensativa” and occasional member of Tjader’s group, had recently become interested in the Brazilian records of Elizete Cardoso (for whom Fischer wrote this record’s “Elizete”) and Joāo Gilberto as well as the music of obscure Mexican pianist and composer Mario Ruiz Armengol, who is credited with five of the album’s 12 tracks. Mexico and Brazil, released in August 1962 (at the same time as Time for 2), is a lesser and unusual Tjader record, but not one without its charms. Despite the invention within, Ardeen de Camp’s ill-advised vocals on several tracks place the disc uncomfortably in the easy-listening exotica domain of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman – something that would not at all appeal to Tjader fans. But the album’s opener, “Vai Querer” and its closer, Laurindo Almeida’s magnificent “Chôro e Batuque” (first heard on a 1960 album by the guitarist – and issued as a single with the title “Weeping Bossa Nova”), are surely the album’s highlights. Almeida, an early promoter of the Bossa Nova, guests on this album and his appearances on such tracks as “So Ė Tarde, Me Perdôa,” “Nāo Diga Nada” and “Tentaçāo do Inconveniente” make this music absolutely worth hearing. (Reissued on CD in 2000.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

¡Viva Cal Tjader!

Today is the birthday of Cal Tjader, one of jazz’s greatest vibraphonists and the man who single-handedly revolutionized Latin Jazz. Sadly, the world has been Tjader-less for an amazing 39 years now. But the sheer volume of recorded music he left behind on vinyl, CD and streaming keeps him vibrantly alive.

Born Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr. in St. Louis, Missouri, on this day in 1925, Tjader’s affinity for music led him quite easily to jazz. But from early trips to New York City, his discovery of Cuban music inspired him to weave elements of the two styles together – something no one else was doing at the time. If he didn’t single-handedly invent “Latin Jazz,” then he certainly helped define it and made it more popular than just about anyone else.

Most likely, though, he would demur. “Latin jazz?” he was asked when queried in 1976. “I thought it was called salsa today. It really doesn’t make a bit of difference. The same type of music was first called Afro-Cuban, then modern mambo, then Latin jazz, and now it’s salsa. Mambo-jombo.”

But the jazz critics were miffed. Harvey Siders, perplexed by the Tjaderization of jazz, asked “What’s a nice Swedish boy like you doing in a bag like this?” Such a question seems, at best, hypocritical (all jazz is a fusion of some sort) and, at worst, a bit racist. Tjader succeeded at bringing musical worlds together that weren’t that far apart in the first place.

But so much of the ink spilled on Tjader’s genre gymnastics – for the record, plenty of straight jazz and all-ballads sets pepper his discography – overlooks or ignores just how exceptional a vibraphonist Cal Tjader was. He was – and remains – one of jazz’s all-time greatest vibes players, arguably outshining both Lionel Hampton, his hero, and Milt Jackson, in whose shadow Tjader never escaped.

Tjader – in performance and on record – always had an exciting sense of rhythm; likely the result of tap dancing as a child. It was what excited him about so much Latin music. He also had a keen sense of melody – a romantic, he loved the “old” songs – and an exceptional way to make even the banal (“Tra la la Song” leaps to mind) sound interesting.

And he wasn’t limited only to the vibes: Tjader was often heard and seen on piano, drums (a chair he swapped with the vibes in Dave Brubeck’s trio), congas, bongo, timbales and assorted percussion instruments.

As a soloist, he was simply masterful. He always balanced the melodic and the rhythmic with just the right amount of fun and adventure. Pictures of Tjader playing always show him hunched over his vibes like a novelist sweating over a book. He worked hard to deliver a good performance, clearly having a good time in the process.

He was a generous leader as well, attracting like-minded collaborators – terrific players and writers, too. Just some of the people in Tjader’s band over the years include Mongo Santamaria, Vince Guaraldi, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Pete and Coke Escovedo, Clare Fischer, Chick Corea and Poncho Sanchez, as well as local legends Lonnie Hewitt, Bill Fitch and Johnnie Rae.

As recounted in S. Duncan Reid’s lovely and lovingly comprehensive Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland & Co., 2013), Tjader “was a major success story.” The vibraphonist transcended racial and cultural barriers and was internationally revered.

From the early fifties until his death on tour in the Philippines in 1982, he consistently played clubs, campuses and festivals in and around his native San Francisco, all along the West Coast, New York, Mexico, France, Japan and Puerto Rico.

Tjader was a prolific recording artist as well. He recorded over twenty albums for Fantasy between 1954 and 1962, fifteen for Verve between 1961 and 1969 (including his biggest hit, Soul Sauce, in 1965), four for his own Skye label, a further thirteen for Fantasy between 1971 and 1979, and a half dozen albums for Concord up to his death, including the Grammy-winning La Onda Va Bien (1980).

Since his death in 1982, Cal Tjader has been honored by tributes from former associates Clare Fischer (1988), Poncho Sanchez (1995) and Tjader-ized (1998), vibraphonist Dave Samuels’s honorific featuring such Tjader-ites as Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Michael Wolff. Additional hommages à Tjader include those recorded by Louie Ramirez/Paquito D’Rivera in 1986, Gary Burton in 2001 and conguero Frankie Piñeiro (with Kenny Drew, Jr.) in 2017.

In this twentieth-first year of the twenty-first century, there seems some danger that Cal Tjader might be little more than a memory. Reissues (and celebrations) of Tjader’s music – on CD or vinyl – have pretty much ground to a halt.

Sure, budget labels churn out compilations of Tjader’s out-of-copyright Fantasy albums. The 1968 album Solar Heat got a vinyl release in 2019. And Japanese CDs of The Prophet (2015) and Soul Sauce (1965) came along in 2015 but are now very hard to come by.

But that’s where the music world is this day and age: everything streams. The major labels no longer bother with non-canonical “catalog” CDs (or vinyl); they just don’t sell. Tjader streams too. But streaming provides only a fraction of Tjader’s Verve albums (notably the ones that have appeared on CD), a minority of the Fantasy albums from the 70s and only some of the Concord albums that concluded Tjader’s recording career. That said, there is still much Tjader to savor.

Check out old vinyl or used CDs (or stream, if you’re so inclined); whatever it takes to hear Cal Tjader. Remember Cal by listening to the legacy he left. My recent listening activity has taken me to drink in the Tjader-ade of the vibist’s Verve albums (to be reviewed in a later post). And nearly four decades later, I’m still enthralled. (I discovered Soul Sauce circa 1986.)

One thing that strikes me is just how timeless much of Tjader’s music is. Even on the mambos (which scream fifties fluff) or the AM pop covers “Along Comes Mary” and “Never My Love,” Tjader sounds consistently fresh and relevant – not to mention consistently consistent; whatever bag (and time-period) Tjader is in, there is no question who is doing the date or manning the mallets.

With few exceptions, there is little that dates Cal Tjader’s music or its presentation. Happy birthday, Cal Tjader. Thank you for the many gifts you left behind.