Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rediscovery: The Mysterious Flying Orchestra

Bob Thiele (1922-96) is best remembered as a producer who oversaw a great many historic jazz sessions from the 1940s through the 1990s, most notably supervising Impulse recordings during its golden period (1960-69). The producer is most appreciated by jazz listeners for giving John Coltrane carte blanche to record exactly how he pleased and as much as he pleased while at Impulse.

What's not so well known is that Thiele recorded a number of albums under his own name, including Thoroughly Modern (1967), Do The Love (1967), Light My Fire (1967, with Gabor Szabo), Head Start (1970, with Tom Scott), Those Were The Days (1971), The 20s Score Again (1974), I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood (1975, with Oliver Nelson), Sunrise Sunset (1991, with David Murray), Louis Satchmo (1992) and Lion Hearted (1993).

It's an odd lot, to be sure, and there's not a classic in the bunch. Thiele, whose participation on these records was limited to "musical director" and occasional percussion, gathered some of the high-caliber talent he'd nurtured elsewhere to play some music that was probably a little outside their usual scope of interest. No doubt, they were glad to get a paycheck. But, even as strange as some of it is, there are buried little treasures to be found here and there that will have appeal to fans of each record's almost legendary musical participants.

One of the more notable treasures in this lot is a Bob Thiele album that doesn't even bear his name - or anyone else's! - called, enigmatically enough, The Mysterious Flying Orchestra (TMFO - one wonders if the letters were meant to convey something else). Issued in early 1977 on RCA, where Thiele's Flying Dutchman had recently been folded into extinction, this LP - which is unlikely to ever see the light of day on CD - comes across almost as a joke…until you listen to it.

The LP's cover is enough to put off even the most ardent crate digger. It bears the strikingly strange airbrushed image of the middle-aged Thiele, thumbs up Fonzie style, in a vintage 20s-era pilot's get up. Wasn't Snoopy doing this sort of thing in The Peanuts too? This goofy pose inspired the equally silly icon for Thiele's Doctor Jazz logo and again (!) for his later Red Baron imprint. The back cover lists no song titles and criminally neglects musician credits (mysterious, indeed!) and sillies up the proceedings by picturing a number of musicians as bats - yes, bats - flying around a hilltop castle.

TMFO, though, is a star-studded fusion bacchanalia that, unlike so many other projects under Bob Thiele's name, gets much more right than wrong. An impressive array of jazz soloists are present here, including Larry Coryell, Steve Marcus, Eddie Daniels, Bob Mintzer, Lonnie Liston Smith and Charlie Mariano and the cream of New York's session players: Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff, Don Grolnick, Gene Bertoncini, Jerry Friedman, Wilbur Bascomb (a key point of the album's success), Andy Newmark and Guilhermo Franco.

This mysterious orchestra really gets down to it and flies particularly well on the record's first side, or "side one" for those of you that remember LP-speak.

Horace Ott's "Improvisational Rondo For Saxophone And Guitar" starts things off in a roaring way, fading in from the ether to reveal a rambunctious, startling piece of jazz funk. The groove may call up disco to many, but what's going on is clearly freeform jazz engaging with orchestral flourishes in a soulful, get-down setting. Ott lays down a thumping funky rhythm that seems to pick up a pace firmly in line with the players' adrenaline. Driven by Wilbur Bascomb's energetic bass patterns, Ott embellishes with some striking and playful string work that evolves and grows more interesting as the groove deepens. On top of all that, Larry Coryell's guitar matches wits with Steve Marcus's soprano sax and both play freely in and around all the fascinating lines Ott spins. Coryell featured on Marcus's earliest recordings, which explains the ideal synergy the two share here on this first-rate funk jam.

Lonnie Liston Smith contributes two pieces to the album, including the wonderfully moody "Shadows," up next. Smith, whose earliest records were supervised by Thiele, had already recorded "Shadows" and "Summer Days" for his 1975 album Expansions (Flying Dutchman). Smith's melody is rather slight, which requires TMFO, in Ott's arrangement, to create the right atmosphere, perfectly voiced by the horn section. Smith is heard beautifully dancing throughout the piece on electric piano, offering a voice that was already one of the instrument's most distinctive at this point. Marcus solos on tenor sax.

Next up is "A Dream Deferred," Bob Thiele and Glenn Osser's tribute to Oliver Nelson, a frequent Thiele associate, who had died shortly before this recording was made. It's vexingly appealing. It's like a waltz that never gets going, but manages to sustain interest through some well-considered playing. Horace Ott's gorgeous strings carry the melody and the solos are by Don Grolnick on electric piano and Eddie Daniels on flute. Thiele would later resurrect this theme, to decidedly lesser and lazier effect, on David Murray's MX (1992), but here the title - which comes from Langston Hughes - gets a cheesy dedication to "JFK, Malcolm, John Coltrane, etc." with no mention of Nelson whatsoever.

Side two of TMFO is substantially less interesting, but not altogether awful, with Smith's "Summer Days," a MOR fusion number showcasing worthy solos from brother Donald on flute and Charlie Mariano on soprano sax (Lonnie does not play), and Horace Ott's mildly funky "Nice 'N Spicy" (in a David Matthews bag), featuring Daniels on flute and Marcus and Bob Mintzer on dueling tenor saxes. The less said about Theresa Brewer's vocal feature on the sappy "There Was A Man Named John" (for John Coltrane), the better. Mariano solos here too.

TMFO is a strange, not altogether perfect album. But if funky fusion made by some of jazz's best improvisers appeals to you, this record's first side is absolutely essential. Considering side two as the album's "bonus tracks" makes the meaty content seem pretty brief. But it's 19 minutes of exciting music that's worth hearing over and over again.


RBSProds said...

Douglas, thank you so much for the information on this strange and wonderful 'killer' band formed and recorded by the legendary Bob Thiele. "Shadows" has been on my 'best of the best' cassette tape for years. Now "Shadows" and another song from the MFO is up on YouTube. So between the song and your great review, we finally have the personnel. I always knew about Lonnie Liston Smith and Steve Marcus, from a recording I made off radio in Kansas City in 1979, but I had no idea what a killer band this was. Thanks a million. I'll pass the info on, over at YouTube.

Anonymous said...

I still have this LP and I play it a couple of times a year just to hear 'Nice N Spicy', my favorite jam on the album.

I was a big time Bob Thiele and Lonnie Liston Smith fan back in the 70's.


Anonymous said...

I picked this up in the alte 70s and still listen to it few times a year. My initial attraction was Larry Coryell (was a hugh fan at that time) but allowed me to get into SL Smith and others based on this LP. I'd say for any 70 fusion jazz collection, its worth to find a copy that may not be appreciated by its current owner

James D. Stilwell said...

Douglas, I imagine "There Once was a Man Named John" is just too romantic or sentimental for your taste. I rank the Teresa Brewer tune right beside Sinatra's "Time After Time" and "In the Wee Hours of the Morning" Tears of joy flow with that music. Sappy and Jazzy evidently move on opposite sides of the universe. JDS

Andrew said...

As I recall, the tune "I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood" is a beautiful ballad played by Clark Terry.

I have the Lp somewhere in storage - but no means to play it in any case -

I'd like to find digital files of some of Thieles' Lps -

Anonymous said...

Love this album. Got it when it came out. None of my Prog friends liked it, i just liked the vibe. all these years later, still listen to it fairly regular for that smooth honey-like jazzfunk sweetness

Robbie said...

Beautiful flowing jazz funk featuring masters of their craft. I love finding albums on YouTube that I'm "diverted towards", and in this case, gratefully so. (As of June 2020, the whole album is available on YouTube)

Unknown said...

This is a long shot but if you are willing to part with the LP i would extremely happy to buy it from you.

Gene Taylor said...

I bought this album when I stationed in Hawaii in 1977. I love it to this day, in particular the bass line in, There once was a man named John. Wilber Bascom was awesome on that cut.