Saturday, May 23, 2009

John Blair "Southern Love"

Talented and handsome violinist John Blair (1943-2006) had a sadly limited career. He was a creative and interesting violinist who had a hand in inventing and/or attempting to popularize an electric violin known as the Vitar, a cross between a violin, a viola and a guitar, that probably didn't become all that famous because it sounded like, well, an electric guitar.

Somehow, Don Sugarcane Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty made much greater names for themselves on the violin in the jazz world at the time - one as a cult fave and one as a pop phenomenon - than the unfortunate Mr. Blair. There were also fusion albums by violinists Michael Urbaniak, Didier Lockwood and others at the time. Perhaps John Blair just never had the opportunities the others had. Who knows.

Blair's work can be heard on a rather too-short list of jazz albums including vibist Freddie McCoy's Funk Drops (Prestige, 1966), Harold Vick's Watch What Happens (RCA, 1967), Alice Coltrane's Universal Consciousness (Impulse, 1971), Leon Thomas' Blues And The Soulful Truth (Flying Dutchman, 1973), Esther Phillips' Capricorn Princess (Kudu, 1976) and Mongo Santamaria's Dawn (Amanecer) (Vaya, 1977) - more in the background, though, than as someone with the strong voice John Blair truly possessed.

Blair is also featured, however briefly, on Lalo Schifrin's theme to the short-lived TV series "Most Wanted," which appeared on the composer's album Towering Toccata (CTI, 1977). "I've used an electric violinist [here] who is fantastic," Schifrin enthused in a November 27, 1976, Melody Maker article. "His name is John Blair. He uses a five-string violin which goes to a low C like a viola. He plays very soulful, like Jean-Luc Ponty only more funky."

This 1976 album is the second of only four solo albums ever issued under John Blair's name. Mystical Soul (A&R, 1971) was the first, We Belong Together (CTI, 1977) was the third and The Master Creed, the electric violinist's only CD issued by the artist himself in 2004, was the fourth and final album, when Blair began to call himself John Ellington Blair to tap into his distant relationship to Duke Ellington.

Southern Love is an engaging musical experience that deserved better than it got. Musicians in John Blair's "Back-Up Band" are unknown, unless I'm missing an insert sleeve giving credits. The back cover gives no musician credits whatsoever; however, there is a picture of one "John Lewis" on the back cover.

This John Lewis, who is not the MJQ pianist John Lewis, is a drummer who is, I think, the guy who ended up as the drummer in Prince's instrumental group Madhouse. Lewis issued an album that same year titled Traveling with the John Lewis Sound (Finite, 1976), featuring Blair along with Karen Joseph on flute, Alex Foster on tenor sax, Bob Sardo on keyboards and Paul Metzke on bass. So it's a safe bet that these folks also constitute Blair's "Back-Up Band" for the Southern Love album.

The sweet electric program consists mostly of Blair originals, that, truth be told, really aren't that original. But the pieces are consistently engaging and often sound similar to much of the captivating music Tom Scott was writing and performing at the time.

Blair's instrumentals often suggest other tunes, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. For example, "Southern Love" suggests a mix of "Motherless Child" and "Summertime." "Sunburst" opens with a suggestion of "Concierto de Aranjuez" (which Chick Corea had recently parlayed into his own "Spain"). "Searchin' Uptown" is reminiscent of Gene Ammons' "Jug Eyes." And "Tower of Fantasy" uses an "Inner City Blues" bass-line to build its good groove (Blair went on to play with Marvin Gaye and even issued a CD of a 1978 concert the two performed together). Truth be told, though, all of these foundations are enough to launch any talented instrumentalist like Blair off onto their own good thing.

Unfortunately, most of the songs are far too short to allow Blair to get into a good jazz groove, wending as they do into a radio-friendly three-minute range. Whatever the reason for this was, there is a lack of improvisation here that many jazz fans - and anyone who wants to hear Blair explore the Vitar - will miss.

Still, what is here is worth hearing. Blair is a tremendously exciting soloist on the Vitar, offering something not unlike what a rock guitarist would deliver; always engagingly melodic and something you could almost hum along to after one or two listens.

It's a shame that the songs' short playing time don't give Blair the opportunity to strut his stuff. His brief solos suggest that maybe improvisation is not his thing. That's a shame for the listener. In spots, he can sound like Tom Scott on tenor (on the rousing "Hot Pants") or even like Scott on his own electrified sax, the lyricon ("Southern Love"). But, one will be left with the wish to hear more of Blair's Vitar here.

Blair leads with vocals on "I Sent My Son," "This is the Last Time" and "Sugar Plums" (where he whistles too) and while he's a pretty good vocalist in a Jon Lucien sort of way, it deprives the already attenuated program of his vital but too-brief Vitar playing (only "Last Time" features the Vitar…on the fadeout).

Blair, like flautist Jeremy Steig, whose 1975 Columbia album was also overseen by the great impresario John Hammond, left - or was relieved of - the Columbia label in 1976 to pursue a sole album on CTI Records. Blair's We Belong Together,though, is not the album Southern Love was, leaving more than quite a bit to be desired.

It's hard to detect Blair's presence on the CTI album. His vocals dominate and there are precious few opportunities for him to expound on the Vitar.

The CTI album is a strange mix of old rock tunes like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," peppered with an odd preponderance of tunes from England Dan and John Ford Coley ("We Belong Together" and "Don't Feel That Way No More" come from the duo's 1977 album Dowdy Ferry Road) and that duo's hits-writing guy, Parker McGee (who wrote "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" and "Nights Are Forever Without You" - here with two tracks from the author's eponymous 1976 album, "Got That Feeling" and "Feather Lite & Honey Smooth").

Only Blair's own disco-y original "I'm A Wizard" even registers on the David Matthews-arranged CTI album. A hit that never was. But then, sadly, John Blair mysteriously disappeared from the musical radar and all of these albums, which will probably never find their way onto CD, fell off the face of the earth, pretty much forever.

While Southern Love never feels like enough, it is worth tracking down, though, to experience what is here. It's not often the satisfying artistic experience it could be. But it is a very worthy example of how good not only violinist John Blair was but how good fusion could be.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Michel Colombier "Michel Colombier"

French composer, arranger and pianist Michel Colombier (1939-2004) not only contributed a great deal to the musical wealth of the latter half of the 20th century in a variety of genres, but also worked with an abundance of the world's great artists of the period in such diverse fields as music, film, dance and art.

He's crafted hits with Pierre Henry (the classic "Psyché Rock"), Petulia Clarke, Herb Alpert and others and worked on any number of big-name projects featuring Madonna ("Die Another Day"), Barbra Streisand (Emotion), Earth Wind & Fire, Bill Withers, Branford Marsalis, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Supertramp, Paul Anka and Flora Purim.

He's scored dozens of films and TV programs including Jean-Pierre Melville's final film, Un Flic (1971), and Phillipe Lardo's Jean-Paul Belmondo starrer L’Héritier (1973) in his native France and Purple Rain (1984), Against All Odds (1985), White Nights (1985), The Golden Child (1986), New Jack City (1991), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and Madonna's Swept Away (2002) in Hollywood.

Colombier's association with the great Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon (1934-2005) - whose cover art can also be seen on a great many of the LPs and CDs by guitarist Steve Khan - yielded three positively wondrous watercolors on album covers for Colombier himself; surprisingly, though, not this one, which was contributed by New York artist Cynthia Marsh.

Colombier's music can also be heard at the Folon Foundation in Belgium, serenading patrons to the otherworldly wonder of Folon's illustrations, sketches, paintings and watercolors. Colombier's art-world connections even landed famed designer/illustrator Milton Glaser (b. 1929) for this album's follow-up, Old Fool Back On Earth (Columbia, 1983).

Michel Colombier, oddly issued by the otherwise non-jazz label Chrysalis in 1979, was one of only about four or five Colombier albums issued under his own name, the second of three Colombier albums issued in the U.S. and the only one of the leader's albums that can properly be credited as a fusion album (the 1983 album is more of a concept album, with fusion undertones).

The production here was helmed by hit-maker Denny Diante, who'd produced huge hits for Paul Anka ("One Man Woman, One Woman Man," among others), Tina Turner ("Acid Queen"), Major Harris ("Love Won't Let Me Wait"), Maxine Nightingale ("Right Back Where We Started From," "Lead Me On"), Johnny Mathis and Denice Williams ("Too Much, Too Little, Too Late"), Sheena Easton, Neil Diamond, B.B. King and others.

But prior to Michel Colombier, Diante had almost no experience whatsoever in jazz - indeed, hardly any after this either. This may explain the lack of focus in evidence here and the fact that none of this music ever hit. Certainly, none of it made a dent at the radio, on album sales charts or even, sad to say, among the fan bases of the many iconic musicians featured here.

Apparently Diante had asked Michel Colombier and Larry Carlton to come up with a jazz fusion version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, similar to the huge hit Deodato scored in 1973 with "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)" - not even considering the fact that it had been done before by Raymond Fol, another Frenchman and, like Colombier, a pianist, who had scored the tremendous 1965 Philips album, Le Quatre Saisons with a coterie of top-shelf French and American jazz musicians. Colombier refused and apparently this album was the result of whatever compromise emerged.

It's not a bad album. In fact, there's some good playing and some good writing to be heard here. It's just that nothing's terribly captivating. Nothing's very memorable. It all feels, well, like no one's heart was really in it - including Michel Colombier. This probably explains the eponymous title on the oddly un-jazz label (it is worth mentioning, though, that French pianist Jacques Loussier issued two tremendous "Bach Jazz" sets on Chrysalis about five years after the Colombier album). It just seems like no one really cared.

The album pairs a small group of first-rate jazz stars of the time with the London Symphony Orchestra for a classy fusion set that promises much but delivers surprisingly little. The orchestra is rather unobtrusive for the most part and the set never feels like one of those orchestrated fusion discs of the period. But there is never a cohesion - hardly surprising due to the album having recording locations in Los Angeles, Miami and London - nor much inspiration present.

But check out the up-front talent on board here. Michael Brecker, Tom Scott, Herbie Hancock, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Gadd and Peter Erskine all contribute significantly to the program.

In addition to the keyboard fills and features the leader provides, Michael Boddicker, Jerry Knight, Airto Moreira and Ray Parker, Jr. all provide name-brand-recognition support outside of the spotlight.

"Sunday" starts the album off well enough with a good piece of driving fusion, showcasing Herbie Hancock on a rather indistinct Moog solo (which he does again on "Take Me Down"). Hard to believe that you'd pay to put Herbie Hancock on your album and have him solo on one of the most anonymous instruments imaginable. But bassist Jaco Pastorius provides his classic touch to this piece, so much so, that he nearly dominates it from the rhythm section.

"Sunday," "Queens Road,"(featuring Lee Ritenour) "Overture" (featuring Larry Carlton) and "The Dancing Bull" (featuring Tom Scott) offer some of Colombier's best examples of jazz fusion - all first-rate efforts by any standard - with good intentions, good construction and good playing. Unfortunately, it all just comes up one or two straws shy of a full bunch.

"Dreamland" is a beautiful piece driven by Jaco Pastorius' lovely, melodic and almost crying bass lines. Carlton solos here in that weeping way that suggests the tune's sadness or, perhaps, its incompleteness. Colombier's composition isn't as memorable as the performances the players offer it, which is a shame.

The same could be said of Michael Brecker's feature on "Bird Song," another lovely performance that seems to be one card short of a full deck. The song itself derives as much from Stevie Wonder's "As" as much as it prefigures "Just The Two Of Us," one of the loveliest pop song performances ever.

"Layas" features remarkable solos by both Carlton and Brecker (backed by a Tom Scott-like horn section), and tremendously generous support from Pastorius on bass. The disco-fied "Do It," which was also the album's single and 12-inch dance single, doesn't spotlight any particular soloist - other than Colombier's synthesizer lead - but evidences nice bits of dueling clavinets from Colombier and Herbie Hancock (Hancock again featured on an anonymous keyboard!) and the dueling guitars of Larry Carlton and Ray Parker, Jr.

"Spring" - which also appears on the 2002 CD compilation Colombier Dreams - seems to be the only connection to the album's Vivaldi origins, but in name only. The piece finds Larry Carlton, Jaco Pastorius and Michel Colombier seemingly trading fours, as it were (get it?), with the LSO.

"The Dancing Bull" brings Tom Scott, in his only appearance on the album, to the fore on his signature-sounding lyricon, ably supported by a beautiful fusion bed of Colombier on Fender Rhodes and (Scott's former L.A. Express partner) Larry Carlton on guitar.

The classically-inspired, but brief, "Autumn Land" finds the solo pianist engaging with the LSO. This piece also sounds the most like a film-soundtrack piece - which is not bad, but it's at odds with everything that's come before it.

Truth be told, there was far too much music coming out of the fusion era that was sadly so indistinct as to be generic, which helped obliterate the movement…or slide it ever so regrettably into the "smooth jazz" genre.

Colombier's music deserved better. A different label? A different producer? Certainly the high-caliber of star players here probably deserved better too. High priced session players Lee Ritenour, Steve Gadd and Airto Moreira are almost superfluous here. There is even a feeling that these guys were told to blend in rather than shine. A true shame for players of this magnitude.

As a result, Michel Colombier is one of those fusion albums that boasts a first-rate cast that ends up in a second-tier performance (and unfortunately too many bargain bins). It's good, but hardly great.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

West Coast Fusion

While there was much great jazz fusion that came out of both coasts during this period, some of the most definitive - and least known - came from productions helmed by Esmond Edwards (1927-2007) for the ABC-Impulse label during what is often considered its "declining" years.

Edwards, a photographer who became a producer for many jazz labels during his career including Prestige, Verve, Cadet/Chess, ABC/Impulse, JAM and other labels, had already committed a number of significant classics to wax by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson, Gene Ammons and many others when the ABC people transplanted him to L.A. in 1975.

At about this time, jazz was defined by fusion music and the biggest and best proponent of the genre, CTI Records, had more or less dried up on inspiration, talent and just plain hits. Many other labels - especially the majors - tried doing their own version of this sound, sadly to little or no avail.

Yes, there was the occasional hit. "Birdland" by Weather Report. "Theme From Rocky" by Maynard Ferguson. "Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James. But no significant "sound" - other than, perhaps, Bob James' slightly later Tappan Zee productions - was making an indentation like the West Coast sound producer Esmond Edwards was now overseeing at ABC Impulse during the label's waning years.

Certainly, this music bears no resemblance to anything the label issued in its preceding 13 or 14 years. Indeed, the jazz music industry was nothing like it was when CTI overlord Creed Taylor founded the Impulse label in 1961. Nor was the industry like the many varying and definitive Bob Thiele productions the label spawned during its best years (1961-69) - even Thiele's Flying Dutchman label was confounded by the changing interests in jazz by this point.

When Impulse hired veteran producer Esmond Edwards in 1975, they were looking for cash-money hits. The execs didn't care about the artistic integrity the label was founded on or the wacky artistry that Thiele lent the label. They wanted hits. Not classics like A Love Supreme. They wanted stuff that sold - whatever that meant.

Quite the challenge Edwards faced. But he did it with aplomb, producing music that was probably a bit out of his comfort zone - but never fouling afield of his artistic instincts. He showcased some of the West Coast's best - and most neglected - talents, coupling them with some of L.A.'s best musicians, admittedly mostly from the studios, but when you read the line-ups, you'll bristle at the who's-who of talent assembled on each of these albums.

This isn't a complete list by any means. But my intention is to showcase several albums whose work typifies the sound that makes "West Coast Fusion" of the mid-1970s as wonderful as it remains to this day.

Brass Fever - Brass Fever (ABC Impulse, 1975): Among the first of the real West Coast Fusion sets producer Esmond Edwards brought out, this "trombone choir" featuring Kai Winding, George Bohanon, Charlie Loper and Garnett Brown, isn't really the exciting jazz-meets-fusion thing a listener would hope for. Wade Marcus provides the arrangements. But the tunes (Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Donovan's odd-choice "Sunshine Superman" and Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack") and the settings just aren't that memorable. Good solos are heard from the trombones, Jerome Richardson, Lee Ritenour and Sonny Burke. But the settings just don't bring it home. The hardly brassy "Bach Bone" is as good as it gets here.

Warm & Sonny - Sonny Criss (ABC Impulse, 1976): The West Coast Charlie Parker, Sonny Criss (1927-77), turned to fusion at the very end of his career and with his last two albums, turned out some marvelous work that's all but forgotten today. This tremendous album features Criss at his best playing with L.A.'s best session musicians, backed by Wade Marcus' perfectly swinging arrangements. Wade Marcus gives this set more soul than one would expect - particularly on the string-driven pop covers of "The Way We Were" (with harpist Dorothy Ashby, who is notable in several other instances), "That's The Way of the World" and "Bumpin'" (which sounds nothing like Sebesky's original prototype for Wes Montgomery). Lee Ritenour has never sounded better than he does here - almost completely diving into his always interesting Wes bag ("Cool Struttin'," "Bumpin'," "Sweet Summer Breeze" and "Blues for Willie"). Sonny Burke also contributes hugely to the success of the album on electric piano. But Criss sounds simply magnificent throughout, particularly on such showcases as "Memories" and "Blues for Willie." Highlights: "Cool Struttin'," "Bumpin'" and "Sweet Summer Breeze".

Hard Work - John Handy (ABC Impulse, 1976): This album brought John Handy (b. 1933), the former Mingus alto saxist and a bit of a free-form thinker in his earlier life, back from academia to records after an eight-year absence. The title track turned out to be the Impulse label's first hit since Ray Charles' 1961 single "One Mint Julep." The fusion-styled record was conceived between Handy and producer Esmond Edwards, who both fought against the avant-garde artistry of Handy's previous records in favor of something that would reach more people, similar to the way Grover Washington, Jr. was hitting at the time with Mister Magic (Kudu, 1975). The funky "Hard Work" hit with many radio stations, propelling John Handy into a spotlight he'd never known before, allowing him to take a million-dollar contract with Warner Bros. in 1978. It isn't the typical West Coast Fusion set, with Handy getting support from a tremendously talented small group featuring South African keyboardist Hotep Cecil Barnard (aka Hotep Idris Galeta), guitarist Mike Hoffmann, bassist and former New Yorker Chuck Rainey, drummer James Gadson, percussionist Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Zakir Hussain on tabla (three tracks only). Handy takes several vocals too ("Blues for Louis Jordan," "Didn't I Tell You" and "You Don't Know"). Highlights: the "Caravan"-esque "Young Enough to Dream," "Love For Brother Jack" and the funky "Afro Wiggle."

Metamorphosis - Wade Marcus (ABC Impulse, 1976): This extraordinarily fine album is one of the few that was issued under prolific arranger Wade Marcus' name. It is a treasure and among the best albums featured in this lot. Cleveland native Marcus, who has arranged an amazing amount of work you probably didn't even know he had a hand in like Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life," Yvonne Elliman's brilliant - yes, brilliant - cover of the Bee Gees' "If I Can't Have You" and Peaches and Herb's "Reunited," has created an intoxicating program here that is brought to life with the cream of L.A.'s session players, highlighted by some of the best rhythm and string work ever laid down. The two-part "Metamorphosis" features Lee Ritenour and Joe Sample on the "funk" part and Jerome Richardson and Red Holloway on the "swing" part. Producer Esmond Edwards' well-conceived "Sugar Loaf Mountain" is a feature for the guitarist Lee Ritenour (who had a band at the time called Sugar Loaf Express) on acoustic guitar. Marcus' own "Journey To Morocco" features Jerome Richardson and Joe Sample. "Poinciana" features former Blue Note-r Fred Jackson (who became a West Coast session player in the 70s) and Joe Sample. And there's a slightly reggae take on Elton John's "Daniel," beautifully helmed by the unbelievably little-known Dorothy Ashby on harp and Buddy Collette's wondrous but too little-featured flute work. The mysterious session guitarist Marlo Henderson - who is not listed here as a musical contributor - contributes two fairly worthy jazz-funk tracks, "Would You Like To Ride" and "Funk Machine." The string sections Marcus adds throughout are miraculously beautiful - some of the best string work you'll ever hear over funk or disco beats. This obscure album, which will likely never see the light of day on CD, is absolutely worth every penny on LP.

Time Is Running Out - Brass Fever (ABC Impulse, 1976): Despite replacing boners Kai Winding and Charlie Loper with Maurice Spears and the great Jimmy Cleveland as well as adding a number of trumpeters, the second of the two Brass Fever albums is less concerned with the brass and more on the groove. This is a good thing. Time Is Running Out is a significantly more interesting album than the first Brass Fever album. Arranger Wade Marcus is replaced here with McKinley T. Jackson, who had been instrumental in many of the soul hits by The Dramatics, Lamont Dozier, Angelo Bond and his own group, McKinley Jackson and the Politicians. Soloists here include (former James Brown man) Pee Wee Ellis on tenor sax, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Oscar Brashear on trumpet and George Bohanon on trombone. The covers here - the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' it to the Streets," Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman," Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" (!) and the Jackson Five's "Dancing Machine" - are far funkier and seemingly less labored than the covers Marcus helmed on the previous release. Highlights include covers of Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" (later covered by The Clash and The Specials, here with a splendid solo by Lee Ritenour), a gorgeous disco take of Gershwin's "Summertime" (done up like Grusin's Baretta theme) and, well, yes, golly, Esmond Edwards' own "Funky Carnival" (like on "Dancing Machine," great strings).

Carnival - John Handy (ABC Impulse, 1977): Some of the recording for alto saxist John Handy's second and final ABC Impulse album was done in New York, though it's hard to tell what was done where. It's still a very good example of late 1970s West Coast Fusion. Most of the musicians (and soloists) listed, including Lee Ritenour ("Carnaval," "Make Her Mine" and "Christina's Little Song" only), Larry Carlton ("Love's Rejoicing" only), Sonny Burke, James Gadson and Paulo DaCosta (Paulinho Da Costa) are all West Coast fixtures. Carnival carries through the ideas saxist Handy and producer Esmond Edwards laid out on the equally successful Hard Work. Handy ratchets down the vocals here a bit from his previous effort, with verses and singing on "I Will Leave You" and "Make Her Mine" (the b-side to the 45 of the album's track) only. Guitarist Mike Hoffmann is probably the most notable soloist here apart from Handy, who sounds just wonderful throughout. Highlights: The African-esque title cut, the bluesy "Watch Your Money Go," the funky "Love's Rejoicing" (good solos from Larry Carlton and Sonny Burke here too).

The Joy Of Sax - Sonny Criss (ABC Impulse, 1977): The great alto saxist Sonny Criss released this wonderful album shortly before he committed suicide after contracting painful and debilitating stomach cancer. None of the saxist's pain is evident here in these beautiful sides, which almost prefigure the unfortunate smooth jazz thing that happened at least five years after the saxist's November 1977 death. For, as always, he sounds sax-ually sensual and flawlessly swinging throughout. It is amazing this guy isn't better known - even among jazzers. It's also amazing how striking he sounds here. Arranged and conducted to near perfection by Wade Marcus, The Joy Of Sax features two seemingly requisite Stevie Wonder covers ("Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" and "Have A Talk With God"), above average pop covers of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "You Are So Beautiful," the jazz-connected cover of Oliver Nelson's timeless "Stolen Moments," a dance-floor hopeful, "Turn Me Loose" and Criss' own "Midnight Mellow." Marcus adds strings rather gloriously to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "You Are So Beautiful," "Stolen Moments" and Criss' own "Midnight Mellow" with horn sections he arranged for the remaining tracks. Highlights: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (of all things!), "Turn Me Loose" (with Bill King on electric piano and Lee Ritenour on rhythm guitar), "Stolen Moments" (with Blue Mitchell, Lee Ritenour and Patrice Rushen) and "Midnight Mellow" (featuring Lee Ritenour).

African Violet - Blue Mitchell (ABC Impulse, 1977): After serving tenures at Riverside (1958-61), Blue Note (1963-69), Mainstream (1971-74) and RCA (1975-76), the great trumpeter Blue Mitchell (1930-79) joined the ranks of the all-but dying Impulse label for his final two albums. The first of these, African Violet, finds the underrated trumpet player in excellent form, surrounded by a fairly small group of L.A.'s finest including Sonny Burke on keyboards, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Scott Edwards on bass and either James Gadson or Harold (sic: Harvey) Mason on two tracks on drums. Mitchell trades fours with the always wonderful tenor saxist Harold Land (1928-2001) on five of the album's seven tracks and Herman Riley (1933-2007) on the other two tracks ("Mississippi Jump" and "African Violet"). The rousing program, arranged by McKinley Mitchell (no relation), kicks into gear on side two, with an electrifying cover of Stevie Wonder's ubiquitous "As." There's also a wonderful cover of Don Sebesky's "Forget," which dates back to a 1968 Dot album by trumpeter Jack Sheldon called The Warm World Of Jack Sheldon (as an aside, Mitchell and Sebesky have only been recorded together on two 1971 pieces featured on Stanley Turrentine's CTI compilation The Sugar Man). Mitchell, Ritenour and Land are positively entrancing here. There are also two tunes presented by the great composer and pianist Cedar Walton: the ultra-funky and otherwise unknown "Square Business" - with great solos from Lee Ritenour and Harold Land - and the almost unrecognizably delivered "Ojos de Rojo." Walton figures largely in the trumpeter's career, with the two first working together in New York back in 1962 and the pianist featuring Mitchell on many of his solo records between 1968 and 1975. Blue Mitchell's playing on this album is positively flawless - and, really, a sound that should be much better known than it is today. This album also makes a case for how good fusion was for jazz. Yes, it's electric. But even electric playing can generate its own kind of electricity.

Summer Soft - Blue Mitchell (ABC Impulse, 1978): Trumpeter Blue Mitchell's final album is this wonderful fusion concoction, featuring arrangements by Phil Wright and, on three cuts, Cedar Walton. It's Blue Mitchell at his finest, mixing good straight-ahead playing with soulful wit and verve. This album is similar in many ways to Mitchell's previous album, with two Cedar Walton tracks ("Try Not To Forget" and "30° to the Wind," which also figures on the pianist's 1981 album Piano Solos and his 2001 album The Promise Land) and another Stevie Wonder cover originally featured on the composer's magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life - in this case it's "Summer Soft," which originally featured Ronnie Foster's organ. The same group backs Mitchell as before - which suggests that some, if not all, of this material dates from the earlier session - with tenor saxist Harold Land on three tracks ("Try Not To Forget," "Summer Soft," "30° to the Wind"), Herman Riley on one track (Mitchell's "A Day At The Mint," a song that actually recalls Riley's own "Yeah Ya Right," that Mitchell performed with Riley on the 1973 Mainstream album Graffiti Blues) and the addition of Eddie Harris on his own "Funkthesizer" (Harris also solos rather unremarkably on this rather too-unremarkable song). Pianist Walton is also featured on three tracks here, but only solos on "A Day At The Mint," while Richard Tee is, oddly and most distinctively showcased on "Love Has Made Me A Dreamer." Ritenour solos magnificently - but only - on "Love Has Made Me A Dreamer." Despite its many good points, Summer Soft isn't the best Blue Mitchell album by far - but it is a very good way to hear Blue Mitchell doing what Blue Mitchell does best: provide entertaining fare with artistic flair.

Where Go The Boats - John Handy (Warner Bros., 1978): This mixed-bag affair follows the dissolution of Impulse and saxophonist Handy's acceptance of a million-dollar contract with the mighty Warner Bros. (home at the time to power-sellers like George Benson and Al Jarreau). But it's definitely worth sampling and, at least sound-wise, very much part of the West Coast Fusion movement that Handy was part of when he was with ABC Impulse. Like so many other formerly individualistic producers as Joel Dorn (Atlantic), Tommy LiPuma (Blue Thumb) and Bob Porter (Prestige), Esmond Edwards became a producer for hire. But he helmed this effort, Handy's first of two albums for the huge Warner Bros. empire, giving it that distinctive nod which ties it into the previously-noted Impulse titles. Many of the characteristic players are on board here, notably Lee Ritenour on guitar, James Gadson on drums and Abraham Laboriel on bass. The title track has an appropriately "Breezin" vibe, with Handy singing and Ritenour providing attractive fills. Of note here is the funky jazz of "Moogie Woogie" (with a great synth solo, probably by Ian Underwood), the fusion-y ballad that should have been more of a hit, "Erica" (also again, presumably, showcasing Underwood and a beautiful, near-unrecognizable Ritenour on acoustic guitar) and "Go For Yourself" (great soloing by Handy himself). Handy also solos magnificently on the otherwise negligible "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the goofy "She Just Won't Boogie with Me" (on saxello) and "Salud to Sonny" (probably a tribute to fellow alto saxist Sonny Criss, who, like Handy, was part of this West Coast Fusion movement, and had died shortly before this album was recorded).

There are certainly many other albums to include in this list. But the few productions Esmond Edwards helmed during this time certainly attracted the A-list cadre of West Coast fusioneers - and many first-rate performances to boot.

These albums all had first-class casts performing first-class fusion at a first-class level that was almost unheard of anywhere else.

Sure, there was David Rubinson plugging the always perfect (but hardly West Coast specific) and prolific Herbie Hancock production. There was also former Crusader Wayne Henderson, who brought out any number of B-list West Coasters with his At Home Productions. There was also The Crusaders themselves, not to mention the high-and-mighty Quincy Jones who, again, made whatever project he touched sound universal.

But none were as definitive in whatever could be deemed as "West Coast Fusion" as these far too few recordings helmed by photographer, producer, songwriter and egalitarian East Coaster, Esmond Edwards.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rediscovery: Tys van Leer "Nice To Have Met You"

Classically trained flautist, keyboardist and master yodeler Thijs van Leer (b. 1948, Amsterdam), whose first name was Amercian-ized to "Tys" for this album (it's also appeared as "Thys" elsewhere), came to prominence in the late 1960s as part of the internationally famed Dutch rock band Focus. The group also spawned guitarist Jan Akkerman, who surprisingly recorded the surprising Aranjuez (CBS, 1978) with Claus Ogerman the same year as this album by his former Focus partner.

Nice To Have Met You (Columbia, 1978) is Leer's fourth solo album - following larger-scale solo projects arranged by Rogier van Otterloo (Rita Reys, film scores for the early films of Paul Verhoeven) and Paul Buckmaster (Miles Davis, Elton John, Carly Simon) - and the first that ever saw the light of day in the United States.

It's a tremendous slice of jazz fusion that gathers its name from the flautist's first visit to the United States in November 1977. Leer, as writer B. Lynn Micale notes on the album's back side, "was overwhelmed by the sincerity and friendliness of those he encountered. And, at the end of every conversation, a phrase which struck him as being typically American, recurred, '…nice to have met you.'"

In these days following the plentitude of America bashing abroad, it's hard to say if this was meant ironically or not. But it seems sincere enough. It sounds sincere enough too, mostly because there is a distinct chemistry between the mostly American session musicians and their Dutch leader.

This Ralph MacDonald-Tom Scott production prominently features Leer's story-like compositions, with Tom Scott giving the "American" touch to "My Sweetheart," "Nice To Have Met You (Concrete)," "Pastorale" and "Rosebud" and William Eaton arranging the remaining four tracks.

Leer is heard on flutes and synthesizers throughout, backed more than capably by a first-tier rhythm section of prominent New Yorkers including Richard Tee on keyboards, Eric Gale and Steve Khan on guitar, Anthony Jackson on bass, Ralph MacDonald on congas and percussion and, oddly enough, the brilliant West Coaster Harvey Mason on drums.

Fellow Focus guitarist Eef Albers is also on hand (with solos on "Nice To Have Met You" and "Hocus Pocus") as well as a horn section of New York session royalty on four cuts ("Hocus Pocus," "Super Ffishell," "My Sweetheart" and "Nice To Have Met You"), strings on three cuts ("Pastorale," "Nice To Have Met You" and "Rosebud") and background vocalists, including Gwen Guthrie, on two cuts ("Bahama Mama" and "Super Ffishell").

The album's best tracks are all found on side two, starting with "Tonight beneath the Sky," a Caribbean-styled groove that sounds as if it could have been inspired by Eric Gale, but finds Leer overdubbing catchy flute licks overtop Tee's grooving, fluid electric-piano lines.

Next best is "Rosebud," which could have perfectly found a home on any number of Tappan Zee albums - and inspiring Leer to, perhaps, his best performance on the record (Tom Scott's minimal string work here crosses Claus Ogerman's Benson groove with Wade Marcus' flourishes for West Coast jazz guys at the time).

The hardly subtle "Super Ffishell" is a happy funk piece that suggests Intimate Strangers/Street Beat-era Tom Scott, and even benefits by Scott's only tenor sax solo on the record (I think Scott takes an uncredited lyricon solo on the title track too). Leer doesn't have much to do here, but his engagement with the groove and his semi-sparring with Scott make it all worthwhile.

Leer plays his "Pastorale" as if to suggest Swedish flautist Bjorn J:son Lindh. But the muscular rhythm section propels the flautist far above the proceedings to deliver an entirely different message altogether, caressed by the engaging, lilting funk of Scott's witty string writing (Scott's characteristic horn writing in "Nice To Have Met You" is something to behold too).

William Eaton gives "Bahama Mama" a Stuff-like groove (Gale's solo drives the point home) and the flautist provides perhaps the strongest performance of this tune heard on record. The song was earlier performed by the song's composer, Alphonso Johnson, with Eric Gale, Steve Khan and Ralph MacDonald, as part of Montreux Summit (Columbia, 1977), an earlier concert that also showcased Leer on other selections. Scott and Khan recorded the song again with Johnson for Alivemutherforya (Columbia, 1978), so it's safe to say these guys knew the song. But, here, they really do something with it.

Anybody wandering into this album looking for connections back to Focus won't be disappointed either. Leer gives attention to two Focus-era tracks, most prominently, a very rock-oriented remake of the group's 1971 worldwide hit "Hocus Pocus" (written by Leer with Akkerman, originally from the 1970 album Focus II, which was later re-titled Moving Waves) complete with Leer's distinctive and strangely unforgettable ("oh yea!") yodeling.

The album's opener, "My Sweetheart," which originally appeared on the 1975 Focus album Mother Focus, is audibly driven by guitarist Steve Khan and wouldn't sound out of place on any of his first three solo albums (especially his second album, The Blue Man, recorded shortly after Leer's, also with MacDonald).

All in all, a great album - which, of course, is unlikely to ever see the light of day on CD - and not nearly as weird or as unusual as the Magritte-styled cover artwork by Richard Hess, allegedly commissioned by the great designer (and personal hero of mine), Paula Scher. Scher's hand in the design is immediately evident in the album cover's typography.

As an aside, it might interest some to note that Tys van Leer, Tom Scott and William Eaton add handclaps - yes, just handclaps - to Bobbi Humphrey's funky "Home-Made Jam," a groove penned by William Eaton, from Humphrey's album Freestyle (Epic, 1978), which in addition to featuring Nice to Have Met You's Ralph MacDonald, Richard Tee, Eric Gale and Anthony Jackson in the rhythm section, was produced at the same time by Ralph MacDonald.

Thanks to Pekis and the original poster, you can download the album here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rediscovery: Doc Severinsen "Brand New Thing"

Back in fusion's glory days, so many records were coming out that more than a few were bound to get lost in the shuffle, even if they were made on major labels by name guys like Doc Severinsen.

But no one expected the loudly-dressed bandleader of The Tonight Show to put out a fusion album like Brand New Thing (Epic) in 1977 either and, as a result, the album was one of those that got lost in the sands of time and never found the audience it so richly deserved.

Severinsen (b. 1927) was a session player in New York City back in the early 1960s and was caught on many fine jazz records, particularly many of the orchestral jazz discs of the day. The trumpeter also issued many easy-listening albums on the Command, Project 3 and RCA labels while he helmed the highly-visible post as Johnny Carson's bandleader on TV for many years.

Severinsen signed with the Epic label in 1975 and issued Night Journey, a foray into the pop and disco world that yielded something of a dance-floor hit in "I Wanna Be With You," a "Pick Up The Pieces"-styled groove that worked well enough to convince people to hear Doc Severinsen in a whole new way.

Then came Brand New Thing, which really was a whole new thing for Severinsen. Oddly, Epic seems to have done almost no promotion whatsoever for this record. The Columbia family of labels, of which Epic is a part, had a fairly clever "Individuals" campaign to promote their heady list of first-rate jazz and fusion releases and, for whatever reason, Brand New Thing was not part of it all.

Odd, since this production was helmed by the great Tom Scott, who was riding high on his excellent "Gotcha" theme from Starsky & Hutch and his fusion classics with the L.A. Express, not to mention definitive work on pop hits such as "Jazzman," "Listen To What The Man Said" and high-profile work with Joni Mitchell and George Harrison as well as countless others and was, of course, part of the "Individuals" campaign. So many fusion greats are also featured here that it's absolutely mystifying why the label didn't get behind the album and support it (probably because Severinsen's TV gig prevented him from touring to support the record himself).

Brand New Thing is one of Scott's few productions for someone other than himself - another, flautist Tys van Leer's terrific Nice To Have Met You (Columbia, 1978), will be discussed later - and is in that classic groove that Scott laid down on his own solo albums New York Connection (Ode, 1976) and Blow It Out (Epic/Ode, 1977).

Assembled here is a first-rate group of fusion's best musicians that seemed so ubiquitous at the time. Sessions were obviously done in both New York City and L.A. with Tom Scott on tenor sax, clarinet and lyricon, Richard Tee on keyboards, Eric Gale and Lee Ritenour on guitars (while these two fantastic guitarists were featured shortly thereafter together on the very worthy Sugar Loaf Express, Ritenour seems almost superfluous as Gale gets all of the solo nods here), Anthony Jackson on bass, Rick Marotta on drums, Ralph MacDonald on percussion and, on three tracks, four cellists (Edgar Lustgarten, Kathleen Lustgarten, Ray Kelley, Jan Kelley) sparingly deployed.

Tom Scott contributes his distinctive compositional flair to nearly the entire program with such strong tunes as "Midnight Flite," "Fernando's Fantasy" and "Soft Touch." He also co-writes "Do It To It" (which seems tailor-made to be a single, although I can't find evidence that Epic issued any singles from this LP) with Severinsen and "Chicken Chatter" with Rick Marotta and G. (probably Jerry) Marrotta.

Backed with Scott, Tee and Gale's characteristic chemistry, Severinsen certainly seems to have wandered into one of the better Tom Scott albums ever made. But it is keyboardist Richard Tee's distinguishing touch on the keyboards that gives the record its most audible signature and provides the strong foundation which makes it ultimately as alluring and enjoyable as it is - even though he takes no solo features on the album. The pianist also contributes his own "Virginia Sunday" to the program, something he'd later perform himself with Gale, Scott and MacDonald on his 1979 solo debut, Strokin' (Tappan Zee, 1979).

Severinsen's playing is quite a surprise here. He doesn't seem to be overwhelming the proceedings - as he could on occasions prior to this - as much as contributing most remarkably to them. The trumpeter gets downright lyrical, notably on "Midnite Flite," "Soft Touch" (both on flugelhorn), a pastoral, somewhat majestic, take on "Shenandoah" and "There Is A Girl," one of the stronger of Ralph MacDonald and William Salter's many compositions (which was later covered by drummer Idris Muhammad on his 1993 CD My Turn).

Severinsen grooves just fine on the up-tempo pieces as well, without ever dominating them, letting his accompanists provide the fills to make it varied and interesting, like many a good jazz album did prior to the fusion era.

Brand New Thing is not only a very good fusion album, it is a very good jazz album and certainly one of Doc Severinsen's very best. Indeed, the trumpeter was later to say that he also thinks this is his best album.

There's probably very little chance this fine record will ever see the light of day on CD, so it's well worth tracking down on vinyl, particularly if you consider yourself a fan of Doc Severinsen, Tom Scott, Richard Tee or Eric Gale.

Thanks to Pekis and the original poster, you can download the album here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hot Jazz: Alphonso Johnson

Bassist and Chapman Stick extraordinaire Alphonso Johnson (b. 1951, Philadelphia) has had a distinguished career in music. His earliest recorded gig was as part of Philly's fabled Catalyst (1972-1974). But he ascended to international fame as part of the jazz super-group Weather Report (1973-76: Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin' and Black Market), replacing Miroslav Vitous (Johnson was replaced in the band by Jaco Pastorius).

His Weather Report gig led to good recordings with Cannonball Adderley (Lovers), Norman Connors (Romantic Journey), Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), Quincy Jones (I Heard That!!), George Duke (The Aura Will Prevail), Flora Purim (Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, That's What She Said) and even resulted in Allan Holdsworth's oddly revered Velvet Darkness (CTI, 1976).

Johnson's first solo album, Moonshadows (Epic, 1976) was a star-studded affair featuring Gary Bartz, Bennie Maupin, Patrice Rushen, George Duke (as Dawilli Gonga), Lee Ritenour, Blackbird McKnight, Narada Michael Walden, Leon Ndugu Chancler and Airto, recorded when the bassist was only 25 years old.

He recorded another two albums under his own name - including Spellbound (Epic, 1978), pictured purposely above, the last of his three albums for the Epic label - as well as further sessions with Billy Cobham, Lee Ritenour (Captain Fingers), Eric Gale (Multiplication), Chet Baker (You Can't Go Home Again), Bob James (Heads), Ronnie Foster (Love Satellite), Jan (Janne) Schaffer (Bla Passager), The Crusaders (Live In Japan), Arthur Blythe (Put Sunshine In It), Jeffrey Osborne (Stay With Me Tonight), Sarah Vaughan (Brazilian Romance) and Phil Collins (Face Value).

Spellbound also includes Johnson's wonderful near-hit "Bahama Mama," which first appeared on Flora Purim's That's What She Said (Milestone, 1976) and was later featured as part of Johnson's appearances on Montreux Summit (Columbia, 1978) and Alivemutherforya (Columbia, 1978) as well as a Japanese LP, Aurex Jazz Festival '80 that I've never heard (and a cover without Johnson by Swedish flautist Tys van Leer on his great 1978 album Nice To Have Met You).

Still performing, Johnson, whose stark good looks and handsome countenance could have made him a successful model or leading man, has gone on to anchor more recent recordings by Santana, The Meeting, Abraxas Pool, Jazz Is Dead and Sergio Mendes and has lately appeared live with former Santana great Gregg Rolie, the Manhattan Transfer and Danny Gotlieb.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Question: Compost "Life Is Round"

Having no idea this music even existed, I was startled to find this album recently featured in the magazine waxpoetics (No. 29) as part of their always revealing re:Discovery section.

Writer Maxwell Schnurer picked up the Compost album Life is Round (Columbia, 1973) at a thrift shop for twenty-seven cents. As I have since discovered, the rest of us can't find this album anywhere without taking out a second mortgage on the house. Not many copies were printed - and not too many copies remain in the public domain.

(At last check, eBay had no listings for this - but that could change at any time - currently lists two 8-track tapes and GEMM lists a few copies starting at $75.00.)

Quite the discovery indeed, Compost features such multi-talented, multi-instrumentalists (composers, etc.) as Harold Vick, Jack DeJohnette, Bob Moses, Jack Gregg and Jumma Santos. On this, their second album, they are also joined by Roland Prince, Ed Finney and, on vocals, Lou Courtney (on Jack Gregg's "Moonsong") and Jeanne Lee (on Bob Moses' "Life Is Round").

Their eponymous first album (Columbia, 1972), was an odd attempt to make some sort of rock statement, laced as it is with vocalists awkwardly singing rather other-worldly lyrics. It's like Santana on a very, very off day.

Life is Round, however, perfects their strange and glorious alchemy. It is a near brilliant piece of jazz-rock (and funk) that has artistic and accessible written all over it.

I downloaded my pristine copy from Smooth's fantastic blog My Jazz World…and I can't thank him enough or properly show my gratitude for this music as well as much of the other incredible posts he provides on his site. I would have never heard this music otherwise. Never!

Wanting to read more about the album, I was stifled by the lack of information on the Internet about this group or this tremendous piece of musicianship…that is, until I discovered this recent posting on the Old And New blog. This insightful and well-written posting even suggests there may have been other Compost recordings that were never released!

So, dear reader, here is my question. I swear I've heard both Jack DeJohnette's "Compost Festival" and Harold Vick's "Buzzard Feathers" somewhere else before.

But where? Cover versions? Re-titled as something else? Compilations (which seems unlikely)? I just don't know. I've searched both out to absolutely no avail - and it's driving me crazy. Does anybody know where else these songs might have appeared?

Arild Andersen "Molde Concert"

This August 1981 concert recording featuring Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen's fascinating and perfectly assembled quartet with John Taylor on piano, Bill Frisell on guitar and Alphonse Mouzon on drums was first issued by ECM on LP in 1982 with seven tracks and again on CD in 2000 with 11 tracks - to almost no avail in both cases.

The 1982 LP was issued by ECM as A Molde Concert with typography only and no art whatsoever and the 2000 CD, titled Molde Concert, was issued with one of ECM's typical Nordic-style photos - and Frisell's name not so mysteriously acceding over Taylor's name in the cover credits.

It is a superlative performance, catching all four musicians - at varying stages in their careers - delivering a wonderfully unified performance that should have probably proven to be more exemplary than it did. Perhaps it's the fact that this concert took place in Norway. Hardly the center of renowned jazz; at least, perhaps, until this recording.

Andersen (b. 1945), who had already racked up experience with Jan Garbarek, Karin Krog, Don Cherry, George Russell, Roswell Rudd and Charlie Mariano among others, somehow formed what could now be considered this all-star quartet.

British pianist Taylor (b. 1942) probably had the longest list of accomplishments at this point, accompanying at various points in his long career, John Surman, Johnny Dankwaorth, Volker Kriegel, Mike Gibbs, Harry Beckett, Cleo Laine, Kenny Wheeler and (his wife at the time) Norma Winstone.

Mouzon (b. 1948), of course, had already traversed through Weather Report and the bands of McCoy Tyner, Larry Coryell and Gil Evans, as well as his own recordings for Blue Note and MPS (and the Jeremy Steig album mentioned below).

Frisell (b. 1951) was probably the newbie of the bunch, having made only a few appearances on record by this time, from Hal Wilner and Eberhard Weber to Mike Metheny, but sounding like a pro - much more rock-ish than usual - every step of the way.

"Cherry Tree" is fusion in an acoustic mold, with Taylor assuming a Corea-like mantle. This is the way jazz is supposed to be. The quartet carries its repartee through on the creative and inspired "The Sword Under His Wings" (featuring an excellent duet between Andersen, on bowed bass, with Mouzon in all his glory - and, later, one of Frisell's interesting solos) and wraps up on the engaging and enterprisingly jazzy "Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony," a (probably) Miles Davis song from 1967 which first appeared on the trumpeter's 1976 record Water Babies.

"Targeta" and "Koral" (carried largely by Frisell) are reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's European quartet recordings, particularly those on ECM (surprise, surprise) that lean toward the gospel side of things.

Frisell, who at this early point in his career had developed something of his own sound, channels a bit of Pat Metheny's vibe, thus furthering the ECM connection - but what a glorious sound indeed: mixing the soul of jazz with the ache of rock.

Frisell is outstanding on "Six for Alphonse" - which also features strong parts for Taylor, Andersen and the titular Mouzon as well. The guitarist engages beautifully with Andersen on the guitar-bass duo of "Lifelines," which is a precursor to the music this duo made on Frisell's debut In Line (ECM, 1982). Frisell stands out on "Cameron" and "A Song I Used To Play" as well.

Taylor shines throughout, of course, and is most notable on the near-funk take of "Commander Schmuck's Earflap Hat."

Andersen contributes all but one of the program's compositions and is beautifully spotlighted on "Nutune" (with Frisell providing beautifully customary washes of supportive sound) as well as his own "Cameron" and "A Song I Used to Play."

Aside from all the interesting things going on during this set, it is interesting to note that Arild Andersen later featured both trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft in his band long before anybody ever heard of them.

Molde Concert remains something worth hearing and savoring.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Family Guy - Bag of Weed

A brilliant and hilarious show piece from the excellent Family Guy episode "420," which originally aired April 19, 2009. This season, the show's seventh, proves that it just keeps getting better, smarter and funnier with other excellent episodes like the brilliant "Family Gay," "The Man With Two Brians," "FOX-y Lady" and "Not All Dogs Go To Heaven." The music is unmistakably by Walter "A Fifth of Beethoven" Murphy.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Patrick Williams "How to Beat the High Cost of Living" performed by Hubert Laws and Earl Klugh

Patrick Williams' score to the 1980 film How to Beat the High Cost of Living is a witty, engaging piece of jazzy fusion that surely ranks its composer as the Mancini of the fusion generation. The Williams soundtrack to Blonde (Playboy Jazz, 2001), proves that he even transcends the now less-than-critcally-acceptable fusion genre.

How to Beat the High Cost of Living is a pure delight through and through and the perfect accompaniment to this breezy, light-hearted film about three suburban housewives (Susan Saint James, Jane Curtin and Jessica Lange) who plot to rob a mall to get the cash they need to survive their suburban lifestyles.

Patrick - or "Pat" as he was known early in his career - Williams (b. 1939) has scored hundreds of films, TV movies and TV shows but was probably best known at the time for his rousing theme to the hit TV show, The Streets of San Francisco (1972-76).

In addition to the film soundtracks that bared his name at the time (Casey's Shadow, The One And Only), Williams had also been riding high on the success of work he did on Billy Joel's The Stranger (Columbia, 1978). Indeed, Williams has since gone onto to provide provocative settings for many other singers including Frank Sinatra (the Duets albums), Barbra Streisand, Paul Anka, Amy Grant, Vince Gill and Brian Setzer.

Williams, who is no relation to Hollywood's other Williams, had released four albums of pop-flavored orchestral jazz on Verve in the late 1960s and occasionally recorded such jazz-oriented albums as Carry On (A&R, 1971), Threshold (Capitol, 1973) and Come On And Shine (MPS, 1977 - aka Theme on Pausa), which features Williams' great disco title cut and his theme to the then well-known TV show Lou Grant (Williams also scored numerous episodes of Lou Grant's spin-off parent, The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

Many of Williams' records often front-lined prominent jazz soloists, such as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Grusin, Tom Scott, Eddie Daniels or trombonist Bill Watrous. Even his soundtracks give prominence to notable musicians (Dr. John, etc.), which is one reason why so many of his scores have found their way onto LP or CD. Williams also has a way with a tune, something that can perfectly underscore a scene on screen as well as stand on its own, spinning on a turntable in someone's living room.

Williams had it perfected by the time How to Beat the High Cost Of Living came around. The soundtrack was issued on Columbia Records, home at the time to flautist Hubert Laws, who is the perfect choice to perform Williams' sprite and effervescent little numbers, along with guitarist Earl Klugh, who would go on to helm Williams' other soundtracks to Marvin & Tige (Capitol, 1983) and Just Between Friends (Warner Bros., 1986).

Laws, a busy session player who had recently been featured in jazz settings on such soundtracks as California Suite (CBS Masterworks, 1978), A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich (Columbia, 1978) and Flic ou Voyou (Universal, 1979), turns out to be an ideal and inspired match for Klugh.

The pair had previously been together behind guitarist George Benson on White Rabbit (CTI, 1971) and, more prominently, on three songs from the Bob James album Touchdown (Tappan Zee, 1978), which is probably what sparked Williams to pair the two together for his score (Klugh also appears on the Laws album Family (Columbia, 1980), recorded around the same as the Williams soundtrack).

Laws and Klugh are perfect together and backed here by a small group of L.A. session musicians including the ubiquitous Mike Lang on keyboards (the former Kenton/Zappa sideman became a fixture in Hollywood, and is heard on hundreds of film and TV soundtracks), Tim May and Mitch Holder on guitar, Neil Stubenhaus (who plays the distinctive slap bass which gives the main theme its drive) on bass, Steve Schaeffer on drums and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion.

Strings are briefly present on occasion as well ("Piccolo Boogie," "Dream Something," "It's So Easy Loving You," "The Caper" and "Song For A Pretty Girl").

Great music abounds here, from "Down River," the film's main theme, and the slow funk of "Night Moves" (good solos from Laws and Klugh) to the swinging and jazzy "The Edge" and the soundtrack-sounding "The Caper," which briefly cops a lick from "Rise," Herb Alpert's hit of the previous year that also featured Lang's keyboards.

Williams expertly crafts themes that not only work well in the film, but play to the strengths and the advantages of his soloists, notably on "Piccolo Boogie" for Laws and "Dream Something" and "It's So Easy Loving You" for Klugh. Laws, who is at his best here, garners more of the playing time than Klugh gets permitted. But the guitarist makes his parts count for something special each and every time he gets the chance.

I saw the film in 1980, immediately picked up the soundtrack album and its never been out of my collection since. Unfortunately, though, How to Beat the High Cost Of Living has never been issued on CD and - like too much of Williams' other works - has fallen through the cracks of time and been nearly forgotten about.

As Patrick Williams, Hubert Laws and Earl Klugh are still around making music and some of the music of the fusion era is making a comeback, perhaps some enterprising label like the great Wounded Bird Records will consider giving this long neglected gem a second life.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bjorn J:son Lindh on CTI

A forgotten chapter in the CTI Records legacy is the brief relationship the label shared with the Swedish Metronome label in the early 1970s.

The deal was set up by Creed Taylor to allow the distribution of American CTI titles in Sweden, where there was already a thriving jazz audience and an especially artistic jazz community, and, in return, allow the fruits of Swedish Metronome productions to be distributed in the U.S. by CTI.

In America, the deal seems to have resulted in only three releases, all by Swedish flautist and composer Bjorn J:son Lindh. CTI Americanized his name somewhat for the first two releases as "Jayson Lindh" (the Swedish releases of the same albums correctly listed the flautist as Bjorn J:son Lindh) and while he was a good fit for CTI - standing along side such similarly multi-talented CTI flautists as Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell and, later, Jeremy Steig (who surely influenced Lindh, as well as Jethro Tull front man Ian Anderson) - Lindh elicited a particularly interesting and appealing and un-CTI musical amalgam that meshed jazz with funk and middle-eastern with the middle ages.

Meanwhile, Taylor's CTI empire was growing by leaps and bounds and he either didn't have the time to deal with this end of the business or wouldn't assign someone else to manage it. So it just kind of folded in on itself. Perhaps if Lindh's sales matched the numbers that CTI artists Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington, Jr. or Deodato was moving, Taylor would have done something more with Metronome in America.

Although Lindh recorded actively after the dissolution of the Metronome-CTI relationship - waxing the particularly good Raggie with American musicians in 1976 - his music and his recordings, which has been heavily sampled in recent years, remain too little known outside of Europe.

Ramadan: Swedish flautist Bjorn J:son Lindh was 26 years old when he laid down Ramadan, his recording debut, in Stockholm during several sessions in March and April 1971. Through a partnership with CTI Records, the Metronome album was issued in the United States the following year and it is the most singularly un-CTI album imaginable. The concept is clearly Lindh's, not the producer's (Anders Burman). Six of the album's eight songs are Lindh originals and the one cover - Paul Butterfield Blues Band's forgotten Woodstock hit "Love March," which was also this album's single release - hardly seems like the sort of cover CTI would endorse. There are no all-star line ups here and even Lindh's highly distinctive sound on flute - a sharper, breathier attack that often gets busier than most jazz flutists get - is quite a bit more abrasive than the mellifluous CTI soloist is known to be. Still, the unique Ramadan has endured to be become a fusion classic, despite never having appeared on CD. Electric funk abounds here, from "Loading Ramp" and "Daphna" to "Tuppa" and "Light House." Lindh channels the Middle Ages on "My Tulip" and hints at the Middle East direction he would perfect on later recordings with the title cut. Several ECM stalwarts such as (electric) pianist Bobo Stenson ("Daphna," "Tuppa"), bassist Palle Danielsson ("Love March") and drummer Rune Carlsson ("Benito's Rabbit," "Light House") are on hand here and despite the differing line-ups for each track, Lindh appears on flute for each one, occasionally adding percussion and keyboards (which is how he was often featured on many of Swedish guitarist Janne Schaeffer's records).

Cous Cous: Recorded between July and October 1972, Bjorn J:son (Jayson) Lindh's second solo album continues the trajectory the flutist charted on his 1971 debut, Ramadan, with more of an ear towards radio airplay. This accounts for the odd-choice cover of Danny O'Keefe's "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," the album's single release, arranged to sound like a pleasant bit of folk from an early 1970s soundtrack. The funk gets turned down a notch or two here in favor of grooves that wouldn't sound out of place in, well, a film soundtrack of the period. The slow, yet engaging, "Kiki," one of the album's highlights, is a perfect example. It's no wonder that Lindh went on to score films. He's expert at setting and exploiting the perfect mood. "Charlie" and the 45's b-side, "Elastic Springtime" (where Lindh sounds as if he's playing a recorder) both sport suitably subtle string arrangements by Lindh too, no doubt to aid playability. The rest of the album caters best to Lindh's real audience. "Bobo" is an engaging fusion jazz jam, obviously titled for pianist Bobo Stenson, who duels commandingly here with Lindh on electric piano. "The Boomer Pump" is an up-tempo groover that finds Lindh soloing on flute overtop his own electric piano, which sounds suspiciously like CTI labelmate Deodato's staccato attack on the instrument. "El Henna" is one of Lindh's middle eastern reflections and "Abdo," featuring Abd el Rahman el Khatib's lute, is an intoxicating raga that sports Lindh's finest moment on the record. Guitarist Jan (Janne) Schaffer appears on six of Cous Cous's eight tracks - but more as part of the scenery than as part of the front line.

Sissel: Flautist Lindh's third solo album - and the last of his three American releases - is one of his best, with the funk right back in the foreground. Lindh's flute has developed a characteristically appealing charm by this 1973 recording and he's gotten a pattern down for an engaging aural experience. Sissel is a bit more spacey than previous outings, with longer, exploratory pieces that nearly border on rock, but stay within differing variations of funk jazz. Every one of the album's six tracks, three by Lindh, are worth hearing. One of the album's most significant advantages is that the long playing time of each song opens each up for soloing opportunities among the other players. Guitarist Jan (Janne) Schaffer is more prominently featured here, notably on Lindh's funky "Bull Dog" and "Storpolska" (funky strings are briefly heard on both too) and "Sissel." Soprano saxist Lennart Aberg gets several solos on the grooving "Surto's Pyle'as," "Storpolska" and "Sissel." Like Lindh's other Metronome albums released by CTI in the United States, Sissel has never been issued on CD. There may be several reasons for this. My guess is that Sony owns the rights to the albums and, in all likelihood, are not even aware these gems are in their archives. It's a true shame. The world needs to hear more Bjorn J:son Lindh.

I wish I could say I've heard more of Lindh's records. He's released many since 1973. The laid-back funk of Boogie Woogie (1973), the marvelous Raggie (1976 - featuring a cool take on The Miracles' "Love Machine," with Lee Ritenour and Ernie Watts) and Bike Voyage II (1978, aka A Day At The Surface) are the extent of my Lindh experiences outside of CTI. And each have their recommended highpoints.

Lindh can also be heard on many of guitarist Janne (Jan) Schaffer's records, particularly the early ones, from 1972 to about 1985. Lindh sticks mainly to keyboards on most of these records. But to hear Lindh, where Schaffer features him on flute, I recommend checking out "Titus" and "Vindaras Madrass" from Janne Schaffer (Four Leaf Clover, 1972), "Uggor I Mossen" and "Scales" from the ultra-bad and way-funky Janne Schaffer's Andra LP (Europa film, 1974), "Ramsa" from Katharsis (Columbia, 1977) and "Oriental Sign" (as well as flute backgrounds on "Hot Days And Summer" and "The Shrimp") from Earmeal (Columbia, 1979).

Also, for anyone who wants to hear the American equivalent of Lindh's groove, check out Jeremy Steig's tremendous, yet all too-hard-to-find Temple Of Birth (Columbia, 1975), a brilliant bit of jazz-rock that features Johnny Winter, Richie Beirach, Anthony Jackson, Alphonse Mouzon and Ray Mantillia. Like Lindh, Steig went on to CTI, releasing one record under his own name, the sadly underwhelming and otherwise unconvincing Firefly (1977).

You can also visit Bjorn J:son Lindh at his MySpace page.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rediscovery: George Benson "Breezin'"

I have spent years resisting this album; from absolute disregard, at first, to unfettered stupefaction later at its initial and seemingly unaccountable continued popularity. I have bought - and gotten rid of - several copies of Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976), always unable to hear what the big deal was.

Truth be told, I did the exact same thing with the Miles Davis "classic" Bitches Brew too. No matter how many times I bought it, in whatever format, it always sounded stupid to me. And I was definitely the sort who loved pre-Bitches Miles as much as post-Bitches Miles.

I loved pre-Breezin' Benson and only sort of liked some of the post-Breezin' Benson I had heard. I guess I figured that Breezin' was the beginning of the end of Benson's artistic journey and the catalyst for some of his lesser efforts that followed.

Well, like, Miles - who vowed with Bitches Brew to break on through to the other side - I was also wrong about Breezin' too, another effort - whether intended or not - that really crossed, rather successfully, over to the other side. Indeed, it was the first "million seller" jazz had ever experienced.

Breezin', Benson's 1976 album and his first one away from CTI Records, is a magnificent piece of work, however you choose to view it - jazz, pop, whatever. It took five separate purchases of Bitches Brew for me to finally get that. And now that we're nearing three and a half decades since the release of Breezin', I am happy to say that I finally "get" this one too. It is truly monumental.

The album's single, "This Masquerade," was all over the radio in the summer of 1976 and I can remember it like it was yesterday. For me, I was 13 and it brings back (weird) memories of swim-team meets, practices and long days at the swimming pool - back in the day when I could successfully sport a Speedo.

I also remember that, as a Pittsburgher, we all took great pride in George Benson, hometown-boy-made-good. Every radio station we listened to back then played Benson relentlessly. So I didn't need to buy the record and didn't, for the first time, until years after.

A couple of years later I discovered the Benson I would fall in love with on CTI (specifically Good King Bad) and, later, I even met childhood friends (that's you, Joyce, if you're reading) and associates of Benson.

I still never sat through Breezin' until I discovered guitarist Gabor Szabo and found that the title track to Benson's album emanated from the Hungarian guitarist's 1971 album, High Contrast (Blue Thumb), which, like Breezin', was also produced by Tommy LiPuma.

When Benson hit with the song, Szabo put it back into his repertoire - even claiming the song as his own on a few occasions - despite its Bobby Womack authorship. Szabo and Benson would go onto perform the song together live in New York City in 1977, though recordings of this event don't seem to exist.

Although everyone thinks Breezin' is a "pop" album, the only vocal Benson takes here is on the lovely cover of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," with his lovely scat solo. While this certainly presages "smooth jazz," it is sexy, smoldering and alluring all at once. Smooth jazz never sounded this good.

The remainder of the album is what holds a jazz lover's attention, from Phil Upchurch's interesting "Six To Four" and Ronnie Foster's pretty "Lady" to Benson's own semi-funky-cum-melodic "So This Is Love?" (a great piece of late 70s West Coast jazzanalia).

But one of the album's pure joys is surely "Affirmation," a beautiful song by Jose Feliciano, which sets Benson alight at some of his best, most provocative guitar playing on record (guitarist Danny Godinez gives it props in his sets as part of Michael Shrieve's Spellbinder - check out "Flamingo" from Live at Tost for "affirmation").

As in so much of his best work, Claus Ogerman's arrangements here are spare and lovely: simplicity and perfection all at once. Ogerman also scored Benson's similar, but not as inspired follow-up, In Flight. But, here, the combination is positively inspired.

Benson is backed here to perfection by Phil Upchurch on rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster on electric piano, Jorge Dalto on keyboards, Stanley Banks on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and Ralph MacDonald on percussion.

Rhino's 25th Anniversary version of Breezin', issued in 2001, also includes the previously unissued vocal version of Lalo Schifrin's "Down Here On The Ground" (from Cool Hand Luke), which Benson popularized several years later on his huge Weekend In L.A.. Also included is the tremendous "Shark Bite," which mysteriously stayed unreleased until it showed up as the B-side to Benson's great "20/20" 45 - in 1984 (see below).

Perhaps the pleasure here is that you just don't hear George Benson sound this good anymore. Yes, it's smooth. Yes, it's slick. But it's inspired. And it's far more intriguing than the decades of smooth, slick garbage that this powerful and potent release set upon us all. Kudos to George Benson for a monumental piece of jazz enjoyment - and something I am happy to keep now and listen to over and over again.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Video: George Benson "20/20"

I had forgotten how much I really enjoyed this Randy ("You Needed Me," "Bluer Than Blue" and millions of others) Goodrum/Steve Kipner song back in 1984. Probably one of George Benson's last - and best - hit singles, it is a wonderfully well-constructed and tuneful song that finds the producers taking the guitarist, nee pop star, into Michael Jackson (vocal) territory.
The last full minute of this four-minute anthem is the song's best moment, with the guitarist scatting over his guitar solo in unison with Patti Austin. It's beautiful and truly worth hearing again and again. The video is cute in a simple sort of way. But the little boy in the banana pants is a joy to watch throughout. All in all, a wonderful piece of pop ephemera.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers "Soul Finger"

Mixing the invention and spontaneity of jazz itself with the humor and the fun the art inspires at its best, Art Blakey's 1965 Limelight album Soul Finger is a most pleasant surprise.

Reissued on CD in 2009 as part of Verve's Original series, it should have been as predictable as the many great Blakey recordings for Blue Note (1947-64), Riverside (the early 1960s) and other labels (Columbia, Bluebird, Bethlehem, Impulse) before this.

But times were changing. By this point in history, the Jazz Messengers was hardly the tight group of young creatives it once was. In fact, this marks the beginning of certain shifts in jazz when Blakey (1919-90), like so many of his generation, struggled to find ways to reach listeners. And his former bandmates were becoming famous and marketable on their own - away from Blakey's stewardship.

Blakey's 1964 switch to the Limelight label signaled this concern. Limelight was a boutique label that trumped out straight jazz for a new generation of tastes. Fancy covers, some that qualified as op-art themselves, with all-star jazz line-ups performing shorter, radio-friendly songs, with much more of an ear toward catchy, pop-flavored jazz - years before there ever was a CTI Records. Gerry Mulligan's own Limelight album summarized it best: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em.

This 1965 album is the second of four albums Blakey recorded for the label and surely the very best. Blakey's sextet here includes the two-trumpet line-up of Lee Morgan (a Jazz Messenger from 1957-61 and again in 1964-65) and Freddie Hubbard (who replaced Morgan in Blakey's group from 1961-64 and recorded with the trumpeter the month before on Hubbard's The Night of the Cookers), West Coaster Lucky Thompson (sax), recently back from an extended stay in Europe in one of his only appearances with Blakey, John Hicks (piano), in one of his earliest recordings and his second with Blakey, and Victor Sproles (bass) from Chicago in his second and final Blakey recording.

The program alternates a number of better-than-average group originals with the pretty cover of "A Quiet Thing," from the little-known musical Flora the Red Menace, Liza Minnelli's 1965 Broadway debut. The title track is not the Bar-Kays classic - which was still two years away from being born - but, rather, Hubbard and Morgan's take on (or hint of ) John Barry's "Goldfinger." Once the group gets past the brief Bondian introduction, things settle into a Buhanian blues groove.

"Buh's Bossa," credited here to Lee Morgan (and elsewhere to both Morgan and Hubbard) is a classic Morgan minor waltz in a bossa mode, with Blakey providing his trademark "big beat" sound, trotting the bossa to the hard bop from which it derived. Thompson's "Spot Session" (a reference, I guess, to when musicians score music to films) finds the saxist turning to soprano, sounding remarkably like Grover Washington, Jr. would many years after, and features a nicely characteristic spot for the 24-year-old Hicks as well as a nice respite courtesy of bassist Victor Sproles.

"The Hub" is another one of Freddie Hubbard's great hard-bop jam themes (and one that, oddly enough, I don't think he ever performed again) featuring fine spots for Hubbard, Thompson, Morgan, Hicks and Blakey's commanding and distinctive rhythmic drive. Blakey's own "Freedom Monday" (also known as "Freedom One Day") is a jazz march in Bu's patented Messengers style, and his one showcase for prowess all over the skins.

Many things have probably worked against keeping Soul Finger in the "limelight," not the least of which is that it has been out of print almost since the time it was first issued. But now that this marvelous musical experience is finally available on CD for a whole new generation (or two) of listeners to enjoy, it's worth picking up on to experience one of the last great chapters in the history of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - that is, perhaps, until Wynton Marsalis, who was three years old at the time of this recording, joined and revitalized the band in 1980.