Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Freddie Hubbard "The Baddest Hubbard"

The great reissue label Wounded Bird recently issued eight of Freddie Hubbard's lost albums from the 1970s on CD. It's amazing that a reissue label would even bother to make such a great investment in one jazz artist who wasn't Miles Davis or Duke Ellington. But it's also amazing that the company cared enough to release these eight CDs from the trumpeter's most criminally under-appreciated period of creativity. None of these albums ranked high among critics, nor sold much upon their original release.

Six of the CDs Wounded Bird issued comprise the bulk of Hubbard's 1974-80 output on Columbia Records and have been covered earlier on this blog. Two of the CDs are exact reissues of LP compilations issued by CTI, the label Hubbard recorded for between 1970 and 1973, while the trumpeter was recording for Columbia.

Jazz producer, arranger, historian, journalist, scholar and my very good friend, Arnaldo DeSouteiro, recently covered Wounded Bird's reissue of one of the Hubbard compilations, given the very 70s title, The Baddest Hubbard, on his fantastic Jazz Station blog. Arnaldo's knowledge of CTI is peerless (he has been the single-most important contributor to my CTI discography for many, many years) and he beautifully expresses what can go wrong with too many CD reissues today.

I share Arnaldo's words here - with his permission and my thanks - to remind those who want us to buy their product that reissues, while very deeply appreciated by fans, also deserve more than going back to the original tapes. We who have not gone over to all-digital still like, even need, good packaging. And the musicians who bothered to make the music in the first place deserve proper credit. The rest is by Arnaldo DeSouteiro:

The first CD reissue ever of a compilation released in 1974 by CTI Records, soon after Freddie Hubbard left Creed Taylor's stable to sign a million-dollar contract with CBS. Ironically, Sony now controls all the CTI catalog from the '70s, and licensed this compilation to Wounded Bird.

The CD booklet reproduces the original front & back cover artwork, but not the liner information. It means that Ira Gitler's text was deleted, as well as Fred Valentine's b&w liner photo. Most surprisingly, Don Sebesky, who arranged half of the material ("First Light," "In A Mist"), is not mentioned anywhere on the CD. Rudy Van Gelder (who engineered ALL tracks), Fred Valentine (who also did the front & back cover pics) and Bob Ciano (responsible for the album design) either...

But the names of several musicians who didn't play a single note on any of the tracks (Bob Bushnell, Ed Shaughnessy, Richie "Pablo" Landrum) are!

I don't know from where Wounded Bird collected such crazy info, but certainly it wasn't from Douglas Payne's fabulous CTI website, the most reliable and most comprehensive source about CTI Records on the web.

Despite all these mistakes, the musical content is top class, including the title tracks from the albums "Red Clay" (Hubbard's debut at CTI) and the Grammy-winning "First Light", magnificently arranged by Don Sebesky, who also scored Bix Beiderbecke's intriguing "In A Mist" (from the "Sky Dive" sessions).

"Here's That Rainy Day" completes the program. It's a track from the "Straight Life" LP, on which Hubbard is backed only by Ron Carter and George Benson; however, the other four players (Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Richard "Pablo" Landrum, Joe Henderson) are wrongly listed among the sidemen on that tune. Couldn't the Wounded Bird guys give a call to Creed Taylor or Doug Payne to check the info? Or simply take a look in the original LP issue? Jesus!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monk Higgins

Monk Higgins was born Milton Bland to Mrs. Alma Howell and J.T. Bland, in Menifee, Arkansas, October 17, 1936. His roots were in gospel music, due to his mother's faithfulness as a choir singer. Monk, at six feet, three inches and 285 pounds, was a football and basketball star at Conway County Training School, in Conway, Arkansas. In his spare time, he played the bass tuba in the marching band, primarily because he was the only kid large enough to carry the instrument. Moving with his family to Chicago, he entered that city’s Musical College, where he studied trombone with Bill Russo.

A scholarship took Monk to Arkansas State University where he majored in theory and orchestration. Eventually he switched over to tenor sax but little of the music he’s known for features his sax playing. While he’s not a bad player in that swinging honky-tonk way that Earl Bostic, Jr. Walker or, even, Stanley Turrentine was, most of the music he’s known for today doesn’t even feature his sax playing. Indeed, his playing – when it was there – stuck pretty close to melody lines and refrained from investigating much in the way of improvisation. It’s really his compositions and the jazzy R&B groove he laid down that recalls Monk Higgins’ music most to listeners today.

He taught school in Missouri and back in Chicago for several years after college. While still teaching, though, Milton Bland began moonlighting on Chicago recording sessions, signing on to One-Derful! Records in 1962, where he immediately scored local hits by Betty Everett (“Your Love’s Important To Me”), McKinley Mitchell (“The Town I Live In”) and Otis Clay (“That’s How It Is (When You’re In Love)”).

During 1965 to 1967, the newly re-christened Monk Higgins had become the A&R man at Chicago’s St. Lawrence label, writing, arranging and producing jukebox singles for Mamie Galore, Butch Baker (“Batman at the Go Go”) and Johnny Sayles (“Don’t Turn Your Back On Me”). Higgins also ran St. Lawrence’s subsidiary label, Satellite, recording more jukebox 45s for Chuck Bernard, The Fantaisions, The Ideals and The Vontastics. Around this time, he also crafted local hits for Holly Maxwell (“Philly Barracuda”), Alvin Cash (“Hawk Eye,” “The Barracuda,” “Burn Just A Hair” and “Do It One More Time”), The Ideals (“Go Go Gorilla”), Junior Wells, Cash McCall (“When You Wake Up”) and scored one of his own with “Who-Dun-It” (which was later covered by Blue Mitchell on his first Monk Higgins collaboration, Collision in Black).

He spent a little less than a year starting in 1967 at the famed Chess records label , where he continued churning out singles for Etta James, Muddy Waters , Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Mitty Collier, Andre Williams, Laura Lee and Johnny Sayles.

Finally, he was invited to Los Angeles to arrange the strings “only” for Nina Simone’s Gifted & Black (Canyon, 1968) album and stayed to helm his first full-scale album works with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine on Flipped-Flipped Out (Canyon, 1968), trumpeter Blue Mitchell on Collision In Black (Blue Note, 1968), Gene Harris and The Three Sounds on Elegant Soul (Blue Note, 1968) and his own debut album Monk Higgins in MacArthur Park (Dunhill, 1968). While all this seemed to trumpet the arrival of a huge new talent, none of it really caught on at the time and only Collision In Black could be considered any kind of an artistic success.

But Monk Higgins had built himself a strong reputation for R&B flavored jazz with a little cadre of Los Angeles studio aces, anchored by fellow Chicago native Freddy Robinson on guitar, and boasting Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of The Jazz Crusaders, drummer Paul Humphrey and notable percussionists Victor Feldman and King Errisson. It worked well to give Higgins’ productions of the time a very strong and consistent personality and something that really was unheard of at the time – a sturdy R&B jazz flavor.

Round about this time Monk also helmed guitarist Freddy Robinson’s debut album The Coming Atlantis (World Pacific, 1969), featuring the hit version of Monk’s “Black Fox” and Monk’s equally contagious “Monkin’ Around,” as well as follow-up albums for Blue Mitchell (the revered Bantu Village) and the Three Sounds (Soul Symphony, Gene Harris and the Three Sounds).

He also worked up the funky and little-known 45s “The Queen Bee” for Diane Johnson (Buluu) and “Baby You’re Right” (co-written with “B. Leena” who co-wrote “I’m In Love,” “Put On Train” and “Down Home” with Monk on Gene Harris’ Live At The ‘It’ Club Volume 2) for Helena Hollins (Stonegate) and contributed to Jimmy McKracklin’s The Stinger Man, Charles Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Band’s You’re So Beautiful, Tyronne Davis’ Without You In My Life and Freddy Robinson’s Enterprise albums (At The Drive-In and Off The Cuff ).

During this period, a handful of albums appeared on the Solid State, United Artists and Buddah labels, a minor hit ensued with “Gotta Be Funky” (1972) and one soundtrack (Sheba, Baby) emerged. But all to little avail. While Higgins built a reputation providing music to radio and TV commercials throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he seemed to toil in relative obscurity as far as the public knew. His records came and went with little or no notice and attention until samplers (Monk’s obscure 1969 cover of “Little Green Apples” was sampled by Gang Starr for “Code of the Streets” and has since made the song a feature of many funk-jazz compilations), crate diggers and DJs discovered these grooves years and years later.

In 1977, Monk Higgins became affiliated with former Stax executive Al Bell’s little-known and short-lived label ICA, where he worked on singles that never turned into hits by Frank Lucas, Vernon Garrett, L.V. Johnson and Margie Evans. The Bell-Higgins partnership was probably helped along through Freddy Robinson, who recorded three albums for the Stax subsidiary Enterprise several years before that were arranged by Higgins.

Monk Higgins (with co-producer Bell) went on to make seven of blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland’s more R&B-oriented albums between 1978 and 1984, constituting what amounts to Higgins’ most significant single body of work. It’s surely the slickest work he’s done. It’s just not the best: Come Fly With Me (ABC AA-1075, 1978), I Feel Good, I Feel Fine (MCA 3157, 1979 – includes a remake of “Little Mama”), Sweet Vibrations (MCA 5145, 1980), Try Me, I’m Real (MCA 5233, 1981), Here We Go Again (MCA 5297, 1982 – includes Higgins’ title single), Tell Mr. Bland (MCA 5425, 1983 – featuring Higgins’ mostly instrumental classic “What Is It?”) and You’ve Got Me Loving You (MCA 5503, 1984).

For some reason, Higgins began using the Milton Bland credit again on some songs around this time (e.g., Irma Thomas’ 1973 “Save A Little Bit For Me”) and began using it on the arranger credits for the later Bobby “Blue” Bland albums, while continuing to use the Monk moniker as producer and both Monk and Milton in the songwriting credits. It’s probably worth noting here that Milton Bland and Bobby “Blue” Bland were brothers in spirit only.

As the 1980s loomed, Higgins recorded less and less, but played in and around L.A. with some of the biggest names in blues (guitarist/vocalist Keb Mo had one of his first jobs in Higgins’ band). Higgins continued writing and contributing songs to the occasional album (e.g., “Don’t Pick Me For Your Fool” for Son Seals’ Bad Axe album), but his recording days were pretty much over by 1984. Sadly, Monk Higgins died on July 3, 1986, in Los Angeles. He was only 49 years old.

A Monk Higgins Discography

…Cuz, again, I couldn’t find a very good one anywhere else. These are just the releases I could find bearing Monk Higgins’ name. I haven’t heard most of this music. Maybe someday. But I think it’s worth noting the existence of the following recordings – especially the 45s. For additional recordings, please see my other postings for Monk Higgins’ biography and Monk Higgins On The Side:

“Mister Luckee” (C. Perry/B. Gardner/M. Higgins) /”Ain’t That Hateful “ (M. Higgins/B. Gardener) - Monk Higgins and The Satellite’s (Satellite 2010, 1965) – Awesome stuff.

“Who-Dun-It” (Monk Higgins)/”These Days Are Filled With You” (Monk Higgins) (St. Lawrence 1013, 1966) - “Who-Dun-It” (without the dashes) is included on the Chicago scene CD compilation Steppin’ Muzak Presents Steppin’ To Jazz.

“Now That’s Sayin’ Sumpin’”/”Easy Does It” (St. Lawrence 1016, 1966)

What Fah” (Monk Higgins)/”Ceatrix Did It” (aka “Black Fox”) (Monk Higgins) (St. Lawrence 1022, 1967) – “Ceatrix Did It” is included on the Belgian CD compilation Soul Cargo Volume 5 (Totorecords).

“Different Strokes (For Different Folks)” (Monk Higgins/Burgess Gardner)/”How Come” (Monk Higgins) (Chess 1998, 1967)

“Monkin’ Around” (Monk Higgins)/”Comin’ Up The Middle” (Chess 2025, 1967)

“Yesterday” (J. Lennon/P. McCartney)/”The Look Of Love” (H. David/B. Bacharach) (Chess 2034, 1967) – The excellently arranged “The Look of Love” is included on the Chicago scene CD compilation Steppin’ Muzak Presents Steppin’ To Jazz.

Monk Higgins In MacArthur Park (Dunhill 50036, 1968): Features “Mac Arthur Park” (Jim Webb), “T'Aint Nothing To Me” (Vee Pea), “Elegant Soul” (Vee Pea – also featured on the Three Sounds album of the same name), “Hey Mother” (Monk Higgins), “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” (Jim Webb), “Vee Pea” (Monk Higgins), “Jo-Ju-Ja” (Vee Pea – also on Blue Mitchell’s Collision in Black), “Cherish” (Terry Kirkman), “I Believe To My Soul” (Ray Charles), “Who Cares” (Vee Pea), “Ain t No Way” and “You See What I Mean” (Vee Pea). The only single released from this album was “Vee Pea” (presumably named for Virginia P. Bland, who was probably also Mrs. Monk Higgins) b/w “MacArthur Park.”

Extra Soul Perception (Solid State SS-18046, 1969): Features “Extra Soul Perception” (Monk Higgins), “The Look of Slim” (Monk Higgins - sampled for Madlib’s “Slim’s Return”), “A Good Thing,” “Watermelon Man” (Herbie Hancock), “Straight Ahead,” “Canadian Sunset,” “Collision in Black” (Monk Higgins - also used as the title track to Blue Mitchell’s 1968 album), “Just Around The Corner,” “Little Green Apples” (Bobby Russell - sampled for Gang Starr’s “Code of the Streets”), “Poker Chips,” “Sittin’ Duck” (Monk Higgins - better known as part of the Three Sounds’ repertoire at this point and first featured on the trio’s Elegant Soul album) and “Doing it to Deff” (Monk Higgins). The only single released from this album was “Watermelon Man” b/w “Extra Soul Perception.” Download available at Slice of Spice.

“Baby, You’re Right” (Monk Higgins/Alex Brown)/”I’ll Still Be There” (Monk Higgins) (Sack 711, 1970?)

“Arkansas Yard Bird”/”I’ll Still Be There” (Monk Higgins) (Sundi 317, c. 1970?)

Heavyweight (United Artists UAS-5592, 1972): Musicians aren’t listed here but it’s fair to say that most, if not all, of the musicians listed on Little Mama (below) are heard here. Features “Libra’s Way,” “Treat Her Like A Lady,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Big Water Bed (Monk Higgins/Alex Brown), “Lord Have Mercy,” “Last Flight To Dallas,” “Up On The Hill,” “Feeling You Feeling Me” and “Gotta Be Funky” (Monk Higgins/Alex Brown). Includes the singles “Gotta Be Funky” b/w “Big Water Bed” and “Treat Her Like A Lady” b/w the non-LP “Two In One.” Download available from the great My Jazz World blog.

Little Mama (United Artists, 1972): With Clarence McDonald (piano), Joe Sample (piano, clavinet, harpsichord), Wilton Felder (Fender bass), Paul Humphrey (percussion), Al Vescovo (guitar), Freddy Robinson (guitar, harmonica), Monk Higgins (tenor sax, organ), Specialties Unlimited (vocal background). A mostly great slab of funky jazz includes the singles “Little Mama” (Higgins’ nickname for co-writer Alex Brown) b/w “Trusting You” and “Can’t Stop” b/w “Walking in My Sleep.” Covers here include Carole King’s “So Far Away” and Bread’s “If.” Highlights include “Little Mama” (later covered by Bobby “Blue” Bland), “Walking In My Sleep,” “Can’t Stop,” “Black Fox” and the oddly titled “Highway Number 101 (Pacific Coast Highway),” whose lyrics repeat the title of Higgins’ previous album. Issued on European CD in 2004 – to date, the only Monk Higgins album ever issued on CD. Download available from the Milk Crate Breaks blog.

“Work Song (Pt. 1)”/”Work Song (Pt. 2)” (United Artists , 1972?)

Dance To The Disco Sax of Monk Higgins (Buddah BDS 5619, 1974): With Monk Higgins (tenor sax, organ), Joe Sample (piano, electric piano, clavinet), Wilton Felder (bass), Paul Humphrey (drums), Freddie Robinson (guitar, harmonica), Jim Horn (flute), Sidney Sharp (string section), Alex Brown, Elaine Cole, Deborah Lindsey (vocal background). An unfortunately forgotten piece of soul jazz that deserves better than it ever got, Dance To The Disco Sax of Monk Higgins is a pretty decent collection of soulful cover tunes. Sure it’s missing the original conceptions Monk Higgins often brought to any project. But there’s no lack of soul here. This album is one of the few examples Monk Higgins left to show what he could do to transform a tune – even transcend it. Not all of it succeeds. But what’s good here is pretty darned great. It’s sort of like a less labored Houston Person album of the time, saddled as it was with an unfortunate title and probably equally poor marketing support (I don’t think any singles were ever released from the record). Monk covers a broad spectrum of 1973-era radio hits including E.L.O.’s “Showdown,” Gallery’s “I Believe in Music,” Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back To Me,” The Chi-Lites “I Found Sunshine,” Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme,” MFSB’s “TSOP” (here titled “Soul Train Theme”), War’s “Me and Baby Brother,” Billy Preston’s “Space Race” and Ronnie Dyson’s “One Man Band (Plays It All).” Highlights here are surely the funkiest numbers on the album – and the ones that live up most to the album’s title: “I Found Sunshine,” “Me and Baby Brother,” “Space Race” (with a terrific arrangement for strings by Monk Higgins that you won’t hear on the original), “One Man Band” (which features Paul Humphrey’s sampled break) and Monk Higgins and Alex Brown’s totally funked-out “Make It Good,” featuring the underrated Jim Horn on flute.

Sheba, Baby (Buddah BDS 5634, 1975) : With Barbara Mason (vocals – “Sheba Baby,” “I’m In Love With You,” “A Good Man Is Gone,” “She Did It”), Harold Mason (drums), Bobbie Hall (percussion), Henry Davis (bass), Larry Nash (piano, Moog), Sonny Burk(e) (electric piano, clavinet), Freddy Robinson, David T. Walker, Al Vescovo (guitar), George Bohannon & Specialties (horns), Monk Higgins (tenor sax solo), Fred Jackson (flute, alto and tenor sax solos), Bill Green (alto sax solo), Alex Brown, Edna Wright, Darlene Love (background vocals). A late entry in the soul cinema genre known as “Blaxploitation” and Monk Higgins’ only-ever film credit, Sheba, Baby , the album, is also a pretty good slice of honest-to-god jazz-funk. The album features Barbara Mason on four vocal pieces, including the well-known “A Good Man Is Gone” and “She Did It” and two other pieces that have nothing to do with Monk Higgins. The generously proportioned soundtrack includes a great deal of the funkiest Monk Higgins music ever waxed, including “Get Down Sheba” (a reconditioned version of “Gotta Be Funky”), “Who In The Hell Is That,” “Number One Man,” the excellent “Sheba“ and “Speedboat.” Highly recommended. The brief and soundtrack-y “Railroad” ended up on a Dusty Fingers compilation a few years ago. Never issued on CD but reissued on LP a few years ago. Download available from the Fraykers Revenge blog.

“I Like To Dance” (Freddy Robinson/Vee Pea)/”Knee Bone” (Monk Higgins/Vee Pea) – Freddy Robinson and Monk Higgins Orchestra (ICA 004, 1977)

“My Girls” (Monk Higgins/Vea Pea)/”Rock N Roll Has Gotta Go” – Monk Higgins Orchestra (ICA 018, 1977)

Monk Higgins On The Side

Monk Higgins contributed sax, keyboards, songs, arrangements and production to many, many records from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, mostly 45s and mostly in the R&B, blues and gospel fields. His jazz work was minimal but notable. He probably won’t be remembered as a significant contributor to jazz. But what he did is certainly worth hearing and memorable all the same.

The list below covers the few jazz dates Monk Higgins helmed for others and while I would have liked to have heard whether the Freddy Robinson albums Monk Higgins did should be included here, I don’t think there were too many other jazz dates Monk Higgins participated in.

Please see other posts for a Monk Higgins biography and a Monk Higgins discography.

Collision in Black - Blue Mitchell (Blue Note 84300, 1968): With Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Jack Richmond, Dick Hyde (trombone), Jim Horn, Ernie Watts (flute), Anthony Ortega (tenor sax), Monk Higgins (tenor sax, piano, organ), Al Vescovo (guitar), Bob West (bass), Paul Humphrey (drums), Miles Grayson (piano, percussion), Dee Ervin (organ, percussion), John Cyr (percussion). Surely one of the hardest turns Blue Note ever took away from their straight jazz formula, Collision In Black is a minor masterpiece, loaded with Motown-derived instrumentals that really cook. Some of Higgins’ ideas outstay their welcome, as if the trumpeter really doesn’t seem to know what to do with the often too-simplistic themes. But it all works surprisingly well. The album, which surprisingly has yet to see the light of day on CD, contains versions of the Monk singles “Monkin’ Around” and “Who Dun It” and such highlights as “Collision in Black,” the Bond-esque “Jo Ju Ja,” “Swahili Suite,” “Keep Your Nose Clean” and “Kick It.” Even “Keep Your Soul Together” out Nats Nat Adderley, who was certainly here first. But Blue Mitchell sounds right at home in R&B and pretty comfortable in the crash of cultures Monk Higgins provides.

Elegant Soul - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 84301, 1968): With Gene Harris (piano), Andy Simpkins (bass), Carl Burnett (drums) and Bob Jung (reeds), Jim Horn (flute), Alan Estes (vibes, percussion), Al Vescovo (guitar), Paul Humphrey (drums), Miles Grayson, Dee Ervin (percussion), Leonard Malarsky, Louis Kievman, Jesse Erlich, William Kurash, Henry Felber, Albert Steinberg (strings), Ralph Schaeffer, Dave Burk, Ron Fulsom, Tibor Zelig (violins), Phil Goldberg, Leonard Selic (viola), Jerry Kessler (cello). Following a previous orchestral record with Oliver Nelson, pianist Gene Harris was clearly looking to connect with younger listeners who were discovering the “black blues” of Muddy Waters and B.B. King through rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the newer soul sounds of Otis Redding and James Brown. Elegant Soul was the answer. Higgins, who had actually put in time with blues legends like Muddy Waters and crafted a whole back catalog of his own R&B grooves, really changed up The Three Sounds. The trio, aided by occasional horns, strings and background vocalists, had never sounded this out-and-out four on the floor before. But Higgins brings out more of the gospel in Harris’ trio that was always there rather than the R&B they were all aiming for. Not a bad thing, yet it never really kicks into gear until track three, Higgins’ break beat classic “Sittin’ Duck” (all nine minutes of it – probably about four minutes more than was necessary). Once it clicks, though, it’s a joy to hear. Higgins really gives each song the “plenty, plenty soul” notes writer Herb Wong credits him with and provides Harris with ample space to do what he does best (though it’s pretty obvious that Humphrey’s drums drive most of the beats here, not Burnett’s). Highlights include Higgins’ classic “Sittin’ Duck,” “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (believe it or not), “African Sweets” and the dark groove of Higgins’ “Book of Slim.” Issued on CD in 2008.

Flipped – Flipped Out - Stanley Turrentine (Canyon 7701, 1969): With Paul Humphrey (drums), King Errison (sic) (conga), Fred Robinson (guitar), Al Vescovo (guitar), Joann Growler (sic) (piano), Wilton Felder (bass) and Victor Feldman (percussion). Reissued in any number of formats on many budget-priced labels, this is perhaps among Stanley Turrentine’s least enjoyable records. If R&B kingpin Monk Higgins and the soulful Stanley Turrentine seemed to suggest an ideal musical match, Flipped – Flipped Out proved that it wasn’t to be. Probably recorded somewhere between Turrentine’s 1969 departure from Blue Note and before his classic 1970 CTI debut, Sugar, this album seems to be missing the sophistication and the classy programming either Blue Note or CTI would have automatically ensured. Perhaps it’s the choice of cover tunes – watered-down soul consisting of The Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell(s) Blues,” Stevie Wonder’s “Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday” and “My Cherie Amour” and Bill Medley’s “Brown Eyed Woman.” Turrentine, of course, sounds as true to form as ever. Monk doesn’t sound too shabby either (check out the percussion on the otherwise cheesy “My Cherie Amour”). It’s just that the material leaves much to be desired. Even the set’s originals aren’t that interesting. Includes Higgins’ swampy break beat “Flipped Out” as well as Higgins/Erwin’s less interesting “I’ll Take You All The Way There” and “Toe Hold.” The rest is fairly unendurable. Note: I have yet to see a “complete” version of the Canyon LP on CD.

Bantu Village - Blue Mitchell (Blue Note 84324, 1969): With Blue Mitchell, Bobby Bryant (trumpet), Charlie Loper (trombone), Buddy Colette (flute), Bill Green (flute, alto sax), Plas Johnson (tenor sax), Dee Ervin (piano, percussion), Monk Higgins (piano, percussion), Al Vescovo, Fred Robinson (guitar), Bob West, Wilton Felder (bass), John Guerin, Paul Humphrey (drums), Alan Estes, King Errisson (conga). Blue Mitchell’s revered Bantu Village is the second of the trumpeter’s two collaborations with Monk Higgins and the last of his Blue Note albums. Here Monk breaks out of the Motown mold and audibly amps up the R&B as announced by the “It’s Your Thing” groove of the opening “Hnic.” There may be an African thing to many of the titles. But Monk and Mitchell have settled into a pretty heady groove, which is mostly R&B, but on several occasions (“Bantu Village,” “Bush Girl”) veers closer to soul jazz. The charts are ramped up a bit too for a Monk Higgins album and that works well in its favor. And Mitchell responds in kind with some interesting playing that doesn’t riff off of other riffs. It’s a shame that Monk and Mitchell didn’t explore things a bit more after this. The album has been reissued on vinyl recently, but unfortunately remains unissued on CD. Highlights: “Hnic,” “Na Ta Ka,” “Bantu Village” and “Blue Dashiki.”

Soul Symphony - The Three Sounds (Blue Note 84341, 1969): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums) and David Duke or Art Maebe (French horn), Buddy Collette (flute, alto sax), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Alan Estes (percussion), Specialties Unlimited (Alex Brown, Clydie King, Mamie Galore - background vocals), Sid Sharp or Jim Getzoff (string section). The second of three studio collaborations between The Three Sounds and Monk Higgins features an ambitious suite composed by Higgins called “Soul Symphony.” The 26-minute opus is not at all shaped like a traditional symphony and is little more than a number of soulful R&B vamps weaved together into one long piece, all driven solely by the pianisms of Gene Harris. It’s hard to dislike when broken into bite-size chunks. But it’s really hard to appreciate as any sort of major work, especially when the piano dominates the entire piece. After you get through all of that, the classic Higgins romp “Repeat After Me” is here and “Upper Four Hundred,” the oddly titled “Popsicle Pimp” and the soundtrack-like “Black Sugar” are all worth hearing. But “Repeat After Me” is about all that’s worth hitting the repeat button for here. Issued on CD in 2008.

Live At The ‘It’ Club - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 35338, 1970): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums). Michel Ruppli’s 1988 discography, The Blue Note Label lists a March 6, 1970, Three Sounds concert recorded at the “It” club that wasn’t issued. The music on this 1996 CD of the March 6, 1970, Three Sounds concert recorded at the “It” club had never been issued before, but none of the music included on this CD is even listed in the Rupli book, which, by the way, indicates the recordings were made over March 6 and 7, 1970. It turns out it’s also one of the very best Three Sounds records out there. Had it actually come out in 1970, the Three Sounds might actually have attained some of the fame and fortune Ramsey Lewis had enjoyed. Monk Higgins was sort of guiding the group at this point, providing material and arrangements. But here, it’s just the trio. No orchestras. No background singers. No percussion. Just fine and funky Three Sounds at their finest and funkiest best. Even the ballads don’t sound out of place here. They’re like breathers to appreciate the trio’s magic in between the grooves they rouse the audience with elsewhere. Harris’ “I’m Still Sad” is the disc’s best moment – a real groove that never tires at eight and a half minutes. Monk Higgins provides the other highlights – “Funky Pullett,” “Baby Man” and an always welcome visit back to the great “Sittin’ Duck.”

Live At The ‘It’ Club Volume 2 - Gene Harris And The Three Sounds (Blue Note 23997, 1970): With Gene Harris (piano), Henry Franklin (bass), Carl Burnett (drums). In 1970, producer Monk Higgins put together a double album of material recorded by the Three Sounds at the “It” club on March 6 and 7, 1970, for Blue Note Records, overdubbing percussion he played himself later in the studio. For whatever reason, the album was never issued. It wasn’t even assigned a number. Thirty years later – after both Higgins and Harris had died – producer Bob Belden reassembled the music (removing “Virgin Pearl,” “This Guy’s In Love,” “Judy’s Blues” and “How Insensitive”), got rid of the overdubbed percussion and issued the album on CD as Live At The ‘It’ Club Volume 2, since a CD of material from the concert(s) had already been issued in 1996. Like the first CD, it is a terrific showcase for the funky Three Sounds trio. It’s easy to hear on a disc like this why most jazz artists often sound better live than they do on their studio recordings. There’s more spontaneity, more personality, less pandering to popularity, less fitting in and, simply, more interesting music. What’s more, Gene Harris, like many of jazz’s best voices, feeds off the energy of the audience. And there’s little doubt that the audience wasn’t getting its money worth here. Highlights include the “Ain’t That Peculiar” groove of Higgins’ “Put On Train,” Higgins’ “Down Home,” Higgins’ hit for Freddy Robinson, “Black Fox” (which actually predates the remarkably similar sounding “Ain’t No Sunshine”), and Higgins and Harris’ bluesy “Apollo 21”. Even “Eleanor Rigby,” “Get Back” and “Come Together” rise well above the typical dreck Beatles covers usually inspire, with Harris launching into a gospel zeal that bodily lifts each of the pop songs above their usual groundings. Monk Higgins and the Three Sounds would record “Put On Train” and “Eleanor Rigby” again the following year on Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, the final Three Sounds record and the last time Gene Harris and Monk Higgins worked together.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Quincy Jones Explores The Music of Henry Mancini

Today, composer, arranger, producer, entrepreneur and svengali Quincy Jones is remembered for just about everything other than the jazz he helmed under his own name in the 1950s and 1960s. One minor exception would be the groovy "Soul Bossa Nova" from Q's album Big Band Bossa Nova (Mercury, 1962), which enjoyed new life some years ago as Austin Powers' theme song.

A rather significant exception, however, is surely Quincy Jones Explores The Music of Henry Mancini (Mercury, 1964), which fortunately achieved its first domestic CD issue in June 2009, some 45 years after its initial appearance on LP (a Japanese CD version was issued in the 1990s that quickly went out of print - used copies used to fetch high dollars on eBay).

This is one of Q's finest albums during what stupid jazz critics dismissed as his "pop phase" (the Mercury years between 1962 and 1965) and a tribute to one of film's greatest and jazziest composers, Henry Mancini (1924-94). The album was recorded over three sessions during February 1964 with some of New York's top session men almost a year to the day before Jones' own maiden voyage into film music with The Pawnbroker.

Here, Q works with some of the catchiest music ever written for the cinema or TV. Much of Mancini's music remains as well known today as John Williams' "Jaws" or "Star Wars" themes, Lalo Schifrin's "Mission: Impossible" or even Jones' own later themes for "Ironside" (used generously in the Kill Bill films) and "The Streetbeater" theme to Sanford and Son.

There is little doubt that Quincy Jones has a great fondness for this music and even more admiration for Henry Mancini. The two were to become great friends while in Hollywood and both greatly respected the other's achievements.

Quincy Jones' musical exploration was one of the earliest album-length tributes to Henry Mancini's music. (Jones also produced Sarah Vaughan Sings The Mancini Songbook the following year, an album comprised of several sessions recorded between October 1963 and December 1964, arranged by Robert Farnon, Frank Foster, Bob James and Bill Holman.) Although Mancini had been in films since the early 1950s, the majority of his best known work came from the period of about 1958, when Peter Gunn first aired, until about the time of this 1964 album - although Mancini's excellent music for A Shot In The Dark was being written and recorded at about the time of Q's tribute, so sadly, none of this music is featured here.

Not content to merely use Mancini's well-defined originals as is, Q puts his own unique spin on the arrangements, showing how well he would maintain his jazz instincts in his own film work later on, without ever casting off or casting out the personality of Mancini's distinct musical charms. It's an amazing transformation. Mancini has never - never - sounded as good as Jones makes him sound here.

Q transcends Mancini's music, often - believe it or not - improving on the originals as this definitive reading of "Charade" (from Hatari!) attests. It's hard to imagine that film without this particular version of the theme.

Q gives "Dreamsville" (from Peter Gunn) an appropriately dreamy context, to which Bobby Scott tinkles the ivories most enchantingly (buttressed, perhaps, by Jerome Richardson's warm, swinging solo). Refusing to drown in the goop given to most covers of "Moon River" (from Breakfast at Tiffany's), Q offers a stunningly swinging arrangement in his near-patented "big band bossa nova" groove, fitted with a good Kirk solo on soprano sax. Listen, too, to the brilliant accents studio-shy Gary Burton brings to "Peter Gunn" on marimba.

The kooky swing of "Bird Brain" (from Soldier in the Rain) boasts all-sorts of kooky sounds from a bass clarinet solo (Wally Kane?), Major Holley's scat vocalizations and long-time Jones associate Toots Thielemans - and it works unbelievably well, cushioned as the soloists are in Q's feather-lined nest.

In Q's hands, "(I Love You) And Don't You Forget It," a hit for Perry Como in 1963 that added Al Stillman's lyrics to Mancini's "TinpaƱola" (from the 1961 album Mr. Lucky Goes Latin), is utterly revitalized by a marvelous horn section. Rahsaan Roland Kirk takes a dynamic solo on flute here (he reappears on "Peter Gunn" too).

Q gives real vivacity to many of the tunes by alternating soloists imaginatively. The excellently conceived "Baby Elephant Walk" highlights sadly forgotten Vince Bell's fuzzy surf guitar, Major Holley's scatting and, of course, some of the outstanding pianisms of Bobby Scott. The wistful "Soldier in the Rain" is a showcase for Toots Thielemans' harmonica and whistling. "Odd Ball" (from Peter Gunn) spotlights Bobby Scott's piano, Ernie Royal's flugelhorn and Jerome Richardson's flute.

The saxes - which include the finest sax sounds in New York at the time including Jerome Richardson, Stan Webb, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Phil Woods, Seldon Powell, Romeo Penque and George Berg - get the bulk of the record's compact, yet meaningfully melodic solos.

But it's Q's horn voicings throughout that are immaculately memorable. No one has ever arranged horns (and strings) as imaginatively as Quincy Jones does. They're economical and always perfectly composed of the right amount of brass or wind, usually brass, but never too much. The horns build up to a suspenseful climax that either the soloist or an alternatively quieter group of instruments somehow resolve.

At 38 minutes, Quincy Jones Explores The Music of Henry Mancini never feels like enough. There is no evidence that additional music exists from these 1964 sessions. But it sure would be fascinating to hear more - much more - of Quincy Jones exploring the music of Henry Mancini.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Lalo Schifrin "Sky Riders"

Sky Riders surely ranks among the least known of film composer Lalo Schifrin's 100 plus film scores. This 1976 film, which is not even currently on DVD, has gotten its first-ever soundtrack release on the composer's own Aleph label, some 33 years after the fact, while Schifrin's better-known or more desired scores for, say, Charley Varrick or St. Ives remain unissued. Sky Riders, directed by British director Douglas Hickox (1929-88), who was better known for directing Vincent Price's Shakespearean horror spoof Theatre of Blood (1973) and John Wayne's Brannigan (1975), is basically a kidnap story set apart by aerial shots of hang gliding, said to be something of a fad at the time. According to IMDb, Robert Culp (whose 1964 film Rhino was Schifrin's first American film assignment) plays Bracken, whose life seems perfect until his wife Ellen and their children are kidnapped by terrorists one day. After failed attempts to capture them back by the police, Ellen's ex-husband enters the fray and plans his own rescue attempt. James Coburn (whose films The President's Analyst and Harry In Your Pocket were also scored by Schifrin) plays McCabe, Ellen's ex-husband who hires a crew of professional hang gliders to help him rescue her and the kids from the terrorist's mountain top lair.

The music is typically good by Schifrin standards, but contains absolutely nothing outstanding. Not even a memorable main theme emerges. Recorded a mere month before Schifrin's fusion funk classic Black Widow (CTI, 1976), Sky Riders is anything but what liner notes writer Julie Kirgo claims as "the last, for a time, in that long, innovative line of jazz/funk-dominated scores with which Schifrin made his reputation." There is absolutely no jazz or funk to be heard here. It is a completely orchestral score from the first breath to the last, with no trace or evidence of a foot-tapping beat. Kirgo's claim, which is being used to promote this CD, is more appropriately applied to St. Ives, scored by Schifrin later that year. This Schifrin score, however, best fits into that style of sweeping symphonic scores that Schifrin had only recently begun exploring starting, perhaps, with 1974's The Four Musketeers.

Sky Riders benefits by a conservative use of the cymbalom ("The Terrorists," "The Last Kite"), set off menacingly by the piano's lowest realm ("The Terrorists"), a bouzouki and location-specific Greek folk themes ("Climbers," "Copters and Gliders" and "End Credits" - something he would explore in greater depth on 1979's Escape to Athena/Offside 7) and beautifully scored circus motifs in "Flying Circus" that prefigure Schifrin's own Rollercoaster later in the year. Notably, "Climbers" in particular accompanies the hang gliding scenes perfectly by combining pizzicato strings with swirling reeds and strings, highlighted by a low-brass riff Schifrin borrowed from his own "The Edge of Night" (from the Mannix soundtrack album). A brief snatch of the "Adagio" from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez can even be detected - on oboe, of all things - in "Copters and Gliders."

Like other Nick Redman produced CDs of Schifrin's scores, the Sky Riders soundtrack consists of several suites that marry short motifs and cues into one long song. Therefore, rather than 20 or 25 individual tracks, this soundtrack offers eight suites that range from two minutes to nine minutes in length. Fortunately, Redman pieced Sky Riders together less awkwardly than previous Schifrin soundtrack jobs and there's a sort of coherence that holds the whole thing together rather nicely.

Highlights: "Climbers," "The Terrorists" and "End Credits" (the closest thing to a main theme). Sky Riders, which will be issued on CD and iTunes on July 29, is hardly outstanding, but will be of interest to Schifrin's orchestral film-score fans.