Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mancini In The Seventies

Following the surprise success of TV’s first jazz soundtrack, Peter Gunn (1959), the brilliant Henry Mancini (1924-94) could do no wrong. Indeed he surpassed the two particularly well conceived and performed soundtrack albums produced for the 1958-61 television show with a seemingly endless batch of music that was even more clever, more delightful and more timeless than Peter Gunn.

During the early sixties, Mancini scored with great music from Mr. Lucky (1960), another jazz-oriented TV show, as well as a myriad of landmark film scores for High Time (1960, “The Second Time Around”), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, “Moon River”), Experiment in Terror (1962), Hatari! (1962, “Baby Elephant Walk”), Days of Wine And Roses (1962 – although no soundtrack album was issued, the main theme still became a standard), Charade (1963), The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot In The Dark (1964, again no soundtrack album, though the main theme became a familiar staple of the Inspector Clouseau cartoons) and Arabesque (1966).

Mancini’s label, RCA also kept the composer/arranger busy in the studios, releasing one album after another of easy listening music – some focusing on the West Coast jazz light Mancini had single-handedly popularized and even more designed specifically for the upscale suburban market being courted by such space age popsters as Enoch Light, Percy Faith and Ferrante & Teicher. Even in the early sixties, Mancini released a near flawless collection of these non-soundtrack albums with such classics as The Mancini Touch (1960), The Blues And The Beat (1960), Combo! (1960), the essential Mr. Lucky Goes Latin (1962, with the original version of “Lujon”), Our Man In Hollywood (1963, featuring the “Days Of Wine And Roses” theme and a version of “Dreamsville” with lyrics), the big band Uniquely Mancini (1963) and Mancini Plays Mancini And Other Composers (1967, included here because this was the first place other than a 45 to get the theme to 1964’s A Shot In The Dark and the beautiful “The Shadows of Paris”).

By the late sixties, though, Mancini’s magical luster seemed to be waning. Prolific as ever, he waxed plenty of film soundtracks (The Great Race, What Did You Do During The War, Daddy?, Two For The Road, Gunn – Number One, The Party, Me, Natalie, Gaily, Gaily and Darling Lili, etc.), even more easy-listening and jazz-light records (the best of which are probably The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini, Mancini ’67 and The Big Latin Band of Henry Mancini) and still came up with a number of timeless classics. These all have their moments – and their fans – yet the sparkling musical wit and the lovely, lilting melodicism Mancini’s music had seemingly paled as the rock was dawning and a whole new generation of jazz-infused composers (Schifrin, Jones, Goldsmith, Fielding, Mandel, Legrand, etc.) made their stamp on Hollywood music.

Mancini’s pace never slowed as the seventies dawned. But things had changed and his music – or the style of music he perfected to an artful craft – seemed hopelessly out of fashion. Undeterred, Mancini persevered. Embracing the “pop” music which came to be known as M.O.R. (middle of the road) he seemed to grasp the new sort of touchy-feely popular music as well as seize upon the film and TV themes of younger composers, who could also be considered the progeny of the mentor maestro, Henry Mancini.

This list details an overview of some of Henry Mancini’s more notable albums of the 1970s, a period of Mancini’s music that didn’t get a whole lot of critical – or popular – attention. Fans have their favorites – and mine will certainly become evident here – but it’s unlikely to find consideration of more than one or two albums of Mancini 70s records in one place and I wanted to take a look at the bigger picture…

Mancini Plays The Theme From Love Story (RCA, 1970): A collection of “movie music with the Mancini sound” worthwhile only for Mancini’s intriguing and otherwise unissued theme to The Night Visitor (beautifully covered by Jimmy Smith and Oliver Nelson on a 1971 45) and the equally disquieting “Theme For Three” (from Wait Until Dark), which had only been issued before as the b-side to a 45 of the film’s title song (the dazzling theme is called “Main Title” on the 2007 FSM CD of the Wait Until Dark soundtrack). The Love Story album also includes Mancini’s “Theme from ‘The Hawaiians’,” “Tomorrow Is My Friend” (from Gaily, Gaily), “Loss of Love” (from Sunflower) and “Whistling Away The Dark” (from Darling Lili) as well as snoozy covers of themes by Claude Bolling (“Borsalino”), Leslie Bricusse (“Thank You Very Much” from Scrooge) and Francis Lai’s eponymous hit. Mancini notably opts to cover Ennio Morricone’s unfamiliar, almost experimental “The Harmonica Man” (from Once Upon A Time In The West) and dresses up Johnny Mandel’s otherwise soapy “Song from ‘M*A*S*H’” (aka “Suicide is Painless”) with a dopey funk vibe that doesn’t help it sound any better than the original.

The Mancini Generation (RCA, 1972): For the “soundtrack” to his brief-lived Lawrence Welk Show-like TV variety program, Henry Mancini returned to the big band sound he’d always favored but hadn’t recorded since Mancini ‘67 (earlier examples include 1960's The Blues And The Beat and 1963's Uniquely Mancini). Mancini’s intent here was to transcend musical generations, grafting contemporary arrangements on the classics and giving some classic big-band finesse to “today’s history makers.” Surprisingly, there are no pop or rock covers here nor any of the material from – or with – any of the show’s musical guests. The “classics” include Bach’s “Joy” (aka “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which got a rock-ish hit recording by Apollo 100 in early 1972), “The Masterpiece” (or the Rondeau from "Symphonies and Fanfares for the King's Supper" by French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret – the theme that launched the PBS TV series Masterpiece Theatre in 1971) and a reverential reading of the traditional “Amazing Grace,” which seems hopelessly out of place here. As for the “newer” material, Mancini covers Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground” with adequately funky touches and Benny Golson’s otherwise inviting “Killer Joe” (made famous by Quincy Jones’ 1969 orchestral cover of it on CTI), surprisingly, as something of a novelty tune. The composer contributes a lively march-like swinger for the show’s main theme, a new take on “Charade” (which reveals its Count Basie inspiration here more than ever) and Gunn’s “A Bluish Bag,” a terrific little groover that benefits by Jerome Richardson’s hypnotic soprano solo. Unfortunately, the album isn’t terribly memorable and at 31 minutes, feels like less than a well-prepared program of material. But its chief appeal is the quality of arrangements that Mr. Mancini provides throughout. Mancini orchestrates some especially fine flute parts for “Memphis Underground” and, more notably, “The Masterpiece” – a sequence which prefigures the excellent flute break he conceived for his brilliant cover of Mike Post’s “The Rockford Files” several years later; probably a thematic ode to the flute lead of the album’s title track. Both “Charade” and “A Bluish Bag” have been reconsidered substantially here and sound quite different than they did in their original incarnations and Stan Kenton’s “Eager Beaver,” with Jimmie Rowles on Fender Rhodes and Victor Feldman on vibes is an excellent example of just how effectively Mancini was able to modernize the big band sound for a new generation of listeners. The Mancini Generation was a good idea that just didn’t work. Chances are, though, had there been more like “The Masterpiece,” “A Bluish Bag” or “Eager Beaver” here, this generation would have been more memorable.

The Thief Who Came To Dinner (Warner Bros., 1973) Henry Mancini’s soundtrack to this 1973 Bud Yorkin film starring Ryan O’Neal, Jacqueline Bisset and Warren Oates was one of his best in some years and the first of his truly memorable seventies scores. The comic caper film was a natural for the man who perfected this sort of thing years before with The Pink Panther, Charade, A Shot In The Dark and Arabesque. But, unlike John Barry, who was forced to produce one James Bond score after another even for non-James Bond films, Henry Mancini delivers something new, even unique here. While the mood is light, there is enough tension to underscore the suspense of the action (some of it recalling Lalo Schifrin’s own 1973 Warner Bros. soundtrack to Enter The Dragon) and it’s all delivered with an appropriately funky groove at the bottom. The fact is, Mancini hadn’t ever delivered this much rhythm in the rhythm section before. The excellent main theme stands alongside some of Mancini’s best “mystery” themes and, of course, is orchestrated to perfection by Mancini using some already dated sounds that sound perfectly sensible and contemporary in Mancini’s handling. The boogie woogie of “Tail Gate” boasts some of Mancini’s fantastic string and horn writing. The heist cues (“Dog Eat Dog,” “First Job,” “The Patter” and “The Really Big Heist”) mostly begin by launching off some riff of the film’s main theme into more exciting, jazz-like explorations that find Mancini at the top of his game. Mancini’s sparkling wit is much in evidence on the easy listening numbers here (“Love Them For Lauara,” “Jackie’s Theme,” “Soft Scene”) – giving them something of a nice seventies spin, which makes them essential listening for fans who want to hear the best of Mancini during this period. FSM did a typically outstanding job issuing The Thief Who Came To Dinner on CD in 2009 by including all 12 tracks of the original 1973 Warner Bros. album – which represented the actual music from the film – with 12 bonus tracks (totaling 18 minutes) of previously unissued music from the film plus three country source cues used in the movie and two demo themes recorded but not used. The FSM CD also contains superb detailed notes by Scott Bettencourt and Lukas Kendall which, as expected, makes for exceptionally fascinating reading. Most highly recommended.

Hangin’ Out With Henry Mancini (RCA, 1974): This eclectic collection combines several instrumental pop covers of the day with a rag-tag assortment of mostly unremarkable film themes. Mancini’s covers of “Love’s Theme/TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” “The Entertainer” and “The Stripper” (famed at the time for use in a Noxema commercial) depart surprisingly little from their original instrumental incarnations, though Mancini offers a nice string break to “The Entertainer” which gives it some of the personality the other covers lack and American reed player Don Menza, back from a long stay in Europe, delivers a delicious solo in “TSOP.” Hangin’ Out also features otherwise unissued Mancini film themes from The Girl From Petrovka, the beautiful The White Dawn and 99 and 44/100% Dead (the bawdy/goofy title track) and a recording of “The Thief Who Came To Dinner” (also issued on 45) with a wordless chorus of eight voices as Mancini intended to use for the film but did not. Mancini’s piano is in the foreground of the ballad covers of Andre Popp’s “Song For Anna,” Francis Lai’s “The Sex Symbol” (surprisingly, one of the 45s released from this album) and Milton di Sao Paulo’s little-known 1974 hit “Dolce.” But unlike 1969’s A Warm Shade of Ivory, it’s not enough to hang on to and as a whole, the album lacks that typical Mancini personality. Highlights: the otherwise limited availability of the “Theme from The White Dawn” and the provocative alternative version of the funkier-than-the-rest-of-this-stuff “The Thief Who Came To Dinner.”

The Return Of The Pink Panther (RCA, 1975): It had been eleven years since Blake Edwards’ previous Pink Panther film and this one, the third link in the chain, reportedly began life as a British TV series that never happened. Fortunately, the series’ three primaries – writer/director Blake Edwards, actor Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau and, of course, composer Henry Mancini – all returned to make what many consider to be the best film in the entire series, a series which ended in 1993 upon the death of perhaps its most important contributor, Henry Mancini. The animated title sequence is also among the very best in the entire series, scored by Mancini with a new true-to-the-original rendition of “The Pink Panther Theme” featuring the tenor sax of Tony Coe (in place of original Panther saxist Plas Johnson) and the uncredited trombone antics of (probably) Dick Nash. The film’s bravura sequence is surely the well-executed heist of the Pink Panther diamond from a Moroccan museum (why Morocco?). In a nice tribute to Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, the crime is allegedly committed by “The Phantom” (Sir Charles Litton, a role originated by David Niven, played here by Christopher Plummer). But the ten-minute sequence, put together marvelously by director Edwards and editor Tom Priestly, benefits by two of Henry Mancini’s strongest caper cues ever, here given the combined title “The Return of The Pink Panther, Part 1 and II.” Part one of the 5-minute and 12-second cue is Mancini’s elegant processional, contrasting the burglar’s professionalism and craftsmanship with the complicit viewer’s tension and anxiety. Part two is Mancini’s gloriously clever “chase music” as the heister successfully flees the museum guards (with guns!) in an Olympian flight through the museum and over the rooftops of the Morrocan night. Surprisingly, Mancini is not ashamed to deliver some of the cocktail music here that made the first Pink Panther film such a hit at the cinema and in record stores some dozen years before. Not surprisingly, though, the light stuff is remarkably well-conceived. Each is perfectly melodic and developed with a full sense of drama that can’t be appreciated as background music to a film – making a soundtrack album like this essential. The cocktail numbers are plentiful and include “The Greatest Gift” (the thoroughly anachronistic vocal version actually plays as a source cue in what is supposed to be a trendy disco!), “Here’s Looking At You, Kid,” the spritely “Summer in Gstaad” (which recalls earlier Mancini exotica like “Cortina” and “Mégève”), “So Smooth” and the lovely near samba of “Dreamy” (featuring Mancini leading, well, dreamily on piano atop the composer’s gorgeously arranged bed of strings). The remainder of the brief 33-minute soundtrack finds Mancini in top form with two appropriately, pardon the pun, Arabesque titles (“Naval Maneuver” and “Belly Belly Bum Bum”), one rockish piece called “Disco” (as it plays in the discotheque where the disguised Clouseau finds and “picks up” Lady Litton) and two Basie-like jazz numbers, “The Orange Float” and “The Wet Look” that both get excellent, compact solos by the unnamed electric piano, flute and vibes players. Highly recommended.

Soul Symphony (RCA, 1975): Quite simply, Soul Symphony is one of the two or three best – if not the best – Henry Mancini album of the seventies. There is little doubt that Mancini’s brand of music might have seemed old fashioned or hopelessly out of date by 1975. Surely at this point, most of the other “space age” popsters Mancini came up with during the fifties and sixties had faded into obscurity because of their failure or lack of interest to keep up with the times. It might have also been the increasing musical apathy of the fan base’s aging audience (which found new life among crate diggers some two decades later). But unlike nearly all the others, Mancini transcended all of that to produce one of the coolest middle-of-the-road (MOR) albums of the day. Start with the rhythm section. Mancini collected some of the very best of the young West Coast jazz players/soloists, including (Crusader) Joe Sample on keyboards, Abraham Laboriel on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, Dennis Budimer, Lee Ritenour and David T. Walker on guitars and Mayuto, Dale Anderson and Emil Richards on percussion. Then there’s the program. Mancini composed the dynamic title track for the occasion and significantly updated two of his classics, “Peter Gunn” (this was the version featured on his A Legendary Performer album issued a few years later) and “Slow Hot Wind” (a complete revamp of the great “Lujon” from Mr. Lucky Goes Latin). The remaining six tracks are among some of the best covers Mancini has ever chosen for one album: Herbie Hancock’s beautiful “Butterfly” (originally from the keyboardist’s exceptional album Thrust), Barry White’s “Satin Soul” (originally from the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s second album White Gold), “Pick Up The Pieces” (the excellent funk classic from the Australian Average White Band’s first album), “Sun Goddess” (originally from the Ramsey Lewis album of the same name), the weird but funky “Soul Saga” (originally from Quincy Jones’s Body Heat album) and Van McCoy’s “African Symphony” (from the composer’s pre-“The Hustle” album Love Is The Answer). Mancini’s outstanding arrangements are much in evidence and he allows plenty of improvisation over the near jazz fusion tunes by trumpeter Bud Brisbois, bassist Abraham Laboriel, keyboardist Joe Sample, Louise DiTullio (“Slow Hot Wind”), harmonica player Tommy Morgan (“Soul Saga”) and Mayuto on the kalimba (“African Symphony”). Outstanding throughout and an essential part of any Henry Mancini collection.

The Cop Show Themes (RCA, 1976): Another excellent Mancini collection with a perfectly timely theme. Cop shows pervaded television during the mid seventies and a staggeringly high percentage of these had memorable, timeless themes. Mancini covers quite a few of them here, and most would be very well known to anyone watching TV at the time, though one might wish for others as well (Lalo Schifrin’s “Mannix,” Tom Scott’s “Starsky & Hutch” and Jerry Goldsmith’s “Barnaby Jones” or “Police Story,” would be welcome for the Mancini treatment). Mancini offers his own themes for The NBC Mystery Movie (the familiar “Mystery Movie Theme,” an umbrella theme used during 1971-77 for the rotating presentation of such series as Columbo, McCloud, McMillian & Wife, Banacek and Quincy, M.E. - already featured on Mancini’s 1972 album Big Screen Little Screen) and the short-lived The Blue Knight (“Bumper’s Theme,” starring George Kennedy as Bumper). But Mancini’s aren’t the best themes represented here. What he does with other people’s catchy cop show themes is nearly miraculous and with a typically good cast of studio jazz guys to spice it up, most of the album delivers the usual suspects with a dose of high quality musicianship. Indeed, it was only on albums like this where you could hear a lot of these themes – and they do sound quite good together. Mancini beautifully covers Patrick Williams’ brilliant “The Streets of San Francisco” (featuring Artie Kane on electric piano), a medley of Billy Goldenberg’s “Kojak” and Barry DeVorzon’s tremendous and popular “S.W.A.T.” (featuring a great Mancini bumblebee string arrangement, Abraham Laboriel on bass, Graham Young on trumpet and Lee Ritenour on guitar), Mort Stevens’s definitive “Hawaii Five-O” (featuring Dick Nash on trombone) and the equally enigmatic but less known “Police Woman” (showing off how well Mancini can spar horns with strings). While the entire album is exceptionally good, Mancini’s takes on Dave Grusin’s “Baretta’s Theme” and Mike Post’s “The Rockford Files” – both outstanding compositions in their original form – are especially well conceived here. “Baretta’s Theme” gets a superb funk arrangement by Mancini, highlighted by Artie Kane’s beautiful Grusin quotes (right out of Three Days of the Condor). Abraham Laboriel’s bass pretty much drives the whole song, while Don Menza on flute trades solo licks with Oscar Brashear on trumpet. Notably, Mancini’s version of “Baretta” includes Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason, who were both probably heard on Grusin’s original. Mancini’s remarkable take on “The Rockford Files” is probably the album’s single most significant moment. Mancini brilliantly rescores this song as a funky piece of baroque music, signaled by Artie Kane’s opening use of harpsichord, a mellifluous string section stating the melody (which makes the song sound less awkward than Post’s original) and Mancini’s own addition of a luminous, goose-bump inducing flute counter melody. Don Menza offers a soaring, melodious solo on tenor sax, buffered by Dennis Budimer’s rock guitar and Mancini’s supple string counterpoint. By the time the horn section enters with its triumphant refrain, Mancini has developed a magnificently dramatic piece of music out of Post’s mere TV theme that could be considered a modern concerto of melodic funk. Even if the rest of the album were forgettable (and it isn’t), “Baretta’s Theme” and “The Rockford Files” make The Cop Show Themes absolutely essential.

Mancini’s Angels (RCA, 1977): Similar in concept to Mancini’s 1972 album Big Screen Little Screen, Mancini’s Angels finds the composer/arranger tackling both film and TV themes of the day – surprisingly using one of the only “cheesecake” shots ever featured on a Mancini LP cover. Mancini offers his own cartoony “The Inspector Clouseau Theme” (from the film The Pink Panther Strikes Again and not “A Shot In The Dark,” which many of the Pink Panther cartoon watchers will consider the real Inspector Clouseau theme), the unexceptional “Silver Streak” theme (from the 1976 film whose soundtrack wasn’t issued until 2002 by Intrada), the goofy “What’s Happening!! Theme” and the little-known theme to an-star TV mini-series called “The Moneychangers” (broadcast in December 1976). Mancini also boards the inevitable disco train here for his covers of the well-known themes from Charlie’s Angels (as the original version had not been previously issued, Mancini’s cover was one of the 45s released from the album), Car Wash and a fairly inventive take on Rocky (“Gonna Fly Now,” featuring a nice electric piano solo from Ralph Grierson). The long Roots suite (“Many Rains Ago (Oluwa)/Theme From Roots”) sounds pretty good in Mancini’s hands and only slightly less ponderous than the originals, while Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” (from A Star Is Born) benefits by a sensitive piano solo performed by Mancini himself. Hardly a classic, Mancini’s Angels is worthwhile for the otherwise unavailable themes to “What’s Happening!!” and “The Moneychangers” as well as the somewhat interesting way Mancini handles “Gonna Fly Now” and “Music from Roots” only.

The Theme Scene (RCA, 1978): Like the previous year’s tepid Mancini’s Angels, The Theme Scene continues Mancini’s now well-known (and probably expected) tradition of film and TV theme albums. This too is a mostly bland and rather unnecessary review of such TV themes as Battlestar Galactica (Stu Phillips), Star Trek (Alexander Courage), Fantasy Island (which sounds so exotically otherworldly it could have come from “Star Trek!”), the dreadful Three’s Company (Don Nicholl/Joe Raposo – done up like one of Mancini’s own lounge themes from the early sixties) and the disposable Little House on the Prairie (David Rose). Also included here are film themes from the little-known The Children of Sanchez (Chuck Mangione), Heaven Can Wait (Dave Grusin), The Cheap Detective (Patrick Williams) done also, for the most part, just as tepidly. Mancini’s own “NBC Nightly New Theme” and “Once Is Not Enough” – neither of which are featured elsewhere – are included here. This one has the slight edge over Mancini’s Angels for the preferable melodic choices Mancini makes here. There is less – much less – concession to fashion here, which means, of course, disco rarely rears its overbearing head, and more of an effort to make one of those light Mancini albums of yore. One can only imagine how that might have gone over in 1978! Still, Mancini’s otherwise unavailable and un-newsy like “NBC Nightly New Theme” and the ultra lounge-y “Once Is Not Enough” (from Mancini’s score to the 1975 film based on a Jacqueline Susann novel) are worth hearing. Mancini’s relaxed, after-hours take on “The Cheap Detective” makes for some rather elegant late-night listening too. Something about the The Theme Scene’s utter lack of artistic and commercial success suggests the end of the road for this kind of album and this sort of music. Was this the end? Sure enough, Mancini receded into the occasional soundtrack album and “pops” covers of his old hits after this.

Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe? (Epic, 1978): Mancini’s orchestral score – recorded not in Hollywood but in England, which was what many of the Hollywood composers, including former Mancini pianist John Williams, were doing at the time – to a forgotten 1978 movie directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend At Bernie’s) starring George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Morley features many fine musical moments. Nothing funky or particularly lounge-y. This is simply the work of a magnificent composer doing what he does best, what is right for the film and coming up with a light-hearted score in the classic Hollywood tradition; something John Williams made de rigueur (again!) for Hollywood films following his ultra-popular scores to Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman. Highlights here include the lovely “Natasha’s Theme” (with a piano solo by Henry Mancini himself – which gets slightly altered variations in “Bombe Richelieu,” “Natasha in Venice” and the “End Title”), the charming and delightfully scored “Pesce!” (Italian for “fish!”) and the baroque – though comic – march of the main title theme (recalling Mancini’s love of Sousa and the score to the 1975 film The Great Waldo Pepper), also heard in several variations. The eating cues (“The Moveable Feast,” “The Gathering” and “The Final Feast”) all have a comic edge that sound like something Mancini would have done in the fifties. Clearly he relishes doing it here again, a whole generation later. Not essential (only “Natasha’s Theme” is memorable), but fun nonetheless.

”10” (Warner Bros., 1979): Blake Edwards’ one-note romantic comedy “10” was quite a hit in its day and, more surprisingly, Mancini’s performance of French composer Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” featured in the film, became a huge hit too, making it one of those all-time iconic classical pieces that Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” or Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” had become. The piece, titled “Ravel’s Bolero” here, is the centerpiece of the silly film’s unexpectedly terrible soundtrack album, even though – like an afterthought – it is the album’s final track. Otherwise, the soundtrack is a strange and unsatisfying mix of horridly corny ballads (“It’s Easy To Say,” a duet between the film’s stars, Julie Andrews and a very hammy Dudley Moore, the jokey Peter Sellers-like “I Have An Ear For Love,” sung by “The Reverend,” and the really awful “He Pleases Me,” sung straight by Ms. Andrews), overly sentimental background Muzak (“Something For Jenny,” two takes of “Don’t Call It Love” and two more takes of “It’s Easy To Say”) and strange disco funk (the perky “Keyboard Harmony” and the surprisingly clumsy “Get It On”). It’s hard to say why nothing really adds up here. Perhaps the magic of the long and successful collaboration of director Edwards and composer Mancini had finally run out of steam (though it revved back up again several years later with Victor/Victoria). Following three Pink Panther movies in a row (each one progressively worse than the one before), Edwards would seem to have loved the idea of getting away from Clouseau. Even Mancini would seemingly celebrate the opportunity to work outside of the Panther straight jacket. But no. Indeed this album plays like one of the lesser Panther soundtracks (The Pink Panther Strikes Again springs to mind). One especially notable oddity here is that, unlike nearly all of Mancini’s other film scores, the composer opted (or was forced?) to use another composer’s piece as the centerpiece of the film. Even the rest of the score has absolutely nothing to do with this piece – in timbre, melody, sound, structure, consideration, anything. It’s as if the rest of the music is completely divorced from what became its main theme, something which might be tolerable if the rest of the album was notable in some regard other than mere camp appeal (Mancini’s 1981 score to the camp classic Mommie Dearest is imminently superior to the campy ”10” and worthy of more serious attention). Considering its popularity – at least at the time – this is surely one of Henry Mancini’s most disappointing soundtrack albums ever.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jimmy Smith “Sit On It!”

After releasing two little-known albums on his own Mojo label, organist Jimmy Smith resurfaced in 1977 on the mighty Mercury record label. At the time the label had most of its success in rock (Bachman Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, Rush), funk (Ohio Players, Bohannon) and country (Tom T. Hall, Statler Bros., Johnny Rodriguez).

But jazz, such as it was at the time, made a very brief comeback on the label during 1976-78 with the additions of guitarist Gabor Szabo, drummer/bandleader Chico Hamilton, reed man Bennie Maupin, organ/keyboardist Charles Earland and Hammond B-3 legend Jimmy Smith.

Signing to Mercury put Jimmy Smith back in the majors and the organist produced three albums for the label during 1977 and 1978, two of which were pretty much in the same groove he’d been plying ever since his heady Blue Note days some quarter of a century before.

The exception was the appropriately exceptional Sit On It!, Smith’s 1977 Mercury debut, a funky exercise in West Coast jazz fusion appropriate to its time. The album’s silly title, a popular phrase at the time meant to indicate an otherwise rude aphorism, could very possibly have been meant as Smith’s f-you to the industry and jazz listeners at the time.

But quite a bit of this album stands out in the crowd, even though it’s likely that few Jimmy Smith fans regard this record very highly, and most of it stands out among some of the best – and most memorable – work “the boss” of the Hammond B-3 organ produced during the seventies.

The production was overseen by Eugene McDaniels (b. 1935), an R&B singer/songwriter who had a pop career in the early sixties (“Tower of Strength,” “A Hundred Pounds of Clay”), emerged in the late 60s with the powerful anthem “Compared To What” (performed with Les McCann and Eddie Harris), starred as a singer in several films (1962’s It’s Trad, Dad, 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night), did studio work as a vocalist (Bobby Hutcherson, Les McCann, Billy Harper) and, most importantly, wrote, arranged and produced for a number of successful soul acts during the seventies including The Supremes, Esther Phillips (“Disposable Society” from the 1974 Kudu album Performance), Gladys Knight and the Pips, Phyllis Hyman, Merry Clayton and, most notably, Robert Flack (“Feel Like Makin’ Love” – which got popular CTI covers by Bob James and Hubert Laws).

Although McDaniel’s jazz credibility was certainly in evidence, he’d never really overseen any other jazz recordings – before or since! – and Sit On It! probably qualifies as one of Jimmy Smith’s least jazz-like records. Chances are, McDaniels wasn’t chosen for his jazz credibility and, more significantly, it was obvious that Mercury didn’t care to produce the sort of Jimmy Smith “jazz” date that Blue Note or even Verve had issued years before.

McDaniels is aided substantially here by newcomer Alan Silvestri (b. 1950), who co-wrote and arranged all of Sit On It! years before he became the well-known and respected composer for such films as Romancing The Stone, Back To The Future, Predator, Father of the Bride, The Bodyguard, Forrest Gump, Night At The Museum, Beowulf and, recently, G.I. Joe. It is Silvestri who is probably most responsible for the album’s melodic appeal and funky backbone. At the time, he’d also been doing some of the same kind of funky work heard on the TV show CHiPs. And there is little doubt that it was Silvestri who knew enough to let “The Boss” do his thing.

Smith sings/belches out some nearly personified witticisms on the funky “Give Up The Booty” (also featured on the great 1995 Verve CD compilation Move To Groove – The Best of 1970s Jazz-Funk). But the real magic here is what Smith concocts on the synthesizer. Like Sun Ra, he’s a wondrous child discovering all the delights that can be delved into on an unknown musical landscape.

“Can’t Hide Love” brings in the era’s ubiquitous disco beat – and the unfortunate background vocalists (which are easy to tune out). But Smith returns to organ here and it’s a pleasure to hear what he can do with the day’s groove. He really is the master of the Hammond B-3. Like some of his late sixties Verve dates that mix his organomics with his (ahhhh) blues-styled vocalisms, it is best to leave “Cherrystones” to people, unlike me, who enjoy these sorts of things.

Side two is where the action is. “My Place In Space” and “Slippery Hips” are both funky disco pieces that benefit especially well by Herbie Hancock’s (nearly imperceptible) electric piano comping and Abraham Laboriel’s signature bass time keeping.

On both pieces, Jimmy Smith concocts one intoxicating line after another. Both make Sit On It!, which will probably never see the light of day on CD, worth every penny. “Born To Groove/From You To Me To You” comes close too, except that it alternates a great funk vibe, for which Smith responds quite well, with an unnecessarily silly vocal refrain handled by one “Afreeka Trees” (Janice Mitchell, who like Mr. McDaniels, was also seen and heard in Uptown Saturday Night). It still makes for worthwhile listening.

It’s nice to know jazz greats like trombonist George Bohannon, tenor saxist Ernie Watts and former Blue Note all-star Fred Jackson (on alto sax) can be heard on “Give Up The Booty.” But they really don’t make any sort of impact here. This is back in the day when all the supporting musicians gave it up for the sake of the soloist. It’s a shame – but at least everyone got paid.

There may not be much to propose Jimmy Smith’s Sit On It! as a great jazz album (McDaniels and Silvestri disappeared after this and Smith got to (briefly) produce his own music again). But there’s plenty to recommend here for those who want to hear the organist get down and get funky and get in his pleasurable Hammond B-3 bag.

You can download Sit On It! from Smooth's great My Jazz World blog.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Top Five Skye Records

A British music magazine asked me to cite what I considered to be the “Top Five" Skye Recordings a while ago and this is what I came up with. I’m not sure if the list was ever published. But I am pleased to say that I still stand by my choices.

I fear these recordings, most of which have been available at one time or another on CD, may soon become lost treasures. The questionable ownership (and the location of the original tapes) of the label’s two dozen or so issued recordings and unknown number of unissued recordings, if it hasn’t already, may soon doom the Skye label into oblivion.

That is a true loss to the music world and a loss to the legacy of its three musical owners, Gary McFarland (1933-71), Gabor Szabo (1936-82) and Cal Tjader (1925-82). It would probably be up to one of the estates to do something about this inequity. But its likely that the heirs either don’t have the time or the money to mount what would probably turn out to be a lengthy battle. And in this day and age of declining music sales, everybody involved might feel the whole endeavor wouldn’t be worth the pursuit.

In any case, let’s celebrate some of the best of the Skye Recording Company’s musical legacy while we still can.

Solar Heat – Cal Tjader (Skye, 1968): The very first Skye recording perfectly exemplified the intentions of its musician founders to make jazz more of a mainstream commodity. In the heady days of 1968, marrying jazz ideas and ideals with pop/rock sensations and sensibilities was viewed by critics as anathema and to more open minds as the right response to the surging “jazz is dead” debate. This lush Latin pop concoction was a logical step forward for vibist Cal Tjader but is equally a success for Gary McFarland, who produced, arranged and plays throughout. It is McFarland’s sprite, uncluttered arrangements and song choices (including his own “Fried Bananas” and “Eye of the Devil”), the delight of hearing Tjader and McFarland’s vibes together and João Donato on organ that makes this easily one of Tjader’s very best, with classy covers “Ode to Billie Joe”, “Never My Love” and “La Bamba” and the exceptional originals “Mambo Sangria” and “Solar Heat”. (Afterthought: Solar Heat has turned up on CD under quite a number of guises over the past ten or 15 years, mostly all are questionably legitimate at best. The best of the bunch is assuredly the 2006 Japanese release on Muzak, which may be extremely hard to locate now. But no matter how its packaged, Solar Heat remains one of Skye’s best and Cal Tjader’s most engaging albums.)

Dreams – Gabor Szabo (Skye, 1968): Guitarist Gabor Szabo’s second of four Skye recordings is the pinnacle of his work for the label and, arguably, one of the best of his entire career. This brilliant bacchanalia teams Szabo’s working quintet, featuring fellow guitarist Jimmy Stewart, (in LA) with Gary McFarland’s majestically subtle sextet of violin, cello, three French horns and piano (in NYC). Szabo steps into the classics (two from De Falla and one from fellow Hungarian Zoltán Kodály, who had died the year before this recording was made in 1968), which lends the proceedings an undeniably timeless appeal. The guitarist contributes two other originals and McFarland adds “Half the Day Is Night”, a classic all its own and worthy of further musical investigation. The centerpiece, though, is the album’s finale, a spellbinding spin of Donovan’s graceful and gorgeous “Ferris Wheel”. (Afterthought: Dreams remains one of Gabor Szabo’s most sought after and elusive albums. The 2006 Japanese release on Muzak is the one to have. But the album was also issued on CD in 2008 by the Spanish Fresh Sound label – which often issues music in the legitimate or the reasonably questionable public domain – in an LP-like digipack sleeve, though this may be out of print now too.)

America the Beautiful – Gary McFarland (Skye, 1969): Gary McFarland had never before been so socially or politically outspoken in his music, yet he organized here what became one of his grandest musical achievements and undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the entire twenty-odd Skye recordings. This emotionally and intellectually provoking orchestral suite paints a portrait of destruction, dissolution and the imperialistic cost of consumerism in hues of anger, apathy, confusion and disenchantment. The result leaves the listener with a sad impression of resignation to an ultimately doomed fate. McFarland designs a classical framework and journeys through rock, jazz and the blues to make his very convincing points. Alternatively engaging and challenging, America the Beautiful makes for essential, if not always uplifting, listening. (Afterthought: America The Beautiful is still regarded by the small audience who remember Gary McFarland as the composer’s masterpiece. The album hasn’t been terribly difficult to find on CD. But again, the 2006 Japanese release on Muzak is the one to get, if possible. Otherwise, a decent copy can probably be obtained from the Spanish Fresh Sound label.)

Gabor Szabo 1969 – Gabor Szabo (Skye, 1969): Gabor Szabo’s third Skye recording came the closest of all two dozen Skye releases to achieving the perfect fusion of jazz and rock its owners formulated the label for in the first place. It is a marvelous collection of instrumental covers of many well-known pop songs that were AM staples throughout 1967 and 1968, including The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” “You Won’t See Me,” “In My Life” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face” as well as Spanky and Our Gang’s “Sealed With A Kiss,” Judy Collins’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s brilliant “Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell’s “Michael From Mountains” (also covered by Judy Collins), The Left Bank’s/Four Tops’ “Walk Away Renee,” Classic IV’s “Stormy” (which became a Szabo concert staple throughout the remainder of his career) and The Four Pennies cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go.” Szabo’s playing ekes out each of the tunes’ undeniably melodic appeal, so much so that the guitarist rarely drifts far from the melody statements here (Szabo offers tasty improvisation throughout but it is regrettably minimal, as the the tunes stay within a radio-friendly three-minute range). Supported by a small group of LA studio musicians (and George Ricci’s overdubbed cello on several numbers), Szabo delivers each of these jewels with a sincerity that immediately reveals his own appreciation of this music. While Bacchanal treads much of the same ground as Gabor Szabo 1969 and is, admittedly, a much better album to witness Szabo “the jazz guitarist,” this album perfects what Szabo had been attempting with mixed results at best since at least 1965. Sure enough, having finally accomplished his goal, he moved onto meeting new and different goals hereafter. The album’s highlights are the gorgeous “Both Sides Now,” the melancholy “Stormy” and the lone Szabo original, the too-short but pensive and moody “Somewhere I Belong.” (Afterthought: While Gabor Szabo 1969 is among the best of the Skye recordings, it is probably not considered one of the great Gabor Szabo albums. The dynamic improvisation and originality so evident on 1966’s Spellbinder or even 1972’s Mizrab is nearly absent here. Thus, it remains one of the less sought-out albums in Szabo’s catalog. Nevertheless the now out-of-print 2006 Japanese CD release on Airmail is the version of this to get. Otherwise, the 2008 CD release of Gabor Szabo 1969 by the Spanish Fresh Sound label is probably that will be the easiest to find.)

Journeys of Odysseus: A Jazz Suite for Chamber Orchestra - Bob Freedman (Cobblestone, 1972): This elegantly crafted suite of “contemporary classical music” is, for several reasons, among the least known of all Skye recordings. Producer Gary McFarland probably heard a kindred spirit in Bob Freedman, a jazz-influenced arranger best known now for his later work with Wynton Marsalis, Billy Joel and, recently, Ron Carter, who takes several typically noble solos here. Freedman had recently arranged Grady Tate’s second Skye album, Feeling Life, but here crafted something closer to McFarland’s own America the Beautiful. It’s easy to ignore the brief recitations from Homer, which the composer indicates were not meant to be heard, and immerse oneself in the evocative suite’s masterful palette – especially side two, where the jazz springs forth from the classical construct – peopled with the biggest names of 1969’s New York studio scene. (Afterthought: Bob Freedman’s Journeys of Odysseus was recorded for the Skye label in 1969, scheduled as Skye SK-12, but the company never found the funds to issue the album at the time. The album had finally received its first release in 1972 on the short-lived Cobblestone label, with the pretentious and hokey narration accidentally included in the mix. The album was never reissued again and has subsequently never been issued anywhere on CD. Mr. Freedman, who is still active in music – check out my good friend Arnaldo DeSouteiro’s Jazz Station blog to find out more – deserves to have this marvelous music, among some of the best Skye ever caught, heard by orchestral jazz lovers. It is a testament to why his talents are sought out by the most famous names in the music business.)

There are quite a number of other highlights in the Skye catalog, especially for crate diggers looking for particular nuggets.

Among them I would name “Flea Market” and “Three Years Ago” from Gary McFarland’s Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon?, “Divided City” from Gabor Szabo’s Bacchanal, “Wild Thing” and “Red Onions” from Armando Peraza’s Wild Thing, “Get Back,” “Sombras de Saudade” and “Berimbau” from Gary McFarland’s Today and Grady Tate’s “Be Black Baby” (from the Brian DePalma film Hi Mom!).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wounded Bird Flies Again

The great reissue label Wounded Bird has announced a heady brew of releases for November 10 including many pre-CD pop albums of the 1970s and early 1980s as well as several never-before-issued CDs by pianist Ramsey Lewis and, surprisingly, trumpeter Doc Severinsen.

The Ramsey Lewis releases include Love Notes (Columbia, 1977), Blues For The Night Owl (Columbia, 1981 – a compilation of more or less straight-ahead material Lewis recorded between 1972 and 1980), Live at the Savoy (Columbia, 1982), Chance Encounter (Columbia, 1982) and Les Fleurs (Columbia, 1983).

But while Wounded Bird previously issued Lewis’s Don’t It Feel Good (Columbia, 1975), Salongo (Columbia, 1976) and Legacy (Columbia, 1978), this batch of releases still does not include Ramsey Lewis’s excellent Routes (Columbia, 1980), half of which was produced by the legendary Allen Toussaint and the other half by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Larry Dunn. Perhaps it’s an oversight that will be corrected upon a future release.

Johnny Carson’s former musical sidekick, Doc Severinsen, sees an abundance of his nearly forgotten solo work get issued by Wounded Bird on November 10 with such titles as Brass Roots (RCA, 1971 – arranged by Don Sebesky), Brass on Ivory (RCA, 1972 – with Henry Mancini), Doc (RCA, 1972), Rhapsody For Now (RCA, 1973 – arranged by Oliver Nelson, among others), Night Journey (Epic, 1975 – Doc’s breakout disco album, arranged by Fred Crane) and the jazz fusion classic Brand New Thing (Epic, 1977 – produced and arranged by Tom Scott) all on the way.

I’ve sung the praises of the terrific Brand New Thing here some months ago, bemoaning the fact that this was unlikely to ever see the light of day on CD. I’m pleased to report the perspicacious folks at Wounded Bird have discovered these buried treasures and are releasing them to their (probably somewhat small) fan base and to crate diggers anxious to discover some excellent forgotten music from the days before the so-called compact disc.

In addition to my request to see Ramsey Lewis’s Routes considered for a future release on Wounded Bird, I would also ask Wounded Bird to consider reissuing Dutch flautist Tys van Leer’s 1978 American jazz fusion album Nice To Have Met You (Columbia, 1978), which, like Brand New Thing, is also helmed by Tom Scott and many of the fusion greats who made the Doc Severinsen album such a classic of the genre.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Joe Farrell “Sonic Text”

This superb album finds multi-talented reedman Joe Farrell (1937-86) paired with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008) and an outstanding rhythm section featuring George Cables on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. The mostly straight-ahead set was recorded in 1979 and ranks among Farrell’s very best and probably best-known work – probably because it’s one of the few of Farrell’s albums that made the transition to CD and stayed in print long enough to get noticed.

Farrell spent much of the 1960s as a “section” man, working in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Charles Mingus, Slide Hampton and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, elevating to feature spots later in the decade with Jaki Byard, Chick Corea, Elvin Jones, James Moody and Andrew Hill.

After sessions on CTI with George Benson (Tell It Like It Is) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Tide, Stone Flower), producer Creed Taylor gave Farrell his first solo recording opportunity, Joe Farrell Quartet (later reissued as Song of the Wind), a remarkable album that featured the reed man with pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, all of whom were part of Miles Davis’ band at the time.

Farrell recorded six more albums for CTI through 1976, all featuring outstanding groups and some of his best music, followed by two somewhat commercial albums for Warner Bros. (recently reissued on CD by the Wounded Bird label) and two more straight-ahead ventures on the small Xanadu label in 1979.

Sonic Text, originally issued on the Contemporary label in 1980, is a beautifully programmed set of mostly modal originals, highlighted by Freddie Hubbard’s “The Jazz Crunch,” a typical Hubbard-like jam tune that combines the best of Hubbard’s own “Happiness is Now” with “Straight Life,” and George Cables’ excellent signature piece “Sweet Rita Suite (Part 1): Her Spirit.”

Farrell is on tenor sax for the exhilarating post-bop of the title cut, the lovely “When You’re Awake” (with Hubbard on flugelhorn), the exciting “The Jazz Crunch” and the engagingly exploratory “Malibu” (at nearly 12 minutes in length, it is the album’s centerpiece) and soprano sax on the sprightly mid-tempo “If I Knew Where You’re At” (with Cables on electric piano and Dumas on electric bass). Farrell’s always invigorating flute work is heard only on Cables’ “Sweet Rita,” in which Farrell casts a net that suggests some of the work he was doing with Chick Corea at the time.

The musicians here work particularly well together. Farrell is in especially fine fettle, leading a cast of heavyweights with democratic authority and a unifying team spirit that gives this studio grouping the feeling of a solid working unit.

Another element of the group’s success is the dynamic Hubbard, who was coming off a period of fusion playing to prove he still had the jazz chops to make a session like this sound interesting. Freddie Hubbard, who like Farrell had also relocated to California by the late 1970s, is a significant part of the album’s success. Hubbard was part of the CTI stable at the same time Farrell was and the two toured together as part of the CTI All Stars (CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, for example). Hubbard and Farrell are also heard on Don Sebesky’s 1973 CTI album Giant Box, but not together and Farrell was in the studio orchestra that backed Hubbard on the trumpeter’s The Love Connection, recorded earlier in the year that Sonic Text was made.

Cables, of course, can do no wrong, whether as a leader or, as he is here, a sideman. He is pitch perfect throughout Sonic Text. Like Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton or John Hicks, he is a sideman who thinks like a leader, guiding with the perfect combination of rhythm and melody, and contributing just enough to frame a soloist in the most individual of ways. Farrell had already played with George Cables on two tracks from the pianist’s album Circle (Contemporary), recorded nine months earlier, and the two would later reunite for two 1982 recordings on the RealTime label, Darn That Dream (which was issued on CD) and Someday (parts of which were included on the Drive Archive CD titled Darn That Dream, which only included parts of the original album with that title).

Like nearly all of the CTI albums Joe Farrell made prior to Sonic Text, one yearns to hear more of this group doing more music together. Sadly, that was not to be (Farrell died of bone cancer on January 10, 1986, at the age of 48). The rhythm section (Cables, Dumas and Erskine) – minus Farrell – would reunite with Hubbard (and Bobby Hutcherson and Ernie Watts) three weeks later for the pianist’s terrific Cables’ Vision (Contemporary). But no more was heard from this ideal grouping other than the six scintillating and timeless tracks which appear on Sonic Text.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Designed by Robert Flynn

Creed Taylor carefully devised Impulse Records in 1960 to be a distinctive musical entity as well as an individualistic visual experience. He had designer Fran Scott develop the label’s perfectly-conceived black, orange and white livery, which Taylor adapted to the records’ spine – making them easily and significantly stand out in any record collection.

Margo Guryan designed the label’s superb iconic logo, inverting the lower-case sans-serif “i” of Impulse to the exclamation point which followed the name. A remarkably prescient tagline was developed, “The New Wave of Jazz Is On Impulse!,” which served the various directions in music the label caught throughout the sixties to an exceptional tee.

Cutting edge photographers were hired to photograph the artists in full-color glory (most jazz cover photos at the time were black and white or tinted for effect), in distinguishing head or full-body shots, bleeding off the edges of thick, glossy laminated gatefold sleeves.

This was unprecedented in jazz at the time (it comes more from the design of classical, read “timeless,” albums of the day). Nearly all other jazz records of the day boasted single-sleeve cardboard covers and no photo bleeds, which are far more economical to produce. Taylor theorized that buyers who saw records that looked important would think the music must be important too.

Taylor also brought designer Robert Flynn of Viceroy (an agency which designed many of the ABC Paramount albums Taylor produced) to Impulse in 1960 to provide the Impulse albums with their own distinctive look. Taylor’s knack for discovering and utilizing designers to provide iconic signature styles is genius and would later result in bringing Sam Antupit to design the A&M/CTI record covers and Bob Ciano to design the CTI record covers (Taylor’s Verve albums were designed by MGM’s art department and, thus, rarely carried design credits).

Robert Flynn designed nearly all of Impulse’s covers from 1960 through 1969, staying on even after Creed Taylor’s 1961 departure to Verve Records to work well with Impulse’s new musical director, Bob Thiele, who produced the majority of albums designed by Flynn.

Flynn’s style is simplicity itself. Never arty or aspiring to great art, Flynn’s designs are utilitarian and effective. Each album Flynn designed properly promotes the artist and visually delivers on the artist’s message(s). The design suggested the label without ever enforcing that this was, first and foremost, an Impulse album done by so and so, something other iconic jazz labels like Solid State and Mainstream (and later, Groove Merchant) got completely wrong.

Flynn’s flair for typography and color was inspired and always seemed motivated by the music without ever locking Impulse into stylistic guidelines. Still, from the multi-colored Helvetica faces used early on to the trippy pop-art faces of the later records, Impulse retained its own personality.

Thiele’s wide-ranging recording habits never seemed to present a problem for Flynn either. Thiele could go from recording an all-out avant garde record to a traditional New Orleans style record to a be-bop record to an organ jazz record. Flynn never missed a beat. It all looked and sounded like Impulse.

Flynn continued designing Impulse sleeves until about 1969, when Bob Thiele left the label to form Flying Dutchman. Impulse’s new management took the venerable jazz label, which had done much to define jazz in the 1960s, into a whole new – and less interesting – dimension. Flynn’s departure rendered Impulse’s once iconic graphic design into something unremarkable and surprisingly generic.

Flynn went along with Bob Thiele to Flying Dutchman, providing not only a distinctive look for Thiele’s new label, but retaining enough of the design elements Flynn established at Impulse to ensure the connection to the music Thiele produced there.

Flynn also designed the first three albums issued on the Skye label (Cal Tjader’s Solar Heat, Gary McFarland’s Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon? and Gabor Szabo’s Bacchanal), providing the label’s only distinctive looking covers, which, it could be argued, veered a bit too close to the Impulse albums the label was competing against at the time. One of the only album covers Flynn designed away from the Impulse label that I know about is the Phoenix Authority’s Blood, Sweat & Brass (Mainstream, 1968).

After a year or so with Flying Dutchman, Robert Flynn seemed to disappear from the record cover design business and was never heard from again. What follows below is a sampling (about 10 percent) of Robert Flynn’s distinctive work for the Impulse! label between 1960 and 1969.

Out of the Cool - The Gil Evans Orchestra (Impulse A/S-4, 1961). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Arnold Newman.

Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard - John Coltrane (Impulse A/S-10, 1962). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Pete Turner.

Jazz Goes To The Movies - Manny Albam (Impulse A/S-19, 1962). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Bob Gomel.

Coltrane - John Coltrane (Impulse A/S-21, 1962). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Pete Turner.

Out of the Afternoon - Roy Haynes Quartet (Impulse A/S-23, 1962). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Burt Goldblatt.

Passin’ Thru - The New Amazing Chico Hamilton Quintet (Impulse A/S-29, 1963). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Jim Marshall.

Four For Trane - Archie Shepp (Impulse A/S-71, 1964). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

Everybody Loves A Lover - Shirley Scott (Impulse A/S-73, 1965). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Bob Ghiraldini.

Ascension - John Coltrane (Impulse A/S-95, 1965). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

On A Clear Day - Shirley Scott (Impulse A/S-9101, 1966). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

Spellbinder - Gabor Szabo (Impulse A/S-9123, 1966). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Painting: Gabor Szabo.

Everywhere - Roswell Rudd (Impulse A/S-9126, 1966). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Fred Seligo.

Nine Flags - Chico O’Farrill (Impulse A/S-9135, 1967). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

The October Suite - Steve Kuhn/Gary McFarland (Impulse A/S-9136, 1967). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

The Spirit of ‘67 - Pee Wee Russell (Impulse A/S-9147, 1967). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Painting: Pee Wee Russell.

A Monastic Trio - Alice Coltrane (Impulse A/S-9156, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn. Photography: Charles Stewart.

Impressions of New York - The Rolf and Joachim Kuhn Quartet (Impulse A/S-9158, 1967). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Charles Stewart.

The Way Ahead - Archie Shepp (Impulse A/S-9170, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn/Viceroy.

The Best of Gabor Szabo - Gabor Szabo (Impulse A/S-9173, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn. Photography: Charles Stewart.

Karma - Pharoah Sanders (Impulse A/S-9181, 1969). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn. Photography: Charles Stewart.

And here is some of Robert Flynn’s work away from the Impulse label:

Solar Heat - Cal Tjader (Skye SK-1, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Manfred Kage.

Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon? - Gary McFarland & Co. (Skye SK-2, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Robert Houston.

Bacchanal - Gabor Szabo (Skye SK-3, 1968). Design: Robert Flynn/Viceroy. Photography: Barry Peake.

Blood, Sweat & Brass - The Phoenix Authority (Mainstream MRL-304, 1968). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn.

Soulful Brass #2 - Steve Allen (Flying Dutchman FDS-101, 1969). Design: Robert and Barbara Flynn. Photography: Fred Seligo.

Black, Brown and Beautiful - Oliver Nelson (Flying Dutchman FDS-116, 1970). Design: Robert Flynn. Photography: Charles Stewart.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bernie Worrell with Bill Laswell - Part 1 of 3

Since the early 1980s, bassist, producer, conceptualist, musical genius and staggeringly uncollectable visionary Bill Laswell has used former P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, himself an innovative and too little celebrated musical pioneer, on many of his extraordinarily wide-ranging and diverse projects.

The first record of their collaboration that I recall is former LaBelle chanteuse Nona Hendryx’s scintillating Nona (RCA, 1983), which I picked up at the time only because I was in the throws of ecstatic enchantment with the wild and wonderful sounds of Material’s classic One Down (Elektra, 1982).

The Material album, probably one of the very best dance records of the 1980s and one which they pitched as “their first and last pure pop album,” featured Nona Hendryx among others in a pitch-perfect environment that showed her off to better advantage than she’d ever been heard before. Worrell factors only on two of Nona’s tracks (“Living On The Border,” “Dummy Up”). As it is so often elsewhere, his participation may be seemingly minimal, but his impact is palpable.

That’s part of the magic Bill Laswell creates with whatever he touches. It doesn’t necessarily turn to gold. More often, it turns into something remarkable and more memorable than mere passing fancy. It’s also why huge stars from every side of the music world line up to work with him. More significantly, he knows how to attract great talent, people with unlimited capacities for confounding expectation and reaching new galaxies of expression. He’ll throw people together that would barely have a reason to share the same room and proves time and again that music is a universal language.

Over the years, while Bill Laswell has continually sought out new musical associations and developed ever newer sonic contexts, he calls back any number of old friends to help him pull it all off. Folks like Bernie Worrell. It says a lot about both of these towering musical giants that they have worked so frequently over so many years so successfully together.

But Bernie Worrell is also an exceptional musician. Classically trained and a gifted musical thinker, Bernie Worrell has provided the electronic backbone to some of the funkiest, rawest music this planet has ever known. His command of any number of electronic keyboards and innovative ways of layering sound built the church of P-Funk, which the denizens of hip-hop will forever worship within. As a sound progenitor, he is probably responsible for a larger percentage of P-Funk’s music than his co-writer credits could possibly ever indicate. Even the credits on most P-Funk records don’t properly acknowledge the real contribution Worrell made to all of that music. After touring with the Talking Heads in the early 1980s, Bernie Worrell launched a fairly spotty solo career (with few exceptions, his solo records tend to try to please too many different interests and aren’t consistently interesting as a result) and has gigged with nearly everybody under the sun but has always made time for Bill Laswell’s musical challenges.

My list only scratches the surface of what Bill Laswell and Bernie Worrell have done together. Like in my personal life, what’s covered below avoids any of the predominantly vocal records (Nona Hendryx, Gil Scott Heron, Yoko Ono, PiL, Golden Palominos, etc.). Although many of these are not without interest, the vocals take away from what I want to hear the instrumentalists doing. That’s not necessarily improvisation which, it should be noted, is not Bernie Worrell’s strong suit – nor something he’s ever shown a particular aptitude for or an abiding interest in (his recent Improvisczario is a wonderful disc that ultimately stands as study in frustration if one approaches it as some sort of jazz statement).

What emerges here is a group of recordings that demonstrate how well two musicians – one of whom isn’t always playing a musical instrument and one who is not always playing – create a space that is about musical invention and of sounds that breathe. Very little of what follows could be considered jazz. But neither is it the music of dominant personalities, which is why jazz-oriented soloist albums by say Pharoah Sanders or Manu DiBango are not featured here. It is about the collective creativity of Bill Laswell and Bernie Worell.

Down By Law - Deadline (Celluloid/1985): The Deadline collective seems to have been a dance project conceived by jazz drummer Phillip Wilson (1941-92) with producer Bill Laswell. The album features six tracks that are very much in the style of Laswell’s other Celluloid projects of the period, with Manu DiBango, Bernie Worell, Steve Turre and Olu Dara appearing on three tracks each, Bill Laswell appearing on five tracks (bass only on “Afro Beat”), Jonas Hellborg appearing on two tracks and Paul Butterfield and Jaco Pastorius on “Makossa Rock.” Only Phillip Wilson is a constant on the album’s six tracks, which amount to something of a successful Afro-Beat meets techno-jazz experiment. Bernie Worrell is heard on synthesizer here on the same three songs led and co-written by Manu DiBango (“Afro Beat,” “Boat Peoples” and the dance-floor hit “Makossa Rock”) and they amount to the album’s most memorable moments. Worrell’s distinctive synthesizer compliments DiBango’s idiosyncratic tenor sax and vocal chants particularly well and is given a prominence that suggests the keyboardist is the foundation, if not the author, of the engaging groove. The result is very similar to the fuel Worrell was adding to the Talking Heads’ fire at the time. The three tracks from Down By Law featuring Manu DiBango and Bernie Worrell have also been included on a DiBango compilation of questionable origin called Bao Bao, which also features three songs from DiBango’s Laswell-produced album Electric Africa, however “Electric Africa” is re-titled “Big Blow,” “Echoes Beti” is retitled “Bao Bao” and “L’Arbre A Palabres” is re-titled “Chapo-so Jam” (curiously, the only song from Electric Africa featuring Bernie Worrell, “Pata Piya,” is not included in the compilation). Although Phillip Wilson was murdered in 1992, a second Deadline album, Dissident, without Wilson, was issued. This album, too, featured Bernie Worrell but not Manu DiBango and seemed more centered on the distinctive basses of Bill Laswell, Bootsy Collins and Jonas Hellborg.

Horses And Trees - Ginger Baker (Celluloid/1986): Rock drummer Ginger Baker had been away from music for about ten years when he returned in 1986 with the Bill Laswell-produced album Horses And Trees. Like Laswell’s productions for Herbie Hancock and, later Pharaoh Sanders, among others, it didn’t merely usher the drummer into a new musical universe, but jettisoned his music forward to a new conception of what was possible. Baker is a particularly powerful drummer, offering an expansive beat that isn’t as technically advanced as it is perfectly suited to the moods he aims to whip up. Baker’s rhythms are often fairly basic and don’t meander much from the groove the drummer establishes early in any song (fortunately he tends to refrain from the prog-rock/arena rock/metal drum solos as he tends to the think in more melodic terms than rhythmic ones). The addition of Daniel Ponce and Aiyb Dieng on percussion throughout adds an aurally perfect dimension to Baker’s sound that suggests the drums are programmed, even though they’re not. Even so, drum programs didn’t sound this holistic and unique back in 1986. Throughout, Laswell, who mans the bass on three of the album’s six tracks (the same ones featuring Bernie Worrell), lays down a firm foundation that keeps Baker’s fairly plodding, almost militaristic, cadences enjoyable and engaging. Bernie Worrell contributes organ to “Interlock,” “Dust to Dust” and “Uncut,” offering a hard-edged rock support few had heard since his early Funkadelic days, when audiences were knocked out by what a Hammond organ could add to rock (think Gregg Rollie of Santana). Worrell solos some in “Interlock” and “Uncut,” making these two tracks among the album’s highlights, which also include “Satou” and “Makuta,” without Worrell, both featuring the distinctive Foday Musa Suso and the always-dazzling percussive effects of Nana Vasconcelos. Bill Laswell produced another album for Ginger Baker, Middle Passage (Axiom, 1990), that also included keyboard contributions from Bernie Worrell.

Ritual Beating System - Bahia Black (Axiom/1992): A frustrating and ultimately disappointing listen that’s not without its points of interest, Ritual Beating System focuses on two Brazilian star groups out of Bahia, guitarist, percussionist and vocalist Carlinhos Brown and the ten-piece drummer unit Olodum, under the collective rubric of Bahia Black. Relentless percussion is difficult to appreciate, particularly when it’s prolonged like it is here or presented as a musical statement without any sort of visual accompaniment at all. After a while, it just gets boring. That is probably why Brown and Olodum are given plenty of support here by such Americans as Bernie Worrell on organ (“Retrarato Calado,” “Capitão do Asfalto” and “Guia Pro Congal”), Herbie Hancock on piano and Wayne Shorter on soprano sax (on the two seemingly spur-of-the-moment pieces “The Seven Powers” and “Gwagwa O De”), Henry Threadgill (“Capitão do Asfalto” and “Guia Pro Congal”) and several percussionists including Tony “Funky Drummer” Walls, whose only other credit seems to be LL Cool J’s Walking With A Panther. Bill Laswell functions only as producer (and probably conceptualist) here and the lack of his bass – or any bass at all – contributes to the music’s overall lack of focus. The album also sounds divided into the melodic and interesting Carlinhos Brown pieces and the meandering, often meaningless Olodum songs. Bernie Worrell’s organ, on the other hand, sounds wondrous and positively electric in contrast to Brown’s commanding vocals and acoustic guitar accompaniment. While he’s only audible on three songs here and is never terribly prominent, Worrell’s presence is always felt, providing a strong foundation and fills that really elevate Brown’s remarkably interesting music. Whatever its faults, Ritual Beating System suggests that a greater exploration of “Bernie Worrell In Brazil” is in order. “Retrarato Calado,” “Capitão do Asfalto” and “Guia Pro Congal” hint wonderfully in that direction.