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!).

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