Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ahmad Jamal “A Quiet Time”

Legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal continues his spate of spellbinding discs with this, the fifth of his Dreyfus Jazz recordings. It is a terrifically enchanting 66-minute quartet performance featuring longtime associate James Cammack on bass, Manolo Badrena on percussion and, surprisingly, Kenny Washington on drums.

Washington, an unusually sensitive and supportive drummer, has been around for years and years and has played with everyone, from legends to upstarts. But this is the first time he’s ever been heard in the company of Ahmad Jamal.

It’s hard, at first, to accept the absence of drummer Idris Muhammad here. The drummer, who has been frequently heard in Jamal’s company since 1994’s Big Byrd, must have been unavailable on the three days in July 2009 when this disc was recorded, because he still appears with the pianist in concert performances. But Kenny Washington fulfills the chair with tremendous aplomb, never trying to replace or replicate what Idris Muhammad brings to Jamal’s groove, but almost suggesting Jamal’s earlier stick men, particularly, and most pleasingly, the hugely underrated Vernell Fourneier.

Ahmad Jamal, though, is truly remarkable throughout. Playing with the perception of an elder sage and the wit and fervor of a man a fraction of his age, the pianist has never sounded better. As a friend recently remarked to me, he continues to get better as he gets older.

While there may have been a few duds in his discography over the past two decades, his playing continues to grow most remarkably in strength and fortitude. This man, who turns 80 on July 2, has a human resilience that is enviable.

His artistry has evolved over the last six decades – 60 years! – so remarkably, in fact, that it’s hard to put into words. His melodic conceptions have become ever more fully formed. His playing veers farther from pet licks and predictable quotes into a language that is solely and soulfully all his own. He has also developed substantially over the years as a composer, yet, surprisingly, others don’t pick up on his now capacious catalog of tunes for further exploration.

Of the 11 tracks presented here, a whopping nine are Ahmad Jamal originals. All seem to be brand new compositions with the exception of “Tranquility,” which served as the title track to a 1968 Ahmad Jamal album on ABC-Paramount. The highlights here are plentiful and include “Paris After Dark,” “Flight to Russia,” “Poetry,” “My Inspiration,” “After JALC,” “A Quiet Time,” “Tranquility” and the utterly lovely “The Blooming Flower.” Jamal also spins two very personal takes on Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly” and the old chestnut “I Hear A Rhapsody,” patently making the tunes his own as he has done so often elsewhere before.

The only complaint that could possibly be lodged against this otherwise wonderful recording involves the odd and thoroughly ill-placed percussive accents, sometimes suggesting birds, flushing toilets and psycho effects out of Dirty Harry, that litter the disc unnecessarily. The guilty culprit is the great Manolo Badrena, who has provided percussive inflection to Jamal’s music as far back as Rossiter Road (1986) and as recently as It’s Magic (2007). Never have his treatments sounded as out of place and ill fitted as they do here on more than several occasions – particularly on many of the song’s finales (in all fairness, the pianist’s otherwise lovely 1987 album Crystal suffers from the same problem, but Willie White was the culprit there).

It’s not enough to put anybody off an otherwise beautiful album. A Quiet Time isn’t the snooze-fest the title may suggest. It is an excellent and engaging document that beautifully elucidates what real piano jazz is all about. Outstanding.

Friday, January 29, 2010

RIP J.D. Salinger

The reclusive writer J.D. Salinger was reported to have died on Wednesday, January 27 at age 91 of natural causes at his remote home in Cornish, New Hampshire. The author of one of the 20th Century’s greatest novels, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger has hardly uttered a word in public or on the page since 1965 – when I was only two years old – though he’s said to have continued writing right up until his death.

Nobody who has ever read The Catcher in the Rye is likely to escape its unyielding power. It is a great read and it is great literature. It is the perfect book for a certain age, without any of the cloying, preaching, moralistic or destructive rebellion that so much literature of the type is. It gets young people without getting anybody in particular. It really defines much of what can be understood about adolescence, defiance and the life of the mind during the mid 1950s. It is one of the most quintessentially great American novels of all time.

No boy who has ever read the book could possibly remain untouched by Holden Caulfield. Many, of especial disposition, could even be said to be very much like Holden Caulfield. And no girl – and many boys and many men – could help but fall in love with Holden Caulfield and his oddly fractured way of dealing with life, even as they know that Holden Caulfield would probably not regard them with much in the way of any kind of esteem (it would be interesting to hear various people’s interpretation of Holden Caulfield – no two descriptions would be the same, but all would be invested with a great deal of fondness and some level of idolatry). Salinger’s creation is an amazing American archetype, and someone he himself probably identified with throughout his life.

While in college, a friend named Gina introduced me to Salinger’s story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (included in Nine Stories, originally published in 1971), one of those great short stories about a disturbed individual named Seymour Glass who, in the space of only 10 or so pages, says and does some pretty surprising things.

The story haunted me for longer than I care to reflect upon. I must have read it 100 times. It is a beautifully descriptive and artistically besotted story of a doomed individual and a sad view on humanity that was probably closer to the misanthropic and reclusive Salinger than any human being, including his own children, ever was.

Gina’s recommendation took me, of course, to Franny and Zooey (another Glass family adventure), which I haven’t read for at least two decades but I recall being quite touching, and the weird and less engrossing Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction - all from short stories the author first had published in the New Yorker.

None of these stories will alter or change the significance of the magnificent contribution J.D. Salinger made to American literature with The Catcher in the Rye, a fine novel and one the most influentially impacting books on many lives, including mine.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ahmad Jamal “It’s Magic”

In the autumn of his years, the great pianist Ahmad Jamal has delivered a stunning legacy of momentous recordings – mostly, as late, as part of the French Birdology series of releases that have been distributed variously through the American labels Atlantic, Verve and Dreyfus Jazz.

This, in no way, negates the pianist’s huge and wonderful catalog on Argo/Cadet, Impulse, 20th Century (more on that later), Motown and Atlantic, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But, shockingly, so few of these albums are even available to be remembered or considered to be the classics that they so obviously deserve to be.

So, one must appreciate what one can get. There have been quite a number of these latter-day releases – many bearing titles like The Essence - but none have been nearly as successful and relentlessly enjoyable as 2008’s It’s Magic.

(The pianist, who turns 80 in July, releases his newest album this week, A Quiet Time. While I know nothing of what’s to come, I can only hope it’s as wonderful as the disc under scrutiny here.)

It’s Magic really is quite magical. Paired with long-time trio mates James Cammack on bass and the great Idris Muhammad on drums, this disc – like so many of Jamal’s Birdology discs – adds a guest to spruce things up, as it were.

Here, it is the great percussionist Manolo Badrena, formerly of Weather Report as well as a former sideman to jazzers Art Blakey, Carla Bley and Steve Khan as well as more pop-oriented concerns as Talking Heads, Blondie and Rolling Stones. The mix is, surprisingly and most perfectly ideal – especially for Ahmad Jamal.

Highlights are plentiful and include “Dynamo” (featuring a few stabs at “Eleanor Rigby”), “Back to the Island” (quoting from Jamal’s own hugely famous take on “Poinciana”), “Wild Is The Wind” (previously recorded by the pianist on 1968’s The Bright, The Blue and The Beautiful and Live In Paris 92) – coupled with “Sing,” “Arabesque” (which Jamal first played with bassist James Cammack on 1987’s wonderful Crystal) and the all-new tunes “Papillon” and “Fitnah.”

Throughout, Jamal is magisterial. The phenomenal Idris Muhammad on drums, long an aide de camp to Ahmad Jamal, brings his New Orleans heritage to the fore on the remarkably motivated “Dynamo,” “Wild Is The Wind/Sing” and “Papillon.” And that’s just when he’s most forthright. When he lays back, he’s still a presence to be reckoned with.

Manolo Badrena’s percussive additions really greatly aid “Swahililand” (which Jamal first performed on 1974’s Jamal Plays Jamal, then later reconvened for 1987’s Crystal and with Cammack and Muhammad for 2004’s After Fajr) and Jamal’s Rollins-esque “Back To The Island.”

Even the quieter material Jamal presents here (“Papillon,” “It’s Magic”) contains none of the florid over statements he has been known to employ of late – stuff which Miles Davis, long Jamal’s champion, would not have condoned. Jamal’s playing here is peerless, timeless and, well, magical.

Jamal is playing as beautifully as ever here. It’s Magic is timeless and worth many repeated listens.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

2010 Honda Accord Crosstour Commercial

What a great pleasure to hear the gorgeous voice of Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) on the airwaves in this clever American commercial for Honda’s new Accord Crosstour. While “Pata Pata” is, perhaps, Ms. Makeba’s best known hit (from 1968), it is still refreshing to know that she – and that remarkable voice – lives on and is not forgotten. Nice computer animation too. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gay Marriage

One of the most surprisingly insightful pieces I’ve read in some time is the January 18, 2010, Newsweek cover story by former solicitor general and lawyer-for-the-right Theodore B. Olsen called “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” A follow-up of sorts to the weekly periodical's December 10, 2008, cover story, "The Religious Case For Gay Marriage," it is an inspiring read and something everyone who cares about America and American values should check out (hint: Americans).

I’m sure American conservatives everywhere will somehow find reason to fault the logic and the sound reason Olsen splendidly lays out. Like an argument presented methodically and eloquently for a jury, Olsen knows how to make a case.

It’s a strong and convincing case.

I have not necessarily agreed with most of what Olsen has stood for in his rather illuminated career. But this is a refreshingly human and humane change of pace worthy of much reflection, consideration and alteration, particularly as American jurisprudence is concerned.

Indeed, the article has expectedly spawned much controversy. My favorite respite is the typical “liberal media bias” that the American right always hurls as if it's true or means anything. This is so automatically ridiculous that I’m surprised such critics don’t immediately recognize the flaws in their anger or the irony in their own resolve.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have neither championed any conservative viewpoint nor have I really ever understood marriage – straight or otherwise – but one thing I cannot abide is intolerance.

Olsen’s article only hints at the intolerance that lies beneath the whole same-sex marriage issue. Perhaps, that's the one weakness in Olsen's argument. Anyone who says intolerance isn’t at the root of this issue is not being honest with themselves or others. It’s usually pretty hard to convince intolerant people that they are intolerant. Usually they know better than the rest of us or have some special way of confirming their intolerance such as religion, historical precedent or people more famous than them saying it is so.

Olsen makes a very convincing case for why same-sex marriage is a good American value and, more importantly, why intolerance is, in the end, a poor American value.

The article and a brief video can be found here. The Newsweek blog has been capturing some of the backlash. But many other conservative Web sites have more biting and irrefutable criticism. You'll have to find that yourself if that's what you want to read.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sun Ra on Art Yard

Herman Poole Blount, nee Le Sony’r Ra, otherwise known to most of us Earthly mortals simply as Sun Ra (1914-93), was as enigmatic in life as he was in his music. But it is his music, which sadly seemed so unapproachable by so many during his lifetime, has taken on a new life since his death some two decades ago. Thankfully, many labels – legitimate and otherwise – have taken up the mantel of keeping Sun Ra’s music alive in the meantime.

Perhaps the ill-fated Evidence label has done the best and most comprehensive job of restoring Ra’s most significant music to a whole new generation of listeners – particularly many of the great albums from the 50s and the 60s.

But many other labels have been out there commendably pushing new and undiscovered Sun Ra. Special kudos go to Atavistic for quite a number of gems including Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue and the fabulous Nuclear War. Sadly, though, and, the John Corbett-helmed Evidence releases, which might never have found an end date, have ceased to be issued quite some years ago. Evidence might not even exist as a label anymore.

Recently, though, the British Art Yard label has done a fairly commendable job of issuing many little-known Sun Ra Saturn releases from the 70s, a most fertile period in the Arkestra’s music. At this point, each of the Arkestra’s performers were at their peak – and Ra conceived some very interesting, rather unpredictable collectives during these years that are very much worth hearing.

This is, perhaps, the least of Ra’s celebrated periods (if a decade can even begin to do justice to the enormity of Sun Ra's varied output), despite several appearances on film and a truly bizarre, yet dynamic TV appearance on Saturday Night Live) and most notable for the somewhat limited and barely (at the time) known appearances of the exceptional The Night Of The Purple Moon (Saturn, 1970), the film Space Is The Place (1972), the superb Cosmos (Cobra, 1976) and the outstanding Languidity (Philly Jazz, 1978).

But there were many other notable and even lesser-known releases from the great Sun Ra during this weird decade for music that only Art Yard has deigned to pick up and make available to the CD-buying public.

Art Yard issues all of their Sun Ra releases with a loving and respectful care that apparently gets the official benediction of the Ra estate (seemingly headed by the indefatigable 85-year old Marshall Allen, who leads his own Arkestra now).

All of the discs sampled below, from CDs I’ve purchased over the last few months, feature very nice tri-fold digipak cases on nice stock with covers that, one would guess, were put together rather recently – and admittedly, lovingly – by someone with a good desktop design program and a sense of the quick, quasi-sci-fi Saturn designs. This suggests the original Saturn LP releases either had multiple cover images or no image at all. Both instances might be true.

However, in all cases, Art Yard has done a tremendous job bringing this music out into the public domain, even if the presentation isn’t as generic – or as unprofessional – as the original LP release and there is generally too little detail provided on the recording, such as exact recording dates, songwriting credits or liner notes to explain the genesis or importance of the music.

None of this changes the importance or validity of Sun Ra’s great music. Witness.

The Antique Blacks - Sun Ra and his Myth Science Solar Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1974): A smaller version of the Arkestra than usual features on this mostly interesting Sun Ra recording from August 1974, supposedly recorded between the thus-far lost Saturn issues of Out Beyond The Kingdom Of and Sub-underground, and issued on Ra’s Saturn label in 1978. The recording is said by discographers – and certainly not indicated anywhere on this extraordinarily worthy Art Yard release – to have emanated from Ra’s Philadelphia home. Sun Ra, who sticks mostly to the RMI Rock-si-chord here, as he does on the brilliantly wonderful The Night Of The Purple Moon (where the instrument was listed as a “Roksichord”), is accompanied by only John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Danny Davis, Akh Tal Ebah, Clifford Jarvis, James Jackson, Atakatune and the mysteriously labeled “Sly” (Dale Williams) on electric guitar. With one exception, it’s a chance to listen to Ra state his “metaphysical declamations,” which is somewhat like marrying the monologue bits of A Joyful Noise with the Arkestra’s otherwise musical and mostly free passages. Ra did not often recite his wordplay philosophies on record and there’s probably a pretty good reason for that: it’s often barely clever and otherwise detracts from the glory of the music he fostered and captured on such records as this. If, however, you tune out these chants and the monologues, the music is somewhat ecstatic and energizing. Both Gilmore (on tenor sax) and Allen (on alto sax) have worthy – and properly free – moments that will make Arkestra fans rejoice. Another happy surprise is the unusual presence of the guitarist, “Sly,” who wah-wahs himself throughout the proceedings in a cop-show funk fashion that is extraordinarily welcome in Sun Ra’s Omniverse. Without a doubt, the album’s highpoint is the tremendous opener, the surprisingly generically titled “Song No. 1,” one of the great blues pieces Ra and company have contributed to the musical lexicon. Throughout, Sun Ra provides many beautiful keyboard palettes, mostly on “Song No. 1” as well as “There is Change in the Air,” the otherwise silly “This Song is Dedicated to Nature’s God” (a line which, in fact, serves as the lyrics to the song) and the ridiculously titled “The Ridiculous ‘I’ and the Cosmos Me.” Ra goes crazy on the Moog synthesizer for “You Thought You Could Build A World Without Us,” forcing the listener to deal with a goofy sort of sci-fi platitude that nearly undermines the serious musicality of what came before it. Still, a very rare and valuable document nonetheless, The Antique Blacks is worthwhile for the magical “Song No. 1” and some of Sun Ra’s enchanting playing on the Rocksichord.

Disco 3000 - Sun Ra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1978): In early 1978, Sun Ra was invited to Italy to perform several concerts. He took only Arkestra mainstay John Gilmore (on tenor sax), trumpeter Michael Ray (who had recently toured with the Stylistics and claims to have never played jazz before) and drummer Luqman Ali with him. While he was there, Ra was offered several recording opportunities. A number of the performances, including this live show from January 23, 1978, were recorded as well. The best bits of this concert were pulled to make a 1978 album called Disco 3000, which has as much to do with disco as anyone who knows Sun Ra would imagine: absolutely nothing. Oddly, the Art Yard label issued a two-disc version of Ra’s small-group concert called Disco 3000: The Complete Milan Concert 1978 several years ago, including the original LP’s four tracks PLUS the other previously unissued eight tracks from the concert. The disc had one of Art Yard’s peculiar covers (doused in red) and is now all but impossible to acquire inexpensively. For some reason, Art Yard deleted this “complete” version of the concert in favor of a 2009 CD release of the four-track, 45-minute version of the original 1978 LP (with another weird illustration, featuring a trippy pencil sketch of Ra, etc. over a white background – still nothing like the original Saturn cover). The version under review here is the newest Art Yard CD, which mimics the original LP of the same name. The 26-minute title track, which also features a sampling of “Space Is The Place,” was edited a bit to fit on the original Saturn LP and edited even further (and remixed slightly) to create a 2-minute, 43-second 45-rpm single (!) called “Disco 2100,” backed by an edited version of this album’s “Sky Blues,” both of which can be heard on the 1996 Evidence CD The Singles. On this CD, the song is heard in its full glory with Ra on the mysterious electronic keyboard, the Crumar Mainman – which, despite all protestations to the contrary, really exists: he can be seen playing the keyboard in the film A Joyful Noise (1981) - and an early electric drum machine/rhythm box (which he also uses expeditiously on “Friendly Galaxy”). “Third Planet” returns Ra to the acoustic keyboard and allows his three musical companions a chance to explore at length, most pleasingly, to the best of their talents. Particularly nice here is John Gilmore, who gets to shine more brightly on his own than he’s probably been heard to in quite some time. Ra’s “Dance of The Cosmo Aliens” is little more than an electronic rewrite of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” but no less fascinating. The horns are completely out of the mix here and Ali works out a groove that is relentlessly spiky and unique, thorny and melodic all at once. Ra, himself, does a stupendous job setting out an orchestral timbre on his electronic keyboards. Many others would do this sort of thing in the safety of a studio with retakes and overdubs. Ra makes it plain that jazz is not about that. This unusual and misleadingly-titled outing was some of the strongest and most creative jazz that came out of 1978 and very, very few people knew about it then – and still more need to appreciate it better today.

Media Dreams - Sun Ra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1978): Named for the Italian studio where several studio dates were recorded for the Italian Horo label, Media Dream (no “s” at the end) was originally an LP taken from the tapes of one or possibly more live concerts recorded during January 1978 while Sun Ra was in Italy with tenor saxist John Gilmore, trumpeter Michael Ray and drummer Luqman Ali (it was also issued as a Saturn album with a different number called Saturn Research). The original and ultra-rare Saturn album(s) featured “SatUrN ReseArch” (caps from the discographies, not listed this way on the Art Yard release), “Constellation,” “Yera (sic) of the Sun,” “Media Dreams,” “Twigs At Twilight” and “An Unbeknoweth Love.” This music makes up the first of the two discs included in this remarkable Art Yard release. The second disc features an additional seven titles from the same or similar performances that have not appeared elsewhere before. Apparently tapes have not yet been located that include other music from this performance, notably “Jazzisticology,” which turned up on the LP Sound Mirror. Ra plays a variety of keyboards throughout, including the piano, organ, Moog synthesizer and the rhythm machine. The quartet is at its best on “Constellation,” with great passages from Gilmore, Ray and Ra on the organ and synthesizer, gesturing elaborately and wonderfully (I swear somebody else is playing keyboards here too…it’s hard to believe one man, even Sun Ra, can make all of those sounds happen live). “Year of the Sun” and “Media Dreams” contain many of the fascinating – if you care for this sort of thing – keyboard antics Ra issued on the Solar Myth Approach discs a full decade before (reissued as Strange Worlds on the UK label Atom in 2005). Ra is heard resplendently on piano for “Twigs at Twilight” and “An Unbeknoweth Love.” Oddly, many of the performances are faded out and faded in, like we’re just hearing part of what was really captured. I don’t know if this is just what was edited to fit onto an LP or not, but while it is an annoying fact of this disc (which may see a revision somewhere down the road as Disco 3000 before it did), it’s not a deal breaker. What is here is positively wonderful. The real secret to this set, however, is the wondrous second disc, which has not been heard prior to this Art Yard release. Included here is the more spritely than usual “Friendly Galaxy,” the better-than-the-previous disc’s “An Unbenoweth Love,” the synth groove of “Of Other Tomorrows Never Known,” the great group piece “Images” (with Sun Ra, probably on Rocksichord, sounding positively inspired), the swinging (and singing) “The Truth About Planet Earth” (“…is a bad truth…”), the too-predictable yet more exciting than usual “Space Is The Place” and the brief Gilmore solo piece, “The Shadow World.” Ra and company were especially inspired during these performances. And it’s nice to hear Sun Ra adapt his groove to a much smaller component than usual. One especially notable advantage to this disc over the other Art Yards is the presence of Chris Trent’s decent, if rather poorly spellchecked, liner notes. Art Yard usually doesn’t bother with liner notes or recording detail/anomalies. Trent’s notes are helpful and welcome and help explain some of the mysteries Art Yard doesn’t seem to otherwise share with its buyers. Still, its hard to fault the company for lack of care with Sun Ra. Media Dreams is evidence that the company cares a whole lot about Sun Ra and his earthly legacy. And while Media Dreams will hardly satisfy a Sun Ra fan on any side of any fence, it will certainly please some of the people some of the time.

On Jupiter - Sun Ra and his Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1979): One of the more soulful entries in the Arkestra’s eclectic catalog, this 1980 album contains only three songs recorded in early 1979 and October 1979, totaling just under 30 minutes of music. But what tremendous music indeed. The four-minute title track opens the disc with Ra glittering on piano and easily reminds one of the Ra that made Jazz In Silhouette, Sun Song or Supersonic Jazz so dramatically compelling so early on. The real surprise here, though, is the unbelievably funky – yes, funky – “UFO,” on which Ra shares appropriate (and unacknowledged on the Art Yard disc) writing credit with electric guitarist Taylor Richardson and electric bassist Steve Clarke, who lay a thick foundation that would not sound unfamiliar or disagreeable to fans of Parliament, Kool and the Gang or even SNL’s Stuff. There are several chants here with someone singing falsetto that gave titles to later Ra tunes but there’s also the unusually unfortunate cliché “you can fool some of the people some of the time...”. Ra, again, maintains his majesty on the acoustic piano, but one has to wonder if he was really comfortable in this sort of groove as he sounds more swept up than sweeping on this particular number. The bulk of the album is taken up with the splendor of the well-titled 17-minute opus “Seductive Fantasy,” which originally filled the whole of the LP’s second side. Ra is heard again manning the acoustic piano throughout for an exploratory jam that snakes unusual woodwinds (oboe, bass clarinet and bassoon) around an arsenal of moody percussion treatments. This is the most filmic the Arkestra has ever sounded, offering up a “seductive” variation of their more out-there sound. It would have been interesting to have heard the Arkestra, who recorded “Seductive Fantasy” and “On Jupiter” in between other little-known Saturn albums Ominverse and I, Pharoah, ply this groove a bit more. Sounds like Jupiter is the place to be so “you, U-F-O, take me where I want to go.”

Sleeping Beauty - Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra (Saturn/Art Yard, 1979): Among the least known of all of Sun Ra’s many, many recordings and perhaps one of the most spiritual records the Arkestra ever did – and that’s saying something - Sleeping Beauty is a gorgeous free-flowing piece of exploratory jazz in the groove that people into the Strata-East thing would find especially appealing. It’s not too free and, of course, not as poppy as anything else that came out of the time. Sun Ra is heard here mostly on electric piano. There is something spacey, earthy and suggesting a time-frame a few years earlier than this June 1979 New York recording date that Art Yard does not credit. There are only three tunes to be heard here and, unfortunately, only 30 minutes of music to be heard (no extras from the original Saturn release, also sometimes known as Door of the Cosmos). But all is wondrous. “Springtime Again” is magical. “Door of the Cosmos,” in particular, is a terrifically funky piece that features guitarist Taylor Richardson – a sound that doesn’t often appear on Arkestra recordings – Michael Ray on trumpet, John Gilmore on tenor, Ra resplendent on electric piano and the rare vibes sound of Damon Choice. The singers are heard (to minimal effect) and Choice’s vibes are heard again here on the breathtakingly subtle title track (which also features the glorious Marshall Allen and a lovely trombone soloist). It’s a grand performance on many levels. There are a few ways to read this song. But I prefer just to enjoy the sounds that Ra and the Arkestra laid it down. All in all, one of Sun Ra’s greatest of many great recordings.

Also on Art Yard: More Sun Ra including Horizon (1971), Nidhamu (more from the Cairo concert that produced Horizon)/Dark Myth Equation Visitation (1971, another Cairo concert formerly issued as Live In Egypt and Nature’s God) and Beyond The Purple Star Zone (1980, on LP only thus far).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dexter Gordon "One Flight Up"

This remarkable disc, thankfully captured at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio on June 2, 1964, during one of tenor sax great Dexter Gordon’s “flights” back to the United States, is among one of the great milestones of early sixties jazz.

Dexter Gordon (1923-90) was one of bop’s greatest and first tenor saxists. He recorded prolifically throughout the fifties before chucking all of the racial (and other) problems of the United States for Europe in the early sixties.

Gordon lived in Copenhagen for many years, finding favor among many European audiences – and discovering a bevy of new musicians to ply his straight-ahead trade with (particularly NHOP) – before gathering film fame, rather beautifully, as ex-pat Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavenier’s sumptuous 1986 film ‘Round Midnight.

Gordon had already begun recording for Blue Note in 1961 when he moved across the pond. But he recorded a number of fine albums for the label (Doin’ Alright, Dexter Calling…, the classic Go, A Swingin’ Affair, the latterly-issued Clubhouse and Getting’ Around) between 1961 and 1965. Most all of these have much merit to them and should be easy to find on CD.

But, wonderful as most of ‘em are, none compare to the brilliant joy of One Flight Up. The centerpiece is trumpeter and participant Donald Byrd’s phenomenal composition “Tanya.” This magically magisterial piece, first shared with me many years ago by my great friend and University of Dayton scholar John P. McCombe, haunts me to this day.

It’s hard not to be swept up into the modal alchemy that Gordon, Byrd (the only currently surviving member of this group) and rhythm mates Kenny Drew (1928-93, who also left the U.S. in 1961 to move to Copenhagen, on piano), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (1946-2005, a.k.a. NHOP, whose name is rather bungled on the LP’s front cover) and the superior Art Taylor (1929-95, another American émigré to Europe, on drums) conjure here. At an unbelievably justifiable 18 minutes (and occupying the full first side of the original record), every one plays and solos with considerable authority and every minute is worth every second.

Kenny Drew’s great (but not “Tanya” great) “Coppin’ The Haven,” Gordon’s spunky “Kong Neptune” and the standard “Darn That Dream” round out the program that’s just perfect in every way. Jazz was meant to be captured exactly like this.

I recently replaced my 1989 CD release copy of Dexter Godron’s One Flight Up with the 2004 RVG edition and I am quite glad to have done so. All of those old Blue Note CDs don’t sound nearly as spectacular as these RVG editions (which kind of pisses me off – since this is another way the majors get us to buy albums we like over and over again).

This miraculous album deserves to be heard with the love and care RVG gave it in the first place. Thanks, Johnnie-o. I would never have known about this album – or Dexter Gordon, for that matter – without you.

And this is a great one.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Walt Bolden “Walt Bolden”

According to a flyer called “Individuals” that Columbia Records included in all of their jazz albums circa 1978, Walt Bolden “paid his dues over the years as the drummer for some of the biggest names in jazz.” Oddly, the flyer never mentions any of these names. And then, as now, hardly anyone knew who Walt Bolden really was.

No mystery, then, why this particular album came and went without any notice in 1978.

Born Walter Lee Bolden in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 17, 1925, Bolden was the drummer in a local trio in Hartford when tenor great Stan Getz came through town one night in 1950, played with the band at the Sundown Club, and liked what he heard. The saxophonist took the trio on tour, and effectively launched the jazz career of Bolden and Horace Silver, the pianist in the trio.

Bolden recorded with Getz for the Roost label in 1950-1, and was a member of Gerry Mulligan's 10-piece band in 1951, and also worked with Howard McGhee, Horace Silver, Teddy Charles, George Shearing, Duke Jordan, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Henri Renaud, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, J. J. Johnson, Jackie McLean, and the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, among others.

According to the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Bolden gave up performing in the early 60s until the mid 70s, but became the director of music for Project Create in Harlem between 1973-75, and also worked on the Jazzmobile.

By the time Bolden came back onto the scene in the mid seventies, jazz had changed considerably – but evidently he had not. The fledging Nemperor label, distributed at the time by CBS and whose biggest star was Return To Forever bassist Stanley Clarke, put out Bolden’s one and only solo LP.

Bolden went onto work with Billy Mitchell, Sam Most, Harold Mabern, Al Cohn, Junior Mance, Earl Coleman and Walter Bishop and toured with both Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross in the late nineties. Bolden then died of cancer on February 7, 2002.

For his one and only record, Bolden and co-producer and fellow drummer Grady Tate assembled a seemingly exemplary cast of musicians including George Coleman on tenor sax, Virgil Jones and Danny Moore on trumpet, Roland Prince on guitar and, most notably, pianist Harold Mabern (who had previously worked with Bolden on Frank Strozier’s 1976 Trident album Dance, Dance). The straight-ahead ensemble is fitted out with the little-known Wilbert Dyer on alto sax, Mario Rivera (who would join Coleman and Mabern on Coleman’s Big George) on baritone sax and (keyboardist?) Arthur Jenkins on percussion.

It’s a little overstaffed to be sure, particularly for one of the few straight-ahead jazz dates that appeared on a semi-major label in 1978. But it’s clear that the two drummer/producers (Tate does not participate in the music here) were testing the waters for an Art Blakey sort of hard-bop redux. (Speaking of waters, the cover pictures Bolden walking on water for some reason.) The goal is to seemingly update the Blue Note formula of the mid sixties, something the music had drifted far from at this point (Blue Note was as good as dead at the time). It’s not a bad idea. It’s just not all that necessary.

Bolden contributes four of the seven originals, with Dyer contributing two pieces (“Just For You,” “When Spring Comes Again”) and the resplendent Mabern contributing his lovely “I Remember Britt,” which Mabern first performed with Lee Morgan in 1970 and then, most movingly, with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander on 1998’s Heavy Hitters.

Starting off with “Red Snapper,” this is the sort of mid-sixties boogaloo throwback that could be found leading off any of the Lee Morgan or Hank Mobley records of the period. Coleman, Jones and Mabern all solo superbly over the rather unremarkable changes, but it just seems to hang in the balance before the rest of the album unspools.

Highlights include “Street Singer,” a post-bop update with Roland Prince’s rock-ish guitar suggesting new dimensions, had anyone cared to take this line of inquiry any further. “Deep in the Hat” serves up an appealing Bobby Timmons/Horace Silver funk-bop line with commanding solos by Coleman, Prince, Dyer and Mabern. Even the curious tick-tock arrangement of “I Remember Britt” (probably by the composer himself) doesn’t do much to undermine the melancholy wonder of this lovely tune. The rest of the program, though expertly helmed by the participants, is just ok. Nice, just not particularly notable.

As a drummer, Bolden proves his mettle with musical subtlety rather more specially than the bombast so many drummer/leaders feel compelled to express on their dates – particularly first dates. Bolden is all about supporting the melody, which may suggest why this was the only “leader” album Bolden was ever permitted. If drummers aren’t arsonists, they apparently don’t register.

It’s easy to be lulled into enjoying this album, particularly as it stands far afield of much of the smooth and fusion-y music coming out at the time. But in retroflection, this music stands the test of time far better than most of the other lauded jazz albums of the day. Indeed, one might even suggest that Bolden beat Wynton Marsalis to the punch in suggesting jazz’s past outweighed its present – and, which, of course, pretty much doomed its future.

Walt Bolden is good. It’s just a shame it’s not better.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Frank Wess on Enterprise

Frank Wess (b. January 4, 1922 in Kansas City) is one of the most recorded reed players in all of jazz. From his earliest recordings with Billy Eckstine in the mid forties and his reign as multi-reedman in Count Basie’s orchestra from 1953 to 1966 to his stint with Clark Terry’s big band from the late sixties to the mid seventies and all of the sessions in between and since (Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, etc.), there is no shortage of Frank Wess that can be heard out there.

Sadly, Frank Wess – who just celebrated his 88th birthday – has recorded only sporadically as a solo artist and, as a result, is not known as the great soloist that he deserves to be, nor is he regarded as highly as some of his other fellow reedmen are.

In the fifties, Wess, who had become known as a tenor sax player, began to specialize more on the flute and he developed a distinctive, muscular tone that had really never been heard before or since on the instrument, which has the unfortunate reputation for the especially effete or too pretty. Indeed, very few of jazz’s few flute players are celebrated for their special talents – and multi-reedists like Charles Lloyd, who is an especially commanding flautist, never play this wind instrument as often as they should.

Wess led several dates featuring some of jazz’s greatest names on Commodore and Savoy in the fifties, a few dates on Prestige in the early sixties (including the great Southern Comfort, arranged by Oliver Nelson) and didn’t resurface as a leader until two dates he did for the small Enterprise label in 1973.

Enterprise, which was distributed by the Memphis-based Stax label – whose catalog is currently owned by Concord Records in the US and Universal Music in Europe – seemed to exist from about 1969 to 1973 and released some rather obscure albums that hardly anyone remembers nowadays. Wess had two albums issued for the label, both of which seemed to proudly hail from Memphis, for no easily discernable reason.

Popular flautist Herbie Mann’s success probably had a great to do with the release of these two albums. Indeed, the conception of the two Enterprise albums mirrors several facets of Mann’s work of the time, particularly Mann’s undeniably great Mississippi Gambler (Atlantic, 1972), which was coincidentally also recorded in Memphis.

Lest it be forgotten, Mann and Wess were also both part of the New York studio scene in the fifties and recorded together on albums for A.K. Salim (1957), Billy Taylor (1959) and Count Basie (1960). And CTI was also having much success with flautist Hubert Laws at the time. So albums led by a flute player of Frank Wess’s caliber seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s doubtful anyone noticed.

Wess again disappeared as a leader, only to resurface on several albums in the eighties, beginning with 1981’s Battle Royale, and the nineties (a few, appropriately enough, for the Concord label) all the way up to a forthcoming CD Wess guests on by guitarist Paul Meyers, recorded in 2008.

Still, there’s some good music to be heard on these two Enterprise albums, which some – pardon the pun – enterprising label like Wounded Bird would be justified in combing onto one very nice CD.

Wess To Memphis (Enterprise – 1973): Mixing some cop show funk with a stew of surprisingly outdated but outstandingly conceived pop hits, the first of Frank Wess’s two Enterprise albums is a more compelling jazz flute statement than much of what Herbie Mann cranked out during the period. Wess is clearly a much more inspired and inspiring player. He fits into this down and dirty groove particularly well; rather like it is second nature and not just a commercial pretense. Aside from Wess, there are no musician credits here other than alto sax legend (and one of the two co-producers) Eli Fountain, who is present on “Ooh Child” and “Fool on the Hill.” Fountain, who was heard to good effect with Houston Person around this time too, adds a particularly soulful touch to the proceedings. There are also no arranger credits. But whoever is at the helm makes tired old pop crap like “Ooh Child,” “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” and “Fool on the Hill” sound far more compelling than a quick glance over the song titles could possibly suggest. The only other soloists to be heard here are an unnamed and particularly swinging vibist on “Under Hog,” “Catchy” and “Wessward Ho” and a good, principally behind-the-scenes guitarist of the wah-wah variety. Highlights include Don Davis’s “Under Hog,” Ray Bryant’s ultra-funky “Cubano Chant,” a bewitching electric-funk version of “Willow Weep For Me” and Davis’s groovy “Catchy.” The album’s key moment, though, is the sinewy groove “Wessward Ho,” credited to Don Davis, Eli Fountain and Rudy Robinson – one of the 70’s finest and least-known jazz-funk nuggets. While Wess To Memphis contains much that is nice, “Wessward Ho” alone is worth the price of the album. Available from the great Smooth at My Jazz World.

Flute Of The Loom (Enterprise – 1973): The second of Frank Wess’s two Enterprise albums is a less comfortable mix than the previous album of orchestrated jazz (not present earlier) with some all-out funk. This one is also said to have originated in Memphis, and much of it may very well have been recorded at the same time as the first album. Here, Wess contributes more of his own compositions and Chico O’Farrill, Jimmy Roach and Rudy Robinson are listed as providing the varying arrangements. The album is more overtly orchestral than before and the program isn’t as seemingly familiar as the previous Wess album. But the orchestral embellishments which pervade the record, while never particularly obtrusive, are not really necessary or that pleasing either. While Wess displays his typical prowess throughout, not too much of interest results. Curiously, despite the album’s not-too-flattering pun, Wess reverts to sax on three numbers, his own “Arundelle,” the variously titled “Flowers”/”Fading Flowers” and the standard, “When I Fall In Love.” Again, none of the participating musicians are named but a guitarist is nicely featured on Wess’s “Trezia” and “Arundelle” and vibes are heard to solo on “Wade in the Water.” The highlights here are more minimal than before and include “Get on Board (The Train Is Coming),” the funky “Wade in the Water” (which would fit perfectly on Wess To Memphis) and “I Know What’s On Your Mind,” with expert string and horn work that Gary McFarland would have provided had he lived that long and thumping great Chuck Rainey-like bass work. It just goes to show that great playing, which Frank Wess delivers in spades here, does not necessarily add up to a great album, which is something Flute of the Loom is not. Available from the great Smooth at My Jazz World.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lalo Schifrin "Bullitt"

Bullitt is not only one of Lalo Schifrin’s finest film scores but one of the finest and most memorable soundtrack albums of the 1960s. Period. But, oddly, there is very little “score” for a film overflowing with such outstanding music.

The film stars Steve McQueen as San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt, caught up with protecting a Chicago mobster from vengeful Mafia hit-men while dealing with an ambitious, sleazy politician portrayed by Robert Vaughn. With its riveting story, realistic settings, taut screenplay and quasi-documentary cinematography, it brought a new depth to McQueen’s portrayal of tough characters (this one on the right side of the law).

An essential part of the film’s success was its economical, nervous jazz score; the Argentinean-born, classically trained Schifrin was then at the height of the fame generated by his iconic Mission: Impossible television theme. The film is judiciously spotted, with relatively little “action” music (the famous car chase is unscored) but several atmospheric and evocative source cues. Schifrin himself described it as “very simple” and “completely based on the blues.”

Shortly after recording the film soundtrack, Schifrin led a separate recording for a Warner Bros. album featuring jazz greats Bud Shank (flute), Ray Brown (bass), Howard Roberts (guitar) and Larry Bunker (drums). The 1969 LP has been issued several times on CD (once in Japan and once in Europe) and Schifrin himself re-recorded the music with the renowned WDR Big Band in 2000 for his own Aleph label.

But it wasn’t until late 2009 when the film’s original soundtrack album was first issued in the US, combined with the film’s never-before issued score. Film Score Monthly (FSM) issued the truly definitive edition of the music to Bullitt, combining all 12 tracks from the original album (beautifully re-mastered from the original 1" eight-track master tape) with all 19 of the film score’s original cues – including the magnificent version of the main title theme as heard in the film, which ranks, along with Dirty Harry, among the very best Schifrin ever conceived (and which, prior to this release, could only be properly appreciated on Schifrin’s 1990 re-recording heard on the masterful Hitchock Master Of Mayhem).

While some score passages and cues are virtually identical to the record album, many of the film soundtrack’s softer, moodier cues were not chosen for the LP—or had certain passages rewritten. And some were dropped from the film itself, so have never been heard before. Several tracks, such as the acid rock-ish “Hotel Daniels,” the big-band swing of “Room 26” and the reflective samba of “The Aftermath of Love,” are particularly attractive revelations, even for those familiar with the film, that are superior to their album counterparts.

The Film Score Monthly disc reproduces the original LP’s terrific pop-art cover and designer Joe Sikoryak provides a superb layout that effectively utilizes the original’s jazzy Warhol-esque design. The FSM booklet also includes a perceptive, in-depth essay on the film and its score by astute film music specialist John Bender and detailed track-by-track commentary by Alexander Kaplan.

Unfortunately, space did not allow for the inclusion of a vocal version of the Bullitt theme called “The Great Divide” sung by Joanie Sommers and only issued on an extremely rare Japanese-only 45-rpm record. But the good folks at Film Score Monthly have done an otherwise typically beautiful job assembling and presenting this essential and finally-available music. Most highly recommended.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Eric Alexander “Revival of the Fittest”

Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander’s Revival of the Fittest is truly one of the finest jazz discs in quite some time.

Paired in a familiar format with the great, under-sung pianist Harold Mabern and long-time drum partner Joe Farnsworth, Alexander has come up with another fine album, one that sings more toward repeated pleasures than saleable formats.

There have now been some baker’s dozen albums recorded under Eric Alexander’s name since 1992 with pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Joe Farnsworth: Straight Up, Up, Over & Out and Mode For Mabes on Delmark; Heavy Hitters and Extra Innings on the Japanese M&I label; Live At The Keynote on the Japanese Videoarts label; The First Milestone, The Second Milestone, Summit Meeting and Nightlife In Tokyo on Milestone; and Dead Center, It’s All In The Game and this latest classic, Revival of the Fittest on the HighNote label (of course, there are several Cecil Payne and Jim Rotundi albums in here too, not to mention the wonderful Harold Mabern disc Kiss of Fire).

All are exceedingly interesting, exciting jazz excursions and highly recommended in the otherwise impoverished improvisatory arts. So is Revival of the Fittest. In fact, this particular disc ranks especially high among this terrifically compatible group’s very best efforts. Fittingly, Alexander has been provided with many other recording opportunities here and abroad –outside of this triumvirate – that keep his name in the forefront of jazz’s greatest leaders. It’s probable that Revival was only one of quite a few Eric Alexander or One For All recordings that came out in the past year.

But Revival of the Fittest is jazz at its very best – especially in this day and age. Eric Alexander proves his mettle by conceiving yet another wonderfully programmed and performed set, which is staged over some 56 minutes – about the length of a normal live jazz set – and not fatted out with filler designed to eat up all of a CD’s 75-some minutes playing time, something which too many recording artists feel inclined to do nowadays.

A number of originals (Alexander’s “Yasashiku (Gently)” and the two excellent Mabern tunes from years before) vies for attention with such unpredictable covers as Natalie Cole’s “My Grown-Up Christmas List” and the refreshingly lone standard, “You Must Believe In Spring.”

George Coleman’s tremendous and tremendously undervalued “Revival” (from his 1977 album Big George, also with fellow Memphis-born Harold Mabern) starts the program off in a particularly winning fashion. This too-little known original is fantastic and a terrific forum for Alexander to show off what he does so well. Eric Alexander is a great soloist who crafts interesting song-like patterns out of his improvisations. He makes this great post-bop tune his own by paring down the original horn section and commanding it with a forceful conviction that comes from a passion for melodically-centered intrigue. Joe Farnsworth gets an opportunity to show why he is probably one of the greatest timekeepers currently plying his trade for our collective enjoyment. Listen to how he commands a much more raucous version of “You Must Believe In Spring” than has ever been heard before.

The Ivan Lins bossa “The Island” (aka “Começar de Novo (Starting All Over)”), was apparently inspired by the late tenor great Stanley Turrentine’s wonderful cover of the tune on 1995’s T Time. It’s a gorgeous performance that elicits beauty from Alexander, Mabern, Farnsworth and the heretofore unmentioned bassist Nat Reeves – as does the ballad “Love Wise,” beautifully chosen (as so many tunes on the Alexander-Mabern albums are) by Harold Mabern, from a 1959 Nat King Cole record (To Whom It May Concern, conducted by Nelson Riddle, whose beautiful work for many including Frank Sinatra seems to have found favor with the pianist).

Another of the disc’s highlights is surely Harold Mabern’s signature-worthy “Too Late To Fall Back Baby,” which first appeared on the composer’s little-known 1978 album Pisces Calling (an album that also featured drummer Walt Bolden, on whose very nice eponymous 1977 album Mabern appeared throughout). Mabern himself contributes some of his signature groove work here – earthy, soulful and intoxicating like so much of his very best playing – and Alexander is inspired to offer, perhaps, his most stimulatingly musical solo on the entire disc.

Mabern also contributes his lovely “Blues for Phineas” to the program. The Phineas in question is fellow Memphis piano legend Phineas Newborn, who Mabern continues to idolize and pay tribute to – even though Mabern has probably surpassed Newborn in musical significance and influence over the years. The tune first appeared on Mabern’s third solo album, Workin’ and Wailin’ (Prestige, 1969). Alexander, again supplanting George Coleman, provides one of the nicest, most melancholy and melodious tenor tones heard in jazz since at least Hank Mobley (as a point of reference, pianist Harold Mabern also performed on Mobley’s wonderful 1965 album Dippin’).

Gorgeously captured by master technician Rudy Van Gelder on April 14, 2009, Revival of the Fittest displays the seriously artistic and wonderfully engaging musicianship that tenor great – yes, great – Eric Alexander has perfected over the last few years. This is excellent music and one of the best discs released in jazz in many a year.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Grusin’s Goodies

Before Dave Grusin became ubiquitous in reshaping jazz in the eighties, he spent the seventies laying a covert foundation for the smoothness that would overcome the music later on.

This is the stuff, though. Grusin’s music during this period is worthwhile and wonderful and while it set a trend for the downfall of improvisatory music, Grusin’s ability to craft a melodic and memorable tune that inspired creative musical interjection was peerless.

Known more as a film composer in the seventies (Three Days of the Condor, Heaven Can Wait, Murder By Death), Grusin was remarkably active in jazz during this period, contributing his highly distinctive touch on the Fender Rhodes electric piano to the records of Quincy Jones, Howard Roberts, Sergio Mendes, Peggy Lee and others.

He eventually crafted an electric groove that was as good as a signature and lent it to his own productions for Jon Lucien on RCA and Columbia, Earl Klugh on Blue Note, Noel Pointer on Blue Note and United Artists, Lee Ritenour on Elektra and Patti Austin on CTI. In 1978, he and production partner and former drummer Larry Rosen launched the GRP label under the auspices of Arista records, helming early album successes by Dave Valentin, Tom Browne, Angela Bolfill, Bernard Wright and Keith Jarrett’s brother, Scott.

By the time of GRP’s 1983 launch as an independent entity, Grusin was a familiar name to jazz audiences, particularly in Japan, where he is considered a superstar, as a number of albums released under Grusin’s name had finally appeared and the composer scored his own hit with the remarkable “Mountain Dance,” a song that deserves far more coverage than it has gotten in jazz circles.

But before all that, Dave Grusin crafted a tremendously intoxicating musical signature that he lent to quite a number of various albums. Perhaps a reminder is in order as these albums are now somewhat obscure relics of a time and a place that too many jazz listeners don’t find nearly as credible as they should.

None of what follows appeared under Dave Grusin’s own name. Indeed relatively few Grusin albums appeared around this time, but his presence was felt throughout many remarkable jazz albums of the periods. Not even many of Grusin’s soundtracks received album releases – or wide distribution – at the time.

Most of what follows concentrates on Grusin performances under others’ leadership, where Grusin composes and, more often than not, contributes keyboard performances. Unfortunately, though, the advantage of these tunes is hearing more of Grusin’s compositional and orchestral magic but not enough of his always delightful pianistic contributions (read all the way to the end to find out more about Grusin’s keyboard contributions).

Marching In The Street - Harvey Mason (Arista, 1975): Drummer Harvey Mason’s first solo album features a who’s who of 70’s jazz superstars including Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Blue Mitchell, Hubert Laws, Lee Ritenour and, on four tracks, Dave Grusin. The pianist contributes his remarkably scintillating “Modaji,” in its first appearance ever, a feature here for flautist Hubert Laws. This single track shows the compatibly simpatico chemistry of its rhythm section, primarily featuring Grusin on Fender Rhodes and Mason on drums and percussion as well as Chuck Rainey on bass and Lee Ritenour on bass. These guys clearly developed their own sound (as can be heard on the first season of Baretta and on the “Three Days of the Condor” theme) and “Modaji” is the highlight of a very good album that exquisitely highlights the many shades of Harvey Mason’s extraordinary talents – though many will prefer the Headhunters-like material sprinkled throughout the record. “Modaji” was again covered quite beautifully by Hubert Laws on his terrific 1977 CTI album The San Francisco Concert and later by Dave Grusin on One Of A Kind (GRP, 1977 – with Grover Washington, Jr.) and Live In Japan (GRP, 1980 – with Lee Ritenour and some exceptionally wonderful orchestral accompaniment). For the record, Grusin waxes especially beautifully on piano here for Mason’s “Ballad For Heather” and on keyboards for “Building Love (Hymn).” Choice cut: “Modaji.”

First Course - Lee Ritenour (Epic, 1975): Something about this album has always been a bit of a disappointment. The tunes and the players (Ritenour, Grusin, Tom Scott, Patrice Rushen, Chuck Rainey, Louis Johnson, Ernie Watts, etc.) seem to promise so much more. But despite Dave Grusin’s contribution to guitarist Lee Ritenour’s very first solo album, the record was helmed not by Grusin and Larry Rosen but, rather, by the then-popular Skip Drinkwater. The overall sound is far too generic, and almost too peppy/poppy, despite the contribution of some good material by Ritenour, Grusin and Jobim (“Amparo,” which Grusin and Ritenour would resurrect as the title track to their slightly classical 2008 CD outing). Grusin contributes his tremendous theme for “Three Days of the Condor” and participates on this slightly slowed-down version, which comes to life with Ritenour’s magnetic solo (this version is not one of my favorites, but Ritenour participated on the original and recorded it again later in 2002 and probably understands the song better than anyone other than Grusin himself). Grusin also contributes and arranges the mildly interesting funk of “Caterpillar.” Choice cut: “Three Days of the Condor.”

Earl Klugh - Earl Klugh (Blue Note, 1976): Earl Klugh’s debut solo album is the first of three solo albums the guitarist did with the Dave Grusin-Larry Rosen production team – and certainly the best. The highlight piece is Grusin’s original take of the great and very soundtrack-y “Slippin’ In The Back Door,” co-written with bassist Louis Johnson and drummer Harvey Mason. Grusin later covered the tune even better as “Serengeti Walk” on his 1982 album Out Of The Shadows (Lee Ritenour also covered the tune quite nicely with drummer Harvey Mason on his Sugar Loaf Express album). The album’s lead track, “Las Manos de Fuego (Hands of Fire),” is another Grusin contribution worth considering for its very Latinesque funk base – a bit generic, but worthwhile nonetheless. Grusin sounds quite nice on Klugh’s original “Angelina” – another one of his female-named themes that are quite entrancing. Choice cut: “Slippin’ In The Back Door.”

Living Inside Your Love - Earl Klugh (Blue Note, 1976): The second of Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen’s three Earl Klugh productions. Grusin arranges, conducts and plays keyboards throughout. Grusin’s “Captain Caribé” makes its first appearance here (Grusin later covered the tune with Lee Ritenour on Gentle Thoughts, on his own Mountain Dance and on the Live In Japan album). Grusin’s lovely and filmic “Another Time, Another Place” also appears here. The title track, later covered famously by George Benson (without a Grusin writing credit) and also by Jeremy Steig, is credited to both guitarist Earl Klugh and keyboardist Dave Grusin. Klugh’s own “Kiko” is, perhaps, the album’s most distinctive and best known tune and benefits nicely by Grusin’s electric piano and Louis Johnson’s sensitive electric bass. Choice cuts: “Captain Caribé,” “Another Time, Another Place.”

Captain Fingers - Lee Ritenour (Epic, 1977): Guitarist Lee Ritenour’s second album, while like First Course, was also produced by Skip Drinkwater, features much more of the LA sound that Ritenour would have wanted on his own album than the first record. Dave Grusin, who is one of an arsenal of keyboardists here including George Duke (Dawilli Gonga), Ian Underwood, Patrice Rushen and David Foster, contributes two originals here, the lovely and mostly acoustic “Sun Song” (featuring a nice solo from the composer himself), which Grusin had recorded with Ritenour some months before on Grusin’s Discovered Again, and the disco jazz of “Fly By Night.” Not outstanding, but nice.

Phantazia - Noel Pointer (Blue Note, 1977): One of Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen’s earliest successes was this unusually stimulating debut album from the very talented and handsome Noel Pointer (1954-94). All told the album serves as an imprint for the entire GRP formula with compositional and musical contributions from stablemates Earl Klugh (“Night Song” and “Mirabella”) and Dave Valentin (“Rainstorm”) and the then-requisite Stevie Wonder cover (“Living for the City”). The album’s highlight is unquestionably Dave Grusin’s phantastic original “Phantazia,” which also features a tremendous solo from 2001 soloist John Tropea. Grusin also performs “Phantazia” in a somewhat more orchestrated version on Harvey Mason’s Funk In A Mason Jar (Arista, 1977). Grusin, in addition to his contributions throughout this very GRP-worthy album, also provides a tremendous arrangement here for “Wayfaring Stranger,” for Pointer’s violin, Grusin’s Fender Rhodes and a string section. Choice cut: “Phantazia.”

The Captain’s Journey - Lee Ritenour (Elektra, 1978): The guitarist’s first album for the Elektra label is one of the first examples of his distinctive style that was made available in the United States. Dave Grusin, with Ritenour, co-produced and co-arranged the album and can be heard throughout on various keyboards. Grusin also contributes two average compositions, “That’s Enough For Me,” which Grusin had earlier performed on co-writer Patti Austin’s 1977 CTI album Havana Candy, and the pretty, Jobim-esque “Etude” (which is not the same song Ritenour performed later on his Color Rit album). Choice cut: “Etude.”

The Hawk - Dave Valentin (Arista GRP, 1979): Flautist Dave Valentin’s second album – arranged and co-produced by Dave Grusin – opens with the entrancing and very Grusin-esque “Marcosinho.” It’s a shame that the composer himself doesn’t get to solo on this tasty number. But the nominal leader does a remarkable job with this particularly delightful tune, which somewhat prefigures “Mountain Dance” in taste and texture. Overall, The Hawk is a much stronger outing than the flautists’s prior album, Legends, also with Grusin, and boasts a particularly striking cover shot of the handsome artist with his axe and an actual bounded hawk. The mix of “funk” and “Latin” roots producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen speak of in their liner notes is on ample display here – all set to perfectly artistic ends. The groove and the playing throughout is superlative (“Do It Again” is treated particularly well). It’s a really wonderful album overall, despite the fact that Grusin – as in so many of his early GRP productions – is far more in the background than desired (his keyboards are in the background for all but two songs, where he is not heard as a participant). Valentin later performed “Marcosinho,” with his regular accompanist, the wonderful Bill O’Connell, on his album Live At The Blue Note (GRP, 1988). Recommended. Choice cut: “Marcosinho.”

Also: Dave Grusin’s crystalline touch on the electric piano can also be heard lifting other people’s music from this period. Particularly recommended listening here includes “Summer in the City” on Quincy Jones’s You’ve Got It Bad Girl (A&M, 1973), “Poem Painter” on John Klemmer’s Barefoot Ballet (ABC, 1976), the title track to Patrick Williams’s Come On And Shine (MPS, 1977), “Siddhartha” on Art Farmer’s Grusin-arranged Crawl Space (CTI, 1977), “My Dear Life” on Sadao Watanabe’s My Dear Life (Flying Disk, 1977), “California Shower” and “Ngoma Party” on Sadao Watanabe’s California Shower (Flying Disk, 1978) and brother Don’s “I Never Was A Cowboy” from Tom Browne’s Browne Sugar (Arista GRP, 1979 – it should be said that brother Don also performed both of brother Dave’s “That’s Enough For Me” and “Captain Caribé” on Hiroshi Fukumura’s Hunt Up Wind with Sadao Watanabe).