Monday, October 11, 2010

CTI Records: The Cool Revolution

Sony Music, which since 1980 has owned almost every CTI recording made between 1970 and 1980 (except those under Grover Washington, Jr., Bob James and Seawind’s names), has made several attempts at reviving the distinctive and now legendary CTI catalog on CD.

There was the “CTI on CD” series (1987-89), headed by former CTI PR man Didier Deutsch, the first-ever American appearance of CTI music on CD. Then there was the brief “CTI Catalog Re-Launch Series” in 1997 and, finally, the “CTI – The Master Series” set of releases between 2002 and 2004 (a set of releases scheduled for 2005 was mysteriously cancelled).

Now, Sony Music celebrates the 40th anniversary of the launch of CTI records with a new set of releases on its Masterworks Jazz imprint, digitally re-mastered for the first time and including material that has not previously been issued on CD and material never issued at all before as well as this mammoth four-disc box set celebration, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution.

First, a little history is in order to explain just how and why one little record label earns itself a four-disc retrospective totaling 300 minutes of recorded work that only scratches the surface of the great music it produced.

After major successes at the Bethlehem, ABC Paramount, Impulse, Verve and A&M labels, Creed Taylor (b. 1929) went out on his own in 1970 to form CTI, which stands for Creed Taylor, Incorporated, as an independent entity.

Not only had Taylor already experienced significant success sensing the pulse of the record-buying public, he nearly single-handedly introduced the Brazilian bossa nova to American listeners and garnered great popularity and sizable hits for Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Wes Montgomery, George Benson and many others – not to mention providing a living for these guys that they had ever known before.

Somehow Taylor worked his way out of a million-dollar five-year contract with A&M (taking some of the recordings he made for the label with him) to do things his own way. Things got off to a bumpy start with a few radio-oriented singles (which never really got much play) and albums by folk singer/songwriter Kathy McCord – CTI’s little-known first album – and the psych-rock group Flow, featuring future Eagle Don Felder. (As an aside, Kathy McCord’s cousin Billy Vera was also signed to CTI but nothing under Vera’s name ever materialized on CTI.)

It wasn’t until Taylor recorded and released former Jazz Messenger and Blue Note icon Freddie Hubbard’s CTI debut, Red Clay, that the producer realized a vision for CTI Records. Taylor was through trying to be a rock producer or have CTI house artists who did rock, a genre he recognized he didn’t understand very well.

Gone were no-name upstarts. Gone were the cheesy Tony Lane cover designs. Taylor actively sought out major jazz talent, all of whom were universally experiencing a tide-changing music industry at that time and a disappointing lack of label affiliations. The majors were all banking on rock n roll at this point. Even the great jazz labels, like Verve, Impulse and Blue Note, were seeing denigration in their artistic fortunes and soon pretty much faded away. Jazz was changing and Creed Taylor saw exactly how.

Taylor fostered New York’s finest players, like flautist Hubert Laws, himself a CTI recording artist, pianists Herbie Hancock and Bob James, guitarist Eric Gale, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moriera (recognize all the former Miles sidemen?) who assembled to form a sort of repertory or “house band” to give CTI a distinctive sound.

Creed Taylor also solidified an exclusive relationship with engineer Rudy Van Gelder, already legendary for the distinctive sound he provided to historic Blue Note, Prestige and Verve sessions. Van Gelder worked very closely with Taylor to craft a unique sound that would give CTI the thoroughly iconic sound that had given the Blue Note and Prestige records of the past their wholly idiosyncratic sounds.

Taylor took many of the lessons he’d learned over the years to form this vision of CTI. This included bringing in classy designer Bob Ciano, formerly a designer at Columbia Records, New York Times as well as Esquire and Life magazines, and famed photographer Pete Turner, a fashion and advertising photographer who’d worked with Taylor since the late 50s, to produce startling covers in expensive, four-color, coated-cardboard gatefold sleeves (Taylor is the one who conceived the similarly distinctive presentation of the Impulse albums a decade before). The producer, now music mogul, was determined not only to record the most characteristic music possible but, like art, make it stand out on the record-store shelves too.

CTI soon began to make its name, issuing artistically and commercially successful albums by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hubert Laws, Bill Evans, George Benson and Kenny Burrell – perhaps some of the best jazz coming out of the early 1970s. Soon CTI launched several subsidiary labels, including Kudu, a sort of Soul Jazz division similar to the music Prestige, Atlantic and Groove Merchant were issuing at the time, which issued early hits by organists Johnny Hammond (formerly Johnny Hammond Smith) and Lonnie Smith, saxophonists Grover Washington, Jr. and Hank Crawford and singer Esther Phillips.

By 1973, CTI was a force to be reckoned with. The “CTI Sound” dominated jazz at the time, yet nobody did it as professionally or as memorably as Creed Taylor. And then there was Brazilian keyboardist/arranger Eumir Deodato’s groundbreaking “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” from his CTI album Prelude, a super hit that changed everything. The song surged up the pop charts to number 2, selling millions of copies worldwide and even garnering a Grammy Award in 1974.

By that time, Deodato and a lot of the label’s original stars had departed to even more lucrative contracts at other major labels – an unprecedented first in jazz history. But the label had more money than it ever had before. Taylor was able to attract several more jazz icons like Chet Baker, Jim Hall, Art Farmer and Nina Simone to the label.

But due to some significantly unwise investments and the significant decline of jazz’s popularity as a result of the dying interest in jazz rock (then called “fusion”) brought about by the rapid influx of disco into the musical marketplace, CTI began to lose a lot of its momentum by the late 1970s. By 1980, Taylor had hoped singer Patti Austin could pull the label back up to its former prominence. But it was all for naught. Quincy Jones, once a CTI recording artist himself, made a star out of Patti Austin and CTI quietly faded away. Creed Taylor revived the label for a brief spell in the early 80s and once again in 1989, though the magic (and a lot of the original magicians) had pretty much gone.

To celebrate this legendary aspect of jazz history, Sony Music has assembled the remarkable CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, a stunning four-disc retrospective that briefly witnesses just a fraction of the music CTI provided to the world (Creed Taylor went on issuing music on CTI through 1998). It’s a set that shows exactly how significant CTI is to the legacy of jazz – something which wasn’t truly appreciated in its day – and precisely how timeless this music really is.

The set’s producers, headed up by veteran reissue producer Richard Seidel, have divided the program into four distinct facets of the label’s output: “Straight Up,” “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” “The Brazilian Connection” and the rather obtusely defined fourth disc called “Cool And Classic.” Like any definition, particularly as musical genres are concerned, some will not entirely agree on the nomenclature. Certainly, most will probably debate the material that falls under each rubric. It is not the most obviously programmed set of tunes either.

By the time Randy Weston’s large-scale and never-before compiled “Ifrane,” from his little-known 1972 CTI album Blue Moses, kicks in on disc one, “Straight Up,” track 7, you have to wonder what the thinking was. It follows Freddie Hubbard’s “The Intrepid Fox” with something of a startle, but leads nicely into Don Sebesky’s “Free as a Bird” (1973), which sounds wrong leading into George Benson’s sublime “So What” (1971) – particularly since bassist Ron Carter presents his own version of “So What” (1974) several tracks earlier.

But “Straight Up” does include Stanley Turrentine’s perennial “Sugar” (1970), Hubert Laws' superb take on John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” (1974) and Turrentine and Milt Jackson’s invigorating take on Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” (1972). It’s worth noting, however, that straight-ahead jazz covers were much more the exception than the norm at CTI (it was never Creed Taylor’s métier), which is probably why this disc never seems quite solidified.

The Cool Revolution kicks into gear on disc two, “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” with the inclusion of expected classics like Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” (1970), Johnny Hammond’s “It’s Too Late” (1970), George Benson’s “White Rabbit” (1971), Hubert Laws’ “Fire And Rain” (1971), Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic” (1974) and, of course, Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” (1972). There are some off-beat inclusions (Hank Crawford’s “We Got A Good Thing Going”) and bits of off-kilter programming here too (Esther Phillips just doesn’t mix well in this company). But the strengths of all the pieces heard here outweigh such ultimately meaningless considerations.

“The Brazilian Connection,” disc three, seems like a good idea as such Brazilians as Astrud Gilberto, Airto Moriera, Eumir Deodato and Antonio Carlos Jobim were recording for CTI. But the whole bossa nova fad was over years before CTI got its start and, for the most part, not even these Brazilians were trafficking in Brazilian music at this point. So this disc is something of a free-for-all with only Jobim’s glorious “Stone Flower” (1970) and Astrud Gilberto’s “Ponteio” filling the bill properly. Nice pieces including Freddie Hubbard’s essential “First Light” (1971), Stanley Turrentine’s “Salt Song” (1971), Airto’s classic “Tombo in 7/4” (1973) and Milt Jackson’s necessary “Sunflower” (1972) are included on this disc. But it’s barely Brazilian.

By the final disc, “Cool And Classic,” it seems as if there’s probably just too much music to consider here. The disc is also one of the weakest in the set. It’s a sequel of sorts to the “Straight Up” disc with only Jim Hall’s significant and important “Concierto de Aranjuez” (1975) and George Benson’s notable “Take Five” redux (1974) coming close to the “classic” designation of the heading. Only a very few of the players here come “out of the cool” anyway. Also heard here are Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” (1974), Ron Carter’s “All Blues” (1973), Don Sebesky’s “Song to a Seagull” (1973), Hubert Laws’ “Pavane” (1971 – but not the more significant “The Rite of Spring”), Chet Baker’s “What’ll I Do,” Bob James’ “Westchester Lady” (of all things!) and Kenny Burrell’s “A Child Is Born” (1971).

Ultimately, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution references only the first five of its supposed ten-year overview, a period that surely saw the label’s strongest and most celebrated releases. That’s fine. But the set not only skips past a great many of CTI’s important Kudu releases (Idris Muhammad, more Grover Washington, Jr. or more persuasive material from Hank Crawford), it completely ignores material CTI issued on such subsidiaries as Salvation and Metronome. It also ignores essential material recorded by both Hubbard and Turrentine after their initial hits.

Additionally, while the set is an unheralded tribute to the exceptionally fine work of arranger Don Sebesky (and, to a much lesser extent, Bob James), it completely disregards the significant contribution that former James Brown arranger David Matthews brought to the label during the second half of its 1970s reign. Also, since the set doesn’t cover anything after 1975, any of the contributions Lalo Schifrin, Patti Austin, Art Farmer, Yusef Lateef or even Nina Simone made to the label are completely missing here.

Still, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution casts a knowing eye to a worthy endeavor, the celebration of a truly great label – one of jazz’s best. And it provides a heaping helping of music designed to sample its various factions.

While the LP-styled packaging and the copiously informative and beautifully laid-out 18-page booklet (rife with rare photos, not unlike CTI's own release of Don Sebesky's Giant Box in 1973) make it worthwhile, it may just be all too much: too much music (or too much second-tier music) and too expensive to boot.

But someone who obviously knows the CTI catalog quite well has done some nice work here, giving credit where credit is due to an important movement in music that is well worth exploring and appreciating. It’ just a shame that the document they came up with isn’t as valuable as it ought to be.


Chris said...

Interestingly, has this on sale for $19.99! It may be a mistake but I just ordered it. At that price it is a no brainer.

BTW, have you ever heard the story about Allan Holdsworth's first solo record on CTI? He absolutely hates it and claims that the recordings were actually rehearsals that he never was told were being recorded. Too his complete surprise, a few months later, a copy of the album showed up on his doorstep! I don't think he had warm feelings for Creed Taylor!


Jason Crane | The Jazz Session said...

Thanks for this piece, Doug.

Don Sebesky is on The Jazz Session today talking about CTI:

All the best,

Jason Crane
The Jazz Session

Alain70 said...

Bonjour Doug,

When you say: "But due to some significantly unwise investments" are you referring to Deodato's second album and Don Sebesky's album Giant Box?


Douglas Payne said...

Alain, The significantly unwise investment I referred to was not in any of the music CTI released, but rather in the distribution network the company attempted to establish around 1974. It was extremely ambitious and the company could not sustain the expense of it all. Creed Taylor ended up getting help for it all in the form of funding from Motown, which helped distribute CTI albums between 1974 and 1977. The distribution network failed, of course, swallowing up millions of dollars. In order to get out of his agreement with Motown, Creed Taylor had to sacrifice his biggest-selling act, Grover Washington, Jr., and surrender GWJ's entire and hugely profitable back catalog to Motown (all of which is now owned by Universal Music). The launch of the 7000 series introduced CTI's new independence, temporary though it may have been. You can read more about it at my CTI site.

Memo2Self said...

Doug, do you have any insight about why certain CTI albums were never available on American CDs? You've already mentioned "Morning Star," and Ron Carter's "All Blues" is (finally) about to be released, but what about, say, Don Sebesky's "The Rape of El Morro" (the title, perhaps?) or Airto's "Virgin Land"? I know that many of them were released in Japan, but were there other reasons why American versions never came out? Thanks.


David K. said...

I worked for one of the later incarnations of CTI in the mid 90's. Creed put some very cool releases out in those years, including crossover projects by Donald Harrison and Larry Coryell among others. But unfortunately, the label never really regained its one-time reputation as the ground breaking label it was in the beginning. That being said, this new compilation is a welcome addition to any true CTI fan's collection. Many of the songs bring back fond memories, and motivate me to dig out my old CTI vinyl for a true blast from the past...