Following today’s release of the box set CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, an unheralded tribute to the great work of Don Sebesky, and Jason Crane’s enlightening interview with the arranger and co-architect of the CTI sound on The Jazz Session, it is worth noting the fine, now historic, contributions that the one-time trombonist (b. 1937) has made to the world of jazz, in general, and to CTI Records, specifically.
Sebesky’s résumé is extensive in jazz, Broadway, film and popular music. From his time as a musician in the Tommy Dorsey, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton bands to his initial arrangements for Wes Montgomery and Astrud Gilberto, it was clear that Sebesky heard jazz a different way. He didn’t conceive bombastic settings or brassy statements. He achieved synchronicity with the other elements of the band, never getting in the way of soloists or the rhythm section that was driving the music along.
Sebesky has gone on to win three Grammy Awards (with nominations for much of his other work, notably much on CTI) and one Tony Award for his musical input on the 2000 revival of Kiss Me, Kate.
The arranger first worked with producer Creed Taylor on guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (Verve, 1965), graduating to become Taylor’s primary scenarist on the A&M/CTI albums produced between 1967 and 1970 for such artists as Montgomery, George Benson, Tamiko Jones, Walter Wanderley, Paul Desmond and others. Around this time, Sebesky’s first albums under his own name began appearing on the Verve label and include the rare groove classic The Distant Galaxy.
Sebesky spent much of the first half of the 1970s at Creed Taylor’s newly-independent CTI Records, crafting some of the music’s finest sounds. He then went on to do great post-CTI work for Ron Carter and Chet Baker, returning to the CTI fold in the early 1980s to contribute more signature-styled work for the fantastic Studio Trieste (CTI, 1982) and then for several CTI albums issued in the early 1990s.
Much of what makes the music of CTI so distinctive – and historically relevant – is due, in part, to Don Sebesky and the musical frameworks he provided to many CTI records. Here are the very best of those, in chronological order:
1. ”Fire and Rain” from Afro Classic - Hubert Laws (CTI, 1970): A psych-jazz classic that takes a great pop melody and turns it into a near 20th century sacred music piece on the level of Arvo Pärt with a jazz twist. The performance showcases Hubert Laws (flute), who turned this into a signature tune, with Bob James (electric piano), Ron Carter (bass), Freddie Waits (drums), Dave Friedman (vibes with fuzz pedal solo) and Richie “Pablo” Landrum, Airto Moriera (percussion). Afro-Classic also features Sebesky’s extraordinarily fine adaptation of Mozart’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, prominently represented in The Godfather (1972) and reprised by the flautist on the 1973 CTI album Carnegie Hall, also providing tremendous section work from James, Carter and Friedman.
2. ”Love Is The Answer” from God Bless The Child - Kenny Burrell (CTI, 1971): I’ve always contended that guitarist Kenny Burrell’s sole CTI outing doesn’t sound much like a CTI album at all. But “Love is the Answer” does. That’s because of what Don Sebesky brings to it. Featuring Kenny Burrell (guitar) with (probably) Hugh Lawson (electric piano), Ron Carter (bass), Billy Cobham (drums), Airto Moriera (percussion) and a small selection of cellists, it is Sebesky’s string writing that stays in the mind (even over the generous contributions provided by Carter and Moriera). This is classic Don Sebesky, working with a great soloist who doesn’t need any sweetening – and doesn’t get it. Sebesky had previously arranged two of Burrell’s Verve albums (not to mention all those records for guitarist Wes Montogmery), so he knew just what to do. The boogaloo “Do What You Gotta Do” features a great little Burrell groove and some sinewy Sebesky horn touches too (with Freddie Hubbard, who solos, and Hubert Laws in the section).
3. ”The Rite of Spring” from The Rite of Spring - Hubert Laws (CTI, 1971): An undeniable classic, this reverential jazz take on Stravinsky’s theme to his 1913 ballet Le sacres du printemps successfully brings all of the composer’s complex rhythms, dissonance, polytonalities and polyrhythms to a contemporary jazz audience in a way that feels as electric (the beat) as it is creative (improvisation). Hubert Laws (flute) is outstanding here and accompanied beautifully by Jane Taylor (an inspired addition on bassoon), Bob James (keyboards and electric piano solo), Stuart Scharf (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), the predominant Jack DeJohnette (drums), Dave Friedman (vibes) and Airto Moriera (percussion). “The Rite of Spring” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1971 but lost to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft.” It’s pretty clear that adapter Don Sebesky understands and reveres Stravinsky’s work quite well. He’d cover the piece again, even more strikingly, on his own Three Works For Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra in 1979 with soloists including Bob Brookmeyer (trombone), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Gordon Beck (piano), Richard Davis (bass), Joe Beck (guitar) and Jimmy Madison (drums).
4. ”First Light” from First Light - Freddie Hubbard (CTI, 1971): Freddie Hubbard began to take a lot of heat for his “orchestrated” pop jazz in the early 1970s. But anybody who says that can’t possibly have heard any of this material. Especially “First Light.” This is a gorgeous Hubbard composition that has a terrifically memorable melody, great soloing and many jazz-like orchestral inflections from Don Sebesky. Freddie Hubbard (flugelhorn) is accompanied by Hubert Laws (flute and solos), George Benson (guitar and solo), Richard Wyands (electric piano), the superbly elegant Ron Carter (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Phil Kraus (vibes), Airto Moriera (percussion) and a string and wind ensemble guided in a spectacular jazz-like way throughout by Don Sebesky. Sebesky also revamped Wings’ otherwise dreadful “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” to positive effect here too. First Light made Freddie Hubbard a true star when it won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance, beating out two other CTI albums for contention in that category, George Benson’s Sebesky-arranged White Rabbit and Joe Farrell’s Outback.
5. ”White Rabbit” from White Rabbit - George Benson (CTI, 1971): This strange album provides all the indications of crossover failure: two already outdated hippie rock covers, a movie theme (“Summer of ‘42”) and an overplayed classical cover. But it is not only one of George Benson’s first great records (even if he has loudly protested its beautiful African woman cover), it presents one of Sebesky’s more commanding concepts. The concept seems to be something of a Flamenco origin with guitarist Earl Klugh, in his recording debut, providing a vaguely Spanish tinge that was pretty much unknown to jazz at the time. It is brilliant, like the renaissance concept that producer Creed Taylor and arranger Don Sebesky conceived for guitarist Wes Montgomery’s final album, Road Song. George Benson (guitar) is accompanied here by Hubert Laws (flute), Herbie Hancock (electric piano), Earl Klugh or Jay Berliner (acoustic guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Billy Cobham (drums), Airto Moriera or Phil Kraus (percussion) and Sebesky’s economically utilized horn sections. While the entire album is remarkable from start to finish, with wailing vocals (Airto?) throughout, the tremendously classical take on the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is most memorable here. White Rabbit was nominated for a 1972 Grammy Award, losing out to Freddie Hubbard’s Sebesky-arranged CTI album First Light.
6. ”Sky DIve” from Sky Dive - Freddie Hubbard (CTI, 1972): This beautiful composition has much going for it, including a gorgeous line conceived by the trumpeter himself and an exceptionally subtle jazz arrangement provided by Don Sebesky that adeptly uses such soloist/accompanists as Hubert Laws (flute), George Benson (guitar), Ron Carter (bass) and Keith Jarrett (electric piano!) as part of the orchestration. It’s so amazingly subtle that you don’t realize how craftily each musician is being employed to state their own piece. It also never takes into account the small horn section – deployed with substantial economy – including Alan Rubin, Marvin Stamm, Wayne Andre, Garnett Brown, Paul Faulise, Phil Bodner, George Marge and Romeo Penque. While I prefer the performance of Sky Dive’s opening track, “Povo” as a musical performance – it’s not in the same league as “Sky Dive” nor can it compete with what Sebesky conspires with Hubbard to achieve here. Sky Dive has many intriguing moments and a delightful diversity – especially for a 1970s jazz album – but it’s worth noting that Hubbard and Sebesky’s take of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” from Sky Dive was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1973 (as was Hubert Laws’ Sebesky-arranged “Morning Star”), losing to the long-dead Art Tatum for his 1940s-recorded album God Is in the House.
7. ”Firebird/Birds of Fire” from Giant Box - Don Sebesky (CTI, 1973): This ambitious, even audacious, album was producer Creed Taylor’s “thank you” gift to arranger Don Sebesky for providing the label with so many hits over the years. Indeed Sebesky was allowed to perform his own choice of material and have it played by some of the music’s greatest improvisers at the time – many of whom were already anchored to CTI. The cast of players featured here is simply staggering, justifying the album’s weighty title, something (oddly) meant to compete with the thick and well-annotated opera sets found in most record stores of the day. On this particularly ambitious and audacious number, Sebesky marries Igor Stravinsky’s “breakthrough” piece from the 1910 ballet of the same name with John McLaughlin’s surprisingly similar title track to the 1973 Mahavishnu Orchestra album Birds of Fire and comes up with an amazing composition that features solos from Hubert Laws (flute) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). What Sebesky does here with strings is mindboggling – add to that Ron Carter and Billy Cobham in the rhythm section and a more dramatic use of horns and percussion than Sebesky is known to have employed elsewhere and you have a feat of magical music here. Amazingly, this is probably the first time record buyers had the opportunity to take Don Sebesky and his abilities seriously. The soloists present elsewhere on Giant Box are mindboggling as well: “Song to a Seagull” features Paul Desmond, “Free as a Bird” features Bob James, Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington, Jr. (notice all the bird references yet?), the thoroughly clever “Psalm 150” features Jackie & Roy, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Bob James, “Vocalise” features Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, “Fly/Circles” features Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Bob James, Ron Carter and Sebesky himself in a very Chet Baker-like vocal, and the surprisingly funky “Semi Tough,” featuring Grover Washington, Jr. and George Benson and Bob James sounding nothing like you’ve heard them elsewhere before. Giant Box was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Big Band in 1974 (along with Pat Williams’ brilliant Threshold), but lost to Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd.
8. ”Serbian Blue” from the 2002 CD release of Bad Benson - George Benson (CTI, 1974): “Serbian Blue” is, perhaps, the least known of Sebesky’s many CTI accomplishments. This is because it never surfaced until the 2002 CD release of guitarist George Benson’s Bad Benson album. Surprisingly, the then 28-year-old song is also one of the only Sebesky compositions in this list. Recorded at the time of the 1974 Benson album but left off “because of the playing limitations imposed by the album format,” it is little more than a standard CTI “blowing tune” raised to a typically notable exception by not only evincing Sebesky’s signature ability to lay a groove and season it exceptionally well (with winds and low strings) but also reveling in some of Benson’s finest improvisation on record. That is why it is so surprising that the tune laid in the can for nearly three decades. George Benson (guitar) is heard here with Kenny Barron (electric piano solo), Ron Carter (bass), Steve Gadd (drums) and Phil Upchurch (percussion). The 13-minute “Serbian Blue” is a triumph that deserves to be far better known than it is.
9. ”Concierto de Aranjuez” from Concierto - Jim Hall (CTI, 1975): If this list were subjective rather than chronological, “Concierto de Aranjuez” would surely reside at the very top. It is one of the finest recordings CTI ever made – and fortunately regarded by many as such – and it ranks among one of the most remarkable jazz performances ever recorded. Don Sebesky provides a simple structure for the second movement, the Adagio, of Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1939 composition for classical guitar and orchestra by (surprisingly!) doing away the orchestra. Sebesky constructs the piece for three soloists, guitarist Jim Hall, trumpeter Chet Baker and alto saxist Paul Desmond and a jazz trio consisting of Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. While jazz has often taken kindly to Rodrigo’s Adagio, it became an iconic jazz standard through the definitive and popular recording Miles Davis and Gil Evans made of the piece for their 1960 album Sketches of Spain. This performance, a first and only take of the piece (!) which topples over 19 minutes of hypnotic and romantic improvisation over Rodrigo’s exceptional melody, stands alongside the Davis/Evans rendition as among the work’s most definitive jazz performance. Although nothing else on Concierto quite lives up to the magnificence and the majesty of “Concerto de Aranjuez,” with a line-up of musicians like this, it is hardly shabby. Concierto was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1975 but lost, somehow, to Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie, not exactly a novelty but nowhere near as exceptional and memorable as the Jim Hall album. Jim Hall, who reunited with Sebesky for the great album Commitment (Horizon, 1976), would re-record “Concierto de Aranjuez” in 1981, this time under the baton of David Matthews, Sebesky’s successor as in-house arranger at CTI, for a Japanese label that was later issued in the US by Evidence Records. While not without interest, it was hardly in the same league as the Sebesky arrangement.
10. ”The Rape of El Morro” from The Rape of El Morro - Don Sebesky (CTI, 1975): One of Sebesky’s finest compositions, the unfortunately titled “The Rape of El Morro” (originally called “Spanish Blood”), is the title track to the second of Sebesky’s two CTI albums under his own name. Here, the composer, who arranged and plays keyboards gives the solos to Michael Brecker (tenor sax), Roland Hanna (electric piano), an unnamed trombonist and the relentless Yoko Ono-like warbling of vocalist Joan LaBarbara (who has worked more in the avant garde with such composers as John Cage, Philip Glass and husband Milton Subotnick). Perhaps the vocalisms are meant to express the anguish of rape. But none of it is necessary for Sebesky to tell this enticing musical story, something he rightly says “evolves piece by piece.” Also on board here are Joe Beck (providing the flamenco flourishes on guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Steve Gadd (the military drum cadences) and a horn section featuring Randy Brecker, Jon Faddis and David Sanborn. Sebesky would reconstruct the piece as the even more exciting and intoxicating “El Morro” for Chet Baker on the trumpeter’s You Can’t Go Home Again (Horizon, 1977), which was also produced by Sebesky. Here, Baker spars with Michael Brecker and Ron Carter again as well as John Scofield (guitar), Richie Beirich (electric piano) and Tony Williams (drums). The Rape of El Morro also includes Sebesky’s reimagining of the works of Bela Bartok under the title of “Footprints of the Giant,” which offers up searing solos from guitarist Joe Beck, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and, in another unusual choice of soloists, electric violinist David Rose.
If I could list more of Don Sebesky’s great work on CTI, I would strongly encourage listeners to track down the superb Studio Trieste (CTI, 1982), as credited to Chet Baker, Jim Hall and Hubert Laws. This exceptional album boasts the significant input of Don Sebesky, who provides templates of four well-known pieces (two jazz standards and two popular classics) for these great players to consider in their beautifully singular way. Studio Trieste, which has only ever been issued on CD in Japan and is unlikely to ever see CD release in the US (it’s not one of Sony’s properties), was recycled considerably to form a bizarre album called Youkali (CTI, 1992) credited to Jim Hall alone.
Finally, I would also surely suggest considering Larry Coryell’s tremendously fine fusion outing, Fallen Angel (CTI, 1993), a long out-of-print classic from CTI’s late period that includes the guitarist and Don Sebesky revisiting some significant musical milestones of Creed Taylor’s prodigious output and saying something new and exciting even so.