Monday, January 24, 2011

Celebrating CTI Records’ 40th Anniversary – Part Two

Sony’s Masterworks Jazz imprint continues its 40th anniversary celebration of the legendary CTI Records legacy with an additional six titles, issued this week: Deodato’s Prelude, George Benson’s White Rabbit, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, Jim Hall’s Concierto, Paul Desmond’s Pure Desmond and Ron Carter’s All Blues.

Two of the discs are among CTI’s most historic and essential releases (Prelude, Concierto), two are among the label’s most pleasurable listens (White Rabbit, Sunflower) and one (All Blues) has never been issued on CD outside of Japan.

The celebration of CTI’s 40th anniversary began last October with remastered CD reissues of Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Chet Baker’s She Was Too Good To Me, Kenny Burrell’s God Bless The Child, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower, the first-ever CD release of Hubert Laws’ terrific Morning Star and the classic issue of the nearly complete CTI All-Stars’ California Concert – The Hollywood Palladium.

Each of the discs, supervised by producer Richard Seidel and beautifully mastered by Mark Wilder and Maria Triana, is packaged to look like the original LP, even getting the gatefold treatment the original LPs were given - and, in most cases, maintaining the original logo and catalog number placement of the original LP for the CD cover (the liner original notes for Pure Desmond and Concierto are even surprisingly reproduced as inserts to those particular CDs).

Unfortunately, the packing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In what is called “environmentally friendly” digipak sleeves, not unlike the recent discs from the “budget priced” ECM Touchstone series, these discs are issued in dull-matte cardstock packages that begin to wear the moment you touch them. They certainly won’t hold up to repeated use, pulled from the rack and reinserted onto the shelf time after time.

The durability of these flat-matte card packages will not hold up to even seldom use and unfortunately do not necessarily represent the cover artwork – mostly from photographer Pete Turner – to its best advantage. The glossy, heavy card stock of the original LP issues was sadly not repeated for these CD issues, which try hard to replicate the class of the original issues but certainly do not succeed.

Still, the music is what matters. So here is a little commentary in that regard…

White Rabbit -George Benson: Guitarist George Benson had already recorded one album for CTI (Beyond the Blue Horizon) plus three notable albums for Creed Taylor’s CTI production house at A&M (an additional album recorded during this time was issued years later) when he waxed White Rabbit in November 1971.

White Rabbit ranks among the strongest and most consistently satisfying and artistic of all of George Benson’s jazz albums, even though each and every one of his CTI albums contains something of significant worth.

Recorded under the auspices of arranger Don Sebesky, who had arranged Benson’s earlier Shape of Things to Come (1969) and The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970), White Rabbit is probably now best known as one of the earliest recordings of Detroit-based guitarist Earl Klugh, who was 17 at the time of this recording (on Benson’s excellent “El Mar” only – yes, he solos briefly too…Klugh joined Benson’s band in 1973). Elsewhere, guitarist Jay Berliner nicely counters Benson’s guitar and is most notable on the album’s track.

Issued in May 1972, White Rabbit overflows with exceptionally strong performances by both Benson and Sebesky, most notably on two hippie-era rock odes, The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaming” and Jefferson Airplane’s title track. Both pieces were no doubt brought to the session by arranger Don Sebesky, a specialist then of transforming such rock staples into dynamic jazz performances (he had earlier written “Big Mama Cass” in tribute to the vocalist from The Mamas & the Papas). It’s no stretch to imagine that Creed Taylor was on board for these covers, imaginatively reconsidered by Sebesky (who uses an effectively minimal deployment of brass and winds throughout) and brought to life by Benson’s warm and reassuring guitarisms.

Benson also covers Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Little Train” (aka “The Little Train of Caipira”), the second of nine suites written by the Brazilian composer. Producer Creed Taylor had previously covered the popular fifth suite of this musical series in recordings by Lalo Schifrin (Verve, 1964) and Soul Flutes (CTI/A&M, 1968 – arranged by Don Sebesky) and would later capture the piece on the 1972 CTI album by Jackie & Roy, Time & Love, again, arranged by Don Sebesky.

Benson is accompanied here by Herbie Hancock on electric piano (who is bountifully featured throughout), Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, all of whom were first captured together on Benson’s Giblet Gravy (Verve, 1967). Hancock and Carter had, of course, also played with George Benson on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968). So these guys were not unfamiliar with each other’s creativity.

Hubert Laws solos on flute for “White Rabbit” while trumpeter John Frosk solos on the title track and the substantial “El Mar.” Airto Moriera is featured on percussion throughout and takes several audibly vocal turns on “Little Train” and “El Mar.”

The excellent and artistically and commercially satisfying White Rabbit was nominated for a 1972 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Group (in competition with another CTI performance by Joe Farrell for “Outback”) but lost to yet another CTI performance of “First Light” – also arranged by Don Sebesky – by Freddie Hubbard.

All Blues - Ron Carter: Bassist Ron Carter had long been Creed Taylor’s first-choice bassist on record dates stretching as far back to the classic Gil Evans recording Out of the Cool in 1960. Carter was the first bass choice for many Creed Taylor productions throughout the 1960s for the Impulse, Verve, MGM and A&M/CTI labels, even while the bassist was recording and touring as part of the Miles Davis Quintet. And it was Ron Carter’s dulcet tones and swinging accompaniment on the double bass that drove nearly every CTI album since 1970 into the overdrive that its soloists are often given sole credit for.

Surprisingly, though, Ron Carter’s second CTI recording, All Blues, fell well below the radar. It was hardly noticed when it was first issued in early 1974 (his 1973 CTI debut, Blues Farm, which was hardly a hit, still remains better known). And despite four previous CD releases in Japan, All Blues has never had a domestic release on CD, making it one of the least known of all the bassist’s solo albums.

Interestingly, it’s probably among the best of the albums the bassist waxed for the CTI label between 1973 and 1976. This is due in no small measure to the commanding presence of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson on “A Feeling,” “117 Special,” “Rufus” and “All Blues.”

Henderson had played with the bassist as far back as 1965 (with Woody Shaw) and on later dates with Herbie Hancock, Duke Pearson, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane and Bill Evans as well as on the saxophonist’s own Mode For Joe, The Kicker, Tetragon, Power to the People and Black is the Color.

Carter and Henderson had also appeared together on Freddie Hubbard’s CTI classic Red Clay and the trumpeter’s follow-up Straight Life, while Henderson had previous CTI connections on George Benson’s Tell It Like It Is.

Carter here also solidifies a simpatico musical kinship with pianist Roland Hanna, who he’d first played with on a European tour in 1969. The two would combine forces shortly hereafter with drummer Ben Riley (on a record for a different label with Phil Woods) to form the short-lived New York Jazz Quartet, which would later cut several records for CTI’s subsidiary label, Salvation.

They would, of course, also be heard together on Jim Hall’s Concierto, which is one of the stand-out releases in this batch of CTI celebrations. Hanna is especially featured on the florid trio feature, “Light Blue” (not the Monk piece), as well as Carter’s bop-y “Rufus” (not the Archie Shepp piece – recorded again by Carter on his album Etudes).

Not surprisingly, Ron Carter dominates the proceedings, with his especially distinctive bass helming any number of attractive solo features (not to mention the overdubbed bass “solo” of “Will You Be Mine”). Hanna steps down for “117 Special,” surely the album’s musical highlight (and recorded again by Carter on his 1999 disc Orfeu), to be replaced by electric pianist Richard Tee, who resumes his role from Carter’s CTI debut Blues Farm.

“All Blues,” of course, is the famed tune from Miles Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). As bassist in the Davis band from 1963-70, Ron Carter was surely familiar with the tune, having recorded it with the trumpeter often between 1963 and the historic Plugged Nickel dates of late 1965 (Carter recorded the tune several more times after this, notably with pianists Hank Jones and Kenny Barron).

But this performance of the tune absolutely defers to Carter’s mastery of not only the melody but the form. It is one of several special performances captured here, and surely among one of the classics in the CTI catalog.

Prelude - Deodato: Since relocating to the United States in 1967, Brazilian pianist and composer Eumir Deodato had arranged many recordings, including several soundtracks and a historic meeting between Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. Deodato also arranged recordings for such CTI artists as Wes Montgomery, Walter Wanderley, Milton Nascimento, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Stanley Turrentine by the time producer and CTI boss Creed Taylor offered the pianist and composer his own CTI date in 1972.

Deodato had recorded nine albums under his own name or as part of the band Os Catedráticos in his native Brazil. But Prelude was the first album Deodato released – under his surname only – in America. And what a remarkable debut it was.

Featured on the album was Deodato’s magically captivating performance of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” a jazz-rock take on a classic piece whose then-recent popularity originated with its striking feature in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 film 2001. The song’s origin also owes something to the popularity of British studio group Apollo 100’s 1972 hit “Joy,” a rockish take on Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

But what Deodato accomplishes here is utterly unique. This version of the theme has been much copied, but never equaled (the song was also used as is in such films as Being There and Lords of Dogtown).

“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” rose to number 2 on the U.S. pop charts, making it the biggest hit in CTI’s entire history and its best-ever selling song. The song went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and is almost as recognizable in this version as many of the most popular film and TV themes of the 20th century. Like it or hate it, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” also remains one of CTI’s best and most memorable performances: a pinnacle of funky rock and electric jazz, the definition of all the things the label did well.

Boasting terrific solos from Deodato on electric piano, Ron Carter on acoustic bass and John Tropea on electric guitar, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is probably not as representative of the rest of Prelude, nor indeed the remainder or Deodato’s American recording career, as its strength may indicate.

The rest of Prelude, with one exception, is delightful but not nearly as definitive as its signature tune. Deodato covers another classic by Debussy, which gives the album its title, a standard (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads”) and two fairly interesting easy-listening originals, “Sprit of Summer” and “Carly & Carole” (names for two pop divas Deodato worked with, a song the composer had earlier recorded for his Os Catedráticos 73 - aka Skyscrapers - and a song which also featured in the 1973 film The Exorcist).

The exception here is the driving funk tune “September 13,” credited to both Deodato and the date’s drummer, Billy Cobham, and named for the date the song was waxed. It is one of those tunes that was obviously crafted to fill the remainder of an otherwise planned album that came up short on playing time.

Cobham probably laid down a groove, over which Deodato formulated something of a tune. As a slice of great instrumental funk, it is without peer. “September 13” is one of the funkiest pieces CTI ever captured, a soundtrack in search of a film and one of the great pieces of funky jazz surviving outside of a Blaxploitation soundtrack (it too was heard in The Exorcist). Deodato crafts a particularly fine electric piano line underneath a riveting horn arrangement, augmented by Cobham’s relentless groove and a fuzzy piece of fun fanaticism by guitarist John Tropea.

Prelude for all its strengths and weaknesses is unequivocally essential CTI. Deodato would wax one more studio date and a live date for CTI before heading off to MCA and Warner Bros. for even more prosperous climes. Interestingly, Deodato’s latest disc, The Crossing (Expansion, 2010), finds the pianist returning to the Fender Rhodes for the first time in years and reteams him with Billy Cobham and John Tropea from Prelude to less satisfying (and less collaborative) results.

Pure Desmond -Paul Desmond: Iconic alto saxophonist Paul Desmond (1924-77) was best known as the harbinger of the Dave Brubeck Quartet (1951-67) and composer of the group’s most famous tune, “Take Five.” Throughout the 1960s Desmond also recorded as part of a group he co-led with guitarist Jim Hall, on whose 1975 CTI album, Concierto (included in this batch of releases), the saxophonist would later appear.

After “leaving” Brubeck – the two continued performing and recording together until the end of Desmond’s life – the alto saxophonist waxed several records for A&M (including Summertime and From the Hot Afternoon) and launched his CTI debut with the remarkable Skylark (CTI, 1974 – featuring guitarist Gabor Szabo and keyboardist Bob James).

Pure Desmond, recorded in September 1974 and issued in early 1975, comes closest of all of Desmond’s CTI recordings to representing the leader in his own climate and most personal space.

Fronting a swinging quartet – with no audible overdubs – Desmond is heard here with his own guitarist, Canadian Ed Bickert, super bassist Ron Carter (who was paired with Desmond on all the altoist’s A&M and CTI dates recorded between 1968 and 1975) and MJQ drummer Connie Kay (1927-94), who featured on many of Desmond’s RCA recordings of the 1960s.

Pure Desmond is remarkably unremarkable but satisfyingly passionate none the less. It feels like four guys just getting together and playing some favored tunes in a quiet, swinging way.

While there is no grand concept or any great idea steering the program, there is some lovely playing by some exceptionally talented players here. The program is mostly comprised of jazz standards, including Ellington (“Just Squeeze Me,” “Warm Valley”), Cole Porter (“Why Shouldn’t I,” “Everything I Love”), Jerome Kern (“I’m Old Fashioned,” “Till the Clouds Roll By”), Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and “Mean to Me.”

One glance at the program suggests pianist Bill Evans or possibly Oscar Peterson more than any CTI record of the time. (Ok, how great would it have been to hear Bill Evans partnered with Paul Desmond?) And lovely as it is, you have to wonder why CTI even bothered with this sort of thing. The program suggests almost any other label and Creed Taylor didn’t often allow his artists to ply their own trade like this.

Most CTI artists this day in age were trying to cash in on the influx of disco into the jazz market. The original CTI stars (Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Deodato, etc.) had left the label for higher-paying contracts. Others had left for more artistic avenues. By the time Pure Desmond was released in 1975, former CTI employee John Snyder had lured Desmond back to A&M for several albums done in this style, which was closer to his heart than the “arranged” things Desmond had done for Creed Taylor since 1968.

It’s refreshingly musical that Pure Desmond is jazzy enough to capture Paul Desmond doing his thing without encumbered arrangements. But as pretty as it is, it’s just not that substantial a CTI album or really much of a worthwhile Paul Desmond album.

This CD contains the alternate takes of “Nuages,” “Just Squeeze Me” and “Till the Clouds Roll By,” first included on the 2003 CD release of Pure Desmond as well as the two bonus tracks from the session, the excellent “Wave” and “Song from M.A.S.H.,” included on the 2003 CD reissue and the first domestic CD release of this album in 1987.

Concierto -Jim Hall: Guitarist Jim Hall featured on several Creed Taylor productions in the 1960s, including Gary McFarland’s The Jazz Version of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ and The Gary McFarland Orchestra / Special Guest Soloist Bill Evans, Bob Brookmeyer’s Trombone Jazz Samba, Stan Getz’s Big Band Bossa Nova and Voices, Lalo Schifrin’s Piano, Strings & Bossa Nova, Oliver Nelson’s Full Nelson and, most notably, the Bill Evans/Jim Hall date Intermodulation (Creed Taylor also recorded several unreleased sessions with Jim Hall as a leader in 1962-63 for Verve that have not been issued).

By 1975, the guitarist was attempting to make more of a name for himself, having waxed several solo albums for the MPS and Milestone labels, including a live duo with CTI’s house bassist, Ron Carter. The monumental Concierto, the first of several of the guitarist’s appearances on the CTI label that included Big Blues (1978, with Art Farmer), the stunning Studio Trieste (1982) and the odd mish-mash that became Youkali (1992), was not only one of the guitarist’s best recordings up until that time, but one of the greats of Jim Hall’s entire recording career.

Centered around a magically magnificent performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Concierto is also probably one of CTI’s greatest single artistic triumphs. Gorgeously arranged in a remarkably minimalist fashion (no strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic) by Don Sebesky, “Concierto de Aranjuez” features a stunning performance by not only the guitarist, but provides notable solos from trumpeter Chet Baker and alto saxist Paul Desmond, all of whom combine to give a magisterial presentation.

The rhythm section here and throughout the remainder of the album is terrifically populated by the purposeful Roland Hanna (himself soon to record a number of records for CTI) on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Like the 1960 presentation of the tune by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Hall and Sebesky also provide a variation on only the second of the 1939 composition’s three movements. But what they convey here is truly outstanding and worth savoring each and every second of its nearly 20-minute playing time.

(It’s worth noting that Jim Hall partnered with arranger David Matthews, who began working for CTI around the time Concierto was recorded, to record a new arrangement of “Concierto de Aranjuez” in 1981 for a Japanese label that isn’t quite the performance the 1975 recording is.)

The remainder of Concierto’s program has never felt quite as substantial or sufficient as the magnificent title piece. But it all swings with a passion, fire and grace that such impeccably perfect practitioners, led by the nearly ethereal playing of the leader, are apt to suggest.

Included on the program are Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” (also with Desmond and Baker), Hall’s “Two’s Blues” (with Baker, no Hanna), wife Jane’s “The Answer is Yes” (with Baker) and Duke Ellington’s “Rock Skippin’” – here given its original title, “Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note,” for the first time on this release of the disc.

Also included here are “bonus tracks” which appeared on previous CD issues of Concierto including the lovely Desmond/Hall/Carter trio piece “Unfinished Business,” a title the sleeve credits to Hall and Carter, but which is actually a cover of a Mexican folk tune called “La Paloma Azul,” as well as alternate takes of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “The Answer Is Yes” and “Rock Skippin’ at the Blue Note.”

Concierto was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance – Soloist in 1975, losing out to an Oscar Peterson / Dizzy Gillespie album, while Jim Hall reunited with arranger Don Sebesky for his 1976 A&M album Commitment, notably on the tremendous “Lament for a Fallen Matador,” a piece Hall and Sebesky derived from Albinoni’s famed Adagio.

Sunflower - Milt Jackson: Many jazz fans were probably surprised to see Milt Jackson appear on CTI Records, first on Stanley Turrentine’s Cherry, issued in August 1972, then on the great vibraphonist’s own CTI album Sunflower, issued several months later.

At this point, Jackson, one of the founding members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, had tired of touring with the MJQ, never attaining the audience, celebrity and financial rewards rock stars half his age with half his talent doing half the work were experiencing at the time. After a long career of solo albums on the Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside, Impulse, Limelight and Verve labels stretching back some two decades that were blues-ier and far more swinging than anything the MJQ waxed, Jackson finally wanted his own piece of the pie.

Milt Jackson recorded three albums for CTI in the space of about a year, the first of which, Sunflower, is surely the best. Jackson, who had worked on surprisingly few previous Creed Taylor productions - notably only Quincy Jones’ This Is How I Feel About Jazz (ABC Paramount, 1956) and Gula Matari (A&M/CTI, 1970) – was up for making an album that would reach the younger ears CTI was reaching with popular records by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Grover Washington, Jr. and others.

The result, Sunflower, was something of an instant classic. Gathering a top-shelf collective of young talent including CTI recording star Freddie Hubbard (like Jackson, a veteran of many Quincy Jones sessions), pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist Jay Berliner (audible on “For Someone I Love” only), drummer Billy Cobham, percussionist Ralph MacDonald and the arrangements of CTI’s house sound architect Don Sebesky, periodically alternating a sensibly sensitive commentary of horns and strings overdubs, Creed Taylor delivers what surely must be considered the vibist’s most distinctively wonderful record in an otherwise distinguished solo recording career.

The original program featured four long performances, kicked off by the lovely “For Someone I Love,” Jackson’s own composition, first waxed as the title track to the vibraphonist’s 1966 (though recorded in 1963) Riverside album. Initiated by Berliner’s guitar and coaxed by Hubbard’s colorful flugelhorn – not to mention Hancock’s especially exquisite piano solo - and Sebesky’s painterly strings, it is an especially terrific showcase for Jackson’s melodic mastery.

Such a curious though perfectly exploratory opening leads ideally into Michel Legrand’s romantic idyll “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” (from the 1969 film The Happy Ending), a song that many jazz players had discovered after Peggy Lee’s initial cover and pianist Bill Evans’ many performances of the sumptuously quixotic ode. Again, Jackson, Hubbard, Hancock and Sebesky excel – and one notices here Ron Carter’s especially sterling contributions to the program (Carter went onto record and perform often with Legrand hereafter).

The album’s (arguably) most memorable performance is the cover of The Stylistics’ 1972 hit “People Make the World Go Round.” The funky ballad, which had already attracted jazz attention on radio with Ramsey Lewis’ invigorating take of the tune, catches Herbie Hancock comping on Fender Rhodes, but soloing marvelously in a Gospel fashion (like he had years before on his early Blue Note dates as well as those for Grant Green and Donald Byrd) on acoustic piano. Jackson, Hubbard and Carter are all in their element as well (Hubbard had recorded “People” earlier in the year for CTI, but this version of the song, which isn’t as good as Jackson’s version, was not issued until 1975 on The Baddest Hubbard. A 1972 CTI All Stars live recording of the song was also issued 1977.).

The original album wraps up with the title track, “Sunflower,” which is a re-titled version of Freddie Hubbard’s tremendous “Little Sunflower,” first heard on the composer/trumpeter’s 1967 Atlantic album Backlash. It’s another glorious performance that depends on the artistry of Jackson, Hubbard, Hancock, Carter and Sebesky to succeed as well as it does.

“SKJ,” a bonus track that has featured on previous CD issues of Sunflower, was recorded during these sessions, but included not on the original Sunflower album, but rather on Jackson’s 1974 album Goodbye, the second of his three CTI releases. “SKJ,” the initials of Milt Jackson’s wife and a song Jackson first recorded with Wes Montgomery on the pair’s 1961 Riverside album Bags Meets Wes, is an up-tempo blues that doesn’t exactly suit the mood of the original program. But it is still a worthy performance that captures this group doing what it does best.

Sunflower is one of the most enjoyable recordings in the entire CTI lexicon and remains a historically significant meeting of some of jazz’s best names. It also features one of photographer Pete Turner’s loveliest cover images, “Necking,” a photo taken in South Africa in 1970.


Unknown said...

you are quite wrong about concierto, white rabbit, and all blues not having been released before because I have the first 2 & I remember seeing all blues. Maybnr now there's some added material to the CDs but they came out years ago then became discontinued again. Sony released them right after they bought the catalogue.

Douglas Payne said...

Please read again, Martin. I don't say what you accuse me of saying. "Concierto" and "White Rabbit" have had previous US, European and Japanese CD releases - which I don't deny. "All Blues" has been issued on CD in Japan...but the new release is the first CD release outside of Japan.

Kate Dunkin said...

Great post! I was actually online doing research on how to get a airplane title when I came across your blog. I'm happy I did though because I am a big fan of CTI records. Thank you for sharing this with us, I'm going to make sure to show this to my friends!