Masterworks Jazz continues the 40th anniversary celebration of the legendary CTI Records legacy that began last October with an additional four titles issued this week: George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, Freddie Hubbard’s First Light, Don Sebesky’s all-star Giant Box and Stanley Turrentine’s Salt Song.
While each of the releases have had previous American CD issues, most have been out of print for a number of years and each are important – and significant – milestones in the CTI tradition.
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.
The series continued with January’s release of 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. And I’ve been assured more CTI titles are on the way – including some very rare titles that have not been readily available on CD before.
Each of these 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.
Unfortunately, Masterworks Jazz continues to issue these CTI titles in flat matte, thin card stock and allegedly “eco-friendly” packages which denude the zip and zing of the original covers’ colorful and exciting photographs and deny the weighty significance the LP packages once provided.
This particular batch of releases even messes with the cover art more than usual. For example, a large black border is added to the cover of First Light, significantly reducing the size of the cover photo. The black border of Giant Box, which was less a border than the color of the box set the cover art was affixed to, is replaced altogether with an all-white perimeter (it’s worth noting that this package commendably contains the entire text of the Don Sebesky interview included in the original LP, but only two of the photos from the album’s specially-enclosed booklet). Also, both Beyond the Blue Horizon and Salt Song seem more to replicate the look of their 1997 CD releases, with a yellow CTI logo that was not part of the original LP covers (the George Benson CD also matches its 1997 CD release by not providing the oversized “B” of the title).
Still, it’s the music that matters. So that’s what we’ll focus on from hereon in.
Beyond the Blue Horizon - George Benson: Guitarist George Benson had already waxed three records for Creed Taylor, including the iconic The Other Side of Abbey Road, a jazz take on the famed album by The Beatles’, and made significant contributions to such early CTI classics as Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar and Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life when he recorded Beyond the Blue Horizon, the guitarist’s first CTI album, in February 1971.
It is not only one of the guitarist’s most full-bodied jazz records – before or since – it is also probably the single best document of Benson’s technically fluid facility and his musically inventive lyricism at any tempo.
Supporting the guitarist in this endeavor are fellow CTI all-stars Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, all of whom were in the rhythm section for Straight Life, recorded only ten weeks earlier. Of curious note here, however, is the addition of Clarence Palmer, on organ. Palmer, who was then in guitarist Grant Green’s band and featured, with Green, on Jimmy McGriff saxophonist Fats Theus’ little-known CTI album Black Out, adds a backwards-glance nod to Benson’s organ-combo past. Benson had, in fact, not recorded in an organ-combo format under his own name since his very first group recorded for Columbia some half decade before.
But any thought that Beyond the Blue Horizon - which surprisingly does not include the popular song of the same title that Lou Christie performed on his 1973 CTI album – is some organ combo grinding out some forgettable soul jazz is quickly allayed by the fantastically vibrant take on Miles Davis’ “So What,” which opens the album. It’s so audibly logical and rhythmically sensible that it’s hard to believe the song wasn’t written this way in the first place.
The special affinity Benson, Carter and DeJohnette display on this showpiece performance is due to the fact that all were veterans of various Miles Davis aggregates (DeJohnette was still Davis’ drummer when this was made, but the trumpeter no longer featured this tune in his repertoire). While Palmer accompanies and solos with an exotic yet subtle flair, Carter and DeJohnette engage in an exciting dialogue throughout, getting a feature all to themselves in the middle of the song. Benson provides not one but two energetic guitar work-outs that put this particular performance at the forefront as one of CTI’s essential performances.
Luiz Bonfá’s lovely “The Gentle Rain” follows in a heavily percussive timbre that elicits one of Benson’s more angular and metallic commentaries, suggesting something more of a gathering storm. Benson seems to be providing an electric counterpoint here to Bonfá’s acoustic original. The song, from the 1966 film of the same name, was previously recorded by producer Creed Taylor for Astrud Gilberto’s album The Shadow of Your Smile with the composer/guitarist in attendance. But Benson’s take, which was edited to three minutes for a 45 single release, must have reached the composer’s ears for Luiz Bonfá re-cast the song in a very CTI-like manner on his 1973 album Jacarandá.
The remainder of the album is taken up by the presence of three (!) strong Benson originals, “All Clear,” “Ode to a Kudu” and “Somewhere in the East.” All three offer some of Benson’s most beautiful playing and Carter and DeJohnette’s deftly sensitive support.
Benson’s guitar on “All Clear” sounds like a cross between Gabor Szabo (who would begin recording for CTI the following year) and Wes Montgomery while the deliberately rough-edged “Somewhere in the East” crosses Szabo with the sound James Blood Ulmer would make his own several years later. The lyrical ballad “Ode to a Kudu” remained in Benson’s repertoire throughout the 1970s and can be heard in a live version on the guitarist’s well-known hit album Weekend in L.A. (1978).
The three Benson originals are also presented in alternative versions, which have been added to the CD release (and were also included in the previous two CD issues of Beyond the Blue Horizon). If possible, these are even better than the originals, especially since the distracting string work of the original “All Clear” is cleared away for some truly magnificent swinging by Benson, Carter and DeJohnette.
Beyond the Blue Horizon’s cover features Pete Turner’s dramatic “Flames,” shot in 1964 in Libya as part of a series the photographer produced for Standard Oil (the same series yielded the cover for Walter Wanderley’s Moondreams). The photo’s iconography perfectly captures Benson’s fiery and hypnotically transfixing performance throughout the record.
First Light -Freddie Hubbard: Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s third CTI album was issued in January 1972 to sparse critical fanfare. The little critical attention the album did receive was mostly negative, particularly from the jazz cognoscenti, who saw Hubbard’s step onto this slippery slope of pop super-stardom start with his previous CTI albums. First Light was the last straw. Freddie Hubbard’s reputation with jazz critics never really recovered.
Despite the presence of some of jazz’s best – and most influential – artists, including guitarist George Benson, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, First Light was slammed for Don Sebesky’s always critically-attacked sweetening and the presence of a huge pop-hit cover of the day (the million-selling number 1 hit “Uncle Albert Admiral Halsey” by Paul and Linda McCartney).
Even Hubbard’s superb title song was derided as a riff-based jam tune that didn’t require the chops or the talent of a soloist who factored on some of the era’s most important jazz recordings by otherwise-celebrated jazz heroes Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Hancock.
Still, First Light proved not only to be one of CTI’s very best sellers at the time, it also won the trumpeter his first and only Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Jazz Performance over and above other such CTI competition as George Benson’s White Rabbit (also arranged by Don Sebesky) and Joe Farrell’s Outback. The trumpeter himself was often heard to claim First Light as his personal favorite of his own records.
Hubbard’s title track is a truly inspired composition that seemingly yields more than its 11 minutes suggests. Freddie Hubbard wails with impassioned desire. George Benson plays one of his most deliciously intricate, yet achingly lyrical solos. Carter comps (if that doesn’t sound too derogatory) in a way that suggests melody and counter-melody all at once. Sebesky lays back quite a bit, only adding spare commentary from properly placed strings, vibes (playing accentuating whole tones, a Sebesky trait) and a flute section led by Hubert Laws, who solos occasionally.
“First Light” became something of a hit (it was issued as the album’s single) and a signature song for the trumpeter. Freddie Hubbard often played the song live and it was captured as part of the same 1973 concert that yielded the two In Concert albums CTI released several years later. That performance of “First Light,” which was not issued on the In Concert records, was included on this and the previous CD of First Light, featuring (a strangely uncredited) Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Eric Gale on guitar as well as Carter and DeJohnette (a 1972 performance of the tune was issued on the 1977 album CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl – Live One).
Like so many of Don Sebesky’s previous Beatles arrangements, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is a lot better than it sounds like it would be. It’s more imaginative than listeners of the McCartneys’ song would expect, matching a Stravinsky-styled arrangement with a funk rhythm which makes for creative jazz and provides sparklingly terrific solos from Hubbard, Benson, Carter and Laws.
“Moment to Moment,” Henry Mancini’s surprisingly little-known theme from the 1965 film of the same name, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” (from On the Town) both get terrifically orchestral readings here that focus purely on Freddie’s melodicism and Sebesky’s impressionistic backdrop.
Sebesky’s absolutely ravishing “Yesterday’s Dreams” started life as “Yesterday’s Dream” on Dizzy Gillespie’s Sebesky-arranged album Cornucopia (1969). Sebesky adds more strings to this variation and Hubbard mutes his horn here (Dizzy’s was open). But while Sebesky’s arrangement of the tune is much more subtle and preferable in the Gillespie version, it’s hard to deny the improved beauty that Hubbard, Carter and the chameleonic Jack DeJohnette bring to this particularly lovely variation of “Yesterday’s Dreams.”
Also recorded at these sessions is Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy in D” (first heard under that title on the 1973 Art Blakey album Anthenagin). Composer and pianist Cedar Walton was a longtime friend and associate of Hubbard’s, dating back to their time together in the Jazz Messengers and surely provided Hubbard with this song, even before recording it with Art Blakey, though the LP’s limited playing restrictions at the time prevented Walton’s song from being included on the First Light LP. Several years after Freddie Hubbard departed CTI for Columbia Records, producer Creed Taylor dug out the song (complete with a finished Sebesky string arrangement and lovely solos from both Freddie Hubbard and Hubert Laws) and called it, for whatever reason, “Polar AC.” It became the title track to that 1975 LP, which was recently issued on CD by Wounded Bird Records. The song is also featured here, under the title that Cedar Walton gave it on the album where it really belongs.
Like Hubbard’s previous album, Straight Life, First Light benefits by not one but two Pete Turner photographs, one on the front cover and a different one on the back cover. The front cover, one of the few CTI releases of the period that actually showed the artist, was especially shot for the album to show Hubbard and his horns. The back cover photo, “Hong Kong Rolls” (1963), was juxtaposed by the photographer himself to reflect the front cover’s golden horns, presumably both reflecting the golden glow of “first light.”
Giant Box - Don Sebesky: Don Sebesky had been arranging albums for producer Creed Taylor since the composer/arranger got a call from the producer out of the clear blue sky in 1965 to arrange guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Verve classic Bumpin’. Sebesky arranged four more of Wes Montgomery’s albums as well as Verve records for Astrud Gilberto and Kai Winding and A&M records for Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson, Soul Flutes, George Benson, Paul Desmond and Walter Wanderley – all produced by Creed Taylor.
It’s little wonder that Creed Taylor invited Don Sebesky to CTI in 1970 to become the in-house arranger for some of the label’s premier recording artists, almost single-handedly setting the musical direction for the label on such albums by Hubert Laws, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford, Esther Phillips, Jackie & Roy, Milt Jackson and Airto.
Indeed, Sebesky’s role helped secure Grammy nominations for George Benson’s CTI album White Rabbit, Esther Phillips’ “From A Whisper To A Scream” and a Grammy Award for Freddie Hubbard’s First Light (all 1972) as well as 1973 Grammy nominations for Freddie Hubbard’s “In A Mist” (from Sky Dive), Esther Phillips’ Alone Again, Naturally and Hubert Laws’ Morning Star.
Creed Taylor had shortly thereafter offered Sebesky the opportunity to record his own album for the label (the arranger had already recorded two jazz-rock albums for Verve in the late 1960s), utilizing the incredible star power of the CTI All Stars, many of whose newfound success was directly attributable to both Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky.
Following CTI’s success of Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” the producer offered Sebesky the opportunity to do a double album – the very first (and only one of three) in CTI’s history – and the arranger quickly took up the challenge.
Giant Box, originally issued in real box packaging, like so many classical records of the day, not only felt significant, it contained a heavy roster of the day’s biggest and best jazz players, all part of the CTI family and all reflecting on a program of Sebesky charts that make for some of the label’s most potent listening.
First and foremost is the extraordinarily inspired pairing of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” with the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” remarkably balancing horns and strings and features for Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Don Sebesky and Billy Cobham. Joni Mitchell’s lovely “Song to a Seagull,” originally from her 1968 debut, is a soaring feature here for Paul Desmond, Don Sebesky and Ron Carter.
Sebesky’s dynamic “Free as a Bird” (catching all the bird references here?) is one of the album’s highlights and is a feature for Freddie Hubbard’s jaunty flugelhorn, Bob James’ fantastically sparkling piano, Sebesky’s scintillating electric-piano commentary, Grover Washington, Jr.’s meaty soprano sax and the rhythmic interactions of Ron Carter and, of course, Jack DeJohnette.
Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150,” previously waxed by Sebesky with Doc Severinsen on the trumpeter’s 1971 album Brass Roots, marvelously highlights the vocal talents of Jackie & Roy (and Sebesky himself) in a sumptuously funked-out arrangement that features Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Bob James (on organ!). Rachmaninoff’s 1912 piece “Vocalise” gets a melodic treatment here – but surprisingly no vocals - with leads provided by alto saxist Paul Desmond and vibist Milt Jackson, who’d previously been paired together for the first time at a December 1971 Modern Jazz Quartet concert.
Sebesky’s own “Fly” leads off with a vocal by the composer himself, performing very much like Chet Baker (who he would go onto work with very shortly hereafter), and lifted bodily by echoplexed flourishes from Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette that lead into the lovely jazz of “Circles,” another of the album’s greatest moments, featuring Joe Farrell on soprano sax, Bob James (beautiful again) on piano, Ron Carter (again – the bassist single-handedly guides much of the album into beautiful territories much of the time) and Hubert Laws on flute.
The obligatory funk tune, “Semi-Tough,” which was surprisingly never exploited for its radio potential, is aided by Sebesky’s Gospel piano and clavinet, Carter’s ultra-funky electric bass and Billy Cobham’s grooviest groove, and closes out the album with George Benson’s fun but surprisingly undistinguished modified electric guitar solo, Grover Washington, Jr.’s tough tenor and Bob James providing some funky organ. It’s at this point that the absence of Esther Phillips becomes notably apparent. But she’s not missed.
According to Didier Deutsch’s interview with Don Sebesky, the recording took six months and about 150 hours in the studio, though only several days of recording in April 1973 are listed in the credits as being the recording time. Sebesky’s recollection is probably more accurate. There was obviously a lot of work that went into this record. And it’s truly surprising that it’s not a better known part of CTI’s legacy than it is. This beautifully remastered CD release should finally change all that, giving Giant Box the place it deserves in CTI’s legacy.
Don Sebesky went onto work with CTI for another couple years (Paul Desmond, Jackie & Roy, George Benson, Esther Phillips, Chet Baker, Joe Beck, Jim Hall), recording another album under his own name for the label (The Rape of El Morro) and returning for several albums late in CTI’s legacy (Roland Hanna, the perfect Studio Trieste and Larry Coryell). But this magnum opus, Creed Taylor’s “thank you note” to the composer/arranger, recorded during CTI’s halcyon days, has not been bettered anywhere in Don Sebesky’s solo discography.
Pete Turner’s garish cover photo, “USA Car,” is part of an Americana series the photographer conceived that includes photos found on the covers of Ron Carter’s Blues Farm (CTI 6027) and the all-star In Concert Volume Two (CTI 6049). “USA Car,” photographed in Nevada in 1970, oddly seems to contradict the gravity of the project and the classy music found within but designer Bob Ciano probably picked up on the car’s stars for this “all-star” album.
Salt Song -Stanley Turrentine: This 1971 recording is the second of four CTI albums issued under tenor sax great Stanley Turrentine’s name. There are also two Stanley Turrentine LP compilations on CTI (with previously unissued tracks), one paired with singer Astrud Gilberto, two live sets with Freddie Hubbard and several discs issued under the CTI All Stars banner prominently featuring the saxophonist.
Billboard aptly summarized this album in its original, albeit brief review of November 1971 when it said “Stanley Turrentine, one of the most exciting tenor saxophonists to emerge in the 1960s comes up with what will prove to be his biggest albums (sic) to date. The title song and ‘I Told Jesus’ offer good programming potential. Great production job.” Absolutely.
Stanley Turrentine had already made a name for himself on a series of fairly successful recordings issued on the Blue Note label between 1960 and 1969, as well as recordings with organists Jimmy Smith (on Blue Note) and Shirley Scott (his wife, until 1971, on Prestige, Impulse and Atlantic). When he waxed Sugar for CTI in 1970, Stanley Turrentine created not only one of his most memorable recordings - and a theme song that gave the saxist one of his two beloved nicknames – but one of the label’s best-known and most loved recordings.
Sugar was surely a tough act to follow. But Salt Song more than compensates. Opening with Freddie Hubbard’s bracing “Gibraltar,” Salt Song makes a case for one of Stanley Turrentine’s strongest jazz efforts of the 1970s. The opening song was originally composed by Hubbard for Turrentine’s album Sugar several months earlier. For whatever reason, the song – recorded with Hubbard and often performed by the saxophonist with the trumpeter during this period - was left off of Turrentine’s CTI debut, although this recording appeared on both the 1987 and 2010 CD releases of Sugar.
The Salt Song version of “Gibraltar,” the first to be heard back in the day but one of five Turrentine waxed for the CTI label, is with little doubt one of the very best. This is due in no small part to the presence and influence of guitarist Eric Gale, who seems to act as the saxophonist’s foil here and takes Turrentine and this song to a whole new level: soul rock at its best.
The Deodato-arranged “I Told Jesus” is one of CTI’s classic gospel blues, offering up especially inspired solos by Turrentine and Gale as well as remarkably simpatico support from bassist Ron Carter, organist Richard Tee and a briefly heard Gospel choir. Producer Creed Taylor clearly favored this performance as the song appeared on the label’s first commercially-available LP compilation, Fire Into Music (1975), as well as a 1982 Gospel compilation of CTI music called The Power and the Glory and the Music.
The album’s lovely and lilting title song, also known as “Cançao Do Sol,” comes from a performance featured on Milton Nascimento’s Creed Taylor-produced debut Courage (1969). Nascimento’s original also featured percussionists Airto Moreira and João Palma as well as arranger Eumir Deodato – all heard on Stanley Turrentine’s extremely delightful cover.
The album’s bonus track, Nascimento’s well-known “Vera Cruz,” was also originally part of the composer’s original 1969 album and comes from a performance that was originally recorded for Astrud Gilberto’s 1971 Gilberto with Turrentine but issued, in the slight variation heard here, on the 1975 Stanley Turrentine compilation LP The Sugar Man.
“I Haven’t Got Anything Better To Do” comes from the little-known 1967 Sandra Dee film Doctor, You’ve Got To Be Kidding!. Its first notable jazz performance came from Carmen McRae on Atlantic in 1967. Astrud Gilberto covered the tune in 1969 (before coming to CTI) and pianist Harold Mabern recorded it in 1970, with flautist Hubert Laws, who appears elsewhere on Salt Song (the pianist later recorded the song with tenor great Eric Alexander). Here, Turrentine provides a sumptuous performance of the charming ballad, aided by Carter’s emotive bass work and Deodato’s pitch-perfect string accompaniment. Creed Taylor would again record the song in a David Matthews arrangement under the auspices of Esther Phillips on the singer’s 1976 Kudu album Capricorn Princess and Stanley Turrentine would record the song again for his 1995 album T Time.
Turrentine’s own samba “Storm” wraps up the original album with a cleverness that is as sensual as it is soulful and as dedicated as it is delicious. Guided by Gale’s guitar, which is heard in a typically marvelous solo, Turrentine glides over Carter’s bass and Billy Cobham’s terrifically rhythmic interchange (by the way, this “Storm” has nothing to do with Cobham’s own “Storm” of a few years later), “Storm” is one of Turrentine’s patented gems, little known but much loved from beginning to end.
It should be mentioned that fellow Pittsburgher Horace Parlan makes a brief yet inexact appearance on these sessions (and none of the other CTI sessions for that matter) for the first – and last! – time with Stanley Turrentine since their earlier appearances together on Turrentine’s Look Out! (1960), Jubilee Shouts! (1961), the great Up at Minton’s (1961), Parlan’s Speakin’ My Piece (1960) and On The Spur of the Moment (1961) and the absolutely terrific album Tommy Turrentine (1960). Parlan left the United States very shortly after this recording and has not yet, as of this writing, returned.
It’s also interesting to note that producer Creed Taylor found Turrentine’s previous two recordings of “Gibraltar” – both of which were later issued - “too monotonous” to issue before settling on the dynamic version heard here. This may explain why the producer found the initial sessions for Don’t Mess With Mister T., recorded nearly two years after the Salt Song sessions, inadequate as well. Reuniting the Salt Song rhythm section of Eric Gale, Ron Carter and Billy Cobham to back Stanley Turrentine may just have sounded like more of the same thing to a producer that was always looking for a new, more inspired sound. He certainly achieved the inspiration on Don’t Mess With Mister T., as different as it is from the beautiful statement that remains Salt Song.
This album also features one of my favorite Pete Turner photos, “The Old Man and The Sea,” taken just before a storm (another title the album references) in Portugal in 1966.