Monday, May 30, 2011

Wilbert Longmire

Cincinnati based guitarist Wilbert Longmire has long had a curious career as a legend throughout northern Ohio and as an occasional headliner on national albums, paired with some of jazz’s greatest names.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Wilbert moved with his parents to Cincinnati when he was only three. He started off as a violinist in his school’s orchestra, studying and performing classical music until he discovered the guitar. He played a little while, learning the songs he wanted, and put the guitar aside.

Longmire picked up the guitar again when he was invited to join a musical group called The Students, which was featured at the Motown Revue. By this point, the entirely self-taught guitarist was hooked. He joined organist Hank Marr’s band in 1963, recording several albums and singles with this combo that also featured the nationally-renowned saxophone of Rusty Bryant (1929-91), who like Marr, was a Columbus native.

The guitarist came to more widespread attention as part of Trudy Pitts’s band, notably on the Philadelphia-based organist’s earliest Prestige albums A Bucketful of Soul and The Excitement of Trudy Pitts. Jetting off to the West Coast, Longmire then contributed to Jean-Luc Ponty’s first American recording, Electric Connection (arranged and conducted by Gerald Wilson) and “Scorpio Rising,” probably from the same session, on Wilson’s own Eternal Equinox.

It was during this period that Wilbert Longmire waxed his first recording as a leader, Revolution (World Pacific, 1969), arranged and conducted by The Jazz Crusaders’s Joe Sample and featuring a host of L.A.’s first-call session players (and Houston native Leon Spencer Jr.) giving a soul-jazz spin to pop classics of the day by Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and James Brown.

The record garnered a little radio play at the time, but sadly little attention. In the intervening years, it has since become something of a crate-digger’s wet dream, containing enough funk to qualify as an acid jazz classic and enough feeling to land smartly in that land now known as classic Northern Soul.

Defeated, Longmire went back to Ohio, and wasn’t heard again until he appeared on fellow Ohio resident and former Hank Marr bandmate Rusty Bryant’s best Prestige album, Fire Eater (1971), which also saw the Hammond B-3 seat alternated between Leon Spencer, who had appeared on Revolution, and Bill Mason. Longmire also features on Mason’s 1972 Eastbound album, Gettin’ Off, delivering an especially excellent solo on “Mister Jay.”

Several years later, Wilbert Longmire recorded his second solo album, This Side of Heaven (J&M, 1976), featuring the guitarist in a quartet minimally highlighted by a few string instruments. Leon Spencer again features on keyboards. But Longmire excels on this little-known and barely-distributed album. If anything, This Side of Heaven displays the tremendous influence George Benson has over Longmire as not only a guitarist and composer, but also as a singer and a performer.

Indeed, Benson had long been friends with Longmire and it is the fellow guitarist who is responsible for the national attention Wilbert Longmire finally received in 1978. George Benson, who had already found worldwide fame with the hit “This Masquerade” and jazz’s first million-selling album, Breezin’, was recording a solo for Maynard Ferguson's 1977 album Conquistador, when the album’s producer and arranger, Bob James, had discussed setting up his own label, Tappan Zee Records. Benson suggested that James consider Wilbert Longmire for the label.

“Wilbert Longmire was recommended to us by George Benson,” said Bob James at the time. “And we’re very glad we took George’s advice and signed him. Because when we went into the studio for the first time we discovered that not only is he a great guitarist, he also has a fantastic voice.”

Wilbert Longmire waxed three records for the Tappan Zee label, Sunny Side Up (1978), Champagne (1979) and With All My Love (1980). Each of the three albums features the greatest players from the New York studio scene of the ‘70s including the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Eric Gale, Steve Khan, Richard Tee and others, in settings conceived by Tappan Zee’s artistic brain-trust, Bob James and Jay Chattaway.

Bob James is involved in all three albums as a composer (specifically “Diane’s Dilemma” and “Ragtown” from Champagne and "Take Your Time (From Taxi)” from With All My Love), performer/soloist, producer and arranger. So it’s a sure bet that if you like the pianist’s Tappan Zee albums from this period (Touchdown, Lucky Seven, etc.), you will surely want to complete your Bobography with these Wilbert Longmire albums.

While Sunny Side Up has been issued on CD several times in the UK and Japan, neither Champagne nor With All My Love has ever appeared anywhere on CD – before now. The British Expansion label, purveyors of lost soul from the ‘70s and ‘80s, has finally issued Wilbert Longmire’s entire Tappan Zee output on two separate CDs, one disc combining Champagne with With All My Love and another disc solely featuring Sunny Side Up.

Sunny Side Up has never been one of my favorites. But it’s sort of become an acid-jazz classic, especially favored by DJs. Billboard didn’t know what to make of the album either, correctly concluding that the guitarist – best served in small-group formats – was buried under horn sections, electric keyboards and vocal choirs. Still, there are good moments that revel more in the “Tappan Zee” sound at the expense of Wilbert Longmire’s especial artistry. Such highlights include the sensational “Black Is The Color” (arranged and adapted by Bob James, also featuring David Sanborn) and Wilbert Longmire’s own “Starflight.”

Champagne is one of the best non-Bob James albums ever issued on Tappan Zee. The material here feels more compatible to Longmire than either the previous Sunny Side Up (1978) or the overtly commercial With All My Love (1980). That is probably due to, first, the consistent presence of a first-tier fusion rhythm section consisting of James on keyboards, Richard Tee on piano (on three tracks), Eric Gale on guitar, Gary King on bass, Harvey Mason or Idris Muhammad on drums and Jimmy Maelen on percussion and, second, a preponderance of Longmire's beautiful guitar playing, even on the vocal piece, "Love's Holiday," and the Benson-like smoothness of "Pleasure Island." Longmire's guitar is the star here and he sounds particularly inspired and utterly unique on his own "Funshine" (recalling those heavy jams he recorded with Rusty Bryant in the early 1970s) and engaged and engaging on "Diane's Dilemma." Champagne, Longmire's fourth album as a leader, is hands down his finest effort and should have made him at least a jazz guitar star. Highlights: Bob James' lightly funky "Diane's Dilemma" and oddly jazzy "Ragtown" (both featuring Michael Brecker), Jay Chattaway's very smooth "Pleasure Island" and Longmire's own funky "Funshine" (featuring a playful horn arrangement by Randy Brecker).

With All My Love goes back and forth for me. Sometimes I appreciate what was developing into a slick smooth-jazz formula. And sometimes it’s infuriatingly trite and cloyingly catchy. Still, there’s a high level of musicianship from all concerned here, even if things start to slip into clockwork anonymity in the process. “Hawkeye,” which surprising recalls some of Gabor Szabo’s music of the period, Jay Chattaway’s pretty “Crystal Clear” (reminiscent of The Brothers Johnson’s “Tomorrow”) and the very Jamesian “Take Your Time (From ‘Taxi’)” are exceedingly worthy. Even Longmire’s spritely melodic “Strawberry Sunset,” which obviously riffs off George Benson’s “Affirmation,” is well worth hearing. The rest is radio fodder, notably “Music Speaks Louder than Words,” which became a minor radio hit back in the day. Interestingly the poppy “Music Speaks Louder Than Words” prefigures The Clarke/Duke Project’s like-minded hit “Sweet Baby” by a full year.

Wilbert Longmire would then pretty much disappear from the national recording scene. Tappan Zee very shortly thereafter stopped recording artists other than Bob James, probably the label’s only money maker. A “best of” compilation album was issued under the guitarist’s name featuring “Black Is The Color” and “Love Why Don’t You Find Us” from Sunny Side Up, “Ragtown,” “Pleasure Island” and “Love’s Holiday” from Chamagne and, of course, “Music Speaks L:ouder Than Words” from With All My Love. To my knowledge, Wilbert Longmire has not recorded another album as a leader since his Tappan Zee records.

Never having left Cincinnati, Wilbert Longmire has remained an active player, gigging at clubs throughout Northern Ohio and occasionally touring outside of the Buckeye state. He reunited with Hank Marr in the mid ’90s, recording several albums with the organist, who passed away in 2004.

But it is the three albums Wilbert Longmire recorded for Tappan Zee in the late ‘70s and finally available on CD some three decades later that remain his most appreciable and enjoyable contribution to music thus far.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Favorite Bond

I spend a lot of time watching and listening to James Bond, always returning to certain favorites. Despite a series overflowing with interesting music – some of the best of its kind - these are a few of the songs that have always rocked my world.

I have neither a special favorite among all these I’ve identified here, a sort of top ten, if you will, nor did I include everything worth noting. First of all, I don’t have every Bond soundtrack. These are just a few of the titles which I like to hear over and over again, though I confess I generally avoid the film’s main themes as I tend to dislike songs with vocals and the pop-oriented pretensions these songs are usually forced to take on.

That said, a few of the main themes not among those on this list are worthy of making me sit through the often tedious but cool-looking main-titles sequences. These include Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice,” Lulu’s “The Man With The Golden Gun,” Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” (mostly because it’s my favorite Maurice Binder opening), Tina Turner’s “Goldeneye” and Garbage’s exceptionally good “The World Is Not Enough.”

Just about all of the composers who have contributed scores to the Bond film franchise (the official Bond film franchise that is) have done a good, if not great, job adding to the legacy. The late, great John Barry established a certain tradition for others to uphold and a pinnacle to achieve. But George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Eric Serra and, most notably, David Arnold have given some great music to the series.

Goldfinger - John Barry (1964): Perhaps the James Bond soundtrack, this one includes one of my very favorite Bond themes, the brilliant and all-too brief Kenton-like “Into Miami.” Aside from the exceedingly memorable main theme, Barry contributes any number of imaginative, inventive and exciting cues to this score including “Alpine Drive” (which Barry revived later as the instrumental version of the “Goldfinger” theme), “Auric’s Factory” and “Bond Back In Action” from the original soundtrack LP and “Golden Girl” and “The Laser Beam” from the 2003 expanded CD release.

The only thing missing here that I would have liked to have heard more of (aside from an extended take of “Into Miami”) is the Mexican cantina band’s performance at the El Scorpio Café at the very beginning of the film, where Bond says “at least they won’t be using heroin-flavored bananas to finance revolutions.” Barry’s devilishly delicious soundtrack to Goldfinger was one of the most interesting and innovative scores of its day, nearly single-handedly ushering in the Silver Age of film scoring and raising the bar for every James Bond score that followed.

Thunderball - John Barry (1965): Thunderball may very well be the most elegant and eloquent of all the James Bond scores before or since. Energized from his success with Goldfinger, John Barry gave this score his thunder-all.

Thunderball evinces John Barry’s evolving compositional signature, his natural ability for crafting dramatically compelling long-form statements and, most notably, an individualistic orchestral palette that not only underscores effectively, but perfectly punctuates the action on the screen in ways that few other film composers have ever successfully managed.

Almost everything here is magnificent, and presented in typical suite form: “The Spa,” “Switching the Body,” “The Bomb,” “Café Martinique” (the first half of which is a slow-dance variation of “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), the gorgeously-scored instrumental “Thunderball,” “Death of Fiona” (another “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” variation, aided ably by King Errisson’s over-the-top percussion) and “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (the film’s original title and first main theme). From the extended 2003 CD: “Bond Meets Domino/Shark Tank/Lights Out For Paula/For King and Country.”

Diamonds Are Forever - John Barry (1971): The score that ended John Barry’s run as the singular composer for the James Bond franchise and, probably his last great Bond score in the whole series. Barry’s terrific main theme, which he clearly favored himself and had voiced again by Goldsinger Shirley Bassey (who would later sing his Moonraker theme), is a highlight.

Other highlights include “Diamonds are Forever” (Instrumental), the equally lounge-y “Tiffany Case” (also seemingly inspired by fellow British ex-pat George Shearing), the suite “Moon Buggy Ride” and “Bond Smells a Rat.” The extended CD also features a number of goodies including “Peter Franks” (another suite), “Airport Suite/On the Road” and a wonderful suite called “Additional and Alternate Cues.”

Live And Let Die - George Martin (1973): My very first James Bond film. At 10, I was freaked out by the multiple reptiles throughout, American highways filled with nothing but 1973 Chevy Bel Air/Impala/Caprices (all cars with the exact same body style!) and Cadillac pimpmobiles, and the creepy-assed coffins (one that sucked you up and one filled with snakes). But the film has a number of great – near comic – performances and utterly memorable lines (“Names is for tombstones, baby!”) that make it a winner in my book. And there’s some great music too.

The music ranks up there among my very favorite Bond scores, a stylish one that’s not quite the Blaxploitation thing they were aiming for – if that’s the case, why hire George Martin? – and surely funkier than the lovely lounge-core outing that Diamonds Are Forever proved to be. George Martin, better known as producer of The Beatles (who Connery said required earmuffs in Goldfinger) and the first non-John Barry composer to score a Bond film, scored a real winner here.

The highlights: one of the series’ best-ever themes, by Paul McCartney and Wings, “Whisper Who Dares,” “San Monique,” “Fillet of Soul – New Orleans/Live And Let Die (sung by B.J. Arnau)/Fillet of Soul – Harlem,” “Bond Drops In” and “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” Martin also provides an appropriately provocative “Soul Makossa” take on the “James Bond Theme” theme too.

My favorite theme from the film, though, never made it on the original film soundtrack album. The cue plays when Bond follows a lead to the voodoo shop in Harlem. On the expanded CD of the soundtrack, issued in 2003, the song appears as the third of four cues in the suite titled “Bond To New York” (starting at 1:18 – heard in a brief reprise, starting about a minute into the suite called “New Orleans”). The 2003 CD includes a number of excellent cues from the soundtrack left off the original LP, making it absolutely worth acquiring.

The Spy Who Loved Me - Marvin Hamlisch (1977): “Bond 77,” an excellent disco-fied arrangement of the James Bond theme, “Ride to Atlantis,” the exotic jazz of “Mojave Club” and the Deodato-like “Eastern Lights,” with a great guitar solo that I would have guessed was the work of John Tropea (as the score was recorded in London, it’s probably someone else).

For Your Eyes Only - Bill Conti (1981): Unquestionably my favorite Bond film and undoubtedly my favorite Bond score. For reasons best left unsaid, I ended up seeing this film eight times in the theatre back in the day. The whole experience gave me great comfort at a very lonely time in my life. I still recall that time when I watch this film again and again. But I always enjoy returning to For Your Eyes Only and it is one of my greatest guilty pleasures of all time.

Nearly every track on this soundtrack ranks among my favorites in the Bond Series (Conti’s The Thomas Crown Affair is another favorite) and always takes me pleasantly back to the film, no matter how incorrectly most critics of this score claim the whole thing is disco. It isn’t. The hit theme is quite good too.

My favorites: “A Drive in the Country,” “Take Me Home” (with a beautiful flugelhorn solo by Eddie Blair), “Melina’s Revenge,” “Gonzales Takes A Drive” (both parts, oddly titled, covering Bond’s approach to Gonzales’ villa and his departure/escape), “St. Cyril’s Monastery,” the great chase theme “Runaway,” the instrumental version of “For Your Eyes Only”(featuring a gorgeous flugelhorn solo by Derek Watkins) and “Cortina.”

In 2000, Ryko issued a CD of the soundtrack with seven bonus tracks not previously issued on the LP including the great “Ski…Shoot…Jump.” In 2003, the exact same version of the soundtrack was issued again, along with most of the other Bond soundtracks.

The Living Daylights - John Barry (1987): This is probably one of my least favorite Bond films. The other Timothy Dalton Bond is worse, though. But it showed John Barry, in the very last of his 12 Bond scores, showing an oddly renewed interest in Bond 4.0, with some of his most contemporary effects (in any of his scores) and his stately melodic craft blooming for this newly-recharged series in the full regalia of many years before.

Highlights are few but include “Ice Chase” (a sort of techno update of the Bond theme) and “Hercules Takes Off” (an interesting instrumental version of a-ha’s main theme). Unlike others, I can do without then-trend setters a-ha and the especially regrettable Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), who’s mugging here on two songs far beyond acceptability; both reasons that make this whole thing nearly unlistenable.

Curious that the film includes a number of classical pieces (always a bad sign, like A View To A Kill) – and Barry himself at the helm of one such performance, as he was for Deadfall (1968) – but the soundtrack includes none of these, all of which, sadly, far out rank anything in passion or significance on the soundtrack recording.

Tomorrow Never Dies - David Arnold (1997): “Hamburg Break In,” “Hamburg Break Out,” “Back Seat Driver” (much of the best of which isn’t even included in the film) and “the Party,” a down-tempo electronica lounge tune that accompanies Bond as he enters the Carver Media Group building in Hamburg for its global satellite launch party (a tune that doesn’t appear on my copy of the soundtrack - the second version issued, pictured above - for some reason).

Casino Royale - David Arnold (2006): Probably David Arnold’s best and most original and fully-developed score for the entire James Bond series thus far, Casino Royale includes the terrifically energized and exciting “African Rundown” (notably the brief part, about five minutes in, where the chase leads Bond to the embassy, scored by Arnold with some particularly nice acoustic bass accoutrements) and any number of terrific themes that do much to propel the film (one of the best in the entire series) along, including "Blunt Instrument," “Solange” and the lengthy “Miami International.”

Oddly, the Casino Royale soundtrack represents one of the most complete Bond soundtracks ever released and it doesn’t even include Chris Cornell’s hit theme song, “You Know My Name,” which ranks among one of the best of the Bond themes – as does the opening-credits sequence, fortunately lacking in sexy girls (which got the titles designer fired from future Bond assignments!).

Quantum of Solace - David Arnold (2008): Like the film, this score improves the more you take it in. Highlights: “The Inside Man,” “Bond in Haiti,” “Somebody Wants to Kill You” and “Night at the Opera.” Arnold also appropriately revisits some of his Casino Royale themes in the brief “Talamone,” “What’s Keeping You Awake” and “Forgive Yourself” (all scenes with Giancarlo Giannini’s Mathis, who also appeared in the earlier film). The stupid main theme by Jack White and Alicia Keys has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the film or the rest of the score. Makes you wonder why. Then again…

Saturday, May 21, 2011

“Love Song” by Elton John

Bet you’d never guess that the first musician I ever obsessed over – really obsessed over - was Elton John. My earliest memories of Elton include “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” all of which were blasted endlessly over the AM radio channel I listened to back in the day (13-Q, for the record, which I think is now an oldies/easy-listening station still operating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).

My first Elton John album was 1974’s Caribou - a gift from Santa - with “The Bitch is Back” and the still brilliant ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” It set me off on a myriad of Elton John classics - through about 1982, I think - that I thought the world of. Most of them still sound pretty good to me today.

Elton John always featured his marvelous piano on his songs, with a flair for songwriting that quite obviously outranked and outlived many of his rock ‘n’ roll peers. Best of all, Bernie Taupin gave the singer/songwriter some of the most beautiful lyrics I’d ever heard. I even started writing (lame) songs and poetry at the time, inspired by Taupin’s often oblique and wonderful prose.

In 1976, at the height of Elton John’s fame and glamour, the hugely popular artist, riding high on hit after hit (I seem to recall the stupid “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was his big number at the time), issued a live album called Here And There. The title derives from one side of the record capturing a London show while the flip side caught a New York City show.

One of the best songs on the album was a song that Elton John didn’t even compose, Lesley Duncan’s provocatively beautiful “Love Song.” The song was first recorded by Elton John on his great 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection. It was one of the few covers Elton John ever manned at this point in his career.

Lesley Duncan (1943-2010) had issued quite a number of records (mostly singles) throughout the 1960s and got a lot of airplay on BBC radio, but, sadly, never a great amount of worldwide popularity. Her own version of “Love Song” was issued in 1970 by Columbia records (after she performed the song as part of David Bowie’s group in the late sixties), obviously catching Elton John’s attention.

His Tumbleweed Connection version gives the song a simple (and odd, for Elton John) acoustic guitar backing which is fine and not unlike the composer’s original conception. But in 1974, Elton John invited Lesley Duncan – who went on to sing background vocals on Pink Floyd’s epic Dark Side of the Moon and the Alan Parsons Project’s Eve - to sing background vocals during his 1974 performance at the Royal Festival Hall.

Duncan sings behind Elton on John’s tremendously timeless “Skyline Pigeon” (truly one of my all-time favorite Elton John songs), “Take Me to the Pilot,” several others and her own beautiful “Love Song.” This performance of the song was even issued as a single at the time, which is where it first caught my attention. Unfortunately, it really never got the popular attention it deserved.

This performance is absolutely magnificent – and immeasurably superior to the Tumbleweed Connection version as it is backed by Elton John’s magical Keith Jarrett-like piano and the original composer’s own extraordinarily beautiful background vocals. Elton John’s voice had also matured quite a bit since the 1970 recording to present something here that is far more sincere and remarkably moving.

“Love Song” - which Barry White loved so much he did a stunning cover of his own in 1983 - is a great piece of pop heaven. And this version is one of the best there is. Listen for yourself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary

It was 50 years ago this year that ABC Records, having recent success with such pop acts as Paul Anka, Buddy Holly and others, decided to create a specialty label specifically designed for jazz music. One of the company’s most successful producers, Creed Taylor, who had already brought the company a significant modicum of success creating some fairly profitable novelty records and jazz discs – notably Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s Sing A Song Of Basie, Quincy Jones’s This Is How I Feel About Jazz and Billy Taylor’s My Fair Lady - lobbied hard to take charge of the endeavor.

Taylor was given the green light and ended up forming one of America’s most iconic-ever jazz labels, Impulse Records. He already had strong connections in the jazz world, allowing him to immediately start working with jazz’s greatest artists and some of the art’s emerging talent.

He became intimately involved in formulating the label’s name and identity, resulting in one of the strongest brands that jazz has ever known, before or since. Oddly, Taylor’s first idea was to name the label “Pulse,” to capture the intense rhythmic feel of jazz. But the name was already taken. He then came up with “Impulse,” which reflects the essence of jazz even better.

He and his secretary at the time, Margo Guryan, who later became a songwriter and artist in her own right, conceived the bold orange and black colors as well as the brilliantly conceived logo utilizing a lower-case “i” (the first letter of the label’s name) and inverting the letter to become an exclamation mark (“!”).

Taylor insisted on high-gloss, heavy cardboard, gatefold covers with exceptional four-color photography (coordinated by frequent associate, photographer Pete Turner) – a philosophy he would insist upon again when starting his own CTI Records label in 1970 - and something that no other jazz label was doing at the time. This sort of lavishness was given only to classical records of the period. And this was the sort of importance Creed Taylor insisted was necessary for and not hitherto given to good jazz.

Impulse snagged both Ray Charles and John Coltrane away from Atlantic Records, ensuring a huge amount of credibility for the label and permitting Taylor to pursue pet projects like Kai Winding (he’d had great success with Winding and J.J. Johnson at Bethlehem a few years before) and give relative unknowns like Oliver Nelson a shot.

Charles went onto record for ABC Paramount, heading up his unbelievably popular country and western albums, without returning to Impulse. But Coltrane, of course, went on to wax some of his greatest, most searing and highly searching, music for the Impulse label through his 1967 death. He also acted as a catalyst to bring other jazz leaders like McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane to the label.

After only six productions, Creed Taylor was lured by MGM to head up Verve Records, which had recently been sold to the film and music company by label founder Norman Granz - who curiously went on to produce Coltrane’s European concerts in 1962 with Eric Dolphy that resulted after Creed Taylor waxed Africa/Brass for Impulse.

Taylor left Impulse and his dream of running his own jazz label in order to helm an established jazz legacy that included such greats as Johnny Hodges and Stan Getz, with whom he coordinated the popular introduction of Bossa Nova into the world’s musical vocabulary.

Taylor would achieve huge hits at Verve with Bossa Nova leaders Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto, Walter Wanderley and others as well as jazz hits for Jimmy Smith, Kai Winding, Bill Evans, Gary McFarland and many others before leaving for A&M in 1967 and starting his own CTI label in 1970.

Five months after Taylor’s departure from Impulse, ABC brought in producer Bob Thiele to run things. Thiele (1922-86), a closet jazz fanatic who had earlier recorded jazz greats for his own Signature label, had also produced hits for ABC by Buddy Holly and wife-to-be Theresa Brewer.

It is Bob Thiele who gave Impulse the great diversity and impressive reputation it has to this day, prolifically capturing Coltrane, giving “free jazz” an outlet and one of its only airings on a major label at the time, recording jazz traditionalists like Duke Ellington (and a number of Ellingtonians), Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines and Pee Wee Russell, organ combos, psychedelic pop-jazz fusions and cutting-edge upstarts that other labels of the day were unwilling to record.

Thiele started several Impulse subsidiary labels (notably BluesWay) but departed in 1969 to run his own Flying Dutchman label and related subsidiaries. The Impulse label drafted several more high profile producers to take over, including Ed Michel and Esmond Edwards. But things pretty much ground to a halt in 1979.

Attempts to revive the label happened in the mid ‘80s by the label’s owners at the time, MCA), then again in the ‘90s by GRP. But Impulse is not what it used to be. There really isn’t an Impulse anymore. Impulse is now merely one of the Verve Music Group’s “imprints” and the occasional CD pops up bearing the Impulse logo, including Alice Coltrane’s swan song, Translinear Light (2004), and José James and Jef Neve’s For All We Know (2010).

Still, the label that crafted so many jazz classics deserves to be celebrated. Fifty years after its initial formation, Impulse should be recognized and appreciated for what it achieved.

This particularly handsome set is a fair introduction to the label, beautifully and thoroughly exploring its origins, but sadly disregarding the entirety of Impulse’s post-Creed Taylor legacy.

First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary captures the first of the label’s six recordings, namely J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding’s The Great Kai & J.J., Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz, Kai Winding’s The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones (never before on US CD), The Gil Evans Orchestra’s Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues And The Abstract Truth (a title mistakenly preceded with “The” in its earliest form and carried through on multiple reissues), The John Coltrane Quartet’s Africa/Brass, the monaural 45 version of Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep,” previously issued bonus tracks from Gil Evans and John Coltrane and several unessential Coltrane rehearsal takes never before released.

Beautifully packaged, this celebratory set includes four tremendously warm sounding discs (re-mastered from Rudy Van Gelder’s original recordings in 2010 by original producer Creed Taylor, in his first work-for-hire stint in over four decades, with Universal Music’s Kevin Reeves) presented as part of a hardcover book, measuring 10 inches by 10 inches (why not 12 by 12, like an LP?), with 80 pages of text, full-color pictures, reproductions of each album cover and inside gatefold sleeve. The design is gorgeous and the paper stock is just as classy as you would expect a tribute to Impulse Records to be.

Ashley Kahn, author of the less-than-stellar book on the Impulse label, The House That Trane Built (2007) and producer/annotator of the corresponding four-disc label overview The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (also 2007), provides a particularly well written and worthy label history (and introduction), transcribes commentary and remembrances from Creed Taylor and includes interesting background to the origin of each one of the six albums featured here.

And the music is, simply, to die for. It should surprise no one that at least four of these recordings rank not only as some of the Impulse label’s most historic outings, but flourish as some of the most essential recordings in the entirety of jazz. It’s no coincidence that Creed Taylor, who has produced more than his fair share of immortal jazz classics, helmed all six albums, the only music he made at Impulse. And even though some of the music here might not reach the timeless status of, say, a desert island disc, all of it is lovingly conceived and immaculately delivered.

The First Impulse package matches this distinction, offering a stunning and enduring presentation of audible and packaging artistry.

All tracks were supervised by Creed Taylor and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, with the exception of John Coltrane’s three never-before released “rehearsal” tunes at the end of Disc 4.

Disc 1 features The Great Kai & J.J. (Impulse A(S)-1) by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding with the tracks “This Could Be The Start Of Something,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Blue Monk,” “Judy,” “Alone Together,” “Side By Side,” “I Concentrate On You,” “Moonglow/Theme From ‘Picnic’,” “Trixie,” “Going, Going, Gong!” and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones (Impulse A(S)-3) by Kai Winding with tracks “Just For A Thrill,” “Speak Low,” “Lil Darlin’,” “Doodlin’,” “Love Walked In,” “Mangos,” “Impulse,” “Black Coffee,” “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” “Michie (Slow)” and “Michie (Fast).”

[Interestingly, The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones is the only one of the six albums included in the First Impulse set that has never been issued on CD in the US. Guess not everything here is as “legendary” as we’re made to believe. Despite its appearance on a long out-of-print Japanese CD, First Impulse marks the remarkably rare Kai Winding album’s long-awaited and worthy American CD debut.]

Disc 2 features Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse A(S)-2) by Ray Charles (with the Count Basie band, arranged by Quincy Jones) with tracks “From The Heart,” “I’ve Got News For You,” “Moanin’,” “Let’s Go,” “One Mint Julep” (Impulse’s first and nearly only hit single), “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town,” “Stompin’ Room Only,” “Mister C,” “Strike Up The Band,” and “Birth Of The Blues” and Out of the Cool (Impulse (A(S)-4) by The Gil Evans Orchestra with (the great) “La Nevada,” “Where Flamingos Fly,” “Bilbao Song,” “Stratusphunk” and “Sunken Treasure.“

[Curiously, Concord Jazz now owns the rights to Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz and has reissued the set several times, pairing this landmark Impulse set (Charles’s only appearance on the label) with instrumentally-oriented sets Charles did later in his career for his own Tangerine label bearing the moniker My Own Kind of Jazz.]

Disc 3 features Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse A(S)-5) by the Oliver Nelson Sextet (featuring such stellar talent as Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, George Barrow, Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes) with (the immortal) “Stolen Moments,” “Hoe-Down,” “Cascades,” “Yearnin’,” “Butch and Butch” and “Teenie’s Blues” and Africa /Brass (Impulse A(S)-6) by The John Coltrane Quartet (with orchestra arranged by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and conducted by Eric Dolphy) with “Africa,” “Greensleeves” and “Blues Minor.”

Disc 4 contains the “extras,” such as they are, including Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep (mono single version)” – added at producer Creed Taylor’s insistence – Gil Evans’s “Sister Sadie” (which first saw the light of day on a 1978 compilation LP and was included on an American CD version of Out of the Cool issued by GRP in the 1990s), the extra Coltrane tracks from Africa/Brass, which made up a second volume LP in the ‘70s and was included on a double disc Africa/Brass CD issued in the ‘90s (the great “Song Of The Underground Railroad,” “Greensleeves (alternate take),” “The Damned Don’t Cry,” “Africa (first version)” and the Coltrane rehearsal tracks of “Laura,” “Nakatine” and “The Damned Don’t Cry.”

For more detail and to purchase, visit Hip-o

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lalo Schifrin “Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You”

First, a little history. In 1965, Woody Allen’s comedy What’s New Pussycat? became a surprise hit, boasting an all-star cast including Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Romy Schneider, Capuchine, Paula Prentiss and Ursula Andress. Tom Jones’ performance of Burt Bacharach’s title song also became a hit, goofy as it is, becoming even more memorable and enduringly campy than the film itself.

Five years later, for whatever reason, a sequel/remake was released called Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You - a title derived from Hal David’s lyric to “What’s New Pussycat?" - with a decidedly less-than-stellar cast featuring Ian McShane, John Gavin, Severn Darden and Joyce Van Patten and, subsequently, stirring little interest from any of the folks who enjoyed the earlier film, or the audience the film’s producers apparently no longer understood.

With Burt Bacharach otherwise engaged, disinterested or unaffordable, composer Lalo Schifrin was contracted to craft the new Pussycat score. Fresh from his film successes for The Fox (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Bullitt (1968) and well-known TV themes to Mission: Impossible, Mannix and Medical Center, Schifrin must have seemed like a sure thing.

Indeed, Schifrin crafted a terrifically delightful score that offered what producer Lukas Kendall called “a broad palette for musical pastiches—from Italian opera to a comic German march to a Morricone-style spaghetti western anthem.” Schifrin’s score is crafted much like a road movie, taking in musical forms from all over the globe, featuring clever (and comical) reconsiderations of Bacharach’s wacky “What’s New Pussycat?” and even offering a musical punch-line that references the composer’s own famed “Mission: Impossible.”

The mood is light and light-heartedly comic and not terribly dissimilar to what Henry Mancini crafted for Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968). But Schifrin’s score offers a number of delightful pieces that rank among some of his best. Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You rounds out Schifrin’s earliest period of film scoring, which dates roughly from 1964 to 1970, where his deft touch and melodic jazz skills still informed his very best work – regardless of musical or filmic genre.

Nobody reading this now needs to be reminded that Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You was a box-office flop that disappeared quickly and was immediately forgotten. A 16-track album was prepared and at least one single (“Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You” b/w “What’s New Pussycat”) was issued. It’s possible that Henry Shed’s performance of “Groove Into It” was also issued as 45-rpm single, but maybe only as a promotional single - and in very limited quantities (I've never seen a copy of this anywhere). But the film’s lack of success prevented United Artists from issuing an album at the time.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Film Score Monthly included Lalo Schifrin’s entire 59-minute score for Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You - including the 16 tracks scheduled for the LP from the film’s original soundtrack – on its magnificent 12-disc box set The MGM Soundtrack Treasury, a CD set that featured full score soundtracks for 20 MGM films. Unfortunately the expensive set was limited to 1200 copies and very quickly sold out.

Now in 2011, the Spanish Quartet label has properly paired Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You on a two-disc set with the full film score to the earlier What’s New, Pussycat?. But, like the MGM box, this set is limited to only 1000 copies. So if this is something you want, you’d better hurry up and get it while you can.

The less said about What’s New Pussycat?, which also features performances by Dionne Warwick and Manfred Mann, the better. The Quartet set is worth owning for Lalo Schifrin’s terrifically interesting score to the otherwise (best) forgotten film Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You.

Schifrin crafts any number of memorable themes here, including go-go/beat/shake tunes like “The Guru,” “Fred’s Theme” (the instrumental version of “Groove Into It” and the great bossa/Tijuana Brass variation, “Top Down”) and “Flashing Lights;” “Hydro-Therapy” (which recalls the Mannix soundtrack’s “The Edge of Night”); the Asiatic “Oh Perfidy” and “Holes” (also “You Think of Everything” - suggesting what the composer did with Cal Tjader’s “Hot Sake” and his own “A Taste of Bamboo” from Gone With The Wave); the lovely and lounge-y “Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You” (aka “Millie,” “Ornella,” “Sauna Bath,” “Duplication”), the after-hours “Pussycat Source” (which sounds as if it was scored in a manner matching a cue from Krysztof Komeda’s score to Rosemary’s Baby) and the charming “False Fronts.”

The Quartet set presents pretty much the exact same program as the MGM box did, but in a slightly different order. The MGM box presented the music in film order. The Quartet set, helmed by the great Claudio Fuiano, begins by presenting the 16 tracks intended for the LP release, following these tracks with the remainder of the score in mostly filmic order.

However, the Quartet set incorrectly attributes "Holes" as "Hales" (track 34) but does not use the music from this track here. The actual track credited as "Hales" is "What's New Pussycat/Indian Camp" (track 19 from the MGM box, which is also presented as two separate tracks on the Quartet set, tracks 8 and 27).

Also, the track credited as "Avanti/Have Chickens Will Travel/Dirt Road a la Italiana" is "Holes" (track 35). Indeed, "Avanti/Have Chickens Will Travel/Dirt Road a la Italiana" is not heard on the Quartet set. Also "Coffee Break" appears here as "Coffe Break."

It’s worth noting that Lalo Schifrin recorded a version of “Groove Into It” (with lyrics by famed jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees) in Hollywood a full month before the November 1969 London sessions that resulted in the soundtrack recording of Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You. Musicians featured on this version included Don Randi and Joanne Grauer on keyboards, David Cohen and Dennis Budimer on guitars, Buddy Clark on bass, John Guerin on drums and Alan Estes on percussion. It’s unknown whether this version included a vocalist.

But to my knowledge, this version has never been issued anywhere in any form and is not included on either the MGM box or the new Quartet set.

Still, What’s New Pussycat? is perfectly paired with Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You here and is worth getting for Lalo Schifrin’s score alone. There’s enough here to please fans of Lalo Schifrin’s early film scores, good film music and for film music that’s more memorable than the film it accompanies.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eric Alexander "Don't Follow The Crowd"

If jazz today has a brand, then saxophonist Eric Alexander is its standards bearer. He upholds the tradition and champions the cause like no other instrumentalist from the contemporary jazz realm. Two decades and dozens of recordings into his career, Alexander has flourished while the power of many of his peers has faded, disappeared or proved to be nothing more than just imitative exuberance.

Think about it. How many others in the current pool of so-called jazz players can claim to have the distinct sound Eric Alexander possesses—a trait of long-dead jazz pioneers—without dressing the music up in some sort of contrived artifice? Ain't but a few of 'em. And it's especially true among the ranks of Eric Alexander's generation.

Eric Alexander is nothing if not beautifully consistent. He never waves flags or lobs claims about achieving something no one else has like so many others do and he never goes off-topic to prove some sort of benign individualism. He honors the tradition and, more importantly, pays repeated homage to his forbearers, who it seems he's very thankful for and for whom he is audibly appreciative. Still, he comes across as his own man.

He is always surrounded by the usual suspects—in one of his working quartets or as part of One For All—all of whom number among jazz's busiest and most stimulating accompanists.

His programs nearly always feature fairly well-known and tuneful covers—tastefully reconsidered in nearly all cases to sound personalized and timeless, no matter what era the music's from—and hardly ever opens the worn-out fake book of jazz standards and done-to-death Tin Pan Alley trash (the Gentle Ballads series excepted). And his originals all have that solid melodic invention that those old Prestige and Blue Note albums possess.

Part of the reason for that is that the same man who captured many of those jazz classics often records Eric Alexander. The great Rudy Van Gelder provides Eric Alexander with a platform that superbly captures his uniqueness and Eric Alexander repays his legendary recording engineer with music that is thoughtfully considered and passionately delivered.

All of this is to say that Eric Alexander's latest, Don't Follow The Crowd (HighNote, 2011), is more of the same from the tenor saxophonist and, more than most jazz discs that come out these days, is a typically pleasurable experience from start to finish.

Don't Follow The Crowd catches Eric Alexander in his long-running quartet featuring the great Memphis-born pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Nat Reeves (who alternates in this quartet with John Webber) and the ubiquitous drummer Joe Farnsworth. It's this group's follow-up to last year's Revival of the Fittest, and truly a sound to behold. Each member of the quartet is a significant contributor to the overall agenda and each audibly relies on the other to achieve what they do together.

The program is comprised of the usual collection of originals and unpredictable covers. The saxophonist contributes “Nomor Senterbress" and “Remix Blues," considers three film themes ("Charade," “Don't Misunderstand" from Shaft's Big Score and “Cavatina from 'The Deer Hunter'"), covers Michael Jackson's pop classic “She's Out of My Life" and investigates such little-known jazz gems as smooth jazz guitarist Steve Briody's “Footsteps" (originally from his 2006 album Keep on Talkin') and bassist Bill Lee's “Don't Follow the Crowd" (originally from an obscure 1962 Frank Strozier album that featured both the composer and Harold Mabern).

It's yet another well-conceived program that never alludes to the wild disparity of the music's origins. This quartet delivers these tunes as if they (the musicians and the music) are all of a mind and that good music is always good music, regardless of genre or generation.

Unfortunately, pianist Harold Mabern contributes no originals to the program—always a highlight of any Eric Alexander Quartet album. But his keen ear for a good tune, matched only by a keen hand to take a tune somewhere different and exciting, resulted in the inclusion of “Footsteps," “Charade" and “Don't Follow the Crowd" to the program. There's little doubt that Mabern is a significant catalyst in this group's continued success.

It's hard to say that any one Eric Alexander Quartet recording is any better than any other or that this particular one ranks at the top, if it's even possible to construct such a hierarchy. But Don't Follow the Crowd is not only a terrific place to start enjoying jazz giant Eric Alexander but also a tremendous addition to the worthy two-decade long discography this group has contributed to the jazz lexicon.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Cornell Dupree – R.I.P.

The legendary guitarist Cornell Dupree died on Sunday, May 8, 2011. He was 68 years old. Dupree had earlier been diagnosed with emphysema and was to have had a lung transplant. A benefit concert was held at BB King’s New York City club on March 11 to help raise funds for Dupree’s medical expenses.

Born on December 19, 1942, in Fort Worth, Texas, Dupree was discovered by King Curtis, who brought the young guitarist to New York City, where his meteoric rise began. The guitarist can be heard on King Curtis’s 1963 hit “Soul Serenade.” While still part of the Curtis band, Dupree played alongside Jimi Hendrix and initiated a career as a studio musician, becoming part of Atlantic Records’ house band. This earned Dupree a ten-year tenure with Aretha Franklin, who was one of the label’s superstars at the time. Dupree can be heard on Aretha Franklin’s biggest and best records, notably "Rock Steady."

Dupree contributed to many pop, rock, soul, R&B and jazz sessions during these years, crafting a signature sound along the way that was based on the deep Texas blues he heard growing up. Dupree loved the sounds of T-Bone Walker and Lightning Hopkins, but the syncopated twang in his sound came from an eclectiv assortment of artists from the Lone Star state. “I was inspired by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Wayne Bennett, who I was fortunate enough to hear with Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland,” recalled Dupree. “There are country and western artists I enjoyed, too, like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.”

Cornell Dupree’s favorites of his own work reflect this diversity of influence and included “Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton, Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West, King Curtis’s Live at the Fillmore West (featuring Billy Preston, Jerry Jemmott and Bernard Purdie), Donny Hathway’s Live and Esther Phillips’s Kudu hit “From A Whisper To A Scream.”

Around this time, Dupree earned the nickname “Uncle Funky” – which is probably derived from Hank Crawford’s bluesy tribute to the guitarist on the saxophonist’s 1972 Kudu album Help Me Make It Through The Night.

Cornell Dupree launched his solo career in 1974, appropriately on Atlantic Records, with the album Teasin’ (reissued on CD in 2008 by Wounded Bird). But the guitarist was only sporadically captured on record as a soloist, featuring on such albums as Saturday Night Fever (1977), Shadow Dancing (1978), the terrific Coast to Coast (1988), Can’t Get Through (1991), Child’s Play (1993), Bop ‘n’ Blues (1995) and several vinyl sets of guitar riffs designed for sampling. Oddly, much of this music is often repackaged under different titles, making it appear that Dupree’s solo discography is much larger than it really is.

As part of Saturday Night Live’s original house band, Cornell Dupree then became one of the founding members of Stuff in 1975. Fellow members of Stuff included keyboardist Richard Tee (1943-93), guitarist Eric Gale (1938-94), bassist Gordon Edwards and drummers Steve Gadd and Christopher Parker. The group’s first album, Stuff was released in 1976 and became something of a hit, leading the group to play festivals and tour Japan, where the Stuff sound was extremely popular. Stuff waxed three studio albums and several live albums until it more or less disbanded in the early 1980s.

Later in the decade, Cornell Dupree reunited with Richard Tee and Steve Gadd for the drummer’s group The Gadd Gang, recording two studio albums that gave an ‘80s spin to a lot of ‘60s tunes. When the acid jazz craze hit in the early 1990s, Dupree revved up the funk his music hadn’t really had for years and launched into a more committed solo recording career.

By the turn of the century the guitarist formed Cornell Dupree and his Bayou Buddies featuring kindred spirits from the New Orleans scene including bassist George Porter, Jr., drummer Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, keyboardist Marc Adams and saxophonist Brian “Breeze” Cayolle. Then starting in 2006, he formed Cornell Dupree and the Soul Survivors, a ‘supergroup’ highlighting the renowned artistry of pianist Les McCann, baritone saxophonist and fellow Gadd Gang member Ronnie Cuber, bass great Jerry Jemott (who featured with Dupree on many of those Atlantic sides of yore) and drummer Buddy Williams.

I am partial to Cornell Dupree’s work on a wide variety of great records in my collection including Gabor Szabo and Lena Horne’s Lena & Gabor (1969), Eddie Harris’ great Come on Down (1970), Hank Crawford’s It’s A Funky Thing To Do (1971), Les McCann’s brilliant Invitation to Openness (1971), Herbie Mann’s Push, Push (1971, alongside Duanne Allman), Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues (1972), Miles Davis's tremendous but oddly loathed "Red China Blues" (from Get Up With It and later The Complete On The Corner Sessions), Stanley Turrentine’s CTI classic Cherry (1972), The Man With The Sad Face (1976), West Side Highway (1977) and Nightwings (1978), David Newman’s Lonely Avenue and The Weapon (both 1972) and Return To The Wide Open Space (1990), Jimmy McGriff’s The Mean Machine (1976) and Carla Bley’s Dinner Music (1977).

There are thousands more. Indeed Dupree himself estimated he participated in over 2,500 recordings. The soulful touch and the loving groove that Cornell Dupree brought to so much music will be sorely missed.

Here's a nice feature from the guitarist on Bernard Purdie's cover of The Dramatics' "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" -

And this doosey needs no words:

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Gil Evans/Laurent Cugny Big Band Lumiere

Shortly after graduating college in 1987, I ventured to New York City with the naïve hope of finding a job. It was a miserable time and a memorably awful experience. My hope was to land a job in advertising.

I ended up with a film pass for a great foreign film from a prestigious film distributor based in NYC that couldn’t hire me and an interview for a position selling ad space for some TV or radio station, knowing full well that’s not what I had in mind. I went back home to Pittsburgh and ended up getting a job later in the Washington, DC, area, where I’ve been ever since.

While I was in New York that fall – my third time there, actually – I had one hope outside of scoring a job: to see Gil Evans perform live. It was well known that Evans held court on Monday nights at Australian émigré Horst Liepolt’s Greenwich Village eatery Sweet Basil, and I wanted to witness the aging Evans, who was 75 years old at the time, before he could no longer perform.

I had recently discovered the Gil Evans classic Out of the Cool (through MCA’s then-recent 25th anniversary reissue program, worth noting now that Impulse is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year), delighting time and again in the magnificent “La Nevada,” and, of course, knew the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans classics Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.

I didn’t really know how different Gil Evans’ music had become all those years later. But I didn’t care. Whatever he was doing, I wanted to hear it.

Sweet Basil was located pretty close to where I was staying, so I walked there one Monday afternoon to find out where the place was located. I found it. But I also saw a handwritten sign in the window saying that Gil Evans was not performing his regular Monday night stints as he was currently “on tour in Europe.” Oh well. Maybe next time.

There was no next time – at least not for me. Gil Evans died on March 20, 1988, only several months later (his 99th birthday falls on May 13).

Shortly thereafter, a CD called Rhythm A Ning, credited to Gil Evans/Laurent Cugny and Big Band Lumiere, was issued on the EmArcy label. As it was a new release by Gil Evans, I immediately picked up on it, having been especially disappointed by the soundtrack albums issued for then recent Gil Evans scores Absolute Beginners and The Color of Money (both of which were little better than pop song collections).

Apparently, this is some of what Evans was up to while in Europe when I wanted to see him in New York. It’s also one of a series of later Gil Evans recordings, including duet discs with singer Helen Merrill and saxophonist Steve Lacy, and surely one of the best. In my view, it’s among the best music that Evans ever recorded under his own name.

Laurent Cugny, a new name to me at the time and one that hasn’t traveled across the ocean much since then, was born in La Garenne-Colombes, France, on April 14, 1955, and studied piano from the age of 10, eventually earning degrees in economics and cinematography. He became famed in French jazz circles for his 1979 creation of the Lumiere big band, but helmed a number of film shorts and wrote much (mostly about jazz) during this time too. Eventually Cugny went on to write biographies of Gil Evans (Las Vegas Tango, 1989) and Miles Davis (Electrique, 1993).

Cugny had long tried to persuade Gil Evans to come to Paris and record with his Lumiere Big Band, but Evans always declined. Citing Cugny’s piano-playing leadership of the orchestra, Evans simply said “you don’t need me.” After a number of changes of heart and unknown misunderstandings, Evans finally called Cugny to say he was ready to commit to the project.

Recorded in Paris on November 2, 3 and 26, 1987, the inspired program features Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” (a frequent part of Evans’s performances since the 1970s) and Cugny’s “Charlie Mingus’s Sound of Love” (modeled after Charles Mingus’s own “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”) as well as the magisterially extended takes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Stone Free” (long a feature of Evans’s live performances) and Evans’s own “London” (derived from his “Copenhagen Sight” from the 1980 Public Theatre performances, issued on record with the first recorded example of Evans’s take on “Stone Free” too) and “La Nevada” (originally recorded by Evans on his brilliant 1961 album Out of the Cool and a song which Evans had – surprisingly – not performed in over two decades).

Aside from many nice features for Gil Evans on both acoustic and electric piano, this band has a togetherness that isn’t often heard on the plethora of Evans’ live recordings of the period.

There are so many wonderful solos throughout that it’s worth identifying those who contribute so spectacularly to the agenda: François Chassagnite (“Rhythm-A-Ning,” “Charlie Mingus’s Sound of Love”) and Stéphane Belmondo (“La Nevada”) on trumpet, Andy Sheppard (“Rhythm-A-Ning,” “La Nevada”) and Charles Schneider (“Stone Free”) on tenor sax, Pierre Olivier Govin (“London”) on alto sax, Denis Barbier (“Stone Free”) on flute, Manuel Rocheman (“Charlie Mingus’s Sound of Love”) on piano, Lionel Benhamou (“London”) on guitar, Jean Bardy (“Charlie Mingus’s Sound of Love”) on acoustic bass and Dominque di Piazza (“La Nevada”) on electric bass.

The arrangements on all but “Charlie Mingus’s Sound of Love” are by Evans, though it’s fair to assume that Laurent Cugny probably had a hand in much of the way the performances are shaped, having lovingly transcribed the arrangement for “La Nevada” by listening to Evan’s Impulse recording of the tune. I recall a bunch of critical backlash for this record at the time that I could never understand. Listening to it again all these years later reconfirms my long-held belief in the beautiful originality and creative joy in this music.

Rhythm A Ning is outstanding and while it’s not necessarily the Gil Evans original that Out of the Cool, The Individualism of Gil Evans or even Porgy and Bess or Sketches of Spain could be said to be, it’s a perfectly beautiful celebration of the Gil Evans aesthetic, ranking well above any number of the many live sets that were so much a part of Gil Evans discography in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

And then for no reason lovers of Rhythm A Ning like myself were rewarded in 1989 with Golden Hair, an additional set of performances from the Paris sessions, recorded on November 3 and 26, 1987, and eliciting even more wondrous performances from Evans, Cugny and the Big Band Lumiere.

Golden Hair is not a profiteering set of outtakes and half-baked music passing itself off as a real album. It is an essential companion to Rhythm A Ning, filled with even more of Evans’ trademark jazz ideas and Cugny’s expert oversight.

The program covers Cugny’s “Golden Hair” (a conscious tribute to Miles Davis’s 1970 performance of David Crosby’s beautiful “Gunnivere,”a rendition later given the title “Lady, Like Yours”), Mingus’s “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues” (sic – a feature of Evans’s performances since the ‘70s), Evans’s “Zee Zee” (first recorded by the composer in 1971 on Where Flamingos Fly, an album that was not issued until 1982, making the 1973 album Svengali, an anagram of Evans’s name, its first recorded appearance), “C Blues” (a “collage of three blues in C by Charlie Parker”), Alan Shorter’s near-brilliant “Parabola” and Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” which – surprisingly – had only recently entered Evans’s book.

Soloists here include François Chassagnite (“Golden Hair”) and Stéphane Belmondo (“Zee Zee,” “C Blues”) on trumpet, Gilles Salommez (“Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress”) on trombone, Andy Sheppard (“Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress”) on tenor sax, Philippe Sellam (“C Blues”) and the very David Sanborn sounding Bobby Rangell (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) on alto sax, Lionel Benhamou (“Golden Hair,” “C Blues”) on guitar and Dominque di Piazza (“C Blues”) on electric bass.

Admittedly, Golden Hair isn’t the compelling collection that Rhythm A Ning is. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Indeed, the opposite is true. The band is exceedingly strong on Cugny’s “Golden Hair,” the Evans staple “Zee Zee” and the paradoxical “Parabola,” which Evans pulled out of his case moments before the recording of the tune began, resulting in a stunning performance that Cugny indicates is performed somewhat in the style of music inaugurated by Miles Davis’ quintet with Nefertiti.

Of note is that the song’s composer, Alan Shorter (1923-87), is Wayne Shorter’s older brother and while Alan debuted “Parabola” around the same time Nefertiti was recorded, Wayne Shorter was one of the principal players and composers on Nefertiti, an album by frequent Gil Evans associate Miles Davis.

This is superb latter day big-band music, led by one of jazz’s greatest arrangers and peopled by some remarkably good talent with a great love for the music. This is not pleasant rehashes of orchestral hits of yore or the easy-listening fluff that passes for big band jazz today. It is a stirring collection that shows exactly why Gil Evans mattered outside of his more famed – and arguably more composed – recordings, and was among the last of the great composer/arranger/pianist's very last (and by then rare) studio recordings.

The Gil Evans/Laurent Cugny Big Band Lumiere discs make for essential listening.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sweat Band

Recently reissued on CD for the first time since 1994 by reissue greats Get On Down, this little-known and barely-remembered album is a 1980 Bootsy Collins/P-Funk joint that deserves far better than it ever got.

Between 1976 and 1979, Bootsy’s Rubber Band was a hugely successful offshoot of the P-Funk mothership, distinguished by equal parts funk (emphasizing Bootsy’s “Space Bass”) and silky soulful balladry.

Despite Collins’ cartoon-y antics and somewhat goofy lyrics, the Rubber Band was often more “musical” than the rest of P-Funk, probably due to the high musicianship Collins himself brought to the endeavor. Very little that could be considered jazz or jazzy came out of it all but the music was tight and much more disciplined than the other P-Funk units, something Mr. Collins no doubt gleaned from his time with James Brown.

The Horny Horns were featured heavily throughout, with Fred Wesley covering the charts and sidekick/emcee Maceo Parker getting a high dose of solo spots. The best stuff out of the Rubber Band showed how well it all worked. Sample “Stretchin’ Out,” “Psychoticbumpschool” and “Another Point of View” from Stretchin’ Out In Bootsy’s Rubber Band; “Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy Baby,” “The Pinocchio Theory,” and “Rubber Duckie” from Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy Baby; “What’s The Name Of This Town,” “Bootzilla” and “Roto-Rooter” from Bootsy? Player of The Year; and “Bootsy Get Live” and “Jam Fan” from This Boot Is Made For Fonk-n.

By 1980, Bootsy spread his wings a bit and launched the Sweat Band, a more instrumental version of the Rubber Band, on George Clinton’s newly-devised CBS subsidiary, Uncle Jam Records. The album opens with the bracing electro-instrumental, “Hyper Space,” nearly disclaiming any similarity to anything in the P-Funk cannon and nothing at all like the Rubber Band. Driven by synth-man and co-writer Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson and peppered nicely by guitarist Mike Hampton, it almost suggests a European action film theme of the time – a great dance piece, which could work well to highlight action on the silver screen – or just as effectively on the mirror-balled dance floor. This is the kind of thing everyone was hoping Prince would come up with at the time, prefiguring his Madhouse records by more than a few years.

Next follows the dance hit “Freak To Freak,” a good groove that suggests what the next phase of Bootsy’s Rubber Band could have been but never was - groovy guitar, funky bass, electric drums and programmed handclaps. “Freak To Freak”also appears on 6 Degrees of P-Funk: The Best of George Clinton and his Funky Family, a CD compilation of Clinton’s Columbia projects made during the 1980s.

“Love Munch” is a poppy piece of jazz fusion that sits easily alongside anything Spyro Gyra was doing at the time, were it not for Maceo Parker’s gripping and hiccupping sax taking it somewhere stratospheric that’s well worth following. With Bootsy’s aggressive “Space Bass” and all-over-the-map percussion, “Jamaica” is the closest Bootsy and Maceo ever came to successfully melding the J.B’s sound with the P-Funk groove.

The chant “Jamaica – take me to your jungle” paves the way for Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s next stop, a decade later, on the funky career overview, “Jungle Bass” (4th & B’way, 1990). “Body Shop” and “We Do It All Day Long” (heard in brief on what was originally the LP’s first side – now track 4 – as an oddly placed “reprise” before the full version is heard at the end of the LP’s side two, now track 7 on the CD) sound like above average P-Funk grooves left off of other P-Funk albums because they are straight party tunes and not sci-fi concepts or some off-the-wall comical piece. Both are Bootsy conceptions co-written with P-Funk guitarist and vocalist Gary Shider, with the Brides of Funkenstein and Parlet chanting throughout in a typical David Bowie-meets-Fred Flinstone sort of wackiness. Bootsy’s Space Bass drives both pieces along with enormous propulsion, highlighted by some tasty keyboard work that is, sadly, not by Bernie Worrell, who is listed as a contributor here.

Sweat Band ranks high among P-Funk’s 1980 output, which also included Parliament’s regrettable Trombipulation and Bootsy’s inconsequential Ultra Wave, easily making this one of the essential P-Funk albums to own, despite the presence of one of the worst and least P-Funk looking album covers in the entire P-Funk discography (other than the 1983 P-Funk All Stars album Urban Dancefloor Guerrillas).

I get the sweatbands. But, really. The music deserved better than freaky sweatbands - which are more dated than the music. Regardless, the album's rather surprising lack of success ensured that no follow-up has yet been waxed.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

“Barabajagal” by Donovan

The music of Donovan (b. 1946, Glasgow, Scotland) has long remained a perverse and pervasive fascination for me. Like most “flower power” hits of the sixties, “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman” are emblazoned upon my musical transom. But whether it’s the dated oddities of either song or the mere fact that we’ve all heard them a zillion times, I never took Donovan too seriously.

Then I heard Gabor Szabo’s frightfully moving cover of Donovan’s “Ferris Wheel” (from the guitarist’s 1968 album Dreams) in the ‘80s and discovered Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll (now Julie Tippets) and The Trinity’s stirringly hypnotic cover of “Season of the Witch” from their 1967 album Open in the ‘90s.

Both tunes originally appeared on Donovan’s 1966 breakout album Sunshine Superman. Szabo also covered this record’s “Sunshine Superman” (as did Les McCann, Lionel Hampton, Lonnie Smith and Eric Kloss) and “Three King Fishers,” both on the guitarist’s 1968 album Bacchanal while plenty of jazzers covered “Mellow Yellow” too, including Young-Holt Unlimited, Odell Brown and the Organ-izers, Tom Scott, Steve Marcus, Herbie Mann and Gary Bartz.

A couple of years and several hits later, Donovan released his utterly original Barabajagal, an album which yielded the hit “Atlantis.” The album’s title track was the first of the album’s hits and first appeared as “Goo Goo Barabajagal (Love is Hot),” a terrific slice of psych-rock, jazz-funk, psych-jazz, funk-rock, whatever you want to call it.

Donovan’s producer Mickie Most (1938-2003), who had huge hits at the time for The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, Brenda Lee, Lulu and Nancy Sinatra, heard Donovan’s song and suggested that the Jeff Beck Group (who Most was also producing at the time) back the singer/songwriter on the track, to give it that rock/jazz feel he felt the song needed.

The original single credited the song to both Donovan and Jeff Beck Group and the line-up probably includes Donovan on vocals and guitar, Jeff Beck on electric guitar, (future Rolling Stones bassist) Ron Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Tony Newman on drums and Lesley Duncan, Madeline Bell and Suzi Quatro on background vocals (although Rod Stewart was part of the Jeff Beck Group at the time, he is apparently not singing on this track). The song reached number 12 on the UK chars and number 36 on the US charts.

It’s a highly intoxicating groove that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention in jazz that Donovan’s other pop hits received at the time. Japanese drummer Sadakazu Tabata covered it on a 1970 Polydor album (featuring pianist Masahiko Satoh) issued only in Japan. And British bandleader Vic Lewis’s album-length Donovan tribute, Donovan My Way, was actually recorded a year before “Barabajagal” was issued.

While Donovan’s songs are also often tapped for film and TV (“Jennifer Juniper” was heard recently in the hilarious The Simpsons episode “Flaming Moe”), “Barabajagal” is only known to have featured in the 2009 episode of Nip/Tuck called “Ronnie Chase.”

The lyrics are beyond my comprehension, but are worth following along with. Somehow they help bring out the joy in the musical enjoyment of the song:

She came, she came to meet a man, she found an angel.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now.

He very wise in the herbal lores, got your cure now.
She came, she came to free the pain with his wild flower.

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now.

Fine fine, fine fine Acelandine be prepared for her.
Tea tea, tea tea to make her free while incense burned.

In love pool eyes float feathers after the struggle.
The hopes burst and shot joy all through the mind
Sorrow more distant than a star.
Multi colour run down over your body,
Then the liquid passing all into all
Love is hot truth is molten.

True true, true true the song he sang her while the leaves cooked
Ting ting, ting little bell he rang her, sleepily she looked.
He filled, he filled a leather cup, holding her gaze
She took, she took a little sip while this song he sang:

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now.

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was his name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name,
Was my name, was my name,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now,
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.

Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal was my name now.
Goo goo, goo goo Barabajagal