Sunday, December 27, 2020

Dizzy Gillespie "Cornucopia"

This far too little-known album was not bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie’s first – or last – attempt at reaching out and crossing over to a generation of listeners not inclined toward jazz. But as pure product, it’s most assuredly among his best.

Cornucopia, released in March 1970, follows a previous set on Solid State called It’s My Way (1969), where the great trumpeter looks like someone’s grandfatherly college professor, rather than the hipster he was trying to be.

You could even go a little further back to The Melody Lingers On (1966) or the desperately-titled Dizzy Goes Hollywood (1965) for evidence that someone knew he was losing market share.

Even so, Gillespie was making albums the way he wanted. Indeed, there is the fine (yet also desperately titled) Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac (1967) on Impulse. That there was only one record on Impulse, however, suggests those sorts of records just weren’t selling.

When guitarist Gabor Szabo famously declared in 1967 that “jazz as we know it is dead,” Dizzy Gillespie, the ever-vigilant jazz ambassador, responded with a certain derision: “What’s that? Maybe it’s because he (meaning Szabo) isn’t playing jazz as we know it.”

Nevertheless, Dizzy wasn’t beyond joining ‘em when beating ‘em wasn’t an option.

The success of Cornucopia is due in no small part to arranger Don Sebesky. At the time, Sebesky was primarily known as “in-house” arranger at Creed Taylor’s CTI Records, where he helped craft the artistic and financial success of Wes Montgomery’s last few records.

By the late sixties, Sebesky – or the Sebesky sound, which mixed elegant takes on pop songs with splashes of jazz – became popular enough to score the arranger two of his own albums for Verve, The Distant Galaxy and Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome (both 1968).

Recorded over two days in August 1969, Cornucopia delivers the Taylor-derived template of foxy chart toppers and catchy originals that boosted (or, as some believe, brought down) the Montgomery-Sebesky records waxed between 1965 and 1968. But that’s about the end of the CTI similarities.

(For the record, Creed Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie are known to have a very limited connection to one another. One of Taylor’s first productions at Verve was Gillespie’s Perceptions (1961), while the first of the briefly-revived CTI releases, Rhythmstick (1990), was named for Dizzy’s walking stick and featured the trumpeter on only two tracks [some reissues of the disc bill it as a Dizzy Gillespie set]. The most prominent producers of Gillespie’s work in the sixties were Norman Granz, Quincy Jones and Hal Mooney.)

I’m willing to bet that Richard Carpenter’s production credit here, as on It’s My Way, is, to be as kind as possible, largely honorific. It’s reasonable to believe that Sebesky himself is in charge, as the record maintains the sound and, likely, the core group that make up the Esmond Edwards-produced Sebesky records on Verve.

That core group includes Chuck Rainey instead of Ron Carter on bass and, most likely, Don MacDonald instead of Grady Tate on drums. (Tom Lord also lists Richard Davis on bass and Ed Shaughnessy and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums – all of whom are very likely to be here).

Likewise, guitarists, including Billy Butler, were much more likely to appear on Prestige dates than on any CTI date – distancing Cornucopia further from CTI. But there are signs (particularly “Oh Happy Day”) that Richard Tee is also on board. These musicians give Cornucopia a gruffer sound than one is likely to hear on CTI, but one that pairs much better with Gillespie himself.

Where Creed Taylor wanted players whose storytelling had adventure, drama and happy endings, Gillespie aspired to something a little rougher and much less mellifluous: suspense, artistry, and madcap flights of fancy that made total musical sense. That Sebesky can open a book for both says a little more than something of his gift for invention.

Opening with a swirl of strings and harps, “Windmills of Your Mind” (the album’s only single release) seems to confirm jazz critics’ greatest fear of Sebesky: something soft, sweet and not delicious. Then the song gallops into a jaunty proto-disco pace that recalls Sebesky’s “Big Mama Cass” – and at a clip that Creed Taylor would likely never abide.

Sebesky tilts at this particular “Windmill” not by accommodating composer Michel Legrand (who is often too sentimental for some tastes) but by hinting at Lalo Schifrin, who got his start in Gillespie’s band, composing the trumpeter’s “Gillespiana” and The New Continent, later crafting Gillespie’s fusion classic Free Ride - and, horror of horrors, writing film soundtracks.

Nina Rota’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” is this set’s other film theme. Henry Mancini’s cover of the song knocked The Beatles’ “Get Back” (also covered here) from the number one spot on the charts several weeks before this version of the ballad was recorded. Here, Sebesky underscores the romance of the piece with a Spanish guitar, as he would on so many of his later more classically-oriented efforts.

Sebesky himself provides the album’s genuine highlight. “Yesterday’s Dream” is one of Sebesky’s finest compositions and Gillespie gives it all the love and graciousness it deserves. It’s a beautiful tune – vibing with the moody, exciting and melancholy that inform such New York soundtracks of the time as Rosemary’s Baby and Midnight Cowboy.

The song later reappeared as “Yesterday’s Dreams” in a different, but no less stirring arrangement on Freddie Hubbard’s Sebesky-arranged and Grammy-winning CTI album First Light, while the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band conguero Francisco Aguabella later recorded the tune for his 2002 disc Cubacan.

Gillespie reprises his own “Lorraine,” first heard on the 1959 The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie, and the rather silly “Tango-rine,” first heard on 1957’s Birks’ Works. “Lorraine” has never rocked this hard, with Rainey and Purdie’s funky forces aligned with a roiling Blaxploitation guitar. Here, as elsewhere, Sebesky’s horns are a bit more Vegas show-y than usual, something another producer might have reigned in. But “Lorraine” also offers Gillespie’s own finest moment on the record.

Of all the pop covers here, this writer’s favorite is probably Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” made famous in late 1968 by Judy Collins. The unfailingly lovely tune gets a spunky arrangement by Sebesky, while Gillespie has no issue with giving it his all.

“Get Back” comes in a close second here, but Joni Mitchell created something that both Gillespie and Sebesky could really work with here. (Curiously, Sebesky arranged both “Both Sides Now” and “Windmills of Your Mind” – very similarly – for Terry Baxter and His Orchestra for his album The Best of ‘69, but that “Windmills” might be a bit better.)

“Ann,” or “Ann, Wonderful One” as it’s known here, is an Earl Hines tune dating back to 1944 (in an arrangement by Jimmy Mundy, who arranged Gillespie’s prior Solid State album, It’s My Way). The song is rarely covered (Chet Baker did it in 1964 and Stanley Turrentine in 1978), but Sebesky gives it a decidedly contemporary spin that’s light years from its stride origins. Gillespie is just superb.

(Don Sebesky arranged several albums for little-known singer Lon Ritchie during 1969-70 featuring several tunes noted here, such as “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet,” from The Lon Ritchie Album, and “Yesterday’s Dreams,” [note the extra “s”] from Language of the Heart, which also features songs Sebesky would arrange for later CTI albums, such as “Here’s That Rainy Day,” from Freddie Hubbard’s aforementioned First Light and “She Was Too Good to Me,” by Chet Baker).

Recognizing its crossover potential, Billboard said of Cornucopia, “The impeccable trumpet of Gillespie darts and flurries through familiar chart items…arranged tastefully for a wider market than the out-and-out jazz fan by conductor Don Sebesky,” concluding that it is “an album that illuminates the horn of plenty.”

This tremendously unappreciated record was issued by Solid State, with a cover design courtesy of Frank Gauna, who was working primarily at Blue Note at the time. Gauna, who had done journeyman work for Candid, United Artists, Cadence and Solid State to this point, designed a cheesy and gimmicky “horn of plenty of Dizzys” cover for the American release of Cornucopia.

But, whoever took charge of the entirely different release of Dizzy’s second Solid State album in Japan, recognized its connection to the far more successful and profitable A&M/CTI albums Creed Taylor was putting out, deciding to mimic that label’s Sam Antupit design and Pete Turner photography. The Japanese release of Cornucopia, therefore, fits more into the CTI legacy, a fitting tribute to Don Sebesky’s role here and a link to Dizzy into the CTI stratosphere.

Later in the year, Gillespie would put out a terrifically fun and funky soul-jazz set, written and arranged by Ed Bland, called, Souled Out (and also known in various iterations as Sweet Soul, Soul Time and Soul & Salvation).

He then moved on to the innovative Perception label, where he waxed the superior The Real Thing (1970) and Portrait of Jenny (1971), the latter of which features Gillespie’s spellbinding “Olinga,” the title track to Milt Jackson’s 1974 album on CTI.

Remarkably, Cornucopia has never found its way onto CD. For the most part, Sonny Lester’s Solid State catalog wound up being owned by EMI, which was folded into Universal Music several years ago. It’s possible UMe doesn’t even know that this is their property. Here’s hoping someone is listening.

Here’s hoping, too, that somebody can rescue Dizzy Gillespie and Don Sebesky’s highly underrated and terribly forgotten masterpiece from fifty years ago, Cornucopia.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Magic of the Soulful Strings

I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas albums. Outside of a very select few that have earned and achieved unqualified timelessness – say, Johnny Mathis’s 1958 album Merry Christmas (gorgeously backed by the ever-underrated Percy Faith), Vince Guaraldi, The Carpenters (!) and George Winston – most seem like gimmicky novelty records designed for easy sales (and they do sell).

Most are downright silly or just plain boring.

Growing up, I was always partial to my mother’s album The Joy of Christmas, the 1963 classic by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Their mesmerizing take on “Carol of the Bells” is the first Christmas tune that ever piqued my interest in holiday music. Otherwise, this scene just wasn’t my thing.

My Christmas discs are admittedly few, but the ones I have skew mostly toward jazz (I also lump the elegant Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Nutcracker in here) or Bert Kaempfert and the lovely John Zorn album A Dreamer’s Christmas.

For obvious reasons, they rarely get a spin outside of the holidays. Honestly, who wants to hear Christmas music in July? Well, sure, lots of people. Bah humbug, not me.

There is one exception: The magisterial The Magic of Christmas, the 1968 album by The Soulful Strings, a holiday mainstay and one that, like all good music, transcends temporal boundaries with genuinely original – and joyous – musicianship.

The Magic of Christmas is the fourth of seven albums the studio group The Soulful Strings recorded between 1966 and 1970 for the Chicago-based Cadet label. The Soulful Strings was evidently the brainchild of Argo/Cadet producer Esmond Edwards, who, disliking the sound of violins, thought the combination of violas and cellos would make a good jazz noise.

Edwards knew that Argo/Cadet’s house arranger, Richard Evans (who, in a 2009 interview, credited the Soulful Strings concept to the Chess label co-founder Leonard Chess) could make it happen. Evans leavened the groove with flute and guitar and something unique was born.

Richard Evans (1932-2014) was the classic musician’s musician – and someone who never got the accolades he richly deserved. The Alabama-born Evans grew up in Chicago, where he got his start as a bassist in the Sun Ra band (he wrote the band’s “Lullaby for Realville”).

He went on to play in the bands of Dinah Washington, Maynard Ferguson, Paul Winter and Eddie Higgins, releasing his solo debut, Richard’s Almanac, in 1959 (with the woefully underappreciated pianist Jack Wilson). Evans later arranged successful albums for Ahmad Jamal, Gene Shaw and Ramsey Lewis, each revealing more of his gifts as an identifiable composer and a substantially unique arranger.

The first Soulful Strings album, Paint it Black, served up a platter of rock and pop hits of the day, with Evans’s genuinely soulful approach taking the familiar tunes in totally new directions. The concept was as far from Mantovani as you could get: these strings swing. “The result is a surprise,” said Billboard. “Instead of harming the feel of the music, a new dimension is added.”

The album became something of a hit, generating further recordings and such hits as Evans’s “Burning Spear” (from the second Strings album, Groovin’ With The Soulful Strings, and covered by Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Joe Pass and S.O.U.L.) and the equally brilliant Evans collaboration with Donny Hathaway, “Zambezi” (from the sixth Strings album, String Fever, and covered by Eddy Senay and the Salsoul Orchestra).

(By the way, a month after waxing Paint it Black, Evans arranged Kenny Burrell’s intoxicating holiday classic, Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, which is nearly as definitive a Christmas listening experience as any jazz lover could hope for.)

Recorded in Chicago during the balmy month of August 1968 and released just in time for Christmas in November of that year, The Magic of Christmas balances a dazzling program of traditional holiday favorites with well-considered plums, such as Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall.”

The album opens with an unusually and mercifully upbeat “Little Drummer Boy.” Evans’s distinctive strings carry the tune (and funky counterpoint), while Len Druss solos on flute. It’s also the first of harpist Dorothy Ashby’s turns in the album’s spotlight.

Even though Evans was working on Ashby’s worthy Cadet albums of the period, her appearance here is especially inspired. Ashby’s melodic phrasing and sensitive approach suggest nothing less than the combination of, umm, snowfall and twinkling lights. Appropriately, both Ashby and Druss feature again on Evans’s sublimely seasonal “Snowfall.”

For a hippy, trippy Christmas, Evans gives “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” a sort of soulful “Paint it Black” suit, abetted by Druss on oboe or bassoon (!), Ron Steele on sitar (!) and Bobby Christian on vibes. It works, too, even if it sounds all wrong on paper.

Evans decks “Deck the Halls” in the album’s most traditional of holiday apparel, yet it comes off as a moody musical montage from “A Christmas Carol,” traversing both the story’s light and darker moments. Not sure if the average listener would go for this, but I think it’s a magical bit of scoring.

Likewise, Mel Torme’s chestnut “The Christmas Song” gets a traditional jazz reading that works to its benefit. Christian mans the tune by himself in a way that suggests the Modern Jazz Quartet, but Evans’s touches make it seem more like Milt Jackson swinging warmly with Quincy Jones.

We’re back on the polar express with the terrifically funky “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Evans scores the melody as though it were a chant and Ramsey Lewis Trio bassist Cleveland Eaton serves up one of his deliciously distinctive scat solos in the key of Santa Claus is getting on down.

Evans funks “Jingle Bells” up, too, with an arrangement that turns the earworm into a butterfly, if such a thing is possible. The legendary Phil Upchurch rocks it up a notch, too. The miracle of Evans’s musical transformations is even evident on the strange “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” where Leon Jessel’s holiday march swings into a soulful shuffle straight out of the Motor city.

Surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” is the best, if not the hottest, cookie on the plate here, with Dorothy Ashby delivering a smoldering performance while Evans stokes the fire with a sexy string arrangement (that nods, to these ears, again to Quincy Jones). If those mixed metaphors don’t put you off, “Merry Christmas Baby” is a worthy addition to a playlist that gets attention all year long.

The Magic of Christmas, which was issued by Real Gone Music on CD in 2015 (and, thus far, the only official release of a Soulful Strings album on CD), is a delightfully diverse program that offers the covers and colors as well as the flavors and feelings of the season, while avoiding the contrivances and cliches – like sleighbells, triangles and icky children’s choirs – that lock it into an annual guilty-pleasure listening experience.

“Christmas strikes some warm chords,” said Billboard, “on the Soulful Strings’ seasonal tribute to the magic of holiday music.” But The Magic of Christmas is so much more – and better – than that. It finds the magic of the season in the soul of swing.

Your holidays – and your collection – will be happier with this joyful release.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Deadly Trap

This gem may require a bit more patience than your average thriller, but its charms are plentiful and more often subtle than not. While subtlety is rarely an appetizing ingredient in a thriller dish, director René Clément (1913-96) delivers a smart, stylish and entrancing melodrama that earns its fair share of thrills and even a worthy giallo vibe.

Clément was known for such classics as Battle of the Rails (1946) and Forbidden Games (1952) and, later, the all-star flop Is Paris Burning? (1965). He also directed such better-than-average thrillers as Purple Noon (1960), with Alain Delon, Joyhouse (1964), with Delon and Jane Fonda (featuring one of Lalo Schifrin’s earliest scores), and Rider on the Rain (1970), with Charles Bronson.

The Deadly Trap (1971) features American actors Faye Dunaway, as Jill, and Frank Langella, as Philippe, together as a married couple unaccountably residing in Paris, with their two young children, Cathy and Patrick.

Philippe seems to be writing a book, escaping from a secret past as someone who apparently dabbles in “industrial espionage.” Jill is a flighty, come-what-may mother, who shares a special bond with her son – who has no past or inner life that we know of. The enigmatic Cathy seems to be more of a daddy’s girl, at least in her mind.

All is well until the children disappear. Well, not quite. Jill and Philippe are not at all happy with each other, acting likes strangers in a strange land of their own marriage. Philippe is obsessed with whatever work he does (like Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now) and is disturbed by Jill’s lapses of time and commitment.

Jill, who seems to overly estimate her “brilliant” husband, unaccountably doesn’t seem to want any part of a physical relationship with him (like almost no one else in a 1971 film – or anyone else attached to Frank Langella at this time). The kids get nothing but babysitters and strange vibrations from their parents. Little wonder why they are eventually – and nearly tediously – lured away from their parents.

The film is highlighted by the ever-beautiful Faye Dunaway, who gives a tremendous performance as a mother in peril. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better presentation of such a classic (or cliched) trope: Dunaway mixes her caught-in-the-middle Evelyn of Chinatown (1974) with the plucky Kathy of Three Days of the Condor (1975) – but as a mom, she excels.

It’s unusual to see the actor portrayed as a loving mother (one exception being the great 1988 film Burning Secret), but her scenes with young Patrick are very believable (at the expense of so many other scenes – especially those with the enigmatic daughter Cathy). Even that little apartment the family occupies is very realistic too. They move around the place like they really live there.

Clément shows us a beautiful, but decidedly un-touristy side of Paris. The film, shot by Andréas Winding, who lensed Clément’s previous Rider on the Rain and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), looks beautiful: soft focuses throughout, with Dunaway looking lovely, fading into dark, hazy, almost hallucinogenic settings.

It’s unclear why this family is in Paris in the first place, but these outsiders inhabit their semi-giallo with all the baggage that comes with strangers in a strange place. This film never quite goes giallo – despite its Italian title – but it comes close. The elliptical script was written by the actor/writer Daniel Boulanger (a writer of two segments of the terrific 1967 Edgar Allan Poe omnibus film Spirits of the Dead), with the apparently uncredited Ring Lardner, Jr., who had previously scripted Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. (1970) and was probably responsible for the convincing English dialog heard here (his credits in film noir are especially notable here).

It is a classic Hitchcockian situation, where a MacGuffin (in this case, a vague threat of “industrial espionage”) drives the action. That action, the kidnapping of the children – which the script threatens mercilessly before the film’s halfway point, when the kids finally disappear – comes, of course, from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

But it’s hard to see Faye Dunaway as a helpless Hitchcock blonde or any one of the Master’s female leads (only Marnie comes close). She comes from a generation of women Hitchcock could probably not have realistically directed or, really, even properly understood.

There are, however, a number of other film classics referenced here, notably Gaslight (both 1940 and 1944 versions) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). These two references alone make Philippe extremely suspect. But there are also echoes of other Polanski films, from The Tenant (1976), where an aggrieved outsider must adjust to unusual customs, to Frantic (1988), where an American must navigate the unfamiliar Parisian backstreets to find a loved one.

The jolt, however, is in watching Clément’s film nearly five decades later and seeing Jill take the moral, public and legal blame for her children’s disappearance. It’s truly painful to watch. Philippe knows he’s to blame for his children’s abduction, but it is Jill who is blamed and shamed for her negligence.

The film seems to go to unusually great lengths to address the painful wrongs society does to women in general and mothers in particular. Once the kids are gone, Jill enters a Kafka nightmare that this film appropriately evokes in Wellesian images from the fantastic 1963 film adaptation of The Trial.

Philippe’s confusing involvement with “The Organization” also recalls Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game,” which is odd as that novel wasn’t written for another three years (Wim Wenders filmed the 1974 book as The American Friend in 1977 and Liliana Cavani filmed it, beautifully again, in 2002).

It’s notable that Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, was filmed by Hitchcock in 1951 while the novelist’s celebrated “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was first filmed by Clément in 1960 as Plein Soleil (a.k.a. Purple Noon – also with Maurice Ronet, who gets one brief scene here). It’s not inconceivable that the talented Ms. Highsmith was inspired by this film to craft her terrific (and more logically worked out) “Ripley’s Game.”

The sheer number of beautiful staircases Clément shoots here also suggests the classic woman-in-peril noir The Spiral Staircase (1946): Jill’s loving mother is “muted” here by her pre-figured criminality and her gaslighted weak and imperfect motherhood make her an absolutely perfect potential victim. She can neither satisfy her husband (!) nor successfully protect her children. Well, it is early 70s French provincial, after all. One staircase in particular here prefigures another famous staircase seen two years later in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

The lush orchestral score is by the renowned French singer Gilbert Bécaud (1927-2001), best known today as the writer of “What Now My Love” (covered by both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra), “Let it Be Me” and co-writer of Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” and “September Morn.” Bécaud’s main theme is a melodic piece that traffics appropriately in both playful childlike wistfulness and melancholy adult malaise. The tension cue that plays over the children’s abduction is an eerie Morricone-esque minimalist piece that perfectly reflects a mind on the brink.

This French film appears as though it was scripted and spoken in English. But the English dub of the film features Faye Dunaway doing her own voice. On the other hand, all of the male voices, notably Langella’s Philippe, seem to be the work of none other than Gene Wilder, who made a name for himself as Willy Wonka the same year this film was released. I have no proof of that, of course, but I don’t know how to prove or disprove this in any way. All the guys sure sound Wilder.

Oddly, this movie is known under many titles, few of which make much sense. Only the source novel’s boring title seems reasonable, “The Children Are Gone.” Not exactly thrilling, though, is it? So, how about the American title, “The Deadly Trap?” What was the trap? Phillipe’s unexplained web of whatever?

The French title, “The House by the Trees,” sounds exciting – but it only makes sense toward the very end and only for a few brief moments. Then there’s the Italian title, “The only clue: a yellow scarf,” which is, umm, true but not as exciting as something like “The Amazon with the Scarf of Fire” or something baroquely giallo like that.

Still, the film is a worthy and intoxicating European thriller. It follows a classic dream/nightmare logic that makes it a earnest contender among such kidnap classics as High and Low (1963), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and goes some way to informing the giallo classic Who Saw Her Die (1972).

There are great subtle touches here, notably Barbara Parkins’ lovely performance as the significantly named “Cyn,” the odd Michele Lourie playing the utterly inscrutable Cathy and the strange ending, where a child’s drawing is either malevolent or the happy ending that seems intended. And the feeling throughout is that no one is quite who you think they might be.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Stonebone - Finally

Check out my review of this long-awaited CTI classic at Mark Cathcart's excellent resource.