Saturday, July 24, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 4

Along Comes Cal: This album is something of a turning point for Cal Tjader. Released in July 1967, Along Comes Cal reflects the pressure jazz artists at the time were under for “crossing over” and appealing to a younger audience – the ones buying the records. Concessions to rock and pop started infecting many jazz records, many of the best and most popular proffered by producer Creed Taylor (who was about to leave Verve for A&M). Here, you have Cal Tjader gamely covering “Trick or Treat,” “Yellow Days,” “Our Day Will Come,” “Along Comes Mary” and the Herb Alpert hit “Green Peppers.” Truth be told, they all come off pretty well – effortlessly transformed by Tjader’s gift for taking just about any melody and making it his own.

The album was initially intended to be a live recording, capturing the Tjader quintet at San Francisco’s El Matador in January 1967. A lack of commercial viability in the live set likely caused the producers to book Tjader a studio date several months later. Only Tjader’s “Los Bandidos” – featuring a nice spot for conguero Armando Peraza – survives the club date, with the remainder of the record beautifully helmed by Cuban arranger Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001). Together, Tjader and O’Farrill make the most of the material, even offering a tongue-in-cheek take on “Round Midnight.” The highlights are, as always, the Tjader originals, “Los Bandidos” and “Samba Do Sueño,” the latter prominently featuring Chick Corea.

A personal favorite here is the Afro-Cuban exotica classic “Similau (See Me Lo).” First waxed by Gene Krupa in 1949, “Similau” – which translates as “I like it” or “I liked it” in the Basque language – was covered by Dezi Arnez, Peggy Lee (whose version was used in a 2017 Samsung Galaxy Note8 ad), lounge lizards Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman and had its most recent airing in Bobby Darin’s 1964 recording. Tjader and O’Farrill fortunately forgo the jungle effects this song too often gets and delivers here an especially haunting and most Tjaderesque bolero. (To date, Along Comes Cal has yet to appear on CD; however, “Los Bandidos,” “Yellow Days” and “Along Comes Mary” were included on the 1993 CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

The Best of Cal Tjader:: Even though Cal Tjader had two more Verve albums in him, the label put out this single-disk “best of” collection. Essentially an overview of Tjader’s Creed Taylor productions, this December 1967 release is a fair – if inconsistent – summary of Tjader’s vibrant Verve output. Appearing here are “Soul Sauce,” the set’s sole hit, from Soul Sauce; “China Nights” and “The Fakir” from Several Shades of Jade; “The Whiffenpoof Song” and “Sonny Boy” from Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof; “The Way You Look Tonight” from Warm Wave; “Cuchy Frito Man” from Soul Burst; “Hip Walk” from Soña Libré; “Triste” from In a Latin Bag; and, surprisingly, “Sake and Greens” from Breeze from the East. About half of these songs were released as singles, which makes the appearance of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Triste” a special treat. No sign here of the other Tjader singles on Verve: “Weeping Bossa Nova” (the single title for “Choro e Batuque”), “People,” “Guajira en Azul” or “Trick or Treat.”

Later Cal Tjader Verve CD compilations would improve on program consistency, even if the titles were awkwardly designed to fit into one of the label’s serial themes. They include Cal Tjader: Compact Jazz (1989), Cal Tjader: Jazz Masters 39 (1994), the funky Cal Tjader: Talkin’ Verve – Roots of Acid Jazz (1996), the semi-ballads set Cal Tjader: Jazz ‘Round Midnight (1996), the notable Ultimate Cal Tjader – Selected by Eddie Palmieri (1999) and my contribution to the Cal-ebration, Soulful Vibes (2008).

Hip Vibrations: In March 1968, Cash Box called this otherwise “bright, gently swinging, highly imaginative” album – get this – Hip Vibrators. Either someone thought Tjader’s record stimulated their hips or the album was just a cool way to get off. You gotta wonder if Cal Tjader ever saw this review. My sense is that he would have laughed as, umm, hard as I did. Unfortunately, it’s just not that great a record. This wholly under-regarded and overly-arranged album splits its time between notable jazz standards, decent pop covers and the occasional bossa nova. Tjader seemed to consider this Esmond Edwards production as a positive thing. But this sort of record – and not Along Comes Cal - is exactly what the vibist began reeling against: not necessarily the requirement of dealing with pop music (which Tjader was very good at) but the phony way of “souping up” the music to supposedly make it more palatable to a wider range of listeners. Most of the record was arranged by Benny Golson – whose standard “Blues March” opens the record – while West Coaster Bobby Bryant helms a further three tracks (the title tune, “A Waltz for Diane” and “Moanin’”). The Brazilian numbers – Luiz Henrique’s Brubeck-ish bossa “Diane” and “Canto de Ossanha” – were likely included due to pressure from the label (these tunes cross-reference Verve albums at the time by Henrique and Walter Wanderley). The too-arranged “Hip Vibrations,” by Tjader, “Diane” and Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’” are among the album’s highlights – but only because of the way Tjader handles them. Herbie Hancock appears on a number of tracks, but makes his presence felt only on “Blues March” and “Django.” Jerome Richardson takes several notable solos, especially on “Blues March,” “Diane” and “Windy,” a personal favorite that favors Tjader nicely too. It’s an album that could have been better if Tjader was left to his own devices and not subject to the whims of whomever it was calling the shots to sweeten the thing. (To date, Hip Vibrations has yet to appear on CD.)

The Prophet: Cal Tjader’s final Verve record was his penultimate Verve recording. The Prophet was waxed in September 1967, three months before the bulk of Hip Vibrations but not released until March 1969, after the vibist put out two albums on his own Skye label. The delay is likely due to the program’s merciful lack of commercial or cross-over fare; on this occasion, Tjader was having none of it. The exceptional quality of the music and the performance on tap here certainly necessitated the album’s eventual release.

Even writer Herb Wong opened his liner remarks by stating simply, “This is an ecstatically beautiful album.” Indeed, it is.

Tjader’s group – here featuring Brazilian composer and pianist Joāo Donato sensitively swinging on organ – was recorded for the first time since early 1963 in Los Angeles. Don Sebesky in New York was later sent the tapes and overdubbed exquisitely tasteful strings, horns, flutes and voices (to far better effect than his occasional touches to Kenny Burrell’s Night Song, from the same period).

The album is effectively Tjader’s first of only two projects with producer Esmond Edwards, who the musician credits for this album’s success: “Working with Es was great. He understood how I felt about playing and was very receptive to the concept. I did not want any pressure on current tunes, and I did not receive such pressure.” Tjader was additionally fulsome with praise for Donato and Sebesky for contributing to the high quality and enduring enjoyment the record provides.

The especially well-programmed set of cookers and ballads is comprised of Tjader and Donato originals with one nod to Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love” (now a jazz standard, from the long-forgotten film An American Dream [1966]).

Donato – whose marvelous “It Didn’t End” Tjader covered in 1966 – delivers three tunes, more jazz than MPB: “Warm Song” (chosen by Wong as the theme to his KJAZ show), “Aquarius,” and the especially cinematic “Temo Teimoso.” Tjader’s originals, however, are the album’s highlights and include the superbly tongue-in-cheek “Souled Out,” “The Prophet” (previously heard on Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof), “Cal’s Bluedo” and “The Loner” (which the Tjader group can be seen and heard playing in another long-forgotten film, For Singles Only [1968]).

Despite professing an aversion to covering pop crap like “Trick or Treat” or “Along Comes Mary,” Tjader departed Verve to make the even-more pop-infused Solar Heat for his own label, Skye Recordings – also with Joāo Donato on board. Whatever anyone else says, everything about Solar Heat is tremendously good. I think the ironically-titled Solar Heat is a fantastic record, and surely among my Tjader favorites. It is a worthy follow-up to The Prophet and one that should be heard as, perhaps, a more pop-oriented companion to The Prophet, one of Tjader’s very best for Verve. (The Prophet was released on Japanese CD in 2015.)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 3

Soul Sauce: This iconic album was Cal Tjader’s single biggest hit and pretty much the best record he ever waxed. This, from a man who put out many fine records in his three-decade career. Soul Sauce was among the first Cal Tjader records I heard back in the mid-eighties; my affection sealed by Armando Peraza’s entrancing and infectious “Maramoor” (as “Maramoor Mambo” on the CD). But the rest of the album is similarly as captivating.

Like Warm Wave before it, there is a sense here of the producer collaborating more with the artist to capture music that has sales potential rather than merely churning out product. And it worked.

The title track is an example of such collaboration. Tjader had been performing Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s 1949 song “Guarachi Guro” since the mid-fifties. His first recording of the song was as “Wachi Wara” (1954 – later appearing on the record Tjader Plays Mambo). It quickly became a concert favorite and a Tjader staple. When Tjader came to record a decidedly greasier version of the song a decade later for Verve, it was Creed Taylor who suggested that radio DJs might struggle with pronouncing “Guarachi Guaro.” “How about ‘Soul Sauce’?” – and a hit was born.

“Soul Sauce” became Tjader’s only hit record, reaching Billboard’s Hot 100 in July 1965, while the album even cracked Billboard’s Top 100 that same year.

Mongo Santamaria’s classic “Afro Blue” was first recorded by Cal Tjader (with the composer in attendance) in 1959 – but not issued until 1962. Santamaria’s version (recorded later in 1959) had already been released, so it’s hard to say which version inspired John Coltrane’s mercurial version in 1964. But it was Coltrane’s version of the song, released earlier in the year on that turned “Afro Blue” into a Latin-jazz standard and, likely, the reason it appears on Tjader’s Soul Sauce. Tjader’s latest version, dominated to perfection by percussionists Armando Peraza and Alberto Valdes, boasts particularly nice spots for guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Donald Byrd and, of course, Tjader himself (it’s Burrell and Byrd’s only appearances on the original record).

Tjader’s working group at the time is heard throughout the remainder of the album. Even pianist, Lonnie Hewitt had returned to the fold and is heard to great advantage throughout, notably on “Maramoor,” “Tanya” and Clare Fischer’s “Joāo” (first heard on a 1962 Fischer record with Bud Shank). Hewitt, a terribly underrated composer and musician, also contributes “Pantano” and “Tanya” to the program, while sharing writer credit on the moody “Leyte” (previously heard on the unfortunate Breeze from the East).

As beautifully as Tjader & co. present the standards (“Somewhere in the Night,” “Spring is Here”), they simply don’t stand out in a program this dynamic. But they’re given a loving Latin lilt that make them fit in just as nicely even so.

(Released on CD in 1994 with four formerly unissued tracks including a rough mix of “Soul Sauce” and a hypersonic take on Tjader’s 1955 winner “Mamblues.” Also included are two songs from a session with Gary McFarland, recorded around the same time as the Soul Sauce sessions: “Monkey Beams,” known elsewhere as “Over Easy,” and “Ming,” a blues with Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Heath and Donald Byrd.)

Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof: Released in December 1965, this album takes half its title from renaming yet another Dizzy Gillespie classic, this time “Tin Tin Deo” as “Soul Bird” – also the album’s single. The awkwardly-titled Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof derives the other half of its title from the album’s opener, the strangely anachronistic “The Whiffenpoof Song.” The familiar-sounding song Is a college song long associated with Yale that likely appears at the behest of producer Creed Taylor, who recorded versions of it by the Empire City Six and the Blazers (both 1957) as well as Artie Butler in 1968. Like many movie sequels, this album doesn’t hit as many of the highs as the original slice of Soul. But it does have its moments. The first is surely Lonnie Hewitt’s tremendous “Soul Motion” and others would include the Tjader originals, “The Prophet” and “Daddy Wong Legs” (named for Herb Wong). Hewitt, who was about to leave Tjader’s employ again, is superb on piano – particularly on “Soul Motion” (a better title for the album) and on Sonny Rollins’s “Doxy.” Throughout, there is an obvious, but not quite successful attempt here to merge Tjader’s jazz, Latin and bossa tendencies into a cohesive whole. Sometimes it works – as on “Reza” and “Samba de Orfeu” – and sometimes it doesn’t. Still, this strange bird is worth a listen for those all-too brief moments mentioned above. (Reissued on CD in 2002.)

Soul Burst: The third and final album in Cal Tjader’s Soul series is an improvement over the previous set and nearly as successful as the first. Released in May 1966, Soul Burst boasts a strong program, great players – including former Mongo Santamaria accompanist and up-and-coming pianist Chick Corea – and the subtle input of arranger Oliver Nelson on several tracks. Tjader, as always, fires throughout on all cylinders.

Like its predecessors, Soul Burst anchors itself on a Dizzy Gillespie tune; in this case, it’s “Manteca” – which, this time out, does not get a “Soul” title makeover. It’s among the album’s best tracks, with incredible work by conguero (and vocalist) Carlos “Potato” Valdez, making the song over, and notable solos by the flautist, the great Hungarian guitarist Attila Zoller (!), pianist Chick Corea and Tjader himself.

The album’s sole single, the catchy “Cuchy Frito Man,” likely appears here courtesy of Tjader’s Warm Wave arranger, Claus Ogerman. The song, previously performed by Ray Terrace, was published at the time by Ogerman’s music company and Ogerman himself would later cover it on his own terrific 1967 album Latin Rock and, later, arrange the tune for composer Ray Rivera’s 1968 album Latin Workout (the song was also neatly recorded by Billy Larkin and the Delegates).

The album’s highlight for me is Joāo Donato’s “It Didn’t End (Nāo se Acabou),” originally heard on the composer’s tremendous 1965 album The New Sound of Brazil - also conspicuously arranged by the aforementioned Claus Ogerman. (Makes you wonder just how much input Ogerman had on this record.)

Now a jazz standard, “Morning,” by frequent Tjader associate Clare Fischer (who first performed the song on his 1965 album Manteca!), is lovingly delivered by Tjader. Chick Corea’s terrific and far-too little-known “Oran” (originally called “Modbo Mambo”) is absolutely perfect for Tjader and elicits, perhaps, the vibist’s best solo on the record – not to mention one of the pianist’s best features.

Tjader’s originals, “Soul Burst (Guajera)” and “Curaçao,” are, of course, among the album’s many highlights. Again, the standards, in this case two Kurt Weill tunes (“The Bilbao Song” and “My Ship”), get lost in the shuffle. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth savoring; particularly given Nelson’s sensitivity and Tjader’s love for a classic melody. Soul Burst is a worthy successor to Soul Sauce; if not better, than certainly as interesting. (Released on CD in 1998.)

El Sonido Nuevo: The New Soul Sound: With Eddie Palmieri. In 1965, Cal Tjader saw Eddie Palmieri and his band, La Perfecta, perform in New York. After the show, Tjader approached Palmieri about recording with both him and his band, with four trombones and flute replacing the traditional trumpet section. Eight tunes were chosen – “Guajira en Azul,” “El Sonido Neuvo” and “Unidos” are listed as Palmieri-Tjader collaborations – and arrangements were divvied up between Palmieri and Claus Ogerman. Years later, however, Palmieri admitted the pianist and his group recorded the tracks, while Tjader overdubbed his parts later. It’s a mystery why this was done, particularly when the album’s uncredited notes quote Palmieri saying “We just got together and took off.” In truth, the record does capture an inspired collaboration that sounds more seamless than it actually is. Like the Schifrin-Tjader collaboration before it, it is best thought of as an Eddie Palmieri album with special guest soloist Cal Tjader. Their best moments together are on Tito Puente’s descarga “Picadillo” and the intoxicating “head arrangement” of the tune they call “El Sonido Nuevo.” The two movie themes may seem unusual for an album that some consider the birth of “salsa,” but they, too, are highlights – particularly for how cleverly they are jury-rigged to suit the occasion: Ogerman’s mambo-fied “Modesty” (my personal favorite tune here) and Palmieri’s inspired mozambique modification of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” (Released on CD in 1993 with three tracks each from Breeze from the East and Along Comes Cal. CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

A sequel to El Sonido Neuvo was recorded several months later for Eddie Palmieri’s label at the time, Tico. For a Tjader fan, Bamboleate (later reissued as Palmieri & T’jader) is possibly the better of the two recordings. Highlights are many, suggesting this was more of a true “collaboration” than the previous set. The leaders score their best moments on Palmieri’s terrific “Resemblance,” a Tyner-meets-Brubeck pas de deux on which both leaders shine (Palmieri re-recorded the song in 1975 with Eddie Martinez, Jeremy Steig, Mike Lawrence, Ronnie Cuber, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd) and Tjader’s beguiling “Samba Do Suenho” (covered again on Along Comes Cal). Other high points include Henry Mancini’s “We’ve Loved Before” (from Arabesque), Palmieri and Bobby Rodríguez’s persuasive “Mi Montuno,” Palmieri’s entrancing “Pancho’s Seis por Ocho,” named for producer Pancho Cristal, and the boogaloo “Come an’ Get It” (where, surprisingly, Palmieri seems to disappear altogether). (Reissued on CD in 2002).

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 2

Soña Libré: Released in May 1963, the wonderful Soña Libré is among Cal Tjader’s least known but better recordings of the sixties. “Here,” noted Cash Box magazine, “is a very pleasant amalgam of jazz, bossa nova and diverse Latin rhythms.” Indeed, the program is a smart set that balances its various genres seamlessly. It speaks to Tjader’s expert success with choosing players who can glide as effortlessly as he does along his chosen musical path. One notices instantly Cal in a new context, beautifully buttressed by the silky-smooth organ work of Clare Fischer. Fischer – inspired by Brazilian organist Walter Wanderley – doesn’t blow hot like Jimmy Smith. His is a warm breeze that complements Tjader perfectly. (Fischer returns to the piano for “El Muchacho,” “Azul” “Insight” and “Alonzo.”). Tjader reflects on Henry Mancini (“Sally’s Tomato”) and Debussy (“My Reverie”), two sources that should have appeared more often in Tjader’s repertoire. But the band originals remain the album’s highlights: Tjader’s intoxicating “Hip Walk” and “Azul,” conguero Bill Fitch’s marvelous “Insight” (which later Tjader associate Poncho Sanchez covered himself in 1991) and former Tjader pianist Lonnie Hewitt’s “Alonzo” (later heard on Cal Tjader Plugs In). (Soña Libré was among the earliest jazz CD reissues, having coming out in 1984. While it’s long been out of print, used copies are still easy enough to find.)

Several Shades of Jade: Cal Tjader goes East – and Eastern. This is the first of Tjader’s New York studio recordings and it’s got Creed Taylor’s fingerprints all over it: star soloist surrounded by a large group of studio musicians in a highly-arranged setting. Why it took this long for Taylor to assert his authority over Tjader is a mystery, but the suits at MGM likely wanted to see Tjader produce more paper jade. Bringing Tjader East to go Eastern was a canny, if not risky move. Taylor’s ace-in-the-hole was Lalo Schifrin, the young Argentinian pianist and composer who brought the world Dizzy Gillespie’s “Gillespiana” several years before.

By 1963, there was nothing new about East-Meets-West jazz. John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Mann, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and, most notably, Yusef Lateef had all covered this ground. Indeed, Joe Goldberg said in his notes to Lateef’s 1961 album Eastern Sounds that “there is a close relationship between American and Near-Eastern improvisational music.” If Creed Taylor had sought to commodify it, there was no one better suited than Lalo Schifrin to bring it about. He fashioned an elegant program that feels more authentic a fusion than such cliched kitsch as, say, Tjader’s sequel, Breeze from the East (or the Asiatic accents in Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”). Tjader just showed up and made it all sound magical.

Released in August 1963, Several Shades of Jade was called “a radical departure” by Cash Box and “[o]ne of the best disks that [Tjader] has cut in quite a while.” That may or not be, but if it is no one’s idea of a typical Cal Tjader album, it is easily one of Tjader’s finer recordings. Schifrin’s charts are tremendous and Tjader’s spots complement the music beautifully.

The album’s stand-out tracks include “China Nights,” “Sahib” and Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues” especially. Schifrin contributes “The Fakir,” “Borneo” (aka “The Ape Woman” by Jimmy Smith), “Song of the Yellow River” and “Almond Tree” – all of which are good, but more soundtrack-y than usual for Cal Tjader (who did several soundtracks of his own). Quincy Jones’s too-little known “Hot Sake,” first heard on his 1961 album Around the World, is another highlight and ends the record on a high-note (Schifrin later retooled the tune as “A Taste of Bamboo” for his 1964 soundtrack for the surfing movie Gone with the Wave).

Perhaps Several Shades of Jade is best appreciated as a Schifrin album with special guest soloist Cal Tjader. While both fare well together, it is Schifrin's fans who are likelier to find this shade of (T)Jade(r) satisfying. Indeed, Schifrin fans can consider Several Shades of Jade a dry-run for the later and widely-admired score to the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, as it too references Eastern modes and Asian scales. (Released with the album below on CD in 1997.)

Breeze from the East: Or, as Cal Tjader told Herb Wong in 1964, “[a]s far as I’m concerned, it’s Breeze from the Men’s Room. The project stinks, man.” Tjader claimed the album – hilariously billed as “the new far out Far East sound!” – is what “the powers that be” wanted. But it’s difficult to conceive how a perfectionist like Creed Taylor would willingly put out what writer Paul de Barros justly called a “ridiculous” record. Numbers such as “Cha,” “Shoji,” ”Theme from Burke’s Law,” and “Stardust” are just dumb-headed wanna-be non-starters (oriental jazz? mock rock? novelle novelty?) and all wrong, wrong, wrong for Cal Tjader. If anyone is to blame for this misadventure, it is likely to be composer and arranger Stan Applebaum. Applebaum, best known for arranging hits by the Drifters (“This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me”), Connie Francis (“Where the Boys Are”) and Ben E. King (“Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me”), was best at meshing rock-beat touches with easy-listening flourishes; an ill-advised brew for Tjader. As a sequel to Several Shades of Jade, Breeze, originally released in February 1964, is a failure of almost operatic proportions – especially as the two records are heard together on one CD. Simply listen to this album’s take on “China Nights” compared to the vastly superior take on Jade: it’s as day-for-night is to night in film or a child’s drawing is to a masterpiece. Tjader’s originals, “Leyte” (revisited on Tjader’s Soul Sauce), “Black Orchid” (1959) and “Fuji” (a retitling of the earlier “Triste”) and Tjader’s take on “Poinciana” (which goes some way to informing Gary McFarland’s 1965 take on “Bloop Bleep”) are the only respites in this barren musical desert. (Released with the album above on CD in 1997. “Fuji,” “Black Orchid” and “Poinciana” are also included on the 1993 CD release of El Sonido Nuevo.)

Warm Wave: After the misfire of Breeze from the East, Cal Tjader beautifully presents a ballads set here that finds him much more in his own element. Six years after his previous “with strings” record, Latin for Lovers, the program presented on Warm Wave is (surprisingly) mostly of Tjader’s own choosing. The tunes are some of Tjader’s favorites from the forties, sweetened ever so subtly by Claus Ogerman’s always lush and lovely strings. The one exception being the contemporaneous “People,” which notes writer Herb Wong correctly predicted would become a standard itself. I used to dismiss this record as a boring “easy listening” experience that contains none of the fiery or funky Latin tunes Tjader is famed for. But that ignores how beautifully and exceptionally Tjader handles a ballad. “Violets for Your Furs,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Passe” – the album’s jazziest tunes, all notably buoyed by pianist Hank Jones – are especially lovely. But the soft sambas (supported by guitarists Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney) – “Where or When” and “This Time the Dream’s on Me” – are equally as enjoyable as well. Ogerman’s “Sunset Blvd.” is surely the album’s high point and one that pianist and later Tjader collaborator Eddie Palmieri claims as being one of his favorite-ever Tjader tracks. The uncredited French vocal group The Double Six of Paris adds Ogerman-drafted vocal touches to “Poor Butterfly,” “Just Friends” and “Sunset Blvd,” laying the ground for Ogerman’s sensuous additions to Stan Getz’s 1967 album Voices. Turns out that Warm Wave, released in September 1964, was one of Tjader’s personal favorites of his own records. He considered it a template for later all-ballads records: “He would say,” notes Wong in Reid’s biography, “’Let’s do another Warm Wave’.” Finally, it should be noted that the album’s cover ranks among Tjader’s nicest presentations on Verve: from the layout and the warm colors (on heavy, glossy stock) to the italicized, lower-case font and Alan Fontaine’s beautifully-lit photograph of what appears to be a wavy sculpture. (To date, Warm Wave has yet to appear on CD.)

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Cal Tjader on Verve - Pt. 1

Cal Tjader came into my life when I discovered the 1965 Verve album Soul Sauce in the mid-eighties. I was particularly entranced by “Maramoor,” but the whole album was an aural revelation. Sampling then-recent reissues of Tjader Plays Mambo (with the great “party girl” cover) and Mambo with Tjader (both 1955) ignited my attention to and affection for Cal Tjader.

Further exploring Tjader’s Verve albums – released in the midpoint of Tjader’s recording career, between 1961 and 1969 – made me realize, though, there was a lot more to Cal Tjader than those Latin Jazz classics revealed – and for which he is justly revered.

S. Duncan Reid confirms such suspicions in his commanding biography, Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland & Co., 2013). It is a deeply researched and lovingly detailed account of Tjader’s career that, like the best in music writing, often sends the reader back to the music.

Reading Cal Tjader with verve inspired me to relisten to Cal Tjader on Verve. Tjader recorded fifteen records for the label, working with producers Creed Taylor (1961-67) and Esmond Edwards (1967-69) and many of the period’s finest arrangers: Clare Fischer, Lalo Schifrin, Claus Ogerman, Oliver Nelson, Chico O’Farrill, Benny Golson and Don Sebesky.

Here, I sound out the Latin kicks and the Tjazz-y shades of Cal Tjader’s rich and varied Verve period…

In a Latin Bag: Tjader switched from Fantasy to Verve in 1961, shortly after Norman Granz sold the label to MGM. His first album for the label, In a Latin Bag was recorded – surprisingly, given most Creed Taylor productions – in Los Angeles with Tjader’s working group featuring Paul Horn on flute and alto sax (on his terrific “Half and Half” only) and Lonnie Hewitt on piano. Armando Peraza, who was still in George Shearing’s group at the time, added bongos and the stirring “Mambo in Miami.” Released in November 1961, Latin Bag doesn’t differ much from Tjader’s Fantasy albums of the fifties. But the audio quality is significantly better than those albums (no engineer is credited). Tjader originals here include “Davito” (reprised on the 1972 album Live at the Funky Quarters), “Pauneto’s Point” and the entrancing and exotic “Triste.” Pete Turner’s cover photo makes for the classiest-looking Cal Tjader album to this point. (Released with the album below on CD in 2014.)

Saturday Night/Sunday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco: This quartet outing presents Tjader live (over two performances), this time in a jazz bag. Released in May 1962, Saturday Night/Sunday Night, whose title takes its cue from a Miles Davis record released the previous year, is one of the stronger albums in Tjader’s discography. For those who dismissed him for his Latin forays, this record proves he had real jazz chops and a genuinely exciting musical imagination. Tjader’s sole original here is the sassy and swinging “222 Time,” written as Reid says, “for the bar adjacent to the Blackhawk that housed Verve’s recording equipment.” The magnificent take on “Summertime,” “Stablemates,” Gary McFarland’s “Weep” (which never sounded more like the MJQ than it does here) and Lonnie Hewitt’s Milt Jackson-esque “Noonie’s Groove” are among the album’s highlights. Again, Pete Turner’s cover photo is a classic – and Verve’s elegant typography raises Tjader’s cachet several notches above the earlier Fantasy packages. (Released with the album above on CD in 2014.)

Time for 2: With Anita O’Day. This unlikely pairing from 1962 is likely modeled on Beauty and the Beat!, Peggy Lee’s 1959 hit album with George Shearing. Oddly, though, it works – surprisingly well – likely due to what Reid calls “O’Day’s hip phrasing and Tjader’s slick tailoring.” Ms. O’Day fronts Tjader’s group as though she was belting it out with a big band, while Tjader proves a most swinging and sensitive second-fiddle accompanist. The album boasts two genuine classics in Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape” (theirs is the original) and “I Believe in You,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (which was also covered by Peggy Lee at about the same time). The title Time for 2 probably references the two leads as much as the record’s style: the program is evenly split between the Latin kick (“Thanks for the Memory,” “Under a Blanket of Blue,” “That’s Your Red Wagon,” “An Occasional Man,” “The Party’s Over” and “Mr. Sandman”) and the jazz both leaders could do entertainingly without effort. O’Day and Tjader pair especially well throughout (a pairing Tjader matched on his final record with Carmen McRae in 1982) but the album also features other such stand-outs as “Just in Time,” with a great Tjader solo, and the torchy “I’m Not Supposed to be Blue Blues,” with Cal on (stripper) drums and pianist Lonnie Hewitt blowing blue smoke all over those keys. (Reissued on CD in 1999.)

Cal Tjader Plays the Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil: Surprisingly, for a Creed Taylor production, the impetus for this record came mostly from the multi-talented composer, arranger and pianist Clare Fischer (1928-2012). Taylor was likely influenced by Fischer’s domination because the album kind of cashes in on the bossa-nova fad that Verve was exploiting at the time. Fischer, writer of such jazz standards as “Morning” and “Pensativa” and occasional member of Tjader’s group, had recently become interested in the Brazilian records of Elizete Cardoso (for whom Fischer wrote this record’s “Elizete”) and Joāo Gilberto as well as the music of obscure Mexican pianist and composer Mario Ruiz Armengol, who is credited with five of the album’s 12 tracks. Mexico and Brazil, released in August 1962 (at the same time as Time for 2), is a lesser and unusual Tjader record, but not one without its charms. Despite the invention within, Ardeen de Camp’s ill-advised vocals on several tracks place the disc uncomfortably in the easy-listening exotica domain of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman – something that would not at all appeal to Tjader fans. But the album’s opener, “Vai Querer” and its closer, Laurindo Almeida’s magnificent “Chôro e Batuque” (first heard on a 1960 album by the guitarist – and issued as a single with the title “Weeping Bossa Nova”), are surely the album’s highlights. Almeida, an early promoter of the Bossa Nova, guests on this album and his appearances on such tracks as “So Ė Tarde, Me Perdôa,” “Nāo Diga Nada” and “Tentaçāo do Inconveniente” make this music absolutely worth hearing. (Reissued on CD in 2000.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

¡Viva Cal Tjader!

Today is the birthday of Cal Tjader, one of jazz’s greatest vibraphonists and the man who single-handedly revolutionized Latin Jazz. Sadly, the world has been Tjader-less for an amazing 39 years now. But the sheer volume of recorded music he left behind on vinyl, CD and streaming keeps him vibrantly alive.

Born Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr. in St. Louis, Missouri, on this day in 1925, Tjader’s affinity for music led him quite easily to jazz. But from early trips to New York City, his discovery of Cuban music inspired him to weave elements of the two styles together – something no one else was doing at the time. If he didn’t single-handedly invent “Latin Jazz,” then he certainly helped define it and made it more popular than just about anyone else.

Most likely, though, he would demur. “Latin jazz?” he was asked when queried in 1976. “I thought it was called salsa today. It really doesn’t make a bit of difference. The same type of music was first called Afro-Cuban, then modern mambo, then Latin jazz, and now it’s salsa. Mambo-jombo.”

But the jazz critics were miffed. Harvey Siders, perplexed by the Tjaderization of jazz, asked “What’s a nice Swedish boy like you doing in a bag like this?” Such a question seems, at best, hypocritical (all jazz is a fusion of some sort) and, at worst, a bit racist. Tjader succeeded at bringing musical worlds together that weren’t that far apart in the first place.

But so much of the ink spilled on Tjader’s genre gymnastics – for the record, plenty of straight jazz and all-ballads sets pepper his discography – overlooks or ignores just how exceptional a vibraphonist Cal Tjader was. He was – and remains – one of jazz’s all-time greatest vibes players, arguably outshining both Lionel Hampton, his hero, and Milt Jackson, in whose shadow Tjader never escaped.

Tjader – in performance and on record – always had an exciting sense of rhythm; likely the result of tap dancing as a child. It was what excited him about so much Latin music. He also had a keen sense of melody – a romantic, he loved the “old” songs – and an exceptional way to make even the banal (“Tra la la Song” leaps to mind) sound interesting.

And he wasn’t limited only to the vibes: Tjader was often heard and seen on piano, drums (a chair he swapped with the vibes in Dave Brubeck’s trio), congas, bongo, timbales and assorted percussion instruments.

As a soloist, he was simply masterful. He always balanced the melodic and the rhythmic with just the right amount of fun and adventure. Pictures of Tjader playing always show him hunched over his vibes like a novelist sweating over a book. He worked hard to deliver a good performance, clearly having a good time in the process.

He was a generous leader as well, attracting like-minded collaborators – terrific players and writers, too. Just some of the people in Tjader’s band over the years include Mongo Santamaria, Vince Guaraldi, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, Pete and Coke Escovedo, Clare Fischer, Chick Corea and Poncho Sanchez, as well as local legends Lonnie Hewitt, Bill Fitch and Johnnie Rae.

As recounted in S. Duncan Reid’s lovely and lovingly comprehensive Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland & Co., 2013), Tjader “was a major success story.” The vibraphonist transcended racial and cultural barriers and was internationally revered.

From the early fifties until his death on tour in the Philippines in 1982, he consistently played clubs, campuses and festivals in and around his native San Francisco, all along the West Coast, New York, Mexico, France, Japan and Puerto Rico.

Tjader was a prolific recording artist as well. He recorded over twenty albums for Fantasy between 1954 and 1962, fifteen for Verve between 1961 and 1969 (including his biggest hit, Soul Sauce, in 1965), four for his own Skye label, a further thirteen for Fantasy between 1971 and 1979, and a half dozen albums for Concord up to his death, including the Grammy-winning La Onda Va Bien (1980).

Since his death in 1982, Cal Tjader has been honored by tributes from former associates Clare Fischer (1988), Poncho Sanchez (1995) and Tjader-ized (1998), vibraphonist Dave Samuels’s honorific featuring such Tjader-ites as Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Michael Wolff. Additional hommages à Tjader include those recorded by Louie Ramirez/Paquito D’Rivera in 1986, Gary Burton in 2001 and conguero Frankie Piñeiro (with Kenny Drew, Jr.) in 2017.

In this twentieth-first year of the twenty-first century, there seems some danger that Cal Tjader might be little more than a memory. Reissues (and celebrations) of Tjader’s music – on CD or vinyl – have pretty much ground to a halt.

Sure, budget labels churn out compilations of Tjader’s out-of-copyright Fantasy albums. The 1968 album Solar Heat got a vinyl release in 2019. And Japanese CDs of The Prophet (2015) and Soul Sauce (1965) came along in 2015 but are now very hard to come by.

But that’s where the music world is this day and age: everything streams. The major labels no longer bother with non-canonical “catalog” CDs (or vinyl); they just don’t sell. Tjader streams too. But streaming provides only a fraction of Tjader’s Verve albums (notably the ones that have appeared on CD), a minority of the Fantasy albums from the 70s and only some of the Concord albums that concluded Tjader’s recording career. That said, there is still much Tjader to savor.

Check out old vinyl or used CDs (or stream, if you’re so inclined); whatever it takes to hear Cal Tjader. Remember Cal by listening to the legacy he left. My recent listening activity has taken me to drink in the Tjader-ade of the vibist’s Verve albums (to be reviewed in a later post). And nearly four decades later, I’m still enthralled. (I discovered Soul Sauce circa 1986.)

One thing that strikes me is just how timeless much of Tjader’s music is. Even on the mambos (which scream fifties fluff) or the AM pop covers “Along Comes Mary” and “Never My Love,” Tjader sounds consistently fresh and relevant – not to mention consistently consistent; whatever bag (and time-period) Tjader is in, there is no question who is doing the date or manning the mallets.

With few exceptions, there is little that dates Cal Tjader’s music or its presentation. Happy birthday, Cal Tjader. Thank you for the many gifts you left behind.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

"Feketére Festve" - The Bio-Discography of Guitarist Gábor Szabó by Károly Libisch

The Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo seemingly came out of nowhere in the early sixties and threatened to shake the staidness right out of jazz. His signature sound – an intoxicating jingle jangle of metal and melody – combined with a daring audacity to take on more contemporary material made Szabo a force to be reckoned with.

His albums Spellbinder (1966) and The Sorcerer (1967) not only perfectly described the enchanting Szabo experience but found great popularity and success. They also served as sources of inspiration for countless guitarists like Lee Ritenour and musicians as far-ranging as Madonna.

One of those he inspired, Santana, took Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen,” paired with Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” to #4 on Billboard's Hot 100. Szabo continued recording sporadically throughout the seventies to ever lessening acclaim and attention. It is hard to imagine how quickly such a controversial figure, a firebrand really, could become an ember of his former self so quickly.

After several returns to his homeland, Szabo died in Hungary during a visit in 1982. He was only 45 years old. Although he waxed several records and continued intermittent performances in his final years, Szabo hadn’t had an American album release since 1977.

Several years later I discovered Gabor Szabo. Combing through used-record stores, I first found Jazz Raga, Spellbinder and Gary McFarland’s The In Sound – because I liked the covers. All three featured this guitarist with an exotic-sounding name. One listen to these records begged for many more. They were like puzzles, full of cunning allure and unsolved mysteries all worth solving. I got every Szabo record I could find.

Gabor Szabo poured out of my speakers like a fountain of joy and bathed me in a certain musical regalia every time I listened. I’d never heard anything like this before. His was a sound I couldn’t get enough of and one I didn’t want to end.

But while I was riveted, no one seemed to know or care much about this iconic talent. Gabor Szabo, to my knowledge at the time, wasn’t heard or respected anywhere. He wasn’t on the radio. His records weren’t in any of the stores – and none were showing up on CD as so many other older jazz albums were. There were no books about Gabor Szabo and jazz histories and guitar anthologies at the time barely rated Szabo a mention.

For the next several years, I scoured libraries to find out who this guy was and where this unique music came from. I amassed enough information to do something about it – because there was still nothing readily available about Gabor Szabo, other than an oddly titled compilation, The Szabo Equation: Jazz/Mysticism/Exotica (1990).

By the early nineties, I decided to put what I learned in a book. I had a publisher agree to publish it, but at the dawn of the internet age, I thought to myself: why publish a book for a select few fans when an internet resource can introduce this iconoclastic artist to a whole new world of fans?

Gabor Szabo: Iconoclasm was launched on dougpayne.com in 1995 and was kept updated until a few years ago when discogs.com, allmusic.com, streaming services and, yes, even amazon.com – all mightier internet resources than mine – were better able to help other generations of listeners easily discover and enjoy the genius of Gabor Szabo.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, there already existed a book on Gabor Szabo!

Back in 1995 I was alerted to this fascinating document by a lovely Hungarian man (in Turkey at the time) and huge Gabor Szabo fan, Sándor Fazekas, who was aligned with the great Hungarian jazz historian Géza Gábor Simon and the book’s author, Károly Libisch.

Much to my surprise, thankfulness and everlasting joy, Sándor gifted me with a first-edition copy of “Feketére Festve: Szabó Gábor gitárművész bio-diszkográfiája,” Károly Libisch’s comprehensive and lovingly compiled “bio-discography.” The 186-page softbound book appeared to be homemade. It was likely produced on an early word processor and mimeographed on paper whose sections are color-coated in canary, yellow, carrot, orange and tan pages.

”Feketére Festve,” which translates as “Painted Black” (a reference to Szabo’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” on the 1967 classic Jazz Raga), is a Hungarian-language study of the life of Gabor Szabo – whose name in Hungarian appears as Szabó Gábor (or “Gábor Szabó” in many contemporary online resources) – and his music.

The book, at that point, seven years in the making (putting the fuse of Kari’s study at about the same time of my discovery of Gabor Szabo), adds much to Szabo’s biography that had never been known before. Kari had been in touch with Gabor’s family, Hungarian associates and Marianne Almásy, Szabo’s partner, confidant and muse during his last years.

Original annotator Kornél Zipernovszky states Kari’s mission perfectly: “Guitar player Gábor Szabó was the first Hungarian jazz musician to achieve international fame, widespread popularity and critical acclaim abroad, and whose music is recognisable as being distinctively Hungarian. However he was little known, and never acknowledged as such in his own country.” Kari came to the rescue and made Gabor Szabo matter in his own country – and beyond.

Born in Budapest in 1953, Károly Libisch is an engineer by trade (he’s now retired). But a love for music defined his life. “I studied guitar for two years (1968-70),” he told me. “I studied music aesthetics for two years (Academy of Music, Marxist University) [and] I studied jazz theory for two years (Jazz Department of the Academy of Music: János Gonda).”

Strikingly, Kari first discovered Szabo through Santana. “In 1970, [Szabo] spoke several times on the Hungarian Radio about “Gypsy Queen” [as covered by] Santana,” he says. “Then I memorized Szabó’s name. As a record collector, I first came across Santana recordings, followed by Femme Fatale (1981). From then on, I started watching record stores.”

Kari’s journey – or obsession – seemed to match mine. We both came to Gabor Szabo by accident and fell in love with what we discovered. It was that love that underscored both of our documentations of Gabor Szabo’s life and art.

The Hungarian-language ”Feketére Festve” has been revised several times over the years but arrives in 2021 in surely its most definitive edition. The stunning hardbound book weighs in at a meaty 586 pages, replete with full-color reproductions of album covers, labels, inside sleeves and many images of Szabo, associates, friends and family. Even the cover sports a most attractive design by Daniel Huszár.

The book’s first section is a year-by-year biography of Szabo up until his death in 1982 (pp 12-63). This is followed by a lengthy discography of Szabo’s recordings from 1956 through 1981 (pp 64-349). The discography is broken down song by song, with analysis of each and every recording made on his own and with others.

Here, Kari excels not only in his understanding of Szabo’s talents but of the music itself. He is an undaunting commentator, unabashed in his affection for Szabo - whose best playing he describes as "bright" - yet unafraid to cite shortcomings along the way.

Take, for example, how he calls the guitarist’s solo on the “Spellbinder” (1966) “beautiful” atop the “monotonous rhythm accompaniment” or how he delights in the three-guitar sound of “Breezin” (1971), all of which, to him, amounts to little more than “pleasant cocktail music.” (All translations here are mine.)

Throughout, he offers especially keen insight. For instance, he considers Chico Hamilton’s “Conquistadoers” (1965) as Szabo’s first dive into the Latin Rock maelstrom where he so often thrived while noting “Femme Fatale” (1979) was to be titled “Mariann” but Ms. Almásy apparently declined the honor.

He astutely describes Szabo’s “buzzing/growling” vocal on “Walking on Nails” (1967) as “somewhat similar to the murmuring of Tibetan monks” and reveals that the intoxicating “Thirteen” (1972) is based on the Hungarian folk song “Under the Mountains of Csitár.”

Likewise, Kari suffers no fool or foul gladly. Take, for example, noting “Ken Miller’s crappy guitar playing” on “Baby Rattle Snake” (1976), a song which reminds him of “the aftermath of Herbie Hancock’s song ‘Watermelon Man.’” He also cites “Are You There?” (1967) as the only song worthy of a fan’s expectations on the Wind, Sky and Diamonds album: “Of course [our expectations are already pretty] low!”

“Feketére Festve” also includes thorough discographies for reissues, compilations, singles, other artists' covers and inspirations; a filmography; a bibliography; a comprehensive song index; Gabor’s equipment; a section on Szabo’s painting (which he considered his first love); and even a performance log.

Kari goes to great lengths throughout to chronicle not only Gabor Szabo’s recorded legacy but the man’s fight for freedom at every turn. “Szabó’s whole life can be an example,” Kari tells me. “His diligence, his talent, the harmfulness of drugs and Scientology, his unique style: they can all provide a lesson.”

”Feketére Festve” is a monumental achievement and a beautiful tribute to the life and art of Gabor Szabo. It is a treasure matched only by a few jazz biographies and discographies – and often those are restricted to jazz’s greatest and best-known practitioners. Károly Libisch hasn’t merely written the book on Gabor Szabo. He’s written the encyclopedia.

Kari is publishing “Feketére Festve” in small batches, based on orders. The cost of the book is HUF 12,000 (41 USD) plus postage to the USA, which is HUF 10,000 (34 USD). To purchase, contact Kari directly or via his Facebook page.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Gabor Szabo Sounds Out Burt Bacharach

Recently, I was asked to consider Gabor Szabo’s covers of Burt Bacharach. Oddly, it was something I had not thought much about. I had to admit the subject seemed compelling. I learned a lot along the way.

Burt Bacharach Before the Legend

During the late fifties and early sixties, the prolific composer Burt Bacharach wrote dozens and dozens of songs for a vast array of singers. He was behind top hits for Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and many others.

Often partnered with lyricist Hal David (or his brother Mack), Bacharach had a special way with a tune. His changes were unusual, coupled with David’s curious turns of phrase. As a result, his music was far more complex than the average repetitive three-chord pop tune. Bacharach’s songs also required especially skilled interpreters, to breathe with the music’s emotional topography.

History was made when Bacharach discovered singer Dionne Warwick. Their first record together, “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, became a huge hit. For the next two decades the Bacharach-David-Warwick team racked up an astonishing number of hits, including “Alfie,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Meanwhile, Bacharach wrote for many other singers, contributed songs to a wide range of films (The Blob!) and, as early as 1962, was even composing scores for film.

Jazz Discovers Burt Bacharach

It took a little while for jazz to catch up with Burt Bacharach. One possible reason for this is that Bacharach’s music has always been considered “easy listening.” Indeed, most of the singers and instrumentalists who covered Bacharach’s songs were considered “easy listening.” Jazz snobs usually shied away from such blatantly popular fare.

But by the mid-sixties, things were changing. The rise of rock and roll, brought on by the Beatles and the British invasion, forced jazz players to appeal more to younger listeners – the ones buying the records.

Another reason may well be that the jazz players, steeped in be-bop and the big bands and coming to terms with the “new thing” avant-garde, just didn’t “get” Bacharach’s music. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim, another prolific composer of beautiful, though, complex melodies, Bacharach composed music that seemed foreign to jazz.

Bacharach himself said in a 2004 interview, “I’ve sometimes felt that my songs are restrictive for a jazz artist.” But “I was excited when [Stan] Getz did a whole album of my music,” referring to the 1968 album What the World Needs Now: Stan Getz Plays Bacharach and David.

Strangely, Bacharach’s entrée into jazz came from the song “Wives and Lovers.” A Top 20 hit for singer Jack Jones in 1963, the song was written to promote the film of the same name, though, oddly, was not a part of the film’s soundtrack, nor heard anywhere in the film.

Still, somehow, “Wives and Lovers” attracted the attention of saxophonist Red Holloway, organist Jimmy Smith, harmonica player/whistler Toots Thielemans and vocalist Billy Eckstine – all of whom recorded versions of the song in 1964. Meanwhile, the Chicago-based 3 Souls featuring Sonny Cox covered Bacharach’s “Walk on By” and “A House is Not a Home” for their 1965 album Soul Sounds.

Jazz players started welcoming Bacharach’s material in to their programs and records. Even jazz tribute albums to Bacharach began to appear by vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1968), saxophonist Sadao Watanabe (1969), flautist Chris Hinze (1971) and pianist Ellis Larkins (1973). Remarkably, there were more jazz tributes to Burt Bacharach during this period than those for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or even Jobim.

Latter-day all-Bacharach discs could also be sampled by guitarist David T. Walker (1995), pianist McCoy Tyner (1997), a John Zorn collective (1997), Bill Frisell (1999 – separately, Frisell has also recorded a few of his own versions of Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) and pianist David Hazeltine (2007). Blue Note even put out multi-artist Bacharach-cover compilations in 1997 and 2004.

Gabor Szabo Weighs In

It’s difficult to say just how much Gabor Szabo appreciated or enjoyed Bacharach’s music.

Whether by choice or commerce, the Beatles accounted for significantly more real estate on the guitarist’s records. Szabo covered only five Bacharach numbers between 1965 and 1970, compared to the three Donovan numbers he covered during the same period.

The mix is a curious one of the unfamiliar and well-known, with more inspiration and sincerity in the earlier covers than the later ones. However subjective it may be to say, none of the songs noted here rank among their albums’ highlights.

Indeed, listeners attracted to Szabo for the fireworks of, say, “Gypsy Queen,” the lyricism of “Breezin” or the exoticism of just about any of his own originals will find little satisfaction in his Bacharach covers. And nothing here comes close to Szabo’s takes on the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or Donovan’s “Ferris Wheel” or John Sebastian’s “Magical Connection.”

With few exceptions, much of the Bacharach material Szabo covered (and, in one case, didn’t) rarely rises above “easy listening.” However, all six songs under review here were considered easy listening to begin with. There is very little that sounds much like jazz and, indeed, improvisation is either brief or absent.

Covered here: “Here I Am,” from Gary McFarland’s The In Sound (1965); “The Last to be Loved” and “Walk on By” from Gypsy ’66 (1966); “The Look of Love” from Bacchanal (1968); “Message to Michael” from Lena & Gabor (1970); and “(They Long to be) Close to You” from Magical Connection (1970).

Here I Am: While Gabor Szabo is prominent on much of Gary McFarland’s album The In Sound, he is not at all audible here. In fact, the other songs from this session (“I Concentrate on You” and “Satisfaction”) do not feature Szabo’s obvious sound. But it is worth considering even so.

“Here I Am” is likely included on McFarland’s record due to its appearance, as performed by Dionne Warwick, on the soundtrack to the Bacharach-scored film What’s New Pussycat (1965). Verve, owned by the film studio MGM at the time, often featured film themes on its albums, mostly to promote crossover appeal.

McFarland’s take on “Here I Am,” one of the only jazz covers of the song apart from Steve Kuhn’s 1968 version, is beautiful. He offers up the bah-bah-bah vocalizing he patented to great success on his previous album, Soft Samba, and greatly improves on Warwick’s soapy version.

Given that McFarland participated in four of the five Bacharach tunes Szabo covered elsewhere – also producing and arranging the all-Bacharach program Cal Tjader Sounds Out Burt Bacharach – it seemed as though he might be responsible for the guitarist covering the composer’s music. Now I’m not so sure. As a recording artist, McFarland never recorded another Bacharach song again.

His performance here, however, suggests, he could have made real hay with the Bacharach songbook.

The Last One to be Loved: First recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1964, “The Last One to be Loved” is among Bacharach’s lesser-known compositions. Indeed, Szabo’s cover here is the only known jazz version of the song. But it is a curiously beguiling song. Bacharach seemed to think so too. He produced another version for Lou Johnson (which failed to chart) and then recorded a lovely instrumental version for his own 1965 album Hit Maker!

There is an altogether strong possibility that Bacharach’s is the version Szabo – or Gary McFarland – sampled in consideration of covering the tune. The tune’s unusual melody sounds like a concerto in Bacharach’s hands, tempered by a more subtle arrangement than he offers Ms. Warwick. It is precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to Szabo and, especially, McFarland.

Casting the melody in a sort of soft samba, Szabo and McFarland avail themselves especially well here. From the chorus, Szabo launches into a melodic statement that is both lyrical and haunting. Szabo may well have been served better if instead of “Yesterday,” “The Last One to be Loved” was issued as the album’s single release: it’s unfamiliar, yet catchy and shows off Gabor’s guitaring to good, if unthreatening effect.

Question: is this listener the only one who hears the same dramatic musical device on the line “to be blessed from above” as used for the “I break down and cry” line in “Walk on By”?

Walk on By: A Top 10 hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964, “Walk on By” launched more than a few covers in jazz, including one by Roland Kirk (who seemed to have a genuine affinity for Bacharach) around the same time as Szabo’s version. The song was also later covered by George Benson (who’d recorded it earlier with Jack McDuff) and Grant Green, who played on versions of the song by Stanley Turrentine and Don Patterson.

By all accounts, it’s a well-known song. But Szabo’s cover would likely not have pleased his jazz fans. Everything about “Walk on by” (softly) screamed “easy listening” or what a later critic called Szabo: a performer of pop tunes.

On the other hand, it is an especially elegant performance. McFarland and company give this “Walk” a south-of-the-border stroll that could just as easily have been served up by the Baja Marimba Band.

In a 1967 Blindfold Test, fellow guitarist Wes Montgomery (who covered Bacharach’s “What the World Need Now is Love,” “Wives and Lovers” and “I Say a Little Prayer”) said of Szabo’s cover of “Walk on By”:

"That's…Gabor Szabo...He's got a unique style. It's different…Of course, I didn't think that particular number was too exciting. I've heard him a lot more exciting. The rhythm section didn't have enough bottom in it, and it seemed like there was drive missing. For the soloist, Gabor, I would give him three stars, or maybe 3 1/2, but I would put down two for this particular side. The tune? Yeah! Walk On By."

The Look of Love: Along with “Alfie,” “The Look of Love” is one of the most covered of Burt Bacharach’s songs in jazz, with over 200 entries in Tom Lord’s “Jazz Discography.” And there is good reason: it is one of the sexiest songs ever written – parodied to perfection in the first Austin Powers movie, which also features an appearance of the album Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits and a lovely spot for the man himself.

Another reason is that “The Look of Love” has its origins in jazz. Bacharach’s melody is inspired by the bossa nova records of Stan Getz and its first recording, in December 1966, was by none other than Getz himself (for a Bacharach tribute album that was first issued in 1968).

“The Look of Love” was written as a vehicle for Dusty Springfield as part of Bacharach’s soundtrack to the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. Ms. Springfield’s breathy performance of the tune mimics those Getz bossa nova records with Astrud Gilberto and features a tenor solo that matches Getz’s distinctive style (British saxophonist Teddy Springer is on the 45 version while Teddy Wilson plays sax on the soundtrack version).

When Szabo’s group got together to plan this album, guitarist Jimmy Stewart suggested an album of cover tunes in the quintet’s cohesive and distinctive style. Stewart proposed tunes he wanted to do. Szabo proposed tunes he wanted to do. “We all wanted to record ‘The Look of Love’,” enthused Stewart.

Szabo and company offer a “Look” that starts in much the same bossa nova groove as Dusty Springfield’s version. But once Szabo begins weaving his spell, the mood transforms into more of a raga. At least until Stewart’s solo works in a flash of flamenco. It says much about how the song arouses the players’ passions. But the song’s last 30 seconds make for an unusual way to round-out an otherwise perfect song for this quintet in general and this guitarist in particular. (The individual who proposed this review to me considers Szabo’s “The Look of Love” “astonishing.”)

“The Look of Love” was also recorded by fellow Hungarian guitarist Atilla Zoller in 1970 and Earl Klugh in 1984.

Message to Michael: This song began life as “Message to Martha” in a 1962 recording by Jerry Butler. Bacharach tried to revive the song as “Kentucky Bluebird” for Lou Johnson in 1964, but the song still didn’t hit. It was Dionne Warwick, after failing to persuade Sasha Distel to perform the song in Paris, who decided to record the song herself.

Both Bacharach and the song’s lyricist, Hal David, were against Warwick singing “a man’s song.” David supplied the only alternative Warwick could use, Michael, a name he apparently hated. Warwick took it as a suggestion and a hit was born. It’s fair to say that both men must have regretted not giving Ms. Warwick her due. She made this song what it is.

I consider “Message to Michael” not only one of the finest of all of Bacharach’s melodies but also one of the few I can listen to anyone do. My first experience with “Michael” was on Earl Klugh’s 1980 magisterial version (arranged by David Matthews) on Dream Come True, the best song on an otherwise very good album. (Interestingly, “Michael” was also recorded by Les McCann in 1966, with a group including vibist Lynn Blessing, who was shortly hereafter to join Szabo’s band.)

As lovely as Lena & Gabor’s take is on “Michael,” this version marginalizes the guitarist to little more than an afterthought. The combination of Richard Tee’s organ and the Howard Roberts Chorale with the trademark drawl of Ms. Horne’s vocal give the song the unique quality of a spiritual.

But whether that was sheer luck or Gary McFarland’s design (he’d arranged a very easy version of “Michael” the year before for Cal Tjader), it’s difficult to understand why Szabo’s role was reduced to little more than a rhythm guitarist. Such is the case for much of Lena & Gabor: it is a happier Horne listen than a Szabo one. Ms. Horne, though, is simply wonderful.

(They Long to be) Close to You: First recorded as a single by Richard Chamberlain in 1963 (in a style that riffs on Percy Faith’s hit “A Summer Place”), “They Long to be Close to You” ended up forfeiting hit status to the record’s flip side, “Blue Guitar.” Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield recorded covers of the song. But it wasn’t until 1970 when “(They Long to be) Close to You” became the breakout hit for the brother-sister duo, the Carpenters.

Curiously, the Carpenters’ version of the song had not yet cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 when Szabo recorded it. The song broke in at number 56 the week after Szabo’s June 15 recording, hitting number one in July.

This suggests that it was likely producer Tommy LiPuma who brought the tune to the session. Before he co-founded the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow in 1969, LiPuma served as staff producer for Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, where he produced hit records for the Sandpipers, Chris Montez and Claudine Longet, among others. Bacharach offered Alpert “They Long to be Close to You” after the trumpeter’s success with “This Guy’s in Love with You.” But the trumpeter was unhappy with his recording of “Close to You” and proposed it to his new signees, the Carpenters. It’s highly likely that Alpert discussed this with LiPuma and easy to imagine LiPuma considered “Close to You” ideally suited to Gabor Szabo, his new signee.

Indeed, Szabo has always had a way with a ballad. But here he seems hemmed in by the song’s all-too-easy earworm of a melody. It’s only toward the end of the song (on Karen’s “Whahahahahah” part) that he flirts a little with improvisation – the minimal way Herb Alpert might. But it’s not very imaginative.

Szabo’s group does well by the guitarist, particularly when Lynn Blessing’s vibes mimic the guitar (recalling the easy-listening jazz style of the George Shearing Quintet). And Nick DeCaro, who often worked with Tommy LiPuma at A&M, adds subtle strings washes in one of the first instances of Szabo backed by strings.

“Close to You” likely pleased few of Gabor Szabo’s fans – for all of the above reasons. The guitarist’s version of the song was the album’s sole single release and it never came close to charting. For his part, Tommy Lipuma returned to “Close to You” years later when he produced McCoy Tyner’s version on the Bacharach tribute album, What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach.

While Gabor Szabo never again covered any of Burt Bacharach songs, his choice (?) of pop covers thereafter stayed pretty much in the mellow zone – with covers of songs by Carole King, Seals & Croft and Phoebe Snow.

Again, these weren’t among their albums’ highlights but they represent a curious shift for the firebrand guitarist who once declared “jazz is dead.” If so, covers like these helped kill it.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Gary McFarland in New La-Z-Boy Ad?

This La-Z-Boy Summer Savings Event ad caught my attention the other day when I recognized the catchy tune in the background. It sounds like a lovely reworking of Gary McFarland's "Can't Help Dancing (Libra)" from the 1968 album Scorpio and Other Signs.

Click above to hear the ad, click below to hear the original. I would love to get hold of the full version of the new version of the tune. Anybody know anything about it?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Lena & Gabor

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I.

The 1970 album Lena & Gabor is something of a conundrum. It’s a great Lena Horne album, among the first of the legendary singer’s historic “comebacks” and one that finds her successfully tackling a more contemporary program in a jazz-like setting.

But it’s a disappointing Gabor Szabo album. As Cash Box rightly pointed out, “Szabo’s fans should be glad to hear him too, although there probably isn’t as much of him as they’d like on the set.”

The program, too, must have deflated the guitarist. At this point, Szabo was becoming typecast as a Beatles and AM radio hits cover artist – something that worked for Wes Montgomery, but was likely beginning to wear on Szabo’s fans. His renown as well as his record sales were all-too-sadly beginning to recede at this point.

Producer and arranger Gary McFarland is probably the architect who put together the bulk of Lena & Gabor’s program – and it’s superb for Ms. Horne. It’s not the program, however, that sets this album apart for the singer. She was grazing through the pop grass for years. Here, it’s the instrumentation.

Instead of the lush orchestras of yore, Ms. Horne couches herself in a hip small group similar to those that would accompany her on a typical club date. For the sessions, McFarland rounds up Eric Gale (as “Gayle” here) and Cornell Dupree on guitars and Richard Tee on organ (the house band on many Atlantic dates at the time) with the Skye all-stars Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Grady Tate on drums.

It’s easily the combination of Szabo with the electrified Tee and Rainey who rev Ms. Horne up to what Record World magazine called “the freest, youngest, most personal singing she’s done in years.”

Lena Horne (1917-2010) had long been considered a legend, finding instant fame with the song “Stormy Weather,” from the 1943 film of the same name. Her sultry voice and striking good looks – both of which aged exceptionally well – allowed her to remarkably transcend decades and generations practically agelessly.

That “legendary” pendulum swings both ways, though. It’s usually the sort of moniker applied to a has-been, once-was or what Joe Gillis says of Norma Desmond: “you used to be big.” Despite a string of albums on RCA, 20th Century and United Artists, Ms. Horne hadn’t had a hit since 1963’s “Now!” and hadn’t had an album out since 1967’s My Name is Lena.

II.

Gabor Szabo (1936-82) had performed with Ms. Horne infrequently since 1964 when the Chico Hamilton group backed the singer at London’s Talk of the Town club. The guitarist was also part of a small group that backed Ms. Horne at Las Vegas’s The Sands hotel in October 1966 and, later, at Caesar’s Palace for three weeks in September 1969.

The guitarist was among the starry guests featured on the September 12, 1969, NBC-TV special “Monsanto Night Presents Lena Horne.” It was on this particular occasion that Szabo was talking with Ms. Horne’s manager, Ralph Harris, about how good and happy Lena sounded in such an intimate situation. The two discussed how great it would be if she could record that way.

“But the major record companies,” according to Record World, “were still thinking of Lena in terms of a big band, show tune sound. Gabor mentioned that he was a partner in Skye Recording Co. and said he thought they might be interested in recording Lena with a small group, if she was. She was. So was Skye.”

III.

Here, Ms. Horne swings on no less than four Beatles numbers – “In My Life” and “Fool on the Hill” stand out – and covers the Nilsson hit from Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’” (the original coincidentally featured drummer and frequent Szabo associate Jim Gordon), Roy Clark’s 1969 hit “Yesterday When I Was Young” and Dionne Warwick’s 1966 hit “Message to Michael” (another of the album’s highlights).

The singer’s trademark languid phrasing suits the program perfectly, particularly on “The Fool on the Hill” and Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” from the soundtrack to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and now something of a jazz standard.

Bobby Scott’s “Nightwind” is a curious choice, but Ms. Horne acquits herself remarkably well here, giving the song a feeling of a haunted gospel blues. The original is from the 1969 film Slaves (starring Dionne Warwick), whose soundtrack was issued on Skye, and performed by Grady Tate – who, like Gabor Szabo, is strangely absent on this version of the tune.

The album’s sole highlight for me is the far too-little known “My Mood is You.” Written by famed songwriter Carl Sigman (writer of “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Ebb Tide,” “Crazy He Calls Me” and later in the year, the hit theme to the film Love Story, “Where Do I Begin”) and first recorded by Jack Jones in 1963, this moody, poetic little gem is perfectly Lena and Gabor.

“My Mood is You” is also Szabo’s single best moment on the record, catching him in more of an apt collaboration with the singer than many of the album’s other pieces. Szabo’s reputation as a soloist is far better known, but one listen to “My Mood is You” reveals how sensitive and intuitive an accompanist he could be.

That’s the problem for Szabo fans with much of Lena & Gabor. Too much of the record casts Szabo as a sideman and occasional guest soloist. One senses Szabo himself wasn’t pleased by the marginalization he gets on his own record for his own label: Szabo abruptly left Skye for Blue Thumb and never again worked with longtime associate Gary McFarland.

Here – and “In My Life” as well – Lena and Gabor weave a potent musical web and cast their unique spell in a performance that is as engaging and entrancing as it is meaningful and memorable.

Gary McFarland’s magnificent outro on “Mood” comes out of nowhere to spellbinding effect - reminding this listener of another striking exit line in Paul Buckmaster’s magisterial outro to Carly Simon’s “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.” Throughout, McFarland’s elegant, clever and minimal string and horn additions have the effect of emotive echoes or warm breezes of night air.

IV.

Lena & Gabor was released in March 1970, the same month as Ms. Horne appeared in a TV special with Harry Belafonte called “Harry & Lena,” which, too, featured Ms. Horne covering “In My Life.”

“Rocky Raccoon” was the album’s lone single, but it was the flipside, “Watch What Happens,” that got the airplay. “Watch What Happens” reached #119 on the charts and stayed in Ms. Horne’s repertoire for the remainder of her career. The song’s success likely inspired producer Norman Schwartz to pair the singer with composer Michel Legrand for 1975’s Lena & Michel (also featuring Lena & Gabor’s Cornell Dupree and Richard Tee). “Watch” also turned out to be one of the highlights of Ms. Horne’s 1981 Broadway hit Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.

Lena & Gabor peaked on the Billboard 200 at number 162 in July 1970 (only one of five of Ms. Horne’s albums to crack the Top 200) and reached number 11 on the Jazz charts, likely because of Szabo’s participation. But even though the album was welcomed by fans of the singer and the guitarist alike, who sensed the natural chemistry between the two players, there were signs that something was amiss.

V.

For an album by one of the most beautiful women in the world, blessed with one of the most iconic of all faces, it is astounding that Ms. Horne’s visage appears nowhere on the album. It must be the only Lena Horne album ever issued without her famous face. Indeed, the only “artwork” on the two-color sleeve is typographical. It is elegant but it’s odd.

This is also the only single-sleeve album by a Skye principle, lavished elsewhere with four-color gatefold sleeves throughout their Skye discographies.

Early reports indicated that fashion photographer Richard Avedon, who shot Ms. Horne for Vogue during her Caesar’s Palace run, was tapped to photograph her for the album’s cover and liner sleeve. None of that happened – but if it did, perhaps the Avedon photo on the cover of the 1976 record Lena, A New Album was the result.

Even stranger, an initial test pressing of the record featured artwork and design by Peter Smith, who provided artwork to other Skye releases like Gabor Szabo 1969 (1969), Gary McFarland’s Today (1970) and the album he did with Gary McFarland, Butterscotch Rum (1971). Cool as the cover is in Smith’s typically Yellow Submarine way, though, it seems totally inappropriate to Ms. Horne and what she is doing here. Seems someone else thought so, too.

There is a sense, however, that the money just wasn’t there. And indeed, Skye was very quickly falling apart. Szabo, the label’s only moneymaker, left soon after this record came out while Cal Tjader seems to have withdrawn as well.

The label was able to issue two more records (and had to pass on issuing the soundtrack to Brian DePalma’s early film Hi Mom!), before securing a distribution deal with Buddah Records in late 1970 to keep it afloat.

Lena & Gabor was reissued as Watch What Happens in November of that year with a Buddah number, a mere three places up in the Skye numerology. This time, at least, Ms. Horne’s face could be seen on the cover, though in a cheesy drawing that made the album appear cheap or bootlegged.

In fact, there have been relatively few times in the album’s half-century history when it has been out of print. Ironically, that makes it the only one of Gabor Szabo’s albums to remain consistently available and in print in one form or another.

Lena and Gabor would reunite once again in 1973 for an episode of The Flip Wilson Show, where they performed Kris Kristofferson’s lovely “I’ve Got to Have You.” But their paths didn’t seem to cross much after that.

If Lena & Gabor, the pair’s one and only recording together, doesn’t always rise to meet a certain set of expectations, experiencing Ms. Horne’s luxurious vocalizing dance with Mr. Szabo’s jangled melodicism is a pleasure well worth savoring over and over again.

Afterword

While Lena & Gabor is admittedly not among my favorites, the ecstasy and joy of my Gabor Szabo experience would be incomplete without this album’s “In My Life,” “Message to Michael” and, most especially, the magnificent “My Mood is You.”

I had the great honor and pleasure to talk with Ms. Horne in 1995. It was she who called me, one day out of the blue – while I was at work! – responding to a letter I sent her asking if she’d talk with me about Gabor Szabo.

Never was there a lovelier lady. I was amazed by just how friendly and genuinely down to earth this superstar was. Hearing that familiar voice talking to me – me! - in that gorgeous Southern Belle (which she was anything but) drawl was such a rush.

She had very little recollection of the album Lena & Gabor – probably because she identified “Watch What Happens” with her Lena & Michel album. But, wow, did she recall Gabor Szabo. Ms. Horne had such great respect, admiration and love for the guitarist.

“He had such a way,” she told me over and over again. One of the world’s most distinctive, celebrated and well-loved vocalists of all time told me that Gabor Szabo “always made me sound better.”

Our brief conversation was less interview and more reminisce, but more pleasurable than a back-and-forth information exchange could ever be. God bless Lena Horne.