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.