Mark Cathcart’s Creed Taylor Produced site recently and memorably celebrated the life and legacy of the vastly under-appreciated guitarist, composer and arranger Joe Beck (1945-2008). Beck, a prominent yet little-known jazz contributor and a brief but successful part of the Creed Taylor legacy, had a fascinating career and, in Beck, an unusually strong record. After some discussion with Mark about Beck and Beck, I realized I may have disregarded both for a number of reasons. I went back to Beck, the guitarist’s all but forgotten 1975 CTI/Kudu album, and discovered much that I had not heard – or listened for – before.
Guitarist Joe Beck’s 1975 album Beck is pure curio. The record is named for the guitarist, yet it is dominated by alto saxophonist David Sanborn. In Beck’s own discography, it sounds like nothing that came before and nothing he did after. Even as a CTI/Kudu album, Beck sounds different; as though the classic “CTI sound” was beginning to transition in to something else, something new.
Surely, an easy case could be made that Beck is one of the first Taylor-produced – if not one of the first, period – “smooth jazz” albums ever recorded.
Although Taylor is often criticized for the smoothing of jazz from the very beginning – especially during the Wes Montgomery days – much of what he was producing then and during this period sound nothing like the radio-friendly pretty music heard in the eighties and beyond.
Taylor’s productions at the time for, say, Bob James and Grover Washington, Jr., while surely popular crossover successes, were still pretty strong on meaty jazz content. Beck, too, is strong on jazz – but it is a smoother, more radio-friendly brand of jazz: one that strangely featured no single releases.
Beck seems to want to make more of a case for Beck the composer while keeping mostly mum – especially for this guy – Beck the guitarist. This is pretty amazing for a guitarist who always stood out elsewhere, as much for his well-rounded adaptability as for his amplification. But there may be a reason for this. More on that later.
A blindfold-test listener would surely recognize that this album belongs firmly to alto saxophonist David Sanborn – heard here several months before the release of his own solo debut, Taking Off. Indeed, this album was released several years later as Beck & Sanborn (with a different cover), which, thanks to its sole domestic CD release in 1987, is how it’s known today. Changing the title was obviously done to cash in on the saxophonist’s then-growing popularity but it really is as much Sanborn’s record as it is Beck’s.
Whether Sanborn’s star turn here was intentional or not, the album is properly considered the result of the man whose surname is prominent on the original album cover, Joe – not Jeff – Beck. That particular surname further begs the question: is the title an accidental coincidence or sly marketing gimmick? (Jeff’s Blow by Blow was released two weeks after Joe’s Beck was recorded.)
Joe Beck (1945-2008) had gigged around New York City since at least the mid-sixties. He also factored on several early CTI sessions from this period, including Paul Desmond’s classic Summertime and J &K’s Betwixt and Between (both 1969).
This Beck had the distinction of being the first guitarist ever employed by both Gil Evans and Miles Davis. Still, Beck’s recordings with Davis, from 1967 and 1968, were considered failures (although they are not). These recordings, including the epic drone “Circle in the Round” and Evans’ ethereal “Falling Water,” were not released until many years after the fact, leading many to believe that John McLaughlin was the trumpeter’s first guitarist.
While Beck’s star was likely dwarfed by yet another British guitarist, he seemed more obviously to come up in the shadow of fellow American guitarist Larry Coryell. Although the two guitarists paired up on two albums in the late seventies, the late-sixties belonged to Coryell, credited at the time for being among the first to popularize the injection of the youthful rock sound in to the staid sense of jazz.
Beck was doing his part to update the old-fashioned sound of jazz with the new-fangled jangle of rock. Indeed, his approach arguably bests Coryell’s in passion, fire and grace and adapted particularly well to the front or back of any progressive band.
Myth has it that Beck got so sick of the business in the early seventies (code for something else?), he “retired” from music for farming. But scrolling through his discography finds no such break.
Beck was an active studio musician during these years, essentially serving as house guitarist for both the Prestige and Flying Dutchman labels. Indeed, it was for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman that Beck waxed the Richard Davis Trio’s remarkable 1973 album Song for Wounded Knee (with Jack DeJohnette), which remains one of the guitarist’s finest moments on record.
It was also in 1973 that Beck joined saxophonist and flautist Joe Farrell’s band. Farrell (1937-86) was recording for CTI Records at the time. While Creed Taylor had previously captured Farrell in all-star settings (his 1970 CTI debut, Joe Farrell Quartet, featured both the aforementioned McLaughlin and DeJohnette, himself a CTI All Star at the time), the reed player – like fellow CTI All Star Freddie Hubbard – wanted to record more with his own band. It was this Joe’s wish that brought that Joe to CTI.
Beck, the guitarist and the composer, features prominently – practically as co-leader – on Farrell’s rightly-titled Upon This Rock (whose title track is a bravura moment for Beck and numbers among this listener’s favorite CTI moments) and Penny Arcade (both 1974) as well as the 1975 album Canned Funk.
But it was probably Beck’s appearance on Idris Muhammad’s 1974 Kudu classic Power of Soul that really caught Creed Taylor’s attention. Among this album’s many notabilities is Beck’s memorable composition “The Saddest Thing.”
What likely struck a real chord with Taylor during these sessions, however, is the profound spell Beck weaves on Muhammad’s Bob James-arranged cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul.” Here, Beck spins gold by nearly singled-handedly turning Jimi Hendrix’s soulful rocker into a powerful jazz statement.
Not even The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays Jimi Hendrix - from the same year and notably featuring David Sanborn – had anything this powerful or inspired to say on Hendrix’s value to jazz (later Evans covers of Hendrix would vastly improve on what I consider to be an otherwise tepid and otherwise indifferent record).
Surprisingly, nothing on Beck compares with what Beck brought to either “Upon This Rock” or “Power of Soul.” But that may well have been the point.
By the mid-seventies, the guitar gods were tiring of the loud and showy pyrotechnics of whatever constituted rock guitar. By 1975, Jeff Beck was leaning in to fusion (brilliantly on 1976’s Wired) while Eric Clapton was headed straight over to pure pop. Even John Mclaughlin swapped out his electric axe for an acoustic one for his Indian fusion band Shakti. At the same time, Joe Beck seems here to have wanted to focus his writing and playing on melody. It’s fair to say, on Beck, he succeeds.
Recorded in March 1975 and released in May of that year, Beck comes between the guitarist’s only other major-label offerings: 1969’s mod-rockish Nature Boy (Verve Forecast) and the about-face of 1977’s disco-y Watch the Time (Polydor). Neither of those other records have ever appeared on CD and feature precious little that could be considered jazz.
Both, however, offer something of musical interest: the former with “Spoon’s Caress” and “Please Believe Me,” displaying Beck’s Lindsey Buckingham-like pop finesse and prowess on guitar and the latter with exceptional electric fusion turns on “Polaris” and “Dr. Lee.”
Kismet is hardly at work here. But consider this: whoever conspired to team Beck with Sanborn (obviously Creed Taylor – or someone advising him) could only cite Gil Evans as the through-line for this paring.
Beck was with the bandleader from 1967 to 1971, while Sanborn served in Evans’ orchestra between 1973 and 1975. Both appeared sporadically in the Evans orchestra thereafter. Additionally, Taylor himself worked with Evans from the late-fifties through the mid-sixties, notably waxing the landmark Out of the Cool for Impulse in 1960.
During this period, Beck and Sanborn both worked on Hubert Laws’ CTI album The Chicago Theme, recorded and released around the same time as Beck, and would go on to work on such CTI/Kudu fare as Esther Phillips’ Beck-arranged hit What a Diff’rence a Day Makes, Don Sebesky’s “The Rape of El Morro, and a couple of the better tracks off Idris Muhammad’s House of the Rising Sun - all 1975. Then, remarkably, nothing else together ever again.
Beck features the same core rhythm section that factors on Sanborn’s own Taking Off: guitarist Steve Khan, keyboardist Don Grolnick, bassist Will Lee and drummer Chris Parker. Beck even appears – almost as anonymously – on that album’s “Funky Banana.”
Interestingly, Sanborn’s Warner Bros. album was mostly arranged by former James Brown-arranger David Matthews, who himself would join the CTI family several months later, arranging Ron Carter’s sole Kudu outing, Anything Goes (also featuring Sanborn and Grolnick). Matthews’ signature is all over CTI for the next few years after that.
Beck opens with the familiar “Star Fire,” originally heard as “The Saddest Thing” on the Idris Muhammad album. It’s a lovely, though particularly melancholy song – especially here – that deserved much better than it ever got. David Sanborn delivers his finest signature brand of soul, but his domination tends to undermine Beck’s own musical signature. Surprisingly, this song, in either iteration, received no single release and never saw much in the way of covers or samples.
What follows is surely among the disc’s highlights. Don Grolnick’s sinewy “Cactus” – another ideal single choice that never was – brings Beck back to the fore: the guitarist takes the lead (while Sanborn takes on the refrain) and offers a commanding guitar solo that suggests the direction session contributor Steve Khan would pursue several years later in his own solo career. To these ears, “Cactus” would have made a much stronger set-opener than “Star Fire.”
“Cactus” did get covered later by guitarists Hiram Bullock (1986 – also with Will Lee) and Drew Zingg (2012 - again with Lee). It was additionally covered by the Brecker Brothers in a live recording from May 1976 with composer Grolnick, Khan, Lee and Parker in attendance but not released until nearly four decades later, in 2015. Curiously, Sanborn factors on both the Bullock and Brecker Brothers discs noted here but in neither case on “Cactus.”
Grolnick himself would come back to Beck for the guitarist’s 1984 humdinger Friends, the closest thing to a Beck sequel there is in all of Beck’s discography. In other words, Friends is worth tracking down.
Beck’s other contributions include the bluesy “Texas Ann,” the funky “Red Eye” (boasting Beck’s adroit compositional flair, something akin to fellow guitarist John Scofield) and the swampy “Brothers and Others” (with pianist Grolnick sounding like a cross between Dr. John and Richard Tee). Each is well conceived and performed, but sound positively underwhelming as presented.
Perhaps it’s merely a matter of programming: if you shuffled the place of “Brothers and Others” with “Red Eye,” which has a stronger set-closer vibe, things might have made more sense.
Beck stripped these tunes bare on later recordings, revealing a particularly melodic beauty beneath: “Texas Ann” and “Red Eye” on Beck’s lovely Finger Painting (1995) and “Brothers and Others” on Joe Beck Quartet with Lou Marini Recorded Live in Biel, Switzerland (2001).
One of the more interesting features here is the funky blues of tenor saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie’s “Café Black Rose.” Guided by Steve Khan on steel guitar (!), this, too, is dominated by Sanborn – who likely brought the tune to the date, suggesting a surprising prominence in the planning of the record.
”Café Black Rose” originally appeared on proto-rapper Lightnin’ Rod’s 1973 album Hustler’s Convention (which featured CTI contributors Eric Gale and Richard Tee on other tracks). It’s a surprising inclusion, but one that works especially well under the circumstances.
Beck performed, well, poorly. It likely got lost in the glut of albums CTI/Kudu was issuing at the time (Hubert Laws’ better-known The Chicago Theme - its title track was something of a minor disco hit – and Paul Desmond’s well-regarded Pure Desmond were issued around the same time). And all evidence points to the fact that nothing much was done to promote it. Perhaps that new “smooth” sound worked against its easy acceptance.
While Beck deserved no such fate, David Sanborn, of course, went onto a highly successful solo career – at another label that itself would come to bedevil Creed Taylor. Beck went on to score the forgotten 1976 film Goodbye Norma Jean and work with Michel Legrand, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Gloria Gaynor – mostly as accompanist, arranger, producer or all three.
Indeed, Beck scored several hits with fellow Kudu artist Esther Phillips, notably on her chart-topping disco take of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.” But he showed no appetite for working under someone else’s expectations. Beck abandoned CTI almost as quickly as he showed up. Even on Beck, one senses Beck sought to find the right place to fade.
In 1979, CTI reissued Beck, with its unusual (for CTI) and intriguing cover art by Abdul Mati Klerwein (the artist behind the iconic covers for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Santana’s Abraxas, among many others), as Beck & Sanborn, replaced by a Pete Turner-like cover image by color photographer Mitchell Funk.
It’s difficult to say if this reissue did much to change the original album’s status or popularity, but its retitling had much to do with making Sanborn at least the co-star of the show; something Sanborn would have appreciated much more than Beck.
Eight years later, Beck & Sanborn was reissued in the US and Europe on CD, with two unissued tracks added to the original LP’s six-track line up. One or both of these tracks likely account for the June 25 recording date listed in that CD’s liner notes.
(My CTI discography erroneously indicates Don Sebesky’s overdubs on three tracks account for the June date – an impossibility as the Beck album had already been issued several weeks before.)
Was CTI planning a Beck or Beck & Sanborn sequel? Possibly. But it’s impossible, at least at this point, to know why such a project was considered and abandoned, with only two additional Beck and Sanborn songs making it out of the gate. But they’re absolutely worth hearing and knowing a little more about.
First up is the outstanding Beck original “Ain’t it Good.” If this was recorded during the March sessions, it is unconscionable that it was left off Beck. It would have made a sufficiently compelling single release from an album that amazingly yielded no single at all.
The guitarist wound up re-recording the song as “Ain’t it Good to Be Back Home” for his 1977 Beck follow-up, Watch the Time - itself a noteworthy performance, yet one that, too, never found its way on to a 45 release.
The other previously unissued track here is “Spoon’s Theme,” another of Gene Dinwiddie’s tunes from Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustler’s Convention (known there simply as “Spoon”). These ears don’t hear Grolnick doing Richard Tee, but Richard Tee doing Richard Tee – likely aligning the song with the June date.
It may be of interest to some that another of Dinwiddie’s songs, “Love March,” was covered in 1972 by the Swedish flautist Jayson Lindh (a.k.a. Björn J:son Lindh) on his CTI-distributed album Ramadan (it was also a single release).
“Love March” was originally written for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which at that time featured Dinwiddie and no less than David Sanborn himself. The song originally appeared on the group’s 1969 album Keep on Moving and was performed on August 18, 1969, at the Woodstock Music Festival by the Butterfield Blues Band with Dinwiddie and Sanborn in tow. Clearly, by Beck, Sanborn was headed in a different direction.
I confess this is a long road to take in appreciating an album I never really paid much attention to. Perhaps it is my way of atoning for my negligence. In my defense, I let the contrived “sound” of Beck crowd out the more meaningful music of Beck.
Beck “sounds” like other CTI records RVG recorded around this time – maybe even more so. It is a signature RVG devised specifically for CTI around 1974 that severely muffled acoustic instruments such as piano, bass and drums – and the exact opposite of the annoying echoey sheen RVG would hone for other labels in the 90s and beyond.
But it is the music and its makers that make Beck, or, if you like, Beck & Sanborn matter. It is one of guitarist Joe Beck’s most enjoyable yet accomplished records – and it stands as one of the finest showcases for saxophonist David Sanborn outside of his own records.