Friday, January 27, 2023

Doc Severinsen with Don Sebesky

Trumpeter Doc Severinsen (b. 1927) is probably best known as the bandleader – as well as sometime sidekick, sometime host, comic foil and sartorial satirist – of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, from 1967 until Carson’s retirement in 1992: more of a comical character than a serious musician. But he was very much a serious musician.

Born Carl Hilding Severinsen, “Doc” – a nickname he earned as his father was a dentist – got his start in the big bands of Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. In 1949, he was hired as a studio musician for NBC-TV, where he worked primarily on the precursor to the Carson show, Tonight Starring Steve Allen, which featured Severinsen himself playing the closing theme each night.

By the mid-fifties, Severinsen was an in-demand studio musician, playing on scores of sessions recorded in New York City, including discs by Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington, Chris Connor and Lena Horne as well as jazz records with Urbie Green, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie and, notably, Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Severinsen launched his own recording career in the early sixties at Enoch Light’s Command Records label, surrounded by a stable of studio pros who cranked out many orchestral records for both the jazz and easy-listening markets. The trumpeter rejoined the Tonight Show in 1962, but his session work ground to a halt when he took over the show’s band as leader in 1967.

The bandleader did, however, continue putting out albums under his own name – as well as fronting a little-known series of records by American high-school and college bands. After several records that attempted to crossover (with more popular fare), Severinsen teamed with arranger Don Sebesky, then the premier purveyor of crossover jazz.

At the time, Don Sebesky (b. 1937) was known for the exquisite, sensitive and complimentary – but otherwise critically reviled – “sweetening” added to such Creed Taylor productions as those by George Benson, Paul Desmond, Astrud Gilberto, Kai Winding and, most memorably, Wes Montgomery. Somehow, Sebesky mixed an understanding of classical, pop and jazz – and the way all three genres could work together – into a pleasing cacophony of sound that worked for any fan of…good music.

Plus, Sebesky always worked with the world’s greatest musicians – whether they were fronting the band or backing it.

Sebesky also acquired a well-deserved reputation for subtly adapting then-emerging popular music (especially The Beatles) into jazz without losing any credibility along the way. He also had an amazing talent for wedding disparate genres into a musical whole.

Interestingly, given how much time Severinsen and Sebesky spent in New York studios during the sixties, there is no indication they had ever worked together before – or after – these records. Their brief collaboration yielded a single-only release of “Knowing When to Leave” and the two LPs, Doc Severinsen’s Closet (Doc’s final Command record) and Brass Roots (his first on RCA).

“Knowing When to Leave” b/w “Barbarella” (1968)

Doc Severinsen first teamed with Don Sebesky on this 45-rpm single release of “Knowing When to Leave,” backed with the theme from the 1968 film Barbarella. Released in November 1968, the single’s a-side is one of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs from the musical Promises, Promises, which ran on Broadway from late 1968 to early 1972. (The production yielded two better-known hits for Dionne Warwick in “Promises, Promises” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”)

Record World said “Doc Severinsen does wonders” with “Knowing When to Leave,” while Billboard claimed the trumpeter fills the song with “excitement and jukebox appeal.” Cash Box added that Severinsen and Sebesky concocted “a winning sound” here.

To these ears, though, “Knowing When to Leave” is all over the place: Doc starts off in low-gear Herb Alpert-Burt Bacharach mode here before turning it up to eleven, revealing his inner Maynard Ferguson (the two played alongside each other in the Charlie Barnet band). Sebesky prods Doc along in surprisingly full-blown brassy Vegas show mode – as though he was scoring a Ferguson record, or his own Broadway musical.

The original “Barbarella” sounded enough like Don Sebesky that Sebesky himself had little to do to makeover the Bob Crewe and Charles Fox song. Replacing the Glitterhouse vocal with Severinsen’s appropriately sexy trumpet and adding some electronics makes “Barbarella” sound as though it could have come straight outta Sebesky’s The Distant Galaxy, recorded around the same time as this Severinsen single.

While these tunes never found their way on to a Doc Severinsen album, “Knowing When to Leave” was issued as part of the kooky Command LP compilation called The Command Revolution: The Spirited Sounds of 1969, which billed itself as “…a switched-on preview of eleven selections from the new, revolutionary COMMAND/PROBE albums.” Uh huh.

Doc Severinsen’s Closet (1970)

”Switched-on” is surely the idea here. Doc was aiming to pull in listeners of a certain age – he was 42 at the time – while also hoping against hope to appeal to the kids already digging these new sounds. Leaving aside the fact that “the kids” were likely not among those millions watching the Carson show (either because they were in bed or too cool for Carson), it was an ambitious plan anyway.

Severinsen therefore wisely enlisted arranger Don Sebesky, certainly a hipper force in music at the time but also an expert in successfully contemporizing the big band sound. Here, as on the pair’s sequel, Brass Roots, Sebesky sat in the producer’s chair, putting him in charge of the musicians, the program, the sound and the whole hip factor.

Naturally, Sebesky stuck close to the Creed Taylor formula: retrofitting jazz with contemporary concepts and mixing up something old (a classic), something new (pop hits of the day) with an original or two.

Here, the covers touch on Sebesky’s lovely arrangement of the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfer Girl,” the Chairman of the Board’s soulfully whiny “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and a seemingly pointless six-minute “Abbey Road Medley” – coming right after Sebesky oversaw George Benson’s album-length medley, The Other Side of Abbey Road (the only overlap is “Because” and “The End”). One might have otherwise preferred a whole version of any one or two of those Beatles songs.

Sebesky’s originals include the Dixielandish “Bottleneck,” the album’s sole single and an obvious gloss on Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass,” and the unexpected hippie anthem “Power to the People” – surely not to be confused with the John Lennon song of the same name. This “Power” is catchy enough but dragged down by Sebesky’s mawkish intrusions of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” that all sound like the air going out of a balloon. Pure protest-eesh, or something.

What makes Doc Severinsen’s Closet notable, on the other hand, is not the trumpeter himself but rather Sebesky’s presentations of the Spanish-tinged “The Court of the Crimson King” and the remarkably ambitious “Footprints of the Giant.”

The former, from prog-rock group King Crimson’s 1969 debut single (and the band’s only “hit”), spotlights a bravura arrangement and features compelling solo spots helmed by the fine playing of Tommy Newsome (a frequent Severinsen ally and Tonight Show band member) on tenor sax, Rod Levitt or Paul Faulise on trombone and the Doc himself on trumpet.

The latter, a Sebesky concoction based on themes by Bela Bartok, opens as free as Severinsen was likely to get (though he’s probably not playing here) before delving in to a four-on-the-floor rock rhythm. Solos here spotlight Joe Beck on electric guitar, Arnie Lawrence on electric sax, the Doc on trumpet and Ray Barretto on percussion. Sebesky would revisit “Footprints of the Giant” – winningly – on his 1975 CTI album The Rape of El Morro, featuring an even more powerful Joe Beck in positive Hendrix mode.

All of this is to say that for a Doc Severinsen album, there is curiously little Doc Severinsen to be heard. What’s up, Doc? The melody lines here are almost exclusively carried by vocalists (!) - “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” “Power to the People” and “Abbey Road Medley” – or the orchestra, while Doc pops in for a solo or fade-out fills here and there. Throughout, he solos with great aplomb. But the album never feels like his own.

If it feels more like a Don Sebesky record, after all, then “The Court of the Crimson King” and “Footprints of the Giant” make for required listening and ensure that this Closet is well worth digging in to.

Brass Roots (1971)

Brass Roots, the sequel to Doc Severinsen’s Closet, was released almost exactly one year after the previous album in the summer of 1971. While the formula for this record is pretty much the same as the earlier disc, something immediately feels different; as to say, if Closet is how we did it in the sixties, then Brass Roots is how we do it now.

Here, the sound isn’t so much “crossover” – more of an attempt than a genre or subgenre - but more like the fusion of jazz – with rock, pop, Latin, soul and funk – that was beginning to take shape at Sebesky’s home at the time, CTI Records.

Make no mistake. Brass Roots will never be taken for a CTI record. There is no question Severinsen has the chops and can adeptly skate his way through the stratosphere. But he isn’t the kind of player who can balance nuance with power, the way, say Freddie Hubbard could or the way other big-band veterans like Kai Winding did.

What’s more, Sebesky’s charts here are as unlike his CTI work as they could be: heavy on the upper brass and replete with turbo-charged tempi that too often undermine the mood or groove of a song.

Still, Brass Roots is a step up and a foot forward, particularly for its leader. First, the covers are much stronger – and, thankfully, for the most part, are not as overly familiar – are boosted by some really strong charts, including the funky horn parts for Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” (which, here, sounds like a Lalo Schifrin cue from an action score) and the beautifully baroque setting of “Theme from ‘Love Story’.”

The nearly third-stream take on “Love Story,” in particular, is beautifully built on Bach's "Come Sweet Death" (sounding a little like the Beatles' "Because") and showcases some of Severinsen’s finest-ever playing on record. It’s a superb rendition of the song that stands strong – if not even more memorably – with the earlier version Sebesky arranged for Hubert Laws.

(“Love Story” was, coincidentally, a big hit in early 1971 for Henry Mancini, who waxed two records with Doc Severinsen after Brass Roots.)

Sebesky contributes the terrifically funky “Good Medicine” (a nice nod to “the Doc”) and the very brassy “Brass Roots,” a love letter from Sebesky to Severinsen that out-Maynards Sebesky’s former boss, a certain Mr. Ferguson. I would like to think Severinsen played this at least once on The Tonight Show; it comes across as a sort of theme song for the bandleader.

The festive and fiery “Good Medicine” – which gave a 1992 Severinsen-on-RCA CD compilation its title – should be far better-known than it is. Sebesky, in this strange brew, beautifully mixes the hops of Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers with the barley of first-generation Santana. The rhythm section fuels Severinsen, who really rocks this one. It’s a tremendous performance.

The Sebesky novelty “Okefenokee” (comparing a lover not so very lovingly to the so-named swamp) and “Celebrate” seem to feature Doc Severinsen (or someone) on lead vocals – an unnecessary addition, particularly on the latter title. Both, however, have terrific Severinsen trumpet solos, but “Celebrate” yields an extraordinary trombone-sax-trumpet solo section which makes the piece well worth hearing…for about a minute or so.

The album’s pièce de résistance, though, is surely the strange but compelling “Psalm 150.” Jimmy Webb’s curious, though clever piece – whose lyrics are derived from the final Psalm of the Bible – gets a spirited and strangely compelling reading here.

“Psalm 150,” a.k.a. “Psalm One-Five-O,” is an odd choice. It appears to have been written for the British group Revelation for its eponymous (and only) 1970 album. Shortly thereafter, the song’s composer featured “Psalm 150” on his own album Words and Music.

Neither version was ever issued as a single, so it's curious how anyone came about this thing. Here, Severinsen offers a brief, yet signature solo and a typical high-note fade out. Sebesky’s arrangement, combined with the guitar and organ solos, strongly recalls Lalo Schifrin’s unheralded 1971 opus Rock Requiem, likely issued around the same time.

Severinsen continued performing the song in concert – at least through the following year. For his part, Sebesky would go on to cover “Psalm 150” even more remarkably on his 1973 CTI debut Giant Box, in a stellar feature for such luminaries as Jackie & Roy, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Bob James.

While Brass Roots surprisingly yielded no single releases – though several pieces seem perfectly eligible – the album reached 185 on the Billboard 200, Severinsen’s first to do so since 1966. He wouldn’t crack the charts again until 1976’s Night Journey. Wounded Bird issued Brass Roots on CD in 2009.

About the cover: The supremely weird cover graphic of Brass Roots has much of the absurdist quality of Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which didn’t make its way to the U.S. until three years later, in 1974) - and a half-buried (!) Doc Severinsen looking, in 2023, an awful lot like a seventies-fied version of Kevin Spacey.

The uncredited illustration is signed by one “Patrick,” possibly the same “Patrick” as Scottish playwright and artist John “Patrick” Byrne. The latter “Patrick,” has done a number of Stealer’s Wheel/Gerry Rafferty album covers (including Rafferty’s 1978 hit City to City) as well as Donovan’s H.M.S. Donovan (1971) and the 1980 compilation The Beatles Ballads - a cover that Patrick originally designed for The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album (1968).

The problem, though, is that the “Patrick” signature on Brass Roots looks in no way like the baroque – and frankly artier – “Patrick” signature on those other albums. So, who illustrated the curious Brass Roots? Who knows?

Endnote: I’ve written plenty about Don Sebesky over the years. But to read my other Doc Severinsen posts, check out Henry Mancini (the two Doc-Hank albums from 1972 and 1973) and the great Tom Scott-helmed Brand New Thing (1977).

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Jazz Loves David Crosby

”A streak of otherworldliness ran all the way through David Crosby’s long, complicated life in music,” the New York Times writer Jon Pareles noted beautifully in his recent appreciation of the singer, songwriter and guitarist. The same could be said of David Crosby’s music, too.

Sadly, David Crosby died this week, on Wednesday, January 18. He was 81. Crosby was best known as founding member of both the psychedelic-rock band The Byrds and the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash – and sometimes Young.

Both groups were loaded with tremendously gifted singers and songwriters, all of whom have contributed memorably to the pop and rock world. Indeed, both groups were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The Byrds in 1991 and Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1997. (Neil Young was inducted twice – as a solo artist and member of Buffalo Springfield.)

But of all those great writers and musicians, it is only David Crosby whose music has crossed over easily into jazz. That’s probably not an accident. Crosby was turned on to jazz as a teenager by his brother Ethan, a drummer, getting in to records by Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and Miles Davis.

John Coltrane had a “huge impact” on Crosby when he saw the saxophonist live at McKie’s in Chicago’s South Side in 1961. Indeed, Crosby claimed Coltrane informed one of his earliest hits, The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (co-written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark). Crosby and Roger McGuinn were listening to Coltrane’s Africa/Brass at the time. The album influenced Crosby’s vocal phrasing and McGuinn’s guitar solo.

Crosby rarely wrote in rote rock keys or time signatures (4/4 or 3/4). Take “Guinnevere,” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s eponymous 1969 debut: it shifts from 4/4 to 6/8 to 7/4. Crosby’s “Déjà Vu,” the title track to the 1970 CSNY album, is also greatly informed by jazz, starting off in 6/8 time, but feeling like a straight 4/4, even moving through odd keys that a jazz artist would feel at home in. “The influences were going in both directions back then,” David Crosby told JazzTimes in 2019. “Miles was listening to singer-songwriter music and pulling it into the jazz idiom. You hear us listening to John Coltrane, and we pull his horn style into a rock-and-roll song. It happened a lot. That’s how new music happens. You take two extremes and you synthesize a new one out of those.”

David Crosby and Graham Nash recorded six albums as a duo between 1972 and 2004 while Crosby released eight studio albums under his own name between 1971 and 2021.

Jazz came to more prominence in Crosby’s music later in his career. Crosby formed the jazz-rock trio CPR, with his biological son, James Raymond – who he had given up for adoption many years before. In 2013, Crosby collaborated with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center for a pair of New York concerts. In return, Marsalis guested on Crosby’s 2014 disc Croz.

A great fan of the brilliant collective Snarky Puppy, Crosby himself appeared on the band’s 2016 disc Family Dinner Volume Two, while Snarky Puppy’s Michael League produced Crosby’s own Lighthouse of the same year.

Jazz discovered David Crosby early on, notably with “Eight Miles High” and then, later, with “Guinnevere.” But while those are usually the most interesting takes of David Crosby’s songwriting, there are other jazz treats bearing Croz’s signature.

A very pleasant surprise to me is that I already had much of this music in my own collection.

”Eight Miles High” – The Paul Horn Quintet – arranged by Oliver Nelson.

”Eight Miles High”: Written by Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn (a.k.a. Roger McGuinn) and David Crosby from the third Byrds album Fifth Dimension. “Eight Miles High” was a 1966 Top 20 hit for the Byrds. It is musically influenced by Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, the song was innovative, controversial and now considered a classic psychedelic rock song.

”Eight Miles High” – The Soulful Strings - arranged by Richard Evans.

Jazz covers of “Eight Miles High” include the Paul Horn Quintet on Monday, Monday (1966), the Soulful Strings on Paint it Black (1966), Bob Thiele and the New Happy Times Orchestra on Light My Fire (1967), Steve Marcus on Tomorrow Never Knows (1967) and a truly weird funk-on-steroids version by bagpiper Rufus Harley on King/Queens (1970).

”Eight Miles High” – Bob Thiele and the New Happy Times Orchestra featuring Gabor Szabo, Tom Scott and Bill Plummer on sitar.

”Eight Miles High” – Steve Marcus featuring Larry Coryell.

”Eight Miles High” – Rufus Harley.

”Lady Friend” – Bill Plummer and the Cosmic Brotherhood featuring Tom Scott on flute and Lynn Blessing on vibes.

”Lady Friend”: Written by David Crosby, the only a-side Byrds single credited to Crosby. Released as a single in 1967, it only reached number 82 on Billboard’s Top 100. The Byrds performed “Lady Friend” at that year’s Monterey Pop Festival, but the song’s lack of success caused it to be left off the group’s next album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and was partly the reason Crosby was fired from the group.

”Long Time Gone” – Bud Shank with the Bob Alcivar Singers.

”Long Time Gone”: Written by David Crosby for the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The song was issued as the b-side to CSN’s first single, Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

”Long Time Gone” – Paul Horn featuring Larry Carlton and Joe Sample, arranged by Tom Scott.

Jazz covers of “Long Time Gone” include Bud Shank with the Bob Alcivar Singers on Let it Be (1970 – bizarrely credited to Tex Ritter and Frank Harford), Paul Horn on Visions (1974) and Hiram Bullock on “Late Night Talk” (1997).

”Long Time Gone” – Hiram Bullock featuring Dr. Lonnie Smith and Joe Locke.

”Guinnevere” – Herbie Mann (1971).

”Guinnevere”: Perhaps David Crosby’s best and best-known song. “Guinnevere” first appeared on the 1969 album Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby told Rolling Stone in 2008, “It's about three women that I loved. One of whom was Christine Hinton - the girl who got killed who was my girlfriend - and one of whom was Joni Mitchell, and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell.” That someone is believed to be Crosby’s former girlfriend, Nancy Ross.

”Guinnevere” – Miles Davis (1970)

Robert Christgau has said that “Guinnevere” was based on a three-note motif Crosby lifted from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (1960), which makes it interesting that Davis himself recorded the song in early 1970. According to Crosby, Davis played the songwriter his version of the song. When Crosby didn’t recognize the tune as his own, Davis allegedly kicked him out of the house. Curiously, though, Davis chose not to immediately release the song.

”Guinnevere” – Paul Horn (1974).

Miles Davis’ stunning cover of “Guinnevere” was finally issued in 1979 on Circle in the Round, a compilation of previously unissued recordings, while a longer version of the song was included on the 1998 CD box of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions.

”Guinnevere” – Mark Soskin (2020).

Other jazz versions of “Guinnevere” can be heard by Herbie Mann on Memphis Two-Step (1971), Paul Horn on Visions (1974) and Mark Soskin on Everything Old is New Again (2020).

”Wooden Ships”: Written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. The song originally appeared in different versions on the 1969 albums Crosby, Stills & Nash (where it was long credited to only Crosby and Stills) and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers (which features Crosby and Stills as guests). The only known jazz cover of "Wooden Ships" is by former Gabor Szabo guitarist Jimmy Stewart on his 1977 album Fire Flower.

”Song With No Words” – Paul Horn (1974)

”Song With No Words (Trees With No Leaves)”: Written by David Crosby, “Song With No Words” first appeared on Crosby’s 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Apparently, the song was written during the recording of the CSN&Y album Déjà Vu and intended for that album but that version of the song was eventually included on the expanded CD version of Crosby, Stills & Nash, issued in 2006.

”Almost Cut My Hair” – Fareed Haque from the 1997 album Déjà Vu, a jazz interpretation of the 1970 album of the same name by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

”Almost Cut My Hair”: – Written by David Crosby for the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, this song immortalized the line “I feel like letting my freak flag fly.” The anthem became a favorite Crosby concert staple, although Crosby himself said of the tune, “It was the most juvenile set of lyrics I’ve ever written…but it has a certain emotional impact, there’s no question about that.”

”Déjà Vu” – Fareed Haque from the 1997 album Déjà Vu, a jazz interpretation of the 1970 album of the same name by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

”Déjà Vu”: David Crosby’s title track to the second CSN album and first album the trio made with Neil Young, an album that yielded three Top 40 singles – none by Crosby – and Neil Young’s “Helpless,” which Crosby claimed in a 2019 documentary to be his favorite CSNY song.

”Déjà Vu” was also covered in four parts by guitarist Frank Vignola on the 1999 album Déjà Vu.

Friday, January 13, 2023

In Wax Poetics: Gabor Szabo – “Wind, Sky and Diamonds”

Nice to see an appreciation – or any appreciation – of the 1967 Gabor Szabo album Wind, Sky and Diamonds, featured as part of Wax Poetics’ Re:Discovery series this week.

This is surely one of the guitarist’s least known and rarely celebrated albums. Wind, Sky and Diamonds, which was co-billed to the California Dreamers, a short-lived studio vocal collective, was the last of Szabo’s four studio albums released on Impulse during 1966 and 1967.

While the record is, perhaps, unusual in Szabo’s discography, it is of a piece with saxophonist Tom Scott’s solo debut, The Honeysuckle Breeze, and producer/nominal leader Bob Thiele’s Light My Fire (also prominently featuring Scott and Szabo). Indeed, all three records were waxed at about the same time with the same cast of LA-based musicians.

Surely, each of these three records has its highlights, all have their fair share of badly-dated groaners. That all three records seemed gimcracked toward the “easy listening” crowd rather than a jazz – or even crossover – audience is telling: made for the masses and appealing to…some, maybe.

Highlights on Wind, Sky and Diamonds include “Guantanamera,” featuring Szabo’s genuinely moving recitation, “Are You There” and a daring take on “White Rabbit.” Szabo performed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – brilliantly – with his own group four days after this recording (it can be heard on the More Sorcery album) which easily bests the workmanlike performance heard here.

The live “Lucy” suggests that producer Bob Thiele regrettably passed up an opportunity to see what Szabo’s own quintet would have made of these tunes. Curiously, it’s not something he would have asked someone like John Coltrane, who had passed away only two months before, to do.

In the end, Wind, Sky and Diamonds feels like what Monty Python blatantly called one of its records, the “contractual obligation album,” and may well be the reason Gabor Szabo left Impulse in the first place. It has all the hallmarks of showing up and getting paid, as if to say “I did what they wanted.”

Over two dozen years ago, I wrote the following review for Wind, Sky and Diamonds. I still stand by it. Even if all of us can't decide what sort of record this should have been, it’s worth appreciating what record Gabor Szabo left us with:

A most unusual record, Wind, Sky and Diamonds is an intriguing, though not quite successful jazz-rock experiment. Superior West Coast jazz talent is present -- including guitarists Howard Roberts, Dennis Budimer and Herb Ellis, pianist Mike Melvoin and percussionists Victor Feldman and Emil Richards. But there's little in the music that departs from the main, familiar pop-rock melodies. It seems the real intention is to spotlight the vocalists; a group of studio singers, known at the time as the California Dreamers (these familiar voices have since been heard in many TV commercials and as part of the Partridge Family and Quincy Jones productions).

Szabo himself seems like an afterthought. His familiar guitar is hardly noticeable and his ideas seem tacked on to the proceedings. He is subjected to noodling occasionally between vocal lines and only infrequently carries the melody ("White Rabbit," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). Even less often, unfortunately, he is provided opportunity to pilot a brief, but meaningful solo ("Twelve Thirty," "Guantanamera" "Are You There").

Regardless, Wind, Sky and Diamonds remains an important part of Gabor Szabo's discography. It celebrates much of what was important to the guitarist: the new world of rock music, the beauty of California, the hope and inspiration sweeping through the "Summer of Love," the freedom drugs promised and a whole new world that seemed to be shaping before everybody's eyes that year.

Szabo even reiterates the importance of this music by taking two impassioned recitations. The first begins the album in a prologue to the Animal's "San Franciscan Nights":

"The following song is dedicated to the city and the people of San Francisco; who may not know it, but they are beautiful. And so is their city. This a very personal song. So if you cannot understand it, particularly my friends in Budapest, save up all your bread and fly Translove Airways to San Francisco, USA. Then maybe you’ll understand this song. It will be worth it; if not for the sake of this song, but for the sake of your own piece of mind. So I’ll meet you in San Francisco. Or for those of you in Budapest, San Francisco ban találkozunk!"

Szabo's next recitation follows a superb acoustic guitar solo in "Guantanamera," the beautiful Jose Marti poem set to the tune of a popular song from Havana (when it was refitted with English words and performed by American folk singer Pete Seeger in 1961, it became an international hit):

"Jose Marti of Cuba was born in 1853. At the age of 17 he was exiled and spent most of his life away from his home. When he was 42, he finally returned to Cuba and within a year was killed in an aborted uprising. And this is one of his last poems: I’m a truthful man/And before dying I want to share this poem of my soul/My verses are light green/but also flaming crimson/My verses are like a wounded fawn/seeking refuge. For the poor people of this earth/I want to share my fate."

This is an exceptional performance, highlighted by a solo that clearly reflects fellow guitarist Jimmy Stewart's profound and creative impact on Szabo. It seems ultimately surprising that Szabo never performed "Guantanamera" again in his career. He really brings this meaningful rendition to life.

"Are You There" is another highlight. Starting with Szabo's melody for "Fox" (performed on Songs for Gentle People) and adding Steve Allen's interesting lyrics, this song has the album's strongest "rock" feel and benefits from Szabo's meatiest solo on the record.

It's perhaps notable that Wind, Sky and Diamonds was the first solo album Gabor Szabo recorded on the West Coast, near his own home. With rare exception (Small World, Mizrab, Rambler, Nightflight and Belsta River), Szabo would perform and record almost exclusively on the West Coast for the rest of his career.

Endnote: An interesting companion to Wind, Sky and Diamonds is George Benson’s 1971 CTI album, White Rabbit. Much of Benson’s playing here is challenging (as he scales basic chord changes with his own original inventions), appealingly mysterious, and often adds something of Szabo's metallic edge to his own pretty style. Benson can be heard performing a similar version of the Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" (with a Don Sebesky arrangement) and a very Szaboesque version of a Mamas and Papas tune ("California Dreaming"), made popular in jazz circles by Wes Montgomery. What's even more interesting is that Leonard Feather played Benson's "Summer of '42" (from White Rabbit) for Szabo during a 1975 DownBeat Blindfold Test. Szabo reacted by saying, "First of all, I do like this music very much; it's very warm, beautifully arranged. I particularly liked [Benson's] control when it came to technique, as well as the emotional message. In a strange way, it sometimes reminded me of myself [and] sometimes it reminded me of Wes Montgomery." Oddly, though, Szabo was able to identify Creed Taylor's production and Don Sebesky's arrangement, but was unable to name the signature playing of George Benson.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Jazz Loves Motown: Norman Whitfield

Back when CD compilations were a thing, I proposed to a certain label a series of discs devoted to jazz covers of Motown hits.

The people at the label seemed pleased. But instead of focusing on the legendary Motown’s historic artists – The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Jackson Five, etc. – my bright idea was to celebrate the composers of those great songs: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, etc.

That was my first mistake. Proposing a set devoted to Norman Whitfield was where I really went wrong.

“No one knows who that is,” I was told. Whatever the series could have been was pretty much shut down. While songwriters Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder had name recognition as artists in their own right, Whitfield worked tirelessly behind the scenes to craft some of Motown’s best – and best-known – songs. But he never had a hit under his own name – even though he crafted many Motown hits under other artists’ names.

Norman Whitfield (1940-2008) was born and raised in Harlem, New York. By the time he was in high school, he and his family had relocated to Detroit. After high school, Whitfield began hanging around Motown’s Hitsville USA offices looking for work. Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. took him on in the label’s “quality control” department, determining which records would and would not get released.

Soon thereafter, Whitfield began writing songs for Motown, scoring an early hit with “Pride and Joy” for Marvin Gaye. Whitfield started writing songs for the Temptations in 1963 and succeeded Smokey Robinson as the group’s producer in 1966 when “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” became a hit for the group.

Norman Whitfield was given free rein to experiment with studio technics and musical arrangements, inaugurating the group’s blend of psychedelic rock and funk known as “psychedelic soul” – a style which Funkadelic’s George Clinton, who also briefly worked at Motown, always claimed Whitfield appropriated from him/them.

If Clinton’s claim is right, then Whitfield clearly mastered the mechanics and the memorability of psychedelic soul well before Clinton came into his own. Certainly, Sly Stone was paying attention, too.

Whitfield worked with the Temptations through 1974, leaving to form his own label, the Warner Bros.-distributed Whitfield Records. One of the first acts he brought to his new label was the Undisputed Truth, a group Whitfield had overseen successfully on the Motown-distributed Gordy label since 1971.

Whitfield scored a huge hit in 1976 with his soundtrack to Car Wash, featuring several hit songs by Rose Royce, including the title track, “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” and a song, which surprisingly never had any jazz coverage, “I Wanna Get Next to You.” Rose Royce recorded several notable records for the Whitfield label while Whitfield himself scored another hit with his theme song to the 1977 film Which Way is Up by Stargard (another Whitfield group well worth hearing in more depth).

Norman Whitfield returned to Motown in the eighties, again producing the Temptations and co-writing and producing the title track by Dwight David to the 1985 film soundtrack to Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (complete with the Taco Bell-appropriated “dong” and classic-ish electric drums).

The label I worked with was probably right: who has ever said, “oh, that’s a Norman Whitfield song”? Not many… other than me. Maybe that’s just the way my brain works. To its credit, and much to my praise, the British Kent Soul label issued the terrific and highly-recommended compilation CD Psychedelic Soul: Produced by Norman Whitfield in 2021 – obviously focusing on Whitfield’s brilliant and wildly under-appreciated production ability.

Maybe if I had proposed a set of jazz covers of Temptations songs, I could have had my own Norman Whitfield compilation. Indeed, many – but not all – of the Whitfield songs noted here were written for the Temptations. But while Kent Soul’s job was an appreciation of Norman Whitfield the producer – a duly noble endeavor – my goal was and is to celebrate Norman Whitfield the composer. Sample his enduring brilliance in the following terrific jazz takes presented here:

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: Written by Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland for the Temptations in 1966. The Rolling Stones covered the song in 1974, when it reached number 17 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” was revived in 1983 as part of the hit soundtrack The Big Chill, six years before Rick “Never Gonna Give You Up” Astley Rickrolled a minor hit of his own with the tune.

Above: Willie Bobo from Juicy (1967). Also: Count Basie and His Orchestra from Basie’s in the Bag (1967) and Mongo Santamaria from All Strung Out (1970). (Jimmy Smith recorded the song in March 1971, but the recording remains unissued.)

Car Wash: Written by Norman Whitfield for Rose Royce for the 1976 soundtrack to the film Car Wash. The song was a number one hit and the soundtrack album won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album. Christine Aguilera and Missy Elliott revived the song in 2004 for the Shark Tale soundtrack.

Above: Christian McBride Trio from Live at the Village Vanguard (2016).

Cloud Nine: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1968. The song reached number 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned Motown its first Grammy Award. Conguero Mongo Santamaria, who covered the song in 1969 and 1971, is said to have played on the Temptations’ original.

Above: Mongo Santamaria from Stone Soul (1969). Also: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970 – as “Cloud 9”) and Mongo Santamaria from Mongo at Montreux (1971). (Woody Herman recorded the song during the Heavy Exposure sessions in 1969, but the recording remains unreleased.)

Friendship Train: Grammy-nominated song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1969. Whitfield also recorded the song using the same backing track for the Temptations in 1969.

Above: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970).

Got Myself a Good Man: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1969. Surprisingly, the only song listed here not issued as a single, “Got Myself a Good Man” was issued as the b-side to the Norman Whitfield-produced single “The Nitty Gritty” – which did garner some jazz coverage, but as a Lincoln Chase composition, is not featured here.

Above: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Fire (1970): After Pucho’s fantastic cover became an acid-jazz favorite and breakbeat classic (The Chemical Brothers, Beastie Boys, DJ Spooky) in the nineties, the British BGP label issued this version of “Got Myself a Good Man” as a single in 2003. Also: Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers from Jungle Strut (1993)

I Can’t Get Next to You: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1969, the second of the group’s No. 1 songs.

Above: Woody Herman from Heavy Exposure (1969). Also: Mongo Santamaria from Feelin’ Alright (1970), Woody Herman from Herd at Montreux (1974), Hiram Bullock Band from Manny’s Car Wash (1996), David Sanborn from Time and the River (2015) and Dave Stryker from Eight Track II (2016).

I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966 (apparently) for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, although, for whatever reason, that version wasn’t released until 1968. Marvin Gaye recorded the song in 1967 but Berry Gordy again blocked its release until 1968, when it topped the charts for seven weeks in December 1968 to January 1969 – becoming Motown’s biggest hit to that point. (Marvin Gaye’s version of “Grapevine” had a resurgence in 1983 as part of the film and the soundtrack of The Big Chill.) The third recording of the song, by Gladys Knight and the Pips, was the first one issued in 1967, when it went to Number Two. While Marvin Gaye’s version is the best known – and the one that all these jazz covers reference –Whitfield’s variation for Gladys Knight, where he set out to “’out-funk Aretha,” is the one to hear.

Above: Earl Klugh from Living Inside Your Love (1976). Also: Willie Bobo from Spanish Blues Band (1968), Harold Mabern from Rakin’ and Scrapin’ (1969), Mongo Santamaria from All Strung Out (1970), Bob Mintzer from Urban Contours (1989) and Bill Frisell from East/West (2005), Lucky Peterson from Brother Where Are You (2009). (Bill Frisell also coveredd the song on his download album The Boulder Theater – Boulder, Colorado – November 5th, 2003,posted in 2009)

(I Know) I’m Losing You: Written by Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland and Cornelius Grant for the Temptations in 1966 (with arrangements by Wade Marcus and Paul Riser), a Top Ten hit for the group. Whitfield produced a nearly 11-minute version for Rare Earth in 1970 (a radio-friendly edit of which bested the Temptations’ version by reaching number 7) and another for the Undisputed Truth for their 1975 album Cosmic Truth. Rod Stewart also had one of his earliest hits with his 1971 version of “I’m Losing You.”

Above: The Soulful Strings from Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings (1967).

I Wish It Would Rain: Written by Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene for the Temptations in 1967. Bruce Springsteen recently covered the song on his 2022 disc Only the Strong Survive.

Above: The Soulful Strings from In Concert (1969). Also: Don Sebesky from The Distant Galaxy (1968) and Willie Bobo from Spanish Blues Band (1968).

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me): Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1971 and the last of the group’s singles to feature founding members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. The Rolling Stones covered the song for their 1978 album Some Girls.

Above: Houston Person from Houston Express (1971). Also: Donald Byrd Places and Spaces (1975), David Matthews with Whirlwind from Shoogie Wanna Boogie (1976), Larry Carlton from Kid Gloves (1992) and Wallace Roney from Mystikal (2005).

Masterpiece: Written by Norman Whitfield for the Temptations in 1973, the group’s follow-up to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” “Masterpiece” was a Top Ten hit but it ended up being the last of the Temptations’ elongated hit cycle.

Above: Grover Washington, Jr. from Soul Box (1973).

Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Undisputed Truth in 1972, although the Temptations’ Grammy Award-winning version released later that year became much more popular. Often covered, as is here, as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Above: Roy Ayers Ubiquity from Red Black & Green (1973). Also: Jay Berliner from Bananas Are Not Created Equal (1972), Gene Ammons from Big Bad Jug (1972), Herbie Mann from Deep Pocket (1994), Paul Bollenback from Soul Grooves (1991 – bizarrely misattributed to "Williams/Bryant/Franklin"), Michael Wolff from Impure Thoughts (2000), Ray Brown / John Clayton / Christian McBride from Superbass #2 (2001), ‘Papa’ John DeFrancesco from A Philadelphia Story (2011) and Marcus Miller from Afrodeezia (2015).

Smiling Faces Sometimes: Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations in 1971 but became a hit for the Undisputed Truth later that year.

Above: Bobbi Humphrey from Dig This! (1972).

Also: Charles Kynard beautifully covered "Smiling Faces Sometimes" on a little-known 1972 single well worth hearing that also featured not on any Charles Kynard album but rather on the Mainstream-label compilations Get it Together (1972) and Booty (1974).

Too Busy Thinking About My Baby: Written by Norman Whitefield, Barrett Strong and Janie Bradford for the Temptations in 1966 but the song became a hit in 1969 for Marvin Gaye, his follow-up single to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

Above: Mongo Santamaria from Workin’ on a Groovy Thing (1969). Also: Harold Mabern from Workin’ & Wailin’ (1969).

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Don Sebesky on Verve

Don Sebesky (b. 1937) got his start playing trombone in the big bands of Warren Covington, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Bill Russo and, most notably, Maynard Ferguson. It was Ferguson who let Sebesky try his hand at arranging, a skill to which he brought a wide range of musical knowledge and, more notably, an emotional depth and subtlety that was unusual in jazz at the time (and a real feat in Ferguson’s band).

One of Sebesky’s first jobs outside the Ferguson band – arranging A Jazz Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963) – attracted the attention of producer Creed Taylor…and history was made. Their first project together was guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (1965), an artistic and commercial success that has stood the test of time for over half a century.

Sebesky would collaborate with the producer on four of the guitarist’s following records: California Dreaming on Verve and all three of Montgomery’s A&M records. Taylor and Sebesky would go on to craft many records together over the next four decades or so for Verve, A&M and, most notably, CTI Records.

What made Sebesky’s work with Taylor particularly impressive is that the arranger never got in the way of the soloist. Take Wes Montgomery: Sebesky never talked over the guitarist. Rather, he listened. Sebesky’s interjections were not statements so much as another side of a conversation, responses rather than declarations.

Furthermore, Sebesky proved especially adept at not only honing in on the sophistication of pop music but eliciting the simple melodic core of complicated classical pieces without ever losing sight that what he was doing was jazz.

Sebesky would go on to work for other producers at other labels, but his first opportunity for solo success came from the post-Creed Taylor Verve Records. Sebesky had already arranged Verve recordings for Astrud Gilberto, Kai Winding, Kenny Burrell and Willie Bobo when Verve offered him the opportunity to guide two albums of his own – one under his own name and another that was his in all but name.

Both records - Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome and The Distant Galaxy - were recorded and released in 1968 and, at first glance, seem identical in intent: crossover jazz. Although Sebesky had found commercial success at the expense of critical ire with the crossover jazz albums he made with Wes Montgomery, his approach on both these records differs quite a bit from what’s heard on the guitarist’s Sebesky-helmed records.

While one record here might miss the mark, the other deserves to be much better known. Both, however, are worth consideration and reevaluation.

The album ultimately issued as Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome was recorded during January and June 1968 sessions (and not “June 1967,” as the LP indicates) and issued in September of that year. The promotion for this record started fairly early in 1968 and indicates that sessions that became part of The Distant Galaxy might well have been intended for this record. Obviously, Verve didn’t know what to make out of any of this. Maybe even Sebesky had little clue what was expected of him here.

”The sound is big band,” noted Billboard at the time, “but the feeling is the kind of blues rock put down by groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears.” Obviously, the quiet part here is “for those who want that sort of thing.” Come on, how else can you read “put down”? But the description is pretty spot on even so. Sebesky himself said his goal here was to combine “Holman-influenced Basie” – more than a little disambiguation going on there – with the “light, groovy approach” of the Mamas and the Papas.

Indeed, Sebesky covers two M&P hits here (“Dancing in the Streets,” co-credited here to “Gayle” [!], not [Marvin] Gaye, and “Somebody Groovy”) and offers a tribute to the group’s “Big Mama Cass.”

Pop covers, however, were the point. Producer Creed Taylor had long had success – particularly with Wes Montgomery – at Verve and CTI marrying top-tier jazz players with AM-radio hits. But the poorly titled DS & TJ-RS would never be mistaken for any kind of Creed Taylor production.

The elegance of CTI – much of which was crafted with Sebesky’s assistance – is altogether absent here. Ruling the day are brash horn charts, rushed tempos, (what had to be even then hokey) quarter-note guitar jabs, electric bass and entirely unimaginative percussion – none of which producer Creed Taylor would have ever signed off on.

Other pop covers include The Association’s otherwise lovely “Never My Love” (which Sebesky later arranged, more compellingly, for Astrud Gilberto on Windy [1968]); Peter, Paul & Mary’s “I Dig Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” [sic]; “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” a hit for both the Fortunes and Nancy Wilson (and previously covered by Sebesky on Kai Winding’s 1965 album The In Instrumentals); and, perhaps most memorably, the Beatles’ catchy but little-known “The Word.”

”The Word” was this album’s single and one of two songs here notably featuring then up-and-coming guitarist Larry Coryell – really trampling all over the jaunty little tune (“Dancing in the Streets” is, surprisingly, his only other appearance here). The little-known saxophonist Richard (or “Dick”) Spencer – who, like a number of other musicians on DS & TJ-RS, came out of Maynard Ferguson’s band – takes several considerable, though brief, solos while an echoplexed Hubert Laws takes a very brief feature on “Never My Love.”

Throughout, much of the album adds ingratiating party sounds right out of the (years-past) hit playbooks of Ramsey Lewis and Cannonball Adderley and even German band leader James Last’s Non Stop Dancing albums of the time. Indeed, the Non Stop Dancing albums could well be the model for what Sebesky and company are serving up here.

Surely, Sebesky’s originals are what make this album worth hearing. There is, of course, the aforementioned “Big Mama Cass,” written for Cass Elliot, a breakbeat classic which should have been much better known. Riffing off “Got My Mojo Workin,” “Big Mama Cass” was also arranged by Sebesky for the Buddy Rich Big Band’s 1968 album Mercy, Mercy.

“Meet a Cheetah” – which mistakenly appears as “Meet a Cheeta” on the record’s inside sleeve – was written for Sebesky’s old boss Maynard Ferguson for his 1968 album Ridin’ High. Riffing off Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” “Meet a Cheetah” would get a slinky and far more nuanced presentation by the writer/arranger for the second of trumpeter/vocalist Jack Sheldon’s two albums arranged by Sebesky, The Cool World of Jack Sheldon (1969).

Perhaps the album’s hidden treasure is also its least known track, Sebesky’s lovely “Banana Flower.” This sensuous slice of bossa baroque, probably based on “Love is Blue,” is seemingly informed by the baroque touches Sebesky added to Wes Montgomery’s final album Road Song, recorded only a month earlier.

The fetching “Banana Flower” tends to make the rest of the album sound positively ham-handed in comparison and may explain why the label chose to issue the song as the flip side to “The Word” single: flipping the record may well have given Sebesky a hit here. It is not only strongly reminiscent of one of those glorious Italian film themes of the period helmed by singer Edda Del’Orso, it is the most characteristic piece on the album of Sebesky’s genius for melodic invention and his gift for crafting sublime sweetening.

(The cover photograph of Don Sebesky & The Jazz-Rock Syndrome, like The Distant Galaxy, was shot by Joel Brodsky, who had also shot several notable covers for The Doors, Van Morrison’s iconic Astral Weeks and Funkadelic’s unforgettable Maggot Brain a short while later. Brodsky’s striking photo here seems to have provided a bit of inspiration to Maurice Binder for his main-title sequence for the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill.)

Like DS & TJ-RS, the point of The Distant Galaxy is the parade of pop covers. But The Distant Galaxy is an altogether different sort of affair. Here, Sebesky seems to be crafting a hip easy-listening experience: as though Perrey and Kingsley joined forces with the Mystic Moods Orchestra or even something approximating a David Axelrod production.

There are similarities here, too, to the lovely CTI album Trust in Me that Sebesky arranged around this time for the mysterious Soul Flutes. That group allegedly featured Hubert Laws, who offers several solos spots here – on flute and soprano sax – including a feature on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was also recorded for but not issued on Trust in Me.

The Distant Galaxy is a Don Sebesky album in all but name and a far more satisfying listening experience than DS & TJ-RS. Recorded over various sessions between March and October 1968 and released in December of that year, The Distant Galaxy is a real feather in Sebesky’s cap.

The song choices are more interesting – covering Cream, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, The Temptations and, of course, The Beatles – and the overall presentation is more in line with what one might expect from a Sebesky-helmed project.

Even with strings added, the jazz quotient is higher here, too. Much higher. Reprising their guest spots from DS & TJ_RS are guitarist Larry Coryell and saxophonist Richard Spencer; the former on “Lady Madonna” and “Guru-vin” (on electric sitar!) and the latter on “The Blue Scimitar” and “Elvira Madigan/Honey.”

Laws is front-lined on “[The] Sounds of Silence” (on flute) and “Dance the Night Away” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (both on soprano sax). Pianist Dick Hyman, who was helming his own hip electronic records at the time, features here on “Soul Lady,” “Elvira Madigan/Honey,” and “I Wish it Would Rain” while trumpeter Marvin Stamm (who is also present on the aforementioned Charlie Mariano record) takes several nice turns on “The Blue Scimitar,” “Lady Madonna” and possibly even “Elvira Madigan/Honey.”

That last piece – a mash-up that mixes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No, 21, then the hit theme to the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, with the Bobby Goldsboro hit “Honey” in a way that recalls Kai Winding’s 1963 hit “More” – was recorded during one of the album’s April 1968 sessions and rush-released as a single in June of that year. The Distant Galaxy had a modest hit right out of the gate: “Elvira Madigan/Honey” reached number 39 on Billboard’s Easy Listening (now called “Adult Contemporary”) chart.

Later, when the full album was issued, a promotional single of the Simon & Garfunkel cover – there as “The Sound of Silence” – was issued, backed with the baroque funk of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” Neither side of the single managed to generate enough interest to justify a full release and, surprisingly, no other song from the record broke out or appeared as a single.

Interestingly, Sebesky never tapped “The Sounds of Silence” for the 1969 album of Paul Simon songs he produced and arranged for Paul Desmond, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Also, “Lady Madonna” was recorded only a couple weeks after The Beatles’ release of the song and a mere two months before the very similar baroque arrangements Sebesky crafted for guitarist Wes Montgomery’s final album Road Song (both Coryell and Stamm excel with aplomb here).

Since the pop covers aren’t as obvious here – kudos to Sebesky and/or producer Esmond Edwards for going with Cream’s “Dance the Night Away” and the Temptations’ marvelous “I Wish It Would Rain” (this listener adores any cover of anything by Norman Whitfield) – one might suspect the originals aren’t worth the effort. Not so.

Esmond Edwards (1927-2007), the album’s producer, contributes the riveting “The Blue Scimitar.” First featured on pianist Ray Bryant’s Edwards-produced album Lonesome Traveler (1966), Sebesky frames the tune much as Sound Pieces-era Oliver Nelson might (with Sebesky’s signature string embellishments on top). Spencer, on soprano sax, nicely picks up Nelson’s mantle as well.

Sebesky’s “Soul Lady” could be as much a tribute to Aretha Franlkin (“Respect”) as the “queen of the organ,” Shirley Scott (the uncredited organist here is likely Dick Hyman, who is, however, credited on the unheard piano) and possibly even Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots Were Made for Walkin”). This groover is a little funkier and less forced than the horn-heavy arrangement of “Soul Lady” Sebesky provided to the Buddy Rich Big Band for its album Buddy & Soul - there featuring little-known guitarist David Dana in full-on Coryell mode.

The infectious ”Water Brother” is driven by a compelling combination of Warren Bernhardt on clavinet, Hubert Laws on flute (both of whom solo wonderfully) and Sebesky on the Moog synthesizer. The melody here is reminiscent of Richard Evans’ fiery “Burning Spear,” which Sebesky had arranged a few months before for Kenny Burrell’s album Blues – The Common Ground, while Sebesky’s string charts here practically soundcheck Evans’ under-appreciated Soulful Strings – all suggesting that Sebesky’s brother here is Richard Evans.

If anyone accepts the Evans connection here, then Bernhardt (who sadly passed away last August at the age of 83) is performing an ode to Odell Brown while Laws is referencing the legendary Lenard Druss. (Laws’ solo section here also reminds this listener of the flautist’s performance on Patrick Williams’ funky “Down River” from the 1980 soundtrack to How to Beat the High Cost of Living.)

Guitarist George Benson covered “Water Brother” on his 1969 A&M album Tell it Like It Is, an album Sebesky surprisingly did not arrange (he had arranged the A&M Benson albums before and after this one). There, arranger Marty Scheller gives “Water Brother” a spin that would not sound out of place on a Mongo Santamaria record of the period. Benson fires through the melody as only he could do – breathlessly, breathtakingly and beautifully.

“Guru-vin” may well be Sebesky’s single best-known composition. This particular song seems to find its way in to many DJ sets and appears – credited to Don Sebesky alone – on a number of funk compilations. The song cleverly works Larry Coryell’s electric sitar overtop a conundrum of keyboards (piano, electric harpsichord) and a synthesizer-vocal line and funky string counterpoint. Coryell may get the well-deserved spotlight here, but Sebesky’s dynamic string work on the song’s outro is worth paying attention to as well.

At the last minute, someone decided to add brief electronic effects in between songs, credited to “Rick Horton of MGM,” that give a sort of sci-fi effect to the appropriately sci-fi sounding “Distant Galaxy.” While likely inspired by the success of that year’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a bit of cheese that the album doesn’t need. But it’s not a necessarily terrible addition.

The mostly Moog-y pieces (“Reflectivity” samples – years ahead of its time – a bit of the intro for “Mr. Tambourine Man”) are harmless enough but seem to influence some interesting Teo Macero-like editing on the full-song fade-outs – nicely on “Water Brother” and “Lady Madonna,” but bizarrely on “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

These little breaks (and their possible 2001 origins) likely inspired J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding’s classical interludes on the trombone duo’s Creed Taylor-produced Betwixt and Between - an album recorded during the same month as The Distant Galaxy but also notably missing Sebesky’s overt presence.

”Combine some exotic instruments (electric sitar, clavinet, Moog Synthesizer),” wrote Billboard about The Distant Galaxy upon its December 1968 release, “with more conventional ones, add a sometime chorus of celestial voices and unusual arrangements by Don Sebesky and out come [sic] the way-out sounds of the Distant Galaxy. ‘Elvira Madigan /Honey’ was a successful single and is happily included here along with other instrumentals of recent hits and some new space-age material. Interesting are some electronic intros which reinforce the out-of-this-world mood.”

Oddly, but maybe even predictably, The Distant Galaxy never found much of an audience. Don Sebesky would go on to help craft the “CTI Sound” of the seventies, the apex of which would be on the next record of his, under his own name: the stellar 1973 CTI classic Giant Box - surprisingly an album which Sebesky himself is said to disregard.

Sebesky continues to work with jazz artists and vocalists of every stripe, but albums under his own name are sparse. He recorded albums of his own for such smaller labels as Gryphon, GNP Crescendo and Doctor Jazz and two for the-then major RCA Victor, which released Joyful Noise – A Tribute to Duke Ellington in 1999, the most recent album by Sebesky under his own name.

While The Distant Galaxy has yet to appear on CD, the album was reissued on vinyl in 2020 by the Italian label Pleasure for Music, a label that has also issued vinyl reissues of several Dick Hyman records and Tamiko Jones’ 1968 album I’ll Be Anything for You, which was also partially arranged by Sebesky.

“Originally released on Verve in 1968,” as Pleasure for Music so aptly put it, “The Distant Galaxy is quite a hybrid of soul jazz and space-age music, an influential cornerstone fully sampled by a who’s who of hip-hop and superstar [sic] like Rakim, Madlib, and Buck 65. Such an obscure and terrific album that features a blend of jazz, psych and good old ‘60s light pop with brief ‘cosmic’ audio tidbits inserted between most of the main tracks.”

A real gem and one that would make a perfect two-fer CD with Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome. Anyone?