Saturday, April 29, 2023

Alternative Guitar Summit – “Honoring Pat Martino, Volume 1” (2022)

The guitarist, composer, educator and author Joel Harrison (b. 1957) founded the Alternative Guitar Summit (AGS) in 2010 as an annual jazz guitar collective of “daring, inventive players who emphasize new and unusual approaches to the guitar.”

The collective features an ever-changing cast of jazz guitarists, from the well-known and well-recorded to new talent coming up through the ranks. (I’m frankly amazed by how many terrifically distinctive guitarists from multiple generations there are these days – so many of whom work with Joel Harrison as part of the AGS.)

To date, this Pat Martino tribute disc is the AGS’s sole release under that moniker.

While AGS traditionally does its thing live in front of an audience in the New York club scene, all such facilities were effectively shuttered in March 2021 when the AGS assembled for this tribute, due to the Covid pandemic lockdowns. Harrison therefore booked a Brooklyn studio, gathered some of New York’s finest guitarists and set up video cameras to capture it all.

Much of the nine tracks on Honoring Pat Martino were caught at that gig, which the honoree himself, who was ill at the time, was able to Zoom in to. Pat Martino would be gone eight months later.

While this superb tribute disc claims to celebrate Pat Martino the guitarist – surely a noble effort in its own right – my sense is that it goes a lot further in honoring Pat Martino the composer. Both aspects of Martino’s character are well worth noting. Eight of the nine tunes featured here are Martino compositions, but – oddly – none are from the guitarist’s productive Prestige years (1967-70).

Harrison, however, curates an impressive range of Martino originals here, including “Willow” and Martino’s fairly well-known “On The Stairs,” originally from the guitarist’s album Consciousness (1974); the splendid “Line Games” and “Joyous Lake,” from the fusion album Joyous Lake (1976); “Black Glass” from Interchange (1994); “Noshufuru,” from The Maker (1995); “Country Road,” from Nexus (c. mid 90s); and “Inside Out,” from Undeniable (2011). The only cover here is J.J. Johnson’s classic “Lament,” originally appearing on Martino’s We’ll Be Together Again (1976).

Somewhat surprisingly, there are no outright nods – at least here – to Wes Montgomery, one of Martino’s greatest influences, or Martino’s own memorable Montgomery tribute, “The Visit.”

A whopping baker’s dozen of guitarists weigh in here, beautifully paying tribute to Martino’s keen sense of melody, singing and swinging tone and singular dexterity.

The guitarists on the March date are nicely paired on each tune and include Adam Rogers and Peter Bernstein on “Inside Out,” Sheryl Bailey and Ed Cherry on “Willow,” Rez Abbasi and Jeff Miles on “Noshufuru,” Dave Stryker and Paul Bollenback for “On the Stairs,” and Nir Felder and Oz Noy on “Joyous Lake” – all backed by Dezron Douglas on bass and Allan Mednard on drums.

Other guitarists include Kurt Rosenwinkel (“Black Glass”), Russell Malone (the solo “Lament”), Harrison himself (“Country Road,” also solo), and a guitarist I’m sorry to say I completely lost track of over the years, Fareed Haque, who plays “Line Games” on his 1974 Ramirez flamenco guitar – the album’s lone acoustic guitar. (“Line Games” also appears on a 2022 disc-length Pat Martino tribute by Fareed Haque titled Return to the Joyous Lake that is available after a bit of digging from

Honoring Pat Martino coalesces nicely and is especially well programmed. There is a terrific balance of each of the guitarists’ individual personalities with the style and sound of the guitarist they’re honoring.

With nary a dud in the bunch, highlights for this listener include Fareed Haque’s take on “Line Games” (with Kevin Kozol neatly riffing off Gil Goldstein), Sheryl Bailey and the underrated Ed Cherry on the beautifully Wes-ish “Willow” and the inspired pairing of Dave Stryker and Paul Bollenback on the fiery “On the Stairs.” The disc reaches a high mark on “Joyous Lake,” an underrated Martino tune from a critically neglected period in the guitarist’s career, helmed by the magnificent fret work of Nir Felder and Oz Noy.

It’s worth noting that Honoring Pat Martino’s associate producer is Philadelphia violinist Joe Donofrio, who contributed to Martino’s 1976 album Starbright and produced several of the guitarist’s albums, including Formidable (2017), Martino’s final recording.

Here’s hoping there’s a second volume of Honoring Pat Martino on the way. And here’s hoping that HighNote, one of America’s last great jazz labels, might consider putting out more discs by Joel Harrison’s Alternative Guitar Summit.

According to AGS’s web site, the collective’s next scheduled event is August 21 to 25, 2023, at the Full Moon Resort in the Catskills, with Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Rodney Jones, Camila Meza, Kurt Rosenwinkel (who mans “Black Glass” here), Gilad Hekselman, Wayne Krantz, Joel Harrison and others.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Organic Pat Martino

“…probing, imaginatively controlled musical clarity and coherence – fleet as the wind when required but always easy, fluid, full of gracefully virtuosic touches (to remind you of the control behind the ease) – imperturbable, supremely cool, and quietly intense.” - Pete Welding on Pat Martino as quoted by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s

Guitarist Pat Martino (1944-2021) was one of the finest guitarists of late twentieth-century jazz. His dexterity was matched only by his sensitivity. No matter how fast his fingers flew across the fretboard, it was never at the expense of the melody. He could have easily shown off or loaded up his solos with lots of notes, but his gymnastics were always in the beautiful employ of the song or the groove.

But Martino was inexplicably one of the least celebrated of the jazz guitarists of his generation. Born Patrick Carmen Azzara, Martino’s renown was eclipsed by such predecessors as Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith (like Wes Montgomery, an influence) and Jim Hall; contemporaries George Benson, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin; and such later guitar heroes as Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

Whereas jazz guitarists of a certain generation were locked out of the pantheon for attempts at “crossing over,” one of the castigating reasons that likely doomed Martino to cult status is his career-length attempt at “crossing back in.”

Martino came up – by choice – in organ combos and soul jazz, and it was held against him right from the start. Virtually all of the above-named guitarists – with the possible exception of Grant Green – loaded up their discographies with enough critically-accepted “straight ahead” jazz to forgive their wayward journeys into music that was considered more fun or funky than serious or straight-laced.

Although the bulk of Pat Martino’s discography includes no organ – and little of it bows to what is often derisively referred to as “soul jazz” (pianist/organist Mike LeDonne has said that all jazz is soul jazz – the guitarist is sidelined from the pantheon by the organ-combo records he did do on his own and with others.But this careless disregard ignores some especially fine records Pat Martino waxed in organ-based groups.

Today, perhaps only guitarist Peter Bernstein (b. 1967) can best Pat Martino for the sheer number of unapologetic organ combos he finds himself in (his long association with Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart is especially notable). Like Martino, Bernstein often shines brightest in organic company.

What follows are the organists that recorded with Pat Martino over the guitarist’s formidable half-century career. While the volume of such recordings is notable, it is curious that the great bulk of these recordings are not under the guitarist’s own name:

Pat Bianchi (b. 1975): Born in Rochester, New York and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music (where he now teaches), Pat Bianchi is one of the more notable B-3 bombers in contemporary jazz. He’s recorded in the 21st century organ combos of Ed Cherry, Ralph Peterson, Chuck Loeb and Tim Warfield (including a tribute album to Philadelphia native Shirley Scott, who surprisingly never recorded with Martino).

Bianchi also hosts the weekly Sirius XM show Organized, devoted exclusively to the art of organ jazz. Bianchi is the last in a long line of organ players to work with Pat Martino: In The Moment - Pat Bianchi (2018 – “Mr. PC” only); Formidable - Pat Martino (2017 – Martino’s final [known] recording).

Joey DeFrancesco (1971-2022): At the turn of the century, Joey DeFrancesco had single handedly brought the organ back to jazz. Not yet thirty, he had built a sizeable discography with many jazz legends and an impressive catalog under his own name. DeFrancesco’s magic came from absorbing and mastering the art of his predecessors while delivering a signature all his own.

It was Joey DeFrancesco who brought Martino back into the organ-combo format after several decades grooving in other bags. Sadly, their collaboration is limited to a mere handful of releases:

Live at Yoshi’s - Pat Martino (2001 – Martino’s first organ-based disc since his 1967 solo debut); Keepers of the Flame - Charles Earland Tribute Band (2002 – “What Love Has Joined,” “On the Stairs” and a superb cover of “Pick Up the Pieces” only); Ballads and Blues - Joey DeFrancesco (2002 – “These Are Soulful Days, which Martino performed in 1974 with Don Patterson,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” only); Falling in Love Again - Joey DeFrancesco featuring Joe Doggs (2003); 6 String Theory - Lee Ritenour (2010 – the sublime “L.P. [For Les Paul]” only).

Charles Earland (1941-99): Pat Martino’s first-ever road gig was with fellow Philadelphian Charles Earland. Known as “The Mighty Burner,” Earland was also a high-school friend of Martino’s. Surprisingly, the two never factored on any of each other’s own records, but did reunite for a pair of saxophonist Willis Jackson’s records. Both are well worth hearing: Bar Wars - Willis Jackson (1978) and Nothin’ Butt - Willis Jackson (1983).

Richard “Groove” Holmes (1931-91): Born in Camden, New Jersey, Groove Holmes was a prodigious player who recorded many records for many labels during his all-too short life. Unfortunately, Martino and Holmes collaborated just once. But while Groove worked with some great guitarists in the sixties (George Freeman, Boogaloo Joe Jones, Gene Edwards), you tend not to notice the plectrum spectrum on a Groove Holmes record: Get Up & Get It! - Richard “Groove” Holmes (1967).

Jermaine Landsberger (b. 1973): The German keyboard player Jermaine Landsberger entered the music industry as a pianist, but briefly dabbled as an organist (an early such album is cleverly – or ridiculously – dubbed Hammond Eggs). Pat Martino appears on three tracks of this all organ-jazz disc, recorded in Hollywood (with Harvey Mason): Martino considered Landsberger “a formidable artist, a master of the flame.”: Gettin’ Blazed - Jermaine Landsberger (2009).

Gene Ludwig (1937-2010): Pittsburgh-based Gene Ludwig was first drawn to the organ when he heard a Jimmy Smith record in 1956. He started putting out records under his own name in 1963 and recorded and toured the East Coast as well as the Ohio-Western Pennsylvania corridor – often holding court at Pittsburgh’s storied Crawford Grill). Ludwig came to some minimal national attention when he replaced Don Patterson in Sonny Stitt’s band in 1969: Night Letter - Sonny Stitt (1969); Young Guns - Gene Ludwig – Pat Martino Trio (rec. c. 1969, rel. 2014).

Brother Jack McDuff (1926-2001): According to George Benson’s autobiography, when the guitarist was hired by Jack McDuff, neither he nor the organist were entirely happy with each other. McDuff wanted Benson to hear Pat Martino as an example of what Brother Jack was looking for. Surprisingly, Benson was overwhelmed, considering Martino “twice the guitarist” as Benson.

Still, Benson got the gig, even bringing McDuff’s band a whole new level of renown. It would appear that McDuff brought in Martino to replace Benson when John Hammond gave the latter an opportunity to form his own band. Martino seems to appear on quite a few of McDuff’s Prestige albums of the late sixties, but only a song or two on each album feature the guitarist. Martino was with McDuff very briefly and the songs were the result of a few sessions recorded in late 1965 and early 1966:

Walk on By - Brother Jack McDuff (1966 – as Pat Azzara); Hallelujah Time! - Brother Jack McDuff (1967 – “Almost Like Being in Love” and “The Live People” only); The Midnight Sun - Brother Jack McDuff (1968 – “Misconstrued” only);Soul Circle - Brother Jack McDuff (1968 – “More” only);I Got A Woman - Brother Jack McDuff (1969 – Side A only); Steppin’ Out - Brother Jack McDuff (1969 – “Chicken Feet” only); Brotherly Love - Brother Jack McDuff (2001); Bronx Tale (1994 – as “The Kid”).

Tony Monaco (b. 1959): Like Hank Marr and Don Patterson, Tony Monaco hails from Columbus, Ohio. Monaco’s 2001 debut disc, Burnin’ Grooves was sponsored and produced by Joey DeFrancesco. Martino and Monaco collaborated on one disc – a live recording captured at Blues Alley in Washington, DC, in 2009 with Eric Alexander and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There must be more in the archives somewhere: Undeniable - Pat Martino Quartet (2011).

Don Patterson (1936-88): Originally from Columbus, Ohio, the great Don Patterson resided in Harlem in the early sixties (and Gary, Indiana, in the early seventies) but spent much of his life in Pat Martino’s hometown, Philadelphia. Patterson’s name does not often come up when talking about the royalty of the Hammond B-3 – but it should. He was a self-taught pianist but switched to organ in 1959 after hearing Jimmy Smith: “When I heard Jimmy Smith, that was it!” Indeed, Jimmy Smith himself considered Patterson one of the greatest on organ.

Hooking up with guitarist Paul Weeden’s trio, Patterson spent much of the sixties backing Booker Ervin, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and, notably, Sonny Stitt. The organist waxed his first solo record with the Weeden trio on Goin’ Down Home (recorded 1963, released 1967) but put out a series of fine but forgotten records on Prestige. Patterson recorded four terrific discs for the Muse label in the seventies, including These Are Soulful Days (1974 – reissued on CD as Steady Comin’ At ‘Ya), the first time this listener ever heard Pat Martino. Patterson seemed to vanish from records a full decade before his all too early death at age 52 in 1988.

Unfortunately, very little of Don Patterson’s recorded output is available on CD or streaming. But Martino factored on some of the organist’s best records, including the 1966 debut recording of Pittsburgh saxophonist Eric Kloss – who was 16 at the time (Kloss also played on Martino’s “Blackjack,” from the 1970 album Desperado): Holiday Soul - Don Patterson (1965); Introducing Eric Kloss with Don Patterson - Eric Kloss (1966); Four Dimensions - Don Patterson (1968); Boppin’ & Burnin’ - Don Patterson (1968); Opus de Don - Don Patterson (1968); Funk You! - Don Patterson (1969); These Are Soulful Days - Don Patterson (1974).

Bobby Pierce (b. 1942): The tremendously soulful organist and vocalist Bobby Pierce had the grave misfortune of kicking off his recording career precisely when the Hammond B-3 began falling out of favor. Born in Columbus, Ohio, and heavily influenced by native son Don Patterson, Pierce had the drive and energy of Bill Mason or Leon Spencer and an appealing blue-eyed soulful growl that seemed amenable to crossover success that never came. Pierce recorded only two albums in the early seventies, including his debut with Pat Martino, before returning to Columbus. He returned to recording briefly in 2008 for his third disc on Doodlin’, The Long Road Back. With Martino: Introducing Bobby Pierce - Bobby Pierce (1972).

Trudy Pitts (1932-2010): Like Pat Martino, Trudy Pitts hails from Philadelphia. The two came up through the ranks together. Martino recorded his 1967 solo debut with Pitts while the guitarist was on a break touring with John Handy’s group – one of his earliest non-organ combos. Ms. Pitts, often heard in the company of her husband, drummer Bill Carney, a.k.a. “Mr. C.,” is a terrific and terribly under-appreciated B-3 bomber. The organist’s two albums here were reissued on a single CD set called Legends of Acid Jazz: Trudy Pitts With Pat Martino (1998):

Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts - Trudy Pitts (1967); El Hombre - Pat Martino (1967 – Martino’s solo debut); These Blues of Mine - Trudy Pitts (1968).

Mickey Tucker (b. 1941): At this time, pianist Mickey Tucker was part of a group known as The New Heritage Keyboard Quartet with Roland Hanna that issued one album on Blue Note in 1973. Pat Martino’s sole foray with Tucker found the keyboardist helming electric piano and organ too. It’s not an easy album to find these days and has never turned up on CD or streaming services: Headed and Gutted - Willis Jackson (1975)

Carl Wilson: Almost nothing is known about organist Carl Wilson except that he isn’t the one that’s in the Beach Boys. Between 1963 and 1978, Wilson recorded a handful of records – all under Willis Jackson’s name. Strangely, Wilson doesn’t factor on anyone else’s records and has seemingly never waxed any of his own. Wilson reportedly hailed from Cleveland, but was likely based in New York City during this period. To critics, he had the chops to suggest Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff (neither known to be an accompanist). But to Gator fans, he was the perfect foil. Wilson’s tenure in Jackson’s group seems, strangely enough, to parallel Pat Martino’s, at least on record:

Grease ‘n’ Gravy - Willis Jackson (1963 – Martino’s recording debut, as Pat Azzara); The Good Life - Willis Jackson (1963 – as Pat Azzara); More Gravy - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Boss Shoutin’ - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Jackson’s Action - Willis Jackson (1964 – as Pat Azzara); Live! Action - Willis Jackson (1965 – as Pat Azzara)Soul Night/Live! - Willis Jackson (1966 – as Pat Azzara); Tell It… - Willis Jackson (1967 – as Pat Azzara); Single Action - Willis Jackson with Pat Martino (1980).

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ahmad Jamal

The legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal died at his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, on Sunday, April 16, 2023. He was 92. Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1930, Jamal stormed the jazz world with his 1958 trio album Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing – But Not For Me, notably for his dazzling, hypnotic performance of “Poinciana.”

Ahmad Jamal actively toured throughout the remainder of his life (except during a brief “retirement” in the late sixties) – well into his late eighties. He also recorded many records for the Argo/Cadet, Impulse, 20th Century Fox, Atlantic, Telarc Jazz, Birdology, Dreyfus Jazz and Jazz Village labels.

His most recent releases found the reluctant-to-revisit-the-past pianist agree to issue two sets of previously-unreleased live performances, recorded in the mid-sixties at Seattle’s historic jazz spot, The Penthouse. More is said to be forthcoming from Jamal’s Seattle sets and will be welcome by those of us who savor everything Ahmad Jamal has ever played.

Ahmad Jamal first came to my attention via Digital Works, his 1985 “comeback” recording. At that point, the pianist’s previous studio record came a whole five years before and in that brief time the music had gone through quite a bit of change.

The disc, which included newly-recorded versions of Jamal favorites like “Poinciana,” “Wave,” “Theme from M.A.S.H.,” and my personal obsession, “One” (originally from a 1978 Jamal album), was mesmerizing. Another favorite, a version of Natalie Cole’s “La Costa,” makes this an incredible listening experience. To these ears, Digital Works remains one of the greatest jazz records of the eighties, despite its frosty reception among critics.

Jamal’s follow-ups, Rossiter Road (1986) and Crystal (1987), are equally wonderful. Ahmad Jamal came back in to my life during his masterful series of discs dubbed “The Essence,” where the pianist paired with such surprising co-conspirators as Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and Othello Molineaux.

Thereafter, I dug deep into Ahmad Jamal’s back catalog. There was the Richard Evans-arranged gem Macanudo (1963), the Bob Thiele-produced Tranquility (1968) and, more notably, the brilliantly electrified Ahmad Jamal ‘73 - which a memorable trade ad billed as “Ahmad Jamal Trips Out.” The 1973 album features the classic break “Peace at Last,” surely one of the greatest grooves ever waxed.

This led to an obsession with Ahmad Jamal’s little-known albums on the 20th Century label (hardly a jazz label), issued between 1973 and 1980. This is an awesome – and slightly unusual – chunk of the pianist’s recording career. Embarking on a campaign to get these albums reissued on CD – or at least pull together a compilation of the material – proved to be an effort in futility. Indeed, Jamal’s 20th Century records remain unavailable on CD and streaming services as of this writing.

Mr. Jamal strenuously resisted revisiting his past and only relented at the very end with the Emerald City Nights sets captured at The Penthouse.

While Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 classic The Awakening (Impulse) is surely among the pianist’s very best discs, I consider it a “desert island disc” and a pitch-perfect document of Ahmad Jamal’s singular artistry.

This is where the magic is: in the spaces and the notes for which he is duly celebrated. Jamal honed his conception and craft very early on, refining it throughout his career. I believe he reached his apex here, a plateau that was more of a long line than a mere point. In my 1997 review of The Awakening, I am more than a little excited by what I heard but awestruck by what Jamal achieves:

Ahmad Jamal’s third of five excellent Impulse! recordings between 1969 and 1972 finds the pianist in a conservative transitional period. He was recorded at Argo /Cadet from 1955 through 1968 in trio, with orchestras and even vocal choirs. Subsequently, he’d explore more popular material and electronic sounds on the 20th Century Fox records made throughout the balance of the 1970s. The Awakening, from February 1970, is, like his other Impulse! sessions, one of those classic trio sessions that stands out as among the pianist’s best. Featuring Jamil Nasser on bass and Frank Gant on drums, The Awakening is highlighted by two superb Jamal covers in Oliver Nelson’s "Stolen Moments" and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "Wave." The pianist’s trademark simplicity pays tribute to these oft-covered tunes like nothing you’ve ever heard. Jamal, like Chopin (to these ears), can simplify and beautify the most complex and demanding pieces imaginable while losing none of the emotional or compositional complexity. He beautifully integrates his right and left-hand playing, and never once betrays a tendency toward barrel-housing in either. This leads nay-sayers to conclude he is simply nothing greater than a 'lounge pianist.' But it’s that beauty (evident on his Tatum-esque approach to Herbie Hancock’s "Dolphin Dance" or his Debussy-like handling of "I Love Music") that deserves further aural exploration. Jamal’s is a sound to be savored. Other compositions of note here include Jamal’s "The Awakening" and "Patterns," both which explore now-familiar (and wonderful) Jamal territory of alternating mood, tempo, rhythm and a delicious sense of spacing. Those familiar with Jamal’s famed live recordings of the 50s (at the Pershing and the Spotlight clubs) and the recently-issued gems on Atlantic and Verve (Live in Paris '92, The Essence and the newly-issued Big Byrd) will most heartily devour this beautiful music. Highly recommended.

Ahmad Jamal continued recording well into the previous decade, waxing a number of elegant late-period discs for the European Jazz Village label. One of those final studio recordings, the mostly solo Ballades (2019), even features one last swing through “Poinciana.” Ahmad Jamal owns it.

As I post this, I am listening again to Pittsburgh, the 1989 album Ahmad Jamal dedicated to the memory of his mother and his “beloved Pittsburgh.” It’s an exceptionally personal and heartfelt album – with an orchestra arranged by the great Richard Evans – that connects with me, my mother and my Pittsburgh heritage.

I am still here. So is Ahmad Jamal.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

The Mysterious Flying Orchestra (1977)

The "Mysterious Flying Orchestra" is a bold new force of unusual musical potential. Producer Bob Thiele has once again formulated the perfect chemistry to activate yet another dimension of hand blended, highly creative contemporary crossover music. – Promotional advertisement appearing in Record World on May 21, 1977

I. The Dutchman Having Flown

After the quiet fall of the iconic Flying Dutchman label in 1976, Bob Thiele (1922-96) – producer of the once forward-looking music of John Coltrane – found himself out in the cold. Although Thiele launched the careers of Gato Barbieri, Leon Thomas, Gil Scott-Heron and Lonnie Liston Smith on the label in the seventies, none were enough to keep the Flying Dutchman afloat.

Thiele also recorded some four albums under his own name for the label, from Head Start (1969) to I Saw Pinetop Spit Blood (1975). More often than not, these records captured star soloists and/or studio musicians mixing – often uncomfortably – what was in at the moment with older styles of jazz that Thiele loved or favored. Unfortunately, none of these found much favor with the public.

So, Bob Thiele found he had something to prove: his own relevancy.

Still attached to RCA, which had distributed Flying Dutchman since 1974, Thiele formed a production company called “Doctor Jazz Music” and conceived an all-star project that wisely kept his name out of the credits.

Although the group was dubbed “The Mysterious Flying Orchestra” (TMFO), however, it was pretty clear who was in charge: Bob Thiele, illustrated in full on WWI-era aviator gear, shown on the album cover giving a prominent thumbs up.

The same image was later used to craft the logo for Thiele’s Red Baron label, which operated between 1991 and 1994.

TMFO likely gets its name from the original Red Baron himself, Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918), the German pilot who, during World War I, led the Jagdgeschwader I, otherwise known as “The Flying Circus.” According to Wikipedia, the Flying Circus got its name “because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and perhaps also because of the way the unit…moved like a traveling circus, frequently setting up tents on improvised airfields.”

Like the Flying Dutchman myth in days past, this legend likely provides Thiele with his musical strategy here as well. The whole war-time theme even shows how seriously he took it all. Maybe it was a bit too much.

TMFO’s gatefold cover – illustrated by David Plourde, who also did several RCA releases around this time, including the cover art for the Lonnie Liston Smith album Renaissance (co-produced by Thiele) – also shows musicians as, umm, vampire-bats (!) storming a mountain-top fortress during a night storm. Not sure what to make of that.

But the illustration seems to mix a bunch of metaphors that somehow suggests music brings light to the dark and calm to the storm.

II. The Doctor Is In

The mystery of The Mysterious Flying Orchestra is not who this collective is but what it was hoping to achieve. While the goal here seems to be “crossover jazz” – or “fusion,” for those who liked it – it seems Thiele didn’t understand the audience he was trying to crossover to.

TMFO is one of the more consistent – and, for at least half of the time, compelling – of the scattershot albums led by producer Bob Thiele. It’s is also one of Thiele’s hippest outings and most of it holds up well all these many years later.

Released with little fanfare in February 1977, TMFO gathers an impressive cast of soloists, including fusion pioneers Larry Coryell (for one track only) and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith (again, one track only) as well as saxophonists Steve Marcus and Charlie Mariano. Other soloists include Eddie Daniels and Donald Smith on flutes, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff on trumpets.

The album immediately impresses with its opening salvo, the fiery funk of ”Improvisational Rondo for Saxophone and Guitar.” As the title suggests, the seven-minute piece is a showcase for saxophonist Steve Marcus (1939-2005) and guitarist Larry Coryell (1943-2017). The two had previously worked together on Coryell’s 1971 Flying Dutchman outing, Barefoot Boy, which seems worlds away from what they’re doing here. “Rondo” is far less edgy and a lot more fun.

Composer and arranger Horace Ott’s superb “disco strings” act as the third voice in this riveting “Rondo.” Ott, who worked with Don Covay, Gladys Knight and Nina Simone as well as Jimmy McGriff, Lou Donaldson, Houston Person, had arranged previous Flying Dutchman albums by Gil Scott-Heron, Bernard Purdie, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Lonnie Liston Smith. He’d also recently arranged Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.’s No. 1 hit “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” and would go on to arrange the Village People hits “Macho Man” and “In the Navy.” What he does here is magical.

”Rondo” is mesmerizing but lacks enough of a melody line – like, say, “Birdland” or “Feels So Good,” both hits in 1977 – that doomed it from getting much radio play. Still, there was enough interest in the tune that RCA oddly issued a promotional one-sided version of the tune that ran a full 17 minutes! As Record World said in April 1977, “Radio stations or other individuals interested in obtaining a copy should contact local RCA promotional people.” At least one person did: the disc is listed on Discogs. Good luck finding it anywhere else.

The real secret of “Rondo”’s success may well be due as much to bassist Wlbur Bascomb as to any of the principals. Wilbur Bascomb – also known as Bad Bascomb and Dud Bascomb and likely brought to the sessions by Horace Ott – impresses here and throughout the remainder of TMFO. He grooves even when little else moves.

Of the two songs composer and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith (b. 1940) contributed to TMFO – both covers from Smith’s 1975 Flying Dutchman album Expansions - the exquisite “Shadows” is surely the best and most notable. Without a doubt, “Shadows” makes TMFO worth hearing.

Here, horns carry the melody, buoyed by Ott’s ethereal strings (synth washes punctuated the original). Smith delivers a signature Rhodes solo – replete with nice echo effects – that easily bests the one on his original recording. Bascomb doesn’t overshadow Cecil McBee’s acoustic work on the original, but delivers a drive that is all his own. Steve Marcus returns on tenor to solo us to the cosmos.

(Whenever listening to “Shadows,” I find myself, as the song finishes, getting up to lift the needle and put it right back to the beginning of the song. Many times in a row.)

Not surprisingly, “Shadows” became TMFO’s best-known piece. The song has been sampled several times, notably by Gang Starr for “Skills” in 2003. “Shadows” has also appeared on several DJ mixes, including Oneman Discovers Fresh Blood (2004) and DJ Premier’s These Are the Breaks (2008). And last year, “Shadows” appeared on a 45-rpm single, oddly backed with two unrelated songs by Cal Tjader.

III. Et Al.

The remainder of TMFO is, frankly, not much to write about. None of it has the fire or the feeling of the record’s first two tracks. Indeed, some of it borders on easy listening. But there is enough in the compositions and the soloists worth a little commentary.

The wistful quiet storm of ”A Dream Deferred” is an otherwise lovely tune dedicated to the late, great composer, arranger and saxophonist Oliver Nelson (1932-75). Thiele had produced many Nelson sessions on Impulse in the sixties and Flying Dutchman in the seventies.

The tune’s title – also the title of a 1976 Nelson compilation on Flying Dutchman that does not include this song – dates back to a Langston Hughes poem that critic, associate and Nelson’s friend Leonard Feather cited in remembrance of Nelson’s all-too short but remarkably prodigious life.

In scoring “Dream”’s melody for strings, arranger and co-composer Glenn Osser seems to nod more toward Nelson’s melodic compositional style – outside of jazz. As a waltz, “A Dream Deferred” riffs off Nelson’s “John Kennedy Memorial Waltz,” yet the song is missing something – notably a saxophone (and Phil Woods, Nelson’s old sax stand-in on many records, was even recording for RCA at the time).

A blindfold test of “Dream” would hardly suggest Oliver Nelson to anyone. Soloists include Don Grolnick on electric piano, Eddie Daniels on flute and Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff on dueling trumpets, apparently a thing on this album.

Smith’s “Summer Days” likely slides more into proto-smooth jazz, at least for those who are unwilling to call “Shadows” proto-smooth jazz. Still, that makes this piece notable, some half decade before smooth jazz became a thing. Donald Smith, often the vocalist on his brother’s records, essays nicely on flute here while Charlie Mariano solos beautifully on alto saxophone.

The cringey ”There Once Was a Man Named John,” also arranged by Osser, is Thiele’s seemingly sincere, though terribly misguided, ode to John Coltrane.

Co-written by Thiele with George Davis Weiss, who, with Thiele, wrote the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World.”

This is a song that did not need lyrics – sung by Teresa Brewer, a.k.a. Mrs. Thiele – or strings. It would have made so much more musical and emotional sense to have Mrs. Coltrane rather than Mrs. Thiele take this tribute on. It would have been more meaningful too.

To the song’s credit, American ex-pat Charlie Mariano (1923-2009) came home briefly to offer some love here on soprano sax. Mariano appeared on earlier Thiele productions by Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Chico Hamilton and Elvin Jones (notably on the album Dear John C).

TMFO wraps up with Ott’s surprisingly bland “Nice ‘n Spicy,” a generic bit of soundtrack disco that sounds like it came right out of a scene on TV’s The Love Boat. Okay, maybe it’s a bit better. But it’s not as relevant as the great disco-jazz funk of Brick’s 1976 hit “Dazz,” a likely inspiration for “Spicy.”

If there’s any “spice” here, it comes from the soloists, including Eddie Daniels – who never worked with Thiele before or since – on flute (reinforcing the “Dazz” connection), the dueling saxes of Steve Marcus and Bob Mintzer and then, on top of it all, the dueling trumpets of Jon Faddis and Lew Soloff.

V. Afterlife

RCA seemingly didn’t know what to make of The Mysterious Flying Orchestra. To be fair, Thiele probably didn’t really get – or get in to – what he was going for here (he was 54 years old at the time of TMFO). He probably didn’t even understand the audience he was aiming for. The record was likely pressed in very low quantities: there are more “demo” copies floating around in used record stores than actual issues.

Very few critics weighed in on the record; another sign this disc had an extremely limited release. In March 12, 1977, Record World wrote, rather opaquely, “Bob Thiele has assembled quite a crew, including Larry Coryell, Charlie Mariano and Lonnie Liston Smith, to create a soul-filled big band that is jazz, rock and engaging. Each cut has its own personality, from traditional (‘A Dream Deferred’) to funky (‘Improvisational Rondo for Saxophone and Guitar’).”

The radio insider one-sheet Walrus wrote on March 16, 1977, in its appropriately-named “Fringe Albums” column that TMFO was “[a]n attempt to inject fine soloing into an MOR jazz rock fusion. With featured players like Coryell, Steve Marcus, Charlie Mariano, John [sic] Faddis and Lonnie Liston Smith the plan is fulfilled. The opening track is the last usable track in progressive terms.” Ouch.

Thiele went on to produce one more album for Lonnie Liston Smith at RCA. Shortly thereafter, Thiele’s friend Ken Glancy left his post as president of RCA. Thiele himself left RCA not too long after that.

The following year, Thiele announced an ambitious new plan called the “Signature-Gramophone” family of labels. Subsidiary labels were said to include Doctor Jazz (which put out a couple Teresa Brewer records) as well as – apparently with a straight face – the “Dracula” label for “rock-related issues” and “Frankenstein” for “contemporary fusion.” A sequel to The Mysterious Flying Orchestra was also said to be part of the plan.

Of course, nothing much came of any of it. There was never any TMFO sequel.

Thiele went on to usher Lonnie Liston Smith to Columbia (where he scored a minor disco hit with a very young Marcus Miller, “Space Princess”) and produced the first two Columbia releases by saxophonist Arthur Blythe (who first appeared on the 1969 Flying Dutchman album Thiele produced by Horace Tapscott, The Giant is Awakened), both 1979.

Thiele eventually launched his Doctor Jazz label – in a distribution deal with Columbia – in 1983, reuniting with artists the producer helped launch earlier like Pharoah Sanders and Lonnie Liston Smith. Even that only lasted through 1987.

Glancy and Thiele reunited in 1988 to produce an all-star Impulse album Blues for John Coltrane while Thiele’s Red Baron label (1991-95) would end up reissuing CD versions of several of Glancy’s Finesse albums recorded in the early eighties.

It wasn’t until Red Baron – like Doctor Jazz, also owned and distributed by Columbia (1991-94) – that Thiele again put out all-star albums under his own name: Sunrise Sunset (1991), Louis Satchmo (1992) and lion-hearted (1993) – likely Thiele’s better-known albums to this day.

Thiele’s son, Bob Thiele, Jr. (b. 1955), who has, among other things, served as music supervisor on the cable TV series Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), has since revived the Flying Dutchman label. The label’s initial release is veteran vocalist Billy Valentine’s Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth (2023). Dad would be proud.