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.

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