Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Essential Don Sebesky

The composer, arranger, conductor and record producer Don Sebesky wrote film and TV scores, orchestrated Broadway productions and worked on the classier albums by such pop vocalists as Barry Manilow, Christina Aguilera, Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, Seal and John Pizzarelli.

But Sebesky, who passed away on April 29 at age 85, was – by most accounts – best known for some of the most important and memorable jazz records of the sixties and seventies. Many of these were produced by Creed Taylor for the Verve, A&M and CTI labels by such artists as Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws and others.

This was a period when jazz was in flux, notably from the rise of pop music and finally, rock and roll. Sebesky rode the wave, adapting many pop and rock hits – notably Beatles covers – and wound up finding his voice on jazz-inflected covers of classical tunes. When the whole fusion thing devolved into the “smooth jazz” of the early eighties, Sebesky completely opted out.

Many think Sebesky cheapened jazz with his arrangements. But either they weren’t listening or they just were plain wrong. Rather than superimposing his charts on soloists, Sebesky would often consider his additions as part of the group. Just like jazz. This made Sebesky stand out from the crowd. His work helped craft what became the “CTI sound” – often replicated but never matched.

Like a film that doesn’t call attention to its direction, Sebesky’s charts only made great (and often legendary) soloists sound even better.

In the spirit of the New York Times, my original intention here was to spotlight the “ten essentials” associated with Don Sebesky’s vast body of work – over sixty years’ worth of recordings. The recordings run the gamut of big band, jazz, crossover and fusion to pop, cabaret, Broadway and light classics.

But I could only pare the list down to 15 songs, the majority of which originally appeared on Creed Taylor productions from the mid-sixties to the early eighties. Many of these pieces are jazz classics and some are forgotten gems. But if I’ve missed anything you think is important, please feel free to leave a message below.

”Bumpin’” – Wes Montgomery (1965)

The first pairing of guitarist Wes Montgomery with arranger Don Sebesky was initially met with much hostility. But more than half a century later, “Bumpin’” has withstood the test of time. It’s neither as florid as some thought nor as dated as much other material from this period turned out to be. Montgomery’s haunting melody (not to be confused with the more popular “Bumpin’ on Sunset”) is perfected by Sebesky’s subtle string and pizzicato harp counterpoints. The arranger ramps up the drama for a brief but stirring string crescendo (04:18-04:58) that allows the guitarist to go out with the embers of lovely harp arpeggios. It’s the epitome of economy and elegance.

”A Day in the Life” – Wes Montgomery (1967)

The Beatles’ intriguing, complex and trippy “A Day in the Life” receives a positively dazzling reading here. It’s often considered the Fab Four’s greatest song and Wes Montgomery’s cover is among the finest jazz cover of any Beatles song. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Grady Tate lay down a swampy blues groove that propels Montgomery on a signature course. The guitarist positively owns the melody here and solos off it beautifully. For the first four minutes of this “Day,” Sebesky only hints at what’s to come: single-note vibes counterpoints, strings and harps rumbles, bass flute riffs leading to impending doom string flourishes. Sebesky wisely opts not to orchestrate George Martin’s “end of the world” bridge to the song’s “middle eight” section (“Woke up, fell out of bed…”), perhaps sensing it wasn’t easily copied or bettered. He goes full-on orchestral during McCartney’s “ahh ahh ahhh” interlude in a blend of strings and horns that surely made Martin proud. (McCartney supposedly told producer Creed Taylor that he particularly admired Montgomery’s cover of “A Day in the Life.”) Sebesky’s dreamy (druggy?) fade-out is an atonal, though melodic, wash that finds Montgomery gamely contributing avant-garde chords of his own. For earlier evidence of Sebesky’s talent with strings, check out saxophonist Charlie Mariano’s cover of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” on A Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963), a magnificent recording.

”Up and At It” – Wes Montgomery (1968)

This might seem an unusual choice of “essential” Don Sebesky as there’s so little Don Sebesky to be heard here. But that’s the point. “Up and At It” is Wes at his funky best, with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Grady Tate driving the guitarist along. It hardly needed any sweetening and, indeed, it doesn’t get much. What Sebesky does contribute are brief counterpoints: one-note vibes chords (reacting to Carter’s bass), a small string section (first echoing Montgomery’s melody, then later riffing off his solo) and three barely audible flutes. “Up and At It” is the pinnacle of poetry in Montgomery and Sebesky’s musical relationship. Like the best of Sebesky’s work, it’s subtle and effective in crossing a good performance over the finish line to great. Sebesky would apply a similar approach to Montgomery’s “Goin’ on to Detroit” (also from Down Here on the Ground), George Benson’s “Footin’ It” and Paul Desmond’s ethereal take on “El Condor Pasa.”

”Forget” – Jack Sheldon (1968)

In the late sixties, Don Sebesky produced and arranged two little-known albums for trumpeter and vocalist Jack Sheldon (best known today forSchoolhouse Rock!’s “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill”). Both sets mix pop hits of the day – Sebesky’s Wes-like take on “The Look of Love” is especially notable – with Sebesky originals. This one, the Spanish-tinged “Forget,” is one of Sebesky’s very best compositions. Sheldon’s beautifully mournful trumpet imbues Sebesky’s signature melody with the haunted romanticism of its title. It’s a torch song in the best tradition. “Forget” was later covered by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, trumpeter Blue Mitchell (with Lee Ritenour and Harold Land) and Brazilian organist Walter Wanderley. Surprisingly, “Forget” was never covered on a CTI album, which may be why the song isn’t much better known. It’s a beauty, though.

”Guru-vin” – Don Sebesky with Larry Coryell (1969)

Before Don Sebesky shifted to more serious work, adapting classical composers to jazz and devoting tributes to the canonical (Sondheim, Ellington, Bill Evans), he adopted scores of pop, rock, Beatles and charting R&B of the day to jazz. He also composed terrifically engaging pieces of crossover work. The cleverly-titled “Guru-vin,” from Sebesky’s all but forgotten 1969 master patchwork The Distant Galaxy (often considered the artist billing as well as the album title), is one such piece. “Guru-vin” taps as much into the psychedelic music of the day as well as seemingly poking fun of it. Guitarist Larry Coryell mans the electric sitar here while studio vocalist Lois Winter pairs with a high horn section for a melodic counterpoint. The funky “Guru-vin” was never issued as a single and didn’t find an audience until decades later when it was revived as part of the acid jazz movement. Sebesky’s “Beatles strings” (toward the end) add just the right spice to this East-meets-West mash-up that knows how to get down. Coryell, who also guested on Sebesky’s Beatles covers “Lady Madonna” (from The Distant Galaxy) and the earlier “The Word” (from the 1969 album Don Sebesky & The Jazz Rock Syndrome) would reunite with Sebesky many years later on the guitarist’s 1993 disc Fallen Angel and the arranger’s 1998 disc I Remember Bill – A Tribute to Bill Evans.

”The Court of the Crimson King” – Doc Severinsen (1970)

This bravura piece of writing is based on the only hit British prog rockers King Crimson ever had. By all accounts, Sebesky was a fan. Sebesky’s brilliant and complex makeover is fusion of the highest order, worthy of any CTI record (Sebesky also produced here). The arranger pairs six horn men off in remarkable fashion: the trumpets of Doc Severinsen and John Frosk, the trombones of Rod Levitt and Paul Faulise, and Stan Webb on flute and Tommy Newsome on tenor sax. Mention should be made of the terrific support work of Joe Beck on acoustic guitar (giving those sections the Spanish flair Sebesky would later patent), the Fender Rhodes of either Derek Smith or Ross Tompkins and the flawless drums of longtime Severinsen ally Ed Shaughnessy. This “Court of the Crimson King” is what a James Bond soundtrack might sound like if it had more jazz.

”Scarborough Fair/Canticle” – Paul Desmond (1970)

This traditional English ballad was adapted by Paul Simon for Simon & Garfunkel, whose version was featured on the hit soundtrack to The Graduate. Sebesky had already arranged the song for the Soul Flutes and was Grammy-nominated for his uniquely Baroque arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” for Wes Montgomery (both 1968). But this is the version to hear. It comes from an album Sebesky produced and arranged for alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, Bridge Over Troubled Water, a set devoted to songs written or adapted by Paul Simon (the two Pauls shared the same agent). Considering Desmond wasn’t especially familiar or comfortable with Simon’s music, the album is a triumph. Credit Sebesky not only for the record’s artistic success but its considerable pleasures. Sebesky is not often celebrated for his commendable ability with traditional and contemporary folk music, but “Scarborough Fair” is among his best. Also of note here are Sebesky’s take on “Mrs. Robinson,” also from The Graduate, and the breathtaking album opener “El Condor Pasa.”

”The Rite of Spring” – Hubert Laws (1971)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” caused quite an uproar when it debuted in Paris in 1913. Experimenting with tonality, meter, rhythm and dissonance, Stravinsky’s piece was considered scandalously avant-garde by the French audience at the time. It’s all grist for Sebesky’s mill. In his variation, Sebesky weaves several of the ballet’s themes together – notably, the ballet’s signature solo bassoon opening (Part 1 – Adoration of the Earth: “Introduction”) and the first dance, “Augurs of Spring” – as a nine-minute feature for flautist Hubert Laws. Sebesky and Laws had collaborated on classical themes by Bach, Debussy and Fauré – all of which likely pleased the collaborators more than jazz fans. None of those other classics swung as well as “The Rite of Spring” does here. Especially notable here are David Friedman on vibes, Ron Carter on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Bob James on keyboards. Sebesky would revisit “The Rite of Spring” on his 1979 album Three Works for Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra (a.k.a. Compositional Jazz): it’s a bit more orchestral than this but offers a wide array of great jazz soloists. This is the one to dig.

”White Rabbit” – George Benson (1972)

While it’s not certain whose idea it was for guitarist George Benson to cover this 1967 hit by the Jefferson Airplane, it was Sebesky who opted to cast Grace Slick’s original in a Spanish mode. Curiously, Slick based the song’s text on Alice in Wonderland, while the music she composed was informed by Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain, particularly that album’s centerpiece “Concierto de Aranjuez” – a piece we’ll come back to here. Sebesky uses Jay Berliner’s acoustic guitar and John Frosk’s trumpet to set the Spanish mood. Benson, Herbie Hancock and Hubert Laws solo. Surprisingly, this sort of thing may have seemed passe by 1971. But, like “The Court of the Crimson King,” Sebesky imbues the whole affair with an air of timelessness.

Sidebar: Some of George Benson’s most enjoyable – read: guitar-oriented – music during his CTI years is courtesy of Don Sebesky. These include “Footin’ It” (1968 – a song co-written with Benson and later sampled for Faith Evans’s “Mesmerized”), “Water Brother” (1969), “I Remember Wes” (1973) and “Serbian Blue” (1974).

“Firebird/Birds of Fire” – Don Sebesky (1973)

Don Sebesky’s 1973 album Giant Box is surely the composer and arranger’s magnum opus. It is one of the few double-disc sets on CTI and has more stars than a late-night sky. It also contains some of Sebesky’s best writing. The album’s opener, “Firebird/Birds of Fire,” originally took up the whole of the record’s first side. This mash up of Igor Stravinsky and the Mahavishnu Orchestra may not even be the album’s finest moment – there are many here – but it is a striking and successful blend of jazz with the classics. Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard solo and Margaret Ross is on harp.

“Psalm 150” – Don Sebesky (1973)

This curious, though clever, Jimmy Webb anthem seems to have been championed by Don Sebesky. He first arranged the piece – whose lyrics are derived from the final Psalm of the Bible – for trumpeter Doc Severinsen’s 1971 album Brass Roots. The little-known song 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. Coming out of the period that brought “Spirit in the Sky” (1969), not to mention Godspell (1970) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), “Psalm 150,” a.k.a. “Psalm One-Five-O,” seemed poised to make something of itself. (For the record, Sebesky lifted the Beatles’ appropriation, “He loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” directly from Webb’s original.) To these ears, the appeal of “Psalm 150” to Sebesky was Webb’s unusual and provocative melody. It is also one of the highlights of Sebesky’s Giant Box. Jackie & Roy sing the lead (after Sebesky himself offers an acapella Latin incantation), with (probably) Sebesky on Fender Rhodes, Ron Carter on bass and Billy Cobham on drums. Outstanding soloists here include Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass and Bob James on organ. Sebesky’s charts throughout are magnificent and recall Lalo Schifrin’s work on Rock Requiem (1971).

”Footprints of the Giant” – Don Sebesky (1975)

“[M]y favorite composer is [Hungarian composer Béla] Bartók,” said Don Sebesky in his Giant Box interview with Didier Deutsch. “I think he’s probably the premier composer of the 20th century.” Sebesky’s earliest reflection on the themes of Bartók is the magisterial “Footprints of the Giant.” Originally written by Sebesky for the 1970 album Doc Severinsen’s Closet, this “Giant” – from Sebesky’s second CTI album, The Rape of El Morro, amps up the rock on this slice of jazz-meets-the-classics ephemera. It features Michael Brecker (and brother Randy in the piece’s intentionally avant-garde intro), a Hendrix-ized Joe Beck on guitar, the electric violin of David Rose and supersonic drummer Steve Gadd. It is noteworthy that Beck also soloed on the Severinsen version of “Footprints” as well. Sebesky would reconsider the Hungarian composer on his “Bird and Bela in B flat,” from the 1979 album Three Works for Jazz Soloists & Symphony Orchestra, what the composer dubbed as a “musical account of an imaginary meeting of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Bela Bartok.”

”Concierto de Aranjuez” – Jim Hall (1975)

Guitarist Jim Hall’s performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” is surely among CTI’s greatest artistic triumphs. Gorgeously arranged in a remarkably minimalist fashion (no strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic) by Don Sebesky, “Concierto de Aranjuez” features a stunning performance by not only the guitarist but offers lush solos from Chet Baker on trumpet and Paul Desmond on alto sax. The rhythm section is helmed beautifully by Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Like the 1960 presentation of the tune by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Hall and Sebesky wax poetic on only the second of the 1939 composition’s three movements. But what is conveyed here is truly outstanding. Each and every second of this nearly 20-minute performance is well worth savoring. Don Sebesky would provide Hall with a sequel of sorts in “Lament for a Fallen Matador,” an adaptation of Tomaso Albioni’s well-known Adagio in G minor, for the guitarist’s 1977 album Commitment. The guitarist would again record “Concierto de Aranjuez,” this time with David Matthews – the man who succeeded Sebesky as CTI’s in-house arranger – on the 1981 Japanese album Concierto de Aranjuez (issued on CD in America in 1992). This version of the Rodrigo classic was considerably more orchestral and featured Hall, rather less distinctively, on acoustic guitar.

”El Morro” – Chet Baker (1977)

Sebesky originally conceived this Spanish-hued piece as the title track to his 1975 CTI album The Rape of El Morro, where, according to the album’s liner notes, its working title was “Spanish Blood.” There it was a feature for Michael Brecker, Roland Hanna and explorative vocalist Joan La Barbara. Brecker returns to Sebesky’s epic original to share the spotlight here with trumpeter Chet Baker for this more polished version, now simply titled “El Morro,” from Baker’s 1977 album You Can’t Go Home Again. The album, produced, arranged and conducted by Sebesky, is a mix of old and new, with “El Morro” successfully falling somewhere in between. Indeed, it’s the album’s centerpiece and not inaptly described by Baker biographer James Gavin as “a cross between Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain and a Hollywood bullfighting scene.” With John Scofield adding the appropriate flamenco touch on acoustic guitar, Baker serves up one of the most muscular, dynamic and hypnotic performances of his entire career. He seems very much to be staking his claim on “El Morro” as his own “Aranjuez.” Driving him on are Hubert Laws on flute and piccolo, Richie Bierach on electric piano (who is denied a much-deserved solo), Ron Carter – who is high up in the mix here and who also played on the original – and Tony Williams, low in the mix, on drums. When outtakes from these 1977 sessions were issued in 1989 on the Baker album The Best Thing for You, a 17-minute “alternative composite take” of “El Morro” appeared that added an electric guitar solo from Scofield and the percussion and (Airto-like) vocals of Arto Tunchboyachi. Both versions of “El Morro,” as well as a 13-minute “incomplete take” of the tune, are included on the two-disc CD of You Can’t Go Home Again issued in 2000.

”Malagueña” – Chet Baker/Jim Hall/Hubert Laws (1982)

Don Sebesky likely encountered Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s most famous piece, “Malagueña,” in Stan Kenton’s band in the late fifties. Kenton recorded his own arrangement of the song several years before Sebesky joined the band, but it was likely still in the band’s book at the time. This 1982 performance comes from one of CTI’s last great albums, Studio Trieste, a forum nominally led by trumpeter Chet Baker, guitarist Jim Hall and flautist Hubert Laws (though often credited solely to Hall). Like Sebesky’s arrangement for Jim Hall’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” (and the whole of the album Concierto), ”Malagueña” is scored for the soloists with a small group of supporters. At the risk of repeating myself: No strings or horns were overdubbed in the making of this classic. Baker, Hall and Laws are substantially supported only by Kenny Barron (who solos) on electric piano, George Mraz on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. Mraz, who isn’t as high in the mix as Ron Carter so often is on his CTI discs, acts as the matador to the soloists. A close listen reveals that everyone here is listening to everyone else. It is a performance that positively dances, absolutely swings. Each moment of the all-too brief Studio Trieste is magical. But ”Malagueña” is undoubtedly the album’s greatest moment.

In 1992, producer Creed Taylor edited this recording of ”Malagueña” as a feature for Jim Hall and overdubbed an “additional” arrangement by Jim Pugh for Youkali, a set of updated takes on previous recordings the guitarist made for the CTI label. Sebesky, for his part, would later record ”Malagueña” – in a very similar arrangement but with equally compelling soloists, including Eddie Daniels, Jim Pugh (!), Alex Foster and son Ken Sebesky – on his 1985 album Moving Lines, whose 1989 CD release cops – without credit – Alen MacWeeney’s liner photo from The Rape of El Morro. Hubert Laws also recorded a compelling Sebesky arrangement of ”Malagueña” (which also reunited Sebesky with vocalist Joan La Barbara) on the 1993 disc My Time Will Come.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Don Sebesky

The composer, arranger, author, orchestrator and conductor Don Sebesky passed away on Saturday, April 29, 2023, after “a struggle with post-stroke Parkinsonism.” He was 85.

Don Sebesky orchestrated many Broadway musicals, scored several films and arranged some of the most elegant discs by such pop vocalists as Christina Aguilera, Michael Bublé, Carly Simon, Barbara Streisand, Michael Feinstein, Rod Stewart, Liza Minelli and Barry Manilow.

But it is Sebesky’s work as an arranger for such jazz greats as Wes Montgomery, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, George Benson and Paul Desmond that he is best known and, for most, highly revered. Those who don’t like any sweetening in their jazz, however, likely would not appreciate the genuine artistry and the collaborative innovations Sebesky brought to jazz – some of the greatest music of its time.

Sebesky started his multi-varied music career in the late fifties playing trombone in the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. Ferguson encouraged Sebesky to write and arrange for the band and it turned out he had an innate gift for subtle orchestration and swinging big-band writing. (This is the guy who wrote “In the Mod” – yes, you read that right – for The Glenn Miller Orchestra in the sixties!)

One of Sebesky’s first jobs outside of the Ferguson band was arranging and producing the wonderful A Portrait of Charlie Mariano (1963) for saxophonist Charlie Mariano, himself a veteran of the Kenton band. The album became a calling card for Sebesky as it attracted the attention of jazz producer Creed Taylor.

Taylor hired Sebesky to arrange guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 album Bumpin’. The guitarist initially had difficulty fitting his sound in to the orchestra. Taylor solved the problem by proposing that Montgomery and the rhythm section do their thing first. Sebesky could, after the fact, build his charts around the guitarist’s solos.

“It worked,” Sebesky later said. “We then used this approach for all of Wes’s albums, we used it for most of the albums Creed and I did for other artists as well. It became the basis for the ‘CTI sound.’” Indeed, Sebesky and Taylor worked together on dozens of albums over the next three decades.

“The musicians came up with licks that I then adopt as motifs or use as segues between sections. Writing this way makes me feel like I am part of the rhythm section, part of the nucleus of the ensemble.”

Jazz listeners know Don Sebesky best for the records he arranged for Creed Taylor during the sixties and seventies on the Verve, A&M and CTI labels. That’s partly because most of these records were very popular and also because they are some of the best and classiest jazz discs of its time.

Sebesky’s touch, particularly on the records he did with Taylor, is consistently more supportive than sweetening, more counterpoint than point-making and more collaborative than commanding. He always knew how to make great players sound either great or greater.

Sebesky’s most memorable work with Taylor includes Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ (1965), A Day in the Life (1967 – the title track is among Sebesky’s finest writing) and Road Song (1968 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this album’s “Scarborough Fair” was nominated for a Grammy); Freddie Hubbard’s Grammy Award winning First Light (1971 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this disc’s “Lonely Town” was also Grammy-nominated); Hubert Laws’ Afro-Classic (1971), The Rite of Spring (1973 – Sebesky’s arrangement of this album’s title track was Grammy-nominated) and the Grammy-nominated Morning Star (1973); George Benson’s Grammy-nominated White Rabbit (1972); Jackie & Roy’s Time & Love (1972 – Sebesky’s arrangements of “Day by Day” and “Lazy Afternoon” here were Grammy-nominated); Milt Jackson’s Sunflower (1973); Chet Baker’s She Was Too Good to Me (1974); Jim Hall’s Grammy-nominated Concierto (1975) and the magnificent Studio Trieste, a 1982 all-star date headlined by Chet Baker, Jim Hall and Hubert Laws.

Don Sebesky’s own CTI double-disc set Giant Box, from 1973, is an ambitious and amazingly peopled all-star date that was Grammy-nominated (as was the album’s signature piece, “Firebird/Birds of Fire”) and is likely Sebesky’s best and best-known recorded document.

Soloists on Giant Box are a virtual who’s-who of jazz (all signed to CTI at the time) and include George Benson, Paul Desmond, Joe Farrell, Jackie & Roy, Milt Jackson, Milt Jackson, Bob James, Hubert Laws, and Grover Washington, Jr. The double-disc box set also features bassist Ron Carter, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham, percussionists Airto Moreira, Rubens Bassini and Ralph MacDonald as well as a bevy of famed New York studio musiicians.

Sebesky put out a handful of records under his own name between 1969 and 1999 – sometimes featuring his work on a variety of keyboards and most all Grammy-nominated – for the Verve, CTI, Gryphon, GNP, Doctor Jazz and Angel labels as well as the Grammy Award-winning discs I Remember Bill – A Tribute to Bill Evans (1998) and Joyful Noise – A Tribute to Duke Ellington (1999), both for RCA.

As arranger, Sebesky also worked on a number of fine albums outside of Creed Taylor’s orbit (many of which Sebesky also produced himself) for Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Eddie Daniels, Franco Ambrosetti, Ron Carter, Chris Hunter and Stanley Turrentine – all well worth hearing.

My most recent encounter with Don Sebesky was on guitarist Rordrigo Lima’s “Flying Waltz,” a lovely track from his exceptional disc Saga (2014), produced by Arnaldo DeSouteiro, with Hubert Laws and Hugo Fattoruso. Sebesky’s writing for strings here is – and always was – sublime and exceptional.

”By drawing on both his jazz and classical knowledge,” wrote Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the 70s, “Sebesky has placed these featured artists in orchestral settings that reflect many hues and timbres, thereby making their music readily accessible to a wider ranging audience.”

Sebesky literally wrote the book on his art, The Contemporary Arranger, first published in 1975 and updated a decade later. Aside from composing many terrific originals (“Guru-vin,” “Water Brother,” “El Morro,” “I Remember Bill,” etc.), Sebesky has also brilliantly arranged and adapted a myriad of classical themes in jazz contexts by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gabriel Fauŕe, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Henry Purcell, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

I’ve written enthusiastically over the years about Sebesky’s work with CTI artists as well as those recordings he did on his own and those Sebesky did with Jack Sheldon, Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, Doc Severinsen and Larry Coryell, among others.

While his is hardly a household name, Don Sebesky – like all the great arrangers – is the man behind the curtain. He brought magic to other’s music. His musical signature is, as he correctly notes, a key factor in the now legendary “CTI sound.” This makes Don Sebesky one of the greatest contributors to jazz in the last half of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Airto Moreira and Flora Purim Need Our Help

The Brazilian jazz icons Airto Moreira and Flora Purim have had more than their fair share of challenges over the past few years. After many years in the United States, Airto and Flora are now back in their native Brazil, where both are facing worsening health and housing conditions.

"Airto and Flora's living situation is rapidly becoming unsustainable,” says daughter Diana Moreira Booker, “with no health insurance and a large increase in rent at their current location. Doctors tell us that a large part of Airto's recovery depends on an immediate change of their living environment so a move is imminent. The family is currently working toward making this happen but we cannot do this alone."

Airto Moreira (b. 1941) and Flora Purim (b. 1942) are Brazilian jazz royalty. Both came to America in 1967 (they were married several years later) and each went on to stellar careers, making significant contributions to American jazz and fusion/crossover as well as pop and world music.

Airto, a particularly persuasive percussionist, vocalist and songwriter, recorded and toured with Miles Davis for nearly two (extensively recorded) years, was a founding member of two of jazz fusion’s greatest groups (Weather Report and Return to Forever) and waxed four albums for the CTI label while contributing to some three dozen CTI albums by such artists as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson and Deodato’s monster hit “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).” Airto is also known for such exceptional compositions of his own as “Xibaba,” “Tombo in 7/4” and the great “Misturada.”

There’s no doubt I have heard Airto since I started listening to music. But the first time Airto rivetted me and my attention was on Bob James’ exquisite “Snowbird Fantasy,” from the keyboardist’s 1980 album ”H”. The earliest disc I have featuring Airto is the 1965 album À vontade mesmo by trombonist Raulzinho (a.k.a. Raul de Souza), who kindly autographed my copy of the 2001 CD (Raul and Airto reunited in the late seventies on many recordings made on the West Coast). Airto is incredible here (on drums), then came back years later to me with 1979’s “Amajour” (with incredible solos from Herb Alpert and Joe Farrell!) and, later, on the terrific all-star date Killer Bees in 1993.

Airto’s lovely appearance in Kristian St. Clair’s documentary This is Gary McFarland (2006) always stands out in my mind as one of his most beautiful performances (McFarland co-produced Airto’s 1970 solo debut, Natural Feelings). This is Airto Moreira, to me.

Flora, the iconic and immediately recognizable vocalist and songwriter, released her first album, the wonderful Flora é M.P.M., in 1964 (produced for CD in 2001 by my good friend Arnaldo DeSouteiro – who worked often with Flora and Airto). Flora toured Europe with Stan Getz and Gil Evans in the late sixties and put out her critically-lauded American record, Butterfly Dreams, in 1973 on the Milestone label.

Many of Flora’s Milestone records (1973-78) paired her beautifully with Joe Henderson – much of which is included on the saxophonist’s glorious 1994 box set The Milestone Years. After a series of crossover records for Warner Bros., Flora spent many years touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and, with Airto, the Fourth World band.

It has always impressed me that author Len Lyons considered Flora’s 1976 album 500 Miles High one of the The 101 Best Jazz Albums: A History of Jazz on Records, the influential 1980 book that considered the entire history of jazz to that point.

Airto Moreira's terrific "Misturada" performed LIVE at Jazz Is Dead for the Airto Moreira Benefit Concert, October 25, 2022. More can be found at https://www.jazzisdead.com/uploadevents/airto-moreira?rq=airto - with daughter Diana on lead vocals.

Airto and Flora have continued recording and touring, up to Flora’s 2022 disc If You Will, for the great British Strut label. But, according to daughter Diana, “Airto has suffered many ailments over the past few years. He has been unable to continue with his therapist.

”Flora is also now experiencing her own health challenges. Having been separated for a while, Flora is back in Brazil with Airto but they really could use some home help, a therapist and a move.”

The family is asking for help. Anything we could do to help is much appreciated. If you can do anything to help Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, please go here: