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.

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