The reissues keep coming from the CTI vaults. Creed Taylor’s influential 1970s West Coast jazz label may be remembered for fusion, but the fact is that they put out some amazing albums. The highlight of the latest batch is Freddie Hubbard’s improbable 1971 First Light, with George Benson, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Phil Kraus on vibes and Richard Wyands on keyboards plus an orchestra. Something this casually lavish could only have occurred in the 70s – especially for a jazz trumpeter who wasn’t likely to sell ten thousand albums. Did anybody make money on this project? Doubtful. But it was worth it many times over. After all the mysterioso atmospherics fade down, the eleven-minute title track is essentially a two-chord vamp over a tense son montuno beat: Hubbard works it thematically and judiciously, pretty remarkable considering that you can practically smell the ganja wafting from under the door at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. The orchestra’s thousand butterfly wings flutter, announcing choruses and solos, Benson goes lickety-split to bring the energy up a notch and turns it over to Hubbard until it’s obvious that he’s out of gas.
The cover of Paul McCartney’s odious Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey is deviously funny, Hubbard distancing himself from the cloying opening riff at the first turn and turning it into a diptych of one-chord funk jams, Benson unable to do much with it so he hits the same riffs again and again. If you ever suffered through the original in the supermarket or via lite FM radio, the trick ending will make you laugh. It’s amazing how they take Henry Mancini’s Moment to Moment and mix funk, a boozy ballad vibe and an orchestra; the cover of Yesterday’s Dreams is the piece de resistance here, done as brooding bossa nova, orchestra magically interpolated with big swells at just the right moments. Leonard Bernstein’s Lonely Town gets a subtle 1971 LA noir treatment; the rest of the album includes both an outtake (another vampy one, Cedar Walton’s Fantasy in D) and an expansive 1975 live take of the title track with Carter, DeJohnette and not Eric Gales on guitar, as the liner notes indicate, but an uncredited and quite agile Rhodes player.
Another choice pick from the CTI vaults is George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, also from 1971. It’s a similarly unexpected treat: a Hammond B3 album that’s about as far from Breezin’ as…hmmm, Kind of Blue is from Bitches Brew. Here Rev. Benson is backed by Clarence Palmer on organ plus a rhythm section of Carter and DeJohnette. They take So What as a swinging shuffle, Benson running through the raindrops, Carter bobbing and weaving as DeJohnette works an almost martial beat. Luiz Bonfa’s The Gentle Rain is bossa as Jimmy McGriff might do it, Palmer’s swift, brooding intensity shifting it to more of a tango before the storm subsides and Benson reemerges with a smile.
The rest of the album is Benson originals. All Clear has a warm, grazing-in-the-grass soul groove, followed by the atmospheric, catchy, gently swaying Ode to a Kudu. The last, Somewhere in the East, is a real eye-opener, probably the most “free” that Benson has ever been captured on vinyl, Carter’s steady groove anchoring Carter and Benson as they hammer and bend, sometimes atonally. Three outtakes are included as well: All Clear done more as a straight-up B3 shuffle; an even more ethereal guitar-and-drums take of Ode to a Kudu and a surprisingly straightforward Somewhere in the East: it’s something of a shock that this jaunty swing version, with its biting, rumbling outro wasn’t chosen for the album instead. Both of these are back in print, for a long time let’s hope, on CTI Masterworks.
Lately Sony Jazz has been emptying out the CTI vaults they inherited: it’s amazing how much good jazz is in there, and how well it’s aged. Conventional wisdom is that Creed Taylor’s California label was primarily a source for fusion, and there’s some truth to that, but not completely. Three delicious new reissues attest to that. First and foremost is Paul Desmond’s exquisite Pure Desmond: it’s such a good album that it would be a contender for the year’s top ten pretty much anytime in the last couple of decades. Desmond was rarely comfortable in the role of bandleader for many reasons, but he seems so on this 1974 gem, and even though it’s a mix of standards by Duke, Jerome Kern, Django and Cole Porter, the group here reinvents them. Desmond never overpowered anybody with his martini tone, and here he gets the chance to let it breathe over some of the smartest jazz rhythm guitar ever recorded, courtesy of the vastly underrated Ed Bickert. Meanwhile, Connie Kay plays an almost invisible beat with brushes, Ron Carter alongside on bass. Lyrical and unselfconsciously poignant, it’s truly Pure Desmond, very close, both tune and vibe-wise to his 1954 quintet session featuring another brilliant guitarist, Barney Kessel.
Another welcome rediscovery is vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s lush, psychedelic 1972 Sunflower album with Herbie Hancock on piano, Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar plus a string orchestra. It’s got the flamenco noir sweep of Jackson’s For Someone I Love, a vividly cosmopolitan version of Michel Legrand’s What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life, an understatedly funky, cinematic take of the Stylistics’ People Make the World Go Round plus the absolutely hypnotic title track, a Freddie Hubbard composition, its dreamlike pulse augmented by the strings. Gorgeously otherworldly, it deserves to be better known than it is.
Last but not least, Ron Carter’s All Blues – taking its title from a judicious, practically ten minute version of the Miles classic – is a refreshingly terse session featuring Joe Henderson on tenor, Sir Roland Hanna on piano and Billy Cobham swinging like crazy behind the kit. It sounds little like the kind of stuff Cobham would be playing later in the decade, and much the same applies to Carter: it’s all judicious funk and melody, no rat-on-a-treadmill walking scales. This title in particular stands out for how intelligently it’s been remastered (although that could be said of all of them): the bass, already amplified courtesy of a Fender amp, gets a welcome boost, although the drums remain comfortably back in the mix just as they were on the original vinyl. Highlights include the beautifully modal piano/bass ballad Light Blue, the gentle funk theme 117 Special – a classic showcase for understated Henderson soulfulness – and the playfully tricky Rufus, a shout-out to Rufus Reid.
Also available in the reissue series is George Benson’s White Rabbit – and for fans of long-forgotten synthesizer film scores from the 1970s, Eumir Deodato’s Prelude. All links here are to itunes, although cds are available as well.
2010 being the fortieth anniversary of 1970s cult jazz label CTI Records, it’s no surprise that there’d be reissues from those vaults coming out right about now. For fans who might be put off by the label’s association with the dreaded f-word, the good news is that the reissued stuff far more closely evokes the Miles Davis of, say, In a Silent Way, than it does fusion. The first one in the series is Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, which often beautifully capsulizes the late 60s/early 70s moment when jazz had gone pretty much completely electric with psychedelic rock overtones, but hadn’t yet been infiltrated by stiff drumming and paint-by-numbers electric guitar solos. Herbie Hancock, who maybe more than any other artist excelled the most during that brief period, plays electric piano and organ here, most stunningly during an absolutely chilling Rhodes solo on an eerily fluttering cover of John Lennon’s Cold Turkey. And he really chooses his spots on a slowly crescendoing version of Suite Sioux. Joe Henderson sets the mood that Hancock will take to its logical extreme on Cold Turkey, but the tenor player is completely tongue-in-cheek to the point of inducing good-natured laughs for his playful insistence on Suite Sioux and the brighty cinematic Intrepid Fox. The atmospheric ballad Delphia has aged well, as has the title track. It’s present here in two versions: the studio take, with its whirling intro building to blazingly catchy jazz-funk, and a far slinkier live take with a sizzling, spiraling George Benson guitar solo. Drummer Lenny White never played more judiciously than he does here, and forty years later, hearing Ron Carter on Fender bass is a trip: he doesn’t waste a note, with a touch that pulls overtones out of the air. It’s up at itunes and all the usual spots.
As is the digital reissue of the 1972 California Concert double album from the Hollywood Palladium, a showcase for CTI’s frontline stable at the time: Hubbard on flugelhorn, Carter on bass, Hank Crawford on alto, George Benson on guitar, Johnny Hammond (the former Johnny “Hammond” Smith) on Rhodes and organ, Stanley Turrentine on tenor, Hubert Laws on flute, Billy Cobham on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion. Benson absolutely owns this record: his unhinged atonal flights and circles of biting blues have absolutely nothing in common with the smooth grooves of Breezin’. He pulls Hammond up and pushes him to find the hardcore funk in a long, characteristically loose version of Carole King’s It’s Too Late. An over twenty-minute take of Impressions takes the vibe back ten years prior, fueled by the guitar and the organ, Laws taking it up eerily and stratospherically, Carter doing the limbo with equal parts amusement and grace. Fire and Rain is happy unrecognizable, reinvented as a woozily hypnotic one-chord jam that could be War during their Eric Burdon period. Straight Life starts out as rocksteady and ends as funk; So What gets taken apart and reassembled, at doublespeed the first time around. The high point here, unsurprisingly, is Red Clay, with its blistering flugelhorn and guitar passages…and then Carter casually detuning his bass when the band leaves him all by himself onstage. The recording is far from perfect: Airto is inaudible much of the time, and supporting horn accents fade in and out of the mix during solos. And these grooves are long: do we really need five minutes of band intros by an announcer who’s obviously half in the bag? Still, it really captures an era, one that sadly didn’t last very long.