Ron Carter, All Blues

Album of the Week, August 5, 2023

CTI Records has a funny history, for a record label with such a distinct sound. Just when you think you have it all figured out, it throws you a curve ball. Take this week’s record, for instance. Where last week we had virtuosic reed player Joe Farrell go all in on the CTI jazz funk sound, this week Ron Carter, whose prior headlining album was a good representation of the label’s trademark sound, has taken a left turn into acoustic jazz—and first class acoustic jazz, at that.

Part of the switch-up might have been a reaction to the label’s sound. It’s noteworthy that much of Carter’s output as a leader in the 1970s was a more traditional approach, with classics like Third Plane sounding distinctly like a reunion of the rhythm section from the Second Great Quintet (as indeed it was). But part of the credit for the sound must accrue to the players. In addition to drummer Billy Cobham and Richard Tee, who appears on electric piano on one number, Carter brought saxophonist Joe Henderson, who we last heard on Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life, and pianist Roland Hanna.

Henderson had been busy with a prolific stretch of great albums for Milestone Records, including Black is the Color (featuring Carter on bass) and The Elements (with Alice Coltrane and Charlie Haden, among others). The latter session finished recording in Los Angeles exactly a week before Henderson entered the Van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, on October 24, 1973. He was coming in hot. And he was landing alongside Hanna (later Sir Roland), who was just coming off recording his first solo album in fifteen years, after a long stint in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Together the band deliver four Carter compositions and two covers as a single, quietly confident statement.

A Feeling” begins in a sprightly tone, with the band playing collectively into Carter’s composition. There’s a caesura at one turn of the melody, where the held chord allows Carter to slide from the tonic up to a major third. It’s the hook, a stop-time moment that comes back with each repetition of the chorus. Henderson has the melody here, and it’s briskly and concisely played as he alternates bars with Cobham and Carter. Roland Hanna’s solo (he plays acoustic piano throughout) is reminiscent of some of Herbie Hancock’s right hand soloing in the later years of the Miles Davis Quintet: angular, along the melody but not slavishly anchored to it.

Light Blue” is a Roland Hanna feature on a Carter-composed ballad. Hanna sensitively plays the melody and improvisations as Carter gently anchors him, quietly sliding from one tonality into another in the verse, taking a moment for a brisk flurry of notes under Hanna’s solo elsewhere. Cobham underpins the song with brushes on cymbals, understatedly accenting the beat throughout.

117 Special” is the one concession on the record to the traditional CTI sound, courtesy of Richard Tee’s work on the Fender Rhodes as well as Cobham’s backbeat and Carter’s blues-influenced bassline. Henderson states the melody on two repetitions of the chorus and then steps back for Carter’s solo, played on his trademark piccolo bass. Here Carter pulls out all his trademark techniques—the sliding pizzicato notes, the high solo line, the flurry of notes emphasizing the solo, the descending fifths—and welds them together into a brilliant solo that keeps on going into the final chorus and the fade-out.

Rufus” starts Side Two with a blues-influenced tune in sax and bass that moves through four or five different keys in its brief melody, with pauses for drum flourishes, before circling back to the tonic. Roland Hanna improvises his way through the key changes as though navigating a high wire, with a casually brilliant poise. He then yields the stage to Carter, who adroitly navigates the outlines of the melody in his solo with only occasional support from Cobham and Hanna. The band comes back in earnest behind Henderson’s solo. The saxophonist stretches out relatively infrequently on this record, and the brief two-chorus solo he takes here serves as a brilliant reminder of how inventively harmonic his approach is.

The familiar bass and piano opening of “All Blues” is followed by a statement of the melody in Carter’s piccolo bass, which sounds as though it were overdubbed as he continues on the low bassline on his regular double bass. A contemporary review claims he was playing both lines simultaneously—a feat of virtuosity indeed. Henderson takes the second statement of the melody and unfolds into a solo that stretches out over the modes and into sheets of notes before coming to a close. Carter’s piccolo bass returns for a solo, finding another counter rhythm inside the melody before returning to the chorus once more as Henderson plays it out, only to light up with a piccolo solo on the last reprise before dipping into an unexpected key change through which the band vamps in a slow fade-out.

Carter takes a true solo on Matt Dennis and Tom Adair’s “Will You Still Be Mine,” with a brisk romp on the melody anchored by his simultaneous scaffolding of the bassline. It’s merely the final demonstration of confident brilliance in an album full of them.

Carter’s embrace of more traditional small group jazz on All Blues seems to have been a harbinger of his direction through the rest of the decade; in addition to his trio album Third Plane, he also reunited with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who would play alongside Freddie Hubbard in a very special band throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. We’ll hear some of those records, too, another time. In the meantime, he had a few more solo albums across the next few years with CTI, and continued to perform as an in-demand sideman as well; we’ll hear him in that capacity several times in the next few weeks.

You can listen to the album here:

Joe Farrell, Penny Arcade

Album of the Week, July 29, 2023

After the bombast of the last two weeks, one might see the cover of this week’s #albumoftheweek and think: phew. Small group straight ahead jazz. You’d be right about the group size—Joe Farrell brought a sextet into the studio this time, with Herbie Hancock returning on piano and adding Joe Beck on guitar, Herb Bushler on bass, Steve Gadd on drums, and Don Alias on congas. However, rather than straight-ahead sounds, this album continues the turn to jazz-funk that began on Farrell’s previous CTI date, Moon Germs.

In fact, since that record, Farrell had been playing a lot of jazz-funk, and so had his band. Penny Arcade was recorded in October 1973, a month after Herbie Hancock recorded the galactically funky Head Hunters. Steve Gadd had played sessions with Johnny Hammond and the earlier, funkier incarnation of Chuck Mangione’s band. Don Alias had, of course, played with Miles on Bitches Brew, and also played in the Tony Williams Lifetime. Herb Bushler had also played with the Lifetime and also with Melvin Van Peebles. And Joe Beck had played electric guitar on Miles’ “Circle in the Round,” the trumpeter’s first session with an electric guitar, and had performed with a number of jazz and funk combos, including a number of session tracks for James Brown. In fact, it’s likely that Farrell met Beck in Brown’s band, since both played on Get on the Good Foot.

And the album definitely shows its funk roots, though it takes a minute to get there. “Penny Arcade” starts out as a more conventional quintet number, but Joe Beck’s wah-wah laden solo quickly shifts things into the funk zone. Farrell’s solo is less adventurous than many on his early ’70s output as he sticks close to the melody, and the pocket.

That brings us to the mighty “Too High.” The opening is a faithful cover of the Stevie Wonders classic, thanks to some tasty keyboard work from Hancock, Farrell’s soprano sax, and the combined electric onslaught of Beck and Bushler. Herbie’s keyboard playing gets richer and stranger behind each iteration of the chorus, which repeats three times before Farrell takes a solo. Here he’s a little less tethered to the literal melody of the tune and it opens up into a modal exploration over top of a squelchy, funky rhythm section. Farrell’s solo continues, bridging between straight ahead melody, funky rhythm, and avant-garde voicings, before returning to the chorus. Hancock’s solo is full of the melodic flourishes that he brought to Head Hunters, but in a more limited palette; he confines himself to the Fender Rhodes, rather than the riot of synthesizers that appeared on his earlier album. Toward the end of the solo, he extends the tonality into a more explicitly minor key before returning to the melody. Bushler builds a solo around the bent notes of the hook, Beck supporting him with an increasingly spare rhythm until he drops out entirely. The final chorus narrows to a plaintive note from Farrell before returning for a coda. It’s the highlight of the album.

Hurricane Jane,” by contrast, is a brighter uptempo number that opens with a more prominent Beck over the unified rhythm section, with Farrell sitting back further in the mix. The mood changes and clouds of Echoplexed Fender roll in for a few measures, and then it’s right back to the funk as Farrell takes a fierce Maceo-flavored solo.

Cloud Cream” begins with Don Alias’s congas and a dual lead on the soprano sax and the Fender. It keeps its salsa flavor going through the first two minutes, then segues to a double-time section before relaxing back into the rhythm, led by Farrell on piccolo. The track is lovely and straightforward, and sets up the closer, “Geo Blue.” Pivoting between slower balladic moments and straight ahead groove, the track seems to sum up the funk, melodic feel, and approachability of the album. It is the most versatile set of sounds on the album, featuring a lovely and effects-free solo from Beck, an acoustic piano interlude from Hancock, and a recurring solo from Farrell on tenor sax that’s plaintive and winsome by turns.

Farrell thus managed a transition from avant-garde leaning straight ahead jazz to pure jazz funk and retained much of his credibility in the process. It’s a hard thing to do, and critics panned the follow-up efforts Upon This Rock and Canned Funk. Those albums were still loved by MCs, though, and were sampled by Kanye West and A Tribe Called Quest, among others. In 2008, 22 years after her father’s death, Farrell’s daughter sued West, Method Man, Redman and Common for sampling “Upon This Rock” without permission. She quietly settled the suit. So though Farrell may not have had a long career, his recordings lived on—and continued to earn money for the family. Next week we’ll hear from another CTI stalwart who is still recording today.

You can listen to the album here:

Don Sebesky, Giant Box

Album of the Week, July 22, 2023

Remember how I said, last week, that Deodato 2 represented the CTI Records sound dialed up to 11? Well, we’re going to redefine what “11” is. Giant Box, the biggest physical release that CTI ever did, lives up to its name in terms of packaging, scope, number of players, and sheer ambition. And it’s all wrapped up in the first of only two releases in the CTI discography credited to Don Sebesky as a leader, backed up by virtually every name on the CTI roster.

We’ve heard about Sebesky in a number of these reviews, and it’s worth taking a peek at his bio. Born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 1937; a trombonist who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and played with Kai Winding, Claude Thornhill, Tommy Dorsey, Warren Covington, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton; switched to arranging in 1960; had enormous success with his arrangements for Wes Montgomery on his 1965 album Bumpin’ for Verve Records, produced by Creed Taylor. By the time we find Giant Box in 1973, Sebesky had been working with Taylor for almost a decade, and the new success of the label enabled him to do this project.

And what a project it was! The seven tracks on Giant Box range from classical third stream crossover—only in this case it’s Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff; pop music (a Joni Mitchell cover); jazz-funk; and a handful of original compositions that channel a whole bunch of new influences, including Donald Byrd’s flirtations with spiritual jazz. There’s a choir on here, somehow. And there’s (deep breath) Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Airto, Milt Jackson, vocalists Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Dave Brubeck’s foil Paul Desmond, Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Ron Carter, Bob James, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Randy Brecker, Warren Covington, and a full orchestra. Basically the whole roster of the label showed up, and it’s incredible.

Firebird/Birds of Fire” combines Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral score for The Firebird with John McLaughlin’s fusion classic “Birds of Fire,” the title track for the second album by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which had been released just four months before the recording sessions started. It’s as bonkers as it sounds, with a purely classical opening that only hints, via slight hits of the rhythm guitar, at the madness that lies ahead. At the 2:15 mark, the classical orchestra parts like a curtain, revealing an ensemble anchored by the tight rhythm section plus George Benson and a completely bananas string section. Hubert Laws gets the first solo over this rhythm section, followed by Freddie Hubbard, whose solo dissolves into a swirl of freaked-out strings. The strings and rhythm section fade out, an orchestral statement triumphantly re-voices the ending theme, and then the rhythm section and swirling strings return in a two minute coda, tapering in a fade-out.

After the opening track, Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull” is a quiet breath, with Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone fading in unaccompanied. Bob James enters on Fender Rhodes, joined by Ron Carter. This is mostly a quartet track, with only a hint of orchestral backing between verses and under the final chorus. The track is meditative and quiet, basically the polar opposite of “Firebird/Birds of Fire”.

Free as a Bird” is one of the Sebesky originals on the album. The horn chart is straight out of the school of Gil Evans, but it falls away quickly to Bob James’ piano, in a trio with Carter and DeJohnette. Hubbard plays a brisk solo that’s quietly virtuosic, with all of the blaze and none of the screaming of his solo live work. Grover Washington Jr. plays a propulsive solo on the soprano sax, in only his second CTI appearance (he made his CTI debut on Randy Weston’s 1972 Blue Moses). The tempo changes to a 6/8 samba for about 30 seconds and then recapitulates the top of the tune. It’s a brilliant show.

Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150” was written for Revelation, a short lived Christian rock band, and first recorded on their 1970 self-titled debut album. Recast as a jazz number, it’s reminiscent of Donald Byrd’s spiritual jazz experiments on A New Perspective, albeit with slightly squarer vocals courtesy of Jackie and Roy, very approximate Latin pronunciation, and a little echo of the Beatles. Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo is tight, playing with meter as it weaves around the blues. When Ron Carter takes a piccolo bass solo, it shifts the whole composition into a blues jam. Bob James provides a quirky organ solo that continues to evolve the blues sound. After a final chorus, the whole thing ends in “loud, crashing cymbals.”

Paul Desmond again changes gears, with a tender rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” I once went out with a girl in college who was an oboe player, who bitterly protested when she heard Branford Marsalis’s rendition of “Vocalise”: “The saxophones get all the solos! Let the oboe have this one!” Here Desmond applies enough English on his solo, alongside DeJohnette’s brilliant drums, to rightly claim the tune for the saxophone; Milt Jackson also comes at the tune sideways in his solo, evoking the underlying blues. Hubert Laws stacks on top of Jackson’s solo, then yields to the orchestra and a final chorus.

Fly/Circles,” another Sebesky original, opens in flights of flute, courtesy of Hubert Laws and an echo loop. Sebesky sings his composition “Fly” in one of the few bad choices on the album; his is a fine composer’s voice but not up to the material. Another round of echoed flute ensues, transitioning into “Circles,” a fast blues with the tune in doubled keys and soprano sax, this time played by Joe Farrell. After an extended Farrell solo, the orchestra comes back, then falls away for Hubert Laws with Carter and DeJohnette. A final orchestral take on the tune closes out the track.

The closing number, “Semi-Tough” represents the jazz-funk side of CTI quite ably, with Sebesky on a variety of keyboards, Grover Washington Jr. on sax, Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on a rare electric bass, and George Benson on an effects-heavy guitar, plus orchestra and voices. The guitar effect pedal threatens to sink the track; fortunately Washington’s sax pulls the track back up to a higher standard of performance. It’s not the most successful jazz-funk track in the CTI catalog, but it’s a good closing number here.

Giant Box is not subtle, but it’s surprisingly effective at showcasing all the different elements of the CTI sound, thanks to a cast of thousands and some excellent arranging from Sebesky. We’ll hear his arrangements again, but our next few CTI albums will be smaller-scale affairs—though no less funky.

You can listen to the album here:

Deodato, Deodato 2

Album of the Week, July 15, 2023

Here is a turning point in the CTI Records story. We’ve discussed how, Freddie Hubbard’s albums aside, much of the label’s output was beginning to coalesce around a formula: jazzy instrumental pop, classical “third stream” style crossover, big orchestration applied subtly, covers of recent pop songs, solid rhythm section with impeccable jazz credentials. This record takes many of the aspects of the formula and cranks them up to extremes, while discarding some of the parts that gave the label “jazz cred” among more traditional listeners. And it did it with one of the biggest selling artists on the label.

Eumir Deodato is a Brazilian keyboardist, arranger and composer. Building his career in bossa nova, he released Prelude, his first US album, on CTI in January 1973. It was a monster, becoming the biggest seller the label ever had and hitting Number 3 on the Billboard albums chart. Its first track, “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” went all the way to Number 2 on the Hot 100. It was a phenomenon, and Creed Taylor, who knew how to strike when the iron was hot, quickly got Deodato back in the studio in April and May 1973 to record Deodato 2, the follow-up. The album features the instrumental pop, classical crossover, pop song covers, and big orchestration, but there’s nothing subtle about it, and you won’t find Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, or Herbie Hancock in the orchestra. That’s not to say there were no notable players; Hubert Laws, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham and Jon Faddis, who had just turned 20 and was beginning a long career as an in-demand studio musician, all appear on the record. Also worthy of note is another session player, guitarist John Tropea, who would later appear on dozens of significant recordings, including Paul Simon’s 1975 hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” But the sound here, driven by Deodato’s own arrangements, is different: keyboard-heavy, slightly muddy, and effects driven.

This is most evident in “Nights in White Satin,” the opening track.* The opening notes sound sludgy, until John Tropea’s guitar comes in, supported by a blast from the horns. All of a sudden the arrangement is in double time and Tropea is playing like he just dropped in from a Jimi Hendrix cover band. Deodato’s keyboard playing is less chunky, funky Fender Rhodes and more pitch-bendy early 1970’s pastiche. The fast section approaches the chukka-chukka sound of a million 1970s TV theme songs. In fairness to Deodato, this was mid-1973 and the sound hadn’t yet calcified into cliché; but it hasn’t aged well.

Continuing to follow the CTI formula, after a pop song cover comes a classical third stream take, in this case of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” This one is given over to strings and a more acoustic sounding keyboard. The arrangement is considerably less sludgy than in “Nights” but suffers from a common problem in covers of this work: tempo. It calls to mind Ravel’s comment to Charles Oulmont following a performance of the work; he observed “the piece was called ‘Pavane for a dead princess’, not ‘dead pavane for a princess’.” The arrangement gathers some amount of interest at the 3:30 mark as the keyboard leads into a key change, but then everything dies away again.

Deodato’s original composition “Skyscrapers” opens with a heavy Stanley Clarke bass line into the main theme, which feels more than a little like a 70’s cop show theme pastiche, with the rhythm guitar chugging away under a bright optimistic theme in the horns. Here the sound is more successful, and when Tropea’s guitar arrives it feels more organically connected to the music. Deodato’s own solo features some inventive use of synth timbres, surrounded by the sunny horns. At over six and a half minutes long, the track doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Side 2 kicks off* with “Super Strut,” the other Deodato original on the album. Deodato layers Fender Rhodes and other keyboards into the funky opening line, which sets up the main theme in Tropea’s guitar and Hubert Laws’ flute. The tune is a straight ahead jazz-rock-soul number, with more than a little debt to Isaac Hayes (whose “Theme from Shaft” was by now two years in the rear view mirror but whose trademark sounds were just starting to appear in jazz-rock fusion). Throughout the pedal effects on the guitar solo are a little raspy around the edges, as if passed through a square wave filter. The orchestra is not subtle here, with layers of strings and horns slathered over the choruses with a broad brush.

And speaking of not subtle, Deodato closes out the set with a bluesy riff on the Rhodes that leads into a familiar riff in the guitar, and then the orchestra comes in and oh my God they’re playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” The opening chorus feels more than a little like the disco version of the Star Wars theme, all the romance and delight of Gershwin’s rubato flattened out into a four-on-the-floor stomp. Fortunately the solos are a more straightforward blues vamp on a single chord; it’s almost a relief not to hear the band attempting to solo over Gershwin’s chords. As a blues-rock number it’s not bad, but it’s definitely not “Rhapsody in Blue.”

All in all, Deodato 2 is all the signature bits of the CTI Records sound dialed up to 11: the strings, the pop songs, the classical crossover, and the jazz-funk-rock fusion. That much of it sounds hopelessly dated to modern ears isn’t necessarily the fault of the musicians, but some measure of blame must be laid at Deodato’s feet due to the arrangements. Fortunately he got better; his orchestral arrangements over the years graced albums by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Paul Desmond, and even Bjork (on Post, Telegram, and Homogenic). He hasn’t issued an album since 2010, but one suspects he could. But he might just be happy at home with his family, including daughter Kennya, who married Stephen Baldwin, and granddaughter Hailey, who married Justin Bieber.

We won’t be reviewing more Deodato albums in this space, but next week we’ll check out another example of CTI turned up to 11, courtesy of another of the label’s great arrangers.

* A note on the running order. The original LP opened with “Nights in White Satin” leading off Side 1 and “Super Strut” opening side 2. The 1988 CD reissue flipped the sides around, perhaps figuring that “Super Strut” was the stronger opening lead; later reissues have restored the original running order.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Music Is Here

Album of the Week, July 8, 2023

I’m taking a small detour this week from our review of the CTI Records discography (through the lens of my personal collection) to check out a recently published live recording of Freddie Hubbard’s from 1973. Coming just weeks after Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine, In Concert Vol. 1, this is a completely different lineup of players and in many ways a different sound, but it’s all anchored by the greatness of Hubbard’s early-1970s compositions.

Hubbard recorded In Concert Vol. 1 on March 3 and 4, 1973 in Chicago and Detroit. This new set was recorded on March 25 live in Studio 104, Maison de la Radio (ORTF), Paris, with a new group of musicians. You won’t hear Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock or Jack Dejohnette on this session. Instead, Hubbard put together a touring band, his first “regular” quintet, who would perform and record with Hubbard both in the studio and on tour throughout the 1970s. On bass was Kent Brinkley, who had previously played with Monk Montgomery and Charles Tyler. Michael Carvin had previously appeared on drums with Doug Carn and Henry Franklin, but made his name with this band and went on to record almost 100 different records as a sideman. George Cables had played piano with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and had appeared on Joe Henderson’s great Milestone Records recordings of the early 1970s. And Junior Cook was the eldest member of the group, having debuted on a 1958 Kenny Burrell recording and played with Burrell, Horace Silver, Blue Mitchell, John Patton and others through the 1960s.

True to the album version, “Sky Dive” opens the record with a statement from rhythm section that quickly segues into the opening melodic statement from the horn players. After the opening verses, Cook takes the first solo, and immediately displays the reason he’s on board; his playing is a fiery combination of Coltrane-inspired runs and Joe Henderson-style melodies. Brinkley takes the second solo. His bass solo stays in the more traditional bass octave instead of the piccolo range that Carter was beginning to favor, exploring multiple tones around the melody before settling back into the groove. Hubbard then finally enters at around the seven minute mark, playing a series of blisteringly fast runs around the theme. George Cables’ solo is a little low in the mix on the recording, but his improvisational model is clear as he takes a more mellow approach to the tune. The horns come back in after Cables’ single chorus solo. We don’t hear a lot from Carvin on the track aside from his precise cymbal work; he’s supportive but doesn’t raise his head above the fray. The overall impression the band leaves at the end of the track is affability.

That easygoing feel is shattered by the opening of “The Intrepid Fox,” which follows “Sky Dive” closely. If this tune was raucous on Red Clay, it’s almost apocalyptic here. As the horns lay into the tune, Carvin is let off the chain and creates a ruckus, followed closely by Cables providing an extended vamp of an intro. Just before the two minute mark the full band enters to state the theme. Hubbard takes the first solo here, keeping his altitude high throughout and throwing out sonic effects left and right. At about the 6 minute mark he essays a brief melodic improvisation but quickly returns to the sonic explorations. Cook takes over and makes up for any missing melodic exploration, taking the theme into several different modes while still reflecting Hubbard’s high improvisations. Cables has a more extended solo here but is still very low in the mix. His approach is harmonically similar to Herbie’s, and his solo illustrates the modal construction of the song—the melody is basically a pedal note on the fifth of the scale while the chords move underneath it. Carvin takes an extended solo that transitions into a meditation on the cymbals, inspiring a chuckle and some Dizzy Gillespie-esque vocal improvisations from Hubbard. The band comes back together for a quick recap of the tune and then hits it, leaving the audience clapping for more. It’s almost 23 minutes long but feels gone in a flash.

“Povo” starts out in an unexpectedly tender mood, again omitting the spoken intro from the album version on Sky Dive, but launching into funk overdrive courtesy of the indefatigable bass line from Brinkley. The whole rhythm section feels looser here, with Carvin’s fills bouncing against the elasticity of Cables’ keys. Hubbard and Cook render a playful take on the alternating horns of the main tune, with Hubbard biting off the ends of phrases and beginning to improvise against the melodic line even within the head. Cook again provides his trademark blend of melodic improvisation and Coltrane-like obligatos, hitting some Freddie-like high notes at the end of the solo. Hubbard provides some support under the third verse of Cook’s solo, but plays away from the microphone so as to leave Cook in the spotlight. Carvin takes twelve bars of funky drummer alongside Brinkley, then fades back until all we get is Brinkley’s bass, heavily distorted in the low end but very funky. The group comes back together at the end for a seriously funky finish, and the track ends with the audience clapping and calling for an encore.

The band returns to the stage at the end for a brilliant rendition of “First Light.” Out of the primordial soup of the abstract opening comes the continuo of the rhythm section, rocking back and forth between A♭minor and a E♭ diminished 7th suspension, which powers the verse throughout as the horns enter at around the four minute mark. Hubbard unleashes a blistering solo that combines some of his patented pyrotechnics with melodic improvisation around the base chords. At one point he lands on a bum note, but incorporates it brilliantly into the solo, landing on it repeatedly in a funk counterpoint. He then takes off into the stratosphere for a verse before bringing the pitch back down in a series of circling patterns, continuing to drop the “off” note (an augmented sixth) into the improvisation and using it to push the key higher. He even drops a little homage to Stanley Turrentine, echoing the latter’s quotation of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in the Chicago concert three weeks prior. Finally concluding a seven minute long solo, Hubbard steps back at almost exactly the halfway point of the track, yielding the floor to Cook, who takes a solo turn on flute. Cook’s flute is a more aggressive voice than Hubert Laws’, but it’s still a respite from the energy of the track, and it’s only two choruses long. Cables takes the floor for a solo that alternates a counter melody with outbursts of the diminished 7th chord, extended transitions between the two, and general groove. Throughout the keyboard solo, Carvin’s drumming gets progressively looser, continuing to keep time while exploring different aspects of the rhythm coming from Cables. The band comes back together for one more chorus, then Hubbard plays a sort of extended outro, Sketches of Spain style, taking the main melody at a greatly stretched tempo but still dropping in flourishes while the rest of the band gets quieter, until he finally slowly sinks, seemingly into the earth, and finally into silence. Applause, one last statement of a “theme” for the band, and then the end.

In many ways this recording captured a turning point for Hubbard’s 1970s career. He was to make one more studio album with CTI Records; Keep Your Soul Together was released at the end of 1973 and featured Cook, Cables and Brinkley alongside Ron Carter, with Ralph Penland on drums, Juno Lewis on percussion, and Aurell Ray on guitar. After that he jumped to Warner Bros., where he made a series of highly commercial but critically panned records. He spent most of the late 1970s as a member of a new quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter; we’ll hear about them in another column. He also was fighting a substance abuse problem, and suffered a lip injury in 1992 that effectively put an end to the high level of performance that characterized his greatest music.

With Hubbard’s departure from CTI, one of the main ingredients of their sound, the straight-ahead jazz core that he represented, was unavoidably diminished. Next time we’ll hear one of the elements that rose to take its place.

Listen: As with many bootlegged sessions there have been many versions of this set released over the years. While there’s no full stream of the released album (which features considerably cleaned up audio compared to the bootlegs), you can actually watch the live-in-studio concert on YouTube! Featuring “Straight Life” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” instead of “Sky Dive” and “Povo,” but dating from the same sessions, here’s a great view of Hubbard’s band in concert.

Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine, In Concert Vol. 1

Album of the Week, July 1, 2023

This week’s album is taken in chronological order of recording rather than release; there were a couple of CTI recordings that were released between Blues Farm and In Concert, Vol. 1 that I’ll come back and cover later. But this seemed to be a good time to start to tell the story of how Freddie Hubbard left CTI, and what happened after.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to call the early 1970s the peak of Hubbard’s recording career. After all, he had had some very successful albums on Blue Note and Impulse in the 1960s. But his fame after Red Clay, Straight Life, First Light and Sky Dive was at its highest point. Sky Dive actually charted on the Billboard 200 for seven weeks; the fact that it peaked at #165 is beside the point. (Eight other Hubbard albums hit the charts following Sky Dive, proving the point that nothing succeeds like success.) And so early 1973 found him on tour with a constellation of CTI stalwarts.

Co-headlining was Stanley Turrentine, who followed up Sugar with Gilberto with Turrentine and Salt Song. On guitar was Eric Gale, who as a teenager had visited John Coltrane at his house and jammed with the titan, and who had recorded with Yusef Lateef, David “Fathead” Newman, Mongo Santamaria, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Grover Washington Jr., and both Hubbard and Turrentine at different points—and who would go on to perform on Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly. The rest of the band featured Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette, who collectively at this point might have been the most astonishing rhythm section working in jazz.

The performances on In Concert Vol 1 were recorded on March 3, 1974 at the Chicago Opera House, and the following night at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit. And they were fiery. Side one of the record is given over entirely to “Povo,” but where the album version had a spoken word intro from Airto, here we get just some prime Herbie Hancock electric piano before the groove is introduced, this time with Gale on guitar deepening the groove atop Carter and DeJohnette. (I should note that DeJohnette’s presence in Cobham’s stead did not make anything less funky, but the sonic palette employed by the drums is broader.) Hancock’s piano, run through a pedal that’s distorting the sound a bit, is prominent in the mix, and it’s a little hard to hear Carter. But what you can hear is that everyone is playing their asses off. Freddie’s solo takes us all over the place sonically, and it’s over six minutes into the track before Turrentine arrives. The first few verses are taken in line with the funk-soul leanings of the overall track, but beginning about a minute into his solo we begin to hear some influences from Coltrane’s chromaticism and sonic palette.

Turrentine takes his solo into the stratosphere, following Hubbard’s lead, but then brings the sax down into its growling low range as well. The whole thing demonstrates convincingly how he earned his co-headlining place on the album. Herbie Hancock’s solo sits solidly within his soulful earlier work, with at first only a few hints of the “out-there” sound of his Mwandishi band or of the even funkier eruptions of the Headhunters band that he would debut later that year. And yet they’re there in abundance, in the later moments of the track, as he takes the music into a different meter against the steady groove. Carter’s solo, taken in the higher register of his bass’s sound, plays with the steady pattern of the groove, and finds a deep melody within it. The latter part of his solo has some decoration at the edges from Gale’s guitar and Hancock’s piano and becomes a pure moment of funk. The whole thing is a deliciously stretched out nineteen minutes of the tightest possible jazz-funk sound imaginable.

Gibraltar” is a tune we haven’t reviewed in album form; it opens Turrentine’s classic CTI album Salt Song, his second after Sugar. The album version featured the full-on Don Sebesky sound, but the live version of the song here opens with a ferocious Jack DeJohnette solo that transitions out of a set of flourishes across his kit into a repeated pattern on the bell. Carter picks up the bassline and the band is off to the races. Hubbard’s solo emerges seamlessly from the texture of the opening choruses but effectively builds a kind of sonic superiority by virtue of higher pitch and his trademarked rapid articulation. He then drops back, trading shorter rhythmic passages with Hancock before reclaiming the stratosphere once more. He then slowly descends into a more normal tessitura, trading thoughts with the saxophone before finally stepping back.

Turrentine stretches into the tune, dropping a little “It Ain’t Necessarily So” into his solo at around the eight-minute mark and then transitioning out through a quotation from “A Love Supreme.” Hancock’s solo skews slightly more abstract on this track than it did on “Povo,” embracing the series of chord changes at the heart of the chorus and elaborating them. When DeJohnette comes in he maintains the energy of his initial flourishes, playing polyrhythmic patterns in the tom and snare before engaging an extended solo on the cymbals. The horns return to the theme with four minutes remaining, and play out two verses before segueing into an extended group improvisation in which the horns play against each other and Hancock. It’s a delightful meltdown, ending with Hancock’s Echoplexed Fender disappearing into outer space and the horns bottoming out into a low growl.

In Concert Volume One arrived at an interesting time in CTI Records’ history, as the different ingredients of the sound—solid jazz, orchestral arrangements, soul-funk influences, pop covers—were beginning to swirl together into a formula. In this context, this album stands out as a sort of a proud throwback to straight-ahead live jazz playing, supported by one of the finest bands Freddie Hubbard ever had. Next week we’ll pause our CTI review to check out a recently released recording that documents another episode on Hubbard’s tour in 1973, before we dive back into the archives of the label that Creed Taylor built.

Ron Carter, Blues Farm

Album of the Week, June 24, 2023

This week’s lead artist has been in more essays in this column than anyone else save his former bandmates Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and that’s just because I haven’t written about many of the projects that he did outside the jazz sphere. The great bassist Ron Carter was not new to leading solo recordings, having recorded Where in 1961 with Eric Dolphy and Mal Waldron for New Jazz, Uptown Conversation in 1969 on Herbie Mann’s Embryo label, and Alone Together, a duo album with Jim Hall, the year before. But on this first album for CTI Records, the versatile bassist put together a collection of tracks that were more about the performance than the songs. The main effect of each track was to highlight Carter’s formidable skills as a bassist and, in some cases, shine a light on previously unrecorded capabilities as a soloist.

The backing band, which included the ever-stalwart Hubert Laws on flute, Richard Tee on electric piano and organ, Sam Brown on electric guitar, Billy Cobham on drums, and Ralph MacDonald on percussion, plus appearances from Bob James on three tracks and guitarist Gene Bertoncini on one, come to the session as supporters of Carter, consistently accompanying him rather than performing over top of the bass line. The way that Rudy Van Gelder records Carter’s bass throughout reminds me a little of the disclaimer that was always somewhere in the liner notes of Branford Marsalis’s albums for Columbia Records: “This album was recorded without the use of the dreaded bass direct, to get more wood sound from the bass.” Indeed, the close miking that Van Gelder uses eliminates a lot of the natural resonance of the wooden body of the bass—but at least it makes it so that the bass is practical as a lead instrument in the ensemble. (You have to turn up those Branford recordings pretty high to hear Bob Hurst in the mix, especially when Kenny Kirkland or Jeff “Tain” Watts are playing.)

At any rate, “Blues Farm” provides both one of the more memorable tunes on the album and an opportunity to hear Carter’s soloistic prowess. The melodic burden is carried by Hubert Laws on flute and Carter, playing both regular and piccolo bass. The piccolo, Carter’s preferred instrument for bass solos, has its strings pitched an octave higher than normal, which gives it two unique characteristics: it’s high enough in pitch to be heard as a solo instrument alongside the rest of the band, and the large range between notes of the scale on the bass fingerboard makes it rather more likely than on a smaller instrument that the bassist will hit pitches that fall between the strict pitches of the scale. Throughout, you can hear Carter turning this unusual characteristic into a feature of his performance using portamento to slide up and down into the desired pitch. The tune itself is a simple enough blues, but the arrangement between Laws and Carter gives it a jaunty air.

A Small Ballad” is the most fragile, and unusual, composition on the record. Opening with a piano figure from Bob James that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Herbie Hancock record, the track yields to Carter’s solo bass, which pivots from a major to minor figure. The two duet with each other over a drum pattern played mostly on the cymbals by Cobham, with Carter playing a ground under James’ piano before switching to a more melodic solo on the bass. James recaps the melody on piano, before Carter recaps it once more, only playing the pivot notes, and only in octaves. It’s a quietly delightful performance. 

Django” begins as a quiet balladic statement, then after the first chorus veers into a swinging blues feel. Carter is the only solo voice throughout, with the rest of the band providing support behind him. The slow balladic section returns quickly after one round of improvisation, making one wonder what a fuller band treatment might have done with the tune. 

A Hymn for Him” is, as the title suggests, a gospel-inflected blues, with Carter’s bass duetting with Richard Tee for a solid five minutes before Hubert Laws provides his own bluesy solo. Here Carter displays his gift for solid, unshowy, in-the-pocket bass accompaniment in the first two verses before picking up the lead with a piccolo bass part which I suspect was overdubbed. Here his full range of harmonic and melodic imagination is at play, reaching for heights even as he spans up from the depths. Laws’ solo exchanges passages and ideas with Tee before he steps back to let the pianist himself be heard. (While I thought myself unfamiliar with Tee’s work, it turns out I know some of his output pretty well, as he was the studio musician heard on Paul Simon’s “Slip-Slidin’ Away” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”)

Two-Beat Johnson,” featuring a theme that shifts between 4/4 and 2/4, opens with a joint statement of the melody between Laws and Carter before Laws takes an extended solo exploring the changes of the work. The track feels like a lost Vince Guaraldi cue and is almost as short, lasting a mere 2:53. It segues swiftly into “R2, M1,” which explores some of the melodic ideas of “Two-Beat Johnson” but grafts them onto a samba beat. Here Carter marries his in-the-pocket accompaniment with some of the portamento styles honed on his piccolo solos, while Laws demonstrates his own usual excellence and virtuosity in the upper range of the flute’s register. Bob James provides a funkier breakdown on the melody before yielding to Carter and Cobham, who provide multiple variations on the groove without ever stepping fully into a melodic solo. It’s an interesting choice for the last track on the album as a result, and I think it highlights a fundamental truth of Carter’s playing: that he always soloed from the bass chair even as he kept his contributions direct and to the point, always focusing on playing, as he says, “the right note.”

So the first album with Carter as a leader shows him as a virtuoso on his instrument and begins to display his skills as an arranger. We’ll see more of the latter skill in the future. In the meantime, we’ll hear a few live performances from another CTI stalwart over the next few weeks.

You can listen to the album here:

Milt Jackson, Sunflower

Album of the Week, June 17, 2023

By the time vibraphonist Milt Jackson, known by his nickname “Bags,” found his way to CTI Records, he had been recording and performing jazz for 28 years, first with Dizzy Gillespie and then with the Modern Jazz Quartet starting in 1952. The MJQ made their reputation on the juxtaposition of Jackson’s bluesy playing and pianist John Lewis’ more cerebral compositions, and over time the two grew apart musically, eventually splitting in 1974. This CTI session is therefore interesting, as a Milt Jackson solo session that was recorded in December 1972, a little over a year before the split (and, coincidentally, just over a week after I was born).

The session blends Jackson’s laid-back touch on the vibes with what was rapidly becoming recognizable as the CTI Records house sound, courtesy of stalwarts who’ve appeared in many of these reviews: Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, and notably Freddie Hubbard, as well as the arrangements and orchestra of Don Sebesky.

The album opens with the ballad “For Someone I Love,” with a Spanish classical guitar introduction by Jay Berliner, a studio musician who also played on Van Morrison’s seminal Astral Weeks. When the tune arrives, with an introduction by Freddie Hubbard and a bluesy statement of the melody by Jackson, it is buoyed on a pillow of strings. The orchestra is more prominent here than it’s been on some of the albums that have come before, though as always with Sebesky’s arrangements the small group remains at the foreground. Jackson’s solo is a slow burner that becomes positively incendiary when Hubbard takes over. The tempo drops back with a rhythm section trio, in which all three of the players brilliantly demonstrate a “less is more” approach, then scale back up to the excitement of the full track. Jackson’s playing is sensitive and nuanced throughout, and in dialog with the whole group, not in front of it.

What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”, from the score to the film The Happy Ending by Michel Legrand, opens with a statement of the melody in the orchestra, transitioning to Milt Jackson for a sensitive opening before handing off to Hubbard for a statement of the chorus on flugelhorn. Jackson’s solo manages to be both soulful and cool, laying down a series of improvisations on the melody in double time which is then picked up by Hancock. Hubbard slows things down once more, and the band plays a coda that gently takes the arrangement out on a series of suspensions that never quite resolve.

People Make the World Go Round,” written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed and released in 1972 by the Stylistics, extends the string of 1970s pop hits receiving a fast-follow jazz cover on CTI albums (see: Hubert Laws covering “Where is the Love?” or “Fire and Rain”, or Freddie Hubbard with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”). This one is fierce, with Hancock and Carter playing the iconic bass part together over a precisely soulful rhythm from Cobham, as Jackson provides atmosphere on vibes and Hubbard plays the melody. There’s then a duo verse for Hancock and Jackson, who fill in the spaces in each other’s solos before Hubbard returns on the chorus. The solo by Jackson slips loose from the constraints of the tightly controlled verse to lay down a mighty groove over Carter’s funk-forward bass line. Hubbard’s solo plays with tonality, smearing notes and adding a rapid-tongued flourish before turning things over to Hancock, who solos on the acoustic piano, bringing more than a little of his early soul-jazz sound to the track. The band takes things out with an extended coda where the melody appears in, turn, in the vibes, flugelhorn, and Fender Rhodes as they play out. The strings don’t appear on this track at all; they’re not needed. It’s a mini-masterpiece.

The album closes with Hubbard’s original “Sunflower.” Originally recorded as “Little Sunflower” on Hubbard’s 1967 Blue Note Records album Backlash, here the tune, played by the composer, is enriched by Sebesky’s arrangement and some judicious application of Echoplexed Fender Rhodes. Hubbard takes the first solo over a steady beat from Cobham, tapering off in a dialog with Hancock’s acoustic piano. When Jackson takes his turn, it’s a coolly brilliant solo that takes us through the modes of the tune before returning once more to the melody. The strings here in the last chorus would feel overdone but for the volcanic statements of Billy Cobham, whose intensity grows throughout the track, continuing to add fills and rolls that are just behind the beat, adding to the growing feeling of tension, released only by the winds and their quiet countermelody. It’s a brilliant performance of one of Hubbard’s greatest compositions.

Jackson had a few more albums on CTI, but Sunflower, thanks in no small part to the title track, stands as a high point in his catalog, and in the label’s. Next week we’ll hear a solo session from one of the players on this album, a session that updates the CTI sound with a uniquely individual stamp.

You can listen to the album here:

Joe Farrell, Moon Germs

Album of the Week, June 10, 2023

There have been times in my life where I’ve picked up a record (or, more commonly back in the day, a CD) based on the artist, or based on hearing a song, or (especially with jazz) based on another performer who appeared on the album. I am usually not a cover buyer. But sometimes a cover image gets stuck in my head and I buy the album without knowing anything else about it.

Such was the case with Moon Germs, the first album I bought by Joe Farrell. I was searching for other records on eBay—probably looking for Herbie Hancock albums—and this cover popped up. I stared at it: the geometric forms, the slab serif typography, and most of all that weird eyeball. This was back in 2018, before I had heard of Farrell, before I fell down the CTI rabbit hole. It didn’t matter; I had to pick this up.

I mean, how could I not?

Look into the giant floating eyeball of Joe Farrell. (Or someone’s eyeball, anyway.)

The players on the session didn’t hurt. By this time Farrell, who was still performing with Chick Corea in the Return to Forever band, had broadened beyond the Corea sidemen who backed him on Joe Farrell Quartet and Outback. This session featured Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Together the band put together a mighty groove that, for the first time in Farrell’s solo output, fell squarely on the jazz-funk side of the CTI house sound.

Farrell’s “Great Gorge” opens the album, with a firmly squelchy bass line from Clarke, doubled in the electric piano by Hancock. Farrell plays a happy, major key melody on the soprano sax that, at 1:15, abruptly shifts into a modal pulse, then accelerates into a higher gear. The second theme and Farrell’s extended solo have the flavor of a more frenetic version of The Joe Farrell Quartet. Throughout Clarke’s bass playing is remarkable. He sounds simultaneously like Ron Carter and Sonny Sharrock, with both walking bass and slithering guitar-like sheets of notes happening, somehow, simultaneously. Herbie’s solo explores a sequence of chromatic chords, steering into a sequence of celestial, space-jazz like clusters before everyone falls away but Jack Dejohnette. He rolls like thunder through his solo before firmly bringing everyone back to the original theme. The whole thing is both breathtaking and a sly subversion of expectations for what “the CTI sound” should deliver. It’s also a hook factory; apparently no fewer than ten artists have sampled that swampy bass line from the intro.

The title track sees the performers solo around a sustained ground pattern in Clarke’s bass in a kind of agitated modal twelve-bar blues. The improvisations follow in the tracks of the middle free section of “Great Gorge,” but with a rhythmic twist: where the first track was frenetic, here the blues and pulses of swing anchor the track and keep it moving forward.

Corea may not have played on the album, but Farrell was still working closely with him, and his “Time’s Lie” opens Side B. Corea’s tune begins as a subtly wistful waltz, but opens up into a fast 4/4 with Latin-influenced rhythms. Farrell’s solo remains relentlessly upbeat and joyous over a continued ground in the bass and drums. When he yields the floor to Herbie Hancock, we are reminded ever so slightly of the version of “Gingerbread Man” the pianist recorded with Miles, both in the harmonic imagination and in the one-handed solo approach. After another chorus and a moment of exposed bass heartbeat, the band falls back into the waltz time opening. It might be the most beautiful track Farrell had recorded to this point.

Stanley Clarke’s “Bass Folk Song” closes things out. Far and away the most accessible tune on the album, Clarke opens with a melodic bass line (also oft-sampled) over which Farrell states the theme on flute, the two of them trading rhythmic patterns even as Clarke stays close to that V – I progression that serves as the focal point of the song. Behind them, Hancock surges to the fore, pivoting from chunky jazz-funk chords into splashes of Echoplexed sound. The solo reminds us that his great run of albums on Warner Brothers, spanning from the accessible funk of Fat Albert Rotunda to his mind bending recordings with the Mwandishi band, had been made over the preceding three years. Farrell’s closing solo fades out, as if nodding to a never-ending dialog between the melodic and free sides of his musical identity.

The whole album covers a lot of ground, from jazz-funk workout to free jazz freak-out. To Farrell’s credit, it hangs together coherently enough to remain compelling and listenable all the way through. He wouldn’t remain balanced at this knife-edge of jazz styles forever, though, as we’ll hear in a few weeks. But next time we’ll hear from a new voice on the CTI label—and learn how he got a boost from a voice we’ve heard many times before.

You can listen to the album here:

Hubert Laws, Morning Star

Album of the Week, June 3, 2023

As we’ve seen, Hubert Laws was a staple of the funky side of the CTI roster, appearing on several key recordings by Freddie Hubbard. In his own sessions as leader, though, the material leaned more toward the “Third Stream” and crossover side of the label’s vibe. Both influences combined on his next album for the label, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in September and October 1972.

As with Afro Classic, Morning Star is most definitely not a small group recording. Don Sebesky’s arrangements surround Laws and his flute with both a combo and a full orchestra. Bob James’ electric piano features prominently alongside Dave Friedman on vibes, Billy Cobham on drums, and the indefatigable Ron Carter on bass. The orchestra, unlike on Laws’ previous session, features a full brass section in addition to winds and strings.

The title cut, composed by Rodgers Grant, straddles between the combo and full orchestra worlds, with an orchestral opening that’s almost reminiscent of some of Gil Evans’ work on Miles Ahead. The orchestra yields to Laws and James for extended solos, with Jack Knitzer’s bassoon and a full section of flutes providing unusual color in the accompaniment. When Laws recaps the melody at the end, he swoons into a different key altogether.

Laws’ “Let Her Go” opens as a slow bluesy ballad, stated simply with James, then Carter and Cobham. The strings join partway through the second statement of the melody, threatening to crescendo into a full orchestral verse, but instead fall away as Bob James leads a piano trio interpretation of the tune. The orchestra remains present but on a leash throughout the arrangement. Laws’ closing cadenza reminds us that despite his frequent crossovers into classical music, he still had a lot of blues in his core.

The great Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway tune “Where is the Love?” was completely inescapable in 1972, and true to form, Creed Taylor was fast on the heels of its number five Billboard Hot 100 peak and number one Billboard R&B peak to release an instrumental version of the song. The orchestral chart at the beginning feels a little slow, almost woozy, but an ecstatic solo by Laws takes the tempo up as he climbs into the stratosphere. James’ ensuing solo is accompanied by some Latin-inspired work on the cymbals by Cobham and glissandi in Ron Carter’s bass. The whole thing tempers the ecstasy of the original song with a sort of stately grace.

Laws’ “No More” sounds like a forgotten soul classic, especially when the backing vocals (including Laws’ wife Eloise) enter on the chorus. The first verse is taken by the combo who treat it as a modal jazz excursion, but the second verse is all Laws and orchestra, and his rhythmic and harmonic imagination is on full display as he solos over the ensemble. As far as I know, “No More” was never a hit in its own right and never covered, but samples from it appear on a J. Cole track from 2013 and an electronic remix by producer Bellaire in 2017.

Amazing Grace” opens with Laws in the low range of his instrument over a simple accompaniment by James. He takes the second verse in the middle range of the instrument with a bluesier tone, backed by the string orchestra, and the third verse at the highest range with a transparent shimmer of strings. An extended bridge steadily brings more orchestral voices to the fore under a steadily climbing flute solo, until Laws shifts keys and takes a solo descent. A pause, then James brings us back to the original key and Laws solos a verse over the low winds and strings. The arrangement ends as it began, with Laws’ low flute slowly fading out. It’s a showstopper.

Laws’ “What Do You Think of This World Now?” ends the record on a decidedly more ambivalent note. Interpolating bits of “America the Beautiful” around a sung verse that bemoans “hatred, strife and racial hypocrisy,” the orchestra plays the turmoil of the lyrics, slowly falling away to an obbligato by Carter, Cobham and James. Laws joins with the full band in a bluesier verse that gradually accelerates into the stratosphere, then fades behind a more hopeful verse “‘bout a kingdom that will not die/Where people won’t need to cry/When these problems have gone away/In Jehovah’s day.” Laws plays a coda with a bit of the bluesy melody, ending on a tone of resolution and hope.

Laws’ Morning Star is almost a Rosetta Stone for the artistic threads that Creed Taylor’s CTI Records stood for at this point, twenty-two releases into the label’s history, a heady brew of funky jazz with strains of classical and pop woven through in tight arrangements. There were still other flavors at work in the label’s alchemy, though, and we’ll hear some of those in next week’s selection when we check in again on Joe Farrell.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Sky Dive

Album of the Week, May 27, 2023

Sometimes when a streak is hot, you just keep riding it. That’s what happened with Freddie Hubbard in the early 1970s and his records on CTI. We’ve already heard three first class records in the series—Red Clay, Straight Life, and First Light rank among some of the finest records from the early 1970s. It turns out that Freddie had one more at this level in him.

Some changes were afoot in the personnel. By this time in 1972, Herbie Hancock was touring with his Mwandishi group, promoting extraordinary odysseys in jazz sound (that hopefully we’ll review one day), so Keith Jarrett (no relation, as far as we know) joined in on piano. And Billy Cobham was in for Jack DeJohnette on drums, hinting at the jazz fusion sound that is featured on the album. Otherwise, most of the rest of the crew from First Light was on board, including Don Sebesky, who continued as arranger. The conception of the album is a little different from First Light, though; where the earlier album ran for five tracks, foregrounded strings and woodwinds, and embraced pop and classical crossover sounds, this is a classic Hubbard record with four tracks, with a mix of originals, standards and a little period pop to round things out.

Povo” is a classic Freddie Hubbard fusion blues that sounds like it was filtered through early Funkadelic—complete with a spoken word narration at the beginning that seems to be in a mix of Portuguese and English. Ron Carter’s bass groove is the heartbeat of this version, under a superior solo from Hubbard. Benson follows with an assertive statement, accompanied with subtlety by Sebesky’s orchestration for the first verse of the solo, and then kind of overwhelmed by the horn section on the second verse. But he keeps playing, never losing the groove, and passes over to Hubert Laws, who turns in a fiery statement before passing to Jarrett. This is not the Keith Jarrett of the Köln Concert — his solo is more of a tag on Laws’, a concisely funky articulation of the chords before he returns the flow to Hubbard and the orchestra who take the tune out. Check out the percussion under the final repetition of the chorus, courtesy of Airto and Ray Barretto.

Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” is an odd followup. The rhythm section feels a little like it’s stumbling over the changes for about the first minute as Hubbard plays a blearily dark solo. Everything comes together with the entrance of the winds at around the two minute mark, with a coherent statement of the melody in Keith Jarrett’s acoustic piano and a gearshift from the band into straight jazz that accelerates into a swinging statement of the tune. When Jarrett returns it’s to anchor that swinging moment, until Freddie returns with a statement of his angular solo beneath which Jarrett plays “out,” and the band restates the opening theme. It’s got real imagination, especially when Keith Jarrett’s piano steps to the fore, but I’m not at all sure the track hangs together.

The Godfather” is a more successful arrangement, starting with a stark unaccompanied statement from Hubbard and transitioning into a statement of the melody on a heavily reverbed bass, with quiet accompaniment by an anonymous voice and some work on the high hats by Cobham. The opening solo sustains a mysterious vibe for the first few minutes, then transitions into a faster swinging version of the theme with Jarrett, Hubbard, Cobham and Carter. The band is tight in this track, hanging closely behind Hubbard’s solo, which starts melancholy and turns blistering. The track closes out with a carefully constructed free-for-all, with Sebesky’s orchestra playing the waltz of the tune at top volume and Hubbard soloing like a house on fire above. It’s completely bananas and you have to hear it to believe it.

Closing out the album is the second Hubbard original, “Sky Dive, ” which is a more gentle funk groove introduced by Jarrett, Benson, Carter, Cobham and the percussionists. Hubbard and Laws then state the theme in a relaxed groove. Hubbard’s in no hurry to get to the solo, which doesn’t start until around the 2:40 mark, but when he hits it, it’s tight and groovy. “Sky Dive” gets in and gets out, which is a rare thing in Hubbard’s originals but which puts a fine punctuation point on this album.

Hubbard was remarkably consistent over the first four albums he made with CTI, and the sound is always immaculate. He could tear it up in live performance, as well, which we’ll hear soon. Next time, though, we check in with one of his collaborators on this album for something completely different.

You can listen to the album here:

Joe Farrell, Outback

Album of the Week, May 20, 2023

Spoiler alert: As we’ll go deeper into the CTI Records discography, we’ll get to a point where a lot of the music will start to meld into a sort of jazz-funk-crossover soup, thickened by a hefty dose of Don Sebesky strings and crossing more and more into pop music. Inevitably it will happen to most of the artists that we will review on this label, buoyed along by the striking success of the CTI sound. But right now, we’re in 1972, releasing a record that was recorded in November 1971, and the transformation hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we still get thunderbolts of genius, like Joe Farrell’s second album for the label, Outback.

Again, as with Joe Farrell Quartet, part of the credit is due to the superb players that make up Farrell’s group. As we discussed last time, Farrell spent time playing with both Elvin Jones and Chick Corea, and both return the favor here, alongside bassist Buster Williams and the indispensable Airto on percussion. The quartet is tight and the music they make is simultaneously tuneful and eye-poppingly adventurous.

We get more of the latter on the first side of the album, which opens with the title track, the John Scott-penned theme to the dark Australian movie Outback. Here the morally ambivalent atmosphere of the film is evoked in the swirling flutes over Williams’ freely walking bass, before Jones’ drums bring us into a more normal time accompanied by a wide-ranging bass line and Corea’s accompaniment on the Fender Rhodes. The chords swirl in a minor mode, with the flute rising to a feverishly high solo, accompanied by the full band who lock in telepathically behind Farrell. Corea moves us forward with statements between the verses, but the focus remains on Farrell as he improvises wilder flights, with Jones staying uncharacteristically subtle in the background on toms and brushed cymbals. It’s a moving, meditative and genuinely exciting journey.

The adventure continues with “Sound Down,” one of two originals on the record. Here Farrell and his wife Geri craft a tune that tilts between a modal statement in 4/4 and a waltz in a more conventional major key. But the modal wins and Farrell is off to the races on soprano saxophone, sounding a bit Wayne Shorteresque on some of the flights. When he shifts rhythmic patterns, Chick Corea is right there with him, zig-zagging across small explosions from Elvin Jones and over the steady heartbeat of Williams’ bass. Chick’s solo, starting just before the four-minute mark, is a right-hand improvisation that picks up some of the modal energy of Farrell’s solo but grounds it in a more persistently major tonality, returning to the mode only at the end with a series of ascending chords that fade out, letting Williams take a breath and explore some differing rhythmic patterns in dialog with Jones. Farrell returns at the end to restate the tune and turn the solo back to a major key.

Bleeding Orchid,” a Chick Corea composition, opens the second side in a moderately Spanish groove, with a melody that grows from a melancholy minor into a more optimistic major key. Farrell’s solo, again on soprano sax, trades thoughts phrase by phrase with Corea, who seems completely intertwined with the saxophonist’s thoughts. Jones provides a huge voice on the drums on the solos, falling back at the restatements of the theme, and Williams’ constant explorations around the tonality make him the quiet hero of the track.

November 68th” concludes the album, with a modal workout in 6/8 that somehow manages to evoke “Ju Ju” era Shorter and Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” in equal measure. Farrell’s other original composition on the album, the track provides him with a prominent soapbox on tenor sax. Here, again, Jones and Williams anchor the soloist, augmented by Airto, as Corea chases Farrell throughout the track. Chick’s solo swings harder than Farrell’s free flights but still has its own moments of brilliance, including a polyrhythmic moment that seems to stop time partway through the solo. As Corea, then Williams fall back, Jones takes a solo that seems to rise and fall like the saxophonist, double-timing the underlying pulse of the track and then dropping back into a one man polyrhythm. When Williams’ searching yet perfectly metrical bass returns, the rest of the band follows for a final statement of the melody followed by a fierce blowout at the end.

The whole album is stunning, a lesser-known but high quality gem. Farrell was to continue in this vein of tightrope-walking free jazz for one further album on CTI before shifting gears; we’ll get to that album in a few weeks. But we’ll check in on a couple of his labelmates first.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, First Light

Album of the Week, May 13, 2023

In the first two Freddie Hubbard albums that we’ve heard in our exploration of the CTI Records discography, we’ve heard straight-ahead small group jazz, though colored with fusion and jazz-funk. On First Light, his third outing as leader for CTI, his works take on a little more of the colors of Creed Taylor’s universe, with strings, pop music covers, classical arrangements, and casts of thousands, including Ron Carter, Hubert Laws, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Airto, George Benson, joined by Phil Kraus on vibes and a 20 piece orchestra. Throughout it all soars his serene trumpet and flugelhorn, marking this record as undeniably Freddie despite the new ingredients.

The title track is a classic Hubbard composition, with a floating minor-key melody played by the bandleader across a repeating funk accompaniment. Hubbard’s form is without par throughout his solo, beginning with the achingly beautiful opening solo that precedes the first statement of the theme. Unusually for Hubbard, there is an interlude for Hubert Laws and strings in the middle of the first statement before Hubbard returns with the theme once more, then ventures into the solo proper. Here the motifs are more subtle than in some of his solos, featuring some extended passages played on a single note, one stretching as far as 16 bars and punctuated by a sting from the orchestra, which otherwise supports the sound without calling attention to itself. George Benson and Hubert Laws also have solo moments, but for the most part this one is all Freddie, and it fades out the last closing vamp of the music.

What comes back in is unexpected. Unlike the rest of the CTI stable, Hubbard had not really played much contemporary pop music on record, which makes his introductory notes to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” even more startling. The Paul and Linda McCartney single made its first chart appearance on August 2, 1971, a mere six weeks before Hubbard entered the studio to record First Light, so this may have felt to the trumpeter like striking while the iron was hot. The work, legendarily cobbled together from three different proto-songs, is here played in three different styles: a pure ballad for the opening “we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert,” a funk-jazz voice on “Admiral Halsey notified me,” and an ecstatically free take on “hands across the water.” Throughout it all Hubbard and his band are foregrounded, with the orchestra adding only spots of color throughout. There are so many quotable moments throughout the arrangement, including Ron Carter’s mic-dropping solo halfway through as the rest of the orchestra falls away (later sampled by the Beastie Boys for 1992’s “Professor Booty”!). It’s an exciting and thoughtful arrangement, as striking today as it must have been in 1971.

Moment to Moment,” a quieter ballad by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, opens with a pensive dialog between Ron Carter’s bass and Hubert Laws’ flute, underscored by the string section. Hubbard plays the melody straight, but here the real star is Sebesky’s sensitive orchestration. He may have been notorious for working so fast that his scores were sometimes as unreadable as a physician’s handwriting, but at his peak there was no one better, as this track shows.

Yesterday’s Dreams” continues with the orchestra taking a more prominent role, as Hubbard, here playing a muted trumpet, states the melody of one of the few tracks credited to Sebesky as co-composer. Ron Carter’s bass is a prominent heartbeat throughout, with Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes adding a plaintive note. Hubert Laws and the woodwinds in the orchestra call to each other under the last bit of Hubbard’s solo, with Carter adding portamento to his bass obbligato as the track fades.

Lonely Town” is an unexpected conclusion to the album, with the woodwinds and strings stating the melody of the Leonard Bernstein show tune, then suddenly giving way to Herbie and Ron Carter laying down a groove under Hubbard’s flugelhorn, accompanied only by the lightest of cymbal work from DeJohnette. The second verse picks up steam and features a magnificent bit of improvisation from Hubbard with imaginative underpinnings by Herbie and Carter. At the end the orchestra has the final word, closing out the track with notes of pensiveness and hope.

Hubbard’s work on First Light shows the trumpeter evolving and growing, and gaining a new audience in the process. The trilogy of albums we’ve listened to so far, beginning with Red Clay and continuing with Straight Life, is brought to a natural conclusion here, with all facets of the trumpeter represented. While Hubbard would continue to record for CTI, this three-album stretch is arguably unequalled in his discography for excellence and range. We’ll listen to some of those later performances soon, but next week we’ll check in with another CTI veteran as he journeys into less-traveled realms.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Straight Life

Album of the Week, May 6, 2023

Hubert Laws’ Afro-Classic may have been the last album recorded for CTI Records in Rudy Van Gelder’s studios in 1970, but it was not the last album recorded in 1970 to be released. A month before Laws’ session, Freddie Hubbard returned to the studio where he had previously cut the instant classic Red Clay for a follow-up session. Again featuring Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and “Pablo” Landrum, the session also saw the addition of Jack DeJohnette on drums, Weldon Irvine on tambourine, and George Benson on guitar. Together the band recorded a session that was more spontaneous, took more risks, and ultimately may have been more successful than its predecessor.

The album opens with the title track, and it’s immediately arresting, with Hubbard’s fierce articulation of a rapidly tongued fanfare alternating with eruptions from DeJohnette. The tune then abruptly swings into a Latin-tinged funk groove, anchored by Herbie’s Fender and Ron Carter’s bass line, which alternates arpeggiated fifths, octaves and diminished sevenths. Joe Henderson takes the first solo, playing bold runs and then repeating the theme in ascending keys. This session was recorded a few months after his 1970 legendary live session for Milestone, which was released as If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and he is at the top of his improvisatory game here, transitioning seamlessly from ferocious runs into more serene reflections before handing over to Hubbard. Freddie’s trumpet tone was flawless at this point, pivoting from relaxed, precisely articulated runs to screaming blues shouts within a few bars. Along the way the music slips out of the funky groove into a more abstract utterance, then quietly returns to the groove with the burble of Herbie’s solo. He begins by taking a key from Freddie’s solo, but then takes off in a more abstract direction, playing against the rhythm and finally landing in time for George Benson to pick up the thread. You can hear players shouting encouragement behind Benson’s solo, as his soul-inflected licks shift into funk, then like Herbie shift out of time for sixteen bars or so before crashing back into the rhythm of the groove. The band then locks into the groove as DeJohnette and Landrum trade polyrhythms underneath. Hubbard returns with a high keening line that echoes his opening statement before bringing the volume down for a restatement of the theme. If certain performances of “Red Clay” leave one with the impression that Hubbard had given his all and could not possibly play more, “Straight Life”’s insistent groove and the fade-out insist that he could keep playing all day.

Weldon Irvine’s “Mr. Clean” follows. A grimier funk workout that sees the bass clinging to the tonic like a life raft, the horns call to mind a James Brown line before Freddie makes like Miles with a high lonesome call, as George Benson and Herbie Hancock trade licks beneath. Joe Henderson’s solo explores the tonality of the theme in an abstract workout as the band digs deeper into the groove. Van Gelder’s engineering here is amazing as the bass seems to deepen the further out Henderson goes, followed by Hancock, who innovates both in rhythm and in tonality. Hancock’s solo continues after Henderson drops back, continuing to echo into outer space yet still rooted in the groove. Benson’s solo is similarly deep, bridging over from soul to funk to abstraction in the same breath. Throughout the rhythm section of DeJohnette and Carter stay locked into the groove.

For the final track, a rendition of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke standard “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Freddie switches to the flugelhorn. In a 1973 interview, he noted that he had been playing the more mellow cousin of the trumpet for “about three or four years” (though his earliest recording credit on the instrument came on 1967’s Backlash). He claimed in the interview, “Now I can play it better than the trumpet, because it’s so much easier to play.” The creamy tone of his flugelhorn became one of Freddie’s signature sounds, and here it is put to superb use in a stripped down setting, recording the ballad with sensitive accompaniment from Benson on the guitar, for an effect that is reminiscent of “Why Was I Born?,” the duet that Coltrane recorded with Kenny Burrell on their 1962 collaboration. Hubbard closes the track with a long coda that seems to float effortlessly and eternally.

This second Hubbard album on CTI established his role as a leader among the label’s artists, and he would continue to record groundbreaking sets throughout the next few years. We’ll hear another, very different one next time.

You can listen to the album here:

Hubert Laws, Afro-Classic

Album of the Week, April 29, 2023

It’s hard to believe, but the four albums we’ve covered so far since the founding of Creed Taylor’s CTI label—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, the Joe Farrell Quartet, and Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, plus the earlier reviewed Bill Evans Montreux II— were all recorded in 1970. Taylor kept an incredibly busy recording and release schedule with engineer Rudy Van Gelder in the latter’s studies in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and the label’s recordings in the first year were something of a who’s who of the early label. The last recording made in 1970 at Englewood Cliffs introduces another important artist on the CTI roster to this column, though it was actually his second recording for the label, as well as introducing another musical genre to the new label’s tapestry.

Flautist Hubert Laws was, by 1970, one of the most significant proponents of the jazz flute, having appeared on sessions with James Moody, Mongo Santamaria, Kai Winding, Bobby Timmons, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, and Quincy Jones, as well as on Joe Zawinul’s self-titled masterpiece and Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda. He had recorded his debut as leader, The Laws of Jazz, in 1964 (which we’ll review another time), and his recording Crying Song was the first official release on the CTI label. But his approach to the instrument was still evolving, and Afro-Classic revealed a new facet of Laws’ work, with the introduction of classical music to the recording.

The combination of jazz and classical was not new; Gunther Schuller had introduced the concept in a 1957 lecture that named the combination third stream. True to the concept, Afro-Classic includes pop music treated like classical and jazz, and classical treated like jazz and blues, all wrapped in the now-trademark CTI gatefold cover with a brilliant Pete Turner photo.

The opening track, a cover of James Taylor’s then four-month-old “Fire and Rain,” presents the tune almost as a rondo, with an opening statement that in retrospect anticipates the synth-flute in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and echoes spiritual jazz practice, before Bob James’ electric piano presents the opening verse as a sonata. Ron Carter’s bass and Fred Watts’ drums (with an assist from Airto on percussion) then alter the template again, with a second statement of the melody as a blues groove. It all swirls together into a greasy, funky reverie, before returning to the more sonata-like form of the beginning and fading out on a revisitation of the groove. Don Sebesky is credited with arrangements on the album, but he keeps a light touch throughout.

From this opening, Laws pivots into a more pure classical approach with an arrangement of the Allegro from Bach’s Concerto No. 3 in D (BWV 1054). Except for the use of electric piano, and the addition of Gene Bertoncini’s acoustic guitar, the arrangement is taken straight, with a bassoon added to fill out the arrangement with some of the woodwind parts. The recording would not have been out of place on my childhood classical radio station—or as incidental music for one of the later Charlie Brown TV specials. In fact, I kept thinking about the score to “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” which supplemented Vince Guaraldi’s iconic compositions with a Bach sonata for the characters in the department store scene.

The “Theme from Love Story” is likewise played “straight” for its opening, the theme—familiar to those who suffered through hours of easy-listening orchestral arrangements in the late 1970s—stated by Laws on the baritone flute. Sebesky’s arrangement is mercifully understated, allowing Laws’ gentle jazz inflections on the chorus to play out in counterpoint with the bassoon and acoustic guitar, before the entrance of Ron Carter’s bass pedal point signals a variation with a gentle Latin groove. The next verse digs deeper into this concept, with Laws and the percussionists creating a swirling minor-key soundscape over the grounding of Ron Carter’s bass and Bob James’ piano, before returning to a recapitulation of the melody. It’s a great example of Laws’ talent for beginning with familiar, unprepossessing melodies and taking them into highly interesting places.

Returning to Bach with “Passacaglia in C Minor” (BWV 582), the opening statement is sketched by Carter’s bass line, then elaborated by James with light accompaniment from the percussion. Laws and James trade the theme back and forth, effectively serving as the right and left hand of the keyboard part, before the ensemble chases the tune down to the tonic. Subsequent verses explore jazz improvisations on the theme, with increasingly strong jazz inflections, before a reverb-heavy flute solo and a grooved-out statement by James—in 6/8 time—take us over the edge into a modal workout. As the piece passes the ten-minute mark, Van Gelder and the musicians find some remarkable new tones, with arco cello, treated electric piano, and reverb-heavy flute noise swirling the melody into something like an exploration of inner space. The recapitulation of the theme is once more taken straight, re-grounding the work in the original composition. It’s a masterful unification of the differing approaches to music on the album into a single artistic statement.

The album concludes with Mozart’s “Flute Sonata in F” (K.13), which—like the Bach Allegro—could be mistaken for a classical recital but for the prominent bass and James’ electric piano. Coming after the phantasmagoria of “Passacaglia,” it’s a cheeky punctuation point on an album that quietly upsets any pre-conceived notions the listener might have regarding the lines of separation between jazz and classical music.

Laws brought a significant new stream of influence to CTI with this record, one that he and other performers on the label would revisit throughout the rest of its run. We’ll hear from Laws, and classical influences again. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by his approach to jazz flute, you might want to check out my Exfiltration Radio show “Flute’n the Blues.”

You can listen to the album here: