Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry and songs intersect with jazz, funk and the blues to paint a rich portrait of black poverty and despair.

Album of the Week, September 23, 2023

In this short series about funk, Gil Scott-Heron would seem to be an unlikely choice. A poet, militant, novelist, spoken-word artist, Scott-Heron was not a musician by calling. Indeed, he called himself a “bluesologist,” a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues. But, thanks to two important collaborations, Scott-Heron has a place not only among the progenitors of funk but among the ancestors of hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, to an opera singer mother and a Jamaican soccer player. His parents separated when he was young, and he went to live with his grandmother Bobbie Scott, a civil rights activist who introduced him to the works of Langston Hughes and to the piano, in Jackson, Tennessee. On his grandmother’s death, he moved to live with his mother in The Bronx. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School but transferred to the Fieldston School on a full scholarship for writing. He was known as much for his acerbic wit and keen sense of social irony as his writing; when asked in an admissions interview how he would feel if he saw one of his classmates drive by in an limousine while he walked, he asked the interviewer, “Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?” He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania, because Langston Hughes had done so.

It was at Lincoln University that he met one of his most important collaborators, the musician Brian Jackson, with whom he formed a band. Jackson was to collaborate with him throughout the 1970s. At Lincoln, he also attended a performance by the Last Poets, an incendiary spoken word ensemble who are today held to be among the forerunners of hip-hop, and asked them “Listen, can I start a group like you guys?” He left school to work on his debut novel, Vulture, and moved to New York City, where he met the other significant collaborator, jazz musician and producer Bob Thiele.

Thiele had gotten his start in the record business working for Creed Taylor, and served as the head of Impulse Records following Taylor’s departure for Verve. In his eight years at Impulse, he produced the most significant of John Coltrane’s late works, including Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Impressions, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Meditations, and Ascension. He also produced many other significant albums for Impulse, which was by this point a division of ABC Records, including Freddie Hubbard’s The Body and the Soul, and co-wrote the song “What a Wonderful World.”

The collaboration with Louis Armstrong on this (eventual) hit song led to a breakdown in relations between Thiele and ABC Records president Larry Newton. Apparently Newton was expecting a Dixieland style album from Armstrong, and when he learned that Thiele was recording him performing “Wonderful World,” a ballad, an argument began that escalated into a screaming match, with Newton ultimately being ejected from the recording studio and left yelling and banging on the door outside. Thiele left ABC shortly after and started his own label, Flying Dutchman. One of the first artists he convinced to record with him was Gil Scott-Heron.

The artist recorded three albums for Flying Dutchman, as well as today’s release, a 1974 compilation drawn from the first three releases after Scott-Heron departed for the Strata-East label. Gil’s debut album on Flying Dutchman, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was a live session of poetry with accompaniment from Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals, as well as Thiele himself on piano and guitar. The album did not chart, but it did feature the poems “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” performed as spoken word pieces with percussion accompaniment.

The two albums that followed were entirely different. For Pieces of a Man, Brian Jackson joined as musical director, and Thiele assembled an enviable cast of musicians to join them, including Ron Carter on electric bass, Hubert Laws on flute, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Burt Jones on electric guitar. Jackson’s musical perspective combined with Scott-Heron’s bluesy melodic writing is what connects this album to the funk of Sly and the Family Stone—along with a similar perspective on race relations. For the album, Scott-Heron re-recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the new band, and the combination of Carter on bass, Purdie on drums, Hubert Laws’ anxious flute obbligato, and Scott-Heron’s intense spoken word work laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Carter’s bass in particular is tense and apocalyptic throughout the track, underscoring the fierce conflict in Scott-Heron’s poem between our commercial culture and the economic struggles of Black people:

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

As if to underscore the diversity of Scott-Heron’s lyrical agenda, “Sex Education: Ghetto Style”, from his third album Free Will, is another spoken word poem that slyly pokes fun at his own sexual coming of age. The performance style is closer to the music of Small Talk with the important addition of Jackson on flute. The rest of the Pieces of a Man band, except for Carter, returned for this album, and it featured a blend of spoken word and more traditional songs, including the next track, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues,” with Jackson’s bluesy piano complemented by David Spinozza’s guitar.

No Knock” comes from the same sessions, but is spiritually closer to “Revolution” in spirit and to “Sex Education” in conception, with Jackson on flute alongside percussionists and Scott-Heron’s rap. The original album features a spoken word intro to the performance from Scott-Heron that sets the context:

Um, we want to do a poem for one of our unfavorite people, um, who’s now the head of the, uh, Nixon campaign. He was formerly the Attorney General named John Mitchell. … no-knock, the law in particular, was allegedly, um, aheh, legislated for black people rather than, you know, for their destruction. And it means, simply, that authorities and members of the police force no longer have to knock on your door before entering. They can now knock your door down. This is No Knock. 

Gil Scott-Heron, “No Knock”

The compilation now transitions into one of Scott-Heron’s greatest collaborations with Jackson, the great “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from Pieces. Scott-Heron’s second album was the most introspective of his works, featuring multiple songs from the perspective of different sides of the Black experience, as well as this joyful, bluesy celebration of the power of jazz music. For me, the musical highlights are Carter’s bass line and Jackson’s Fender Rhodes solo after the second verse.

The compilation follows this track with the title track to “Pieces of a Man,” a ballad on acoustic piano and bass that tracks the disintegration of the narrator’s father, describing his violent outbursts and his despair at being fired from his job, leading to his arrest. The song might be Scott-Heron’s masterwork, fusing powerful metaphoric writing with an impassioned vocal. Scott-Heron’s narrator is only one of the examples of broken Black males to be found in his writing; “Home is Where the Hatred Is” (the following track) is written from the point of view of a heroin addict, who struggles to get clean while recognizing that returning “home” to his sobriety means having to confront the pain of his existence: “Home is where the needle marks/Tried to heal my broken heart/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never/Went home again.”

Brother” flips the perspective again, calling out hypocritical Black men who take on the outward trappings of Black liberation while not actually helping their brothers and sisters, in one of the earliest spoken recordings on this set. The compilation pairs the poem with another track from Pieces, but “Save the Children” is short on specifics on how exactly the children should be saved from the harsh reality of African-American life that will confront them when they grow up, though it’s another gorgeous collaboration with Jackson.

Whitey on the Moon” might be the most famous of Scott-Heron’s poems after “Revolution,” and for good reason, as he points out the uncomfortable gulf between the accomplishments of the Apollo program and the economic state of Black America. As I’ve written before, I’m a NASA kid, and proud of our accomplishments in space, but Scott-Heron’s poem points out that in our national choices on spending priorities in the 1960s between the space race, Vietnam, and Johnson’s War on Poverty, he could only see outcomes from two of the three.

The compilation closes with “Did You Hear What They Said?” from Free Will. The darkest of Scott-Heron’s early collaborations with Brian Jackson, the paean for a dead Black man—“They said another brother’s dead/They said he’s dead but he can’t be buried”—might be the most desolate lines he wrote. Accompanied by Hubert Laws’ flute, the closing thought, “This can’t be real,” reflects Scott-Heron’s loss of hope following the death, which evokes both Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the deaths of Black men from crime and police brutality.

The compilation as a whole is a powerful and complex representation of Scott-Heron’s legacy, and a good introduction to his work. But it deliberately ends in denial of the hope represented by some of his early songs, foreshadowing Scott-Heron’s own journey. His post-Flying Dutchman recordings with Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band were triumphant, but they acrimoniously split in 1980. Scott-Heron recorded sporadically after, and seemed to spiral slowly downward. Addicted to crack cocaine, he spent time in prison for drug possession, and recorded one last album in 2010, the harrowing I’m New Here, before his death in 2011, following reports of pneumonia and that he was HIV positive.

There are no easy answers in Gil Scott-Heron’s story, but I prefer to hold onto the gestures toward hope in his best songs. Next week we’ll visit another album from a performer struggling with addiction, who nevertheless continued to make vital, even joyous music.

There wasn’t an official playlist or full-album version of this compilation on YouTube, oddly, so I made my own. You can listen to it here:

Jim Hall, Concierto

Album of the Day, August 26, 2023

We’ve met guitarist Jim Hall before, several times—once with Bill Evans in arguably his most famous recording, once with the Kronos Quartet years later revisiting that material—but never as a leader. He recorded a lot of sessions on small labels in the years leading up to today’s 1975 session, but almost always in duos or as a sideman; his first proper solo album, after a 1957 record on Pacific Jazz, came in 1969 on tiny label MPS (which we’ll hear another day), and another followed in 1972 on Milestone. But his best work came with collaborators, and for Concierto, his only solo headlining session on CTI Records, Creed Taylor surrounded him with some of the best: alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Roland Hanna, drummer Steve Gadd, and the redoubtable bassist Ron Carter. Don Sebesky is here as arranger, but the record is straight-ahead jazz untouched by orchestra, and that’s just fine.

Hall’s touch on the guitar is always lyrical and melodic even when he’s navigating challenging chord changes, and that’s in evidence on the opening track, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” Hall opens the tune with Gadd, Hanna and Carter accompanying, then spins into a solo that exercises all the rhythmic flexibility and complexity in the tune before handing over to Paul Desmond. Desmond’s trademark romanticism and restraint are both on display for his short solo, which takes a second verse with Chet Baker’s accompaniment underneath. Baker then takes a proper straight-ahead solo, handing off to Roland Hanna, who takes his own run at the tune while playing with its rhythm and articulation. Carter has his own moment to stretch out, accompanied only by Hall, who picks up his pattern and enters into a duo seemingly simultaneously as Gadd enters on cymbals. At over seven minutes, the track isn’t exactly short, but it feels like it flies by.

Two’s Blues” is what it says on the tin, a straight ahead blues that features Hall trading lines with Chet Baker. We haven’t come across Baker before in these posts, but his legend precedes him: coming up at the same time as Miles and with (initially) a similar trumpet sound, he cut many “cool jazz” classics as both a trumpeter and a vocalist, but wasn’t able to overcome his addiction to heroin. Here he’s in fine form, providing a melodic solo, but Hall’s solo is blistering, laying down a run of chords that take the song through multiple key changes, then switching it up to a pure melody again.

The Answer is Yes” is played here as a straight ballad with a solo introduction by Hall, and then an opening in-tempo statement of the melody by Baker. Hall plays the bridge accompanied by Gadd and Carter, and keeps going into a solo that hands off to Hanna, who elegantly improvises around the melody. Baker’s solo relaxes into the tune with Hall playing counterpoint underneath; Hall picks up the solo from there as in the opening, and the whole band plays out. At the ending, Baker plays the melody with Hall answering in a call-and-response form.

The first three tracks, as gorgeous as they are, are really only a warmup for the main event, Hall’s take on Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which occupies the entirety of Side B. The work was already famous thanks to Miles and Gil Evans’ adaptation of it for trumpet and jazz orchestra in Sketches of Spain, but Rodrigo originally wrote it for the guitar, and Hall’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” is a master lesson in blurring the lines between classical and jazz. The opening features Hall playing the melody on electric guitar and accompanying himself with an overdubbed Spanish guitar while Carter provides a sort of bass continuo. Baker and Desmond alternate measures in the initial statement of the melody, and Hall picks it up with Desmond playing counterpoint. And then comes the Sebesky pivot, as Carter lays down a bass line and the whole arrangement shifts into a samba-flavored adaptation of the melody. Here it works; there are no strings, no electric piano, just the core band backing up Hall’s improvisations. Gadd is more active on this track, pushing the beat forward insistently beneath a sensitive solo by Desmond. Baker plays a melancholy solo that combines the lyricism of early 1960s Miles with some of the forthright assertiveness of Freddie Hubbard. Hanna’s solo again plays with rhythm, making more of the samba influence in the arrangement and then shifting into a syncopation that Hall picks up in his next solo. The full band comes back in for a moment, then Hall (again on electric and Spanish guitar), Carter, and Gadd wrap up the track, lingering on the melancholy final notes.

The session for Concierto recorded an additional five(!) bonus tracks that are available on the CD and digital reissues of the album, but the four tracks on the original LP stand as classics of the straight-ahead side of CTI as well as standouts in Hall’s recorded output. Always a gifted collaborator, he rarely performed the long-form arrangements typical of CTI, preferring more straightforward and intimate renditions. We’ll hear one of his early records as leader another time; next week we’ll hear from another guitarist and a completely different flavor of the CTI sound.

You can listen to the album here:

Freddie Hubbard, Polar AC

Album of the Week, August 19, 2023

Last time we wrote about Freddie Hubbard, we talked about his departure from CTI. I accelerated that story a little bit. We talked about his last studio album, Keep Your Soul Together, and we reviewed his concert album with Stanley Turrentine. But after his departure from the label, Creed Taylor decided he needed more Hubbard releases. And so we got The Baddest Hubbard, a greatest hits compilation, and today’s record, Polar AC. An odds and sods collection if ever there was one, the record collects extra tracks recorded in the sessions for First Light and Sky Dive, as well as two tracks recorded on April 12, 1972. It accordingly represents prime Hubbard.

Polar AC,” also called “Fantasy in D” or “Ugetsu,” is a Cedar Walton composition from the First Light session. It’s a stunner, with the funky beat established by Ron Carter solo in the first bars, then joined by Jack Dejohnette. Hubbard is in top form here on the flugelhorn, playing a breezy, relaxed solo atop the insistent groove of the rhythm section. Sebesky’s strings support the theme, stepping forward at the chorus and then fading back during the solos. Hubert Laws’ flute is likewise in fine fettle throughout.

People Make the World Go Round,” recorded during that April 1972 session, is an earlier run at the tune that would later appear on Milt Jackson’s Sunflower. Here the strings, in Bob James’ arrangement, are a little less prominent, as is Ron Carter’s bass, and the track opens with about thirty seconds of effects in the guitar, flute and trumpet, outright noise, and a half-articulated sigh. But the basic groove of the Thom Bell/Linda Creed tune is intact, and the interplay between Hubbard and Laws in particular is striking. The strings here are less of a Sebesky-esque blanket and more of a Greek chorus, offering stabs of sound and responding to Hubbard’s solo.

A second Stylistics cover from the same album as “People,” “Betcha By Golly Wow” is heard here from the same session. The intro dispenses with the effects on the intro, going directly into the tune with Hubbard’s trumpet surrounded by a bath of strings. This is the first place on the record where the string arrangements feel intrusive; fortunately the band is hot behind Hubbard, with Laws particularly innovative in his support and counter-melodies.

Naturally,” recorded during the Sky Dive sessions, opens with Hubbard and George Benson playing a straight take on the Nat Adderley standard before Ron Carter and Billy Cobham join in, completing the piano-less band that Sebesky surrounds with strings and winds in the arrangement. More than many Hubbard tracks during his CTI years, this one harks back to the straight bop that he played in his 1960s days at Blue Note. The band swings the tune, and Cobham’s drums are just punchy enough to keep things moving along briskly. Hubert Laws joins for the second solo and likewise plays things straight before handing off to Benson, whose cleanly articulated solo reminds us of how great he could be as a soloist. The orchestral arrangement is heavy here, frequently stomping on the ends of solos, in an atypically unsubtle Sebesky chart.

Son of Sky Dive,” simply titled “Sky Dive” on later reissues, is just the core band, as if Sebesky had overspent his budget on the string players in the other tracks of the compilation. Whatever the case, it’s a great run through of the tune, and makes a strong case for Hubbard the composer.

This 1975 release was really the end for Hubbard on CTI, and maybe the beginning of the end for CTI. The label’s original 6000 series ended later that year along with its distribution deal with Motown, and the new 7000 series that Taylor started to continue the music only released nineteen titles before the label entered bankruptcy. But there was some spectacular music still to come, and we’ll hear one of the best next week.

There doesn’t seem to be a full version of this album posted to YouTube, either as a playlist or as a single video, so I’ve switched to Apple Music to allow you to listen to the whole album here:

Hubert Laws, In the Beginning

Album of the Week, August 12, 2023

Hubert Laws was having a good few years. The last of his albums we reviewed, Morning Star, was nominated for a Grammy in 1973 for Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist. He had built up a track record as a sideman across a whole slew of CTI recordings—to say nothing of his appearance on Gil Scott-Heron’s major label debut, Pieces of a Man. (That’s Laws playing the killer flute obbligato on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”) And CTI was having a pretty good run as a label, thanks to hits from Deodato and others. So Creed Taylor doubled down, literally, on Laws, and this double album was the result.

In the Beginning has a complicated discographical history. Originally issued in the form I’m reviewing today, a few years later the two disks were unbundled and released separately as Then There Was Light Vol. 1 and 2. We do know that the original record was recorded in four days between February 6 and 11, 1974 at the Van Gelder studio, and released sometime later in 1974. And it was a substantial cast, as always with Laws’ CTI recordings. His brother Ronnie Laws played tenor sax; Bob James, acoustic and electric piano; Richard Tee, organ; Clare Fischer, electric piano; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Steve Gadd, drums; Airto, percussion; Dave Friedmann, vibes; the omnipresent Ron Carter, bass; and a string quartet. Fischer, James, and Laws all contributed arrangements.

Incidentally, we haven’t come across Clare Fischer’s work in this column before, but you’ve almost certainly heard it, thanks to a long career as an arranger. He was the pianist and arranger for the Hi-Los in the 1950s before swerving into Latin jazz, but had a parallel and far more successful career as an arranger, working on (among many others) Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt, Chanticleer’s Lost in the Stars, the Buckshot LeFonque project of Branford Marsalis, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Usher’s Here I Stand, and Prince’s Parade, Sign ‘☮’ the Times, Graffiti Bridge, [Love Symbol], “Pink Cashmere,” The Vault, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic and 3121. (!!!)

It’s a Fischer composition and arrangement that leads off the album. The title track is almost a capsule of jazz development from Ellingtonian chords to Trane-influenced minor key modality to a chunk of avant-garde, which fades into a slow rich blues. The richness of the arrangement falls back to an eight-bar solo for Carter, which then yields to a group blues with Laws taking a high solo. The final turn of the arrangement is into classic CTI jazz-funk, and then it circles back to the abstract theme of the beginning. A nifty little piece, and a great foretaste of what’s ahead.

Restoration” is a slow waltz, supported by Bob James’s acoustic piano and a thoughtful Carter bass line. Here Laws’ flute recalls his performance with Chick Corea on “Windows,” from his early album Laws’ Clause, later collected with other Chick performances on Inner Space. Some fine Bertoncini guitar work hands off to a reflective Laws solo, and back to a Dave Friedman vibes passage, before the final chorus brings the performance to a meditative close.

That meditative feeling continues with Bob James’ arrangement of “Gymnopédie No. 1” for guitar, flute, piano, bass, vibes and string quartet. One of these years I’ll have to put together a collection of performances of this Erik Satie composition. For emotional reserve and measured tempo, this might be one of the best of the “covers” of the tune. Laws’ solo is by turns elegiac and birdlike, and the arrangement keeps the instruments from crowding each other; in most of the moments you hear only a few voices at a time. It comes too quickly to an end.

Come Ye Disconsolate” is a gospel staple that received a contemporary pop boost from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway in 1972, and the performance here is appropriately pop-gospel flavored; improvisatory in the middle verses, with a down-home altar call feel in the final verse. It’s comfortable and easy on the ears.

Airegin” immediately challenges that relaxation moment, ending Side 2 with a cover of the Sonny Rollins standard with just Laws and Steve Gadd. Gadd here is especially delightful under Laws’ increasingly complex improvisation; he starts with just a steady kick drum pattern, then adds cymbals, snare and tom until it’s as much a proclamation of drum ingenuity as it is a statement of flute virtuosity. It can be easy to forget, with the excellence of the arrangements that usually drape Laws’ CTI work, just how amazing a soloist he was; this track corrects that nicely.

Moment’s Notice,” a cover of the Coltrane classic, features a fuller big band treatment, with Ronnie Laws’ tenor sax taking an appropriately more prominent voice, then yielding to Laws’ flute util the two end up in (of course) a battle, underpinned by James on piano with some brisk walking bass from Carter and a non-stop barrage of ingenuity on the drum kit from Gadd. It’s a fun exploration of the tune, with some wonderfully pointed dissonance from James keeping it from being just another Trane cover.

Rodgers Grant’s “Reconciliation” provides a way for Laws to shift back to more meditative material, with Carter, Gadd and James closely following. The tune moves in and out of minor modes, with Carter’s high-octave tonic providing the transition. Indeed, while there’s a lot going on with this track, it’s worth just listening to the way Carter negotiates the twists of the melody, providing a steadying pulse under Laws’ flute as it explores increasingly abstract textures, then taking a solo that’s a master class in saying everything with a few notes. This isn’t relaxed reflection, exactly; there’s a touch of anxiety in the way the tune never settles into a single tonality, as if fighting against the eventual concord promised in the title.

As if acknowledging the complexity of the penultimate track, “Mean Lene” is a simpler pleasure, some straight-ahead jazz funk with a Latin tinge. But even here the tempo shifts from measure to measure in the head, not settling down until Friedman’s vibes take the first solo over the rhythm section in a happily sambified mood. But as the track continues to stretch out, some of the conventionality breaks down for something richer and stranger, until it’s no longer clear who’s soloing and who’s supporting. It’s not free jazz exactly, but it’s the track on the album that comes closest to the give and take of a free performance. Throw in a left-field drum solo and a shift back to Latin funk, alongside some overdubbed flute and another rich Clare Fischer arrangement, and we have ourselves a party.

Laws was nominated for another Grammy for this record, and for good reason. It’s one of the most satisfying of the CTI Records discography, and one that most ably shrugs off the potential limitations of the CTI formula to end up at an entirely new place.

You can listen to the album here:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Stanley Turrentine, Sugar

Album of the Week, April 22, 2023

Creed Taylor, and CTI Records, had a way of changing the way that musicians approached the world. We’ve seen how Antônio Carlos Jobim and Wes Montgomery transitioned to something like instrumental pop, and how Freddie Hubbard went from a post-bop young lion to something like a John the Baptist of jazz-funk. Today we’ll meet another young player whose trajectory followed a very similar path to Hubbard’s. He left behind a conventional recording career with Blue Note to become something like a sex symbol.

When I first started listening to jazz, I was conscious of the “smooth jazz” phenomenon. While there was a whole lot of Kenny G about it, smooth jazz could also manifest as “quiet storm,” a name bestowed by a Washington, DC area DJ. This sub-genre blended jazz and easy listening into a broth that seemed to be designed for playing late at night, with the lights low and someone with a Barry White voice murmuring unspeakably sexy things. 

Anyway. The point is that, by that date, some 25 years after Stanley Turrentine released Sugar as the sixth release on the new CTI Records label, you probably knew him as a smooth jazz, or even quiet storm, artist. But if you listened to his output through the 1960s on Blue Note Records, there was none of that in his sound. Sugar, recorded as his first date as a leader after leaving Blue Note, is where it all began—not least of which in the album cover.

It must be said that neither of the individuals on the cover of Sugar is Stanley Turrentine. It must also, in fairness, be said that there is very little of the licentiousness suggested by the cover present in the music. But the association of Turrentine with something incredibly sexy was begun with this cover, and it stuck.

Let’s talk about the music now (for heaven’s sake), because it’s profoundly different from what the cover would suggest. Far from a smooth jazz sound, it is a heck of a combo that assembles at Englewood Cliffs in November 1970: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Butch Cornell on organ, George Benson on guitar; the redoubtable Ron Carter on bass; and Billy Kaye on drums and “Pablo” Landrum on congas. The great Lonnie Liston Smith plays electric piano on the title track, replacing Cornell. 

There are just three tracks on the album. “Sugar” is a slow blues that’s delivered in an understated way by all but Kaye, who uses the lower end of the drum kit to great effect on the opening to set up a dramatic foil. Benson, who will appear again in this series, lays back behind Turrentine’s opening solo, commenting and providing counterpoint, slowly bringing his part up into a coequal voice. Van Gelder and Taylor get the stereo separation just right, situating him in the right channel so that you can close your eyes and see the interplay between the two musicians. Turrentine’s solo is heavily influenced by soul jazz here, with riffs that would not be out of place on one of Benson’s recordings with “Brother” Jack McDuff. Hubbard arrives after the saxophonist finishes, with a relaxed opening that slowly turns up the heat until he fairly boils over. Benson’s touch on the guitar brings some of the same soul-jazz experience to the track; he began his career at 21 recording with “Brother” Jack and Lonnie Liston Smith, and you can hear some of that sanctified groove in his approach, especially as the horns play in concert. Throughout, the rhythm section is in the pocket, delivering the asked-for groove.

Sunshine Alley” is a Butch Cornell tune, and announces the organist’s approach through a modal Hammond riff that shifts through three chord transitions into the relative major, a nifty trick that sets up a lengthy workout for the band as Turrentine lays back. In fact, for the first four minutes, you could be forgiven for mistaking the track for an organ trio performance. Benson’s arrival does little to diminish the overall impression, as he plays with an easy virtuosity that showcases why Miles tapped him for Miles in the Sky. Hubbard follows with a blistering solo that demonstrates multiple timbres, new harmonic sequences that lurk unimagined in the deceptively complicated blues, and generally remind one that this was recorded in the same calendar year as Red Clay. Turrentine finally steps up for a solo, at seven minutes and 55 seconds into this ten-minute long track, and opens the track up harmonically and rhythmically while still playing into the groove. He plays not so much with greater virtuosity as with greater heat, bringing the bubbling congas up to the fore and generally reclaiming the track as his own before bringing it to a close. 

It might raise an eyebrow to note John Coltrane’s “Impressions” on this album and with these players. It’s no sloughed-off performance, either. Cornell gives it a fierce fanfare on the Hammond, and the band states the famous theme in a slightly swung time, putting their own stamp on the great Trane original. Turrentine takes the first solo and plays over six choruses, in what amounts to a virtuosic demonstration of the church-shouting power of his soul jazz formulation. His solo slips into different tempi and performance styles, in the transition between the second and third choruses echoing Trane’s “sheets of sound,” then sixteen bars later slipping in a quick quote from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” before bending the time as if about to take flight. But the most impressive thing about the solo is the deliberate groundedness of it all. Turrentine is not going to disappear into the overblown harmonics that Trane (or his disciple Pharoah Sanders) would bring to performances of this tune, but he’s also not going to let you think of him as merely a soul player. The next few choruses, led by Cornell, similarly play with expectations, going from a straight organ trio to a complex set of call-and-response shouts with the horns and back into the organ. When Hubbard takes the next solo, it’s to throw in some casually brilliant triple-tongued moments of excitement that seem to pick up the music and shift it into a different realm for a quick moment. Benson’s solo picks up some of the rhythmic shifts that Hubbard introduces and lands a few of his own, dropping in a polyrhythmic syncopated pattern that bends the time. The horns introduce a countermelody at the top of the next chorus that was clearly written out but in context feels slyly thrown in as though to say, there is more than one definitive reading of this tune. The overall effect, when considering Trane’s performance of his early magnum opus, is happily dislocating, as though one had showed up at a Ramones concert only to find them playing Bach fugues instead. Turrentine does us the favor of explicitly illustrating the deep connection between the elder saxophonist’s flights of spiritual ecstasy and the deceptively approachable soul and blues traditions from which they sprouted.

Turrentine’s first album as a leader for CTI was the beginning of two features of the rest of the label’s discography: a series of highly regarded sets as leader, and a working partnership with Freddie Hubbard that saw both of them appearing on each other’s recordings throughout the rest of the 1970s. We’ll hear from Turrentine again in this column. But first, we’ll return to the more crossover-focused side of the roster and hear from another significant player in the label’s evolution.

You can listen to the album here: