Cal Tjader was never one to work within strict musical boundaries. He was, after all, a white man who spent his life with African-American jazz musicians and then somehow ended up as one of the founders of Latin jazz. Although Tjader will always be connected with the term "Latin jazz", Tjader never really limited himself to a single genre, even one that incorporated as many different elements as Latin jazz.
Even during the last few years of his life, when he was helping launch the Latin jazz imprint label Concord Picante, Tjader felt the need to explore.
The first disc of this two-disc anthology of his work for Concord Picante creates a vivid picture of Tjader's musical restlessness . Beginning with the tracks from his first album on Concord, the debut Concord Picante release La Onde Va Bien, the first disc begins with a series of nominally "Latin jazz" tracks that also incorporate bop-inspired soloing, cool jazz style and even a hint of lounge music . These tracks hint at Tjader's willingness to incorporate all sorts of pop influences into his music.
This willingness is typified by one of several collaborations with famed singer Carmen McRae: a sultry reinterpretation of Sonny Henry's "Evil Ways" that makes the well-known Santana cover seem bloodless in comparison.
As a leader, Tjader often takes a backseat to his talented band members. Mark Levine, Tjader's pianist, wrote much of the most memorable material, including the opening tracks "Serengeti" and "Linda Chicana" and he gives himself room to impress the listener, weaving in standard Latin jazz riffs into his fluid improvisations. Flutist Roger Glenn works against the wimpy image of his chosen instrument by producing the most fiery soloing on the entire anthology, particularly on his self-penned "Roger's Samba". McRae, of course, steals the entire spotlight away from the unassuming Tjader, which partly explains why their collaboration Heat Wave only garners three tracks on the entire anthology. Tjader himself often plays in the background, often only playing on the main melody or very short solos between his bandmates.
Tjader leaves the virtuoso showcases for his talented collaborators, and instead finds his voice on the quieter pieces, particularly the three moody Johnny Mandel pieces included on this collection: "Close Enough for Love", "Quietly There", and "Don't Look Back". In these atmospheric tracks, the rest of the band provides a spare, almost menacing, background for Tjader's haunting vibes. The songs seem to shimmer at points, with Tjader's vibes, Poncho Sanchez's percussion and Levine's piano all chiming at once. The entire band gets a moment of glory on "Bye Bye Blues", the final track on the first disc.
"Bye Bye Blues" is a perfect marriage between mainstream and Latin jazz, and a perfect closer. The first half of The Best of the Concord Years provides a well-balanced view of Tjader's many musical pursuits.
The second disc, however, seems extraneous. With the exception of three studio tracks, including Carmen McRae's powerhouse take on Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing", the second disc is devoted to live tracks showcasing Cal Tjader as a full-fledged Latin jazz artist. While none of the tracks are particularly underwhelming, and the live performances do have an infectious energy missing from some of the studio recordings, none of these songs, save maybe Tjader's delicate reinterpretation of John Coltrane's "Naima", seem necessary. Keeping in mind the purpose of this anthology, to celebrate Tjader's role in popularizing Latin jazz, this emphasis on his crowd pleasing, up-tempo live act makes sense, but it still adds little to the first disc's perfect summarization of Cal Tjader's final recordings.
The second disc seems even less necessary considering the fact that each CD has about 55 minutes worth of music on it. Clearly a mere handful of live tracks could have been added to the first CD, creating a perfect one-disc "best of". After all, Tjader only released six proper albums on the Concord label, two of them posthumously, so a good 74-minute compilation would have been the perfect sampler for new listeners. If they wanted more, they could then pick up Cool Fire, a double disc containing both of Tjader's Concord live albums in their entirety.
Still, The Best of the Concord Years is a worthwhile purchase for the first disc alone, and there is nothing embarrassing on the second one. Cal Tjader's later work is catchy and varied enough to sustain the interest for those of us who are not jazz buffs, without alienating the more traditionalist camp (Wynton Marsalis excluded). It is very rare for crossover jazz artists to incorporate popular influences into their sound without diluting their music, but Tjader found a perfect middle ground during his period at Concord.