Vintage CTI recordings that get the balance between jazz and schmaltz just about right.
Creed Taylor's CTI label was a significant player in commercial jazz in the 1970s, mainly because all its competition had died away. It's not that the '70s was a bad time for jazz -- what with the AACM flowering in Chicago and the loft scene festering in New York. But mainstream audiences saw a bleak period: jazz clubs were closing, radio outlets were few, festivals were turning to R&B and rock, and musicians were scrambling for a living.
It seemed that only Mr. Taylor, who had wedded Wes Montgomery's guitar to a string section and some Beatles tunes at Verve a decade earlier, had the touch for selling this music. He was signing great talent (Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall), then matching it to arrangements and tunes that let the players blow over easy funk grooves, tasteful electric pianos, and lickety-split drumming. Heck, Creed even had a top ten hit in the US and UK with Eumir Deodato's arrangement of "Also Sprach Zarathustra", the theme from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. For many, the better stuff that CTI put out defines the decade almost as well as Annie Hall or Watergate.
Many of the best marriages to take place under CTI's roof involved tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Turrentine was a natural for CTI. Born in Pittsburgh in 1934, Turrentine's first pro gig was for Lowell Fulson's blues band, featuring Ray Charles on piano. Turrentine always had that greasy-sweet tenor sound, and it was refined further when he played with Earl Bostic and then Max Roach. Married for a time to organist Shirley Scott and ultimately recording in the chitlin-bop mode for Blue Note, Turrentine was a saxophone player whose sound and inclinations bridged "serious jazz" and funky styles. And he is also one of those jazz players who, after only a single note, is immediately recognizable for his distinctive tone.
This edition of the Jazz Moods series collects many of Turrentine's finest tracks for CTI. While with the label, Turrentine recorded in different guises: with bossa-nova singer Gilberto, with all-star groupings, with orchestras, and in organ combos. Unlike many of his CTI label-mates, Turrentine managed to make the most of almost every one of these mostly compromised settings.
The best tracks in this collection are still the least-adorned and schmaltzed-up small group sides. Turrentine's signature tune was a modified minor blues called "Sugar" that was irresistible in any setting. But on the album of the same name, Mr. T was partnered with no less a band than George Benson on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Ron Carter on acoustic bass. This was back before Benson was "Breezin'", and when he was simply the most soulful jazz guitarist on the planet. His solo seems like the highlight until Turrentine twists his sweet sound into a licorice-tart blues nugget. It's great.
"Sunshine Alley" is from the same date and is a super feature for Butch Cornell's soulful organ, someone out of Turrentine's working band -- a rarity in the CTI world. There was a tremendous relaxation around this date, and it's the only one represented by two tracks on the disc.
Relaxation was inherent in Turrentine's playing, and that may have been why he was frequently employed in the Stan Getz role on bossa dates. On this collection we get the title track from the CTI album Salt Song, which features a lovely Deodato arrangement of the Jobim tune. Again, with names like Horace Parlan, Airto Moreira, Hubert Laws, and Eric Gale on board, you knew this was going to be slick but high-quality material.
Turrentine had a minor "hit" with "Pieces of Dreams", a Michel LeGrand tune that Turrentine turned into a bit of a standard. The CTI recording is somewhat odd -- marrying a tight small-group arrangement featuring a finger-lickin' Rhodes solo by Harold Mabern to a merely serviceable string arrangement and a positively intrusive organ part. Still, this track is preferable to the "hit" version Turrentine recorded a year or so later for Fantasy that was marred even more by background vocals and strings so syrupy they would make Aunt Jemima pine for skim milk.
Another great track is the Lee Morgan tune "Speedball", from the album Cherry with vibes master Milt Jackson. Jackson, who also played with Ray Charles, taps into Turrentine's bluesy streak and forces Mr. T to play harder and with more attack than usual. This kind of stuff was enough to nurture young jazz fans through the 1970s, leading them to the better stuff of ten-years past on Blue Note or Prestige or Atlantic.
Indeed, it was possible to hear something like "Pieces of Dreams" and move in two directions at once. There was the old stuff to discover -- music that could burst on your ears and drag you back to Bird and Diz, maybe even further back to Ben Webster or Pres. Then there was the new wave of soulful saxophonists who were listening to The Sugar Man -- folks like Grover Washington, Jr. or even Dave Sanborn. Fans who heard only the latter -- the disciples of Mr. T rather than his mentors -- were possibly headed toward "smooth jazz" and its various Velveeta abuses. But so many heard it all: the great tone, the truth of the blues, and the swagger of having played all those dates through all the worst places in the rural south.
After his CTI years, Turrentine played both better and worse music. He made some major label discs, including a somewhat squishy Blue Note album, Wonderland, dedicated to the music of Stevie Wonder. He made a highly respectable small group disc, More Than a Mood, on Musicmasters with Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. But, after his '60s Blue Notes, the CTI records -- warts and all -- will be what we remember. Toward the end of his career, after he had settled down in the area where I live, I saw him a time or two. People always asked for "Sugar" or "Pieces of Dreams". And, you know, it was nice to hear them again.
The same goes for this disc.