Various Artists – CTI Records: The Cool Revolution

January 01, 1970

(Masterworks Jazz)

 

www.ctimasterworks.com

 

A lot of jazz geeks see the 70s as a dead zone, the Great
Pacific Garbage Patch of the genre. The late-50s/early 60s heyday of hard bop’s
tremendous ensemble-playing had dead-ended and receded into the archives. Adventurous,
late-60s avant garde trends — championed by jazz’s best-known label, Blue Note,
which began drifting into irrelevance soon after founder Alfred Lion’s
retirement in 1967 – had faded back into the underground with the death of John
Coltrane, its most well-known progenitor, or been eclipsed by
psychedelics-fueled experimental rock. Boatloads of jazz players had simply
sailed to friendlier European shores to earn a living.

 

As the ‘60s wound down and marketing rock music to baby
boomers became the sin qua non of the industry, jazz’s already
limited popularity was drifting into endangered species territory. Many jazz
artists and producers read the tea leaves, and invited rock — along with soul
and funk — to share center stage in the new jazz vocabulary of fusion. Jazz
fans who decried the music’s embrace of these elements — everything from electric
keys and bass to psychedelic guitar solos and string sections — or bitched
about the music’s soul roots having pivoted commercial were derogatively
labeled “purists” and dismissed themselves as backward-thinking.

 

Unfortunately, it turned out that very few fusion artists
had a Bitches Brew or Head Hunters in them. Worse, soul jazz
turned incubator for the execrable aural wallpaper known as smooth jazz. In the
intervening years, lots of jazz eras have enjoyed second winds – fueled in part
by the swing-band rock revival, Ken Burns’ Wynton Marsalis-approved Jazz series, and the hard bop/avant
garde-centric Rudy Van Gelder reissues on a revived Blue Note – while the ‘70s remained
the historical equivalent of the Plague years: Nobody seems sure exactly what happened,
but one of the casualties may have been jazz.

 

The truth is more slippery, of course, and the legacy of a
label like CTI Records – founded in 1970 by producer Creed Taylor and celebrated
in this 4-disc retrospective boxset, CTI
Records: The Cool Revolution
– captures some of what was right, and a lot
of what was so terribly wrong, with this era. Handsomely packaged in LP-sized
format featuring cover-art from many of the biggest LP of the day, the set is broken
down into four themed categories – Disc 1: Straight
Up
; Disc 2: Deep Grooves/Big Hits;
Disc 3: The Brazilian Connection3;
Disc 4: Cool and Classic – intended
to show the diversity of the era. It’s handy, but it also highlights the era’s
fundamental flaws.

 

The problem, as Dan Ouelette indirectly hits on in his liner
notes, was that Taylor’s
plan once he split CTI off from parent giant A&M Records was to “record
top-tier musicians, keeping their artistic integrity intact while also making
their art palatable to the people.” That captures jazz’s adapt-or-die dilemma
in the ‘70s, and its push-and-pull with market trends permeates this collection.
For decades, listeners had come to jazz; now jazz came to them in various
“popular” guises, with too-often lamentable results.

 

But there is little argument here with that “top-tier”
categorization. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard still sounds fearless – strings, electric
bass and keys be damned — on three tracks (“The Intrepid Fox” and title track
from 1970’s Red Clay, and the title
track from 1971’s First Light) included
here; old schoolers Milt Jackson (vibraphone) and Stanley Turrentine (tenor
sax) sound revitalized on their respective cuts (“Sunflower” and “Salt Song”)
and their collaboration on Turrentine’s “Speed Ball”; Randy Weston’s big band
explosion “Ifrane” defies the “cool” label given this boxset; Deodato’s
souped-up funk take on Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which hit
No. 2 on the pop charts, digs a mile-deep groove before its cornball ending; Jim
Hall’s lengthy version of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjeuz” – featuring Paul
Desmond, Ron Carter, and Chet Baker – successfully trades in the grandiosity of
the Miles Davis/Gil Evans version for cool intimacy; and even Baker, the human
train-wreck who was a key cog in the ‘50s’ West Coast cool movement that
provided the CTI blueprint, delivers a fine “Autumn Leaves” and a memorable live
collaboration, “My Funny Valentine” with old “friend” Gerry Mulligan, from his
sketchy catalog. (His “What’ll I Do,” on the other hand, is coated in so many
extraneous and saccharine textures as to be laughable.)

 

But somewhere between the synthesizers and jazz-politain
strings, things went sideways. Bob James, the smooth jazz cheese-ball king, is
here — never a good sign, as his ludicrously maudlin “Westchester Lady” proves.
When Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mister Magic” isn’t in guitar hero-lite
territory — contrast this schmaltz with Jimi Hendrix’s haunting “1983… (A
Merman I Shall Turn to Be),” considered by many to be a fusion template — it’s
indistinguishable from the sit-com themes of the era. Flautist Hubert Laws’
take on James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” strips the song of its wistful essence
as though that didn’t matter; George Benson’s version of Jefferson Airplane’s
“White Rabbit” sounds like a lost truth-or-dare wager. Many of the bossa nova
cuts – perilously close to smooth jazz to begin with – do not survive the
transition either.

 

Most telling, perhaps, are the two reinterpretations of “So
What” from Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of
Blue
(one by Carter, who played bass in Davis’ second great quintet, the other by
Benson). Each one only points out how little this era had to add to the jazz canon
(you can almost boil it down to plugged-in instruments), particularly its
storied tradition with reinterpreting standards. (That said, Carter’s take on Kind of Blue‘s “All Blues” is a
slinky-sexy exception to the rule here.)

 

After the four hours of music on this set, the legacy of CTI
Records as a standard-bearer of 70s jazz really only muddies the waters of what
was happening during the decade. Yes, fusion remains a controversial member of
the family, and CTI’s brand of “cool” was the slippery slope to the smooth jazz
corroding the sound systems of elevators and retail outlets across America. And
elsewhere the music was continuing its fiercely independent traditions. In an
emusic.com essay on ‘70s jazz essentials, critic Steve Smith writes:

 

“The
Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble, both of which had ties
to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, mixed
elements of contemporary classical music, tribal drumming and radical theater
into their work. And in Europe, a generation of free improvisers such as Derek
Bailey, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann and Alexander von Schlippenbach used
American free jazz as a springboard to create an intense form of instantaneous
collective communication: fast-paced and frequently combustible, but often
leavened with dry wit.”

 

Throw in Sam Rivers’ collaborations with Dave Holland, Dexter
Gordon’s excellent ‘70s albums for Steeplechase and Columbia records, and even Sun Ra and
Arkestra’s blender-friendly adventures, and it’s obvious there was still much
to say in the jazz idiom without crossing over. But was anybody listening? Jazz was no longer even the young
hipster’s music of choice, and with its popularity on the wane, musicians, labels
and producers like Taylor
felt they needed to adapt to the times. The answer, to CTI and other labels that
crossed over, at least kept jazz musicians employed and occasionally bore
interesting musical fruit. But by ceding to rock and funk for commercial purposes,
jazz surrendered one of the key tenets of improvisational music — its
independence.

 

DOWNLOAD: Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”; Jim Hall’s “Concierto for Aranjeuz”; Randy
Weston’s “Ifrane” JOHN SCHACHT

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