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Milt Jackson and the Creed Taylor Touch
Remembering one of jazz's most visionary producers through one of his finest productions
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
I hope you are all well and enjoying the transition from summer into autumn.
Today’s essay considers the legacy of jazz producer Creed Taylor, who passed away on August 22 at the age of 93, through the prism of one of the countless classics he oversaw: vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s Sunflower, recorded in December 1972 for Taylor’s CTI Records. Sunflower illustrates vividly Taylor’s dedication to creating jazz that was steeped in the tradition but designed for as broad an audience as possible. I hope you enjoy it and be sure to drop a comment to let me know your thoughts.
Next up a little later this month will be an essay on Frank Sinatra in 1965, focusing in particular on two albums he made during that year: September of My Years and Moonlight Sinatra. To my ears, these recordings represent a peak in Sinatra’s artistry.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
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When the news came in late August that Creed Taylor, among the most innovative jazz producers of the second half of the 20th century, had passed, pianist Ethan Iverson posed on Twitter the following question:
“What is the definitive CTI record?”
CTI stood for Creed Taylor Incorporated. Taylor started the label in 1967 and for its first three years of existence, it was a subsidiary of A&M Records before it went indie.
CTI was the culmination of Taylor’s approach to jazz record-making—presenting the music as a fully realized artistic package that began in earnest with his founding of Impulse! as the jazz imprint of ABC-Paramount Records in 1960. With music expertly recorded usually by the peerless engineer Rudy Van Gelder, played by aggregations of top-flight musicians, crafted into programs that ran about 35 minutes or so (a sweet spot of sorts for the consumption of music) and contained on a piece of vinyl enclosed in a glossy cover to compel its purchase with an inside gatefold featuring photos and erudite liner notes to aid its consumption and finally, an orange-and-black spine that popped on a record shelf. More so than any other jazz label, an Impulse! album had the look, feel and sound of a work of art. This unsparing commitment to aesthetic excellence continued when Taylor moved to Verve in 1961 and then onto CTI later in the decade.
Over the course of a long interview with jazz writer Marc Myers on his JazzWax blog, Taylor articulated the various thought streams that went into CTI’s creation.
“I saw that there was room for jazz that didn’t completely ignore other successful types of music of the time that had merit.”
“With the rise of FM stereo radio in the late 1960s, the album began to gain on the single 45 rpm. FM stations needed to fill more time, since they had less ads at first. As albums became more popular, LP covers became more important. Younger people began to respond more to highly artistic, engaging covers.”
“By 1970, rock had overwhelmed most other genres. Many other jazz albums from this period looked shabby and sounded slapped together. My strategy was to invest heavily on the talent, sound, quality and look of the records.”
“CTI was going to deliver music that was confident and smart like Stan Getz. It was going to be beautifully orchestrated like Gil Evans’ arrangements for Claude Thornhill’s band. And finally I had a concept for a sound. Whether that sound was going to come through the arranger or the soloist would depend on the album. Eventually, Don Sebesky best captured that sound, and he became CTI’s dominant arranger.”
Taylor’s final comment hints at the dichotomy inherent in the CTI discography. Albums like Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower, Freddie Hubbard’s First Light and Stanley Turrentine’s Salt Song are more ensemble-driven with moments of improvisation flowing out of highly orchestrated thematic statements while albums like Turrentine’s Sugar, Hubbard’s Red Clay and Joe Farrell’s Moon Germs are electrified small-group jazz.
As the responses began to pile up on Twitter in response to Iverson’s question, it became clear that a majority agreed that the greatest exemplars of the CTI sound favoured the group over the individual soloist and featured a supporting cast of horn and string players. While Iverson didn't made a final selection, he offered up Brazilian pianist and arranger Eumir Deodato’s Prelude as the likely choice for “definitive CTI album” (full disclosure: it was my choice in the thread too).
And yet, while Prelude represents a profound validation of Taylor’s core tenants, both commercially (the recasting of the opening section of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra—the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey—as dance-hall funk was a massive hit) and artistically, it’s jazz bona fides are admittedly a bit shaky. The solos by Deodato on electric piano and John Tropea on guitar mostly graze the surface and jazz royalty like bassists Ron Carter and Stanley Clarke as well as drummer Billy Cobham and flutist Hubert Laws are primarily employed to fill out the album’s broad sonic canvas.
Another album, recorded in the same year as Prelude, navigates the tightrope of Taylor’s vision with expert balance while also offering the thrill of hearing a bebop-and-beyond legend amongst a coterie of those who emerged in the path he helped to forge.
Vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s bird’s-eye view of the bop revolution came as a sideman in trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s small-group and orchestra. With his rhythm mates: John Lewis on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, they splintered off from Gillespie’s group to initially record together under Jackson’s name. After Brown joined Oscar Peterson’s trio, in came Percy Heath as well as the moniker the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). After recording the landmark Django for Prestige Records between 1953 and early 1955, Clarke left and was replaced by Connie Kay, cementing a unit that stayed together until 1974 and then reconvened from 1981 until Kay passed away in 1994.
Among the many innovations that the MJQ brought to jazz was a balance of form and improvisation (a foreshadowing of Taylor’s own work in this area), incorporating elements of classical form while also keeping at least one foot grounded in the blues and the repertoire of the Great American Songbook. Jackson was most responsible for bringing a sense of earthiness to the music of the MJQ and during the quartet’s existence, he also maintained a secondary career as a leader on records for labels such as Atlantic (the MJQ’s home from 1956 until the late sixties), Riverside, Impulse! and Limelight that eschewed much of the formalities of the MJQ’s music. In 1972, Jackson landed at CTI as part of the wide range of artists that Taylor signed to the label: modernists like Hubbard, Turrentine and Farrell next to popularizers like Deodato, George Benson and Grover Washington, Jr. and statesmen of jazz’s older guard like Kenny Burrell, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond and Jim Hall.
For Jackson’s CTI debut, Sunflower, recorded over two days at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in mid-December, he was teamed with a core group of all-stars: Hubbard, among the elite of trumpet players, and an equally peerless rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Ron Carter on bass (who appeared on about 70% of the albums released on CTI from 1970 to 1976) and Billy Cobham on drums. Augmenting the quartet were 18 additional musicians, including a woodwind trio, a 12-person string section as well as Jay Berliner on guitar, Ralph MacDonald on percussion and Margaret Ross on harp.
True to Taylor’s meticulous vision, Sunflower’s two sides are distinctive in feel and mood: the opening side is dedicated to ensemble balladry and the concluding side spotlights the storm of energy the quintet could generate. Through its two separate conceptions, Sunflower offers an omnivorous survey of jazz, circa 1972.
The opener, ‘For Someone I Love,’ is a lyrical line by Jackson that was first recorded by him in 1963. Here, in a broader interpretation, it expands and contracts for over 10 minutes not unlike the bulbs in a freshly picked bouquet. Jackson’s impressionistic melody haunts and seduces. Cobham’s drums, often played with a martial beat, heave and sigh as Hubbard and Jackson take turns stating the theme and in the second A section, weave around each other. Arranger Don Sebesky employs the woodwinds and strings to comment in the background, adding depth to the sound while keeping the listener attuned to Hubbard and Jackson. It’s a pocket encapsulation of how Taylor employed Sebesky’s approach to orchestration to thicken the sound of his productions. It’s a working relationship that began in 1965 when they collaborated on guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ for Verve, a key recording in building a wide audience for the octave master.
Jackson’s solo especially mines the luminous spell that ‘For Someone I Love’ casts, staying locked in a mood of refined infatuation. Hubbard and Hancock are more extroverted with Hubbard unleashing a flurry of burry asides about halfway through his statement and closing with heart-fluttering trills. Hancock’s improvisation, on acoustic piano, is highlighted by a fake climax in which he quickly pulls back on a choral pattern only to return to it later as the stepping stone to an urgent and passionate cluster of chords with Cobham punctuating them with a series of vicious snare-and-cymbal bombs. A swelling of strings sweeps Jackson back to play the theme’s bridge and then, with Hubbard, the A section. It is only apropos that the performance concludes with the strings and Hancock sighing a repeating, romantic pattern as if fully spent, enjoying a well-earned post-coital cigarette.
The rendition of Michel Legrand’s ‘What Are Doing the Rest of Your Life?’ that follows tries to evoke a similar mood but is more a romance filtered through the prism of soap opera. Sebesky’s string writing is mostly to blame here: the high-pitched wash of sound is more Fabio than fabulous but Legrand’s theme also has a touch of Vegas at its gaudy height, exuding the kind of faux Sinatra swagger that permeates ‘My Way’ or ‘That’s Life’ as opposed to the more authentic emotion of, for example, ‘One For My Baby (And One More For the Road’) or ‘It Was a Very Good Year.’ The core quintet mostly escapes unscathed, and Jackson and Hubbard focus on the aspects of Legrand’s composition that are more beautiful than bombastic.
A cover of the Stylistics’ ‘People Make the World Go Round,’ co-written and produced by Thom Bell, one of the architects of the Philly soul sound which, similar to what Creed Taylor did for jazz, brought an orchestrated and symphonic refinement to soul. Without any adornments, Hancock (on electric piano here), Carter and Cobham whip up a street-rhythm groove, and Hubbard’s brash trumpet and Jackson’s cooler vibes dig into the song’s earworm melody. The harmonic structure is simplified to a modal vamp for the improvisations. Jackson bops along with a cocksure strut and Hubbard has an even more pointed and street-wise gait puckering notes that pound the pavement. When it’s Hancock’s turn, he moves to the acoustic piano and gets deep into a series of chords. Cobham ups the intensity, moving from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal before setting the groove back to a simmer on the hi-hat which Hancock responds to with an affirming hallelujah. Things go back to a boil with Hancock moving into a dense two-handed series of chords upon chords which gradually evaporates into a fade-to-black figure on the electric piano and a recapitulation of the theme which, like the Stylistics’ hit recording, slowly fades out.
A few seconds go by and then a steady beat, accentuated by seeking colourations from Hancock’s electric piano, establishes the title track, one of Hubbard’s most beguiling compositions. The spell it casts partially comes from its melody: instantly hummable and arresting, and partly from the bridge in which the tempo is doubled and generates a real ruckus. These two elements combine to create an inventive and exciting framework for improvisation—classic tension and release—and Hubbard, Hancock and Jackson deliver. Hancock’s solo is especially of note. Hear how he uses the kick of the bridge to power the rest of his statement. The ace in the hole here is Billy Cobham, a drummer of almost superhuman ability able to play with exacting precision at speeds that would seem impossible if we didn’t have the recorded receipts to affirm that what almost no one else can play, Cobham can. Each soloist soars because Cobham is airborne with them.
‘Sunflower’ ends with an extended coda—blissed out if a little too long—which is why the solos are restricted to one chorus each, a decision likely resulting from Creed Taylor’s philosophy of providing judicious room for improvisation but not to excess. But what Hubbard, Hancock and Jackson play is of such interest and inspiration that one wishes they had each been accorded a second chance to navigate ‘Sunflower’s prosperous puzzle.
As the music for Sunflower was recorded, Taylor was likely situated where he usually was for record dates: in the engineering booth sitting next to a big speaker just to his left, listening, soaking up the sound, absorbing the energy of the music, relying on his instincts to evaluate what was transpiring, tuning in to judge how what he was hearing was making him feel.
How does Sunflower feel, you may ask? For me: transcendent, bright and moody—like the ostriches captured with the sun nestled on the horizon by photographer Pete Turner (Taylor’s go-to album-cover photographer since his time at ABC-Paramount) for its cover. It’s a sliver of Taylor’s legacy—check out this great list from critic Mark Stryker of his 15 top CTI recordings—a vast canon of eye- and ear-friendly jazz.