Why can’t jazz be populist and pure, both at the same time? One imagines Creed Taylor asked that question when he launched CTI (Creed Taylor Incorporated) as a solo label back in 1970. Three years earlier he had decamped from Verve and christened the CTI name as an imprint of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records. At A&M, Taylor produced nearly 30 albums by such jazz greats as Wes Montgomery, Montgomery's heir apparent George Benson, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Herbie Mann. Taylor’s maverick plans extended beyond making jazz commercial; each album was a lavish art object, usually adorned with striking (and often provocative) photographs, many by Pete Turner. Thanks to their jacket visuals, CTI albums stood out from the rest. Don Sebesky was the “house arranger” at the independent CTI, applying lush orchestral settings to most releases which lent them a unified sound. (Composer and arranger Sebesky has gone on to a second career as a theatrical orchestrator, and his current projects include recreating the pop sound of the 1960s in the new musical Baby, It’s You!)
Though his name adorned countless CTI albums, Taylor also gave Sebesky the opportunity to stretch out on his own…or more accurately, with a little help from his (usual) friends. Masterworks Jazz has just reissued Sebesky’s 1973 Giant Box (88697 86743 2, 2011) for the first time domestically on CD, and while it’s a Don Sebesky solo album by name, it’s more a meeting of some of the most remarkable names in jazz: Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Ron Carter, Grover Washington, Jr., Paul Desmond, Jackie Cain, Roy Kral, Bob James, Airto Moreira and Milt Jackson, to name a few.
Sebesky began working with Taylor at Verve in the mid-sixties, where he crafted the orchestral arrangements on the Taylor-produced LPs for guitarist Wes Montgomery, many of which featured current pop covers not typically part of the jazz songbook. Sebesky related that at CTI, Taylor would “take a given artist, find his commercial potential and draw in a larger audience. So many listeners who were pop-oriented fans could come in the back door and discover jazz.” The sprawling, eclectic Giant Box follows this mandate, and it’s a valuable entrée into the identifiable CTI sound and indeed, to jazz and fusion. Taylor and Sebesky’s style wouldn’t win over every jazz purist, but the music they created together has held up remarkably well.
It was at Verve that Sebesky, who began his career as a trombonist, released his first solo records, both from 1968: Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome and Distant Galaxy. Both are a mixture of orchestrated jazz with pronounced pop/rock and soul overtones, and anticipate his work at CTI. (Both albums are also very much of their time, which is far from intended as an insult.) On the former, Sebesky tackles “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” and “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” while the latter features familiar titles like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Wish It Would Rain.”
For Giant Box, Sebesky turned again to some pop compositions, but much less-covered ones. For Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull,” Sebesky called on Paul Desmond, whose instantly recognizable alto saxophone lead lends a languid atmosphere. Even less familiar is another track of California origin. Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150,” from his LP Words and Music, employs both of those ingredients on Giant Box. Jackie Cain and Roy Kral take the vocal part on this spaced-out track, and Freddie Hubbard graces it with a high-flying trumpet solo; Bob James contributes an organ solo as well. The singers at one point exhort, “Praise Him with the stringed instruments!” And Sebesky does, as well as with brass, keyboards and woodwinds, too. There’s even a reference to certain musical gods with a well-placed cry of “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”
CTI’s most successful track was Eumir Deodato’s modernization of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and Sebesky too brought pieces of classical origin to Giant Box. The album opens on an ominous note with “Firebird/Birds of Fire,” an Igor Stravinsky adaptation melded to a John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) song. It’s another line-up from jazz heaven: Billy Cobham on drums, Harry Leahey on guitar, Airto Moreira on percussion, Hubbard on trumpet solo, Hubert Laws on flute solo. Mark Wilder and Maria Triana’s mastering from the original two-track analog tapes preserves a fine spatial separation of the instruments, and it’s most pronounced when listening to the stunning interplay between brass and strings. The track kicks into a funky groove with Sebesky’s lush strings rising above the rhythm, and it makes for a majestic opener. Sebesky himself plays on electric piano on this cut, and that instrument was, of course, a key ingredient in the CTI fusion sound. The other track of classical origin is a version of Serge Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” with a late-night feel affirmed by Milt Jackson (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) on vibes.
While none of the tracks became standards, each one has something distinct to offer. Sebesky wrote three compositions of his own for this album. Grover Washington, Jr. offers a soprano sax solo on the moody “Free as a Bird,” and Hubbard delivers an impressive solo on the flugelhorn. On another of his own songs, “Fly/Circles,” Sebesky takes a soft vocal solo. Joe Farrell wails on the soprano sax and there are swirling passages as well as lyrical ones. “Semi-Tough” is the most overtly funky track on the set with a soulful background vocal refrain and a guitar solo by George Benson, an instrumentalist whose tone is distinctly recognizable to both pop/rock and jazz fans, even today. Ron Carter anchors Giant Box (as he did so many CTI releases) on bass.
The ambitious Giant Box has been long overdue for a domestic CD reissue, and producer Richard Seidel’s reissue is worth the wait. It should be noted that the 2-LP set fits comfortably on one disc. Unfortunately like most of the albums in Sony’s 40th anniversary CTI series, there are no new liner notes or previously unreleased bonus tracks. The lack of notes is a most mystifying decision. (Even on the titles previously released on CD, notes from those past editions have been dropped.) The influence of CTI on jazz is still felt today, and the artists on Creed Taylor’s impressive roster deserve to have their work discussed with new notes to place these albums in historical context. The reissue does reprint a short two-page interview with Sebesky from the original notes and two photographs on an insert. Like all of the titles in this program, Giant Box is housed in a thin digipak. (This is a far cry from the weighty classical-styled package in which the original LPs arrived!)
Hip-o Select has just released a box set collecting some of Creed Taylor’s earliest work for the Impulse! label as First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection. To discover Taylor at the apex of his powers, though, one couldn’t do much better than Giant Box, an album which truly shows off the CTI sound in all its grand excess, combining jazz and orchestration, rock and soul, pop and classical. With any luck, Sebesky and Taylor’s 1976 unfortunately-titled “sequel,” The Rape of El Morro, will follow. Music doesn’t get any more catholic than this!