When he established Kudu as an offshoot of his titanic jazz label CTI, Creed Taylor wore his ambitions on his sleeve. The label was named after the long-horned African mammal and its logo adorned with Afro-centric colors, as Taylor intended to do no less than make Kudu a home for releases “indigenous to the black popular music of the United States.” Taylor always knew the importance of a visual, and much as CTi releases were recognizable for their striking, provocative cover photographs and lavish gatefolds, Kudu’s were no-frills, with bold, plain print and simpler photos or artwork in single-jacket sleeves. Spartan though the design may have been, no less care was expended on the music. Much of Kudu’s output could sit comfortably alongside CTI’s, even employing many of the same artists. Even the repertoire was often similar, with familiar pop songs used as fodder for jazz exploration. (It was no accident; these hit titles would often draw new listeners to the albums!) But Kudu’s releases were cut from a funkier cloth. Four of the best examples have just been reissued by Sony Masterworks, concluding its 40th anniversary series of CTI reissues. Though there’s currently no indication, here’s hoping that the series resumes to mark CTI’s 41st…and 42nd! These albums are very much “of their time,” but transcend that tag thanks to impeccable, enduring musicianship.
Lonnie Smith only recorded one title for the Kudu label, but 1971’s Mama Wailer (88697 94704-2) holds a significant spot in the label’s legacy as the second-ever Kudu album. Smith, on clavinet and organ, contributed two original compositions. “Mama Wailer,” with vocal interjections on the title phrase, boasts a percolating groove from its leader but also an impressive tenor saxophone solo from Marvin Cabell. “Hola Muncea” is a little less melodic than the title track, but reaches a similar place at the intersection of latin soul and funk. Two pop classics round out the album. Tapestry was still fresh on the record racks when Smith selected Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” for a workout. His organ gives it a decidedly different identity than King’s piano, and he brings the grease to Laurel Canyon! The most remarkable track, however, is the epic reworking of Sly Stone’s “Stand!” which filled the entirety of Side Two on the original LP. With layered, overdubbed B3 parts, Smith’s organ licks are fired off like machine gun blasts. Almost nine minutes in, there’s an insinuating call and response which leads to a furious Grover Washington Jr. solo (Grover would go solo on the third Kudu album, Inner City Blues). Billy Cobham’s drumming remains the anchor throughout the song’s shifting dynamics; the great, cosmic conclusion of “Stand!” looks forward to Smith’s later works.
Hit the jump to revisit Hank Crawford, Johnny Hammond and Esther Phillips’ Kudu classics!
Johnny Hammond’s 1972 Wild Horses/Rock Steady (88697 94380-2) was actually the fourth Kudu LP, and Hammond’s second. Another organist, Hammond inaugurated the label with his Breakout. Bob James was the arranger, and personnel included Grover Washington, Jr. and Billy Cobham as well as CTI stalwart Ron Carter on electric and double bass. Washington kept busy in those early days at Kudu; those who only know his later work might be surprised to hear him cutting so loose on the opening track, a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.” From there, the album takes off in surprising, rewarding directions. Though traditional theatre music is at the cornerstone of much of the standard jazz repertoire, Hammond brought more recent songs from the stage into the fold with Galt MacDermot’s “Who is Sylvia?” from Two Gentlemen of Verona and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Eric Gale brings a fluid guitar to the Latin-flecked “Sylvia,” and its moody, exotic atmosphere evokes MacDermot’s own eclectic style. (He also composed Hair, incorporating rock, soul, pop and folk influences.) James adds subtle string accents to this track, too. George Benson’s lyrical and recognizable guitar and James’ strings enhance “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” with its imaginative departures from the famous melody. The glossy standard “It’s Impossible” offers another Washington solo, this time in smooth mode. There’s a showbiz quality to Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” with its bold brass and Carter’s creeping bass. Bookending the album, the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” begins with an unexpected martial beat; the track lacks the ache of the Stones’ original but compensates with a more forceful approach. The CTI ethos of generosity shines through on this album, which like Mama Wailer, is making its first appearance on American CD.
Alto saxophonist Hank Crawford’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing (88697 94374-2) was his fourth of seven LPs for Kudu, and makes it first-ever CD appearance in this program. Bob James again arranged the 1974 effort, and also played keyboards; it’s James who makes an immediate impression on the opening song, a cover of the Stevie Wonder song which gives the album its name. Crawford’s clear tone states the melody in this spirited opener, with its blasting brass and dizzying melodic explorations of which Wonder would likely have been proud. Crawford shows off his many sides on this collection, from the slow-burning, late night balladry of “Jana” to the greasy romp “Sho’ is Funky” co-written by Crawford and James. Bass trombonist Dave Taylor gives the track its distinct flavor while Hugh McCracken’s prominent guitar sizzles. Crawford worked with Ray Charles on both baritone and alto saxophones, and his knowledge in serving an ace vocalist lent itself to his work as a bandleader, his alto leading these proceedings in much the same way a vocalist would. Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing is a breezy listen, from start to finish.
“Breezy,” however, is one word not usually associated with vocalist Esther Phillips. Her Performance (88697 94375-2), also from 1974, immediately preceded Crawford’s album in the Kudu catalogue. Her fourth of eight Kudu albums between 1972 and 1976, Performance appears now for the first time domestically. Creed Taylor, the iconic producer behind all four of these albums, unusually shared production duties on Performance; Pee Wee Ellis and Eugene McDaniels joined him in that capacity. Kudu’s funk credentials were apparent on the album opener “I Feel the Same,” and the choice of lesser-known material gives Phillips room to fly on this strong R&B collection. Pain was a constant in Phillips’ offstage life, marked by a punishing heroin addiction. “Little Esther” had her first taste of success in 1949, just fourteen years old, and a taste of heroin not long after; stories of her mercurial behavior entered into legend. But her talent was never in doubt. CTI recorded Phillips in a variety of settings from smooth pop to jazz, disco and funk, realizing the adaptability of her pinched, distinct style.
There’s southern soul mastery on display in her reading of Allen Toussaint’s “Performance,” and some true verisimilitude: “I’m a thing that makes music they don’t understand/And they cheer me as I carry out my endless plan/I’m weary but I must, it’s the only thing I trust/As I live I’ve got to give.” And give she did, on each and every track, however agonizing. Bob James’ familiar electric piano enlivens “Disposable Society,” and Michael Brecker contributes a smoking solo on tenor saxophone. On “We’re Gonna Make It,” a backing choir lends support to this gospel-infused song, with James on piano. Phillips imbues the lyric with an honesty that cuts through the admirable if not particularly original lyrics (“You got to believe in yourself, try not to deceive yourself/You see life is what you make it/And just as long as we don’t fake it/We’re gonna make it”).
Dr. John’s “Such a Night” boasts Richard Tee’s tack piano, an instrument not employed on too many seventies soul productions; Thom Bell’s groundbreaking work in Philadelphia was a notable exception! ” “Such a Night” is an insouciant bit of N’awlins fun, as is well known to any fans of The Last Waltz, in which Dr. John performs it himself. CTI artist Patti Austin is among the backing vocalists on this track. Most of the songs on Performance revolve around the comings and goings in a relationship, like the sly “Can’t Trust Your Neighbor with Your Baby” from Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s pen.
Phillips was such a volcanic vocalist that no less than Aretha Franklin admired her; when Phillips lost a Grammy Award in 1972 to Aretha Franklin, the gracious Queen of Soul presented her trophy to Phillips, insisting she should have won it instead. Performance is the only title in this quartet of releases to feature a bonus track, albeit a previously-released one. Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is given a mildly funky arrangement that doesn’t overdo the pathos. Phillips delivers in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone, sounding as if there’s simply no time to dwell on the darkness. She elongates words for emphasis liberally and sometimes unexpectedly, and even offers some soulful ad-libs to the song’s fade.
Kudu only lasted until 1978, with its final release (appropriately) an album by Hank Crawford, Cajun Sunrise. Creed Taylor attempted to reactivate the label in 1983 with Grover Washington Jr.’s Side Star, having lost the remainder of Washington’s Kudu catalogue to Motown; he made similar resuscitation attempts in 1993 and 1996. But the label’s legacy remains in the vibrant music created between 1971 and 1978; Kudu was all about the groove, and that smoking groove is as potent now as ever.