I think it’s fair to say that CTI Records contributed little if any truly important music to the jazz canon — certainly not in the vein of Duke, Bird, Monk, Trane, Miles, et al. But the independent label, founded and run by producer/A&R man Creed Taylor, did play a vital role during a pivotal period for the idiom, the early 1970s. The explosion of rock in the latter half of the ’60s completed jazz's relegation to the fringes of popular culture.
CTI helped keep jazz in the mass consciousness, however tenuously, when the genre needed it most. How? By incorporating pop elements into the music in an unapologetic attempt to cross over to a wider audience, by using top-tier production techniques, classy packaging and distinctive cover art. Pop crossover in jazz wasn’t new — Ramsey Lewis, Cannonball Adderley and a few others had success in the ’60s — but CTI perfected it.
A four-disc boxed set, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, collects music from the label’s hey day, 1970-1975, on four themed discs: “Straight Up,” “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” “The Brazilian Connection,” and “Cool and Classic.” Because CTI is arguably the chief progenitor of today’s smooth jazz, history has not treated the label particularly well. But there’s little denying that plenty of good, at times great (if not necessarily important), music can be heard herein. Considerable fluff, too.
One of Taylor’s most significant achievements was recruiting a bevy of respected players — Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter, George Benson, Joe Farrell, Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, et al — and placing them in a situation to make decent dough. This, perhaps as much as anything, gave jazz lifeblood during a shaky period.
CTI’s most critically regarded album is probably Hubbard’s Red Clay (1970), which features the redoubtable lineup of bassist Carter, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, drummer Lenny White and Herbie Hancock on electric piano. The latter is important because Taylor had a penchant for the Fender Rhodes sound, which is one of the label’s more endearing sonic elements, and is on display throughout the set. “Red Clay” leads off the “Deep Grooves” disc with 12 minutes of syncopated funk and serious blowing.
Another artistic triumph that deserves singling out is Farrell’s brooding “Follow Your Heart” (1970), which features the underrated saxophonist’s probing solo (dosed here and there with echo) and composer John McLaughlin’s guitar work, noteworthy for its uncharacteristic restraint and thick, ringing tone. The set’s nicest find is a lean and seductive version of Miles Davis’ “All Blues” by bassist Carter, recorded in ’73 and never before released on CD in the U.S. Henderson’s tenor solo is a marvel, at once lyrical and exploratory.
More emblematic of CTI’s overall strategy is Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic” (1975), a tepid funk tune with a bloated Bob James arrangement that opened the door for the saxophonist’s stardom.
Hubert Laws was another Taylor fave — he has a track on each of the four discs. The flutist is strictly fusion lite; his rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” — with its faux-psychedelic solo by Dave Friedman, pushing his vibraphone through a fuzz pedal — is notably dreadful. Occasionally, one of CTI’s crackpot crossover schemes worked: In 1971, arranger Don Sebesky recast Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” into a flamenco-tinged epic for George Benson, and though it takes a couple listens to sink in, the version proves oddly alluring.
CTI’s biggest hit, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop singles chart, was 1972’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” by Brazilian keyboardist Deodato. Yes, using the swelling theme from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a gimmick, but the Latin/funky jam section, especially Deodato’s electric piano solo, grooves along with easygoing verve.
The “Brazilian Connection” disc is largely made up of heavily arranged, easily listening tunes pairing native artists like breathy vocalist Astrud Gilberto, percussionist Airto and pianist/composer Antonio Carlos Jobim with American jazz players, a trope that had its day in the early 1960s with the bossa nova craze. (Nothing here rivals the 1964 collaboration between Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto and Jobim.) The sweeping grandiosity of Milt Jackson’s “Sunflower” (1972), with a Sebesky arrangement, does possess a winning cool.
It might’ve been tempting for the set’s producer, Richard Seidel, to rewrite history a bit by supplanting some of CTI’s more pedestrian popular material with artistically substantial fare. But to his credit, he compiled a thorough overview and in the process shows why Creed Taylor’s indie imprint mattered. (Masterworks Jazz/Sony)