Celebrating the good and bad of jazz producer Creed Taylor | Bleader

Celebrating the good and bad of jazz producer Creed Taylor

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This year two record labels created by veteran jazz producer Creed Taylor, 82, are celebrating significant anniversaries. In this case "anniversary" is kind of a misnomer, since neither Impulse nor CTI is an active concern, but parts of their old catalogs have been in print for decades, especially in the case of the former, which issued a crucially important chunk of work cut by saxophonist John Coltrane during the final six years of his life.

Over the course of jazz history there have been a handful of iconic producers. Norman Granz—who founded several labels, including Clef, Verve, and Pablo—got his start by launching the high-end blowing sessions known as Jazz at the Philharmonic in the mid-40s, and he brought a related ethos to his talent-crammed recording sessions. On the flip side is someone like Manfred Eicher of ECM Records, who's been more concerned with the sonic quality and distinctive packaging of his releases.

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Taylor was active in the biz for about eight years before he convinced the recently born pop label ABC-Paramount to give him his own jazz imprint in 1960—the first Impulse release came out early the following year. To recognize the label's auspicious beginnings, earlier in 2011 Hip-O Select and Verve released an attractive coffee-table book called First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection, which tells the story of the label's formative years and includes four CDs jammed with the first six Impulse titles and some related, previously unreleased material. Four of those titles are stone-cold classics: Genius + Soul = Jazz by Ray Charles, Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson, Out of the Cool by Gil Evans, and Africa/Brass by Coltrane. Not only was the music on these releases—all of which favored large bands peopled by some of the music's greatest talent—absolutely stunning, but the label also debuted with packaging and design as distinctive and recognizable as any record label in history. Taylor had a good understanding of the pop marketplace and presented these early releases with a kind of classy veneer usually reserved for classical titles. Amazingly, he abandoned his baby in its first year to take the helm at the more established Verve (which these days is the parent company that owns the Impulse catalog), even though Impulse scored some instant hits—including Genius + Soul = Jazz, one of Charles's best-selling albums.

Producer Bob Thiele took over and guided Impulse for most of the next decade, notably allowing the young imprint to become home to the "new thing," aka free jazz. Yet Impulse maintained high production standards, so that titles by folks like Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, and Pharoah Sanders were a cut above what was turning up on other labels, both in terms of sonics and packaging. Earlier this summer Verve reissued 30 albums from the Impulse catalog on 15 two-fer CDs—a pretty ballsy move in the current marketplace. The even more iconic Blue Note label, for example, hasn't put out a reissue in a couple of years, and I don't expect to ever see another from them, at least not on CD.

The 15 CDs were manufactured and produced by the European arm of Universal Music, then simply imported to the U.S. as domestic releases. In the credits of each title is the phrase "Special thanks to Dusty Groove America." According to Dusty Groove owner Rick Wojcik, the Wicker Park shop ended up loaning album art to the company when they couldn't find it in their files—a situation that speaks to how screwy the state of multinational record labels is these days.

The 15 releases are a mixed bag to be sure, usually pairing albums made in succession by a given artist. A few are classics, readily available over the years, by folks like Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and McCoy Tyner, but others have never been widely reissued on CD—including There Will Never Be Another You by Sonny Rollins (which was released only in Japan) and Soul Trombone and Cabin in the Sky, a pair of lesser-known hard-bop gems by the great trombonist Curtis Fuller. (You can find the entire title list here.)

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I've been digging into some of the early-70s titles by Shepp and Sanders, from when their free-jazz proclivities opened up and became what's become known as "spiritual jazz"—the music is fleshed out by varying combinations of soul-derived vocals, psychedelic flourishes, and world-music instrumentation. In fact, I'd never actually heard Sanders's Village of the Pharoahs and Wisdom Through Music or Shepp's For Losers and Kwanza until these reissues turned up, long assuming them to be bloated efforts made after the artists' free-jazz fire had been doused. I don't think I'd rate them with their best work, but there's some really great stuff here.

In 1967 Taylor started another label, initially as a subsidiary of A&M but by 1970 a freestanding company: CTI (which modestly stood for Creed Taylor Incorporated). This label has also been marked for anniversary celebration by Sony Music, which owns the catalog, though its reissues have been trickling out over the year rather than arriving in a concentrated burst. To these ears the CTI catalog is a much dicier proposition. Most of its releases came in the midst of the fusion era, so even music by such relative traditionalists as Paul Desmond and Milt Jackson features some electronic touches—mostly the ubiquitous Fender Rhodes or electric bass. In some cases Taylor pushed the classical element present in some fusion way too hard, guiding Hubert Laws through Stravinsky's Rites of Spring or Brazilian keyboardist and arranger Deodato through "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Some of those releases were commercially successful, but many haven't aged well.

Today's playlist:

Judith Berkson, Oylam (ECM)
Mombojó, Amigo do Tempo (Tratore)
Lovedale, Coziness Kills (ILK)
Samuel Hällkvist Center, Samuel Hällkvist Center (Caprice)
Amanaz, Africa (Q.D.K.)

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