God help me, I’m on a smooth jazz kick. I blame Diamanda Galas.
Okay, it’s not really “smooth jazz.” It’s not like I’ve started listening to Kenny G or Dave Koz or any of those other acts I only seem to hear when I take an early morning cab ride to the airport (which is part of why I started using Crown Black Car, actually). But I’m trying to create a compelling narrative here, so bear with me.
As I’ve recounted before, many years ago Diamanda and I enjoyed a long lunch together in the East Village, talking about her various likes and dislikes. One artist in particular stood out: Esther Phillips. I remember Diamanda said something to the effect of “she sings like she has a razor in her throat.” Not at her throat, in it. I naïvely said, “Oh, the Esther Phillips who recorded the disco version of ‘What A Diff’rence A Day Makes.'” Diamanda scoffed and told me I was mistaken, and while I’ve gone to the mat over similar picayune details with icons like Mel Tormé, I always want to be on Diamanda’s good side, so I didn’t quarrel.
But as it turns out, I was right. After that interview, I did some research and discovered it was the same Esther Phillips who racked up a Top 10 R&B hit with her dance floor-friendly version of the Dinah Washington classic in 1975. I sought out Phillips’ album of the same name, and it was pretty damn groovy, so I started to keep my eyes peeled for other releases on the same label: CTI Records. As it turned out, the jazz label founded by producer Creed Taylor in 1970 has a deep and varied catalog, including latter period releases from “cool school” giants like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, bossa nova icons Astrud Gilberto (featured in our current KEXP Documentaries series, “Sirens of Jazz”) and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and full-lengths from guitarist George Benson that made me realize his EZ listening classics “Give Me The Night” and “This Masquerade” were actually anomalies within a pretty legit jazz career.
In celebration of CTI’s 40th anniversary, Sony’s Masterwork’s Jazz imprint has been rolling out a series of expanded reissues. Titles by Baker, Jobim, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell, Hubert Laws, and Stanley Turrentine (another one of Diamanda’s favorites, for those keeping score) are already available, with albums by Benson, Ron Carter, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Deodato, and Milt Jackson scheduled to follow in January 2011. If you tuned into my show last Wednesday night, you heard me close with Baker’s 1974 recording of “Autumn Leaves” for CTI.
But as my colleague Abe Beeson — who knows far more about jazz than I do — noted off-mike that same evening, CTI releases can be pretty hit or miss. So I’m trying to get up to speed by digesting the new anthology CTI Records: The Cool Revolution. This four-CD set arranges 39 selections thematically: A disc of “straight-up” jazz, one of hits and rare grooves, a whole CD of Brazilian tunes, and a set of classic “cool school” offerings. There are some odd omissions (there’s nothing from Nina Simone‘s 1978 CTI full-length Baltimore, even though that album’s reading of Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” pops up on several Simone best-of collections), but overall this is a much better crash course in CTI than digging through the used bins and buying willy-nilly the way I did for years. You won’t find a lot of head-scratching hard bop or outré experimental material on CTI — hence my “smooth jazz” crack — but if I heard more music like this when I was cruising out to Sea-Tac in the wee small hours, Yellow Cab might get some of my business back.
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, “Weird At My School,” (usually) appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter!