CTI Records: The Cool Revolution
Sony BMG Masterworks
Today’s jazz market could use more Creed Taylor-like figures. During a decade in which jazz played second fiddle to other genres such as rock, folk and soul, Taylor thrived by releasing albums that simultaneously attracted the jazz cognoscenti and the casual pop fan. With CTI and its main sister label, KUDU (Salvation, Greenstreet and Three Brothers are the other lesser-known sister imprints), Taylor crafted a signature aesthetic that nearly defined the sound of ’70s mainstream jazz. Even though CTI’s initial launch as an A&M subsidiary took place in 1967, the agreeable four-disc CTI Records: The Cool Revolution celebrates its 40th anniversary, beginning in 1970 when it went independent.
With Impulse Records!, Taylor had already displayed a fancy for distinctive packaging. He continued that with CTI by once again issuing captivating gatefold LPs, this time with Peter Turner’s striking artwork complemented by a lacquered veneer. The Cool Revolution comes with a handsome 20-page booklet that showcases the label’s iconic look as well as rare photographs and an informative liner essay by Dan Ouellette.
By recruiting recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and a stable of noteworthy of musicians such as Bob James, Don Sebesky, George Benson, Grover Washington Jr. and Eric Gale, CTI also forged a super-compressed, slick sound that differed from other labels. For better or worse, Sony remastered The Cool Revolution in a way that retains the analog sound of the LPs, the advantage being that newcomers can better grasp the experience of hearing such classics as Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower when they were originally released. The downside is that as on the LPs, drummers such as Idris Muhammad and Grady Tate sound as if they’re banging on cardboard boxes, though the CTI sound had much to do with a certain percussive dryness.
Hardcore CTI fans may quip about The Cool Revolution’s “best of” quality. It lacks previously reissued songs as well as material from the label’s three-year period under A&M, which shuts out fine material from Quincy Jones, Wes Montgomery and Milton Nascimento. At best, The Cool Revolution functions as a digestible primer. Instead of unfolding chronologically, the set divides 39 songs into four stylistic categories: “Straight Up,” “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” “The Brazilian Connection” and “Cool and Classic.” The set’s two bookend discs, “Straight Up” and “Cool and Classic,” are nearly interchangeable: “Cool and Classic” tracks such as Ron Carter’s “All Blues” and Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” could easily have been included on the “Straight Up” disc, which contains postbop gems like Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” and Freddie Hubbard’s “The Intrepid Fox.” Both discs dispel the myth that straight-ahead jazz was completely wiped out by jazz-rock fusion. Delectable ear candy like Turrentine and Milt Jackson’s groove-laden “Speed Ball” and Benson’s greasy take on “So What” illustrates how soul-jazz carried over into the ’70s, while Hubert Laws’ transfixing “Pavane” and Jim Hall’s dramatic “Concerto de Aranjuez” connect the unlikely dots between Third Stream and instrumental pop.
And indeed, it’s because of CTI’s pop appeal that the label seemed to have as many fans as detractors. During the label’s initial launch, Taylor captured the zeitgeist of the ’60s bossa-nova craze, and the set’s “Brazilian Connection” disc holds together rather nicely. Jobim’s “Stone Flower” kicks off the proceedings and is followed by cherry-picked classics like Paul Desmond’s rendition of “Wave” and Airto Moreira’s spirited “Tombo in 7/4.” The Cool Revolution’s “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” however, is a bit dicey. It starts off admirably with Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and concludes triumphantly with Washington’s “Mister Magic,” but the disc also includes such clunkers as Eumir Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” a cheesy disco-era bid that no amount of historic contextualization and nostalgia can save. The same can be said of Esther Phillips’ wince-inducing version of “What a Difference a Day Makes” that finds her embarrassingly panting and sighing.
“Deep Grooves” best illustrates CTI’s influence on DJ culture and how the label predated smooth jazz. Unfortunately, this is also where Taylor’s commercial savvy transformed him from saint to scoundrel in some critics’ eyes. The Cool Revolution is a sharp package that allows us to have these debates once more.