Sunday, May 1, 2011

CD Reissue of the Month - "Don Sebesky w/ Hubbard, Laws, Desmond: Giant Box"

CD Reissue of the Month
Don Sebesky: "Giant Box"

***** (musical performance & sonic quality)
****1/2 (remastering; the Japanese CD issues still sound better with a larger scope of frequencies, more transparent sound regarding some woodwind instruments like oboe and English horn, and a brighter sound of the string section)

Original album produced by Creed Taylor
Recorded & Mixed by Rudy Van Gelder
Cover photo: Pete Turner
Album design: Bob Ciano
Booklet pics: Steve Salmieri (uncredited on this CD reissue)
Reissue produced by Richard Seidel
Remastered by Mark Wilder & Maria Triana

Sebesky's masterpiece, one of the "Best 10" albums in the CTI catalog, and a lesson in terms of jazz orchestration. All tracks are excellent, most of them are superb. It's an album so rich in details that it deserved to be analyzed in a book, with the original orchestral scores and full transcriptions of all solos by people like Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, Joe Farrell, Milt Jackson and, yes, the controversial Grover Washington Jr., who recorded his best jazz solos in two projects arranged by Sebesky ("Giant Box" and Randy Weston's "Blue Moses"), although his best-selling albums were scored by Bob James, another member of the all-star cast assembled for "Giant Box." Btw, this album was released and advertised in Japan as "Don Sebesky and the CTI All Stars."

The rhythm sections have a big importance here too, with Ron Carter (playing acoustic bass, electric bass on "Semi-Though" and the piccolo bass used for the funky solo on "Psalm 150") on all tracks, and Billy Cobham (unbelievable on "Firebird/Birds of Fire") and Jack DeJohnette (terrific on "Free As A Bird") relaying on drums. The percussion team includes Brazilian masters Rubens Bassini (providing the groovy congas to "Psalm 150") and Airto Moreira, plus the long-forgotten Phil Kraus (a veteran of the Creed Taylor Orchestra in those late '50s sessions for ABC-Paramount) on tympani, gongs and other "classical percussion" instruments, and studio ace Ralph MacDonald, who composed big hits for CTI (and non-CTI) artists but was never signed to the label by Creed, despite the fact that he became the percussionist who took part in more CTI dates ever.

"Giant Box" is so astounding, so outstanding, so full of surprises, that George Benson doesn't sounds like George Benson neither Bob James sounds like Bob James when soloing on "Semi-Though," a surprisingly funky closing tune to such a classy & sophisticated album. Speaking of class, Jackie & Roy are also there. And what a joy to listen to Sebesky, the keyboardist! Playing acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes (with a crystalline sound), Hammond organ and Hohner clavinet, not to mention the accordion he used to play as a child. And what a pleasant surprise to hear Sebesky, the vocalist! Sounding like Chet Baker used to sound in the '70s on "Fly" (backed by his own Fender Rhodes), and, thanks to overdubbing, like a gregorian choir in the intro of "Psalm 150." I only miss Sebesky's trombone in this celebration.

Very important: this new Sony CD reissue (the second one in the U.S.) restores the original track sequence of the original two-LP set, modified in the first CBS CD release from 1987. It also includes the interview conducted by Didier Deutsch with Sebesky which had appeared in a booklet included in the original 1973 box set, although only two of the twelve pics are reproduced, omitting photographer Steve Salmieri's name. That said, the sumptuous "Giant Box" is more than an extraordinary album. It's a musical monument.(Don Sebesky & Ron Carter photographed at The Lotos Club, New York City, July 1973, by Steve Salmieri)

CTI's top conoisseur, Doug Payne, has already posted about "Giant Box" on his Sound Insights blog.
Here's the link:

Don Sebesky had been arranging albums for producer Creed Taylor since the composer/arranger got a call from the producer out of the clear blue sky in 1965 to arrange guitarist Wes Montgomery’s Verve classic Bumpin’. Sebesky arranged four more of Wes Montgomery’s albums as well as Verve records for Astrud Gilberto and Kai Winding and A&M records for Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson, Soul Flutes, George Benson, Paul Desmond and Walter Wanderley – all produced by Creed Taylor.

It’s little wonder that Creed Taylor invited Don Sebesky to CTI in 1970 to become the in-house arranger for some of the label’s premier recording artists, almost single-handedly setting the musical direction for the label on such albums by Hubert Laws, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford, Esther Phillips, Jackie & Roy, Milt Jackson and Airto.

Indeed, Sebesky’s role helped secure Grammy nominations for George Benson’s CTI album White Rabbit, Esther Phillips’ “From A Whisper To A Scream” and a Grammy Award for Freddie Hubbard’s First Light (all 1972) as well as 1973 Grammy nominations for Freddie Hubbard’s “In A Mist” (from Sky Dive), Esther Phillips’ Alone Again, Naturally and Hubert Laws’ Morning Star.

Creed Taylor had shortly thereafter offered Sebesky the opportunity to record his own album for the label (the arranger had already recorded two jazz-rock albums for Verve in the late 1960s), utilizing the incredible star power of the CTI All Stars, many of whose newfound success was directly attributable to both Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky.

Following CTI’s success of Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” the producer offered Sebesky the opportunity to do a double album – the very first (and only one of three) in CTI’s history – and the arranger quickly took up the challenge.

Giant Box, originally issued in real box packaging, like so many classical records of the day, not only felt significant, it contained a heavy roster of the day’s biggest and best jazz players, all part of the CTI family and all reflecting on a program of Sebesky charts that make for some of the label’s most potent listening.

First and foremost is the extraordinarily inspired pairing of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” with the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire,” remarkably balancing horns and strings and features for Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Don Sebesky and Billy Cobham. Joni Mitchell’s lovely “Song to a Seagull,” originally from her 1968 debut, is a soaring feature here for Paul Desmond, Don Sebesky and Ron Carter.

Sebesky’s dynamic “Free as a Bird” (catching all the bird references here?) is one of the album’s highlights and is a feature for Freddie Hubbard’s jaunty flugelhorn, Bob James’ fantastically sparkling piano, Sebesky’s scintillating electric-piano commentary, Grover Washington, Jr.’s meaty soprano sax and the rhythmic interactions of Ron Carter and, of course, Jack DeJohnette.

Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150,” previously waxed by Sebesky with Doc Severinsen on the trumpeter’s 1971 album Brass Roots, marvelously highlights the vocal talents of Jackie & Roy (and Sebesky himself) in a sumptuously funked-out arrangement that features Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Bob James (on organ!). Rachmaninoff’s 1912 piece “Vocalise” gets a melodic treatment here – but surprisingly no vocals - with leads provided by alto saxist Paul Desmond and vibist Milt Jackson, who’d previously been paired together for the first time at a December 1971 Modern Jazz Quartet concert.

Sebesky’s own “Fly” leads off with a vocal by the composer himself, performing very much like Chet Baker (who he would go onto work with very shortly hereafter), and lifted bodily by echoplexed flourishes from Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette that lead into the lovely jazz of “Circles,” another of the album’s greatest moments, featuring Joe Farrell on soprano sax, Bob James (beautiful again) on piano, Ron Carter (again – the bassist single-handedly guides much of the album into beautiful territories much of the time) and Hubert Laws on flute.

The obligatory funk tune, “Semi-Tough,” which was surprisingly never exploited for its radio potential, is aided by Sebesky’s Gospel piano and clavinet, Carter’s ultra-funky electric bass and Billy Cobham’s grooviest groove, and closes out the album with George Benson’s fun but surprisingly undistinguished modified electric guitar solo, Grover Washington, Jr.’s tough tenor and Bob James providing some funky organ. It’s at this point that the absence of Esther Phillips becomes notably apparent. But she’s not missed.

According to Didier Deutsch’s interview with Don Sebesky, the recording took six months and about 150 hours in the studio, though only several days of recording in April 1973 are listed in the credits as being the recording time. Sebesky’s recollection is probably more accurate. There was obviously a lot of work that went into this record. And it’s truly surprising that it’s not a better known part of CTI’s legacy than it is. This beautifully remastered CD release should finally change all that, giving Giant Box the place it deserves in CTI’s legacy.

Don Sebesky went onto work with CTI for another couple years (Paul Desmond, Jackie & Roy, George Benson, Esther Phillips, Chet Baker, Joe Beck, Jim Hall), recording another album under his own name for the label (The Rape of El Morro) and returning for several albums late in CTI’s legacy (Roland Hanna, the perfect Studio Trieste and Larry Coryell). But this magnum opus, Creed Taylor’s “thank you note” to the composer/arranger, recorded during CTI’s halcyon days, has not been bettered anywhere in Don Sebesky’s solo discography.

Pete Turner’s garish cover photo, “USA Car,” is part of an Americana series the photographer conceived that includes photos found on the covers of Ron Carter’s Blues Farm (CTI 6027) and the all-star In Concert Volume Two (CTI 6049). “USA Car,” photographed in Nevada in 1970, oddly seems to contradict the gravity of the project and the classy music found within but designer Bob Ciano probably picked up on the car’s stars for this “all-star” album.

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