Saturday, October 18, 2008

CD of the Day - "Grover Washington, Jr.: Inner City Blues"

CD of the Day
Grover Washington, Jr.: "Inner City Blues" (Verve) 2008

A welcomed digipack reissue of Grover's debut solo album, recorded in September 1971 and originally released on January 25, 1972, as the third LP on CTI's subsidary label Kudu. Later on, Motown - CTI's distributor in the mid-70s - took control of all Grover's albums and reissued it on CD in the 80s. Now that the whole Motown catalog belongs to the Universal Music Group, Grover's Kudu albums are now being reissued on Verve's "Originals" series. Quite confusing, hum?

Jazz historian Doug Payne give us more details: "Inner City Blues proved to be a huge soul-jazz success. Each one of Washington's successive albums, guided by Bob James's deft arrangements, continued to gain in popularity until 1975, when Feels So Good and Mister Magic reigned the charts. Indeed, it was Washington's popularity that helped Creed Taylor end the distribution relationship he formed with Motown Records in 1974. When Taylor sought independence from Motown in 1977, he had to sacrifice Grover Washington, Jr. and the saxophonist's entire Kudu catalog to the Detroit-based soul label (even though Washington made only two records for Motown before departing for even bigger success at Elektra records in 1980)." For "bigger success", we shall read the platinum "Winelight" album, maybe the first best-selling smooth jazz date.

Adored by many--his record sales have been consistently impressive--but criticized by jazz purists, the late Grover Washington, Jr. remains one of the most well-known saxophonists of his generation, strongly influencing such players as Kenny G., George Howard and Najee (argh!) His music spearheaded the quiet storm and smooth jazz trends in jazz radio.

Back to "Inner City Blues". Originally, this was supposed to be Hank Crawford's debut LP for Kudu, but since the alto saxophonist failed to show up for the session (he was arrested after discussing with a policeman in a gas station, while driving to Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey), Grover Washington Jr. got the green light from producer Creed Taylor to take his place. Grover, who had performed three months earlier on Kudu's debut session, Johnny Hammond's "Breakout", had been hired as a member of the horn section for Crawford's date, and when HC didn't show, Creed called Vic Chirumbolo, his right hand VP back at the office. "Hank's not here and I've to decide who will play the lead parts. What do you think? Eric Gale or Grover?" Vic suggested Grover and the rest is history. As a sideman, he was supposed to play tenor sax and switched to alto at Creed's request, to fit better with Bob James' scores.

"Inner City Blues" sold over 400,000 copies and got rave reviews, even in DownBeat, receiving a 4-star rating by renowned jazz critic Dan Morgenstern. Of course in a time (the early 70s) when there was less prejudice and less racism in the jazz world. Grover became a star.

Washington's hearty, smoothly melodious but emotional sax meshes wonderfully with a veritable who's-who of fusion and what later came to be known as crossover jazz--Bob James on Fender Rhodes, Richard Tee on Hammond, Eric Gale on guitar, Airto Moreira on congas & percussion, and master jazz-funk drummer Idris Muhammad. "Inner City Blues" is a near-idea combination of sophistication and soulfulness, of directness and classy musicianship.

The repertoire, smartly selected by Creed Taylor, includes two songs from Marvin Gaye's historical "What's Goin On" album: "Inner City Blues" (with Airto playing tambourine) and "Mercy Mercy Me", plus an extended arrangement of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and a surprisingly inventive score to Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy", which includes a semi-bossa section featuring Thad Jones, Wayne Andre and Ron Carter's warm & big tone. There are two ballads: Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" (Ray Charles' signature song) and Buffy Saint-Marie's "Until It's Time For You To Go". This new remastering, by Kevin Reeves, sounds far superior to all other previous CD reissues this album already had in the USA and Japan.

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