Tuesday, April 14, 2009

CD of the Day - "Grover Washington, Jr.: Soul Box"

CD of the Day
Grover Washington, Jr.: "Soul Box" (Kudu/Verve) 1973/2008

One of the most ambitious projects in the history of CTI, along with the even more expensive Don Sebesky's "Giant Box", Grover's third album for CTI's subsidiary Kudu label was recorded in March 1973 at Rudy Van Gelder Studio and released as a 2-LP set. After the mellow opening with David Gates' pop ballad "Aubrey," featuring Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar and Airto Moreira on percussion, what follows is a symphonic funk-soul-fusion mission accomplished by arranger & conductor Bob James leading 60-piece orchestra.

This late 2008 CD reissue, supervised by Harry Weinger for the Verve Originals series, comes in digipack format, reproducing the original Bob Ciano cover art (the cover painting is by David A. Leffel), even including the original liner notes, the Kudu logo and the original catalog number. All these aspects, plus the pristine sound of Kevin Reeves' digital remastering, make this new "Soul Box" sound (and look) much much better than any of its previous CD releases.

In 1973, at the time of "Soul Box," Washington, Jr. possessed a tone that was as soulfully gritty as it was gregarious and tender. Some of the very best fusion players with a feel for funk are present here - powerful drummers Idris Muhammad & Billy Cobham, keyboardists Bob James (mostly on Fender Rhodes) & Richard Tee (Hammond organ), and ace guitarist Eric Gale, the second main soloist - and the orchestral scores actually enhance the small group performances rather than sweeten them. Most tracks are eight minutes in length and longer, giving everybody enough room to stretch-out and shine while still maintaining the groove.

Ron Carter is heard on both acoustic and electric bass, groovin' in a very funky way specially on The Temptations' "Masterpiece" and Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" (btw, I just remembered of the fantastic Ahmad Jamal take on the latter, recorded on his "Jamalca" LP, misteriously never reissued on CD not even in Japan!) Billy Cobham plays only on his own "Taurian Matador," really a killer track, and there's an intriguing dark-tinged arrangement of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," on which Bob James added a lugubrious choir. Barbara Massey, from the cult Barbara & Ernie duo, is one of the vocalists. The horn section includes such luminaries as Hubert Laws, Randy Brecker, Jon Faddis, Wayne Andre, George Marge and Romeo Penque. Harry Lookofsky is the concertmaster of the string section, on which Ron Carter overdubs on arco bass alongside Richard Davis. A massive set!
A rave review written by jazz fusion historian Thom Jurek for the All Music Guide website follows:
"The early work of alto saxophonist and composer Grover Washington, Jr. is a rare and beautiful thing to behold. His entire Kudu period, marked by the albums Inner City Blues, All the King's Horses, Soul Box, Mister Magic, and Feels So Good, is brilliant, solid urban groove jazz played with grace, mean chops, and slippery funkiness. Soul Box, a double LP recorded in 1973, has Creed Taylor's production enhanced by a symphony orchestra and full-blown jazz band arranged and conducted by Bob James. Some of the session men include Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Eric Gale, Idris Muhammad, Airto, and Richard Tee. Soul Box only contains seven cuts. Among them are truly innovative reads of "Taurian Matador," Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," a side-long jam on Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" (the album's centerpiece and masterpiece), and the deep funk of Norman Whitfield's "Masterpiece."

"Trouble Man," however, is the cut on which all the contradictions of the session come to bear and are resolved due in large part to Washington's deeply lyrical improvising and James' ability to layer an orchestra into a groove. There are cadenzas written in after choruses that bring the orchestra in to accent the sketchy funk in the tune and bring out its deep blue hues. When Washington gets to the front of it all, he lets go like he's crying from the heart. On other tracks, the orchestra adds the right drama or sweetness — as it does on Wonder's cut — but Washington makes them grittier, with soloing that sidles up to the melody before reinventing it. For its length, Soul Box is a modern classic for its instrumental and arrangement invention and for its deeply emotional bounty."

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