Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Wasted Jazz Talent, Parts 1 & 2

Perhaps you could consider this post to be a public service announcement of sorts. An advisory to "STEP AWAY FROM THAT ALBUM" and not to waste your precious hours on a sure musical trainwreck. Here we have two incredibly talented jazz legends, with what very well may be two of the worst "jazz" albums of all time, both trying to pull a page out of Herb Alpert's songbook, and apparently score some commercial success. So you have been warned, as we begin our trip into the scary world of long out of print jazz vinyl.

I'll start with the Dizzy Gillespie album "It's My Way" on Solid State Records (affiliated with Liberty/United Artists, the then owners of Blue Note). It's from 1969 and it certainly sounds like it, the worst kind of jazz/pop crossover of the era. Dizzy is "featured" with a pop band and string orchestra playing such jazz classics as Jimmy Webb's Galveston and a medley of tunes from Hair! This isn't a case of a jazz artist covering a trite pop tune, and turning in a great jazz performance though, (like Coltrane on My Favorite Things). Instead, this is Dizzy simply playing pop tunes with a pop band, that probably just got out the studio next door cutting some "hits" for AM radio. The author of the liner notes says Dizzy told him "He's never wailed better," which is quite ironic considering that Dizzy rarely gets to play a note, and when he does, nine times out of ten it's just the melody. The arrangements are by Jimmy Mundy (the guy who wrote the tune we know as Walkin which Miles Davis played for so many years). Mundy's pop charts are bad enough, but when paired with the lousy drum and fender bass rhythm section they become simply disposable. Even tracks which one would think might be decent, like Tadd Dameron's beautiful tune Whatever Possess'd Me and Gillespie's own Manteca, are ruined by their horrible arrangements. The Dameron track would actually be really good if the drummer could swing or play anything somewhat hip.

At first it might be easy to blame the horrid results of this album on the producer, after all it was RICHARD CARPENTER!!! But on further examination, it turns out NOT to be THAT Richard Carpenter, brother of Karen, but rather the OTHER Richard Carpenter, a noted jazz shyster, who according to James Gavin, ripped off Chet Baker so badly that Chet literally wanted to kill the man. And wouldn't you know, Carpenter also is the guy who is legally credited with writing Mundy's song Walkin and he's credited with a song here as well, titled Magic Tree. Thus, it's really no surprise that this album turned out as bad as it did. Dizzy wasn't the trumpet player he was 10 years earlier, jazz wasn't selling as it once did, and Carpenter and everyone involved were looking for a quick buck, to cash in on some of Herb Alpert's lucrative audience. Fortunately, such efforts by serious jazz musicians like Gillespie are usually forgotten, and left to languish in the thrift store record bin, until some joker like yours truly finds a copy laying around somewhere. In the case of this record, I bought it probably over 10 years ago at a local library's book and record sale. I can't remember what I paid for it, certainly less than a dollar, and even though I didn't know very much about jazz at that point, I knew once I put the lp on the record player that it was pretty weak. I forgot all about it until I was looking for some old 8mm family movies before Christmas and stumbled across this gem. And the truth is, it's just as bad as I remembered it.

After giving "It's My Way" another listen, it got me thinking about other horrible albums by jazz stars. Having lost my copy of Jackie McLean's disco pop record from the 1970's, I was forced to turn to Chet Baker for further inspiration, and his dreadful album from 1970, titled Blood, Chet and Tears. This one comes from our station archives, and judging from the pristine quality of the vinyl, it looks like it didn't get much airplay. Like the Gillespie record, it's Chet trying to cop some of Alpert's appeal, and in that sense, perhaps it's more successful. But it's arrangements are even less jazz inspired than those of It's My Way. On this album, Chet plays tunes like Spinning Wheel and Vehicle, and even sings on a couple of tracks, George Harrison's Something, and Come Saturday Morning by the Sandpipers. You can imagine the results. Then think twice as worse. The production values seem to be a little higher with than with Dizzy's record, but what is really cringe inducing is thinking what a waste of great talent these records were. People talk about Wes Montgomery's late albums for Verve and A&M being pop drivel, but these albums make those Montgomery sides sound like A Love Supreme. Aside from Baker's talent as both a instrumentalist and as a jazz singer (some would debate that last one), Blood Chet and Tears features A list stars like Joe Pass, Al Casey, Al Grey, Plas Johnson, Buddy Collette, Tommy Tedesco, and many others. It really is enough to make you stop and say to yourself "what were they thinking?" Of course the answer is obvious - money, but did they really think people would buy this stuff? I have a feeling they knew it wouldn't sell, thus the hard sell both of them use in the liner notes. Where Dizzy's album tells us Dizzy felt he had never "wailed" better (and such an appropriate choice of words!) Chet's liner note writer tells us "This album has to be considered sheer treasure, like searching for gold and finding uranium." But just be sure to bring your own Geiger Counter on your next trip to the used record store.

(By the way, the website Chet Baker Tribute.com has a page set up about this album here).


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