Gene Russell New Direction 1972 Black Jazz BJ/1
2003 CD Reissue Black Jazz BJ/1
1 Black Orchid 3:13
2 Hitting The Jug 4:42
3 Willow Weep For Me 4:48
4 Listen Here 3:15
5 On Green Dolphin Street 5:02
6 Silver’s Serenade 4:54
7 My Cherie Amour 3:01
8 Making Bread 3:21
Bass – Henry Franklin
Electric bass – Larry Gates (tracks: 1, 8)
Congas – Tony William
Drums – Steve Clover
Piano – Gene Russell
Producer – Gene Russell
“New Direction” is maybe the misnomer of the year as far as jazz records released in 1972. This album looks squarely to the past golden age of acoustic piano-led soul jazz for its inspiration. There is nothing unpleasant here, by any means, but these are sounds you could find executed with more panache and variety on any given Junior Mance, Ahmad Jamal or Ramsey Lewis record. Mostly this album is of historic interest because Gene Russell was the founder and executive producer of the Black Jazz Records label, which has since developed quite a cult following for its stunning recordings that explored adventurous (but accessible) pathways into modal, spiritual, and ‘conscious’ jazz, like the masterful entries from Doug and Jean Carn. The history of the label and its reissues is something of a mess, with its master tapes even being sold on eBay at one point. None of the songwriters are credited on this sketchy CD pressing from the early 00’s, for example, and none of them are originals. Most casual jazz fans will recognize that a few of them are standards. This label debut opens up with the Latin jazz of Neil Hefti’s “Black Orchid”, and serves up a memorable groover in Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here.” I’m not sure Russell has the chops or the vision to make “On Green Dolphin Street” or “Silver’s Serenade” good for much more than background music. By the time the rather pointless rendition of “My Cherie Amour” comes around, I’m afraid the idea of this record is firmly established: this is solid dinner jazz with which to take your seat and order a cocktail and a small appetizer, while you await the main act to come on stage — in this case, the main act being THE REST OF THE BLACK JAZZ CATALOG. He closes with Gene Harris ‘”Making Bread,” which seems like a fitting conclusion for all this. Harris, whether with The Three Sounds or his wonderful records on his own, was the Master Chef who, along with an entourage of other culinary alchemists, made possible the sonic kitchen that would be the playground for the great music to issue forth from the Black Jazz imprint. So now with the hors d’oeuvres out of the way, the real menu is ready to be rolled out.
Perhaps “New Direction” was designed as a deliberate look back to how we got “here” (‘here’ being soul jazz in 1972), in which case we can hear it as a reverent homage and statement of purpose. In all other respects, though, I won’t hesitate in saying that this is the least interesting entry in the entire Black Jazz discography. But since it is my intention to follow through on a promise made long ago about sharing a bunch of that music here at Flabbergasted Vibes, we might as well start with BJ/1. Rusell gave us a mildly more interesting and considerably more funky record in 1973’s “Talk To My Lady,” which we’ll get to soon enough.
A word: times are tough all over, and I’m reinventing myself for the third or fourth time in life to adjust to our New Reality. I am trying to save some money so that I can relocate to a place where there are actual jobs for people with my kinds of skills. I’m stuck in a rut, y’all, and it’s been hell getting out. If you enjoy reading these posts, consider making a donation using one of the buttons on the sidebar to help offset the costs of getting this blog online. Any amounts are welcome. Thanks!
A1 Fat Jam 3:23 A2 House Of Blue Lites 3:08 A3 Ben Sidran’s Midnite Tango 2:40 A4 The Chicken Glide 3:43 A5 She’s Funny That Way 3:34 A6 Monopoly 1:27
B1 Don’t Let Go 3:18 B2 Hey Hey Baby 3:30 B3 The Foolkiller 3:45 B4 The Funky Elephant 3:27 B5 Snatch 3:48 B6 Down To The Bone 1:08
Alto Saxophone – Bunky Green
Bass – Kip Merklein (tracks: B4), Phil Upchurch, Randy Fullerton (tracks: A1 to B3, B5, B6)
Drums – Tom Piazza (tracks: B2)
Drums, Percussion – Clyde Stubblefield, George Brown, Phil Upchurch
Guitar – James P. Cooke, Phil Upchurch
Harmonica – Jerry Alexander
Organ – Jim Peterman
Piano, Vocals – Ben Sidran
Tenor Saxophone – Sonny Seals
Horns arranged by Sonny Burke
Strings arranged by Les Hooper
Art Direction – John P. Schmelzer
Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed individually with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp. Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.
Possibly it is because of his uncanny resemblance to Neil Innes – or the suspicious fact that nobody has ever seen them both in the same place, at the same time – but sometimes I don’t know how seriously to take Ben Sidran. But I doubt that fact would bother him, because he’s been far too busy accomplishing an insane amount of things in his long and prolific career for my perplexity to concern him at all. Although at this point in his life as an artist, Ben Sidran is pretty firmly ensconced in the “jazz” area of your local record store, his overall vision and his diverse body of work taken as a whole is pretty hard to categorize, and there is a touch of whimsy to much of it. Plus, his records are always fun, a word that doesn’t get paired with “jazz” nearly enough.
In his early days, he flirted with the life of rock stardom when he teamed up with his old college friend Steve Miller. Sidran contributed extensively to his most interesting record (Brave New World), co-wrote his most charming hit single (Space Cowboy), stuck around for a few more records before going back to his old home base of Madison, Wisconsin, where he has essentially stayed ever since. He published his doctoral dissertation (which he earned in England in the 60s while moonlighting as a session man) as a book, back when dissertations were actually readable, called ‘Black Talk’. He hosted a late-night television show as idiosyncratic as he was, called “The Weekend Starts Now,” in which he had guests like Kinky Friedman and Jane Fonda when she was at her anti-war finest, as well as jazz heavies like McCoy Tyner and Danny Richmond. He’s worked with Tony Williams, Jon Hendricks, Phil Upchurch (who appears on the album here), and produced records for Mose Allison, Van Morrison, and Georgie Fame. And somehow he has managed all this while also hanging out with Eric Idle and George Harrison and producing an entirely separate body of work under the name Neil Innes.
On his own albums, Sidran’s stable of musicians was always interesting. For “Don’t Let Go” we have fellow Madison resident Clyde Stubblefield on drums, Phil Upchurch on bass and guitar, and saxophonists Sonny Seals and Bunky Green all joining the party. Jim Peterman, a colleague from his Steve Miller days, provides some organ on a few tracks. The original songs here are all compelling, and Sidran seamlessly blends in jazz chesnuts from other composers: a very free and liberal interpretation of fellow Wisconsin-ite Freddie Slack’s “House of Blue Lites” seasoned with some profanity and jabs at New York snobbery, a similarly stylized “She’s Funny That Way” (recorded by Gene Austin), Bud Powell’s brief ‘Monopoly’, and “The Foolkiller” from Sidran’s most obvious musical idol, Mose Allison. The original tracks span jazz, funk, and even soul in the song “Hey Hey Baby,” which is almost catchy enough to be a hit, as soon as understated Mose Allison-like beatnik crooning comes back into style. Allison’s “Foolkiller” is arranged in an unrecognizable way and ornamented with greasy slide guitars and harmonica. The only track that really nods to his past as a denizen of 60’s swinging London is the group composition (mostly likely emerging from an improvised jam) titled The Funky Elephant,which sounds like Dr.John dropping acid with The Beatles. But not the 1968 Beatles so much as the 1974 Beatles, so basically a few years before they formed Klaatu, I guess. The cut “Snatch” showcases Stubblefield at his best on the drum kit, tossed over a bed of mixed Wurlitzer and piano, and horn and string charts that make it all sound so easy. (It also makes an appearance on Flabbergasted Freeform Fourteen.)
A curious bit of trivia about the title track of the album: it was written for the original television series adaptation of “Serpico” but was shelved when the project was put on hold for several years due to legal complications. When the show finally took to the airwaves in 1976 (for only one season, alas), Sidran’s track was not used. It was written for a scene in which Frank Serpico is a given a surprise birthday party by the rest of his precinct and gets all teary-eyed and starts hugging and kissing everyone.*
Sidran appears to be, constitutionally speaking, a workaholic unable to simply take it easy. He continues to record, perform, and write. One of his most recent endeavors is a book regarding the role of Jews in the music business, titled “There Was a Fire: Jews, Music, and the American Dream.” I’m sure archive-based historians might turn up their noses a bit at his interloping, but as a Jew and a musician I think he’s got a right to explore the subject, and seems to have kept busy on the lecture circuit talking about the book over the last few years. You can catch some of his talks on his YouTube channel. This channel, incidentally, is one of the more impressive artist channels I have seen on YouTube, as somebody (if not Sidran himself, then a stalwart staffer) has uploaded a ton of archival material, including lots of clips from the aforementioned television program from the early 1970s. Check it out here.
(*Disclaimer: this trivia fact may or may not have any basis in our consensual reality.)
Trumpet, flugelhorn – Randy Brecker (tracks: 1,3,6)
Vibraphone – David Friedman (tracks: 2,5,6,7)
Producer – George Butler
Recorded By – Rudy Van Gelder
Critics have often blasted Blue Note Records’ output during the 1970s, and not without reason, for inconsistency and an overeager desire to flirt with a more commercial sound than during their classic 50s and 60s heyday. Horace Silver’s own wonderfully “far out,” genre-bending, and delightful three-part series of LPs from 1970-72, subtitled “The United States of Mind” , was probably a case in point for purist curmudgeons. Although he was certainly no stranger to commercial success or soul-jazz crossovers (he did write the song “Doodlin'”, after all), the sprawling eclecticism of the three “phases” of the US of M project must have had some Blue Note fans worried that they’d lost old Horace for good. So I can’t help hearing 1972’s “In Pursuit of the 27th Man” as a kind of deliberate return to form. That’s not to imply that it was a reaction to critics: perhaps Silver just felt like it was time to make a good solid hard bop album again after his recent experimentation.
And that’s what he did here, while retaining a lot of the same players from those other records. The Latin jazz opener, Liberated Brother (written by Weldon Irvine), is of the same high caliber as anything on his Cape Verdean Blues from 1966. Recorded during two sessions with slightly different lineups, half the tracks feature the Brecker Brothers on brass and the other half showcase David Friedman on vibes, which is a first for Silver’s bands. On the titular track, we get both at the same time. The interplay between Silver’s piano and the vibes on this song is marvelous, fabulous, and stupendous. The album also features one tune (Kathy) by the great Moacir Santos, then living in the US and who – as Silver mentions in the notes – was just about to make his first Blue Note LP.
This is a very worthwhile offering in the vast discography of one of my favorite jazz pianists and composers, so do give it a listen.
The ambiance of the record as a whole is an adept mixture of taxi fumes and sunlight, as captured by the breezy “Summer in Central Park.”
Hey let’s take a look at Silver’s charming liner notes now. They include lyrics to one track that are, in fact, not present anywhere on the actual recording. So read them and memorize them to recite along at the proper moment.
Note: the remastering engineer is not named in the credits, as it oddly the case for many of these TOCJ Blue Note CDs from Japan, but like all the others I have heard, this sounds stellar.