Not too many years ago, when people thought of quality, mass-market, contemporary jazz records, they thought of CTI.Producer Creed Taylor, the C and T of CTI Records (the I is for Inc.) and his stable of players were just about the only active show in town. Handsomely packaged and impeccably recorded albums by George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Deodato, Hubert Laws and others proved that listener accessibility did not necessarily mean drastic artistic compromise.
The past few years, though, CTI album covers have often outshone the albums themselves; with the jazz resurgence resulting in a rash of reissues and CTI's musicians moving to other labels. it looked like the company was a prime candidate for the "we remember when" crowd. Until recently.
Besides cultivating a talented batch of newcomers, including vocalist Patti Austin, flutist Jeremy Steig and former Soft Machine guitarist Alan Holdsworth, CTI has released three live albums that offer a survey course in cross-over jazz music and musicians of the early '70s. The music is refreshingly spontaneous, welcome relief from the Creed Taylor/Don Sebesy "dentist's office music" school of production with its heavy emphasis on studio effects,
'CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl" is three separate records, each of which offers distinctive performances representative of various stages in the growth of many contemporary jazz artists. The three discs were recorded in July 1972 and are in the style of "California Concert" (CTI CTX 2-2), a two-record live set of the previous year's festival, but the new albums are far more comprehensive and more intelligently arranged.
"Live One" (CTI 7076) offers a perfect example of the "CTI Sound!" Drawing on traditional jazz roots, the ensemble improvises on comtemporary melodies demonstrating understated but forceful technique. George Benson's guitar-picking is clean and crisp on "California Dreaming" while the saxophone section of Hank Crawford, Joe Farrell, Stanley Turrentine and Grover Washington Jr. light up Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On."
"Live Two" (CTI 7077) uses even more of a mass-appeal approach. Here the tunes are slightly funkier and based more on rythm than melodic line. Improvisations are sharp and tasteful and each player uses an economy of notes that adds to the overall smoothness. Bob James' keyboard work is far less indulgent than on his own later efforts, and Deodato is equally appealing on "Theme from Love Story/Pavane/Fire and Rain." The "Pavane% segment also includes a haunting flute solo by Hubert Laws, freed from the cloying string overdubs that marred his recent tracks.
Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette provide a subtle but solid foundation for Freddie Hubbard's sleek trumpet on "People Make the World Go Round," with vibraphonist Milt Jackson ably filing in the gaps. DeJohnette's steadiness is specially pleasing in light of his most recent ECM albums that utilize experimental percussion figures.
Blues dominates "Live Three" (CTI 7078), but people who shudder at the term need only listen to Esther Phillips' interpretation of the classic "God Bless the Child" to allay all fears. Everyone holds back and lets Phillips' remarkably expressive voice carry the melody with perfect clarity and tone.
The saxophones also step up front for some blues licks, most notably Hank Crawford on "Bowl Full O' Blues" and Stanley Turrentine during "Cherry."
The interplay between musicians is consistenly dexterous on all three records, the product of a team of stars familiar with each other's abilities. Each artist struts his stuff during solos but is restrained when the sportlight shines elsewhere. This professional judgment provides a nearly perfect blend of light but textured jazz.
Ironically, the majority of the players highlighted are no longer with CTI, and the event itself was held five years ago. Even the superb packaging (yes, Beatles fans, you have seen that tickets-embossed-on-the cover idea before) and the practical packaging of the albums, separately rather than in a high-priced boxed set, cannot conceal the fact that this is all-star jazz in absentia. Still, all-star jazz it most certainly is.
For the fazz buff, "CTI Summer Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl"documents a period of great creative output from some of this decade's top performers. For everyone, it is simply fine music