Cal Tjader, Part Five: The Concord Recordings

Cal Tjader, Part Five: The Concord Recordings

Written by Rudy Radelic

In our last installment (Issue 141), Cal Tjader had wrapped up his final album for Fantasy. He had rejoined Fantasy in 1970, but by 1974 he was already anxious to move on to another label. At the time, however, the changing music scene made it difficult for established jazz musicians to get signed to other labels, so he stayed with Fantasy for a few more years as he really had no other offers. Once he was without a label, he recorded Huracán, the direct-to-disc LP he recorded for Crystal Clear Records (featured in Part Three of our Cal Tjader series).

As he was already a participant at the Concord Jazz Festival and friends with Concord Records founder Carl Jefferson, signing with Concord was a good move. While Concord didn’t have the distribution or budget of larger labels, the royalty structure was better, and the label more jazz-friendly than the larger labels. Tjader had impressed Jefferson so much over the years that Jefferson created the Concord Picante label for Tjader’s Latin jazz recordings, as well as other Latin artists who would sign with the label in years to come.

Tjader’s first album for Concord Picante was La Onda Va Bien. The members of his working band took part in this album as well as most of the others that followed – Mark Levine (piano), Robb Fisher (bass), Vince Lateano (drums), Roger Glenn (flute) and Poncho Sanchez (congas, percussion). Gary Foster (flute, saxophone) would appear on some of the later recordings. La Onda Va Bien opens with a new version of a tune he covered in 1961, “Speak Low,” which alternated between sections of 6/4 and 4/4 time.


The fiery mambos were not left behind either, as witnessed on “Mambo Mindoro.” These two tunes helped the album win a Grammy in 1980 for Best Latin Album. (A Best Latin Jazz category would not appear at the Grammys until 1995.)


The follow-up studio album Gozame! Pero Ya… opened with “Shoshana,” penned by the group’s pianist, Mark Levine.


A subdued album, The Shining Sea featured Tjader with his then-current drummer Vince Lateano, along with Dean Reilly on bass, Hank Jones on piano and Scott Hamilton on tenor. Not feeling too well at the time, Tjader returned to the studio at a later time to overdub some of his solos. A unique 7/4 arrangement of “Theme From M*A*S*H” closes out the album.


The live album A Fuego Vivo, recorded at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1981 with his working band, features “Mindanao,” the third tune Tjader composed based on islands in the Philippines, where he was stationed in World War II. (The other two are “Leyte” and “Mambo Mindoro.”)


Tjader and his band were also captured at the Concord Jazz Festival, with the title tune from his posthumous album release, Good Vibes, featured here.


The final album Tjader recorded under his own name was the album Heat Wave, with Carmen McRae. She was known to be difficult to work with, and she and Tjader ended up butting heads while making this album. Since Tjader was low on energy at this point, he had his band record the tracks with McRae, and recorded his parts at a later time. This tune, “Upside Down,” was originally “Flor de Lis” from Brazilian composer, musician and vocalist Djavan’s debut album in 1976 (A Voz, O Violão, A Música de Djavan).


At Concord, Tjader was often tapped to back other artists on the Concord roster. He and his group recorded two albums backing Rosemary Clooney: With Love (Concord Records, 1980) and Sings the Music of Cole Porter in 1982. He also participated on the album Seven Stars with Japanese clarinetist Eiji Kitamura. Another lesser-known vocalist, Anli Sugano (also from Japan), recorded an album for Concord called Love Sketch, which Tjader also contributed to. Here is Sugano’s original, “Tramp,” from that album.


The Anli Sugano album was Tjader’s last recording session. Due to a lifestyle that included decades of alcohol and cigarettes, Cal Tjader passed away on May 5, 1982 at 56 years of age, after suffering three massive heart attacks in a hospital in Manila. Tjader and his entourage had arrived in Manila two days prior, and the group was scheduled to play three gigs on May 7 through May 9. Tjader was also accompanied by his wife Pat and his daughter Elizabeth (AKA “Liz Anne”), as well as his friend Jimmy Lyons and his wife.

His health issues began to catch up to him around the time he and the band were recording La Onda Va Bien, the first Concord Picante album. He’d had health scares earlier, but just after wrapping up recording the album, he suffered his first heart attack and was given instructions to stop smoking and drinking, and take a break. During his eight-month sabbatical, he entered a clinic to help get his drinking problem under control. He did give up smoking, but ended up slipping back into indulging in a few drinks a year or so later. At the time, he was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, which would lead to a second heart attack, and then, in Manila, the three massive heart attacks that would claim his life.

“How can two gringos know how to play my music?!”

–Willie Bobo

Aside from the friends and family he left behind, his legacy is such that he was well known for having devoted his career to bringing Latin rhythms from many parts of South America to jazz aficionados around the world. He nurtured and encouraged the many sidemen who would be part of his groups over the years. They were a who’s who of Latin musicians including Mongo Santamaria, Poncho Sanchez, Willie Lobo, Armando Perraza, Eddie and Manuel Duran, and many other jazz musicians who got their start in Tjader’s groups over the years.

Tjader’s flexible musical talents included drums, the vibraphone, timbales and other Latin percussion, as well as being a capable arranger and evocative composer. Unfortunately, a career-long habit of downplaying his own talents may have led to many jazz fans overlooking his work today. Hopefully this series has been helpful in highlighting his recordings.


Click here for a Qobuz playlist with selections from his Concord Picante years…

…and here for a YouTube playlist, with a couple of bonus tracks not available on Qobuz.

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