Cal Tjader, Part Four: The Second Fantasy Records Era

Cal Tjader, Part Four: The Second Fantasy Records Era

Written by Rudy Radelic

In Issues 138, 139 and 140, this series covered Cal Tjader’s early years at Fantasy Records, the Verve Records period from 1961 – 1968, and his following stints at Skye Records, Savoy records and others. The series continues here.

Skye Records began with the best of intentions, but Cal Tjader, Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo, the artists who were among the label’s co-founders, became wise to the record industry and realized that they didn’t have as much freedom as they had counted on. As Skye’s fortunes dwindled and the company teetered towards bankruptcy, co-owner Norman Schwartz and his partners sold an interest in Skye Records to Filmways, an entertainment company. The idea was that Filmways would use Skye Records to release soundtrack albums. Despite the influx of cash, it was not enough to save Skye. Tjader figured it best to cut his losses, and not record his next album for a label headed for bankruptcy.

Skye would continue under McFarland’s direction briefly after Tjader left the label, until McFarland passed away in 1971. It would eventually be absorbed by Buddah Records, then punted to other label groups over the years.

In mid-1970, Tjader was secure in his feeling about the “new” Fantasy Records, now under the direction of Saul Zaentz, and signed a new contract with the label. The fortunes from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit albums on the label were enough to move Fantasy to a new studio facility. In short, the label was more professionally run than it had been under Max and Sol Weiss who, at heart, were manufacturers of plastics and chemicals, not record industry executives.

When Tjader rejoined Fantasy, his adventurous spirit followed. He would record with many different combos and explore various Latin music styles during his tenure.

One of his first recordings was Tjader, which included a handful of popular tunes from the day, recorded with a big band brass ensemble backing him. Selections would range from Santana’s “Evil Ways” and the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a pair of Donovan tunes, a Beatles album cut, and an expanded version of “Fresh Air,” a tune penned by Julius Wechter for his Baja Marimba Band on A&M Records. (Cal’s youngest brother Curry Tjader played marimba and drums in the Baja Marimba Band for a few years.) Cal penned the tune “I Showed Them,” a tongue-in-cheek response to a tune by The Byrds entitled “They Showed Us.”


The album Agua Dulce found Tjader in full-tilt Latin mode, working again with Al Zulaica and the Escovedo brothers, Coke and Pete. It featured an updating of tunes he had recorded in the past, such as “Curacao,” “Descarga” (as “Descarga Cubana” on the Soul Burst album), “Invitation” and Clare Fischer’s “Morning.” Note that this album can also be found as yet another two-on-one CD called Descarga, which also includes the album Live at the Funky Quarters. Here is the album’s title track, “Agua Dulce (Cool-Ade).”


Tjader connected with legendary keyboardist Charlie Palmieri and his band for the Primo album. (Charlie was Eddie Palmieri’s older brother.) With arrangements by Palmieri and Tito Puente, Tjader recorded yet another classic. Tito Puente makes an appearance on timbales on the track “Tanga.”


Teaming again with Clare Fischer, Tjader recorded the album Guarabe. (You can find this album in its entirety on a two-for-one CD called Here and There, which also includes his Here album for Fantasy’s Galaxy sub-label). The title track of this album has two sections – one in 6/8, the other in 4/4 – and both allow the band to groove throughout. The album would feature another updated version of his classic tune “Black Orchid,” along with a remake of “El Muchacho” which originally appeared on his Verve album Sona Libre and a tune by Brazilian composer Edu Lobo, “Reza.” “Guarabe” leads off this excellent album.


Tambu paired Tjader with guitarist Charlie Byrd, leading up an album of contemporary Brazilian-themed jazz featuring tunes by Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Antonio Carlos Jobim (his beautiful tune “Tereza My Love”), Stevie Wonder, and Joe Henderson. Tjader is somewhat restrained in this recording, playing timbales rather than vibes on some of the tracks. But the Airto Moreira-penned album opener “Tombo in 7/4” (retitled “Tambu” for this album) is a real barn-burner. (Airto’s own version appears on his acclaimed CTi album Fingers.)


The Amazonas album is another highlight of his catalog, notable for the Brazilian personnel. Bandleader and producer Airto Moreira join forces with Robertinho Silva, Egberto Gismonti, Raul de Souza and Hermeto Pascoal. If the keyboards sound a little familiar, you’re hearing Dawilli Gonga, more commonly known as George Duke. (Duke was no stranger to Brazilian music himself – one of his best-loved albums was A Brazilian Love Affair from the late ’70s, recorded in Rio de Janeiro with a Brazilian cast of musicians and composers.) On the album’s hopping title track “Amazonas,” penned by João Donato and Lysias Enio, Tjader takes a rare lead on marimba.


As Tjader was a popular live performer, Fantasy found many opportunities to release live albums of his gigs. One such performance was captured on the album The Grace Cathedral Concert. This was originally scheduled to be a Vince Guaraldi gig, but Guaraldi had passed away from a heart attack shortly before the date. Tjader took over and made it a tribute to his friend Guaraldi by performing a medley of two tunes from Guaraldi’s breakthrough album Music from Black Orpheus–“Manha de Carnaval/Samba de Orfeu.” The gig was to be recorded and saved for the church archives, but thankfully Fantasy was able to release it as an album.


In 2003, Fantasy pulled recordings out of the vaults from Tjader’s two 1977 concerts at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The disc opens with a very enthusiastic take on Ray Bryant’s “Cuban Fantasy” (for which the album is named), featuring Tjader switching from vibes to timbales as the excitement builds. Supporting Tjader are Clare Fischer (piano), Poncho Sanchez (congas), Bob Redfield (guitar), Rob Fisher (bass) and Pete Riso (drums).


Tjader’s final album for Fantasy was released on the Galaxy sub-label. Breathe Easy is an easygoing standards album featuring Shelly Manne, Monte Budwig, Allen Smith and Hank Jones. This album appears on the CD Extremes, paired with Tjader’s first recordings for Fantasy (covered in our first installment in the Tjader series).  While I can’t locate a clean copy of this particular version on YouTube (there is a somewhat distorted needle drop of the entire album), here is a similar live version featuring Shelly Manne, Eddie Gomez and Cedar Walton that is equally nice.


A handful of the albums Tjader recorded in his second Fantasy era have not appeared on streaming services as of yet. Many, though, are still available on CD. Here is a playlist featuring some of the highlights of the later Fantasy/Galaxy era on Qobuz:

As usual, I’ve also compiled a YouTube playlist, substituting a couple of tracks that were available on YouTube but not on Qobuz:

The next installment wraps up our exploration of Cal Tjader’s catalog of recordings.

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