CTI Records, Part Five: Guitar Greatness

CTI Records, Part Five: Guitar Greatness

Written by Rudy Radelic

CTI Records was home to many artists, among them a handful of guitarists who backed other artists and led their own recording dates, along with a bassist whose decades-long career continues to this day.

One of those guitarists, George Benson, recorded some of his finest work on the five albums he recorded for the label. While his first handful under CTI’s affiliation with A&M Records were uneven, his albums on the independent CTI were much more interesting. The album Bad Benson was anything but. Here, Benson is set against a combo featuring Phil Upchurch, Kenny Barron, Steve Gadd, and Ron Carter. This is his unique twist on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.”


In another unusual arrangement from the album White Rabbit, Benson covers a hit track of the era, “California Dreamin’,” interspersed with moody keyboards and strings, and flamenco flourishes throughout.


Although Joe Beck frequently backed fellow Kudu Records artist Esther Phillips, he recorded only a single album under his own name, Beck, for Kudu, although it was later reissued by Columbia as Beck & Sanborn. That revised title gives us a clue as to the contents of the record, as alto saxophonist David Sanborn puts his instantly recognizable mark on the album. On the track “Texas Ann,” Beck and Sanborn are featured alongside keyboardist Don Grolnick, with ample room to stretch out.


One album where Joe Beck is featured is on drummer Idris Muhammad’s album Power of Soul, one of my favorites in the Kudu catalog. Along with penning the song “The Saddest Thing” on this record, his prominent rhythm guitar work throughout the track adds a fluid groove to the arrangement. The track also features Bob James, Randy Brecker, and Grover Washington, Jr. as soloists. It’s a laid-back soul-jazz treat!


Guitarist Eric Gale was also featured on numerous CTI recordings, yet he only has one album to his name via his Kudu album Forecast. Here’s a pleasant tropical-themed track he penned, “Cleopatra,” which includes the omnipresent CTI musician Hubert Laws on a piccolo solo.


One of Grant Green’s final albums as a leader, The Main Attraction, was recorded for CTI Records. The album certainly wasn’t the strongest of Green’s all-too-brief career and the album jacket is kind of cheesy, but it still has some good soul-jazz licks to contribute alongside Hubert Laws, Steve Khan, and Don Grolnick on this record. Here is “Creature,” which closes out the album.


The understated guitarist Jim Hall was featured on a few CTI recordings where he was teamed up with other artists. He co-led an album with flugelhorn player Art Farmer, and recorded the following album, Studio Trieste, in the company of Chet Baker and Hubert Laws. Here’s a low-key take on the Miles Davis classic “All Blues,” with plenty of room for the trio of leaders to take extended solos.


Hungarian-born guitarist Gabor Szabo’s third album for CTI, Macho, has quite the varied lineup of musicians on this record – Bob James and Ian Underwood (from the Mothers of Invention) on keyboards, Harvey Mason on drums, and Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson) on fretless electric bass. While other tracks on the album were drifting into funk and disco territory, the simmering Szabo original “Time” is a solid groove-jazz highlight on the album.


Chicago-based Phil Upchurch was another guitarist whose work was peppered among a number of CTI albums, but his Kudu album with pianist/vocalist Tennyson Stephens (Upchurch/Tennyson) was a soul-jazz high water mark for the label. The duo’s version of the Stevie Wonder song “Tell Me Something Good” takes it to a different place than the popular version by Rufus and Chaka Khan.


Next time, we will focus on another group of instruments, and the artists who played them, featured in the CTI and Kudu Records catalogs.

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