In a Latin Jazz Bag: The Recordings of Cal Tjader, Part One

In a Latin Jazz Bag: The Recordings of Cal Tjader, Part One

Written by Rudy Radelic

Cal Tjader is a musician I have followed most of my life. My mother was an avid fan of his, and while the fifteen or so albums she owned barely scratched the surface, I took up collecting the rest of his catalog and unexpectedly fell into an entire Tjader collection many years later. His recording career spanned four record labels, and he performed in thousands of live appearances.

Born Callen Radcliffe Tjader Jr. in 1925 to Swedish-American parents who worked the vaudeville circuit before settling down to operate a dance studio, Tjader originally tap danced as a child, took piano lessons at a very young age, and parlayed that into playing drums and later the vibraphone, for which he became best known.

Callen’s siblings were his younger brothers Wallace Frederick (or Rick, as he was commonly known) Tjader, and Curry Butler Tjader. Rick was the non-musical sibling. Curry also took piano lessons at a young age and went on to be a drummer as both a leader and sideman on numerous gigs in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1965, Julius Wechter recruited him to play bass marimba, and occasionally drums, in Wechter’s Baja Marimba Band.

Cal Tjader’s career stretched from early days working with Dave Brubeck in one of the latter’s earliest groups, to his final recordings for the Concord Picante label in the early 1980s. Tjader was based in the San Francisco Bay area and he performed often at such well-known Californian jazz clubs such as The Blackhawk, The Lighthouse and El Matador.

Tjader’s primary instrument was the vibraphone, but on many of his earlier recordings and in live gigs, he would also perform on bongos, timbales and other Latin percussion, as well as occasionally returning to a seat behind the drum kit. Infrequently, he can be heard on piano and, in later years, organ.

This will be a multi-part series exploring Cal Tjader’s music, from his first recordings with Fantasy to his final album with Concord Picante. Despite his considerable popularity and success over the course of more than three decades, and several dozen album releases, his music is overlooked. This series will hopefully help bring Tjader’s music to a wider audience.

The Early Fantasy Era

Cal Tjader’s first recordings for Fantasy (and the sister Galaxy label) were released as shellac 78 RPM records. These early dates included some of the Latin touches that he would explore throughout his career, and would feature him hopping between instruments. Here is “Vibra-Tharpe,” a rare treat at 78 RPM (thanks to YouTube) named after famous San Francisco disc jockey Jim Tharpe. Tjader hops from vibes to drums and back to vibes on this 1951 recording, first released in 1952 and compiled onto a Fantasy 10-inch LP in 1953. (This has since been reissued on 10-inch vinyl as well as the 2-for-1 CD Extremes, paired with his final Galaxy recording Breathe Easy in the 1970s.)


An early popular tune is “Mamblues,” one of two original compositions from his 1954 record Mambo with Tjader, the first 12-inch long-playing record he would cut for Fantasy. This is a tune he would return to on records and in concert.


Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” gets a three-part treatment in this track from Ritmo Caliente, an album where Tjader split duties between vibraphone and other Latin percussion instruments. The first part of the track has Jerome Richardson carrying the melody on flute, followed by a percussion break as the second part. The third part of the track, taken from a later recording date, fades in with a conga beat and a vamp on the piano, with Tjader taking up the melody on vibes. This album would be reissued in a double-LP package with the follow-up album Mas Ritmo Caliente, entitled Los Ritmos Calientes.


On the album Demasiado Caliente (reissued on a 2-for-1 CD as Latino con Cal Tjader), the live track “Tumbao” features a lengthy workout by future Latin legends Mongo Santamaria on congas and Willie Bobo on timbales. Tjader’s groups were instrumental in introducing percussionists of this caliber to the music-consuming public (long-term Tjader sideman, conguero Armando Peraza, was another), and many would go on to lengthy musical careers of their own.


One highlight of Tjader’s recordings is the straight-ahead jazz album he cut in 1958 with Stan Getz, Stan Getz with Cal Tjader. “Ginza Samba” opens the album with an eleven-minute jam.  Notable sidemen on this date are Eddie Duran (guitar), Vince Guaraldi (piano), Scott La Faro (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), and it’s one of the earliest recording dates for the latter two musicians.


Likewise, other albums of Tjader’s were not all about Latin rhythms. Jazz at the Blackhawk is another straight-ahead date, featuring Vince Guaraldi (piano), Eugene Wright (bass) and Al Torre (drums). Here is their take on the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen tune “Blues in the Night.”


One of Tjader’s (pardon the pun) coolest tracks is “Cool,” from the West Side Story soundtrack. While this tune is performed by a Tjader combo, other tracks from the album tapped into the string arranging skills of Clare Fischer, one of several times he would collaborate with Fischer.


Another classic and oft-performed Tjader tune, “Black Orchid,” which originally appeared on the album Cal Tjader Goes Latin but was compiled into yet another 2-for-1 Fantasy CD entitled Black Orchid (paired with the album The Cal Tjader Quintet).


It wasn’t often that Tjader was co-billed with a vocalist. Backed by Tjader’s formidable group, Mary Stallings, who was 22 years old at the time, recorded her first album for Fantasy, which would coincidentally be Tjader’s last recording for the label. Here’s her swinging take on “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”


If you are thinking of purchasing any of the CDs of Cal Tjader’s recordings, I wanted to give Copper readers caveat emptor. Check to be certain that the recordings listed above are released on the Fantasy/OJC (Original Jazz Classics) label. There are a multitude of releases from the EU and elsewhere of individual albums or bundlings of his albums, but the quality of those releases is suspect. I’ve heard a couple that were needle drops (digital transfers from long-playing records), from vinyl that was in poor condition. None of these releases are licensed or approved by Fantasy or the Concord Music Group.

If vinyl is your preference, I have had issues with the sound quality of a few of the OJC vinyl reissues (such as Mambo with Tjader) – some odd limiting is applied to the recording that was not present on the original releases. Yet the early Cal Tjader Trio 10-inch vinyl reissue is untampered with. Original vinyl can be difficult to find in clean condition, but persistence pays off. Many of Fantasy’s monaural LPs were pressed on red vinyl, where the stereo was pressed on blue.

To accompany this first installment, here is a playlist that covers the tracks above, plus a handful of others from Cal Tjader’s first stay at Fantasy. As the excellent Fantasy Greatest Hits CD (combining the two LP volumes on one disc) tends to cover just about all the highlights, I’ve chosen to use that as the basis of the playlist. Other notable tracks have also been included.

The playlist at Qobuz:

Also at YouTube Music:

In the next installment, a frustrated Cal Tjader moves to a larger record label and broadens his musical palette.

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