John Klemmer, Part One: Saxophone Gold

John Klemmer, Part One: Saxophone Gold

Written by Rudy Radelic

Many years ago, more than I care to admit, my woodwind instructor recommended a handful of records to me as an inspiration for the type of tone he was looking for in my saxophone playing. One of the albums he suggested was John Klemmer’s first record, Involvement, which I purchased soon after.

Coincidentally, I had attended an audio show in our area around the same time, and a lot of fuss was being made over these new records that were half-speed mastered. Klemmer’s Touch was one of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s earliest half-speed reissues, and despite this being the same performer, the musical styles of both albums couldn’t be more different. A year or so later, Blowin’ Gold was gifted to me and that, again, was a totally different style from the other two. When I later began seeking out used records, I came across many of Klemmer’s releases, including some I had never seen in the retail record stores. Others remained a mystery – I had seen the album titles listed, but had no clue as to what they sounded like. I explored and eventually collected nearly all of his catalog over subsequent years. Some became favorites, where others were interesting diversions. He also appeared as a featured soloist or sideman with various others – that’s Klemmer’s solo on Steely Dan’s “The Caves of Altamira,” for instance. John Klemmer was born in Chicago in 1946, initially playing guitar and alto saxophone at an early age until switching to the tenor sax in high school. His other interests in art culminated in him attending the Art Institute of Chicago, while he also studied music privately and gigged around the Chicago area. He signed with Chess Records upon graduating from high school, eventually recording five records for the Cadet Concept label. Klemmer’s early groups included such top Chicago musicians as Jodie Christian, Cleveland Eaton and Wilbur Campbell, while he also took gigs as a sideman and arranger for the big bands of Don Ellis, Oliver Nelson and others. During the recording of his third album Blowin’ Gold, Klemmer began using the Echoplex, an effects unit that echoed his notes back on themselves; the Echoplex became one of his trademarks, featured prominently on many of his recordings. Later recordings would feature many session musicians like Dave Grusin, George Duke, Larry Carlton, Emil Richards, Joe Porcaro, Chuck Domanico, Joe Sample, and dozens of others. I will offer a small sampling of John Klemmer’s recordings in this series. Perhaps the most difficult part of Klemmer’s catalog to find are his recordings on the Cadet Concept label. Involvement was released on CD, and Blowin’ Gold made an appearance on CD in Japan, but the remaining three have never been released other than on vinyl, with only selected tracks available on the few compilations of his music that have been released. From Involvement, here is “Stand In The Sun.” Personnel includes Wilbur Campbell (drums), Sam Thomas (guitar) and Melvin Jackson (bass). The album features two quartets – this lineup, plus another configuration substituting Sam Thomas with Jodie Christian on piano.

Klemmer’s second Cadet Concept album, And We Were Lovers, presents us with a side of standards with strings and brass, and another side of more straight-ahead tunes similar to those on Involvement.

Here is “Look To the Sky.”

His third album, Blowin’ Gold, was a full-on collision with rock, making it one of the earliest jazz fusion recordings in 1969. While tracks such as “Excursion #2” and “Children of the Earth: Flames” rocked out hard, the relatively tame track “My Love Has Butterfly Wings” introduced the world to Klemmer’s Echoplex, which, as noted, would become a recurring theme on later recordings.

Around this time, Klemmer performed and arranged briefly for one of the Don Ellis big bands. Perhaps his wildest recording with Ellis, “Excursion II” (from the album Don Ellis at Fillmore) features an arrangement by Les Hooper, and plenty of space for Klemmer to solo…and do whatever else that Klemmer would do during this era (turn up the volume towards the end during Klemmer’s solo). Klemmer led off his Blowin’ Gold album with this same song.

While borrowing a few elements from Blowin’ Gold, Klemmer toned it down just a little for the All The Children Cried album, which drifted into a more spiritual and moody direction. This is the title track from the album.

Further adrift from his earlier albums, Eruptions finds Klemmer rooted in a unique style that pulls together cosmic elements and spirituality with overtones of fusion jazz. This is “Summer Song,” one of the more coherent tracks on the album.

The second part of the series will look at Klemmer’s recordings after moving to the Impulse! record label, and some of the important records that followed.

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