Deep Dive

Cal Tjader: The Verve Era (1961 – 1968)

Issue 139

In our first installment of this series, we looked at Cal Tjader’s first body of work on the Fantasy Records label. Our story picks up at the point where Tjader moved to a larger, better label to release his music.

In a letter to brothers Max and Sol Weiss, who owned Fantasy Records, Tjader noted that he would be taking up an offer to record for Verve Records, which had recently been acquired by MGM, and working under producer Creed Taylor. Tjader’s polite letter did not relay his disappointment and distrust in the label – his pals Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi had both suffered at the hands of Fantasy, by selling records but having been cheated out of a lot of money they were owed for royalties. Brubeck, in fact, was led to believe that he was a 50 percent owner of the label (as he had joined the label when it was founded), only to find out that he was instead 50 percent owner of only his recorded works, not the entire label.

In addition, the Weiss brothers had no clue how to run a record label, and possessed no musical sense. Fantasy started life as Circle Record Co., a record pressing plant – the brothers’ background was based more in manufacturing than in music. It took Saul Zaentz joining Fantasy to bring some structure to the company and in 1967, after becoming president of the label, Zaentz and a group of investors purchased the label from the Weiss brothers.

Cal Tjader’s Verve-era recordings were occasionally a mixed bag but nonetheless, most were noteworthy projects that brought him added success. Stylistically, he would broaden his horizons and explore new musical genres while simultaneously continuing his interest in Latin jazz. Not that his groundbreaking Fantasy recordings fell short by any means, but now he had more room to expand musically under his tenure at Verve.

His first album with Verve, in the Latin jazz style he was known for, picked up right where he left off at Fantasy. In A Latin Bag would cover a few standards and originals, with “Triste” being one of Tjader’s more memorable compositions.  (He would re-record this a few albums later under the title “Fuji.”)

 

One long-forgotten Verve album deserves a mention: Saturday Night, Sunday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco. This is a straight-ahead gig at the legendary jazz club featuring Freddie Schreiber (bass), Johnny Rae (drums) and Lonnie Hewitt (piano). If you ever find a copy in the bins, grab it! This also appeared on a two-on-one CD with In a Latin Bag issued by Él/Cherry Red Records that is similarly difficult to find (it marks the first CD release of both albums, and was not widely distributed).

Another of Tjader’s early albums for Verve was a pairing with Anita O’Day on the album Time for Two. This lively album features both enjoying each other’s performance. Here is “Under a Blanket of Blue.”

 

In 1962, bossa nova was just beginning to make inroads in the US. Tjader recorded The Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil, featuring arrangements by Clare Fischer and highlighting the compositions of Mario Ruiz Armengol (of Mexico) and a handful of Brazilian tunes. Laurindo Almeida contributed his guitar to the latter tunes, along with the thoughtful album closer “Choro e Batuque.”

Teaming up again with Clare Fischer on piano and organ several months later, Tjader recorded Soña Libré, featuring a couple more Brazilian tunes (“O Barquinho,” “Manha de Carnaval”), an overlooked Henry Mancini tune, “Sally’s Tomato,” a 6/8 arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Rêverie,” and originals by Tjader and the group. “Insight” was penned by this group’s conguero, Bill Fitch.

 

Tjader’s biggest success on the charts was his album Soul Sauce – it sold over 150,000 copies and received a Grammy nomination. The title track was the hit from the album, a new performance of the Chano Pozo tune “Guarachi Guaro” (pronounced “Wachi Wara”) which Tjader had performed on one of his Fantasy albums several years prior. “Soul Sauce” was one of his signature tunes and a crowd favorite, and the album itself was chock-full of Latin jazz goodness. The CD adds a few notable bonus tracks, including a remake of “Mamblues” (from his first Fantasy 12-inch LP) as well as a straight-ahead jazz tune named “Ming.” Here’s the big hit from the record:

 

The word “soul” would be used on other Tjader Verve albums. The follow-up album to Soul Sauce was Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof, later followed by Soul Burst, another highlight in the Verve catalog, featuring a young Chick Corea on piano and arrangements by Oliver Nelson. Tjader and company put a new spin on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Manteca” by dialing it down a few notches, tackled a Cuban descarga from an old Panart record head-on, and featured one of Corea’s tunes, “Oran.” Here is the title track:

 

On some of these albums, it feels as though Verve and/or Creed Taylor didn’t quite know what to do with Cal Tjader. On one hand, Several Shades of Jade was a successful collaboration with Argentinian pianist, composer and arranger Lalo Schifrin, “Jade” referring to Eastern/Asian themes through suggestion and, of course, as a nod to “Tjade(r)” the musician. Years later, Schifrin clarified that he based his arrangements on the scales used by different musical cultures and adapted them for jazz, versus using Asian instruments or directly borrowing musical styles. (No kotos or gong crashes peppering every tune, in other words.) Example: Schifrin makes good use of Middle Eastern scales in the driving tune “The Fakir.” Here is Schifrin’s adaptation of the Horace Silver tune “Tokyo Blues,” which cleverly picks up a few cues from Silver’s performance.

 

On the other hand, the similarly-themed album Breeze from the East didn’t so much suggest the East as hit us over the head with it. Verve wanted a follow-up to Jade, and arranger Stan Applebaum was recruited for the task. The ill-fated result is a kitschy mix of lounge music with faux Asian themes. (If you really want to hear how bad this is, the track “Cha” wraps up several dated Asian clichés in one convenient package.) Tjader expressed his distaste for the album, suggesting it should have been titled “Breeze from the Men’s Room” in an interview with his San Francisco DJ pal Herb Wong. In a Down Beat interview, he mentioned it was “a dumb album,” and that after hearing the recording, he “went outside and vomited – figuratively, not literally.” Despite that, he still rescues the album with a couple of tracks where he is featured with his quintet, including the Latin classic “Poinciana,” and a Tjader-penned classic, “Black Orchid,” that dates back to his earlier Fantasy days.

 

The album Along Comes Cal has a curious history. A gig at El Matador was recorded with the intention of releasing it on LP but apparently, the pianist Al Zulaica did not get along well with Tjader at the time; feeling that his work was being overly scrutinized, he was nervous and did not perform well on the gig. The only track salvaged from the session was “Los Bandidos,” which catches a Tjader outfit that is on fire. The rest of the album was recorded in the studio, with arrangements by Cuban bandleader and arranger Chico O’Farrill. While this album is atypical in that it features primarily shorter tracks with a handful of popular tracks of the day (“Along Comes Mary,” “Our Day Will Come,” and “Green Peppers” from the Tijuana Brass catalog), O’Farrill’s arrangements make these energetic tunes a lot of fun to listen to. Sadly, this was never released digitally, aside from stray tracks issued on numerous CD compilations. Here is “Los Bandidos.”

 

While this album might seem to be a misfire, Tjader recorded a collection of standards, Warm Wave, featuring the strings of Claus Ogerman. He occasionally liked to record a melodic, easygoing album such as this one, and it’s another that has been overlooked throughout the years.

Another questionable Verve album was Hip Vibrations, the last Tjader recorded for Verve. This was more of a big band-flavored outing with charts by Benny Golson and Bobby Bryant, again featuring a few pop/rock tracks in a mixed bag of styles. Even the cover art was odd – clearly aimed at the youth market, among other images it features pictures of surfers, motorcyclists, and a stylized marijuana leaf.  Herbie Hancock’s soloing on a couple of the tracks is notable, but otherwise it’s an interesting but non-essential recording in Tjader’s catalog.

The Prophet was Tjader’s final album released on Verve, recorded just prior to Hip Vibrations.  Per his biography, this was an album he wanted to make. He felt refreshed working with producer Esmond Edwards, and enjoyed the participation of João Donato as both keyboardist and composer of three of the album’s tunes. Don Sebesky would later arrange and overdub strings for the album. The album features some memorable tunes, including a haunting take on Donato’s tune “Aquarius,” and the Tjader-penned album opener, “Souled Out,” featured here.

 

Verve has had a spotty release history of the Cal Tjader catalog, and this includes their various compilations. A handful of his albums remain unreleased digitally, or were available only as imports. The compilations feel arbitrarily assembled, without much rhyme or reason beyond some half-baked ideas like Roots of Acid Jazz or Jazz ‘Round Midnight.

Due to the poor sequencing of these compilations, I’ve created two of my own with Qobuz and YouTube Music. The first is a CD’s worth of the pick of his most memorable tunes with the label.  The second is an expanded version that doubles down on running time. Both are annotated with a note indicating which albums the tracks were originally released on, as many had to be pulled from existing compilations.

Qobuz playlist, Cal Tjader on Verve (Short Version):
https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/6210372

Qobuz playlist, Cal Tjader on Verve (Full Version):
https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/6209827

YouTube Music playlist, Cal Tjader on Verve (Short Version):
https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqXkJPkOFzFmOr9iBsK4UZRSAFf4kS6AJ

YouTube Music playlist, Cal Tjader on Verve (Full Version):
https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqXkJPkOFzFmd2SFhPoEKMkUEk-fLG6QM

In our next installment, we’ll look at one final Verve album, examine his short-lived label venture, and include a couple of one-off odds and ends Tjader has recorded over the years.

3 comments on “Cal Tjader: The Verve Era (1961 – 1968)”

  1. This is a nice overview of Tjader's work. I went back and got the first set of examples to play from the last issue this morning too. Thanks for whatever you did to fix the problem. I must mildly protest one thing you said. In my opinion perhaps the definitive recording of Benny Golson's Blues March happens to be on Hip Vibrations. Mel Lewis on drums, check it out. As if that isn't enough, Urbie Green is in the band. In my experience there are no records that Urbie Green played on that are not worth at least one listen. So at least for me, Hip Vibrations needs to be reissued. I hope you are going to cover Cal's Concord recordings too. I think some of his best work was waxed there.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Hip Vibrations is a bit of an outlier for me. "Blues March" is one of the better tracks on the album (and features a Herbie Hancock solo), and I've liked "Moanin'" and the title track. My biggest reservation is that Tjader seems detached from the proceedings, and anyone could have stepped in as the lead instrument and not made much of a difference. I feel it's more a matter of the production than the participants--there certainly was no lack of talent on the record. There was an earlier recording session (October, 1967) that was scrapped ("deemed unfit for release," as Tjader's bio put it), and the next session in December featured new arrangements after Bobby Bryant was brought on board.

      Universal's neglect of the Cal Tjader has always been a sore point with me. With this being the digital era, we should at least have these availble as downloads. But given the fire at Universal's vaults, and not knowing where Tjader's masters or any safety copies were stored, chances of a reissue of the remaining albums is slim.

  2. Hi Rudy,

    I forgot about the fire. You are right, the masters are most likely gone forever. I am a big Cal Tjader fan, but never read his bio. Is it worth seeking out? This correspondence prompts a suggestion for a future article. I mentioned Urbie Green as being a musician who consistently seemed to involved himself recordings that were musically meritorious. Of course there are more well known guys like Ray Brown or Shelley Manne who did that too, but there are a lot of musicians who perhaps had a slightly lower profile, but had exceptional careers. Milt Hinton, Lew Soloff, and Ray Bryant for examples come to mind. If guys like this were in the mix, the chances are the recordings they were on have merit. Even if we don't know anything else about them. It might be interesting to identify some of these people as benchmarks for record collectors to look for.

    Bill

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