Various ‘The Very Best of TappanZee Records’ 2CD (Robinsongs) 4/5

Compilations galore abound in the field of jazz and especially, its more commercial aspects. The label TappanZee, however, is one of those labels that rarely receives an in-depth re-assessment and yet it is one of the most sampled of all 1970’s labels by the hip-hop generation. The label was co-created by then Columbia records head of jazz, Bruce Lundvall, and keyboardist, Bob James. While a separate 2 CD anthology of James already exists (though eight entries here covers a lot of the essential tracks, some paired with fellow fusion guitarist Earl Klugh) and is required listening for those wishing to hear the first four albums that are so revered, this brand new anthology of the label as a whole embraces left-field disco. Latin fusion, and even some straight ahead piano trio work, as well as classic jazz-fusion, often with a soulful disposition. That is certainly the case of another keyboardist, Richard Tee, and his interpretation of Aaron Neville’s immortal ‘Tell it like it is’. A far less known revisit is that of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Jesus children of America’, that receives a faithful treatment.

As a whole, this compilation veers towards the crossover instrumental soul with a jazzy content territory and as such those with a deeper interest in jazz may feel out-of-place. However, there are some interesting reworkings of classic funk and soul. One example is a lovely take on Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘Serpentine fire’ by Mark Colby (am member of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra), and the alto saxophone is straight out of the David Sanborn school of jazz. Dance floor action is seldom far from the surface and the traditional folk song, ‘Black is the colour’, serves as the pretext for an extended percussion workout that has long been adored by discerning fans of disco, His second offering, ‘Love’s holiday’, is a lovely mid-tempo soul outing with surprisingly good vocals. The Latin jazz standard, ‘Watermelon man’, became a first hit for Herbie Hancock on Blue Note, but the original composer and performer was Cuban congacero, Mongo Santamaria and during the disco era, he fused Latin dance rhythms with the then newly emerging hi-hat drum groove. On a radical 1979 reworking of this number which will not necessarily meet with approval from Latin music traditionalists, Santamaria, with the addition of a vocal sample by no less than Cuban diva La Lupe, achieves a similar effect to what fellow Cuban percussionist Candido Camero accomplished with his take on ‘Jingo’. Both remain firm favourites of the disco crowd.

One of the earliest examples of the label is jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen whose album surfaced on the label in 1975 and is very different in tone from the rest, and would go on to become one of the most accomplished of the younger generation of pianists to emerge in the 1980s. Her reposing ‘Let me know’, is an indication that even during the jazz-fusion era, quality acoustic jazz was being recorded, even if the prevailing vogue would not go full circle until the early 1980’s with the emergence of Wynton Marsalis and the signing of Arthur Blythe onto the Columbia imprint. It would be lovely to have a similar compilation of the straighter ahead jazz side of the Columbia label.

Incidentally, for those wondering why the label was thus titled, TappanZee is a well known name to the inhabitants of New York state since it refers to a bridge that spans the Hudson river and connects Westchester county (another well known reference for James fans) and the metropolitan New York area. Fans of CTI will find much to admire here and if you have been reticent to dip into the jazz pantheon and require an easy to decipher introduction, then this may be for you.

Tim Stenhouse