Ben Sidran ‘Free in America’ / ‘The Doctor Is In’ / ‘A Little Kiss in the Night’ / ‘Live at Montreux’ 2CD (BGO) 4/5

Neatly dividing up into four separate albums, this 2CD set includes some of Ben Sidran’s most accessible and compelling albums and is an ideal starter for anyone not already familiar with his work. Strongly influenced by Mose Allison, singer-songwriter and pianist Ben Sidran assembled a thrilling musical cast for his second major label debut in 1976 with, ‘Free in America’ (previously a 1971 debut on Capitol, ‘Feel your groove’, had sunk without trace). Musicians included in-house Chess label Chicagoan bassist/guitarist Phil Upchurch, Master Henry Gibson on percussion, Richard Tee on organ, while the horn section included Woody Shaw on trumpet and David ‘Fathead’ Newman on tenor saxophone. The easy shuffling pop-soul of, ‘I feel your groove’, featured a female chorus and was an attempt at wider success (which sadly flopped in the pop charts), while, the J.J. Cale penned, ‘After midnight’, comes across here as an attempt at replicating the pop-jazz formula of Steely Dan. The sheer accessibility of Sidran’s approach is further exemplified on, ‘New York state of mind’, which is a cover of a Billy Joel song here given a distinct makeover, complete with spoken dialogue and the combination of piano and organ.

In a more traditional acoustic piano jazz format, ‘Sunday kind of love’, reprises a song famous for Etta James’ interpretation, and this is an altogether cooler rendition. In a jazz-fusion groove prevalent at the time, ‘Let’s make a deal’, combines the vocalese tradition with some keyboard licks out of the Herbie Hancock school of jazz-fusion. Both this first Arista album and its immediate successor, ‘The doctor is in’ (1977), were produced by Blue Note aficionado, Michael Cuscuna, and the jazz element is similarly strong in the line-up on this second album, with Phil Upchurch once again featuring, this time on bass alone, with acoustic bassist Richard Davis replacing him on some pieces, while Larry Carlton on guitar and Blue Mitchell on trumpet ensure that the jazz content is high velocity. It is the whimsical side to Sidran’s repertoire that is emphasized on, ‘See you on the other side’, while, ‘Be nice’, is nothing less than a subtle piano blues with typical erudite lyrics that Sidran has become famed for, taking a leaf out of the Mose Allison songbook. A reprise of Horace Silver’s opus, ‘Silver’s serenade’, is here treated to a gently light ensemble overhaul with added strings and a subtle Latin jazz lilt. The blues are further represented on the lyrical and uptempo, ‘Charlie’s blues’, while a reprise of the Mingus opus, ‘Goodbye pork pie hat’, receives an instrumental ballad interpretation.

Just a year later (1978), a third Arista album in succession (and fourth in total) with, ‘A little kiss in the night’, which featured both Jay Graydon as keyboardist (later a key producer of some of Al Jarreau’s commercially successful works for Warner) and Phil Woods on alto saxophone. Of interest here is the piece, ‘You got the power’, which has a more contemporary jazz feel with Arthur Adams on guitar, David Woodford (of Earth, Wind and Fire fame) on saxophone, and Blue Mitchell on trumpet. Varied in content, the album veers from a traditional Dave Van Ronk folk song in, ‘Tell old Bill’, to the understated (apart from the fast-paced jazz-samba intro) Latin-Jazz undercurrent to, ‘Mr Bill goes to Brazil’, while the sound of jazz vocalese arrives this time with added lyrics to the Charlie Parker standard. ‘Moose the mooch’, complete with the last chorus of lyrics composed by none other Jon Hendricks.

Finishing off the quartet of albums is a live and final recording for Arista, this from Montreux in 1978, with a de-facto line-up of the Steps Ahead band comprising, among others, the Brecker Brothers, band leader and vibraphonist Mike Manieiri, and Steve Khan on guitar. A mixture of standards and originals comprises this live July outing from the 1978 edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival, with interpretations of, ‘Someday my prince will come’, and, ‘I remember Clifford’, the pick of the jazz standards, while the opener, ‘Eat it’, it typically quirky Sidran fare. Of interest equally, is a five minute plus rendition of a Lennon and McCartney opus, ‘Come together, which has always been ripe for a blues makeover. Handily assembled in one place, this 2 CD is a representative slice of the Ben Sidran songbook, but should be consumed in tandem with his excellent jazz writing with a strong socio-political bent and in-depth interviews with jazz musicians, both of which are highly recommended.

Tim Stenhouse