Various ‘Cool Heat: The Best of CTI Records’ 2CD (Robinsongs/Cherry Red) 4/5

CTI records was the brainchild of producer Creed Taylor who in the mid-late 1960s had produced some of the greats while working at A & M records and these included the orchestrated and commercially most albums of guitarist Wes Montgomery, the solo albums of Antonio Carlos Jobim and the larger ensemble recordings of Quincy Jones, not to mention the genial alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Distinctive and glossy photo cover art graced the new CTI label which began in 1970 (and not without recalling the paintings of David Hockney in some respects), but the quality of the gatefold sleeves was equalled by that of the recordings themselves, which were at Rudy Van Gelder’s studios where so many classic Blue Note, but also Impulse! albums, had been made. This new anthology really only has one serious rival and that is the 2015 Sony 4CD box set, ‘CTI Records: the cool revolution’, but where that has the greater number of tracks (thirty-nine versus twenty-four this time round) and the wider range of musicians, the new compilation focuses firmly on the funkier side of the tracks, including examples of the Kudu affiliate label, and thankfully there are only five tracks that clash between the two releases. For straight ahead jazz lovers, the Sony set will be a first choice, but for more casual listeners who prefer the soundtrack and Blaxploitation film influences, then the new 2CD set will prove irresistible, especially if you are a fan of sampling. Moreover, it covers a wider period taking in 1970 to 1980.

Keyboardists predominate on CTI and Brazilian Eumir Deodato a full decade before becoming a hit producer with a revamped incarnation of Kool and the Gang, enjoyed a hit in his own right with a funkified take on the classical piece, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, and this heralded a new era of fusion-inflected jazz. Fellow Latin American, and keyboardist, Argentine Lalo Schifrin was already a successful Hollywood composer (‘Bullit’ among many other pieces), but laid down two CTI albums of which ‘Jaws’ was typically gritty. Bassist Ron Carter unexpectedly turns up on ‘Barreta’s theme’ from ‘Keep your eye on the sparrow’, while Hubert Laws’ ‘The Chicago theme (Love loop)’ has become a favourite of hip-hop fans and samplers alike.

More traditional Hammond grooves could still combine with funk and Lonnie Smith’s ‘Mama Wailer’ leads on logically from his late 1960s Blue Note recordings, while Johnny Hammond broke new ground on multiple keyboards and here offers up ‘Breakout’.

Vocalists were not neglected at CTI and Kudu and Taylor himself had enjoyed producing Astrud Gilberto while working at Verve. Esther Phillips was by some distance the most successful of the singers and little wonder then, that there should be two examples of her craft, with the hit reworking of ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’, formerly a hit for Dinah Washington in the early 1960s, and closing the anthology, the classic cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’. A separate anthology of the work of Esther Phillips will shortly be reviewed in these columns. Nina Simone recorded a one-off album for CTI and the title track, ‘Baltimore’ has stood the test of time remarkably well and with the reggae-tinged undercurrent one hears Simone in an altogether different light. It is a pity further albums were not recorded with her because this easily rivals anything that Ms. Simone recorded in the rest of the decade. A couple of further vocal tracks indicate that CTI/Kudu was not averse to new trends in black music with ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’, by Idris Muhammad, a classy take on the disco idiom, while George ‘Bad’ Benson never sounded funkier than on ‘Supership’, which is fully deserving of a musical reboot. He turns up as an instrumentalist of some repute in a guitar-flute duet on the lovely ‘Flute Song’.

Some of the major instrumental pieces that CTI became rightly famous for are included such as Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red clay’ and Stanley Turrentine’s ‘Sugar’, while keyboardist Bob James enjoyed several hit albums of which the instrumental ‘Westchester Lady’ is but one example and one of the most sampled and loved among younger listeners. The decade ended with the super collective Fuse One featuring Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and a host of others. Keyboardist Ronnie Foster penned ‘Grand Prix’, featured here.

There are a few absences which would have enhanced the selection as a whole. However, these are but minor quibbles to the wider panoramic view which is provided. Randy Weston recorded just one album for the label in ‘Blue Moses’ and an example of that would have added to the wider picture, with Grover Washington Jr. on saxophone. Furthermore, maybe the contributions of Airto Moreira from this era is deserving of a compilation as a leader in his own right to offer more of a Latin jazz perspective, or at the very least a pairing of two of his classic CTI albums. Likewise, Milt Jackson cut two excellent albums for the label of which the tracks ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Olinga’ have rightly become club favourites. Otherwise, a fine overview of the label’s more dance-oriented output and a useful starting block to explore the label more generally.

Tim Stenhouse