Jazz Albums Round-up

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The Independent Culture

For anyone who spent the Seventies in a penthouse or a yacht, wearing sunglasses the size of welders' goggles and smoking cigarettes so long they had to be lit from the next room, records on the CTI label must have been an essential lifestyle accessory. Even if denied such an elevated lifestyle, one could still aspire to it, as aspiration was the whole point of CTI, which raised jazz-funk to the level of a low art. Gatefold-sleeve LPs with coffee-table covers; stereo mixes designed to make your hi-fi sound more expensive than it was; and an eccentric roster of acts that matched big names on their way down with reliable sidemen and relative unknowns on their way up, all made CTI a genre in its own right, and seductively collectible. It's now 35 years since the company started and Sony, which owns the catalogue, is celebrating by releasing 21 classic titles on CD, plus a double-album sampler, The Master Collection.

At the time, even the initials sounded aspirational. Once you knew that CTI stood for Creed Taylor Inc, it became possible to imagine Creed himself as a penthouse kind of guy, looking out over the Manhattan skyline while he did big jazz-funk deals on the phone. In reality, Taylor (who's still with us) was a trumpeter-turned-hot-shot record producer who had helped found the Impulse! label and kick-started the US bossa nova craze with Verve. In 1967, he set up the CTI label for A&M, taking it independent three years later. While the corporate identity was established almost immediately, jazz-funk had to wait to be invented. By the early Seventies and the foundation of the Kudu subsidiary, the CTI sound had reached perfection. Of the new edition, the albums Sugar by Stanley Turrentine and Breakout by Johnny Hammond (both from 1971), and Wildflower by Hank Crawford (from 1973) are all prize examples.

Although the current batch of reissues – there will be more to follow – emphasises that CTI product was far more varied than one might think, it's still funk that the imprint remains justly famous for. DJs and vinyl collectors in search of CTI grooves have also learnt to avoid some of the label's more "serious" jazz releases, which could be ponderous or pretentious. As a rule, it pays to avoid anything with foreign words or allusions to classical music in the title, and to look instead for cover versions of pop songs. Like Blue Note in the Sixties (whose engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, it shared), CTI in the Seventies tried to retain jazz's weakening links to black popular culture.

Exceptions to the funky = good, serious = bad rule are both of the excellent Freddie Hubbard albums, Red Clay and Straight Time (which manage to be serious and funky at the same time), and Antonio Carlos Jobim's marvellously loungey Stoneflower, whose incredible three-man percussion section features Airto Moreira.

Ironically, many critics found the original CTI releases – especially the funky ones – irredeemably vulgar. These days, what with the dumbing-down of jazz as a popular form, they come across as positively high-brow. Thanks to a faithful remastering of Creed Taylor's original productions, they also sound superb. All that's lacking is the penthouse, which one can continue to aspire to.