The concept of music packaging is mostly a thing of the past, as downloads become the medium of choice. Nonetheless, the stunning artwork of many classic albums helped define those records. Blue Note Records is probably the one company that is more identified with its cover art than any other label out there, jazz or otherwise. Those iconic Reid Miles designs and images were just as powerful as the amazing music of the label's classic era, helping to lead the way for generations of labels and artists to continue that magical pairing of music and image. One jazz label that took Blue Note's music and packaging challenge is CTI.
Founded in 1970 by Creed Taylor (pictured), CTI benefited from Taylor's amazing ear for music and also featured the talents of Pete Turner, a photographer with a flair for dramatic imagery and bold colors. The fruits of this collaboration are going to be heard and seen again on October 5 when Sony Masterworks reissues such label classics as Chet Baker's 'She Was Too Good to Me,' Kenny Burrell's 'God Bless the Child,' Freddie Hubbard's 'Red Clay,' Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'Stone Flower,' Hubert Laws' 'Morning Star' (first time on CD) and Stanley Turrentine's 'Sugar.'
Out a week later will be a four-CD overview titled 'CTI Records: The Cool Revolution.' Featuring classic material that was remastered for the first time using the original analogue tapes, the sampler is a goldmine of '70s jazz. The 39 tracks are spread over four discs, each disc highlights one of the four basic thrusts of the label with the aptly named titles 'Straight Up,' 'Deep Grooves/Big Hits,' 'The Brazilian Connection' and 'Cool and Classic.' There will also be a new double-disc reissue of 'California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium,' which is the complete 90-minute version of the historic Hollywood Palladium all-star concert recorded July 18, 1971 that featured many of the label's stars playing together in one band.
A master at pairing musicians and possessing an unerring ear for talent, Creed Taylor helped shape the sound of jazz as he went from Bethlehem to ABC-Paramount to Impulse! to Verve to A&M to CTI. You can see his name in the production credits for such classic albums as 'Getz/Gilberto,' 'Africa/Brass,' 'Genius + Soul = Jazz,' 'Wave,' 'Out of the Cool' and dozens of others.
At CTI (which stands for Creed Taylor Incorporated), Taylor had his horses he went back to again and again. He worked with these artists at different labels over the years, but never did it go better than with CTI, getting landmark efforts from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Grover Washington Jr., Ron Carter, Astrid Gilberto and Stanley Turrentine.
The label sound was an excellent balance of creative and commercial success. While jazz musicians in the '70s seemed to go off into fusion, or stuck to their acoustic guns and played to shrinking audiences, the CTI method had classic bop covered but also added electric funk and bits of African and Brazilian percussion, as well as classical music, to the mix. The further reaches of funk can even be heard on the sub label Kudu, where Grover Washington Jr. got his start. All of CTI's music had more than a pinch of soul to it, meaning that some of these tunes got played in the clubs as disco was just getting under way but hadn't been mindlessly codified yet.
In a definite nod to the albums' striking packaging, there are also reissues are also coming out Oct. 26 on 180-gram vinyl LP. These four classic CTI albums will have the original gatefold sleeve designs accompanied with digital download cards. Here's where you'll find a couple of examples of Pete Turner's photography at his best, as well as some great music.
The front cover of Stanley Turrentine's 'Sugar' features a red-tinted dark-skinned model licking a baby's foot ,shown in stark contrast to a white backdrop. Her mouth is open seemingly smiling or laughing as she licks. It's erotic yet playful; it's high art on an album cover. It's also classic Pete Turner. There's only your imagination to make the connection between the image and the title, but the music inside this 1971 release is regarded by many as Turrentine's first great moment. The three long tracks also feature first call musicians like bassist Ron Carter, guitarist George Benson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
Another standout cover is George Benson's 'White Rabbit,' which is named after the Jefferson Airplane hit song, and there's also a version of 'California Dreamin, written by the Mamas and the Papas. The album features Herbie Hancock, Carter, Billy Cobham and arrangements by Don Sebesky, but it's the haunting blue-and-black image of a South African tribeswoman standing in the doorway of her hut that sticks with me. It's enough to give you nightmares, and vivid ones at that. I'm guessing this isn't what Turner had in mind, but it's an amazing image all the same.
The image on Eumir Deodato's 'Prelude' is an out-of-focus shadow of a tree and isn't Turner's best work, but the album has the hit version of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey).' Instead of the strings and horns audiences are used to in the film's opening, Deodato, who was an arranger by trade, added a strong mid-tempo Latin groove to it that made it great for dancing. The album was rounded out by other jazz interpretations of classical composition, as well as originals.
'Red Clay,' featuring Joe Henderson, Hancock and others, is Hubbard at his best. The album holds onto the bebop and blues of '60s soul jazz and revs it up with early fusion rhythms thanks to the rhythm tandem of Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White. It's hands down a deep and soulful classic.
Sadly, the label went bankrupt by the end of the decade because of bad distribution, but there's no denying that CTI truly stood for great music and packaging. No doubt crate diggers and jazz fans will be happy to see all this new attention to CTI's catalog both on CD and vinyl. It's also a chance for younger people out there to see some of the best that '70s jazz had to offer. And last but not least, it's a chance to explore the creative vision behind one of jazz's great labels.