8 Cal Tjader Albums to Kickstart Your Latin Jazz Record Collection
Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr., better known to the Latin Jazz world as Cal Tjader, led a long and influential career that changed the course of Latin Jazz. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area under entertainer parents, Tjader found early success as a child tap dancer. After a stint in the army, Tjader returned to San Francisco to finish college and jump into the city’s music scene. He found work in the city’s active jazz scene, working as a drum kit player with Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, and as a leader. While on tour with Shearing in New York, Tjader experienced big band mambo firsthand, checking out Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente’s ensemble, and more. He fell in love with the style, and after leaving Shearing’s group in 1953, he began exploring his passion with his new group, The Modern Mambo Quintet. He popularized the use of the small combo Latin Jazz approach that relied less upon extensive big band arrangements and more upon individual improvisation. He certainly wasn’t the first musician to try this approach, but his success made it a viable alternative to large mambo bands. He vitalized the West Coast Latin Jazz scene through the transplant of several mentors from New York and a continuous Latin Jazz presence. Over the course of several years, Tjader made a huge impact upon Latin Jazz and became a musical leader.
Tjader certainly worked upon formula during certain parts of his career, but looking at the bigger picture, Tjader was an artist that explored many different facets of his musical personality. He remained fond of jazz and Broadway standards throughout his career, usually placing these songs above Afro-Cuban rhythms such as son montuno, cha cha cha, or bolero. His approach retained a rhythmic drive, but shied away from the syncopated intensity of some Cuban jazz. These pieces fit into the Tjader sound, but they didn’t always define it. Tjader remained aware of the musical world around him, and he took time to explore it creatively. He dipped into fusion, Brazilian Jazz, salsa, and more throughout his career, inspiring different elements in his own performances. These excursions usually didn’t serve as long-term alterations to his sound; they were authentic attempts at stretching his musicality. It’s important to remember too that Tjader maintained a strong connection to swing and traditional jazz throughout his career as well. I’ve chosen to focus upon his Latin Jazz repertoire here, but there are plenty of fantastic examples of Tjader’s work in a swing context. Reviewing Tjader’s career does unveil plenty of straight-ahead Latin Jazz, but it also reveals a multi-faceted musician with an evolving curiosity.
Tjader recorded extensively throughout his career, and there’s a lot of fantastic material. I’m trying to avoid the idea that these albums represent the “best of” Tjader’s career, I’d say explore it all. Instead, this list travels through four decades, spotlighting high points in each stage of Tjader’s career. Part recommended listening, part history lesson, this list provides a great place to start when looking at Cal Tjader – check out these albums and then move onto the rest of his repertoire. Enjoy!
Tjader Plays Mambo
Tjader found his love for Latin music while performing with George Shearing in New York, but his own attempts at the style started once his tenure with the pianist ended; this 1954 album reflects Tjader’s early entry into Latin Jazz. These tracks originally appeared as several different short playing singles, a fact reflected in the song length. Despite the constrictions of this format, Tjader immediately sets himself apart from Shearing with a much more assertive approach rooted in a closer connection to the style. Many of the tracks show early signs of the classic Tjader format – timbales, congas, bongo, vibes, piano, and bass – but he incorporates a four-trumpet horn section on four songs, stepping closer to the big band mambo sound he heard in New York. The repertoire shouts classic Tjader, with Afro-Cuban arrangements of a number of standards, including “Fascinating Rhythm,” “East Of The Sun,” “Have You Met Miss Jones,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” There’s a bit of foreshadowing as well with Tjader’s first recording of his future hit, “Guachi Guaro.” Tjader’s band still consisted of Bay Area musicians at this point, including pianist Manuel Duran, bassist Carlos Duran, and timbalero Benny Velarde. The groove moves forward with a rock solid momentum, showing the strength of the San Francisco scene, even at this early stage. In many ways, Tjader Plays Mambo displays an interesting early conception that already shined with many Tjader trademarks.
Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert
Tjader changed the whole future of the West Coast Latin Jazz scene when he convinced percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo to leave New York and join his group on the West Coast. They served as role models for a number of West Coast artists and they lit a fire in the Tjader group, as evidenced on this 1958 release. Much of the excitement comes from the exchange between the two percussionists and Tjader’s other sidemen bassist Al McKibbon and pianist Vince Guaraldi. The group creates a massively assertive groove that provides a solid foundation for Tjader’s melodic improvisations and pushes him a bit too. For the most part, Tjader sheds the reliance on jazz standards here, depending more upon his own compositions and a couple from Santamaria. Tjader introduces his classic piece destined to become a standard, “Viva Cepeda” and pays tribute to one of his vibraphone influences on “Mood For Milt.” Santamaria’s contributions show another side of the band with the percussion heavy “Tu Crees Que?” as well as the equally rhythmic and fiery “Mi Guaguanco.” The group creeps into the Latin standard realm, delivering a burning version of Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant.” The group keeps their audience in mind and doesn’t stretch the songs too long, but there’s a definite live feeling here. Santamaria and Bobo burn with intensity, McKibbon and Guaraldi serve as perfect band mates, and Tjader solos with energy, making Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert a classic album.
Tjader found popularity touring the college circuit during the fifties and early sixties, but he didn’t hit jazz superstar status until the release of Soul Sauce in 1964. He doesn’t drastically change his formula on this album, there’s a number of jazz standards over Cuban rhythms as well as Latin Jazz classics. The album’s success lies more in the subtle artistic changes that sustain the music’s integrity while reaching a wider audience. The rhythm section looses some intensity, but maintains their addictive energy. The pieces cut loose with strong improvisations while gaining a lusher sense of arrangement. The musicians create a strong connection with Afro-Cuban rhythms, but they also integrate a funky edge on several tracks. The album contains the perfect balance of contrasts, resulting in classic performances. The title track comes alive with Tjader’s lyrical improvisation, boogaloo style handclaps, and Willie Bobo’s funky commentary. Although conguero Armando Peraza had replaced Santamaria at this point, the group revisits “Afro Blue” which benefits from an attractive arrangement that integrates guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpet player Donald Byrd, and saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Tjader’s new conguero contributes “Maramoor Mambo,” an up-tempo mambo with an unforgettable melody, a defined rhythm section arrangement, and inspired improvisations from both Tjader and pianist Lonnie Hewitt. The bolero “Somewhere In The Night” sings with a classic Tjader feel, as the vibraphonist brings the lush beauty of his instrument to the forefront. Tjader moved his approach forward just enough to distinguish his voice and connect with a broad audience on Soul Sauce, guaranteeing one of the biggest hits of his career.
In many ways, Tjader and Eddie Palmieri represented opposite sides of the Latin music spectrum. Tjader’s West Coast cool and likeable melodic improvising voice reached a wide audience while Palmieri’s wild passionate abandon and experimental dissonance made him a terminally hip choice for salsa dancers. A collaboration between these two artists sounded like a dream team in the minds of Latin music lovers, but their initial joint recording, El Sonido Nuevo: The New Soul Sound fell a bit flat. The 1967 follow-up, Bambolate, made up for any earlier shortcomings and solidified the legendary status of this combination. The strength of this recording lies in the release of each artist’s individual voice. The aggressive piano montuno, wild groove, repeated coro, and emphasis on improvisation found on “Bamboleate” screams Palmieri. Tjader’s introspective phrasing shines on the bolero version of Mancini’s “We’ve Loved Before,” made more essential with a creative arrangement. Palmieri contributes “Mi Montuno,” an open descarga that allows plenty of space for the pianist, Tjader, and the band to stretch out improvisationally. Tjader’s “Samba Do Sueño” provides an alternate direction for the group and resonates with a loose, open feel not always found on Tjader-led recordings. Trombonist Mark Weinstein provides the funky “Come An’ Get It,” a modern burner that reflects the simultaneous work of Mongo Santamaria. There’s a lot to like on Bambolate – Palmieri and Tjader explore each other’s musical worlds and we get a true collaboration that stands as the definitive meeting between two important musical minds
Tjader found an audience among a young crowd in the sixties, and that success helped him stay in touch with new musical trends. As Tjader moved into the 1970s, Primo reflects his connection to two evolving directions – fusion’s use of electronic instruments and the popularity of salsa among the dance audience. Tjader experimented with electric instruments quite a few times earlier, dipping into funky jams on Plugs In and Live At The Funky Quarters. The mixture of electronics and funk never fit Tjader completely though, but he discovers the right context in a salsa setting. The musicians help him find his way here, as he enlists pianist Charlie Palmieri, bassist Bobby Rodriguez, vocalist Ismael Quintana, and appearing on one track, Tito Puente. Tjader builds on the strength of his team, drawing his repertoire from the salsa and Latin Jazz worlds. Danceable favorites like “Mama Guela,” “Bang Bang,” and “El Watusi” dominate the album, revealing Tjader’s realization that his audience wants to do more than sit and listen. At the same time, Tjader stays hip to the Latin Jazz world with entertaining arrangements of Mario Bauza’s “Tanga,” Puente’s “Vibe Mambo,” and a collaborative effort with Puente, “Gringo City.” In an era where Fania ruled and Latin music was driving the New York music scene, Tjader re-invented himself as a hip and modern musician that resonated with current cultural relevance.
Despite previous quick single track dips into Brazilian music, Tjader’s Latin side stayed primarily based around Afro-Cuban rhythms until the 1973 collaboration with guitarist Charlie Byrd, Tambu. At times the combined musicality of Tjader and Byrd shine with a shimmering beauty, but for the most part, Tjader sounded uncomfortable and awkward in a Brazilian setting. Two years later, Tjader returned with a hipper, more contemporary take on Brazilian Jazz, giving us Amazonas; without a doubt, Tjader found his Brazilian groove at this point. The recording reflects a keen awareness that Brazil had moved beyond the bossa nova presented years earlier on Getz/Gilberto, and it also displays a connection to Brazil’s strong presence in the growing fusion scene. Rich combinations of synthesizers and guitars work around the Brazilian rhythms, providing a new and exciting context for Tjader’s musical voice. Tjader embraces these differences with an enthusiastic vigor here, adjusting his standard licks to fit into the new context, even adding marimba into the mix. The repertoire moves far from the standard formula of Latinized jazz standards, investigating vital composers from contemporary Brazil. Hermeto Pascoal contributes “Mindoro” and does some interesting flute work; Joao Donato provides the title track; and the album’s producer Airto Moreira adds the ethereal “Xibaba.” Tjader steps outside his comfort zone and succeeds fully, giving us one of his most interesting and challenging recordings.
Gozame! Pero Ya
By the time Tjader entered the 1980s, he stood as one of the Latin Jazz world’s most seasoned and influential veterans, earning the respect and admiration of many musicians. His reputation helped launch Concord Picante, a subsidiary of Concert Records aimed especially at the Latin Jazz market with the 1979 Grammy winning recording La Onda Va Bien. It also introduced his finale ensemble, a strong unit with flautist Roger Glenn, pianist Mark Levine, bassist Rob Fisher, drummer Vince Lateano, and conguero Poncho Sanchez. With a successful album and extensive performances behind them, Tjader and his new group charged with confidence into Gozame! Pero Ya. The group plays with a greater confidence on this album, with the youthful rhythm section constantly driving the momentum forward. With only a couple of exceptions, the album sticks to Tjader’s preference for jazz standards and Afro-Cuban rhythms, ranging from the funky swagger of “Bye Bye Blues” to the gorgeous understatement of the bolero “This Couldn’t Be The Real Thing.” An aggressive piano vamp opens Levine’s “Shosana,” leading into an album highlight performance from the band through an upbeat and driving piece. A catchy melody floats over a strong samba groove on the Glenn composition “Roger’s Samba,” providing lots of open solo room for the flautist. There’s a sense of youthful optimism and musical interest on Gozame! Pero Ya, and while Tjader’s sidemen provided the youth, the bandleader joins the party, proving himself still vital at 55.
A Fuego Vivo
Tjader died in 1982, a victim of a heart attack while on tour in Manilla; yet he remained productive as both a recording artist and a touring musician until the end of his life. His last album, Heat Wave, found his band collaborating with vocalist Carmen McRae in a somewhat awkward joint effort. Tjader and his band sound fantastic, tearing through “Evil Ways,” “Speak Low,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” Unfortunately McRae sounds absolutely out of place throughout the album, making this an unfortunately forgettable stop in Tjader’s career. Fortunately, his previous recording, the 1981 live set A Fuego Vivo showcased the final Tjader band in high gear, delivering top-notch Latin Jazz. The band had undoubtedly found their voice at this point, and the recording holds many original elements not found in earlier works. Tjader holds onto one standard here, “The Continental,” and even wanders into modern jazz territory with a bolero version of John Coltrane’s “Naima.” Saxophonist Gary Foster replaces Glenn, adding a cutting soprano tone into the mix and contributing the moody bolero “Tesoro.” Tjader’s growing respect for Sanchez becomes apparent as he lets the conguero stretch out across a seven-minute percussion feature on “Poncho Con Dos Amigos.” Levine changes the group’s pace with a driving merengue original on “Santa Domingo,” a lively piece that finds Foster’s flute exploding into an improvisatory frenzy. A Fuego Vivo spotlights Tjader as a strong band leader with a creative group hitting their stride – a solid statement that provides a fitting end to Tjader’s career.