Don Sebesky: Giant Box (2011)
Opinions vary as to whether Sebesky can be said to have been a savior of jazz in the '70s, or a jazz Judas who helped to commercialize the music. Truth be told, he's neither. Sebesky is simply a great arranger and talent who happened to thrive in this music during a period when the ideology of jazz was fractured in so many ways. Sebesky bore the brunt of critical attacks against this new offshoot, but he wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. While his arrangements were occasionally excessive, many of his works are also masterful musical creations that create an entire universe of sound, in service of a particular artist's vision. While there may be reservations about the "Sebesky Sound," hindsight shows his arranging brilliance, as demonstrated on Giant Box.
The early '70s success of CTI afforded Creed Taylor the opportunity to give Sebesky some musical freedom on this project, and what he came up with is astonishing. Sebesky fuses Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" and John McLaughlin's "Birds Of Fire" into a single work, featuring cinematic orchestral episodes and exciting solos from the likes of Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard. Joni Mitchell's "Song To A Seagull" becomes a feature for Paul Desmond's distant and lonely sounding alto saxophone, but Ron Carter's bass makes friends with him and the pair proves to be simpatico in its conversational work.
The first of three Sebesky originals ("Free As A Bird") is also the first number that deals in hard swinging big band writing, and it also features some wonderful solo work from pianist Bob James, Freddie Hubbardnow on flugelhornand Grover Washington, Jr. on soprano saxophone. Sebesky's take on Jimmy Webb's "Psalm 150" is the one number that doesn't stand up too well, as it comes off like a combination between solemn chanting, Donald Byrd's A New Perspective (Blue Note, 1963), standard-issue funk, and "Aquarius" from Hair (1967). Things get back on track with Desmond's sad-eyed saxophone work on "Vocalise," which also features vibraphonist Milt Jackson and Sebesky's superb string writing.
The final pair of pieces on the album are representative of Sebesky's experimental side ("Fly/Circle") and understanding of popular, groove-based music ("Semi-Tough"). "Fly/Circle" is an episodic number that features Laws' effects-laden flute runs, Sebesky's pleasant vocals, an eerie Bernard Hermann-esque woodwind statement, solos over a small group setting, and more. "Semi-Tough" goes in a completely different direction, as Sebesky taps into raunchy, straight-up street funk that's part-Isaac Hayes and part Sanford And Son.
While Giant Box is indicative of the bigger-is-better approach of the times, it also serves as a benchmark for creativity in arranging and composition, and helps to place Sebesky's talents in the proper light.
Track Listing: Firebird/Birds Of Fire; Song To A Seagull; Free As A Bird; Psalm 150; Vocalise; Fly/Circles; Semi-Tough.
Personnel: Don Sebesky: piano (7), electric piano (1, 2, 3), organ (7), accordion (3, 6), clavinet (7), vocals (4, 6); Bob James: piano (3, 5, 6), organ (4, 7); Ron Carter: bass, electric bass, piccolo bass; Billy Cobham: drums (1, 4, 7); Jack DeJohnette: drums (2, 3, 5, 6); George Benson: guitar (7); Harry Leahey: guitar (1); Airto: percussion (1, 6, 7); Rubens Bassini: conga drums (4); Dave Friedman: percussion (4); Phil Kraus: percussion (4); Ralph MacDonald: percussion (4); Paul Desmond: alto saxophone (2, 5); Joe Farrell: soprano saxophone (6); Grover Washington, Jr.: alto saxophone (7), soprano saxophone (3); Milt Jackson: vibraphone (5); Freddie Hubbard: trumpet (1, 5), flugelhorn (3); Hubert Laws: flute (1, 6); Jackie Cain: vocals (4); Roy Kral: vocals (4); Randy Brecker: trumpet; Alan Rubin: trumpet; Joe Shepley: trumpet; Wayne Andre: trombone, baritone; Warren Covington: trombone, baritone; Garnett Brown: trombone; Paul Faulise: bass trombone, baritone; Alan Raph: bass trombone, baritone; Jim Biffington: french horn; Earl Chapin: french horn; Phil Bodner: flute, piccolo, clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn; Jerry Dodgion: flute, piccolo, clarinet, soprano saxophone; Walt Levinsky: clarinet, tenor saxophone; George Marge: flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone, oboe, English horn; Romeo Penque: flute, piccolo, clarinet, soprano saxophone, oboe, English horn; Tony Price: tuba; Al Brown: violin; Harry Cykman: violin; Max Ellen: violin; Paul Gershman: violin; Harry Glickman: violin; Emanuuel Green: violin; Harold Kohon: violin; Charles Libove: violin; Harry Lookofsky: violin; Joe Malin: violin; David Nadien: violin; Gene Orloff: violin; Elliot Rosoff: violin; Irving Spice: violin; Seymour Barab: cello; Charles McCracken: cello; George Ricci: cello; Alan Shulman: cello; Margaret Ross: harp; Homer Mensch: concert string bass; Lani Groves: background vocals (7); Carl Caldwell: background vocals (7); Tasha Thomas: background vocals (7).
Record Label: CTI Masterworks