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Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz

S. Duncan Reid By

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The following is an excerpt from the "Reaching for the Skye" chapter of Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz by S. Duncan Reid (McFarland, 2013).

Tjader had reached the East Coast by November and on November 17, he arrived at Van Gelder Studio for a session ("Willow Weep for Me" and "Joey Joey") that probably included tenor sax man Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Donald Byrd. Two days later, Heath, Byrd, Kenny Burrell and Armando Peraza, among others, were definitely on hand to produce a powerful pianoless "Afro Blue." In 1959, Tjader had given all the solo space to his sidemen, but this time he weighed in with some stimulating vibravisation.

Creed Taylor had originally earmarked all of the above material plus a new version of "Doxy," the number that had introduced Lonnie Hewitt to the world, for Tjader's latest album. Tjader, however, had some other tunes in mind and was especially excited about remaking "Guarachi Guaro." Furthermore, he wanted his entire ensemble—Lonnie Hewitt, John Rae, Terry Hilliard and Armando Peraza—to join him at A&R Studios. Taylor liked the idea and this landmark session, which also featured Willie Bobo's percussionist pal Alberto Valdes, began at noon on November 20, 1964.

Terry Hilliard recalled that the band spent many of the intervening hours discussing what they thought would be effective and then "knocked it out." "Most things were first cuts. There wasn't a lot of fine-tuning. We got the feeling and everybody was loving it." According to Tjader, the basic tracks were finished by 2:30 P.M. "Guaro" was taped twice; one version was long and loose and the other more restrained. Taylor thought the latter could be a hit single but was worried that the disc jockeys would have trouble pronouncing the title. So he suggested changing it to "Soul Sauce." Tjader didn't object and was open to calling the LP Soul Sauce as well. Then he had a brainstorm of his own: Get Willie Bobo to come in the next day and overdub the jawbone and some Spanish lingo. Bobo's contributions, particularly the vocals ("Ay, que rico!," "Sabor" and "Salsa ... Salsa") helped the title track achieve crossover success on the jazz, pop and rhythm and blues charts when the album was released in the spring of 1965.

The single initially grabbed the public's attention but there is more than one delicious ingredient in this Sauce. Among them are a less cluttered and more seductive arrangement of "Leyte," "Spring Is Here" (Rodgers and Hart), which features the vibraphonist's sublime ballad artistry, "João" (Clare Fischer), a bossa nova tribute to guitarist Gilberto, and originals by Hewitt, "Pantano" and "Tanya." The pianist's affection for Cuban jazz is amply displayed in these two enchanting melodies.

Creed Taylor was still determined to complete his Tjader album. Consequently, on November 23 in New York City, Gary McFarland's arrangements of "Dream Lover," "Monkey Beams" (McFarland) and "Ming" were recorded with Jimmy Heath and friends.

"Afro Blue" was selected for the original Soul Sauce LP, but "Monkey Beams" and "Ming" would not be heard by the public until the CD reissue of Soul Sauce in 1994 and "Willow Weep for Me," "Joey Joey," "Doxy" and "Lover" have yet to be put out as of this writing. Finally, the CD also includes version number three of "Mamblues," an outtake from the first New York session.

Later on the same day, Tjader reunited with his ensemble for a week-long engagement at the Showboat in Philadelphia and by December 23, he was back in San Francisco's North Beach, working at El Matador (492 Broadway). Formerly a bar run by writer, painter and bullfighter Barnaby Conrad, it was a hip hangout in the '50s for locals and those who lived in the public eye. Conrad sold his establishment to Robert Catecchi and Aussie John Clarke in the autumn of 1961. The new owners kept the bullfight photographs, a full-length portrait of the late matador Manolete, swords, brilliant capes and other items from the bull ring that were hung on the white walls. Moreover, they began to routinely book jazz musicians. The Off Broadway did not, as Ralph Gleason had hoped, become Tjader's new home club. But once his successful run ended in early January 1965, Tjader decided that El Matador was the place to be.

There were two reasons why Shelly's Manne Hole became a fairly regular part of Tjader's annual southern California tour. First, the majority of the Hollywood patrons were true jazz aficionados and second, it was a treat to have a musician as both the owner and a close friend. On this occasion, the stint went from Thursday, January 21, to Sunday, January 31.

Then, after bringing his quintet back home in March for a two-week engagement at El Matador, Tjader was faced with tragic news. Freddie Schreiber had died in Seattle on February 1, 1965, at the age of 30. The official cause of death was uremia or blood poisoning due to kidney failure. According to Liz Tjader, her parents were particularly disturbed by the circumstances of his demise. Schreiber was in dire need of a kidney transplant, but was put at the bottom of the priority list due to his status as a musician. Musicians' unions at the time did not provide health insurance for their members. Schreiber's legacy not only included great musicianship but also humor and compassion. Terry Hilliard remembered that Schreiber, a lifelong bachelor, would make trips to Children's Hospital in Oakland and tell the kids funny stories.

The spring itinerary for Tjader's quintet included "An Evening of Jazz" concert at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, California, on April 5, a stint at the Lighthouse from April 6 to 11, plus other gigs in southern California, Sacramento and San Jose.

In San Carlos, the quintet played a 45-minute set between the Buddy DeFranco Quartet (with pianist Al Plank) and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. "'[On] Green Dolphin Street' began placidly," wrote Russ Wilson of the opening number, "with Tjader's mallets caressing the vibes in shimmering beauty. Hewitt, as he took over the solo spot, continued this groove briefly but then gradually shifted into the blues. His companions fell into line and by the time Tjader moved to the lead the quartet was swinging strongly." Following a short solo by Hilliard, the group took the tune out softly. The set also contained an up-tempo "Sunset Boulevard," "Spring is Here," and after Armando Peraza's arrival, "Manhã de Carnaval," "Cubano Chant" and "Half and Half." Wilson concluded by acknowledging the excellent percussion work of Peraza and Rae.

Once the Cal Tjader Quintet finished the San Jose gig, they rested and prepared for an eastern road trip. While in New York, Cal completed the first two recording sessions for his next Verve album Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof (June 1 and 2) at A&R Studios and appeared with his combo on the Merv Griffin Show (June 16). Actor Pernell Roberts and the NAACP's Roy Wilkins were among the other guests. Shortly thereafter, Tjader returned to El Matador to begin a four-week engagement. He was greeted by Russ Wilson, who wrote the following on June 20: "Vibraphonist Cal Tjader has a hit going for him with 'Soul Sauce,' a bouncing effervescent Latin jazz tune." Furthermore, Wilson encouraged his readers not to overlook the rest of the LP, "a relaxed, blowing excursion in what is aptly called the red-beans-and-rice Latin bag."

Tjader was like a boomerang during this period, for he flew his group to Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey on June 22 to complete Soul Bird and then came right back to continue his homestand.

After their current record has climbed up the charts, some artists are coerced by their labels or voluntarily decide to create the exact same sound for the follow- up. This was not the case with Tjader. On Soul Bird: Whiffenpoof, Tjader was in a somewhat jazzier mood. This is exemplified by his original, "The Prophet," in which one can imagine a hipster strolling into a club and quickly turning toward the bandstand with a nod of approval. Furthermore, samba and bossa nova take precedence over Cuban. The soundtrack to Black Orpheus had provided ample source material for Tjader and his peers. This time out "Samba de Orfeu" was chosen. Tjader's brief treatment, like that of the curiously titled "Whiffenpoof Song" and "That's All," is devoid of any improvisation. And the improvisational ideas that do come from Tjader are often less inspired than on previous LPs. Nonetheless, he does have his moments on the self-penned "Soul Motion," "Doxy" and such bossa nova-tinged numbers as "How High the Moon" and "Reza." The last named, with its slow seductive introduction, is also a prime example of his "breathe" philosophy in action. Tjader makes up for his uneven solo work by picking excellent compositions. For instance, in addition to the lively "Orfeu," "Whiffenpoof " and the softer "That's All," he covers the Pozo/Gillespie classic "Tin Tin Deo" (Soul Bird). This arrangement differs greatly from Gillespie's wonderfully languid horn-driven 1951 recording. Not only is the tempo increased a couple of notches but the bass is front and center. Anyone who hears Hilliard's confident groove, Tjader's sparkling vibes, Hewitt's frisky piano and the precise percussion of Rae and Peraza, will want to move around. Surprisingly, the track did not achieve the same level of popularity as "Guarachi Guaro." "Daddy Wong Legs," the album's uplifting finale, has a humorous story attached to it.

"We were drinking at El Matador around 1964 or '65," said Herb Wong. "I was having a King Alphonse, my sissy drink. Cal accidentally hit my left elbow and spilled the drink all over my nice camel-haired sport jacket. He said, 'Oh, no! I'm so sorry, Herb.' I said, 'No problem, I'll take it to the dry cleaners.' Cal [calls] the next day and says he is going to write a song for me. I told him it wasn't necessary but he really wanted to. Cal kept calling me with different song titles, such as "Wong Way Street" and "If It's Not Wong, It's Right." I told him to forget it. [Then] he calls me at 2 A.M. I'm groggy and didn't remember the next day that Cal said he would be recording "Daddy Wong Legs" for me. I apparently had agreed to it.

"Eventually, Cal brought the test pressing over to KJAZ and I had no idea what it was. I never knew what he would bring.... He played different parts of Soul Bird but the first thing he did was play 'Daddy Wong Legs.' He was so fidgety; he couldn't wait to do that to me. He thought that I didn't know the title because I was so groggy at the time he first mentioned it. Also, I made no anticipatory comment about it. Cal just had a ball; he laughed and laughed. Then he got up and danced around while saying, 'I gotcha! I gotcha!' [chuckles]. I said, 'You sure did.'"

A decision was made to to use studio professionals for the first two dates on Soul Bird. The lone Tjader regular, Armando Peraza, was joined by Richard Davis, bass; Grady Tate, drums and Sol Gubin, percussion. Solid players all but the real find was little-known pianist Paul Griffin; he stands out on "Whiffenpoof Song," "Soul Motion," "Reza," "Doxy" and "Daddy Wong Legs." All in all, session musicians would be hired for every LP taped during Tjader's final years with Verve.

Meanwhile, Tjader was getting ready for the second departure of Lonnie Hewitt. During his search for a replacement, he discussed the matter internally and Terry Hilliard recommended his friend Al Zulaica. Zulaica, a resident of El Cerrito, California, had previously worked with Hilliard in Pete and Coke Escovedo's band. The pianist met with Tjader's approval before the combo concluded their run at El Matador on July 17, 1965, the day that Soul Sauce peaked at #52 on Billboard's Top LPs chart.

Soon thereafter, the reorganized combo left for a gig in Aspen, where they were given a gorgeous bungalow. Band members walked around town and checked out the Aspen Rodeo during the day. However, there were periods of boredom in this wealthy enclave. "I met one of the waiters at a restaurant," recalled Hilliard. "We kicked some ideas around and thought if we had a reception for a dignitary, it might get things happening. I had just gotten married and I took my first wife [Lillian] on the road with me. So we drummed up this thing called 'The Princess of Rangoon' and I asked my wife to play the part of the princess. We set up this royal reception and people came from all over to meet the Princess of Rangoon. We packed the place. During the [week or two] that [our band] was there, she was prancing around as this princess and people were getting her autograph. They were happy to meet her. We were just cracking up [laughs]. We pulled a fast one on Aspen."

Photo Credit
Metropolitan Photography, Robert C. Tjader Collection. (L-R) Gary McFarland, his girlfriend, Tjader and Bob Murphy at a party in New York City, circa 1964.

Reprinted from Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz © 2013 S. Duncan Reid by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc.

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