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Celebrating Don Sebesky, Part 1


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...his work was magnificent: rich, lush, lively and engaging. It has passed the test of time.
The passing of composer/arranger Don Sebesky in April 2023, invites a revisitation of his artistry. A Manhattan School of Music-trained trombonist, Sebesky played in the big bands of Kai Winding, Claude Thornhill, Tommy Dorsey and Maynard Ferguson. But by 1960, he found that his true passion was arranging and conducting. For this, he was nominated for 31 Grammy Awards. He won three of them.

Though he received praise and accolades for his work, he was also the target of criticism, his music dismissed by some as lightweight pop fare that pandered to the unsophisticated youth market with his renditions of the then-current rock songs of the 1960s. These criticisms were off-base. Jealousy from jazz purists about the number of records Sebesky sold—especially for Creed Taylor's CTI Records in the late '60s to the early '70s—surely stoked that jealousy. But his work was magnificent: rich, lush, lively and engaging. It has passed the test of time.

Here is a selection of Don Sebesky gems.

Wes Montgomery
California Dreamin'
Verve Records

Sebesky teamed with guitarist Wes Montgomery for five albums. California Dreamin' was the second of these. It was a successful outing, reaching #4 on the Billboard R&B charts. The disc opens with the title tune, a major hit for the Mamas and the Papas, released in late 1965. Less than a year after its release Wes Montgomery went into the studio with Sebesky to record his California Dreaming, the song and the album.

Included here is another tune with a high-familiarity profile—Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," a major radio hit in 1966 and still a staple of oldies pop music radio. By the end of 1967 everybody and his/her grandmother (and his/her grandfather, too) could, and often did, sing along with the first line of the tune. As it turns out, the version here makes for a fine jazz composition.

The rest of the album is a bit more jazz-oriented, brimming with Sebesky's adept arrangement sweeteners, with a nod, perhaps, to another high-profile and popular instrumental group of those times, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, with the closer, the 1939-penned "South of the Border."

Even with the lighter pop fare and elegant arrangements, Wes Montgomery is never less than stellar.

Paul Desmond
Bridge Over Troubled Water
A&M/CTI Records

Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond is best known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, on sets like the Grammy Hall of Fame album Time Out (Columbia Records, 1959). But he also carved a notable jazz career on his own, including five albums featuring Don Sebesky's arrangements. Bridge Over Troubled Water takes the "jazz renditions of pop tunes" concept and runs with it from start to finish. The Simon and Garfunkel album of the same name was released in January of 1970 to high praise and high sales. Sebesky and Desmond wasted no time in taking advantage of the album's popularity, releasing their own jazz version of a batch of Paul Simon's songs later in the same year. The music is beautiful---lush and translucent, and faithful to the melodies. Simon was—and is—one of pop music's finest tunesmiths. Paul Desmond and Don Sebesky, both on top of their games, presented Simon's songs to perfection.

George Benson
White Rabbit
CTI Records

Sebesky must have had a soft spot for guitarists, working with Wes Mongomery, Jim Hall, Joe Beck and, on White Rabbit, George Benson. The song "White Rabbit," was written by Grace Slick, the singer for the group Jefferson Airplane. It appeared on the group's blockbuster 1967 album, Surrealistic Pillow (RCA Victor). Benson, enjoying a solid jazz career with seven previous albums pre-1967, fit right into Sebesky's vision of elegant, sweeping arrangements featuring sizable horn and reed sections and bandmates who were jazz royalty of the time: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, flutist Hubert Laws, drummer Billy Cobham, percussionist/vocalist Airto Moreira. In addition to the title tune, Benson covers "California Dreaming," (see previous selection from Wes Montgomery), }}Michel Legrand}}'s "Theme From Summer of '42" and perhaps the highlight, his own 11-minute, Spanish-tinged "El Mar."

Freddie Hubbard
Sky Dive
CTI Records

One of the more straight ahead CTI efforts, Sky Dive, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's fourth album for the label, goes for the groove, sounding like some of pianist Herbie Hancock's records of the time period. In spite of this Hancock-like atmosphere, the pianist does not play on this album; he was in the piano chair in the three previous discs listed here. This time it is Keith Jarrett, who plays some terrific solos when he gets the chance.

Overall, the charts of a bit denser than most of Sebesky's offerings, with lots of bold reed and brass backdrops, and Hubbard is in top form. If Red Clay (1970) is most often listed as one of Hubbard's best on CTI, Sky Dive certainly competes with it for that top spot.

Jim Hall
CTI Records

Guitarist Jim Hall's Concierto, unlike the majority of the CTI Recordings arranged by Don Sebesky, does not feature a large ensemble. Instead, it is an all-star jazz sextet, with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Roland Hanna, rounded out by Ron Carter on bass and drummer Steve Gadd. Things start out straight ahead, with a zingy take on "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," followed by a similarly upbeat Hall original, "Two's Blues." It seems, early on, a fine jazz album, but when the group moves into the 19-minute Concierto de Arunjuez—that trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans made famous on their Sketeches Of Spain (Columbia Records, 1960)—the music moves in the direction of heaven. The relatively pared-down sound works nearly as well as the Davis/Evans masterpiece, with Desmond and Baker displaying a delicacy and gentleness of approach that beguiles.

Concierto is a work of subtle elegance and extraordinary beauty. A class act offering by Hall and all involved.



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