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Interview: Creed Taylor (Part 17)

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The rise of stereo fidelity in the late 1960s and introduction of affordable stereo equipment in the early 1970s created an enormous market for the stereo LP. Clunky record changer consoles were out and individual components were in. If you bought a decent turntable, a tone-arm cartridge, stereo receiver and pair of speakers, stereo records sounded realistic and exciting. To exceed the hi-fi demands of new audiophiles, producer Creed Taylor set the bar high for artists and production at CTI Records. [Photo of Creed Taylor and Stanley Turrentine by Chuck Stewart]

With concert rock drawing massive crowds in the early 1970s following Woodstock, and Detroit and Philadelphia soul gaining ground in urban markets, Creed realized that jazz had to re-invent itself if the genre was to compete. The hard bop formulas of the late 1950s and 1960s had been exhausted, and record buyers wanted a bigger, wider sound with electronic instruments and plenty of rhythmic intensity.

In part 3 of my conversation with Creed on his CTI years, the legendary producer talks about his production technique, Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws, Elvis Presley's studio band, and why Paul McCartney gave Creed Let It Be before it was issued:

JazzWax: When you were in the booth producing albums at CTI, what were you doing exactly?
Creed Taylor: I was standing, with my left ear next to this huge speaker. And today I wish I hadn't been doing that.Rudy [van Gelder] had it cranked up, and I loved the sound because the energy coming into booth from the studio was magic. It was the best way to hear if the music being played was happening--or if there was a problem. There was a lot to listen to and evaluate during those sessions.

JW: Did the practice affect your hearing?
CT: Oh, sure. It knocked off some of my hearing. I'm probably 10,000 cycles in the left ear today.

JW: Wow, how close were you?
CT: Too close [laughs]. As I'm standing there, my eyes were never closed, and nobody in the booth was permitted to talk. I was listening for every bit of texture.

JW: Do you listen that carefully to music when you put on a recording at home?
CT: All the time. Listening to jazz is about depth and dimension. It's not something to throw on as background music. I can't tolerate people who want to listen to jazz and then once the music goes on they start talking. When that happens I leave.

JW: When you were listening in the booth, what would cause you to think a take wasn't happening?
CT: It could be any number of things. A song may not be swinging, or it may lack that emotional feeling. Or the tempo might need to be faster or slower to get an emotional reaction. Or the strings might a have little intonation problem, which occurs mostly in the back row. Or some of the woodwinds might be sharp. All kinds of things are going on, and you have to listen hard for them. But ultimately, it's the feeling of the music that's the decision maker. How does the track make me feel.

JW: The number of musicians on CTI recordings suddenly grew in the early 1970s.
CT: Not suddenly. Gradually. The thing developed. For example, I wanted the strings to be an important element you listened to--not just padding. Strings had a purpose, whether the jazz critics liked them or not. When things got a little more complex, the strings had to be perfect and in tune.

JW:
How did you ensure that?
CT: I had David Nadien in the first chair. David was the section's de facto straw boss. He knew the politics of strings, which went beyond the musicality. Don [Sebesky] was my quality-control guy in the studio. So was David. He contracted every single string player himself. He knew that there was a great deal of political back-scratching going on with string players. If you weren't careful, you could wind up with a mediocre player. For me, every single string player had to be selected carefully. David did that.

JW: Hubert Laws' Crying Song was one of your earliest CTI albums, recorded in mid-1969. You re-issued it in 1970 as gatefold, with a stunning Pete Turner cover. Why?
CT: Once I had officially set up my company in early 1970, I wanted to bring uniformity to the look of our covers, making full use of Pete Turner's color photography. The blue image with the horse grazing the snowy Montana field knocked me out. But the photo's subject, the horse, is on the back.

JW: Why?
CT: Because it conveys the loneliness of the title. Also, I wanted CTI covers to be as engaging as possible. Pete's images were beautiful, so rich in color. They begged to fill every square inch of real estate on the covers--front and back. And whether the album was seen from the front or back at stores, people would know immediately it was a CTI release. I also knew that in buyers' homes, CTI albums would have the same effect as coffee table books. People would want to hold them, open them and stare at the images. The horse on the back made you turn the album over and over.

JW: Why did you record part of Crying Song in Memphis?
CT:
I wanted to use the house rhythm section at American Recording Studios. It was a soulful section that had backed Elvis Presley, as odd as that might seem. Elvis had a real soulful thing going.

JW: How did you get them for a jazz date?
CT: I knew them already. I just called the studio and asked if I could use the house band. I knew it was going to work because I liked how the band sounded behind Elvis and many other r&b hits. I knew what we were walking into. Then Stanley Turrentine couldn't make it.

JW: Stanley Turrentine? You mean Hubert Laws.
CT: No, it was supposed to be Stanley Turrentine's date. On the day we were to record in Memphis, I got a call at 10 am in my hotel. The session was to start at 1 p.m. It was Stanley, saying his lawyers wouldn't let him come down to Memphis because his contract hadn't been signed yet. [Photo of Stanley Turrentine by Francis Wolff]

JW: Did you flip out--I mean as much as Creed Taylor flips out?
CT: [Laughs] I don't know. Stuff happens all the time. As the clich goes, you roll with the punches.

JW: So what did you do?
CT: I called Hubert in New York and asked if he'd like to come down. I told him that Stanley couldn't make it and that I had Elvis' rhythm section ready to go.

JW: What happened?
CT: Hubert [pictured] arrived the next day and we went for a walk along the Mississippi River before the session, stopping for some Memphis barbeque. Then we went back into the studio and recorded with these guys, without music. The sound they created brought Southern soul together with jazz.

JW: Who picked the material?
CT: I picked most of the songs. A couple came from the house band there.

JW: Part of the album was recorded at Rudy van Gelder's studio in New Jersey, yes?
CT: Yes, we came back up and recorded more at Rudy's. We didn't finish everything down there, and I thought we might need some arranging aspects, particularly on Let It Be.

JW: Why?
CT: Because of the nature of the song. And also, there was a sound I wanted that I could only get at Rudy's.

JW: But while the song Let It Be was recorded in January 1969, it wasn't released as a single until March 1970, followed by the album in May. How did you get a hold of the song in mid-1969?
CT: CTI and George Martin shared the same U.S. attorney at the time. I had given the attorney a copy of Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life in 1967 and he took it back to Paul McCartney. The Beatles flipped out about it. They liked it so much that Paul in 1969 sent me a run through tape of what he had done on Let It Be.

JW: Just like that?
CT: Yes, just like that--with the understanding that I could record the song with any jazz artist I wished.

JW: So you heard the original demo, and CTI was the first to record it commercially?
CT: Yes, what Paul sent was a rough voice line with him playing piano. I'd heard the song many times growing up in Virginia. It wasn't called Let It Be, of course. It was a Presbyterian hymn that was very close. We came back to Rudy's so I could use Hubert on the alto flute and get the sound I had in my head. The alto flute was the perfect register for that kind of soulful, Southern church sound.

JW: How was Hubert on the date?
CT: Great. Hubert is unshakable. He's creatively cooperative and has the highest level of musicianship. It didn't matter what I threw at him. He made it all sound great.

Tomorrow, Creed talks about the making of Don Sebesky's Giant Box, Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues and Mister Magic, Jim Hall's Concierto, George Benson's White Rabbit and Nina Simone's Baltimore.

JazzWax tracks: Hubert Laws' Crying Song is out of print. You'll find copies of the original LP and CD releases at eBay. For more information about CTI, visit Creed Taylor's site, CTIJazz.com or Doug Payne's fabulous CTI tribute site here, which features a complete label discography and images of Pete Turner's covers.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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