Throughout his six-decade career as a record producer, Creed Taylor has operated with bold strokes, subtleties and contrasts. The secret of his success has been to stick with jazz artists he likes best and create novel studio environments in which these artists can thrive and break new ground. [Photo of Creed Taylor and George Benson by Chuck Stewart]
Few producers have garnered the level of respect from jazz musicians that Creed has over the years. Virtually all of the artists who recorded for him at CTI back in the 1970s remain staunch loyalists. The same is true for legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who told me a few months ago that working extensively with Creed changed his life. Many of these musicians have been quoted recently saying they'd love to work with him again. In fact, many are doing just that this summer on a CTI All Stars tour in Europe and Asia.
In Part 4 of my conversation with Creed about his CTI years, the legendary producer talks about Don Sebesky's Giant Box, how Grover Washington Jr. came to record Inner City Blues, Jim Hall's Concierto, the difference between George Benson and Wes Montgomery, and the tensions surrounding Nina Simone's Baltimore:
JazzWax: Is it fair to say that your approach at CTI was about juxtapositions? I'm thinking of Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine in 1971, for example.
Creed Taylor: I've always found creating softness and edge interesting. On the album you've just mentioned, I had always thought Astrud's gentle vocal approach against Stanley's big sound would be interesting to hear. The helpless damsel against the take-charge tenor is a very seductive sound. That was the idea from the start.
JW: In April and May of 1973, you produced Don Sebesky's Giant Box. That was a massive date with 57 musicians.
CT: It was really a tribute to Don [Sebesky] and all the artists who were under contract to CTI at the time. Don arranged it. It was meant to showcase quadraphonic fidelity [which had been introduced to the market in 1970]. We wanted to assemble the biggest possible orchestra and create an enormous sound to fill out the new four-speaker format.
JW: What did you think of quadraphonic sound?
CT: I loved it. I had four speakers set up in each corner of the room so they were acoustically perfect. Then I'd sit in the middle and listen. Wow, the sound was amazing. It never occurred to me that there would be a marketing problem. You needed four speakers and a special piece of equipment to play this stuff, and the result sounded great. The problem ultimately was that the extra gear was too expensive for most people, who I think were pretty happy with stereo.
JW: So Giant Box was a quad session?
CT: Yes. I figured what better way to embrace a new technology than to do it with Don as the arranger and with each one of the artists signed with CTI.
JW: How did you come up with the name of the album?
CT: It was a giant orchestra and the two LPs came in a box [laughs]. Seriously, most of my album titles resonate because they simply describe what's inside. And they're direct.
JW: How did Giant Box sell?
CT: The box didn't fly as far as the world was concerned. The world wasn't ready for quadraphonic sound. Today, surround sound is standard with home theaters.
JW: In 1971, you produced Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues, one of the Kudu label's best-selling albums. Whose idea was it to use Washington?
CT: A sheriff in Memphis.
JW: How so?
CT: He arrested [alto saxophonist] Hank Crawford. It was supposed to be Hank's record date. But Hank was caught with marijuana, that hideous, evil thing [laughs]. So they put him in the pokey. Someone called me at 1 p.m. to let me know. We were supposed to have started the date in New York at 10 a.m. Grover was in the sax section playing tenor. I went into the studio and told Grover that he had to play Hank's part. Grover said he had never recorded on alto and didn't own one. I rented one for him, and he played the date. As I was listening to Grover play in the booth, I knew immediately that he sounded great. Different than Hank, but great.
JW: How exactly?
CT: Grover's sound made the sax statements a less obvious thing. Everything was the same as it would have been with Hank, except Grover was Grover. Hank was a blues master alto player and Grover had a more lyrical, romantic thing going. He had a sound that worked in contrast to what we were doing. I think that made the date quite different.
JW: What did Crawford think of the album?
CT: I didn't ask him. Are you kidding? [laughs]
JW: There's so much Marvin Gaye in Grover's playing.
CT: Marvin became his best buddy in Detroit. Marvin loved what Grover had done with his songs.
JW: After a series of Kudu albums, Washington in 1974 recorded Mister Magic, which became a huge hit.
CT: The rhythm section on that date had just come from a Roberta Flack session on which she sang that song. Eric Gale had the tape from one of the rundowns. He said, This isn't very good, but you might want to let the guys hear it to see if they can get something going with it." Without a note being written by anybody, they sat down with [pianist and arranger] Bob James and started on a groove. Two hours later it locked in. Bob really created that thing along with the rhythm section. Grover knew how to play in the spaces and where not to play. He knew how to play like a soul singer.
JW: On Jim Hall's Concierto in 1975, were you afraid there would be too many heavyweights there?
CT: No. I picked out the players and got [Don] Sebesky to write the charts. I had Jim, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Roland Hanna, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd on the date.
JW: You make it sound a little too easy.
CT: [Laughs] But it is. If you can't make a record with those guys, you had better hang it up.
JW: But you're not sitting in the booth eating a sandwich, are you?
CT: No [laughing]. My job is to spot the flaws, push for the right feel and know when we had a master take. That's the one that moves me most.
JW: How was Chet?
CT: As always, he was fantastic. Chet and Paul hadn't worked together before. But each one could stand on his own. They fit together like peas in a pod.
JW: What role did Jim play if it was his date?
CT: His role was to play Jim Hall. He and I talked about the song Concierto having a Jobim-legato feeling. We picked the other songs together.
JW: Did you discuss the date with Jim in advance?
CT: That usually occurs. Then Don [Sebesky] and I talk about the feel we want, and he'd lay out the tracks [by recording them] on a Fender Rhodes [electric piano] so the guys knew what the arrangement was all about.
JW: Is there ever a peril when recording great artists that you can't hear anything bad? In other words, what are you listening for on Concierto?
CT: I don't have that answer. It's either good because it hits me, or we need to try another take. It's a very abstract thing. How do you describe a good piece of footage in a movie when the actors are all great? It's an impossible question to answer. It occurs at the moment.
JW: But many so-called alternate takes can sound as good as the originals, yes?
CT: Not to me. I'm listening for feeling. Is it rushed? Does it get into the slot? Sometimes I would call for another take because I thought the artists could deliver something even better. You have to know when you've reached that moment.
JW: When something feels perfect, where do you feel it?
CT: I can't describe that feeling.
JW: Did you build George Benson's White Rabbit in 1971 on the model that had worked so well with Wes Montgomery?
CT: There was no Wes Montgomery model. There was Wes Montgomery. I would not refer to it as a model.
JW: Let me rephrase: I mean the mix of material: integrating originals with jazz interpretations of pop-rock standards?
CT: Wes played a mix of contemporary and jazz. Everything that came together was a Wes product or a product through Wes' filter. George was a different type of guitar player.
JW: How so?
CT: How is Stanley Turrentine different from Paul Desmond, or Chet Baker different from Freddie Hubbard?
JW: But you're illustrating with extremes, at opposite ends of the spectrum.
CT: Yes, but it's the personality here. That's what the noun style" is all about. It's easy to recognize a Van Gogh. What makes a painting valuable isn't only the setting on the canvas but the painter's style, which no one else can copy. Then you frame that style and light it in a certain way and exhibit it. George [pictured] was intense and so was Wes, but in different ways. Wes played distinctive octaves, which is why I asked him to play melodies in octaves.
JW: That's pretty subtle.
CT: Art is quite abstract, let's face it.
JW: What was it like producing Nina Simone's Baltimore in 1978?
CT: A pleasure and a pain.
CT: In this particular case, I flew over with the rhythm section to Brussels to record with Nina there. She was living in Paris at the time because whenever she'd open her door here, the IRS would come in and clean out everything she had.
JW: Where did you stay?
CT: We all stayed at the Brussels Hilton. Every day we took a 20-mile drive to the studio, which was in a converted barn in the countryside. And each day we crossed the Waterloo Bridge [laughs], so help me [laughs].
JW: When did things get tough?
CT: One day Nina's check didn't arrive on time in the U.S., and she attempted to throw the TV out the window of the hotel. Nina was a little mercurial.
JW: A CTI check?
JW: Did she actually pick up the TV?
CT: Oh yeah. She caused a little damage in the room, which I covered, of course. She was a manic-depressive, which wasn't a rare thing. At one point during the recording sessions, Nina again became really difficult. So I took her for a walk in this terrace garden right outside the studio.
JW: What did you say?
CT: I said, Hey Nina, you might not be feeling well but so far you've made me dislike what I do more than anything in the world, and what I do is record artists. I don't like to record when you behave this way."
JW: What happened?
CT: She came back into the studio and settled down.
JW: Wow, that must have been about as hot as you've ever gotten.
CT: I had to do that. I wasn't dealing with a normal situation.
JW: What does being difficult in the studio mean?
CT: She wasn't cooperating with the guys. She didn't want one musician or another to play in a particular place. She was slowing things down for seemingly no reason.
JW: Ultimately, were you pleased with what was recorded?
CT: Oh yes. As far as I'm concerned, she's untouchable as Nina Simone, the artist.
JW: When you had gone for a walk with Nina, were you ever afraid she would take a swing at you?
CT: Oh, no. Nothing like that. Nina knew how I felt about her. The beauty of Nina's voice is that you believe what she sang and that she was dead serious about it. That's the kind of person she was.
JazzWax tracks: Astrud Gilberto with Stanley Turrentine is available at iTunes or here. Don Sebesky's Giant Box is available here. Grover Washington Jr.'s Inner City Blues and Mister Magic are available at iTunes. George Benson's White Rabbit is available here and Nina Simone's Baltimore is available here. Creed Taylor's web site is CTIJazz.com.