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Interview: Don Sebesky (Part 2)


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In the late '60s and '70s, Don Sebesky was one of the most in-demand jazz arrangers in the record business. His close working relationship with Creed Taylor and CTI Records resulted in 45 albums. Among them were George Benson's White Rabbit, Kenny Burrell's God Bless the Child and Stanley Turrentine's The Sugar Man.

Don also was one of the first arrangers to convincingly combine jazz and rock for orchestration, playing a strong role in shaping the adult- contemporary genre of the late '60s and '70s. Albums such as The Distant Galaxy and Jazz-Rock Syndrome from 1968 are little known today but remain fascinating early experiments. By the way, today is Don's birthday. He's 73.

In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Don, the prolific jazz-rock arranger talks about Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life, George Benson's White Rabbit, Buddy Rich, Paul Desmond and his own Giant Box:

JazzWax: How did you come to arrange Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life in 1967?
Don Sebesky: Producer Creed Taylor called and asked me to come in and listen to a new album he had just received. When I arrived, he put on A Day in the Life from the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's. As we listened, Creed was very excited and asked if we could turn it into something for Wes.

JW: What did you say?
DS: Definitely. It wasn't that difficult. Wes' approach on the guitar fit the percussive nature of the song perfectly. His octave playing style was a natural fit. Wes was amenable to Creed's desire to expand his audience.

JW: What happened when the album came out in 1967? It was the first to adapt a late-period Beatles composition.
DS: More jazz musicians and arrangers gave rock a harder listen after the album came out. Cross-pollination began in earnest between jazz musicians and pop music. Many great jazz musicians like Stan Getz and Herbie Hancock crossed over. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the Beatles' material, since doing so would likely bring a wider audience and longer staying power.

JW: Looking back, what was the impact of this crossover phase?
DS: I think many jazz musicians lost track of their roots. The rock-pop trend was a wave that swept through the jazz world. It was an experiment. The bossa nova was probably the demarcation line—where jazz-pop ended and jazz-rock began—since the Brazilian form was so musical.

JW: Tell me about George Benson's White Rabbit in 1971?
DS: I had been listening to Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, which was released in 1967. I, too, of course, went through a pop-rock phase. It was an amazing time. Many rock bands back then, like Airplane, were made up of serious musicians, and the writing was interesting. So was the playing. For example, The Mamas & the Papas also were great. They had a special joie de vivre that they incorporated into their records with great success. Jazz hoped to tap into the feel.

JW: Did you play Surrealistic Pillow for Creed?
DS: Yes. I suggested we do White Rabbit in a Spanish mode. He agreed. George Benson doesn't read music. He just heard the song and automatically fell into the groove. It shows you that music doesn't exist on the page, only in the air [laughs].

JW: Speaking of The Mamas & the Papas, you composed and arranged Buddy Rich's Big Mama Cass as well as Preach and Teach and Goodbye Yesterday.
DS: I got a call from Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz. He was Buddy's producer at the time. He wanted me to write arrangements for the band. Rich was always on the road, so I'd just send in the charts and the band would record them.

JW: Did you ever meet Rich?
DS: One day I told Dick that I wanted to meet him. So I went down to a club in New York where Buddy was playing. I told someone to let Buddy know I was there. But he never came out from his dressing room nor did he respond. As a result, I never met him nor did I ever speak to him. But he kept recording my stuff. He even sent me a joke track of Mama Cass with all the wrong notes being played, as though the copying had come out wrong [laughs].

JW: Paul Desmond's Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1969?
DS: I arranged and produced that one. Creed had already left A&M to form CTI as a stand-alone label. Paul Desmond had owed A&M one last album and this was it. The concept for this album came up through a go-between. Paul Desmond and Simon & Garfunkel had the same agent—Mort Lewis. Paul Desmond didn't really get fully into the material. The resulting album wasn't bad but Paul was a bit awkward on there. He wasn't of a mind to go down the crossover road, and you can hear it.

JW: How do you feel about your Giant Box album for CTI in 1973?
DS: I have mixed feelings about it. Firebird was a good track, particularly with the crossover between Stravinsky and the John McLaughlin sound. But I wasn't entirely happy with everything on the album. It didn't feel as organic to my way of thinking as other albums. By the time I arranged it, I was already heading in another direction. In my heart, I'm a big-band guy. I would have preferred to have done a straight-ahead big band album. But it wasn't considered sell-able at the time. You have to remember that jazz-rock fusion was everywhere in 1973 and poised to grow even bigger through the '70s.

JW: Do you ever listen to Giant Box?
DS: No. I don't like listening to things I've done. I hear too many things I wished I hadn't done. It makes me feel as though I dropped the ball. I prefer looking forward.

JW: I Remember Bill: A Tribute to Bill Evans in 1997?
DS: I sat with that music for three years until I felt encouraged enough to put it on paper. Bill's music was so utterly musical, which made it hard for me to commit to anything in terms of original compositions. We won a Grammy for my arrangement of Waltz for Debby on there.

JW: Did you ever play with Evans?
DS: Yes. I played one studio session with him. It was a jingle for an Esso TV ad, before the oil company became known as Exxon. Bill Russo wrote the arrangement and Bill played piano. It was in '60 or '61.

JW: What's your favorite Don Sebesky album?
DS: Probably Joyful Noise: A Tribute to Duke Ellington in 1999. I think it was my most fully realized work from a jazz, big band standpoint. There is a strong cohesiveness and unity on there from track to track. I was at the top of my game. The album won two Grammys.

JW: What's coming?
DS: I'm due to record another album with guitarist Earl Klugh and another with guitarist John Pizzarelli. Every time John plays it's like a party.

JW: Any other projects?
DS: Actually, I just started to compose and arrange a new album. It's going to be called Credo. It will be a combination of jazz and classical elements  with a contemporary feel. I've even commissioned a philosopher-poet to write a rap for one of the tracks that's different from anything else out there. The person who will sing it is very famous on Broadway, but I can't tell you yet who it is because the contracts haven't been signed. It's all a new beginning for me.

JazzWax clip: Here's Buddy Rich's big band in 1970 playing Don Sebesky's Preach and Teach...

Here's a track from The Distant Galaxy (1968), one of Don's most fascinating jazz-psychedelic experiments for Verve and a precursor to his CTI work. In addition to a large orchestra, the album included Marvin Stamm (tp,pic), Larry Coryell (el-sitar), Chuck Rainey (el-b), Hubert Laws (sop-1,fl-2) Warren Bernhardt (clavinet-2), Dick Hyman (p), Ronnie Zito (d) and Lois Winter (vcl)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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