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J.J. and Kai: Stonebone

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In 1967, Creed Taylor launched CTI Records as a subsidiary of the A&M label. Creed had just left Verve, where he headed the jazz label and pioneered new concepts in young-adult jazz, including covers with abstract color photography and jazz interpretations of pop-rock and pop-soul radio hits. In New York, Creed had complete autonomy over CTI. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were busy in Los Angeles, and they envisioned CTI as a hip, easy-jazz imprint. In 1969, Creed struck a deal with A&M to leave the label and take CTI with him. At the time, A&M was pushing into rock and expanding its pop catalog. They had no problem letting Creed and CTI go, since they had bigger fish to fry, including the Carpenters.

One of the last albums recorded on the CTI label while still under the A&M umbrella was J&K/Stonebone, by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. The album's four songs were recorded over three days in September 1969. But J&K/Stonebone was never released in the U.S. and remains one of CTI's rarest releases. It was released only in Japan in 1970. When I asked Creed about the album months ago, he couldn't recall it, despite his name and large signature being stamped on the cover as producer.

The album was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and featured J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding (tb); Herbie Hancock and, Bob James (el. keyboards); Ross Tompkins (el. keyboards on Recollections); George Benson (g); Ron Carter (b); Grady Tate (d) and J.J. Johnson (arr. on first three tracks and Bob James (arr. on Recollections). The tracks in order are Dontcha Hear Me Callin' to Ya, Musings, Mojo and Recollections.

So why wasn't the hypnotic album released in the U.S.? My guess rests with three different reasons or all of them combined. First, there were only four tracks on the album, two per side. From a sales perspective, four songs told the target buyer in 1969 that the music on the album was long-winded. Second, the shortest track on the album runs just over four minutes, which means there wasn't a radio single, a big shortcoming in 1969. Third, each side runs just 18 minutes, which would leave buyers feeling shortchanged at new-album prices levels then. 

So what happened? Given how many basic rules of Creed's own producer playbook the album violated, here are my guesses:

  • J&K/Stonebone may have been only halfway finished when Creed left A&M. If there was time, I'm sure he would have edited down the longer tracks to get in a couple more commercially viable shorter tracks that could be used on drive-time radio. Or perhaps he didn't want to edit them down, still leaving him in a pickle.
  • When Creed left to start his own company, this one may have belonged to A&M, whose executives probably didn't want to invest more in its production and promotion given the shortcomings.
  • Maybe J&K/Stonebone took too long to record (three days for four songs seems excessive) and exhausted its budget.
  • Or perhaps Creed let the album go so he could focus on new more ambitious CTI projects, such as Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay.
  • Or maybe musicians who were on the first three days of recording had to move on to other projects, making them unenviable to record additional tracks for J&K/Stonebone.
Now that we have a rough sense of the possible reasons the album wasn't released in the U.S., why was it put out only briefly by King Records in Japan?

  • I'm guessing that Japan in 1970 wasn't as driven by radio and singles as the U.S. market.
  • U.S. troops stationed in Japan might have been a stronger market for the jam-oriented LP, since the liner notes are in English.
  • I'm also guessing that Ira Gitler was commissioned by King to write the liner notes; Creed steadfastly avoided adding to liner notes to his CTI albums under the belief they were long-winded and got in the way of listeners enjoying the photos and music.
  • A&M or Creed likely had an established relationship with Japan's King Records and was able to negotiate a deal to cover the  recording expenses. 
The upshot is the album is a superb jazz-psychedelic release. The trombones function almost like electric guitars while Bension and the keyboards give the album a jam session feel. There's a hypnotic quality to J&K/Stonebone and it certainly deserves to be re-issued, at least digitally. The only way to listen to this album is to hear it over and over again in one sitting. [Photo above of Creed Taylor]

JazzWax clip: Fear not. Here's the entire album...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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