Mati Klarwein’s first foray into the world of album covers ended with a glorious failure. In the late 1950s he was listening to jazz, a style thriving at the time with new artists exploring the intersection of jazz, classical and ethnic music. One of them was Yusef Lateef, a multi reed instrumentalist. Mati created a painting of Lateef amid colorful flowers and sent it to the musician, labeled as “Original Portrait of the Great Yusef Lateef Hand Painted by Abdul Mati.” Lateef, a devote Muslim, liked not only the painting but the fact that it was created by a person named Abdul, undoubtedly a man of color. “Dear Bro” he replied to the artist, inviting him to meet and discuss future album covers after a set at the Five Spot club in New York City. What ensued could have finished Klarwein’s album art career that night. He tells the story: “When the concert was over I went over to his table. I addressed him, he looked at me, but continued his discussion with the others at the table. So I addressed him again and introduced myself as the artist who’d sent him the portrait. Once again I was ignored and this time he didn’t even bother to look up…” The reason for the rude behavior on Lateef’s behalf was simple: to him, Klarwein was of the wrong color. Prejudice works both ways.
The story is a bit ironic, for the reason Klarwein was rejected is exactly why he chose to add ‘Abdul’ to his name. He grew up in Palestine after his Jewish parents fled Germany in the 1930s, then under the Nazi regime. As a child in Palestine he experienced tensions between Arabs and Jews, which he observed as an outsider. He later said: “That is why I took the name Abdul. If everybody in the Middle-East would call themselves Abdul, it would ensure a reconciliation that would end the antagonism and the wars in that part of the world. At least that’s what I thought at the time.” A nice idea, but a bit naive, as he later found during his encounter with Yusef Lateef.
A major theme across many of his paintings is universality of ethnic origins and religions, with a good eclectic sense of all arts. This all started at a very early age: “I considered myself very lucky to have had the chance to grow up in Palestine-Israel, a land where you can walk 2000 years back in history by merely strolling down to the end of the street you live on, especially in Jerusalem. How shallow American pop music sounds compared to the chanting of Oum Kalthoum or a raga by Ameer Khan!”
But one good thing came out of the meeting with Yusef Lateef – Mati settled in New York City after spending the 1950s traveling all over the world – Tibet, India, Bali, North Africa, Turkey, Europe and the Americas. In the Big Apple he started working on his magnum Opus, the Aleph Sanctuary. This was an evolving creation, a 3 x 3 x 3 meter cubic temple featuring art he created over a number of years in the 1960s, which he dedicated to “the undefined religion of everything”.
Aleph Sanctuary combined 68 large painted panels, rich with color, wild imagination, sex, religion, and everything in between. Its centerpiece was Crucifixion (Freedom of Expression), a 150 x 300 cm canvas with layers of oil and tempera. It is a tree of life that is best described as a psychedelic Kama Sutra. It took the artist two years to complete. Klarwein on the inspiration to that tree: “In Trinidad I saw the widest tree. There was a rather Jovial Bordello adjacent to that tree, full of sailors and pregnant young prostitutes where I went for my after-dinners drinks and chats. None of the girls knew who the fathers of their babies were. We came to the conclusion that it must have been the pollen of that tree that fertilized them.” A quick look at the painting reveals a few thoughts: Klarwein had quite the imagination and understanding of the flexibility limits of the human body, male or female. It is also clear that it took a good amount of skill and patience to create this painting with brush strokes.
The temple became a favorite pad for resident and visiting New York City artists and musicians. Located in Union Square, folks of Bohemia frequented the establishment regularly, including Salvador Dali, who was an early influence on Klarwein after the two met in Paris earlier in his career: “I read Dali’s Private Life of Salvador Dali when I was 20 years old and I have never been the same person since. He was my spiritual father, and some even thought I was his illegitimate son. We were also each other’s pimps and cultural spies.” Dali surrounded himself with rock stars, models and anyone who shared his eccentric manners. Visiting a temple with a 10 feet painting of the largest orgy on earth was just the thing.
Dali was not the only one in attendance. Musicians loved the place, where eclectic music from Klarwein’s large record collection played in the background. One such musician in particular loved to perch himself in the temple, wash his eyes with the surrealistic paintings, listen to the psychedelic music in the background and engulf himself with purple haze. You guessed it, Jimi Hendrix. Under the influence of dubious substances, some of the musicians started asking Klarwein to create album sleeves for their albums, Hendrix one of them. Klarwein: “We used to share the same tailor, and we would spend afternoons dropping acid and trying out new sets of clothes together. I actually was working on a painting for a record cover to an album that was never finished, where Jimi and Gil Evans were collaborating. Unfortunately Jimi died during the recordings and it was never released.”
Mati Klarwein’s work as an album covers artist shot to the stratosphere in the early 1970s with a number of iconic images that became one with the albums they adorn. In some cases the paintings were created earlier in the 1960s and used as album covers on the request of the musicians. Other times the work was commissioned specifically for the album, as is the case with the cover he created for Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. The legendary jazz trumpeter was heavily into his experimentation of combining jazz and rock using electric instruments and involving younger musicians in long groove-based jams. One of the musicians who played on the first session from the ensuing album, percussionist Don Alias, remembers: “I got a call from Tony Williams. He said ‘Miles is doing a date, come on down!’ And when I walked into the studio and saw all those musicians, I knew something was going down.” Something was definitely going down, as ‘all those musicians’ included Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Lenny White, Bennie Maupin and Harvey Brooks. It is hard to find a more talented large group of musicians on any jazz or rock album.
Miles Davis decided to take a different visual approach for the album, and for the first time featured an original art on a front cover. He asked Mati Klarwein to listen to the recorded music and then come up with the album art. The painter obliged by combining African, Eastern and interracial motives. He used the Mische technique, a method used by Old Dutch masters of layering tempera and oil paints to generate a luminous realistic painting. This is a tedious process that took Klarwein months of work, but the result was stunning. Miles Davis could not have been more satisfied with the result. The painting was handed to Columbia’s label art director John Berg, who liked the Rock n Roll appeal of it and added the gothic type for the title. Miles’ original idea for the title was Witches Brew, but his wife Betty, a young a free spirit very much in tune with the times, suggested changing the first word to Bitches. Notice the absence of an apostrophe at the end of the word “bitches,” making “brew” a verb, not a noun.
Following the release of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis organized a somewhat steady group of musicians to keep recording with and perform live throughout 1970. Producer Teo Macero kept using the technique of recording long jams and editing them in the studio. Later in the year he included live tracks in the mix, recorded in December 1970 at the Cellar Door in Washington DC. The result was the double album Live Evil, released in 1971 with another iconic painting by Mati Klarwein: “I was painting the portrait of a pregnant woman for the cover and the day I finished it, Miles called me and told me: ‘I want a photograph of life on the one side and of evil on the other.’”
Miles, who was known to give very few instructions to his musicians as well as other creative people he worked with, had a specific requirement for the back cover from Klarwein, who recalls: “The only time he discussed subject matter was for Live-Evil. He asked me to paint a toad for the Evil side. Next to me there was a copy of Time Magazine with J. Edgar Hoover on the cover, and he looked like a toad. I told Miles I had found the toad. I painted J. Edgar Hoover as a toad in drag – which turned out to be another one of my prophetic insights.”
Years later Mati Klarweian summarized his work with Miles Davis: “I hooked up with Miles the way I hooked up with everything else in life: through the women I’ve known. Be they friends or lovers, they are all mothers with excellent taste. Without them I’d be a dead spermatozoid in a dry puddle, and Miles saw that in my paintings.”
Later in 1970 another iconic album featured a painting by Klarwein in a gatefold format. This time it was an existing art that was part of Aleph Sanctuary, dated back to 1961. Klarwein on the painting: “Annunciation is the first painting I painted after my initial New York awakening. I was 28 years old and at the peak of my molecular bio-energy. You can feel the sudden burst of the Big Apple’s electric zap in the composition after all the early years of adolescent brooding over potatoes and eggs and the romantic nostalgia of the preceding Flight to Egypt.” Years later Carlos Santana noticed a reproduction of the painting in a magazine page and contacted the artist. The result became one of the most celebrated album covers of all time, for the album Abraxas.
When Carlos Santana was asked why he wanted this painting, he said: “It was the congas between the angel’s legs and the colors. I’d just discovered that music and color are food for the soul.” Many folks who have no idea who Mati Klarwein is, still know at least one of his creations, and it is likely the Abraxas cover. Klarwein’s way of saying thanks: “I saw the album jacket pinned on the wall of a shaman’s mud hut in Niger and inside a Rastafarian’s ganja hauling truck in Jamaica. I was in good global company, muchísimas gracias Carlitos!”
The album indeed made Klarwein’s art a house-hold item, putting it in next to 5 million turntables over the years with album sales alone. It was hang as a large poster over many teenager bedroom walls (myself guilty as charged). The album generated the mega hits Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va and the instrumental Samba Pa Ti. A personal favorite is the atmospheric opener Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, a great background to an intense session of scanning the artwork after coming home with the prized acquisition from a record store.
In 1971 the Chambers Brothers released their album New Generation, a lesser known part of their discography after scoring a hit two years earlier with their psychedelic concoction known as Time Has Come Today. The band’s commercial appeal was in decline, but this was another psychedelic soul masterpiece, with an epic title track:
What better image to provide a visual for such music than another artifact from the Aleph Sanctuary? This time it was a painting called Grain of Sand, a round collage that took Mati Klarwein three years to complete. He said of that monster of a painting: “For a long time I had wanted to paint a picture that you could hang up on a wall any which way, a rotating universe with no ups or downs. I projected it as a sort of painted musical comedy movie with a sanskrit swinging cast of thousands, starring Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Ray Charles, Pablo Picasso, Brigitte Bardot, Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley, Ahmed Abdul Malik, Wonder Woman, Delacroix’s girl in the cemetery, Litri and his bullshit fighters, Florence of Arabia, Socrates, Dali, Rama, Vishnu, Ganesh, the Zork and a Milky Way of playmates. It was 1962 and I had a special crush on Marilyn.”
Demand for Mati Klarwein’s art in the music business increased with the popularity of the Miles Davis and Santana covers and in the next few years more albums featured his work, some commissioned and some based on existing paintings. I will leave you with a few more examples of his wonderful radiant covers:
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also enjoy these about album cover art: