Don Sebesky’s Arrangements on CTI Records

“I’m an introvert: Supporting others is in my nature. I’m comfortable with that in my writing.”

This quote by composer and arranger Don Sebesky summarizes best the music you will read about in this article. Sebesky’s career spans a very wide range of recordings starting as a trombone player with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson in the late 1950s and much later writing arrangements to high-profile pop stars and Broadway productions. But it is the time he spent working with CTI Records and its artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s that truly highlights his art and is the focus of this article.

Don Sebesky’s first professional job after high school was as a trombone player with Kai Winding. In 1958 he joined Maynard Ferguson’s band, contributing arrangements and original compositions. He then worked with Stan Kenton, after which he found his true vocation: “I put the trombone away right after Kenton and never played after that. I started concentrating on writing, doing mostly freelance stuff. I had always enjoyed writing more than playing anyway. It seemed more important to put sounds down and find out what they were made of than actually playing the charts.”

In the early 1960s Don Sebesky met the man who would change the trajectory of his career. Producer Creed Taylor moved from Impulse! Records to Verve Records in 1961. After founding Impulse and signing John Coltrane to that label, he got an offer to run Verve Records following its acquisition by MGM. At Verve he perfected the blend of bossa nova with jazz and signed Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto to the label. Releases included classics in this genre such as Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd: Jazz Samba, Stan Getz: Getz Au Go Go and Astrud Gilberto: The Astrud Gilberto Album. His goal was to make jazz popular beyond the reach of smaller jazz labels while keeping a high standard of recording and packaging.

In 1964 Verve signed Wes Montgomery after the gifted guitarist recorded a series of excellent small-combo jazz guitar albums on Riverside. Creed Taylor had a different idea in mind about the potential popularity of Montgomery’s music. After listening to Don Sebesky’s work for other labels he reached out to the arranger with an offer to work on Wes Montgomery’s next album.

Don Sebesky remembers: “Creed kept things very loose – he asked Wes and me, ‘What do you guys want to do? What are you comfortable with?’ Creed wanted to wed Wes’s unique, percussive guitar sound to an elegant string ensemble in a mix of standards and originals. But he trusted me to find a way to do it. We didn’t have a lot of discussions. Creed said ‘just do it.’”

Sebesky came to the recording studio with arrangements he had written for a string ensemble including violas, violins, cellos and harp, a total of 14 string players. Not quite as many as ‘Ten Thousand Violins’ as Verve productions used to be called, but still a sizeable number. The rhythm section included Bob Cranshaw on bass and Grady Tate on drums. Sebesky put the charts in front of the musicians and the recording session began. But to the producer and arranger’s dismay, things were not clicking in the studio. Montgomery was visibly not comfortable and not playing at his usual level. Several takes into it they decided to end the session, send the musicians home and have a talk with the guitarist.

Wes Montgomery

Sebesky recalls the discussion that ensued: “When we discussed things with Wes, he finally told us what was troubling him. ‘Man,’ he began, ‘all those Julliard cats are out there, wailin’, and I can’t even read music!’ Can you imagine it – this great, self-thought jazz genius was intimated by the classically trained guys and froze?!”

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the strategy Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky adopted to salvage that album became the standard method of working on most of the many albums they collaborated on for the next 10+ years. Sebesky: “We took Wes and the rhythm section back to the studio with just the framework of the arrangements, allowing them to be relaxed and spontaneous. His big smile returned, lighting up the room. I then took the session tape home and built new charts around his solos instead of fitting his solos into my charts. It worked.” Here is Bumpin’, the title track from that album, recorded in May 1965:

Summarizing his work on that first album with producer Creed Taylor, Sebesky said: “Looking back on Bumpin’, I must say it marked the beginning of a golden era for all involved. I don’t think we realized it at the time, but we were working in a ‘family business’ atmosphere. We would get together to discuss the parameters of a project and everyone’s contribution was valuable.”

A quick disclosure: The use of strings in jazz has been criticized many a time. The term ‘jazz with strings’ came to symbolize the addition of an unnecessary sweetener to an otherwise pure art form. Admittedly some recordings belong in that category, and even the mighty combination of Taylor and Sebesky fell into that trap sometimes. For example following the recording of Bumpin’ they collaborated on a couple of albums for Astrud Gilberto. I love her voice and the way she sings those bossa nova tunes, but the string arrangements on these albums I could do without. However these are a minority compared to the excellent output that Don Sebesky created for Creed Taylor’s productions, as we shall now reveal.

In 1967 Creed Taylor started a partnership with A&M Records in which he formed CTI Records as a division within A&M. This gave him more control over the production and material choices. For the first album on that label, he brought together again the cast of Montgomery and Sebesky. Two years have passed since the recording of Bumpin’, and popular music went through a vast change during that time. We are in June of 1967, the beginning of the Summer of Love. Remember an album released in the US that month named Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? A watershed moment in music history, and Creed Taylor had his ears to the ground. He tells the story: “I picked up The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as soon as it hit stores in June and called Wes and Don Sebesky to my offices at A&M. When they arrived, all three of us listened to the entire album. We agreed that the last track on the second side – A Day In The Life – was appropriately bluesy and would be ideal for the title track of Montgomery’s new album. Don recorded Wes playing the song almost immediately and finished an orchestral arrangement within a week.”

The core instruments of guitar, piano, bass, drums and percussion are doing a great here, with an excellent cast of musicians (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Grady Tate and Ray Barretto on this session). If left alone, that would still be a great track. But the orchestral arrangement of strings and woodwinds adds the dramatic effect that was so strong on the Beatles original and makes this ‘jazz’ interpretation very unique for its time.

Perhaps no better compliment on this take of a Beatles classic could be given than from one half of its creators, one Paul McCartney. Creed Taylor shared a lawyer with producer George Martin and upon meeting him in the attorney’s reception area, gave him a copy of Wes Montgomery’s album. Taylor continues the story: “He obviously shared it with Paul McCartney, because Paul liked it so much that he sent me an advance copy of his song Let It Be on cassette and told me I could cover it with whomever I wished.” The cover ended up on a Hubert Laws album in 1969.

The albums Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky produced and arranged for Wes Montgomery made the guitarist a star. He was already a much esteemed musician within the crowd of jazz enthusiasts, but now he crossed over. Sebesky discussed this topic: “Creed had a vision and way to do these records. Obviously he knew that they were great musicians, but it came at a time when these musicians were looking to expand their fan base. Wes could play a club and would get his usual amount of patrons. After these records came out, they were lined up around the block three times. He would go into the club and stretch out the way he always did. He didn’t hold back when he went into performance. He’d play a lot of things he’d played during his Riverside period.”

Creed Taylor with Wes Montgomery

In 1969 Creed Taylor broke off his contract with A&M, and CTI became an independent label. Between 1970 and 1975, the period we will focus on, Don Sebesky worked on close to 30 albums for CTI. I will now pick some of my favorites from these albums in chronological order.

In 1970 CTI released the album Afro-Classic by one of Creed Taylor’s main artists, flutist Hubert Laws. The classically-trained musician, a graduate of New York’s Juilliard School of Music, was equally comfortable with small jazz combos and classical orchestras. In the period discussed here he played with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He had none of the issues Wes Montgomery had, playing side by side with classical musicians. His albums on CTI featured many takes on pieces from the classical repertoire.

Afro-Classic includes a lovely take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia In C Minor. Don Sebesky weaved a wonderful web of variations in the best tradition of Bach, but this time he used a relatively small combo of musicians with instruments associated with jazz and popular music – electric piano, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone. Hubert Laws’ flute and a bassoon are the only instruments that add a classical flavor to the arrangement.

Hubert Laws talked about the tune: “The feel, the ambiance of the piece was first created by the opening theme, which almost sounds religious. After that, we took Bach’s music in a different direction. Rhythmically and harmonically, we made some changes that made it a little bit more in the traditional than in the improvisational groove.”

Lets stay with Hubert Laws for one more album. Recorded in June 1971, The Rite of Spring consisted solely of classical pieces by Bach, Debussy, Fauré and Stravinsky. On the title track Sebesky wrote an arrangement for a jazz ensemble of eight musicians, starting the piece with a written score that then develops into a mix of improvised and orchestrated segments.

Of all the musicians who recorded Sebesky’s arrangements, Hubert Laws had the most praise for the arranger. Like Sebesky he had one foot each in the classical and jazz worlds and was able to combine these seamlessly. This is what he said about How Sebesky worked on that album:

“He, Creed, and I had a meeting at Rockefeller Center, where they had their offices, and we sat up and talked about things we ought to record for the next record. We came up with that. I’m going to tell you: Don wrote the arrangements for this, as well as the Passacaglia. He sat out there in the car at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio while we were in warming up and jotted down these parts. I’m telling you. I’ve still got the originals. It’s hardly legible. This guy sat there with a pencil. I showed it to my band members. They couldn’t believe it. The way that whole thing came out, as you can hear – it depends a lot on improvisation too, but the structure is what he put together. He did that. Don Sebesky. That’s a genius mind.”

Summarizing his thoughts about Don Sebesky, Hubert Laws concluded: “Don is – he’s so highly respected among so many arrangers. This guy, and Gil Evans and all those guys, but Don Sebesky is just so special, and his arrangements were so sweeping. His arranging ability and knowing how to orchestrate in such a way, gets the best colors, the colors of the instrument, to come in at just the right spot. He is one of the best arrangers I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with or for.”

Hubert Laws, photographed for Don Sebesky’s album Giant Box, 1973. Photograph by Steve Salmieri

November of 1971 saw Don Sebesky turning his attention again to one of the iconic songs of the 1960s, this time the psychedelic hit White Rabbit. Guitarist George Benson was not new to the CTI method of working. He had already released by that point a number of albums with Creed Taylor, starting in 1968 with Shape of Things to Come, released on A&M/CTI. Don Sebesky worked with him on that album and the Beatles covers album The Other Side of Abbey Road in 1970. The results on both these albums are mixed in my opinion, but the formula gelled on White Rabbit.

George Benson, photographed for Don Sebesky’s album Giant Box, 1973. Photograph by Steve Salmieri

Even though his background was in classical and jazz music, Don Sebesky was tuned to the popular music of the day, and there was a lot to listen to in the late 1960s: “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.”

This time around Sebesky opted to write arrangements for woodwinds and brass, going for a flamenco feel on the title track: “I suggested we do White Rabbit in a Spanish. Creed 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.”

CTI has been criticized for their formula of covering the popular music of the day in order to increase the appeal and sales of its artists and albums. I personally see no difference between this approach and a whole history of jazz musicians adapting the American song book from musicals and theatre productions of the 1920s and 1930s. These songs were originally performed as popular tunes, written by gifted songwriters such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Richard Rodgers. Almost any recording jazz musician from the 1940s and on covered these tunes, a process that made these songs jazz standards. It made jazz a more approachable style for folks who knew these songs but their ears were not trained in the style of jazz and improvisation. CTI accomplished the same thing. It brought young people, who by that point had the ability to absorb more challenging popular music, to listen to jazz interpretations of songs they were familiar with. Many of them would not naturally pick up a George Benson, Freddie Hubbard or Wes Montgomery album in a record store. But they may do it once they hear a jazz cover of a favorite song on the radio. Creed Taylor talked about this approach: “Popular music is music of the moment. If you can use it as a vehicle for what you’re doing, then a lot of songs can be turned around. That was my thinking at CTI. I was listening to pop, R&B, folk, Debussy, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and just about everything else. Everything in the music business was intertwined.“

Don Sebesky

In 1971 Creed Taylor started a subsidiary label and called it Kudu, after the African antelope. Kudu was an attempt to tap into the R&B and soul market with jazz-oriented arrangements. The roster of artists on this label included among others Grover Washington, Jr., Hank Crawford and Idris Muhammad. The first label artist to gain major popularity was singer Esther Phillips, who in 1973 was a Grammy nominee for her single “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” from the album From a Whisper to a Scream. Gil Scott-Heron’s excellent song from the 1971 album Pieces of a Man gets a very fine vocal interpretation here by Phillips. Helping to deliver the somber message from a hopeless ghetto environment are fine dramatic arrangements for reeds and brass by Pee Wee Ellis and strings by Don Sebesky.

Aretha Franklin, who won that Grammy award in 1973, turned around and gave the trophy to Esther Phillips, whom she thought deserved that award more than she did. That’s class, and also a nice recognition of the efforts of all who were involved in that single.

1972 saw the release of a lesser known album on the CTI catalog, but an excellent one nonetheless. Almost twenty years after his debut album on Riverside Records, pianist Randy Weston was ready for a change in his approach to jazz recording, and who better to collaborate with than Creed Taylor. The producer insisted on Weston playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano, not a favorite instrument of the gifted piano player. But Weston relented: “I can’t stand the electric piano, but I really wanted to make that record. Creed also insisted on using his regular musicians, which was ok with me because they included Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard, who had played with me on the Uhuru Afrika date.”

The album Blue Moses reflects Weston’s experiences from a time he spent in Morocco. One of the tunes is Night in Medina, reflecting Weston’s experience in the old city in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Weston tells a story: “During the day there are hundreds of people on the streets of Medina, but at night it gets real quiet. One particular night I couldn’t sleep and something urged me to go into Medina, so I went there at 3:00 in the morning. The streets were deserted and it was very mysterious, sorta spooky. I walked around these deserted streets and this melody came to me.”

This is a beautiful atmospheric tune, and Don Sebesky adds the mysterious aspect with an arrangement for reeds and brass. Randy Weston had a different idea for the arrangement, but as usual with CTI productions, the arrangements were overdubbed after the basic recording was complete, in this case after Weston left again for Morocco to organize a music festival. He wasn’t happy when he heard the results, but he said: “Despite my lack of control over some important elements, incredibly Blue Moses became my biggest-selling record.” He did not record another album with the label.

Another veteran jazz musician who benefitted from a change in direction with the CTI label was vibraphone player Milt Jackson, who in 1973 released the album Sunflower. After recording over 60 albums under his own name and with the Modern Jazz Quartet, teaming up with CTI’s younger musicians, all of them versatile in many styles of music, generated one of the label’s most satisfying recordings.

The title track is a new interpretation of Freddie Hubbard’s tune Little Sunflower, which was first recorded on Hubbard’s 1967 album Backlash on Atlantic. Great playing by everyone here: Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Jay Berliner, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Ralph MacDonald. Add to that strings and horns arrangement by Don Sebesky and you get a classic track.

We jump to 1975 and another classic album on CTI Records by guitarist Jim Hall. This time Creed Taylor assembled an interesting and unique combination of musicians under one roof to record a great set of tunes. Musicians included Jim Hall on guitars, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Chet Baker on trumpet, Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter (who else?) on upright bass and Steve Gadd on drums.

The crown achievement of the album, and one of Jim Hall’s all-time favorite pieces, is Concierto de Aranjuez, a side-long track that gave the album its name Concierto. This is not the first time the classical guitar concerto by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo got a jazz treatment. Miles Davis and Gil Evans famously performed it on the album Sketches of Spain in 1960. Chick Corea used the beginning of the second movement as an introduction to his composition Spain on the album Light as a Feather in 1971. You would think it was over and done, but the fantastic ensemble on Jim Hall’s album gave the concierto yet another excellent interpretation. The movement between the written small ensemble orchestration by Don Sebesky and the solos by the three main soloists (Hall, Desmond, Baker) is seamless.

Creed Taylor said about the album: “Don Sebesky and I talked a great deal before we went in to do it. I made suggestions about how to format a very simple and almost no-arranged kind of context, but where each player would come in, and then there would be that kind of interplay. Sebesky was an absolute, polished professional. Those guys – Chet, Jim, Paul, and everybody – had such a magnificent sense of form.”

Jim Hall remembers the recording fondly: “It is a beautiful piece. I had qualms about recording it. It was Don Sebesky’s arrangement. In general I fell that classical pieces that I respect don’t need further tempering with. Well, I had a great lineup of musicians. That worked out very well.”

We have one more album to review in this article, and I saved the best for last. In 1973 Don Sebesky deservedly released a CTI album under his own name, an impressive package consisting of a double-album, a booklet with great photographs, a cast of a thousand musicians and some of the best arrangements of his career. The album is called Giant Box.

Creed Taylor said of that album: “It was 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.” Asked how he came up with the name for the album, Creed Taylor said: “It was a giant orchestra and the two LPs came in a box.”

The album opens with a 14-minute arrangement that combines John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire with Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. For an arranger who was always moving between the classical and jazz idioms, Sebesky could do no better than selecting these pieces. This was also one of his and CTI’s most ambitious tracks. Paul Desmond, who participated in this project, remembers: “Don Sebesky, who has always done all the arrangements on my things with Creed Taylor, has used it particularly well on his own CTI album, Giant Box. A fantastic track on that is a combination of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, played exactly as written for a long time, and then very subtly switching into sort of vintage Birdland jazz. It’s the most marvelous amalgamation of a large orchestra and a jazz group that I’ve ever heard.”

Don Sebesky was interviewed for this album, the text included in the accompanying booklet. He talked about that piece of music: “I had been listening to John McLaughlin’s Birds of Fire and I liked it very much. I’d also been listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and the similarity in the titles suggested a juxtaposition. What I did is not a medley in which one theme starts where the other leaves off. It’s really a blending of the two, in various degrees, so it’s a complete synthesis of these two pieces of music that come from completely opposite poles.”

The album was a monumental task for Creed Taylor and Don Sebesky. You have to hand it out to them, spending so much time and money on an album that obviously had much less commercial potential than most of the other albums on the label. Sebesky: “It took us six months. We spent 150 hours in the studio. Count another three weeks for the writing, and that doesn’t include the gestation of it. It was, really, a giant task. And then, trying to get all the artists off the road and into the studio, flying them in from all over the country, was an incredibly complex job. I‘m still amazed it all worked.”

Don Sebesky with Freddie Hubbard. Photograph by Steve Salmieri

It is evident that the album was a labor of love for Don Sebesky, and an opportunity to work with some of his favorite musicians on the CTI label. When asked if Giant box was CTI’s tribute to his work with the label, Sebesky answered: “No, on the contrary. It’s my tribute to each one of the soloists featured here. The central idea of the album was to feature each one of the stars that I had worked with, putting them in my own framework.” Some of the musicians are photographed with Don Sebesky in the album booklet, a recognition of the work they accomplished with the arranger. Freddie Hubbard’s album First Light was the first CTI album Sebesky worked on, and God only knows how many CTI albums Ron Carter played on. Most of them for sure.

Don Sebesky with Ron Carter. Photograph by Steve Salmieri

One more track from that album, this time an arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s Pslam 150. The song, based on the 150th and final psalm of the Book of Psalms, first appeared on the gifted songwriter’s 1970 album Words and Music. Solos on this track are by Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Ron carter on bass. Vocals by jazz singers Jackie Cain and Roy Kral (Jackie and Roy). Psalm reading to start the track by the man himself, Don Sebesky:

To close this article I picked something Sebesky said in the interview that accompanies Giant Box. This paragraph summarizes well his philosophy and approach to music, evident in all the tracks I featured here: “The way I look at music is the way I look at life – I have no pre-conceived notion about either. If today I feel like doing a certain kind of music, that’s what I’ll do. And tomorrow, I might try a different kind. I think that if I had one sound, if I stumbled on one formula and I had to stay with that one sound and keep pushing it, I’d never be happy.”

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this about another great jazz orchestrator:

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