The Best of CTI Records

When Creed Taylor died last week at 93, the first thing that came to my mind–and perhaps many others’ minds–were his initials, stylized with an “I” for “International” positioned somewhere in the corner of a few dozen pop-leaning jazz albums from the 1970s. After some work with ABC Paramount, he founded Impulse! and quickly left to take over Verve (not a bad CV), before launching CTI under the aegis of the middlebrow pop juggernaut A&M in 1967, bringing with him the ear that gifted bossa nova to the world and quickly assembling a roster of session players and arrangers who would take jazz fusion to the suburbs. Taylor brought photographer Pete Turner to CTI from Impulse! (where Taylor developed the orange/black color scheme and insisted on heavy cardboard packaging to convey importance–not that John Coltrane needed much help there), who, coupled with designer Sam Antupit, established those CTI initials as a dependable brand of 1970s jazz.

Not everyone‘s brand, of course! Plenty of jazz fans dismiss CTI as watered down dinner-party fusion, but during my hip-hop sample-pilled early crate-digging days in the mid-1990s, bins were clogged with near-mint CTI LPs that had been dumped en masse by collectors upgrading to CD or just clearing space. A quarter-century before that, when Red Clay and Bob James Two were new, a generation of middle-class African-Americans had scooped them up too–and then their kids started isolating and looping the clean rhythmic breaks that so many of them contained (even more were found on the red-black-and-green-branded CTI subsidiary Kudu), laying the foundation for hip-hop.

Taylor’s stable of session men and leaders was deep: Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter, drummers Airto Moreira and Steve Gadd, pianist/arranger Eumir Deodato, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, reedist extraordinare Joe Farrell, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, guitarists Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and George Benson, flutist Hubert Laws, and others. Others made their names elsewhere but cut memorable tracks or albums for CTI: Antônio Carlos Jobim, Paul Desmond, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Milton Nascimento, Nina Simone, Chet Baker.

There were bonafide hits, too–the first Deodato LP spawned “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, won the 1973 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and had Billboard calling CTI the best jazz label. Suddenly Taylor had his version of ECM’s The Koln Concert–an out-of-nowhere hit that forced him to recalibrate his entire business model. Taylor sunk millions into an independent distribution operation to keep up with demand, but when subsequent Deodato, Benson and Turrentine LPs didn’t rise to the occasion, CTI took a massive economic hit from which the label never recovered. Warner came sniffing around and pinched Benson for his massive Breezin’ LP; Taylor turned to Columbia for distribution in 1976 but the writing was on the wall. CTI would fold by the end of the decade.

Below is a list of CTI LPs that I think any respectable music collector should have in their collection–you can build a solid stack for about $100 on Discogs, I bet–and a 50-track playlist that covers Taylor’s impressive run (I’ll do a Kudu one next). Don’t forget the under-heralded stuff and deep cuts though: all of Joe Farrell’s CTI albums are worth it, as are the late 70s disco/funk excursions like Art Farmer’s Crawl Space, Urbie Green’s Manteca and Yusuf Lateef’s In A Temple Garden. The arranger David Matthews released the huge and weird Dune in 1977, which is notable only for the guitar sample from the break in the middle of the “Space Oddity” cover, but very notable at that. And one of the early and very non-representative CTI releases is one of the label’s best: Oklahoma Toad by pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg, perhaps best known for writing the Schoolhouse Rock standard “I’m Just A Bill.” Toad, however, is nothing like that–more than anything it sounds like weird outsider pop, the kind of thing that you’d expect to hear today on Captured Tracks or something.

Fifteen Must-Own CTI LPs:

  1. Paul Desmond – From the Hot Afternoon (1969)
  2. Antônio Carlos Jobim – Stone Flower (1970)
  3. Dave Frishberg – Oklahoma Toad (1970)
  4. Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay (1970)
  5. Astrud Gilberto & Stanley Turrentine – Gilberto With Turrentine (1971)
  6. Stanley Turrentine – Salt Song (1971)
  7. Airto – Free (1972)
  8. Deodato – Deodato (1972)
  9. Joe Farrell – Moon Germs (1973)
  10. Milt Jackson – Sunflower (1973)
  11. Ron Carter – Blues Farm (1973)
  12. George Benson – Bad Benson (1974)
  13. Bob James – Two (1975)
  14. Jim Hall – Concierto (1975)
  15. Nina Simone – Baltimore (1978)

Fifty CTI tracks:

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