The cool revolutionary of jazz

It is 40 years since the American record producer Creed Taylor acted as midwife to the quintessential 1970s soundtrack for a generation in love with freshly fitted in-car entertainment. Taylor’s brash, soulful and sophisticated sounds accompanied slick kids with wheels on their search for night-time revels, resonating with an urban America easing back from recent confrontations.

Taylor’s flair for production and market savvy was already proved when he laid down his soundtrack. He had signed John Coltrane for the Impulse record label in 1961 and, while managing the Verve label, brokered bossa nova – “The Girl From Ipanema” won its Grammy in 1965. Nevertheless, his idea that luxuriously packaged street-scene rhythms and soulful jazz would be commercially viable had few takers in 1970, the year CTI – for Creed Taylor Incorporated – went fully independent. He launched an earthier label-mate, Kudu, a year later and dominated the jazz charts for the next decade.

The formula was straightforward. Hand-pick top-line soloists – many of whose reputations were forged at Blue Note in its prime – and showcase them with integrity. Every aspect of CTI records exuded class, from the glossy visual art of the gatefold covers to the hip rhythms, high production values and swaggering solos on the recordings themselves.

The four-CD set CTI: The Cool Revolution is a reminder of how innovative these records were. Taylor recruited a generation of studio-savvy drummers who merged the modernist pulse with streetwise funk. The likes of Billy Cobham, Harvey Mason and especially Steve Gadd reconfigured the sound of the drum kit, upped its independence and stripped rhythm to its bare essentials. There were funky guitars, the clang of Fender Rhodes, and string sections – traditionally so leaden on jazz recordings – full of vim and zip.

Taylor also took full advantage of multi-tracking technology. Albums were studio events that showcased the improvising skills of the soloists and, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, they sounded fabulous. Milt Jackson’s vibraphone has rarely hovered so soulfully nor Stanley Turrentine’s tenor sax toasted so meaningfully as when supported by a hint of Taylor-produced strings or gospel choir.

Jazz critics of the time were sniffy – the barricades were still up in jazz after the convulsions of the 1960s. Traditions had been trashed and the do-it-yourself, rough-hewn spontaneity favoured by the loft jazz fraternity was far removed from Taylor’s studio confections. Conservative elements derided the use of pop and soul as source material for a jazz repertoire, seeming to forget the commercial origins of the show tunes they preferred.

There is a long history of jazz being diluted into artistic dross, but some of the best recordings have come about because an extra pair of ears – the producer’s – was involved. Atlantic records had the Erhtegun brothers and Jerry Wexler, Blue Note had Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf, and Miles Davis worked closely with Teo Macero at Columbia. Armed with a clear vision of how the music should sound, these producers assembled a cast of specialists and showcased their skills. And it is in this tradition that Creed Taylor stands.

Taylor was born in 1929 and raised in rural West Virginia. He got into jazz early, playing trumpet at school and listening to stations broadcasting from New York on his bedside radio late into the night. After military service in Korea, he got a break in 1954 with the struggling independent label Bethlehem.

Latching on to the popularity of cool jazz (especially with Chet Baker’s added vocals), he recorded a set of sultry songbook standards with vocalist and piano trio. The album, Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland, sold well, and Taylor spent two years recording popular mainstream modernists with the now-flourishing Bethlehem.

In 1956, Taylor joined ABC Paramount as a staff producer, overseeing occasional jazz albums alongside others of a decidedly unjazzy nature. (More College Drinking Songs by The Blazers, with “uncensored” stamped on the album cover, was one example.) But he was learning his craft, putting into place the key elements of his later success: themed releases, repertory organisation and the ability to chisel finance. These took flight when ABC launched Impulse records in 1961, whose crisp productions succeeded both artistically and commercially.

Within months, Taylor decamped to Verve for a higher budget and greater control – and it was here that he mined contemporary pop for source material. Taylor’s principal contribution to jazz, however, is the record labels he ran from 1970. CTI and Kudu reconnected jazz to a broader audience, embedded soul and pop in the jazz repertory, and merged new rhythms and technologies with the jazz mainstream.

Perhaps inevitably, CTI’s lifespan was relatively short. In 1974, Taylor tried to go it alone as a distribution company and came unstuck. In 1978, CTI went bankrupt and the catalogue passed to Columbia. The artistic legacy is none too hot either – there is a direct link to smooth jazz and formula radio.

The CTI masters are now owned by Sony, which reissues them in occasional flurries. Taylor and the music he produced deserve more, and let us hope that this well-packaged compilation is a taster of things to come.

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