Thirty-two years ago, Creed Taylor lost control of his CTI record label. Overly ambitious international expansion plans in the late 1970s put enormous strain on CTI's revenue. A protracted legal battle with Warner Brothers over guitarist George Benson, a CTI artist, didn't help. [Photo of Creed Taylor in the 1970s by Chuck Stewart]
To sustain the business, Creed was forced to borrow from Columbia Records and cut a distribution deal with the label, which had been eying CTI for much of the decade. But when the distribution efforts failed to generate sufficient sales to cover costs, CTI had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. Long story short, Columbia wound up with the U.S. rights to the CTI catalog while King Records in Japan acquired the CTI rights there.
Now, to mark the 40th anniversary of CTI's first releases as a stand-alone company, Sony Music (which acquired Columbia) is issuing a four-CD box set in mid-October called CTI Records: The Cool Revolution. The box features 39 tracks from a variety of CTI albums. Additional CTI reissues are planned by Sony.
But as ambitious as Sony's CTI plans are, the box set's recordings simply don't sound as vibrant or as distinctive as they should—despite claims in promotional materials that the label remastered the original two-track analog CTI masters.
I'm sure that Sony remastered the material. The problem is the label for some strange reason didn't do as good a job as it has done recently for other jazz artists who were part of the Columbia fold. I know this because I just spent the past week listening to 20 different CTI releases from King Records in Japan and have compared them with Sony's set. The King's CDs are far and away superior in detail and warmth.
Why are the King CDs better? Part of the reason is this: Last year, King had the wisdom and vision to reach out to Creed and Rudy Van Gelder, the original engineer on most of the CTI recordings, to remaster a series of original recordings for release in Japan. The results are so good they actually sound more remarkable than the original vinyl releases. Which is possible because tape captured more data than analog releases were able to display. When remastered warmly in the digital age and played through better stereo gear, a CD can release more music information into the air than its vinyl relative.
You should know that I've interviewed Creed multiple times on his career and the CTI story, so I know him and the label well. And when you speak with someone often, attachments grow. But let me tell you this: If I felt for a second that the Sony material was on par with or better than the King re-issues, I'd be the first to say so, and my friends at Sony and Creed know this about me. Ultimately, I blog for the jazz-buying consumer and answer to no one. [Pictured: Rudy Van Gelder and Creed Taylor in 2009]
For his part, Creed said he has not heard the new Sony material and did not even know the box or additional albums were being released.
What's baffling is why Sony didn't bother to reach out to Creed [pictured] and Rudy, the way King in Japan did. Perhaps old wounds never fully heal. Or perhaps the people at Sony just assumed Creed and Rudy would balk. Or maybe lawyers advised against it. Or perhaps executives figured it would cost too much to have Creed and Rudy remaster the recordings. Or maybe there is no "someone" anymore at these giant labels, that everything is simply processed as quickly as possible and for as little as can be to hold down costs.
That's not a knock. Budgets are important, especially in today's impossible marketplace. Profit margins are understandably tight. But if you're going to re-issue albums, especially CTI recordings, which had a reputation for sonic strength, you have to produce a top-notch product. CTI fans and buyers are too discriminating.
Sony, of course, has done superb work on the Miles Davis catalog, and I hear the Elvis Presley box coming in December is spectacular. Sadly, the CTI material lacks sonic vitamins and falls short of King's clarity. Which is so disappointing, especially since King's CDs aren't particularly cheap in the U.S.
A little history: Creed Taylor formed CTI in 1967 while working for A&M Records. It originally was a stand-alone label inside A&M. Founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss had agreed to let Creed start his own label as part of the original deal that lured the jazz producer away from Verve that year. Creed's early CTI releases while at A&M included Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life and Down Here on the Ground, Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave and Quincy Jones' Walking in Space. [Photo of Creed Taylor and Wes Montgomery by Chuck Stewart]
Then in 1969, Creed and A&M decided to part. Creed negotiated a deal whereby CTI would be a stand-alone company and A&M would handle distribution, a vital part of the record business back in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Distribution was in effect the pipeline and manpower that put vinyl in key stores across the country and essential to move product from a factory to consumers' hands.
Between 1969 and 1979, Creed created a new form of jazz that was highly energetic and lushly instrumental, with a major emphasis on fidelity. Creed and Rudy placed only 18 minutes of music on each side of an LP to avoid distortions and allow for maximum information per groove. Which is why the original albums sounded so good.
Most of all, CTI stood for a new way of packaging jazz. Albums opened in a gatefold and all space was devoted to glossy color photographs, most of which were taken by Pete Turner. The point was to create jackets worthy of coffee tables and to offer music that would sound extra special on the new hi-fi component systems that college students and young adults were buying.
Of course, not all listeners approved of CTI. Many jazz fans still have a beef with the label. Purists accused CTI of marginalizing jazz, smoothing out the rough edges and capitulating to the new and colder jazz-rock fusion movement. Others hold the label responsible for the rise of the "smooth jazz" genre.
But love the albums or hate them, CTI was indisputably a significant force in transforming the sound of jazz, merging classical elements with jazz-rock fusion and helping to pull jazz into the 1980s through new packaging and marketing strategies. The label also kept leading jazz musicians regularly employed by forming a house band and giving artists plenty of leeway to create their own unique sound.
CTI simply offered listeners a juicier, listener-friendly alternative to what had been and what was going on at the time. Mind you, not every album issued on the CTI label was important or even holds up today. Creed would be the first to admit that. But the ones that do are magical and jam-packed with sonic information that wasn't there on vinyl. I just wish Sony had taken extra care to make its new issues sound as amazing as Ron Carter's bass, Eumir Deodato's keyboards and Hubert Laws' flute. On a revisit via King, you realize there was more there than originally met the ear, and a large percentage of the material holds up well.
Tomorrow, I will review the King (Japan) CTI series that was remastered by Creed Taylor and Rudy Van Gelder last year.
JazzWax clip: Here's George Benson's When Love Has Grown off of his Body Talk release for CTI in 1973. Earl Klugh is the second guitar, Harold Mabern is on the Fender Rhodes piano, Ron Carter is on bass and Jack DeJohnette is the drummer..